Science Fiction Studies

#138 = Volume 46, Part 2 = July 2019


Caroline Edwards

The Palimpsestic Timescales of Russian SF

Anindita Banerjee, ed. Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader. Boston, MA: Academic Studies, 2018. 400 pp. $119 hc, $39.99 pbk.

Cementing her reputation as a leading scholar of world sf, Anindita Banerjee’s edited collection Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema introduces readers to the rich tradition of sf in Russia, from the pre-Wellsian period to the present day. The collection includes a carefully selected range of scholarship previously published in books and journal articles over the past few decades. The proliferation of nauchnaya fantastika [scientific fantasy] in Russia suggests that it is more than merely a genre of popular literature. At one time it was part of a vibrant national conversation that kept abreast of advances in rocketry, space exploration, and astronautics. Illustrated magazines popularized the latest technological developments for a scientifically literate populace that eagerly engaged in what Richard Stites has called an “abundance of star-gazing” (9). By opening the collection with the iconic image of Sputnik, Banerjee not only invokes the apogee of scientific achievement during the golden age of Soviet Russia’s space program, but also suggests the palimpsestic timescale in which Russian sf tends to be read. Russia’s Space Age enacted the contradiction of a largely unindustrialized country accelerating its own historical development. As Louis Althusser suggests, paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, Russia “was at the same time the most backward and the most advanced nation” (qtd. in Smith 6; emphasis in original). The organization of Banerjee’s Critical Reader is thus informed by the way in which, as she suggests, the Space Age enables “critics to simultaneously reach backward and forward in time” (xii), like the non-contemporaneous nature of Russian utopian dreaming that stretched backward into peasant utopianism and forward into glittering technological revolution.

Darko Suvin’s essay “The Utopian Tradition of Russian Science Fiction” (1971) reminds readers of the “ubiquitous dream of a land of Cockayne” (1) that informed traditional Russian fairytales and endured into modern Russian literature, from Pushkin and Dostoevsky to Tolstoy and Chekhov. Suvin’s essay (which later became a chapter in his influential Metamorphoses of Science Fiction [1979]) remains a compelling reading of the palimpsestic timescale of Russian sf, which, as he writes, “blended the rationalist western European strain of utopianism and satire with the native folk longings for abundance and justice” (1). Traditional tales of peasant struggle against serfdom become allegorized in the estranging landscapes of subterranean worlds (Vladimir Odoevsky’s unfinished hollow Earth narrative, Year 4338), Fourierist tales of utopian socialism (Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? [1862]), and anticipatory daydreams of the future (Valery Bryusov’s Symbolist play Earth [1904]). Although, as Suvin notes, Russian sf was “written at great cost by exceptional, heroic, and isolated figures,” it is a testament to Suvin’s influential analysis that we now think of pre-revolutionary and early Russian sf as a clearly defined tradition that stretches from novels about Mars, such as Alexey Tolstoy’s Aelita, or the Decline of Mars (1923) and Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) to Alexander Kuprin’s popular stories “A Toast” (1913) and “The Liquid Sun” (1913). Suvin’s reading of Yevgeny Zamyatin introduced Anglophone readers to an important dystopian precursor to Huxley and Orwell while also insisting on the utopianism of Zamyatin’s shining futuristic city. Despite its terrifying surveillance and draconian technocracy, D-503’s narrative suggests that “the new utopian world cannot be a static changeless paradise of a new religion, albeit a religion of steel, mathematics, and interplanetary flights” (14). Suvin argues that from the mid-1930s to the 1950s, Soviet sf became “a second-rate crossbreed, neither really artistic nor scientific” (20) until the “second great age of Soviet science fiction”—exemplified by texts such as Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda: A Space Age Tale (1957)—emerged toward the end of the 1950s after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956.

Suvin’s authoritative essay is followed by Mark B. Adams’s “Red Star: Another Look at Aleksandr Bogdanov” (1989), which situates Bogdanov’s fiction in the historical and intellectual contexts of Bolshevism, blood research, social psychology, and the philosophy of science. Red Star anticipated technological innovations in radioactive energy, computerized labor statistics, and rocketry (as Leland Fetzer notes in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction [71]). This prescience, and the narrative of class conflict, raises Bogdanov’s Martian story above the level of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s serialized pulp Barsoom series (1912-1943). Adams’s essay is particularly illuminating in contextualizing Bogdanov’s writings within a set of remarkably nonmodern discourses: the romantic synergy of life, energy, and blood can be traced throughout his intellectual career, Adams reveals, drawing on contemporary philosophies of monism and biogenesis, as well as Henri Bergson’s emergentism. Bogdanov died while undertaking a complete exchange of blood with a tuberculosis sufferer—a procedure both foreshadowed in, and painfully eclipsed by, the depiction of Martian vitality as a result of “mutual blood transfusions” in Red Star.

