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Utopia in Time: Futurology and Science Fiction


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Utopia in Time: Futurology and Science Fiction

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing.

Oscar Wilde
Time Forward

Radical dreamers and experimentalists of the first revolutionary decade lived their dream worlds apart from each other. Cultural nihilists, utopian festival creators, Godless believers, and machine worshippers did not combine to create an interflow of their visions and projects. There was no Department of Utopia in the Russian Revolu­tion, no Dream Commissar to function as a clearing manager and coordinator of all the life experiments cast up in the wake of the great upheaval. And yet scenarists, design­ers, and actors appeared on the social horizon in the midst of the imaginative turmoil who tried to project and even act out Utopia—in the grander, integrated sense of the word. The scenarists were the writers of science fiction Utopias, the designers were the architects and city planners of the imminent future, and the actors were the "commu­nards" who tried to shape the revolutionary dream by living in it. In their various ways, these utopian creators embraced experimental ideals and values and embedded them in a larger context—pictures, structures, narratives, fantasies, blueprints, surrogate fami­lies, and miniature experimental worlds. Lacking communication among themselves, they peered off in different directions: into the future, into the cosmos, across the spa­cious land, or at their immediate environment.

Soviet science fiction of the 1920s continued the dialogue of the old regime and expressed the utopian fantasy born of the Revolution itself. The old elements were on full display: a gloriously tinted portrait of the communist heaven, framed in wondrous technology, and inhabited by happy and virtuous people; dystopian forebodings about the likely outcome of such a paradise; and counter-Utopias of rustic joy and traditional structures. The new ingredient was a hideous "map of hell" in which Marxist anti-capitalism and the old Slavophile and Russian nationalist fears were condensed and synthesized into a picture of an evil empire of the West. The entire corpus of revolu­tionary utopian science fiction, which disappeared with the emergence of Stalin, parallels on levels at once fantastic and concrete the debate over the Revolution and the nature of communism. Science fiction was a striking example of revolutionary dis­course because of its total vision of communist life and its treatment of "revolutionary dreams" and life experiments in culture, ritual, religion, egalitarianism, and tech­nology.

Revolutionary science fiction was the Utopia of time. Its practitioners donned scarlet colored glasses to see what a communist society might, should, or would look like across a widely variant stretch of the ages. Their dream of a communist heaven created on earth and in the skies beyond by human hands—workers' and revolutionaries' hands— was informed by a vision of a unitary globe, adorned by imaginable technological per­fection and humane social justice and equity, a vision that was implicit both in Marx and in the native dreaming of Russian radical traditions—and is still implicit in the latest program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and its many imitators.



Utopia, Science, and Futurology

Bolsheviks—like other Marxists—had always been ambivalent toward Marxism's utopianism. In the aftermath of revolution, the ambivalence remained but the concept at­tracted enormous attention. Vladimir Svyatlovsky, in the earliest history (1922) of the Russian utopian novel, called the Russian Revolution itself "the first great Utopia in modern history." Utopian classics began pouring off the presses. B. I. Gorev, an ex-Menshevik, wrote a long history, From Thomas More to Lenin (1922), placing the father of Bolshevism within the utopian socialist tradition (More's Utopia had already appeared in Russian translation in 1903). Campanula's City of the Sun appeared in 1918. Ten editions of Fourier's works appeared between 1917 and 1926 and many books about his ideas. Owen, Cabet, Buchez, Blanc, St. Simon and others enjoyed new translations in the 1920s. Their influence on the science fiction of the period is apparent, though never acknowledged. These classics were praised and scolded in the Leninist manner, but pilfered freely for ideas about community, housing, work styles, equality and all sorts of other things not easily available in the Marxist canon.

Far more interesting was the mini-utopia or capsule projection of a world under communism in the final pages of Trotsky's Literature and Revolution (1923). In a tone of controlled lyricism, Trotsky envisions the disappearance of "ant-like piling up of quarters and streets" and decayed old cities and the emergence of "architectural de­mocracy," with masses of ordinary people, compass in hand, forming factions of opin­ion and "true people's parties" to decide on the nature of new titanic "city-villages." Man would rebuild the earth to his own taste by re-registering mountains, rivers, mead­ows, fields, and steppes through technology and a "general industrial and artistic plan." The city, he continues, would not dissolve into the village. "On the contrary, the village will rise in fundamentals to the plane of the city. Here lies the principal task. The city is transient, but it points to the future, and indicates the road. The present village is entirely of the past." Trotsky's dream suggested richness, variety, and drama. "The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements. Life in the future will not be monotonous." Physiological experiments of science would transform the body, balance metabolic growth, and reduce the morbid fear of death. The resultant "superman" would "rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

This is an extraordinary endorsement of the experimental utopianism that character­ized the 1920s. Trotsky encouraged and predicted "competing pedagogical systems and experiments" and displayed the breadth of his fantasy. Like many other members of the intelligentsia—in and out of power—he was enchanted by the enterprise of predict­ing the future and suggesting the manifold forms it might take.

Science and technology provided a very compelling inspiration for speculative fic­tion. Although levels of scientific research and applied technology remained below those in the developed West during the golden age of science fiction, the volume of discussion and the temperature of hopefulness was very high. Fascination with the possibilities of science for transforming society is endemic in revolutionary backward societies in the twentieth century. Soviet Russia glorified science and worshipped machines. Ford and Taylor, Einstein and Edison were shorthand terms in the student world, and the engineer was a hero of popular culture. The cult of the machine and the image of an electrified nation saturated the arts as well as the political discourse of the age. The wedding of scientific and technological achievement to science fiction was a natural one in this milieu, in that both, in a way, were futurological.

