Utopias of time, space, and life in the Russian Revolution

Historians and literary scholars are much addicted to classifying utopias. The  problem of définition lies in the fact that utopia impinges upon literature, political  thought, religious fantasy and practice, revolutionary idealism, mystical visions,
legend and folk wisdom (some of these arguably combinable). Utopia and utopianism  may express itself in formš as diverse as poetry, graphie art, architecture,planned societies, fantasy novels, poetic visions, and ail sorts of communitarian  and perfectionist behavior. The word « utopia » has been ušed in so many contexts  – use ful and silly, hopeful and hostile — that it would be unwise to insist upon a  rigid and exhaustive system of categorization of ail phenomena identifiable as  utopian as a prerequisite to beginning a discussion of it in a particular historical   framework such as the one I am about to deal with : the Russian Révolution.
Utopianism was a genuine and vibrant element in that révolution and, though my  catégories of Time, Space, and Iife may sound lyrical and contrived, the substance  of those catégories is quite real. Temporal utopias were those not realizable in the
foreseeable future, by their author’s own admission. Spatial utopias were plans  for an imminent new environment. Living utopias were practical experiments  carried out in the context of the révolution.

I shall pass quickly over the temporal utopias that háve become firmly fixed in  the literature on the Russian Révolution : Marxism and Futurism. The utopian  aspects of Marx and his disciples háve been inventoried and analyzed many times,
never more incisively and elegantly than in Frank and Fritzie Manueľs Utopian  thought in the Western Worldx . And many háve commented on Lenin’s alleged  lapse into utopian fantasy in State and Révolution2 .

But H. G. Wells, who actually  called him « the Dreamer in the Kremlin », was one of the first to recognize (on the  basis of his own wide expérience with fantasy, science, and socialism) that Lenin  was a complex figure1 . Не operated at ali levels of utopia : of time (State and Révolution), of space (electrification), and of life (war communism in its many practical  ramifications). These are well known and I will not discuss them further hère.
Lenin ‘s Marxist vision of the distant future — like that of Bukharin and Preobrazhensky,
Trotsky, and most other leading Bolsheviks – was standard, having been  worked out by Marx and his followers on the four décades preceding the révolution : a stateless society of abundance, happiness, and coopération, denuded of  capitalist économie relations and priváte property, where a new communist human  ity, globally united, would produce according to individual capacity and consume  according to need. Except for certain nuances, conditioned by Russian realities,
there was nothing more or less utopian in this perspective than one would in other  European Social Démocratie commentaries on the communist future2 .
Il would not do to classify the Futurists of the Russian avant garde neatly as    utopians of time — as people primarily concerned with outlining the distant future.
There was nothing neat about them at ail. They were artists, passionately engaged  in seeing into the future and organizing their creativity around those visions.
Concrète détails and clearcut pictures of the coming age were as répugnant to  them as would been portrayals of their own times in « realistic » terms. Mayakovsky’s  brilliant etchings in verse of world cities, global conglomérâtes, workers
ascending into heaven, time machines, and flying proletarians were replète with  flashes of illumination about the shape of things to corne. But they were also full  of irony, learned fulminations, delightful contradictions, and sweeping metaphors.
And the bold images, the literary excitement, the class hatred, and the high techno  logyn ever fused into the kind of literary spéculation that can rightly be called utopian. On the other hand, the Futurists, along with others of the avant garde,
contributed mightily to the intellectual milieu of machine worship and technologizing  that fed other utopian dreams and coincided by and large with the Bolshevik  blueprint for urbanization and superproductivity through mechanization.
The role of artists — in révolution or out of it — is to suggest and not to document.
But it should also be recalled that Mayakovsky and many of his Futurist comrades  felt themselves to be — and actually were – activists of the transformation of  everyday life through their work on posters, festival décoration, and the popularization
of art among the masses3 .
The mode of future spéculation that has until récent times been most neglected  is revolutionary science fiction — precisely the genre where one would expect to  find it. This has been so because literary scholars rarely treat materiał of Iow literary quality, because historians seldom see fiction as relevant (except for the  nineteenth century), and because literary scholars and historians do not often  concern themselves with each other’s works. Récent studies by Jeffrey Brooks,
Vera Dunham, and Geoffrey Hosking portend a change in this lamentable habit  of overspecialization4 . Some 200 works of science fiction — a genre that flourished  on a more modest scale in the génération before 1917 — appeared in the 1920s.

