Crucial texts—many in English for the first time—by the radical biopolitical utopianists of Russian Cosmism.

Russian Cosmism

Cosmism emerged in Russia before the October Revolution and developed through the 1920s and 1930s; like Marxism and the European avant-garde, two other movements that shared this intellectual moment, Russian Cosmism rejected the contemplative for the transformative, aiming to create not merely new art or philosophy but a new world. Cosmism went the furthest in its visions of transformation, calling for the end of death, the resuscitation of the dead, and free movement in cosmic space. This volume, edited by Boris Groys, collects crucial texts—many available in English for the first time—by the radical biopolitical utopianists of Russian Cosmism.

Cosmism was developed by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov in the late nineteenth century; he believed that humans had an ethical obligation not only to care for the sick but to cure death using science and technology; outer space was the territory of both immortal life and infinite resources. After the revolution, a new generation pursued Fedorov’s vision. Cosmist ideas inspired visual artists, poets, filmmakers, theater directors, novelists (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky read Fedorov’s writings), architects, and composers, and influenced Soviet politics and technology. In the 1930s, Stalin quashed Cosmism, jailing or executing many members of the movement. Today, when the philosophical imagination has again become entangled with scientific and technological imagination, the works of the Russian Cosmists are newly alive and relevant.

Contributors:
Alexander Bogdanov
Alexander Chizhevsky
Nikolai Fedorov
Boris Groys
Valerian Muravyev
Alexander Svyatogor
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Preface by Anton Vidokle, Brian Kuan Wood
Introduction by Boris Groys, Editor

Translations from the Russian by 
Thomas Campbell, Ian Dreiblatt, Anastasiya Osipova, Caroline Rees, Anastasia Skoybedo

Reviews

“Book review: Russian Cosmism, edited by Boris Groys—Engineering and Technology”

The first comprehensive review in the West of a neglected but significant movement that inspired social, religious and technical thinking. After one of my public talks in Kent several years ago, I was approached by a woman from the audience who gave me a thick book in Russian. “I think you’ll enjoy it,” she said, and added that the author – Alexandr...

The first comprehensive review in the West of a neglected but significant movement that inspired social, religious and technical thinking.

After one of my public talks in Kent several years ago, I was approached by a woman from the audience who gave me a thick book in Russian. “I think you’ll enjoy it,” she said, and added that the author – Alexandr Klizovski – was a distant relation of hers.

The bulky volume’s title was The Basis of Understanding of the Modern Epoch. Its cover blurb claimed it was “the first attempt at a large-scale philosophical understanding of the cosmic evolution of mankind” and referred to Klizovski as a disciple and follower of the Russian artist and theosophist Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947), whose spectacular Indian paintings were very familiar to me.

That was my first introduction to the fascinating world of early 20th-century Russian mysticism, with which I have been fascinated ever since. I often wonder why such a wealth of daring social, religious, philosophical and technological theories originated from late 19th and early 20th-century Russia. Starting with Elena Petrovna Blavatsky, who co-founded the world’s first Theosophical Society in 1875, the turn-of-the century Russian mysticism gave the world such brilliant esoteric philosophers as Pyotr Demianovich Ouspensky and his spiritual teacher and colleague George Ivanovich Gurjieff, whose  works are still widely read and admired all over the globe.

The reason for such proliferation, to my mind, is that between the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917, Russia lived through a succession of unprecedented social changes that resulted in popular unrest, poverty and general loss of faith in the future. Against this dire background, mysticism and utopianism – both social and technological – were bound to thrive. The main difference between Russian proponents of esoterism and their Western counterparts, however, was that the former did not limit themselves to pure theory and philosophising, but actually tried to transform the existing reality and came up with multiple working models and doctrines of ‘the new world order’ and ‘the new universe’.

It is here that Russian Cosmism comes into the picture. Relatively little known both in Russia and in the West due to its active silencing in the USSR after Stalin’s 1930s purges, it emerged in Russia before 1917 with the aim of creating not just a new philosophy but a new world where people would live and move freely in cosmic space – a domain of human immortality and unlimited resources. Physician Aleksandr Bogdanov, who alongside librarian Nikolai Fedorov and rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was one of  Cosmism’s main theoreticians, even spoke about (and experimented with) resuscitation of the dead with the help of blood transfusions. (He himself died as a result of one such  transfusion, which went terribly wrong.)

