A Short History of Russian "Fantastica"/Part 3

Part 3 and 4 appear in Australian science fiction periodical "The Mentor", Issue 80. (October 1993)

Romanticism came again, but this time it was socialist romanticism.

The storm of the Revolution and the Civil war had left an ineffaceable mark upon all kinds of art and also upon scientific fantasy, of course. As we tried to show, Russian SF didn't become as romantic and mystical as it was in the Nineteenth Century, but it did become mainly social. So what was remarkable, at first sight, was the metamorphosis which occurred with Russian SF in the thirties. Saving all outward signs of social literature and using the basic facts of science it came again in due course to romanticism. But that romanticism was of a special kind; it was "socialist romanticism" (I think that the term "socialist romanticism" is known to Western readers, but I want to use the term "socialist romanticism" for the purpose of describing some of the processes in Soviet SF of that period of time). It is astonishing only at first sight.

The Revolution had finished, the new ruling class - the nomenclature[1] - had won victory and strengthened their place in society, and the totalitarian State began to create its own myths in which the romance of labor, "the romance of the five year plans", and "the romance of the subjugation of the North" played the leading roll. And with that "romance" they directed the brains of several generations of the Soviet people. It is only now, for example, Shalamov's stories have been published where the author, knowing about the GULAG from his own experience, shows that it was no romantic volunteers that subjugated the North, but it was done so by so called "enemies of the Soviet people". At that time the powerful propaganda machine was started up. And Stalin used it, in particular, to deceive many Western intellectuals such as Feichtwanger, etc. Soviet SF became a component of the machine, and just be thankful to the fact it acquired its romantic form. At least that form let the authors publish their works.

The founder of socialist romanticism in Russian fantasy was the writer Alexander Belyaev. He was also one of the founders of Soviet SF. In spite of this fact, Belyaev's works were based upon scientific facts and upon the extrapolation of its possibilities. That fact was noted by H. G. Wells, who met with Belyaev in 1934. Herbert Wells incidentally noted that "... there is incredibly a lot of fantasy in Western science fiction, and there is so incredibly little of science." It is interesting that such a condition has redoubled from that time, and not only in the West. So Stanislav Lem says in his article SCIENCE FICTION AND COSMOLOGY: "SF fences itself off so hard from cosmological science, that it isn't able to perceive signals, e.g. new information, from science with the exception of the information which succeeded in putting itself in the first pages of some newspapers (such as rumours about black holes)" (1977). And further, "But nothing is neglected in modern SF as much as intelligence..."

Belyaev's works contained enough science. As researcher, M. Sokolova remarks, "Belyaev wished that all scientific achievements would be submitted to the interests of the people." A. Belyaev showed interest in all that was to subjugate Nature, though it was a man-made rain (VCBID, 1930), or suburbs (THE GREEN SYMPHONY, 1930), or using wind energy (THE KITE, 1931), the extraction of water in a desert (THE SUN HORSES, 1931), or problems of peat-cutting (THE DEVIL'S BOG, 1931). He wrote about wind power, atomic engines, gliding, using chemistry in farming, and about metallic dirigibles.

Some of Belyaev's works are dedicated to the problems of conquering the depths of the ocean. In the novel UNDERWATER FARMERS (1936) he depicted a Soviet farm (Sovchoz) at the bottom of the sea, where they cultivated water-plants. Huge plantations gave much farm produce and valuable raw materials (: M. Sokolova. From her afterword to the collection PROFESSOR DOWEL'S HEAD.[2]

It was what was later named "the fantasy of the near future". Such fantasy extrapolated some trends of science and engineering to the future (to the near future, as a general rule). Many of those predictions came true, but it is for these reasons that A. Belyaev was named the Soviet Jules Verne. In Leningrad he read Tsiolkovski's works[3] and took up Tsiolkovski's ideas, though at that time many authorities on science were sceptical about those ideas. Belyaev wrote THE AIRSHIP (1934), where he used Tsiolkovski's ideas about metallic dirigibles. THE JUMP INTO NOTHING (1934) was where he described a journey to Venus, and in THE STAR KATS[4] he anticipated (in the wake of Tsiolkovski) the appearance of laboratories and stations in outer space, and journeys to the Moon.