An example of this was an attempt to elicit futurological projections through a ques­tionnaire published in the late 1920s in the periodical Thirty Days. Writers and publicists were quizzed on their visions of Russia "a hundred years hence." The replies were laconic but revealing. The economist Yury Larin talked of a stateless world without classes or exploitation, an upsurge of technology, and a "happy future." Gladkov the novelist saw a "joyful globe of progress" with no war, no church bells, no crime, and no kitchens. The satirist Efim Zozulya's "Moscow of the Future" possessed a House of Herzen in which 50,000 writers lived and worked in a population composed exclu­sively of people in their early twenties (children having been consigned to healthier zones). The popular novelist Pantaleimon Romanov's "Citizen of the Future (the year 2027)" was (in contrast to the Soviet citizens of his own day) courteous, service-minded, responsible, full of initiative and attentiveness to consumers. Most of the contributors, though differing on their vision of the urban-rural mix of tomorrow's world, saw world peace and world unity as absolutely inseparable.

A massive volume published in 1929 provided a more technological thrust: projec­tions about the future world by an assortment of distinguished scientists on topics rang­ing from physiology and astronomy to land use, agriculture, anthropology, and psy­chology. The contributions dealing with science, technology, and society predicted commune-cities, personal flight, skyscrapers of huge dimensions linked by bridges and air stations, and healthier and longer lives. Aron Zalkind, a very influential physcho-neurologist of the time, combined some of them into a vague picture of a coming world commune inhabited by people with new organs, new minds, and new sensibilities—a world where the major problem of humanity would not be relations among people but rather relations between humanity and nature—a direct borrowing from Bogdanov (a Bolshevik who wrote the two-novel epic of a communist society on Mars Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1913) and later became a leader of Proletkult), who incidentally died in that year.

Two aspects of science and technology deserve a special comment: immortality and space travel. Both illustrate vividly the relationship between the futuristic speculation and pathos of the period and the reality from which it arose: immortality yearned for in a land still groaning from a decade of holocaust; space flight, in a land where wooden plow and urban horse-cart were everyday sights. The former was inspired by the curious and influential Russian recluse, Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), a librarian and specula­tive theologian who never published a book. He combined certain features of Russian Orthodoxy and tsarist ideology with an extravagant belief in cosmic possibilities. The world of his vision, converted to Orthodoxy under the tsar in Moscow, spoke a single language (recovered from pre-Babel times by a congress of scientific linguists) and lived in rural communes, working in factories in winter and fields in summer. The social bond was faith and fraternity, not materialism or equality, since Fedorov opposed both socialism and capitalism. Each commune was situated around a cemetery with a model of the Moscow Kremlin at the center. The rule of communal life was Psychocracy: mind control, open diaries, public confession and penance, and the regulation of sex­uality. Global security was provided by a Godloving Army and a Pacification Fleet.

Fedorov's vague scientific-mystical Utopia was designed for a specific set of tasks which he called "the common mission" of mankind: victory over death, resurrection of all the dead, and the settlement of outer space. The syncretic quality of Fedorov's dream generated a school of disciples in the Soviet period, loosely know as the Biocosmists, whose slogan was "Immortalism and Interplanetism." Beyond their study and discus­sion circles, figures as diverse as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the rocket scientist), Leonid Krasin (who designed Lenin's mausoleum), and V. K. Vernadsky, the earth scientist, were said to have been in Fedorov's orbit at one time or another. The most consistent of the Fedorovites was Valerian Muraviev, a man with an extraordinarily checkered career even for those times, a fanatical Bolshevik, and a devout Fedorov adept. The cult of Fedorov in the Russian Revolution, a seemingly impossible idea, illustrates precisely a vagrant mentality that some have chosen to call the "crankish" side of the Revolution but which was really a millenarianism and a utopianism fed by serious erudition of a special sort and by the unbounded Promethean belief in man's ability to transform nature and reverse its laws.

A far more popular craze of the 1920s that fed into science fiction was aviation. Russian fascination with aeronautics has been immense in our time—a kind of fear of not flying, of remaining earthbound and thus immobile. Flying—as in the archetypical dream—is a kinetic metaphor for liberation. The literary obsession with it in Europe, America, and Russia is well-known. Figures such as Tatlin and Mayakovsky are incon­ceivable without the airplane image. Vasily Kamensky was an avia­tor poet. Alexander Lavinsky in 1923 designed a plan for an "airborne city." And Georgy Krutikov in 1928 envisaged a "Flying City Apartment Building" moored to dirigibles when at anchor. Taking off into a better world was semantically and psycho­logically linked to taking flight. The revolutionary terrorist Nikolai Kibalchich, waiting for his execution in 1881, designed a flying machine that was based on rocket princi­ples. The father of Soviet rocket design, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, hatched most of his ideas while living in an obscure little Russian town. N. A. Rynin, professor and popularizer of space literature in the 1920s, began his work on the cosmic age during the dark years of the Civil War. "I was hungry," he recalled, "I was cold, but one good thing about it—nobody came to see me."

Russia's first airplane flight occurred in 1894, but it took another ten years for aviation to take hold in society. On the eve of World War 1, a modest network of clubs and societies had emerged. During the war itself, Russia's air arm was tiny, but out of it came the legendary four-engine bomber of Igor Sikorski (later a well-known plane builder in the United States). The bomber was called Ilya Muromets after the Russian fairy-tale giant who slept forty years and then awoke in possession of colossal strength. During the Civil War, the Soviets created their own air arm and established schools and journals to promote it. The air age became a social fact in the 1920s. It was partly inspired by the fearful debate over strategic bombing. But the greater impulse was the vision of an integrated nation. An air transport network for the new Soviet state was a way of constricting time and space, promoting social communication and health, sup­plying a far-flung population, and educating the people of that vast republic. As a civil air fleet (later called Aeroflot) took shape in 1921, government and semi-public bodies launched a campaign to popularize air study and travel with clubs, sport and parachute societies, journals, and all-purpose patriotic leagues. Air, space, the stratosphere, the cosmos seemed to represent spatial freedom for crowded terrestrians, and slogans such as 'Workers, take to the air!" were used in campaigns to finance new aircraft.

