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No Man’s Space: On Russian Cosmism

We have recently seen a growing interest in Russian cosmism as a subject of theoretical polemics and a conceptual frame for several major art projects. Cosmism’s broad presence in the international intellectual arena was long impossible for several reasons. Despite the ambitiousness of his ideas (foremost among them, the persistent desire to challenge death itself), Nikolai Fedorov, Russian cosmism’s central philosopher, was a private person who attempted to live his life in keeping with the notion of Christian modesty. Fedorov devoted himself body and soul to his work as a librarian, a context that shaped many of his ideas. It was working in libraries that gave him a daily sense of the importance of the past, of carefully archiving it to save it from utter oblivion. Fedorov did not shy away from people, however. On the contrary, he cordially welcomed all visitors to the libraries where he worked and was an extremely attentive interlocutor. Fedorov’s coeval Leo Tolstoy, the young philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, and the young experimental scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky spent hours on end talking with him. Nevertheless, despite the rumors of the amazing librarian and the relative accessibility of his manuscripts, it wasn’t until 1906, three years after Fedorov’s death, that his disciples began assembling his theoretical works, culminating seven years later in the book Philosophy of the Common Task (the phrase which subsequently came to designate Fedorov’s doctrine). Fedorov’s works were not published during Soviet times. His ideas were a disavowal of both Soviet atheism and the official doctrine of dialectical materialism.

The Russian religious thinkers greatly influenced by Fedorov suffered a much sadder fate. Valerian Muravyov was sent to the camps in 1929. Father Pavel Florensky was shot in 1937, the same year that Alexander Svyatogor was arrested and sent to the camps, where he died. Alexander Yaroslavsky was shot in 1930. The hard scientists among the cosmists were more fortunate. Tsiolkovsky lived out his days peacefully. Vladimir Vernadsky taught and researched until his death in 1945. Alexander Chizhevsky did research in the camps—a minor privilege granted him in otherwise desperate conditions—and continued his work after his release. The late 1980s witnessed the thoroughgoing study of the works of Fedorov and the other non-scientist cosmists as well as the unification of all the doctrine’s adherents into something like a single theoretical front within the Soviet Union.

Fedorov’s ideas penetrated the West slowly and gradually, often through references in works by Nikolai Berdyaev. After the Second World War, a handful of Slavists took an interest in certain aspects of the cosmist legacy, and cosmism warranted brief mentions in anthologies on Russian philosophy. The late Seventies, however, saw the publication of several book-length surveys, including George M. Young’s Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, and Stephen Lukashevich’s N. F. Fedorov 1828–1903: A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the cosmists were increasingly mentioned in studies of the Soviet space program and the culture surrounding the exploration of outer space, and theorists such as Tsiolkovsky and Chizhevsky took their rightful place in the history of science. Translations of works by Fedorov himself were published in the Nineties, the same decade in which Boris Groys edited a volume of historical texts by cosmists in German translation. Nevertheless, Russian cosmism remained a niche topic until the end of the 2000s.

Finally, in 2012, George M. Young published a full-fledged historical study, The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers, in which the scientific cosmists coexisted with the religious thinkers, and the theoretical problems of cosmism as a unified doctrine, embracing a gigantic complex of quite diverse concepts, were tackled. Simultaneously, a variety of techno-optimists, accelerationists, and transhumanists were becoming more interested in cosmism, including Ben Goertzel in his book A Cosmist Manifesto: Practical Philosophy for the Posthuman Age, which situates Russian cosmism within pseudoscientific futurology and polemics about technology.

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