Russian Cosmism (The MIT Press, £22.95, ISBN 9780262037433) is one of the West’s first comprehensive publications on the subject, a collection of essays by its most prominent scholars (including the three mentioned above), edited by Boris Groys, Professor of  Russian and Slavic studies at New York University. It is a truly fascinating, eye-opening read.

What is the importance of a collection like this for the modern world? To understand, we have to remember that, apart from their undisputed influence on the works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the Cosmists’ ideas were at the core of the Russian avant garde movement in the 1920s and early 1930s, inspiring numerous artists, poets, architects and composers – as well as scientists and engineers. It was Tsiolkovsky’s devotion to Cosmism and Panpsychism (the subject of one of his articles in the book) and his firm belief in the need to colonise outer space, that triggered and lay behind his pioneering research in the fields of aeronautics and rocket building.

As for Nikolai Fedorov, he believed in the important role of technology in history and even thought it possible to direct it towards the past by altering existing museum collections. He regarded museums as living machines that can make things and bodies immortal with the help of preservation technologies.

Long after Stalin quashed Cosmism, having jailed and executed most of its ideologists, their ideas were picked up and developed by prominent Western and Russian thinkers of the second half of the 20th century. Among them was Immanuel Velikovsky, a Vitebsk-born Russian Jewish scholar, author of the best-selling historical-cosmological book ‘Worlds in Collision’.

The Russian Cosmists’ rich philosophical imagination, their persistent, if somewhat naive and dream-like, search for human happiness and immortality by means of science and technology cannot fail to cause admiration even now, in the era of space exploration, computers and artificial intelligence. Collecting their main ideas under one cover is a highly commendable and extremely timely achievement, on which this book’s compilers, editors and publishers must be congratulated.

—Vitali Vitaliev
Wednesday, February 21, 2018

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“Boris Groys introduces revolutionary Russia’s sci-fi side—4Columns”, Russian Cosmism

In the decades before the October Revolution of 1917, a confusing array of radical philosophies flourished in Russia: more or less materialist, utopian, mystical, or Marxist. Out of the perplex of anarchism, Bolshevism, futurism, and more, it’s possible to extract a lineage of Cosmism, founded on ideas propounded by Orthodox Christian philosopher Nikolai...

In the decades before the October Revolution of 1917, a confusing array of radical philosophies flourished in Russia: more or less materialist, utopian, mystical, or Marxist. Out of the perplex of anarchism, Bolshevism, futurism, and more, it’s possible to extract a lineage of Cosmism, founded on ideas propounded by Orthodox Christian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Though he published little, Fedorov was profoundly influential: Tolstoy attended his lectures, and later followers included Maxim Gorky and Boris Pasternak. Post-revolutionary intellectuals stripped the religious element from Fedorov’s thought, but retained some of his wilder notions. Death was not natural to humans, but rather a flaw in our design, to be overcome. With the advent of new technologies the Earth would become “a great electric boat” whose heavenly course humans determined. Artists, writers, composers, architects, and filmmakers: all responded to the Cosmists’ vision of psychic, bodily, and environmental innovation. But the movement itself was short-lived: many Cosmists were supporters of Trotsky, and suffered accordingly under Lenin and Stalin.

Russian Cosmism, edited by the art theorist Boris Groys, collects thirteen extracts from Cosmist writings, mostly of the 1920s, and argues for their contemporary relevance to art (the contemporary museum) and politics (the “biopolitical” power of the state, its ability to shape lives and landscapes). Consider for example the environmental futurism of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who in “The Future of Earth and Mankind” imagines deserts and tropical regions put to agricultural use. A vast army of workers would traverse such territories, while above them a protective metal net was erected. This mesh would advance with the workers, and behind it new dwellings could be built: houses enclosing atmospheres so delicately controlled that people no longer needed to wear clothes. Solar panels might be attached to these buildings, which would be made of special materials that collected water during the cold desert night. The oceans, meanwhile, might be covered with huge floating greenhouses, usefully impeding the evaporation of seawater.