Rocketry and space travel, the very stuff of early science fiction in the West, had a similar appeal—however distant and unrealizable it must have seemed. Long before the Revolution, Tsiolkovsky had explored its possibilities and had made discoveries which were later incorporated into practical research by the first generation of Soviet rocket scientists—N. E. Zhukovsky, F. A. Tsander, Yu. V. Kondratyuk, and N. N. Kovalev (the developer of Sputnik). Tsiolkovsky's work first became widely known in scientific circles in 1911, and he became a public figure in the 1920s. Rynin unearthed Kibalchich's rocket scheme from the police archives after the Revolution, and he began teaching and agitating on behalf of space travel; at the end of the 1920s he wrote a nine volume collection on interplanetary flight. Societies and public bodies mushroomed, and popular journals took up the theme with great enthusiasm. In 1925, Moscow University staged a forum on the subject of "Flight to Other Worlds."

All of these themes turned up in science fiction, and it seems clear that people who thought about the matter at all saw a future for Russia as one that enshrined the opposite of the circumstances in which they then lived. The 1920s was a period of dreadful poverty and social misery, a backward and illiterate rural morass, an urban world of crime and unemployment, of dirty dorms and crude interchange, swarming orphans, open prostitution, vulgar displays of wealth and corruption, and a suspicious, authoritarian government still locked in ideological war with surrounding civilizations. The optimism inherent in Marxism, the heady euphoria of the still fresh revolutionary years, the traditions of hope that ran through the old intelligentsia, and the realities of the dark landscape at hand all combined to infuse science fiction with what seems now to be a towering faith.

Maps of Heaven and Hell

Utopian science fiction works of this decade chronicle and document an ascending surge of the revolutionary imagination, a fictionalized assessment of the October Revolution, an almost xenophobic view of foreign capitalist states, and a composite picture of the “coming world” of harmony and perfection. Science fiction in these years established self as a major genre of popular art. The main categories, though sharpened and reshaped in a revolutionary milieu, drew upon the past. The "capitalist hells" added a Marxist and Soviet edge to the anti-Western war fantasies of the 1890s. The "communist heavens," drawing freely from Bogdanov's Red Star but surpassing it in optimism, explored the outer reaches of technical innovation, with a strong emphasis on dynamism, the power of the machine, the limitless capacity of man to harness and exploit nature and the stratosphere, and the ultimate triumph of the social justice over the dark greed and power hunger.

Between 100 and 200 native works of science fiction appeared (depending on what; is counted)—novels, stories, poems, plays, and movies. In the peak year, 1927, almost fifty came out, an unprecedented figure in Russian publishing history, though modest by Western standards. Although the cheap commercial popular press of pre-revolutionary Russia which might have taken up these themes with or without a revolution was now gone, the fact remains that the Revolution was the launching pad for utopian science fiction. Beyond this, about 200 foreign translations appeared—particularly the still immensely popular Jules Verne and H. G. Wells. In the context of world science fiction, Soviet fantasy in the 1920s was unique. Some scholars have called the period, c. 1890- 1930 the Age of Wells—future oriented, highly technological, and deeply pessimistic. On the latter count, the Soviets stand out in their towering optimism about the shape of things to come. Science fiction in England, Germany, and the United States was strong on technology, adventure, and exoticism, but not on positive utopia. It did not possess the kind of ideological and sociological projection about the future world that dominates the Bolshevik genre. And although technology, streamlining, and modernism infected the arts of the 1920s in the West, as it did in Russia, no culture matched the Soviet avant-garde in the scope and depth of radical experimentation with a social dimension and a future orientation.

It is no exaggeration to say that almost the entire culture of the Revolution in the early years was "utopian." All the arts were suffused with technological fantasy and future speculation: Constructivist art, experimental film, "rationalist" architecture, Biomechanics, machine music, and many other currents. Had the artists of these schools possessed power, resources, and consensus, they would have tried to transform Soviet Russia immediately into a physical utopia of modern cities of glass and steel, inhabited by functionally dressed citizens who would be treated to Construc­tivist and Futurist culture. In literature, the avant-garde as a whole and important ele­ments of the Proletarian culture movement, though differing greatly in style and tone, created works that paralleled science fiction texts. A number of major novelists of the period who worked in a more traditional canon, felt impelled to write one or two works that fit the science fiction genre—Alexei Tolstoy, Ilya Ehrenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Valentin Kataev, the dystopian writers Zamyatin and Platonov, and a few others. Tol­stoy's Aelita (1923), a romantic, symbolic and theosophic adventure story set on Mars, although often named the chief science fiction work of the period, was actually the end of a tradition (dating from 1905) rather than a model for the new genre.

The authors of the utopian novels were usually not "writers" at all, but pro-Soviet publicists, agitators, popular science practitioners, engineers, or simply revolutionary adventurers who turned to the pen. The first professional science fiction writer in Soviet history, Alexander Belyaev, dealt mostly in inventions, technological suspense, and warfare rather than descriptions of future society.

Every genre and all the major themes of the science fiction ouvre were represented in the Soviet offering: further and nearer anticipation, planetary tales, adventure, polit­ical intrigue, utopianism, dystopianism, technological projection, romance, ethical dis­course, automation, "value-free" science, critique of capitalism, and galactic wars. Recent interdisciplinary scholarship on science fiction argues that since man is con­stantly enticed by the unknown, he must possess a "mindscape," an imagined "geog­raphy of the unknown" space and time. As vision, it stems from fantasy; as hypothesis, it is rooted in science and empirical observation. Literary, scientific, and political spec­ulation about the future in the Soviet Russia of the 1920s tried to create a mindscape of the future, grounding it in "scientific" Marxism, linking it to revolutionary society, and poeticizing it in fantasy.

How did Soviet revolutionary science fiction differ from that of the West? First of all, the war scare novel that had flourished in prewar Europe and then declined remained still very strong in Soviet Russia. This was both because of Russia's relative weakness and because the horrors of the Great War in Europe diminished the impact of "awful warnings." Secondly, the output of science fiction in the West was much greater, es­pecially after the American Hugo Gernsback launched the mass magazine of "scienti-fiction," Amazing Stories, in 1926. The utopian dream, so strong in the Soviet corpus, had only one major spokesman in the West—H. G. Wells—whose socialist utopias with a technical elite appeared from about 1905 to the late 1920s and were flanked by periods of pessimism. The West, like Russia, had its mainstream science fiction (that written by conventional writers)—Karel Capek, G. K. Chesterton, A. Conan Doyle, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Saki, and others. But in the mid-1920s, "genre science fiction" (the kind written by specialists) broke away from mainstream themes and degenerated into space opera. In the USSR, the clear break came for ideological-political reasons, in 1931. Audiences in the United States, now emerging as the world leader in science fiction production, were judged to be teenaged boys, and therefore the product stressed simplicity and adventure with strong taboos on sex and religion. The range of Soviet readers was probably broader (though smaller in numbers); Soviet works shared the sexual taboo (though without sexist lean­ings), were antireligious, and supremely political.

Who read science fiction Utopia in the 1920s? This is difficult to measure. The printings were not huge, though some of the novels appeared as supplements to mass circulation journals. By the standard of the market, none could compare in popularity with the adventure-detective serials of the last years of the monarchy. Contemporaries and later commentators speak of the "popularity" of science fiction of the period, but without documentation. But one can speak confidently of the intended audience. The repetition of certain themes indicates that writers in the 1920s had discovered a popular formula; they were not constrained to produce potted propaganda. The simplicity of language and certain other key features show—to the extent that one can imagine the reader from the text itself—that these books were directed towards a big part of "rev­olutionary society," that is, workers, party members, some of the urban intelligentsia, rural youth, students—all mostly male. Conversely, they were not written for N.E.P. men, capitalists, political dissidents, members of the former upper class, or the bulk of the peasantry. Peasants had no time for fantasy of this sort and could barely comprehend it—one peasant reader taking Wells's War of the Worlds for an actual historical event, as did American radio listeners a decade later under different circumstances. Until the late 1920s and early 1930s, no one seemed to object to the genre, although the Komsomol did come out from time to time against the "red detective" which pitted prole­tarian heroes against capitalist warmongers and spies.

"In Russia," writes Darko Suvin of the early revolutionary years, "this was one of those epochs when new Heavens touch the old Earth, when the future actively over­powers the present." As in a mirage, space-time was compressed as dreamers reached out to touch the future, and the rainbow hues of that future inspired the warmth of human brotherhood in the experiments of the time. Utopian science fiction of the 1920s as a genre summarized the experiments of the Revolution—or from long before it—and synthesized them into larger pictures of the future. Like slogans, posters, and agitational literature, these stories were signposts and guidebooks for the current march.

One of the earliest of these was The Land of Gonguri (1922) by Vivian Itin (1893-1945). Itin was one of those revolutionary adventurers of the period who wandered and fought the length and breadth of the huge republic in the Civil War. In Siberia, Itin passed death sentences in Bolshevik tribunals, closed churches and took away their bells, preserved ancient monuments, and wrote poems to exalt Siberian aviation. He was one of the few utopian writers who was a party member. The initial core of his story came to him in 1917, a fantasy dream of other worlds which he folded into a revolutionary plot and published in the obscure town of Kansk on the Enisei River. One of the ironies of Gonguri was that it cost 20,000 rubles in the inflated currency of the moment and that the peasants who bought it used it for cigarette paper. The other was that its author, the first post-revolutionary reconnoiterer of the socialist heaven, was purged under Stalin.

"Gonguri" is a land—seen in the dream of a Red partisan—of oversized fruit, machines that work better than people, cities inside buildings holding tens of thousands of people and erected at astonishing speed. Work is conducted as a festival and the fruits of this labor are public squares of mirrored glass, continuous gardens, and palaces of dreams where writers create their works. Murder, war, intrigue, hungry children, terror, and the state have disappeared. The pathos of the story is provided when the sixteen-year old hero-dreamer is awakened at dawn by White soldiers who take him out to be shot. The brightly colored vision of tomorrow is thus limned by the dreadful cruelties of class war in the bloody Siberian campaigns.

The engineer V. D. Nikolsky's In a Thousand Years (1927) was one of the most popular renditions of the future produced in those years—and it is still widely read in the Soviet Union. The secret of its success is perhaps its startling prediction of the first atomic explosion in 1945, its shattering description of a global atomic war of utter destruction, and its detailed mosaic of the coming life under communism. No Marxist utopia has ever provided as rich and cluttered a picture of what it might be like in the next millennium. The time-travelers are a Russian engineer and a German professor— both caricatures and stereotypes—a classic coupling (a la Jules Verne and Alexei Tol­stoy) of the vigorous, simple, practical man who touches the real world and the cere­bral inventor-scientist-academic who peers at the abstractions. They journey in a chronomobile or timeship to the thirtieth century where they learn the history of the millennium, 1927-2927. Atomic experiments in Paris had resulted in an explosion that destroyed half of Europe. This was followed by the "last world war" started by a monopolist-capitalist Pan-American Empire but won by the Union of European Socialist States. The war was global and total: no neutrals, no protected "rear areas," no immun­ity for women, children, and civilians. In the succeeding fifty year period of peace, the losers had imposed a repressive regime upon their workers in the manner—as Nikolsky put it—of Jack London's "iron heel." The war had resumed for a century and a half until 2155 when a peace congress at Berlin created a World Union of Fraternal Repub­lics—socialist all. The globe was now freed of international strife, thus ready to recon­struct the fabric of man's life. Implicit here, as in many of the tales of the 1920s, is that the ultimate collision between capitalist and socialist multinational superpowers and the defeat of the former must occur in order to usher in the new order.

Nikolsky-land is bound by a single language similar to Esperanto but with a greater infusion from Asian languages. It is administered by a Central Learned Council whose election and composition are left utterly unexplained. The mechanism of rule at the local level is a system of self-regulating independent communes, each with its own coun­cil (soviet) that coordinates with its neighbors. The entire structure is overseen from Mechanopolis, the ceremonial capital. But there are no real cities as such. Huge green forests give way periodically to buildings, glassed-in communities, museums, and the­aters; people link up through speedy transport rather than urban proximity. Variants of the garden and linear city have triumphed over the old city, only remnants of which may be seen—as antique ruins—amid the forests and the modern settlements. Pure air and country life are available to all. The whole complex is meshed together by Cityroads—multistoried and many-laned arched highways whose piers dou­ble as residential buildings—punctuated periodically by town-like "hubs" in the manner of Le Corbusier's Radiant City. The urbanography of Nikolsky, like his political science, was lyrical but awesomely vague and confusing. On the other hand, it echoed perfectly the urbanizing poetry and the architectural planning of the time.

