Soviet sci-fi: The future that never came

Soviet sci-fi: The future that never came

"Inside The Lunar Cosmodrome," Andrei Sokolov (1973)
"Inside The Lunar Cosmodrome," Andrei Sokolov (1973)

In a house that eerily recalls the aesthetic of Hermodernist on the outside, studiedly rustic and artisanal on the inside—a young woman agonizes over whether she is human or a machine. She is a clone, retrieved from a mysteriously abandoned orbital outpost by a space patrol ship and returned to the bucolic paradise of Earth for study and observation. It soon turns out that she is the last survivor of a utopian project: Like her dead brothers and sisters, she was created to save her dying planet from environmental destruction. But her creator failed. The businessmen who overheated the atmosphere and polluted the oceans now grow rich from selling air and gas masks to the deformed, cave-dwelling survivors, convincing them that nothing more can be done.

This is not the plot of a recent climate-change cash-in, but the (protracted) setup to a 1981 Soviet science-fiction movie called Through Brambles To The Stars, directed by Richard Viktorov. As filmmaking, it is recognizably hokey, with production values that are low even by the Western standards of 20 years earlier. But it appeals to contemporary sensibilities in a way that most Western or Soviet films of the time do not, from its insistence that an advanced civilization must be both technological and environmentalist to its racial politics. While Soviet films still relied on dubious blackface performances, the creators of Through Brambles To The Stars took care to cast a black actor as a member of the Council On Extraterrestrial Contacts. This mixture of the shoddy and the wonderfully unexpected defines Soviet science fiction—a genre most people don’t even realize exists.

We’re used to seeing the Soviet Union endlessly refracted at us through Western science fiction. From 1984 to Star Warswhich became a bizarre geopolitical point of reference in the Reagan era—Stalinist reality and Cold War propaganda melded together to produce a durable dystopia whose features are instantly recognizable even to people who have a very vague idea of what Soviet life was like. Connoisseurs cite Soviet authors like Yevgeny Zamyatin as forerunners of the totalitarian-evil-empire genre, celebrating them as unmaskers of the system that would later crush them. But all these stereotypes miss something essential: Far from being crushed by Stalin’s jackboot, under the Soviet experiment, science-fiction flourished in a way both recognizable and totally its own.

Illustration for Tehnika Molodezhi magazine, Nikolai Kolchitksy (1950)

That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Soviet socialism rested on the premise that science applied to history would produce a utopian, atheist future. And even if “boy meets girl meets tractor” and “uncovering the bourgeois saboteurs at the cement plant” were the defining genres of the Stalin era, science fiction accompanied the Bolsheviks from the very start. The wildly popular 1923 novel Aelita, written by Aleksey Tolstoy just after the end of the Russian Civil War, and its 1924 film adaptation Aelita: Queen Of Mars both told the story of a revolution on Mars. Other writers composed endless mad-scientist plots, the most famous of these being Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart Of A Dog, about a dog who is implanted with a human pituitary gland and then becomes a violent, self-centered Soviet schmuck.

It was space and cybernetics, not Marxist theory, that pushed Soviet writers to move beyond allegory and satire in thinking about the future. The wild-eyed fantasies of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—a rocket scientist who was the first to work out the mathematics behind spaceflight in the late 19th century—had already helped create the Soviet space program. By 1963, the Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite and had put both a man and a woman in space. They were accompanied the whole way by works of science fiction charting peaceful, socialist humanity’s ascent to the stars, like Ivan Yefremov’s 1955 novel Andromeda Nebula, made into a film in 1967. Yefremov’s characters are not Communist Party bureaucrats, but idealistic scientists, pilots, and engineers—people who, like their counterparts in Western science fiction, think of space as the final frontier.