The most popular of Belyaev's novels were THE AMPHIBIOUS MAN (1928), and PROFESSOR DOWEL'S HEAD (1937). There were two films based on the plots of these books. The novel THE AMPHIBIOUS MAN was about Professor Salvadore, who grafted a shark's gills to his adopted son and thus made him capable of living under water. In PROFESSOR DOWEL'S HEAD Belyaev depicted a professor's head which could work without his body. The two novels were anti-bourgeois (anti-bourgeousness is the other side of socialist romanticism). The chief idea of the novels was that in bourgeois society all achievements of science and engineering did great harm to the people. Now we know this was not only in bourgeois society.... But in the 20's and 30's (the GULAG was created, millions of people were sent to prisons and hundred of thousands were shot dead) the revolutionary romanticism in Soviet SF had performed its role. "A. Belyaev wanted to show a beautiful future to his readers," wrote M. Sokolova, "he depicted lovely towns which were full of greenery, air and light; towns with an artificial climate, comfortable homes, airports on the roofs of buildings, electric cars, fast trains, towns where all the powers of Nature would be useful to people".[5] Did he write it sincerely? Undoubtedly. The creators of "socialist romanticism" were themselves deceived by that very romanticism. Those who were not deceived wrote about a wholly different subject. Michael Bulgakov (1891-1940) at that time wrote THE DEVILIADA, THE FATAL EGGS, THE DOG'S HEART and finally the immortal novel THE MASTER AND MARGUERITA. But M. Bulgakov did not expect that his works would be published. And they were not published, then. Evgeny Zamyatnin wrote the dystopia WE. Alexander Grin continued and developed the traditions of Russian romanticism. But it was only "socialist romanticism" that became the official policy of Soviet SF for a long time.

I would like to say more about Alexander Grin, because he stood alone in Russian literature, although he was completely within the bounds of its traditions. Yet during Grin's life he was called the Russian Edgar Poe, the Russian Bret Gart, the Russian Jack London. He was accused that his pen-name (A. Grin) was picked for prestige as a foreign name[6] But A. Grin was not an imitator. "A. Grin was not a transplanted exotic plant growing on the edge of the soil of Russian literature," wrote the researcher of Grins creations, V. Vichrov. "And if we look for the origin of his creative style then we find it in popular fairy tales , in Gogol's THE NOSE or THE PORTRAIT, in Dostoevsky, and in the fine novels and stories of the Russian writer N. P. Vagner (1828-1907)[7] who used the pen name Cat Murlike. Vagner's book was well known from A. Grin's childhood. <...> Alexander Grin is not an exotic flower or a transplanted one, he is not the other person on the multi-colored cornfield of Russian literature; he grew on its soil, his roots are in that soil."[8] A. Grin himself did not regard one of his most famous novels, THE SCINTILLATING UNIVERSE, as a fantastic novel. He spoke of it as a "symbolic novel", where "no man flew, but the spirit did". However, it was undoubtedly a philosophical fantasy.

The official critics of Soviet literature glossed over the works of the Grins, Bulgakovs, and the Zamyatnins for a long time. Incidentally, Alexander Grin's fantastic world is quite an original phenomenon. Evgeny Zamyatnin's novel WE (1920) is a classic dystopia. It is a novel which has a warning. This novel "... was perceived by his contemporaries as a cruel caricature of the future socialist and communist society". "I" dissolved in WE, during Zamyatnin's lifetime (he was forced to leave Russian in 1931). The society which denied individuality was described by many authors. E. Zamyatnin is usually mentioned together with A. Huxley and G. Gruel. "But it is a great thing for us that E. Zamyatnin was the first," remarked O. Michailov.[9] Yes, Russia was the first.