In the midst of describing the "economy," Nikolsky flashes back to the dismal Moabit section of Berlin of 1927 with a grim industrial imagery reminiscent of that used in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1925). In 2927, there are very few workers as such and no grimy underground slave pens or machine hells. Man-made satellites (sputniks) gather data about global food and resource supplies; using these data, computers activate elec­tromagnetic vacuum-tube railways that suck goods at 1,000 kilometers per hour—veg­etables from India and grain from South America move to Europe in 5-6 hours. Heavy industries are concentrated, centralized, and run by sophisticated machines. Most human labor is therefore engaged in pleasurable, non-alienating crafts. Like walking or exercise, work is a health-giving pleasure; no one shuns it and the productivity is high. All of life is embellished with time-saving and rational technology: talking books in mecha­nized libraries, automated shops and cafeterias, energy produced by sun, wind, tides, and atomic power (now peacefully harnessed), medical and scientific research that has eliminated disease and extended life to 200-300 years, and applied eugenics that allows only the best to multiply. Personal flight is used by all citizens; the Earth is fully en­gaged in interplanetary exploration.

What could be interesting about the inhabitants of such a world? All the predictable things are in place: "a single laboring family" of equals, of non-deferential relations (a point is made about the absence of majestic bows or elaborate gestures) where beauty and brains are never in opposition. The author tries throughout to present a population of joyful, warmhearted human beings who break into full-throated song and revel in production and its festivals. But the climactic celebratory scene of the novel—its end in fact—is a session of the Central Council in a classical marble amphitheater of colossal size, presided over by a grey-bearded patriarch who leads a hymn of victory (over nature) and happiness to the accompaniment of organ music, followed by speeches and reports. As in so much Utopian science fiction, the projection of technology (though extravagant) is more believable than the dawning of equality and social justice. The virtues of the coming species are established by authorial fiat and not by plot, organic development, or convincing mechanisms of change; the human machinery of political interrelationships is replaced, literally, by a Political Machine; and the moment of greatest communal bliss is housed in a wholly traditional monumental structure, orchestrated and led by an iconic male father figure, while its symbolic and ritual actions and songs give way to the prosy dross of "speeches and reports"—an almost incredible capitulation to the revolutionary idiom of political discourse.

Decoding Revolutionary Fantasy

How did Soviet science fiction "fit" the ideology of early Bolshevism? Bolshevism meant different things to various people in the 1920s, and early Bolshevism gave way on important issues to later, Stalinist versions of Marx and Lenin. "Ideology" in any case has not been a fixed body of ideas to which leaders are ever bound. Science fiction of the early years was an elaboration and a popularization of the vague and programmatic nods at the future given in the Marxist texts. The lassies of Marxism offer glimpses rather than visions of a unified world. Engels, for example (echoing many previous thinkers of a non-Marxist persuasion), spoke of a 'world republic.’ Lenin (at a moment of supreme darkness for Europe) spoke of a 'United States of Europe" in 1915, and Trotsky independently of a "united world economy," both inspired as much by the holocaust of war as by Marxism.

In the Revolution and Civil War, such pronouncements took on more immediate relevance. Upon the publication of the first Soviet constitution in the summer of 1918, when revolutionary expectations were at a fever pitch, Lenin saw "world socialist republic" emerging out of the constitution of the first socialist state; Bukharin called the coming order an "International Republic of Soviets;" and the 1919 statement of the newly born Communist International spoke of an "International Soviet Republic" defined as "one cooperative commonwealth"—that is to say, a community of socialist nations or states. When the next constitution (of 1922) forming the U.S.S.R. was issued, Stalin glossed it as a step to a "World Soviet Socialist Republic." The rhetoric and the hope behind it continued into the 1920s and then was muted under Stalin in the 1930s as nationalism and socialism-in-one-country took a tighter hold on Soviet imagery.

Science fiction writers were the mediators between official ambitions and popular conceptions, and their filled-in image of the unified globe reveals a layer of hope be­neath the political veneer of language. The global unity of science fiction was not a Russianized world but a cosmopolitan one where the capital was more often London or Paris than Moscow, where Russia was part of a United States of Socialist Europe or Eurasia—or simply an undifferentiated sector of the planet. Implicit is the hoped for acceptance of the Russians into an egalitarian world order, a world where Russia is finally greeted and assisted on equal terms in a new community of peoples, a world where the language is usually Esperanto-like and not Russian. Utopians need a unified globe because islands of Utopia can be corrupted or invaded.

The imminence of war is a dark and heavy theme in the anti-capitalist dystopias of science fiction in the 1920s. For mankind to reach the heavenly gates, the hellish world had to be vanquished in a decisive war—usually launched by the capitalists, personified by a captain of industry, a dictator, a plutocrat, or an anti-socialist leader. These wars possess a standard scenario: a fiendish plot to dominate the globe and destroy the "eastern" half. Socialist heroes (not always Russian) enlist their own technology in the struggle against injustice and enslaving warfare, and they are aided by the insurgent proletariat or mutinying crews and armies—a potent combination of international war and interior revolution. More and more often in the novels, the United States came to personify the "shark of capitalism" and the menace to world peace, and its leaders emerged from the pages of Soviet science fiction as an ugly array of bloody butchers, cynical prelates, and frenzied proletariophobic industrialists.

