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  • The Resurgence of Russian Cosmism
  • Ellen Pearlman (bio)

The artists shall inherit the Cosmos.

Ben Goetzel

In 1991, Perestroika caused the vast Soviet empire to splinter into fifteen or more nation-states, with each spin-off shaped by its original ethnicity, language, borders, and various levels of involvement and interest in the global art and performance worlds. Where Marxist/Leninist socialism was born, a hybrid post-Soviet, or post-post-Soviet art scene was blossoming, its tendrils growing towards a former obscure incarnation of original Russian Cosmism or Cosmist thinking.

Originally, Cosmism developed roughly around the same time as Marxism through the musings of Nikolai Fedorov, born in 1829, a philosopher and librarian who worked at the Rumyantsev Library in Moscow, the first public museum and library in Russia. It affected visual artists, poets, filmmakers, theatre directors, novelists (Tolstoy and Dostoevsky read and were friends with Fedorov), architects, composers, Soviet politics, value systems, and many forms of speculative futurist technology. It offered itself as an alternative worldview, an odd visionary attempt to solve problems relating to humankind’s condition on earth. By the nineteen thirties Stalin forbade it, as a number of its practitioners had regrettably aligned with Leon Trotsky, and he jailed, exiled, or murdered its most prominent adherents. But Cosmism was not totally eradicated, and has returned to permeate swaths of what is referred to in Russian as the “intelligentsia.”


The West is barely aware of Cosmism. It incorporates the deeply poetic Slavic feeling for unity, wholeness and applicable global solutions joined together through an array of wildly disparate views. Founded by Fedorov, it grew out of mélange of beliefs from the late nineteenth century. Fedorov pondered the state of humankind, included as an essay in the posthumous book of his writings as [End Page 85] The Question of Brotherhood or Kinship. He believed people were morally obligated to care for the sick and eradicate death through science and technology. Space exploration would assist in finding eternal life in the cosmos, enabling the harvest of endless resources. His thoughts were so profound he attracted the interest of Russian writers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the latter who wove Fedorov’s ideas into his novel, The Brothers Karamazov.

Cosmism has three main tenants. The first is immortality, either by rejuvenating the blood through transfusions from the young to the old, or resurrection of the dead through scientific means. The second focuses on emerging from the confines of the natural world, namely, space and time. This “active evolution” believed humans of the past would evolve into humans of the future possessing unlimited abilities. The third is a mélange of Christianity, the occult, and asceticism mixed with a smattering of Marxism. Cosmism creates a moral and ethical system where “evolved” people set up a utopia, still tantalizingly out of reach. Among those who were inspired by these ideas was the astrophysicist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, one of Fedorov’s students. In 1903, he invented rocket science, the idea of space suits, and ultimately the colonization of the solar system. That same year, Fedorov died and his adherents V.A. Kozhevnikov and N.P. Peterson began to compile Philosophy of the Common Task, an opus of his ideas, though it ceased publication during Soviet times.


For the first quarter of the twentieth century, Russia was a hotbed of artistic, political, and philosophical activity, and even the early Communists flirted with Cosmism as its themes of embracing a new world were attractive. The nascent Cubo-Futurists used their agility in typography to herald breakthroughs in revolutionary thought through radical text, words, and sounds. But it was the big three of the avant-garde art world—the Futurists, Constructivists, and Suprematists—who embraced many aspects of Cosmism by using non-objective art as a backdrop to promulgate their visions.

Cosmism seeped into many aspects of creative life. In 1908, Alexander Bogdanov wrote Red Star, a science-fiction novel of utopia situated on Mars, and in 1913 he penned Tektology, a Universal Organizational Science, acknowledged as a precursor to cybernetics and systems theory. That same year, the artist Kazimir Malevich designed sets and costumes for the revolutionary...


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pp. 85-92
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