Then Germany followed Russia's example and today can anybody say that the world finally overcame the temptation of totalitarianism? E. Zamyatnin really brilliantly forecast a general tendency of socialism, which is the dissolution of I into We. Mathematician and publicist Igor Shafarevich wrote in the book SOCIALISM AS A PHENOMENON OF WORLD HISTORY, "At the least, three components of the socialist ideal - the destruction of private property, the destruction of the family, and equality - can be arrived at from one principle. This principle is the suppression of individuality. We can find some evidence that the socialist ideology is inimical to individuality. < ... > Marxism often voices a supposition that a person doesn't exist as an individual, that the individual is a pure invention of philosophers and that everyone is a member of the appointed class..."[10]

E. Zamyatnin gave warning of danger. This danger was the creation of an anonymous society. But was he the first? Thomas Moore also described a rather terrible society, and not without reason he was prized in the manuals of Soviet scientific communism. I. Shafarevitch, though, reviewed the novel WE and gave the society created by the writer's fantasizing a comprehensive testimonial. However, I. Shafarevitch wrote about the real tendencies of real socialism. "We see that all the elements of the socialist ideal, such as the destruction of private property, family and hierarchy and hostility to religion can be considered as a display of the one fundamental principle, which is the suppression of individuality. We can see this principle in action if we can gather together the most typical traits which came into existence in socialist theory or practice during the two thousand five hundred years from Plato to the Berlin ComuneN1, and to construct a model of the "ideal" socialist society, although such a society never existed: People are dressed equally and their faces also look equal. They live in barracks, there is a labor service and after work people eat and seek relaxation at their work place. They walk only if their chiefs allow them to walk. Sexual activity and everything connected with it is checked by doctors and bureaucrats. All children are brought up in State creches and schools from the time they are born. Philosophy and art is completely political and are subordinated to the educational purposes for the State. Everything is geared to obey the one idea, which is the destruction or suppression of individuality, to such an extent that it is not a social force any more.

Dostoevsky compared such a society with a bee hive or ant-hill. It is an accurate comparison. In this instance we really have a model of the ANONYMOUS SOCIETY.[11] At any rate the Soviet powers quickly saw through Grin, Bulgakov, Planonov and Zamyatnin. (The witch-hunting of Zamyatnin began after his novel WE was published in the magazine RUSSIA'S WILL in Prague. It was translated from English into Russian). Works by these authors (with the exception of Grin's novels) weren't published for quite a while. "... If we note the stormy social events in this country for the last three or four years then we can ask , who could foretell that the majority of masterpieces, which were rescued from oblivion, would belong to the fantasy genre?" wrote J. Medvedev.[12] Those masterpieces were Zamyatnin's WE, Efremov's THE BULL'S HOUR, Chavanov's MY BROTHER ALEXEI'S JOURNEY TO THE PEASANT'S UTOPIAN COUNTRY, Platonov's KOTLOVAN (THE FOUNTAIN PIT), CHEVENGUR, THE JUVENALIS SEA, and Bulgakov's THE FATAL EGGS, THE DEIVLIADA and THE DOG'S HEART. These works were published by SAMIZDAT[13] and readers could only read them secretly. They always ran the risk of being imprisoned for such reading. Famous Russian fantasy and scientist Kir Bulichev[14] defined the 1930's as a fatal year for Soviet fantasy. ".... All the fantasy works of the great writers were published before 1930. As far as I know, only three writers continued to create fantasy, but they didn't hope to publish anything. They were M. Bulgakov, A. Platonov, and Vs. Ivanov. No other great literary artists wrote any fantastical works during the last ten years."[15]

The changes that took place in Russia exerted influence upon its literature. The new economic police were abolished and people with differing opinions were put into prisons. (Frequently people were put into prison in order to acquire cheap labor, and it was exactly at that time the outrageous word RABCILA[16] appeared in the Russian language. Fantasy, as Kir Bulichev wrote, wasn't made an especial sacrifice. "Fantasy was in trouble because of its specific characteristics. Real fantasy can exist only when there is the possibility of seeking an Alternative"[17] But in a totalitarian society any seeking of alternatives has always been treasonable.