The "capitalist hells" were partly inspired by Jack London's Iron Heel (1908), translated into Russian before the Revolution and made into a film in 1919, and partly by Emile Verhaeren's Les Aubes (1898). One of the first science fiction versions of this was Yakov Okunev's Tomorrow (1924) which reverses the dismal conclusion of Iron Heel: the Wheat King and other millionaires who support a racist and chauvinist regime in the West provoke strikes in order to liquidate workers and set up a militarist, capitalist, clerical order, but they are overthrown when the Atlantic fleet goes red, the German workers' army attacks Paris, and the Soviet army liberates India, setting the stage for a world-wide federation of Soviets with its capital in London. A. R. Palei's Gulfstream (1928) is both more elab­orate and more subtle. His "capitalist hell" is the United States where large machines, short hours, high wages, safe working conditions, and welfare are undercut by extreme specialization of labor, mind-blunting routine, regimented family and home life, man­datory TV, and a gradual reduction of human speech. But the Union of Soviet Republics of the Old World (Russia, China, and Japan)—where children have names like Rem, Roza, Elektra— sends its techno-knights against the foe with orange-colored rays to help the workers liberate themselves.

In spite of their Marxist rhetorical flourishes and invocations of decency and har­mony for the future, these geopolitical fantasies anticipate the Manichean nationalism and xenophobia of the Stalin years. In the Utopias of communism, rationalism, sym­metry, and mathematical efficiency in work were seen as liberating virtues. In the dys­topias of capitalism, the darker side of mechanized labor—mindless robotization—was emphasized.

The political vision—more accurately the anti-political vision—of the Soviet Utopia in the 1920s drew its central premise from Marx's theory of class and state, namely that once private property and classes disappeared, so would the state, a coercive instrument of the dominant economic class. Under communism, government by persons would give way to the administration of things. This potent image had inspired Bogdanov, Lenin, and Bukharin, who envisioned a gigantic centralized economy, state or no state—not only a single polity but also a single, enormous workshop. If governance consisted solely in economic problem-solving of the most mechanical sort, this implied an issueless world, a world without questions, or a world where questions had only one answer. This arose partly from Marxian class analysis but it was partly indigenous also.

In the science fiction of the time, the aversion for authority and friction is palpable. In Belyaev's Utopia, for example, "all worked in close harmony, like so many musi­cians in a conductorless orchestra." When there is a government, the apolitical pop­ulation is happy to turn over the coordination of the economy to specialists, technocrats, Councils of a Hundred and even bearded patriarchs or elders. The rulers in these novels are faceless and interchangeable—the real political foundation is the consensual attitude of the people. Everybody wants to work; everybody wants what everyone else does. This is the vaunted collectivism or "collective will" of the masses of which the Bol­sheviks talked so often. Concern in the Soviet context was expressed in many ways: welfare, communalism, sharing, cooperation—all the features connected with harmony and brotherhood. In Soviet science fiction this was extended to everyone on the globe pre­cisely as a universal moral perspective. But the impulse to control had the same force: a strong desire to check the egoistic and individualistic impulses of others—meaning all. In this view—translated into political language—both democracy and capitalism meant collision, conflict, competition, and thus anarchy and chaos. It need not be repeated that the Russian Revolution destroyed not only the old autocracy but also the Liberals and the Anarchists.

Perhaps science fiction as a genre should really be called "technical fiction" because in it science often only means technical innovation in a finished form. The level of scientific literacy is not very high in the Soviet works. Pure theory and explanatory processes are rarely offered. With a few exceptions (usually not in the utopias), the technology is ready-made and reasonably convincing as futuristic projection. Several areas of technical development stand out: transportation, electricity, communications, and weaponry. The first—a transport system and range of vehicles sufficient to bind a planet together—was as prominent in the Soviet science fiction as it was in American, in that it broke down distances in these two huge countries, eliminated the backward image of Russia by putting the population into speeding and flying convey­ances of every sort. Communications networks performed the same function at a more intimate level: dense cultural bonding via telescreen, TV, radio, and phone. Electricity, as in Lenin's vision, was the source of great power. A single, invisible, clean, and "modern" energy source, it was also the emblem of triumph over the dark forces of ignorance, superstition, religion, and disease. The use of architectural glass and the brightly colored worldscape are the almost inescapable fantasy features reminding us that Light means Right.

The weapons deployed in the science fiction war were more frightening and devas­tating than those of the previous epoch. Not only had an entire generation of physics intervened, but also the Great War had ordered, reshaped, and used destructive weapons and thus partly reorientated scientific research and practical production. Russia in the 1920s, with its weak economic base, its fresh memory of the intervention, its scars from the great bloodletting of 1914-21, felt defenseless and vulnerable in a world of advanc­ing nations and sinuous hardware. One almost feels the terror of things to come—of the 1941 skies blackened with German aircraft, of the huge herds of machine-powered ve­hicles and tanks rolling across the flat landscape, of millions of civilians perishing in a war without well defined rear areas. These phobias reflected the discussions of strategic bombing, the militarization of society, and the need for universal mobilization of the Soviet citizenry. They helped to fuel the "air-topias" and "scaretopias" of Soviet sci­ence fiction. The culmination of these themes in the literature was Alexander Belyaev's Struggle in the Atmosphere (or War in the Air) of 1928, an epic of—for that time— frightening prospects in a total war between the United States and Soviet Russia. So famous did this novel become that the U.S. Air Force discovered it and had it translated into English in 1965.

What of speculation about the nature and quality of human life and personal rela­tions—power, culture, leisure, and love? A major feature of fictitious societies is the pervading egalitarianism. In all the Utopias, work (what remains of it) is rationed equally or according to ability, hand and brain labor alternate for all, the city-country contradiction has dissolved, women are equal to men, children possess more independence than they did in the old worlds, and dress codes make everyone look alike. Deference has given way to egalitarian systems of communication and gestural behavior. The remnant of administrative decision-making not handled by self-governing "systems" is rotated by election and its holders made pallid and undistinguished. This was a perfect rendition of revolutionary iconoclasm—the abolition of authority, authority figures, and symbols. Nowhere in the literature, however, is there a description of how human beings got themselves into a mode of egalitarian life.

The moral question has in a sense been "solved" by the prevailing culture of harmony and equality. Soviet Utopias are lands of peace, affluence, sharing, cooperation, integration, altruism, non-alienation, and community—exactly the formula that can be pieced together from the various Marxist speculations about life in the future. Labor, the prime necessity of life, is desired by everyone. Struggle is no longer inter-specific but against the forces of nature. Thus a New Morality is possible only under communism. But none of the scenarios that detail the military and geopolitical stages of the path to future perfection talk at all about the process of human transformation. Yet, although the science fiction utopias offer results rather than processes, and therefore suffer as guides to building communism in daily life, the values they celebrate— especially the unpatronizing treatment of women characters, the hostility to deference, and the stress on altruism and cooperation—were probably given more widespread publicity in the society of the 1920s than if they had merely remained on the pages of Komsomol and party handbooks or on posters.

