Russian Cosmism

edited by Boris Groys, MIT Press, $27.95/£22.95 (hardcover)

By Klara Kemp-Welch

Russian Cosmism, ed. Boris Groys, 2018. MIT Press

The Biocosmist-Immortalist manifesto of 1922 proclaimed the ‘essential and real rights of man’ to be ‘the right to exist (immortality, resurrection, rejuvenation) and the freedom to move in cosmic space’. Immortalism could not be separated from interplanetarianism: as the ‘grandfather of Soviet rocket science’ Konstantin Tsiolkovsky argued, space would need to be colonised in order to accommodate the resurrection of everyone who had ever lived. Thinkers such as Alexander Svyatogor, the founder of Biocosmism, were convinced that assumptions about the inevitability of death were not only mistaken but at the root of ‘social injustice, monstrous private ownership, and the antagonism between individuals, nationalities, and classes’. A key inspiration for the ambition to overcome death was the posthumous publication of The Philosophy of the Common Task (1906), by Nikolai Fedorov – a philosopher and librarian very much in vogue with the late-nineteenth-century Moscow intelligentsia, who proposed using a ‘massive configuration of lightning rod-aerostats’ to turn the planet into a giant ‘Earth Ship’.

The new anthology Russian Cosmism presents an eclectic series of outrageous proposals devised by pre- and postrevolutionary thinkers. Boris Groys’s introduction draws parallels between those tumultuous times and our own, claiming that ‘corporeal immortality remains the only chance of life after death. The promise of technology substitutes for the promise of divine grace. Russian Cosmism was one of the earliest and most radical manifestations of this substitution.’ Focusing on the scientific cosmists rather than their Orthodox Christian counterparts, Groys’s collection of texts by theorists including Fedorov and Tsiolkovsky is a secular manifesto of sorts: a fascinating, if absurd, authorial project bordering on a deadpan work of art.

The publication’s structure is more intuitive than chronological, foregrounding surprising new approaches to the political chaos we have seen around the world in recent years. Groys opens with Alexander Chizhevsky’s interwar treatise on the Cosmic pulse of life: Earth in the Sun’s embrace, which offered a ‘science of mass movements’ demonstrating that the ‘neuropsychic tone’ of the masses spikes in accordance with the increased activity of the sun, causing ‘revolutions, wars, and mass movements’ that ‘peak in moments of the most intensive solar activity’. He showed, for example, that solar activity was 155.6 percent more intense during Liberal than Conservative British governments. Whether or not one finds this a comforting notion (change is inevitable, our common task may be to wait for favourable conditions for its fruition) depends on one’s political perspective.

Groys edited the Russian-language anthology Russian Cosmism, published by Garage, Moscow, in 2015; the new volume of translations is a collaboration with e-flux and MIT Press. E-flux’s Anton Vidokle and Brian Kuan Wood propose in their foreword that ‘non-Western avant-gardes summoned technology to serve cultural practices or spiritual cosmologies beyond the steamroller of Western industrial modernity’, arguing that early Russian utopianism was more ‘humane and spiritually far more encompassing than the mechanistic functionalism or free expression of its Western artistic or architectural contemporaries’. The Soviet authorities’ treatment of its authors was in many cases far from humane. Several of these ascetics who devoted their lives to scientific explorations for the common good of mankind were also supporters of Trotsky: philosopher Valerian Muravyev and Svyatogor were among those to perish in the labour camps.

Cosmism first made a comeback in Russian intellectual life during the 1990s. George M. Young’s The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and his Followers (2012) offers eight reasons why: the cosmists did ‘not favour half solutions’; their thinking was thoroughly Russian; it was also anti-Western; it had been prohibited in Soviet times; its authors were polymaths; it legitimised the study of the occult; its authors offered an answer to the perennial question Chto delat? (What is to be done?); they did not ‘succumb to… Western doom and gloom’, and proposed that Russia would ‘eventually prevail’. By presenting these texts in translation for the first time now, Groys and e-flux may be advocating that we, too, hold out.

As Svyatogor proposed, ‘He who has great goals before him, who is completely sure of himself, strong and absolutely firm in his resolve, ultimately emerges victorious.’ Perhaps there remains some cold comfort in Tsiolkovsky’s historical promise that ‘a future where happiness never ends’ is within man’s reach. He said that his ‘sermon is not even a daydream, but a strictly mathematical conclusion based on precise knowledge’, according to the logic of which ‘supreme forms of social organization have prevailed and will prevail in the universe’ because the goal of intelligence is to lead to ‘each atom’s eternal well-being’. If this is a reminder that there is always hope, then the promotion of such century-old ideas today is also a reminder of how desperate the situation on earth remains.

From the Spring 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia