Book review: ‘Russian Cosmism’ edited by Boris Groys

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.

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