The content of the ritual is harmony, unity, solidarity—freely and collectively expressed in massed formation and communal song. Reverence and celebration on the public squares or in the coliseums of fantasy is a fictive shorthand for writers who are trying to persuade readers that their recipes for social perfection actually work.

The arts, which are supposed to embellish life and fill the leisure time of workers in a communist society, are surprisingly neglected, with one striking exception: music. But it is a music transposed from art form into therapeutic instrument. Utopian writers favored proletarian mass song or machine-music. A whole array of electronic music inventions appeared in Soviet Russia in the 1920s designed to broaden the range of sonority and to broadcast on radio the wonders of urban noise, electricity, and revolu­tionary music.

The sonic compulsion resounds in the science fiction novels of the 1920s. In Efim Zozulya's Gramophone of the Ages (set in 1954), "the sunrise is greeted by musical factory whistles and orchestras." Every building contains musical equipment that drones mighty music. It "greets the sunrise, wakes up the workers, accompanies them to their work, to dinner, and home again." One can hardly finish reading a science fiction work of the period without hearing a buzzing in one's ear—music dazzles at festivals, enno­bles and enriches, entertains at lunch, enhances labor, soothes one's sleep, and invests one's dreams. In the vision of the Komfut (Communist-Futurist) movement, a tiny sect of the avant-garde, "in the future communist society all should eat, work, sleep, and listen to music at the same time." The musical utopia comes close to being a nightmare for those who cherish silence.

The peculiar quality of Soviet science fiction lies in the fact that it was the first such body of writing to emerge directly out of a revolutionary experiment raging around it and so intimately tied to it. Science fiction utopia in the 1920s gave self-conscious articulation to revolutionary dreams.

Back to the Future: Nostalgic Utopia

In the years 1920-22 several extraordinary Russian science fiction works appeared that challenged the world vision of Bolshevism: Zamyatin's dystopia, We (1920), and counter-utopias exalting the peasant world. These were not answers to Soviet science fiction, since they largely preceded it, but answers to Bolshevism and its visions. The peasant Utopias launched their fanta­sies from the Civil War period. Though strikingly different from each other in emphasis and vision—anarchist, populist, and monarchist—they represent a strand of Russian thought and feeling that paralleled a genre of early Soviet literature known as muzhik socialism—a lyrical assertion of the beauties of a disappearing world.

Chayanov's Russia of 1984 is bizarre. An economist whose the­ories of peasant economy have captured world attention in recent years, a specialist in cooperative movements, a preserver of monuments, and a genuinely versatile and learned man of the old regime, Alexander Chayanov (1888-193?) held various posts in Soviet economic life before being arrested in 1931 and then disappearing in Stalin's camp system. His Journey was published in Russia in 1920 under the pseudonym Ivan Kremnev. The traveler-to-the-future, laborer number 37413, Alexei Kremnev, leaves his office one night in 1921, disgusted at the mechanical extremism of the socialist regime in which he lives, muses over the works of More, Fourier, Morris, and Bellamy, and falls into a dreamy sleep, awakening in the Russia of 1984. He learns that after a global war of the mid-1920s, the world was divided among the rival systems, each of whom received a share of the earth's good land and climate—exactly as in the strip system of the peasant commune. In Russia, the Bolsheviks were overthrown by the Socialist Revolutionaries and a peasant regime came into being by 1932, after which factories were dismantled and whole populations relocated away from the capitals along distant rail junctions and smaller towns—exactly as happened in real life during World War II. This was completed by 1944.

The land Kremnev discovers forty years later is remarkable for its anti-urban char­acter, its peasant nature, and its apolitical politics. All towns of 20,000 or over are eliminated and Moscow's hundreds of buildings are demolished by dynamite. Towns are now market places, festival centers, and clusters of transient hotels—places to shop, gather, celebrate—but not to live in. The culture centers are the villages and the smaller townlets. Moscow has been almost wholly reforested. Russia is a peasant republic— somewhat reminiscent of the little peasant kingdom of Bulgaria under Alexander Stamboliisky (1918-23) that flourished at the very moment this book was written. Unalienated from his product by either capitalism or collective farms, the Russian peasant has become king at last. Gone is the "enlightened absolutism" of the proletariat and the centralized state. This peasant regime is based on the cooperative movement with— astoundingly—one tiny monarchist enclave at Uglich (the appanage used by heirs to the Moscow throne in the sixteenth century)! Eclecticism and tolerance are emblematized by a national monument containing the statues of Lenin, Kerensky, and Milyukov.

The culture of Chayanov's Russia was drawn largely from the past—village life, peasant huts, traditional songs, games, and festivals, the bells of Moscow's churches (to ring out Scriabin's Prometheus as the national anthem!), musketeers, Muscovite costumes and customs—antiquity frozen into a tableau of bygone times as static as those of the twenty-first or thirtieth century. Yet amid the rustic toil of the muzhik and the aroma of cabbage soup intrudes the inevitable bow to modernity—weather control by electronics, a wind machine that sweeps invading armies away, and a system of national service resembling Bellamy's scheme and Stamboliisky's civilian army of universal ser­vice. That well-known combination of rural nostalgia and reverence for military power that often accompanied fascism between the wars is faintly present, but hardly any of its other usual components.

Chayanov shared the anti-capitalism, anti-Bolshevism, and anti-urbanism of the So­cialist Revolutionaries, but he was clearly more conservative in his exaltation of coop­eratives and individual peasant plots, his allowance for inequality, and his cultural nos­talgia. "The improvement of morals," he wrote, "moves with the speed of geological processes." His book generated little resonance. It was published by the State Publish­ing House, an absolute impossibility ten years later. The dissenting preface by V. V. Vorovsky—a well-known Marxist critic and diplomat—poked fun at the futility and utter unreality of an arcadia of individual peasants run by "cooperative-type" intellec­tuals. This gentle chiding was tolerance itself compared to the suppression and arrest that awaited Chayanov and people like him in the early 1930s. His novel was once characterized as "the counter-revolutionary program of the kulaks."