The Soviets had won the early space race, but fixing the planned economy was another question. Salvation seemed to lie in the emerging field of cybernetics, which was pioneered by the American Norbert Wiener in 1948. In the 1950s, Wiener’s ideas became so popular in the Soviet scientific and engineering community that cybernetics began to seem like an alternative to Marxism itself. With its feedback loops and interlocking systems, it seemed a much better fit for the complex, highly technological economic and social landscape of the postwar USSR than the 19th-century Hegelian language of Bolshevik theoreticians. Cybernetics was sexy, and researchers rushed to apply it everywhere from legal studies to linguistics and the history of science. By the 1960s, it was incorporated into the platform of the Communist Party.

“Venus,” Andrei Sokolov (1963)

This nationwide infatuation left a deep imprint on Soviet ideas about the future. “Earthly Delights,” a classic 1974 short story by Dmitri Bilenkin, starts by telling us about power grids. The man at the console of the country’s grid, he tells us, “can say precisely without looking at the television whether the evening’s shows were interesting or boring,” just from the distribution of power usage. But then ghostly alien visitors arrive to feed on Earth’s electric wires, briefly throwing societies into a blackout panic. It seems that these interconnected grids have made our planet a concentrated, intensive source of electric power, affecting the universe far beyond our atmosphere—and turning the Earth into a cosmic civilization.

It was harder for Soviet science-fiction writers to imagine a dystopian future, due in large part to censorship. The old joke went that people in the Eastern Bloc were just as free as Americans to criticize Nixon, and the field certainly took advantage of the dysfunctions of Western society. It was more than a bit self-serving for the author of Through Brambles To The Stars to blame capitalism for environmental destruction when the USSR’s record was, if anything, even worse, but that is one reason why the film still resonates today, even as countless Cold War dystopias have become relics.

Still, the socialist future did not have to be bright and rosy. One of the most vivid portrayals of the decline of utopia was the Noon Universe, a long cycle of novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, among the most influential science fiction writers of the Soviet era. (Their work was the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, for instance.) In the apparent 22nd century “noon” of human civilization, familiar heroes venture out into space from a unified, rationally organized Earth. But in the final novel, The Time Wanderers (literal Russian title: Waves Extinguish Winds), it becomes clear that pupating within humanity, under alien influence, is a new race, as superior to us as we imagine ourselves to be superior to animals. The agony of its emergence within a society that is designed to embody the virtues of a free, rational, egalitarian socialism—in other words, the intended endgame of Soviet ideology—is a subversive blow against the idea of an end to history itself.

Illustration for Tehnika Molodezhi magazine, V. Kozmin (1974)

Just as in the West, Soviet science fiction mostly consisted of pulpy adventures for young men, and its attempts at philosophy were often sophomoric. But at its best, it reached beyond that. Protected to some extent by the nature of their subject matter, Soviet authors and filmmakers could be ambitious and experimental, and the work they produced has aged better than most other Soviet literature, with its heavy socialist-realist obligations. For the most part, little of this survived the fall of the Soviet Union. Today’s Russian science fiction has more dystopias: Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel Metro 2033 (adapted into a game in 2010) gives us a post-nuclear, politics-ridden tunnel civilization in place of the Strugatskys’ Noon.

Russian science fiction films are now famous for their ostentatious CGI, but the genre’s horizons seem narrower. A tiny short story about the year 2100 by the today’s most important Russian sci-fi author, Sergei Lukyanenko, is a good illustration. The protagonist is a tribesman undergoing an initiation ritual, but we soon learn that spaceships and computers haven’t gone away—the people in cities make those. But our tribesman is content: the tribe’s traditional lifestyle and patriarchal gender roles suit him just fine, and his curiosity doesn’t extend to outer space. This sounds like satire, but it doesn’t seem to be. Lukyanenko is a right-wing ideologue. As one of the louder nationalist voices in the Russian blogosphere, he has thrown his weight behind an ideology that sees the social progress once championed by Soviet science fiction as a threat to Russia’s “spiritual bonds.” To him the future is not a promise but a threat. Let someone else build the spaceships.