Banerjee’s own essay, “Generating Power,” is extracted from her monograph We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (2013) and situates the Golden Age of 1920s Russian sf within the context of electrification. Although it epitomizes a narrative of modernity, Banerjee suggests that electrification combined the techno-futuristic with the mystical in an uneasy tension that sf was able to articulate. Banerjee advises us to approach this paradigm through the analogy of an electric circuit. In the anodic mode the generation of electricity is rationally explicable, while in the cathodic mode it appears as a supernatural form of energy, a “sacred repository of magic and miracle” (54). Russian sf was able to bring together the anodic and cathodic, or Enlightenment and Romantic, approaches to electricity. Electrical sf in the post-Edison period, such as Konstantin Sluchevsky’s story “Kapitan Nemo v Rossii” [Captain Nemo in Russia, 1898], connects the invisible generation of this seemingly magical new energy source with alchemy while serving to allegorize a premodern spiritual Slavic identity coming into contact with European modernity. Similarly, the archaic Russian term molniia [lightning] lends a primordial divine agency to the image of electrical power that mixes the cathodic with the anodic—as in the Russian Futurist Velimir Khlebnikov’s poem “Sestry molnii” [Lightning Sisters, 1915-21].

Asif A. Siddiqi’s chapter, “Imagining the Cosmos” (2008), similarly offers an important context for Russian sf by examining the enduring legacy of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The “patriarch” of Soviet cosmonautics, Tsiolkovsky’s designs for powered flying machines and interplanetary travel “were the perfect vehicle for catapulting Russia into the modern technological age of Ford and Taylor” (80). As Siddiqi notes, amateur space enthusiasts eagerly absorbed Tsiolkovsky’s ideas into an energetic culture of exhibitions, public discussions, and scientific periodicals that fused rocketry with a mystical sense of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Technological utopianism thus intersected with the mystical tradition of Cosmism in dreams of spaceflight, catapulting Russian writers and thinkers into the collective Promethean task of rebuilding society in a variety of imagined cosmic locations. 

Dominic Esler’s “Soviet Science Fiction of the 1920s” (2010) examines Soviet sf of this period as a “literature of discontinuity” (119). As a genre dedicated to dispensing with conventions of realism, sf was instrumental in the construction of the Bolshevik utopia, which required a new vocabulary of imagination and anticipation. Esler traces this anticipatory consciousness (or Vorschein, as Ernst Bloch would call it) through key exemplary texts, including Aristarkh Obolyaninov’s Red Moon (1921), Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s Beyond the Earth (1920), Vladimir Obruchev’s Plutonia (1924) and Sannikov’s Land (1926), Yakov Okunev’s The Coming World (1923), Marietta Shaginian’s red Pinkerton1 novel Mess-Mend (1923-24), Alexei Tolstoy’s The Garin Death Ray (1925), Nikolai Mukhanov’s Blazing Abysses (1924), Andrei Platonov’s series of short stories critiquing Soviet scientific utopianism, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925), and Alexander Baliaev’s The Struggle in Space (1928). As Esler concludes, Soviet sf flourished in the 1920s “because it was ideally suited to support the emphasis upon science and technology that was an integral tenet of Bolshevik utopianism” (145).

Following these contextual chapters in the cultural history of early Russian sf, Section Two presents a series of “against the grain” case-study textual analyses. I found Eliot Borenstein’s essay on the “Logic of Synecdoche” (1996) in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We to be hard going, although readers familiar with linguistics might be interested in its translation studies approach (which requires a thorough grasp of Russian). Yvonne Howell’s “Eugenics, Rejuvenation, and Bulgakov’s Journey into the Heart of Dogness” (2006) is more accessible, arguing that Bulgakov’s tale of eugenics gone awry, Heart of a Dog, offers a nuanced exploration of contemporary science that is elided in readings of the novel as an allegory of social engineering in NEP-era Russia. Similarly, Andrew J. Horton’s “Science Fiction of the Domestic” (2000), on Iakov Protazanov’s Constructivist film Aelita, suggests a different reading of this canonical work of Russian sf, tracing the film’s problematic domesticity and its male eroticism.