Zamyatin's anti-urban dystopia, We, has a different emphasis from the peasant utopias. Before composing it, he wrote that "life in big cities is like that in factories: it de-individualizes, makes people somehow all the same, machine-like." Armed with this central idea, Zamyatin in 1920 composed the most chilling of all dystopias and to some, the greatest science fiction work ever written (Ursula Le Guin). It is often forgotten that Zamyatin despised capitalism: his earlier anti-utopian novel about Britain is a satire on the minute regulations of life. In We, the city has blossomed monstrously into the United State, a giant urban mass of blue cubic buildings, straight lines and exclusively geometric forms—a visual parody of all utopian symmetry. The year is 2920, a thousand years in the future, after dreadful wars and revolutions. The countryside no longer exists as agrarian landscape; it has been reclaimed by a savage forest and lies "beyond the green wall." Nature, body hair, foliage, sexual passion, and fantasy are the unsubdued remnants of evil.

Technology in We is ever present but never discussed. Except for the motions aboard the Integral, a rocket ship that will allow the colonization of space, the labor process is not indicated; except for scenes of sexual contact, neither is life. The reason is clear: life, work, and love have been denuded of color, passion, and conflict among ordinary Numbers (citizens) of the United State. The "musical factory" provides the tunes that lead them to work and play; their rituals are purely passive and deferen­tial. Freedom means unity of thought: the only self is embedded in the collective "we." Human relations in the United State seem like an answer to the prayers of those nihilist reductionists of the Russian Revolution who wanted to break all forms of human expres­sion and "equalize" all humans into faceless and expressionless units. This Zamyatin deftly and unforgettably accomplishes by using numbers for his citizens, dressing them in identical uniforms, and having them function according to an elaborate mathematical table—in short turning them into machines without passion or fantasy. When these traits are exhibited illegally among some of the Numbers, the drama begins—and it ends with fantasectomy.

Zamyatin is more explicit about the political system than any other Russian science fiction writer up to that time. We has a real dictator as large as life. The Well-Doer or benefactor, assisted by Guardians, deliver to the Numbers "mathematically flawless happiness." Those who resist are physically liquidated under the gas bell. As Zamyatin said elsewhere, "the religion of the modern city is exact science." The dictator in We is knowable, expressive, palpably evil and powerful, and simultaneously benevolent to those who understand the laws of uniform thinking. He has been called a copy of Lenin, a premonition of Stalin, and—by Soviet critics—a Fascist. Zamyatin meant him as an embodiment of the twin spirits of despotism in the modern world: the freedom-hating Grand Inquisitors and the unthinking designers of technologies that strip man of freedom. Zamyatin's novel took shape under a whole range of conditions: his abiding fear of loss of freedom; the popularity of works that he knew so well by H. G. Wells and Bogdanov; the forces of modernization, industrialism, and the city that he saw in England and in Russia; the power of machine fantasy that was seizing revolutionary poets and ideologues during the Civil War; and the recent wars that, he noted, turned human beings into digits. Zamyatin's masterpiece towers high above all other science fiction of that age in Russia—and it grew out of the density of revolutionary discourse and action.

Zamyatin's book was not published in the U.S.S.R. until 1988. The critic A. K. Voronsky wrote an essay on the author in 1922. Noting that the themes of We had already been mooted in the anti-British The Islanders (1918), Voronsky viewed the anti-socialist elements of the novel as part of an older dystopian tradition. But the Bol­sheviks, he argued, did not strive to subjugate people under the "heel" of the State. We, he said, resembled the reactionary "state socialism" of a Bismarck. Bolshevism stood for a synthesis of the "we" and the "I" and not "we" over "I." Machine-like life, he said, is not our goal, but machine-lightened life. There would be no dual world of nightmare city and wild forest in the future, but a humane combination of urban and rural elements.

When Zamyatin's book was revived and reissued in the early 1950s in the West— coinciding with late Stalinism, the publication of Orwell's 1984 (which was indebted to it), and the emergence of the theory of totalitarianism, many took Zamyatin's nightmare to be simply an accurate rendition of Soviet reality from the very beginning. Few people then—and not many more now—were aware of those utopian experimenters and vision­aries of the 1920s whose main mission was in fact to avert a rising menace of the United State of Guardians, mathematical conformity, odious authoritarianism, and a malevolent Well-Doer.
The death of utopian science fiction in the early 1930s is the perfect metaphor of the death of the utopian revolution of the 1920s. The prose was primitive and the characters forgettable. Perceptions of the West were filled with neuroses, phobias, and stereotypes. There were no loveable heroes, no genuinely funny episodes, no believable villains— and hardly a paragraph of genuinely lyrical description. And yet, Soviet science fiction lies before us like archeological rubble, traces and clues about values held or expressed in an era of drastic and willful change, verbal witness to the ideas and feelings that the Revolution suggested to fertile brains and facile wordsmiths. It is popular culture of a bygone age, taking its place in the museum of visions and fantasies and perceptions along with American comic strips, pulp magazines, and war cards of the 1920s and 1930s, a rich tapestry of crude color and cartoon figures, relaying to us both the stretch­ing power of Soviet imagination and its severe limitations. It shouted to its readers: escape through Revolution into the vast unknown towards a better world.

The decade of revolutionary science fiction, with no interference by the state, indicates once again that in the 1920s the intelligentsia was still free to explore new worlds and ask questions about the future—and even suggest answers. Science fiction reflected not only Bolshevism but also anarchism, neo-Populism, messianism, Godbuilding, and a dozen other currents. Fantasy was a mode of political discourse in a non-parliamentary society. And in the realm of visionary town planning and utopian architecture, some of the imagery created in the battle between urban and anti-urban futures was reflected in uncanny detail.


Excerpts from a chapter from Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution by Richard Stites, Oxford University Press, 1989




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