messier object


life has become better, life has become more cheerful

From its beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Russian communist science fiction had a strong focus on the history of the future. This developed through the 1920s before the issues of political correctness and the general crackdown on literature in the Stalinist period ended the publishing of science fiction in 1931 . Until the liberalization following the death of Stalin science fiction publishing was essentially nil, excluding a few stories set in the extremely near future. But this was blown apart by the publication of Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda in 1957, a work that would inspire the re-creation of a Soviet science fiction writing culture. And with this new culture came new visions of the development of history into the future: long prohibited by code, authors began to not only set their stories in the far future but flesh out the imagined worlds – indeed the entire universes – in which their stories took place.

These universe creators ranged from Yefremov to the politically troubling works of the Soviet Union’s most popular native science fiction authors, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Coded in these works, were the visions not only of what the future might look like, but how the science of Marxism would describe the progress of humanity. These new works also critiqued the notion of the linear progress of humanity in the strict Marxist mold, its inflexibility and its belief that the Soviet Union marked an endpoint for human history, raised questions of sharing progress and uplifting the less-historically developed states of the world, and reflected the issues and fears of the new generation of intellectuals in the Soviet Union.

The notion of historical uplift in Russian Marxist science fiction begins in 1905 with Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star. At its core, this 1908 novel is a tour of the futuristic utopia of Mars, a society which has reached its ultimate historical potential – and, thus, a description of what future communist states should be like. In Red Star, these Martians abduct (willingly) a single human of the most developed type: a Russian Bolshevik named Leonid. Their purpose in this is to attempt to acclimate a human to their fully communist society. While the Martians do not feel they can actively force communism on humanity, nonetheless they advocate for doing “the best [they] can to facilitate that development” to a position from which they can be considered by the Martians as equals . In many senses, this first work is a reverse of the situation found in later novels: it is the earthling who is undeveloped in comparison to the aliens, and is about his reaction to the advanced society and the efforts at uplifting him to the level of the Martians. Later works would turn this on its head, with humanity the universal progressor and stories told unfailingly from the perspective of those trying, subtly or not, to bring other societies to their level.

The first work of note in that vein was Alexi Tolstoy’s Aelita, or, the Decline of Mars. Published in 1922, shortly after the Bolsheviks came to power, it depicts the first export of the revolution from Russia. This is not to other countries on Earth, but to the reactionary feudal state – not at all dissimilar to Tsarist Russia – of Mars. While the heroes of the novel stumble upon this society accidentally, not knowing what Mars will be like, they find themselves in the period right before a revolution of the Martian proletariat. Los and Gusev – themselves examples of the collaboration between intellectuals and labor that, in Russian Marxist theory, would lead to eventual triumph – aid the revolutionaries, with Civil War hero Gusev becoming a hero of the Martian revolution as well, a role that was expanded upon in later editions of the novel. While humanity is a younger race than the Martians, they “danced the fire of joy. You are a dreamer, passionate and heedless. You, the sons of the earth, will someday succeed at your task. But we are old. In our mouths are ashes. We missed our time” . The humans already more socially advanced than the Martians, even before communism has spread to every corner of the Earth.

While the Martian revolution led by Los and Gusev is smashed by the counterrevolution, forcing them to flee the planet, their return to Earth brings good news for the cause of proletarian rule on the red planet. Although in the Soviet Union

the times were different: it was not blizzards which transported poets, nor stars, nor countries beyond the clouds, but the sound of hammers all over the country, the whine of saws, the hiss of sickles, the whistle of sycthes, happy mundane songs,

the return of Los and Gusev from Mars also brings a certain excitement about the society on the Red Planet. Los has begun to apply the futuristic practical sciences of the Martians to the problems of electrifying Russia, the one thing the Soviet explorers gained from them. Gusev, meanwhile, tours the world speaking on his adventures in the Martian revolution before settling down to a serious life, establishing “The Society for the Transport of Military Units to the Planet Mars with the Purpose of Saving the Last of its Working Population, Incorporated” . This is the only direct form of aid described in these future histories; indeed, the openness of the humans in their alien nature (and their occasional delight in the esteem all Martians hold them in as Earthlings) fits more in the form of Edgar Rice Burroughs than the more serious attempts to describe a future – and the interactions of cultures – in the Strugatsky brothers’ early works.

For more on this, see:

  • McGuire, Patrick L.  Red Stars: Political Aspects of Soviet Science Fiction.  Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1985.
  • Bogdanov, Alexander.  Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia.  Transl. Charles Rougle.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984.
  • Tolstoi, Alexei.  Aelita, or, the Decline of Mars.  Transl. Leland Fetzer.  Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1985.
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2 Comments so far
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So why is it that the Martian Revolution fails? Do you think Alexei Tolstoi was going for a “Counter-revolution is always a real threat and we, the Soviets, are brilliant for having pulled it off” message? Is he trying to make readers feel better about the failure of the World Revolution the Bolsheviks were hoping to set off?

Comment by genuine, bonafide, electrified

Aside from leaving the door open for a sequel (it’s revealed at the end that the Martian revolutionary leaders survive in secret, including Los’ love interest), I would definitely have to say the former – it doesn’t succeed because the Martian revolutionaries are indecisive and resigned to its failure; without the Martian Bolsheviks they’re doomed. I haven’t read the revisions from the late ’20s and ’30s but I’d imagine that gets hit harder as the role of Gusev, the buffoonish Bolshevik Civil War veteran, increased.

Comment by frimairist




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