Such details capture the odd mix of airy whimsy and practical prescience at work in Cosmist thought. Alexander Chizhevsky made what may seem a compelling study of the phases and cycles of political revolutions; but he did it in order to assert—“prove” is not the word—that such developments were governed by the activity of sunspots. (Oddly, he also admits “the absence of any real connection.”) With his charts and his numbered epochs, Chizhevsky establishes a certain laborious tone among the Cosmists: a degree of earnest detailing that is probably endemic to utopian writing. It’s present too in the ways these writers distinguish themselves from their intellectual contemporaries. The chief difference between Marxism and Cosmism is that the former can conceive of emancipation only for the living. Not only is death the enemy of human reason for a Cosmist thinker such as Alexander Svyatogor, but its victories to date must also be reversed, in a universal orgy of resurrection. Immortality was the ultimate aim, pursued by Alexander Bogdanov in blood transfusions from the young to the old. Bogdanov, a prominent Bolshevik and founder of the Institute for Blood Transfusion in Moscow, died in 1928 when he exchanged blood with a sick university student—she survived.

Fedorov the founder aside, the best known of the Cosmists is probably Tsiolkovsky, who can plausibly be said to have inspired or even begun the Soviet space program. (His “rocket equation” of 1903 established the basic physics of such devices or vehicles.) As early as the 1880s, he was proposing liquid-fueled rockets capable of leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, stationary satellites, and space stations that would mark the beginning of humankind’s colonization of the solar system. The reclusive Tsiolkovsky had the most far-reaching ambitions, practically and metaphysically. He believed that all things were connected, and all of them sentient: “All matter is alive at its core.” For humans to take up residence elsewhere in the cosmos was simply to acknowledge that we belong there. At the same time, the Cosmists attached special significance to certain bodies in the night sky: Mars was considered a revolutionary planet, which is also how it appears in a Soviet sci-fi film of 1924, Aelita: Queen of Mars.

Some of the writings in Russian Cosmism tend deliberately toward science fiction. Bogdanov’s “Immortality Day” concerns a scientific genius named Fride who has enabled humans, including himself, to live for over a thousand years. Fride eventually commits suicide, because “eternal life is unbearable torture,” but the Cosmists were for the most part optimistic about immortality. In his introduction, Groys argues that Immortalism is analogous with the logic of the museum, which is “a machine for making things last.” It’s conventional to say that the artistic avant-gardes of the early twentieth century (including the great movements in Russia) wished to collapse the distinction between life and art. For Groys, Cosmism wants instead to corral and protect life: fully achieved, it would mean “a radical museumification of life.” In this sense, Russian Cosmism extends an argument Groys has been making for years, and notably in his 2008 book Art Power: that the contemporary museum may, surprisingly, be the most transformative place for art and artists today—a utopian space away from the art market, in which any and all experiments will be tolerated and will find a public.

But doesn’t this sound like a reductive or at least oblique reading of the fantastical ideas and ambitions in Cosmist writings? The more pressing contemporary reference point, ignored by Groys, is surely the transhumanist movement currently being bankrolled by tech billionaires—up to and including Bogdanov-style blood transfusions. PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel and Google’s head of engineering Ray Kurzweil are among the true believers: the latter claims that if he lives to 120 he will likely live forever. (Mark O’Connell’s 2017 book To Be a Machine brilliantly describes the variously crackpot efforts of contemporary Immortalists.) So much of what the Cosmists hoped for is now the stuff not of revolutionary desire but of CEO-sponsored hubris and kitsch. Russian Cosmism is a fascinating volume that makes its subject more widely available in English, but it’s framed in such a way as to scant the most obvious question—how did such visionary dreams and ideas travel from the philosophical salons of nineteenth-century Moscow to the mental rumpus rooms of Silicon Valley?

—Brian Dillon
March 2, 2018

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Category
Marxism, Philosophy, Technology
Subject
Cosmism, The Cosmos, Russia, Soviet Union, Materialism, Death, Immortality, Biopolitics, Science, Science Fiction, Outer Space, The Occult & Mysticism, Mathematics

January 2018
Hardcover, 264 p, 6x9 in. 
ISBN: 9780262037433

Co-published with
The MIT Press

Edited by
Boris Groys

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