Section Three moves beyond the Stalin era, from the late 1950s to the 1970s. Michael G. Smith’s authoritative “Stalinism and the Genesis of Cosmonautics,” excerpted from his monograph Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight (2014), offers a fascinating comparative chapter to Siddiqi’s earlier discussion of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. In the Soviet era, Tsiolkovsky’s pioneering rocketry was part of a public education program that circulated his ideas of cosmic flight and metal dirigibles to a mass readership through youth magazines and edited volumes of his work. Stalin’s efforts to create a personality cult around Tsiolkovsky reflected his own cosmic ambitions, realized in hagiographic images of Stalin “shift[ing] the world’s axis” (211) toward the planets of the solar system and eulogized in Osip Mandelshtam’s “Ode to Stalin” (1937). The monumental scale of scientific ambition in Stalinist Russia eventually gave way to efforts to humanize science in the Khrushchev era. The sf of the Strugatsky brothers thus aimed to “rescue the vision of a socialist utopia from the monumental distance to which Stalin and the Stakhanovite cult of Socialist Man had placed it” (238), as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. notes in “Towards the Last Fairy Tale” (originally published in SFS in 1986). Csicsery-Ronay’s formalist analysis of the Strugatskys’ oeuvre using the fairytale paradigm offers a brilliant reading of works such as Far Rainbow (1963) and Roadside Picnic (1972), uncovering the fairytale’s displaced narrative elements of individual struggle, the intervention of donors whose aid connects the human and natural worlds, and the inevitability of happy endings of material abundance. “Whether it is used in the context of pagan, imperial, or Bolshevik ideology,” Csicsery-Ronay writes, “the fairy tale as a form cannot help but invoke certain attitudes and concepts, such as the wish for a utopia of benevolent power and universally reciprocated affection” (234). Roadside Picnic was subsequently adapted into the film Stalker (1979), the focus of Stephen Dalton’s 2014 essay for the BFI on Andrei Tarkovsky’s sf cinema. “Nobody makes dank, rusting, postindustrial decay look quite as pornographically seductive as Tarkovsky” (286), writes Dalton, despite echoing the familiar imagery of Gulag inmates trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Russian sf cinema is also explored in Vlad Strukov’s chapter “The Forces of Kinship” (2010), which explores Timur Bekmambetov’s dramatization of the Oedipus complex in his supernatural urban fantasy Night Watch trilogy (2004-2006).

Bringing the collection up to the present day, Banerjee’s Critical Reader concludes with two chapters on recent Russian literature: Elana Gomel’s article on “Viktor Pelevin and Literary Postmodernism in Soviet Russia” (2013) and Aleksandr Chantsev’s “The Antiutopia Factory”(2009) on Russian dystopian fiction of the 2000s. Gomel’s reading of Pelevin’s post-Soviet fiction argues that his postmodern fragmentation of subjectivity and linear teleology should not be understood as part of a “retreat into private experience” (303). Rather, his novels stage “modalities of national trauma” (303) that address the failed Soviet utopia and affirm the subject’s connection with historical time in ways that Anglophone postmodern texts cannot imagine. This sense of historical connection points toward a new future that by the late 2000s appears to be foreclosed, as Chantsev’s chapter suggests. Under Putin’s premiership, Russian novels have sunk into grim dystopian reverie—not of the projected future but, more worryingly, of the present. “Not one of these books offers an even remotely recognizable plan for a positive future” (331;  emphasis in original), writes Chantsev, and their escapist use of fantastika as a literary mode articulates the bleak experience under contemporary Russian capitalism.

Overall, Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader provides a much-needed pedagogical tool and informative collection for scholars and fans alike. As it ably demonstrates, Russian sf is a vibrant tradition that contributes to contemporary scholarship on “worlding” sf—incorporating national and globally intersecting traditions beyond the imperial centers of European and American modernity. For me, the most compelling contribution (which I have saved for last, although it appears earlier in the collection) is the entertainment journalist Lynn Barker and VFX director Robert Skotak’s 1994 article from American Cinematographer on the Russian filmmaker Pavel Klushantsev. Klushantsev’s work is almost entirely unknown to Western audiences—except, perhaps, as the backdrop to schlocky American B movies such as Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), Queen of Blood (1964), and Battle Beyond the Sun (1959) that bastardized his special effects into “half-heartedly re-edited, atrociously dubbed” popular films (228). Barker and Skotak’s extensive interviews with Klushantsev reveal a fascinating forgotten cinematic history of pioneering special effects, battles with Soviet censors, and dangerous stunts (while shooting Tayna Veshchestva [The Secret of Matter, 1956], to take just one example, the actors were almost drowned by a huge wave). Klushantsev’s techniques brought to life the sf experiences of zero gravity, flying cars, volcanic eruptions, and undersea weightlessness years before his American counterparts—Battle to the Stars (1957), for instance, used vertical shots to convey an orbiting space station eleven years before Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Barker and Skotak conclude their article with a moving personal correspondence from Klushantsev written in 1991, noting his daily struggle to find sufficient food for himself and his wife in their retirement after a distinguished filmmaking career of 45 years. “Will the creative spirit, born of individuals like Klushantsev, weather the storm?” (229; emphasis in original), ask the authors. It is a sobering coda and reminds readers of the eye-wateringly brutal conditions under which Soviet artists labored to realize such rich imaginative worlds in their sf.

1. “Red Pinkerton” detective stories [krasnyi pinkerton], referencing the American Pinkerton detective agency, were popular in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s. See Russell’s “Red Pinkertonism” (390).

Fetzer, Leland. Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction: An Anthology. Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1982.

Russell, Robert. “Red Pinkertonism: An Aspect of Soviet Literature in the 1920s.” Slavic and East European Review 59.3 (1982): 386-412.

Smith, Michael G. Rockets and Revolution: A Cultural History of Early Spaceflight. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2014.

Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1989.

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