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Russian Cosmism and the dream of mastering space


As human civilization seems to be wearing out earth, some believe that the colonization of other planets is the key to the future of our species. This notion of looking to the stars to find hope for humankind has a long and rich history, but it was perhaps most vividly explored in Russian Cosmism, a philosophical, artistic, and scientific movement of the early and mid-twentieth century. Initiated by Nikolai Fyodorov (1828–1903), a philosopher and librarian, Russian Cosmism pursued the idea that mastering the cosmos was key not only to human survival, but to the total transcendence of the human condition.

Originally published in Cabinet magazine in summer 2004, the article “In Between Space and Cosmos” by Olesya Turkina and Victor Mazin outlines the origins of Russian Cosmism and shows how it directly informed the Soviet space program. The authors also examine how this cosmist-informed exploration of space differed—historically and philosophically—from the US space program. Check out an except from the piece below:

There are differences between “outer space” and “cosmos,” astronaut and cosmonaut, space suit and skafandr. Cosmos is enclosed, all-encompassing, while space is endless and open. The cosmonaut travels in a harmonious and humanized sphere, while the astronaut travels to the distant stars. While astronauts put on a costume for going into open space, the cosmonaut dons a skafandr, i.e. the very same outfit used by divers for going under water. Greek cosmocentrism, resurrected by the Russian cosmists in the beginning of the 20th century, is consolidated in the centripetal nature of the Soviet desire to master the cosmos.

Three discourses are combined in the Russian space Odyssey: religious, scientific, and science-fictional. The religious source of the desire to master the cosmos is most evident in the ideas of Nikolai Fyodorov (1828-1903), a forefather of the cosmonauts and the father of Russian cosmism. In the posthumously published Philosophy of the Common Deal, Fyodorov, a.k.a. Moscow’s Socrates, first proposed a project in which he fantasized about the resurrection of all dead fathers by means of science. The idea of space exploration arose directly from this project: since there is not enough room on Earth for all the resurrected fathers, other planets might provide new locations for resettling them. Fyodorov, who spent most of his ascetic life working as a librarian, also dreamed of the creation of a museum where all the human sciences and arts could be combined to realize the project of resurrection and cosmic resettlement.

The scientific source behind the drive to master the Cosmos is connected with the religious one. The father of cosmic travel, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (also known as K.E.T.), was a follower of Fyodorov. In 1903, Tsiolkovsky wrote a prescient book on the future of interplanetary travel, The Exploration of Global Spaces by Jet-Propelled Vehicles. Tsiolkovsky developed a cosmic philosophy based on the idea that each atom is an immortal, animate being shuttling from one organism to another in the universe. Tsiolokovsky, like Fyodorov, imagined humans settling throughout the solar system as well as the bio- chemical metamorphosis of humans into animal-plants directly using solar energy.

The third inspiration behind the Soviet approach to cosmic exploration was science fiction. Soviet science fiction of the 1920s and 1930s was, as a whole, based on Tsiolkovsky’s ideas about the possibility of interplanetary travel by means of a special type of rocket capable of overcoming the earth’s gravity. In his Aelita (1922), Alexei Tolstoy linked Tsiolkovsky’s ideas with those of engineer and designer Friedrich Zander on how to travel to Mars. Tolstoy’s novel unfolds in 1920s Petrograd, where a laboratory had in fact been established for the development and testing of the first jet motors. Zander, who worked in the laboratory, was so convinced that there would soon be flights to the red planet that he adopted “Towards Mars!” as his personal slogan. Tolstoy describes Tsiolkovsky’s jet engine, invented in Aelita by an engineer named Los. This vehicle resembled a metallic egg “at least eight-and-a-half meters high and six meters in diameter.”

Image of Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin via