A Short History of Russian "Fantastica"/Part 1

Part 1 and 2 appear in Australian science fiction periodical "The Mentor", Issue 79. (July 1993)

There is no point in beginning the story of Russian fantasy much too distant in time than from popular fairy tales in which there were flying carpets, seven league boots, and a table with 24 hour food. It wasn't SF then. But to give the beginnings of Russian fantasy closer ties to our time means paying no attention to the considerable stretch of time which Russian fantasy had passed through. The fantastic narrative became a genre equal to Russian prose in the middle twenties of the Nineteenth Century. V.M Marcovich has written, "At the end of the (Eighteen) twenties and by the thirties Russian prose writers began to write" in a fantastical way. "The number of works of such kind increased uninterruptedly" [1] He considers the beginning of Russian fantastical literature to be the year 1825 when there was published A.A. Pogoreilsky's work LEFORTOVO'S CUPOLA and A. A. Bestudgev's ASHEN CASTLE (the first title of this work was BLOOD FOR BLOOD).

Marcovich points out that these works were influenced by Hoffman's fairy tales, but he recognizes they were quite original. Soon new novels put in an appearance: THE DOUBLE, OR MY EVENINGS IN MALOROSSIA by Pogorelsky-Perovsky (1828), EVENINGS IN A HAMLET NEAR DIKANKA by N. V. Gogol (1831-1832), MIXED FAIRY TALES by V.F. Odoevsky (1833), EVENING ON THE HOPER RIVER by M.N. Zagoskin (1834), and many others.

V.F. Odoevsky's utopian novel THE YEAR 4338 depicted the Russia of the forty-fourth century. According to Odoevsky, the colossal speed of technical progress would not affect Russia's social life; there would be a Monarch and privileged estates, but the latter would consist of scientists and poets. According to this utopian story Russia would be a prosperous country owing to achievements in science and enlightenment, and the West would be in a deep crisis. The failure of the West's profit motive was also predicted in his book THE NAMELESS CITY (1839).

Fairy tale fantasy of that period of time is represented by such authors as I.V. Kirevsky, K.S. Aksakov, and A. A. Pogorelsky. A. A. Pogorelsky's narrative THE BLACK HEN, OR INHABITANTS OF THE VAULT (1829) is still in print and is popular with children (the author indicated his work to be "a magical narrative for children"). Using the theme of the story, records have been released as well as an animated cartoon.

Also at that time were published stories by A. A. Bestudgev-Marlinsky (THE TERRIBLE DIVINATION, 1831), E.A. Baratinsky (THE RING, 1832), O.M Somov (THE ORDER FROM THE NEXT WORLD, 1830), KIKIMORA (THE FRIGHT), 1830 and THE KIEV WITCHES, (1833). It is interesting that O.M. Somov justified the incredibility of the plots by quoting folklore tradition, which was always strong in Russian romanticism. One may also mention A.K. Tolstoy's story "Upir", N.V. Gogol's "Wiy", "The nose", and finally A.S. Pushkin's THE QUEEN OF SPADES. "In THE QUEEN OF SPADES", wrote I.V. Vinogradov, "the border line between fantasy and reality is attempted to be defined, but this is not achieved. It is as though the author cannot determine it." This statement by the well-known expert may be attributed to many literary works of that time. And still, in spite of the "border", F.M. Dostoevsky considered THE QUEEN OF SPADES was "the height of perfection in the art of fantasy," noting that after reading the story, "you cannot decide whether it was only Herman's imagination, or was he really a man who was on the verge of another world. That's art!" [2]

You see, Russian romanticism didn't continue alone, without fantasy; neither did the West's romanticism. V.M. Marcovich has written in his long preface to the anthology RUSSIAN FANTASTICAL PROSE IN THE AGE OF ROMANTICISM, "The development of Russian fantasy in the twentieth and thirtieth decades (Nineteenth Century - A.L.) turned out to be a complex process. But despite an apparent remoteness between some branches of Russian fantasy there is a common trend in fantasy which attempted to express as clearly as possible the new ideas about the undiscovered fundamental laws of the universe. <...> All the forms of fantasy contributed to the progress of art."

V. M. Marcovich attributed the utopian tendencies of early Russian realism to the influence of fantastical prose. His statement was supported by I. V. Vinogradov, who remarked that the fantasy of romanticism "is first of all the fantasy of intelligence and of the imagination." He observed also that "it is very logical and rational despite an apparent disorderliness." [3] Perhaps the fantasy of romanticism is nearer to the Middle Ages than modern times. The fantasy researcher T. A. Chernishova is of that opinion. She wrote, "The old system of fantastical characters, which was formed in the depth of the pagan world and early Christianity, underwent a crisis at the time of romanticism. It had little to correspond to the spirit of rationalism in modern times and to the conception of the world which changed its central characteristics. Late romantics began to change their orientation, but the formation of the new system of fantastical characters falls to modern science fiction.[4]


  1. The blow of fantasy. Anthology RUSSIAN FANTASTICAL PROSE AT THE AGE OF ROMANTICISM, Leningrad, 1990
  2. F. M. Dostoevsky. THE LETTERS, V.4., Moscow, 1959.
  3. I. Vinogradov, THE STRUGGLE FOR STYLE, anthology, Leningrad, 1937.
  4. T. A. Chernishova, THE NATURE OF FANTASY, Irkutsk, 1984.

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