The author of the novel THE JOURNEY OF MY BROTHER ALEXEI TO THE PEASANT'S UTOPIA, the scientist and economist Professor A. Chayanov, who published the novel under the pseudonym Ivan Kremnev in 1920, sought such an alternative. According to his utopia, peasants, not the proletariat, won victory. Could Stalin forgive such an attack on the idea of the proletariat's dictatorship? Of course he couldn't. And he did not forgive. Chayanov and many other economists were arrested. "And then," wrote Kir Bulichev, "there was an event unique in the history of world fantasy. Chayanov's utopia, MY BROTHER'S JOURNEY, created the excuse for a political trial and the deaths of many scientists. Investigator Agranov found in Chayanov's utopia that in 1984 the ruling party in Soviet Russia would have the name the Labor Peasant's Party. The fantastical tale was announced as a manifesto for a group of conspirators and its utopian subject as a program for a actual existing party. Unfortunately life is more fantastical than any fantastic novel. Dozens of prisoners were subjected to torture and "acknowledged" that they belonged to the fantastical party. They pointed to Chayanov as the Chairman of the Party, and Chayanov himself, after he had looked through his old friends' testimonies, also "acknowledged". The criminal procedure against the Labor Peasant's Party was closed. Chayanov was shot dead. It was a convincing lesson for Soviet writers."[18]

Many publishing houses and magazines were closed. "Between 1930 and 1935 was a period of death for Soviet fantasy," considered Kir Bulichev. Then he defined "fantasy of the near future" as a narrow political literature. (V. Goncharov. D. Dar (late A. Belyaev )[19] wrote, "'near future fantasy' was a result of the destruction of fantasy as a belles letters in the beginning of the 30's. "Near future fantasy" was a mode of existence for many writers including Alexander Belyaev, who was the greater of them."

Some re-animation of science fiction occurred towards the end of the 30's. It was provoked by the progress of science and technology and the approaching World War. All these facts demanded that young people seek new forms of training. Engineers (Nemtsov, Dolgushin, Ochotnikdov, Saparin, Vladko) entered SF and propagandistic fantasy novels were published. Among them were G. Adamov's THE SECRET OF THE TWO OCEANS, A. Kanzantsev's THE FLAMING ISLAND and P. Pavlenko's IN THE EAST. Pavlenko was even awarded with Stalin's Prize for the "right" foretelling of the victory over Japan. "It was the first case of Stalin's Prize being awarded to a fantasy novel," wrote Kir Bulichev.

As we can see, Stalin's regime treated SF (and all literature in general) very seriously. They punished writers for seeking out alternatives and they rewarded others for the "creative development" of Stalin's ideas. But these propagandistic SF novels were bad because they maintained an illusion about a quick and easy victory in the approaching war.

And war was not the time for fantasy. The total outcome of the 30's and 40's was that Soviet science fiction became a secondary kind of literature in reader's and publisher's eyes.


  1. The nomenclature of the Party and Government leaders and officials.
  2. A. Belyaev. PROFESSOR DOWEL'S HEAD, the collection of works, Moscow, 1987.
  3. K. A. Tsiolkovski was named as the father of astronautics.
  4. The novel was dedicated to K. A. Tsiolkovski and KATS was the acronym of the name of K. A. Tsiolkovski.
  5. Ibid, p. 458
  6. The true name of the writer was Grinevski. He was born in 1880 in the Vyatka region in the provincial town Slobodskoy. His father was a clerk.
  7. We didn't mention that famous writer in Part 1 of the History. N. P. Vagner (1829-1907) was a scientist, corresponding member of the Petersburg Academy of Sciences and a writer. He was the author of the "Cat Murlike Fairy-tales."
  8. V. Vichrov. THE KNIGHT OF A DREAM, the foreword to the collection of Grin's works, Moscow, 1965. O. Michailov. The grossmeister of literature in the book EL ZAMYATNIN, THE SELECTED STORIES, Moscow, 1989. p.16.
  9. Ibid
  10. I. Shafarevitch. SOCIALISM AS THE PHENOMENON OF WORLD HISTORY. Moscow. 1991, pp. 331-332.
  11. Ibid. pp.338-339.
  12. The afterword to the collection of the works RUSSIAN FANTASTICAL PROSE AT THE END OF THE XXIX AND THE BEGINNINGS OF THE XX CENTURIES. Moscow. 1991. p.453.
  13. The underground publishing house.
  14. Kir Bulichev is the pen-name of Dr. Igor Mogeiko.
  15. Kir Bulichev. The Epoch's Stepdaughter in the Year Book THE CHRONOGRAPH. Moscow. 1980. pp.368.
  16. The labor force. But the first part (RAB) of the word RABCILA also means "a slave" in Russian, and anybody would understand the whole word as "a slave force".
  17. Ibid. p.369.
  18. Ibid. pp. 369-370.
  19. Ibid. p. 381.

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