Some of them circulated in mammoth numbers, were serialized in popular magazines, staged as play s , or madę into movies1 .
The prototype for early Soviet utopian science fiction was the novel, Red Star,
written by the Bolshevik leader Alexander Bogdan ov in 1908. It is a classic example  of the utopia of time, set in a communist society on Mars which is 300 years ahead of Earth in ideological development, technology, and social system. It contrast the
heaven of a Marxian Mars with the hell of a capitalist Earth, with its militarism,
exploitation, and brutal counter-revolutionary violence. The Martian system of  production and distribution of wealth and the social relations are taken right out of Marx. But the vision is embellished by Bogdanov’s spécial views on technological
organization and on human relations under communism. Computer-like  machines and statistical Systems do the économie planning just as productive  machinery does most of the work in this early version of a cybernetic society.
Equality and collectivism are heavily emphasized through the story : différences  (including gender) in physical appearance hâve been reduced to a minimum ;
titles, honors, and déférence are nonexistent, and historical heroes and heroines  are unknown. The planet is unified by a single language and culture. The major « problem » for Martians is the continuous struggle against Nature, and not the  struggle among human beings. Bogdanov supplemented Red Star in 1913 with another science fiction romance, Engineer Menni, dealing with the historical origins  of communism on Mars2 .
Soviet science fiction in the 1920s was largely the work of fellow travellers and pro-Soviet popular writers – there was as yet no officiai voice or officiai Une   concerning this genre. But the works were remarkably similar in their dual stress
on technology and on social justice and equality. Among the most popular and  représentative of the genre were Yakov Okunev’s The Corning World (1923) set   200 hundred years in the future, Innokenty Zhukov’s Voyage of the « Red Star »
Detachment to the Land of Marvels (1924), set in 1957, and Viktor Nikolsky’s  In a Thousand Years (1925). Their communist paradises featured, among other  things, an urbanized planet, prolonged life, computerized production, garden
cities and portable homes, worldpeace, brotherhood, a single language (Esperanto),and communal life3 .
The most elaborate, and also the last, of the revolutionary science fiction utopias  of the period was Yan Larri’s Land of the Happy (1931). Judging by the  argument of the introduction, it may hâve been written as an answer to Eugène  Zamyatin’s dystopian novel, We (1920), widely known but never published in the  USSR. Larri’s land is strikingly similar to Zamyatin’s United State : its cities are  radial and symmetrical in design and uniform across the land, with towering  skyscrapers, ail sorts of personal aircraft, telescreens (teleèkrany) and televoxes,pneumatic trains, and a schéme to reduce ail the world’s books to shorthand for
the purpose of space and accessibility. And there is the familiar épisode about  channeling of available resources into space that is found in We and in Red Star.

But the inhabitants of Larri’s romance are not the mindless rationalized vegetables  of Zamyatin’s nightmare. Since the economy is run by automation, people work  at « socially necessary labor » only fïve hours a week (wearing identical costumes)
and at « socially useful labor » (hobbies, arts, or professions) any time they want  (and wearing costumes of their choice). Young people, bursting with laughter and  joie de vivre and bearing such names as Neon, May, Nefelin, and Storm, fly off to
vacation hôtels and resorts such as Sun Valley, the Happy Fisherman, Calabria,
the Gay Pilot, the Land of Soviets, Evening Stars, Future, and Bronze Horseman to  enjoy color and light shows and to dine communally at lakeside to piped in music and entertainments1 .
Communist utopias of time in the early revolutionary years contained massive  doses of high technology and rationality of production and environment, a  Cockaygne-like quality of appetites sated and pleasures provided, a cuit of youth
and of immediacy and spontaneity, and a formulaic, unexamined system of comradeship  and equality. Although ail of these novels were written after Zamyatin’s  We, it was precisely the rational and technological éléments exalted in them that  he so fiercely satirized, just as Dostoevsky had done in response to Chernyshevsky’s  Míhat ís To Ве Done ?. But Zamyatin was not the only enemy of this kind of future  thinking. A sharp debate during the Cultural Révolution of 1928-1931 revealed  surly undertones of resentment at the glowing pictures of the future encased in  these utopias. Larri’s book (which had dared to suggest, through the words of   one of the characters, that Stalin’s writings be subjected to sténographie pulping  along with the rest of world literature), was the last of its genre — long rare utopias  of time — until the late 1950s. The science fiction of the Stalin era was limited to
the idiom of immédiate technologizing, short-term planning, and fantasies of  mili tary struggle and espionage.
In discussing the intellectual climate of the revolutionary period, one ought  not to ignore the anti-Bolshevik imagination which was at least as autenthically  Russian as were the Bolsheviks and their literary supporters. A comprehensive  history of Russian émigré thought in the 1920s and 1930s would considerably  deepen our understanding of the Soviet mentality in many ways. Three novels of an alternate future written in this period illustrate my point very well. The first,
Zamyatin’s We, is too well known to merit additional discussion hère. But, as a  product of « internai émigration », it represents on a very high literary level a deep  critique not only of Bolshevism itself but of mechanization, depersonalization,
mathematical rationalism, and urbanization in the world at larger. His poetically  configured alternative was the tantalizing and irregular world beyond the green wall  — Nature itself, which the Bolshevik utopians seemed bent on conquering. Alexan
deCrh ayanov’s Joumey of My Brother Alexei to the Peasant Utopia, actually  published inside the USSR in 1920, envisioned a rural socialist utopia in the year  1984 in which the Bolsheviks and the great cities háve been removed and where
technology has been harnessed for defence and to grace the lives of peasants toiling  on small plots throughout the land2 .
Much less well known is the futuristic and nostalgie novel of the cossack general,
Peter Krasnov : Beyond the Thistle, written in Russian in Berlin in 1921 3. It

describes the collapse of Bolshevism through famine and mismanagement and the  restoration of Tsar Michael II. Vsevolodovich who appears out of the Himalayas  with a retinue of 3000 loyal soldiers mounted on white Arabian stallions. By the
1960s — when the fictional visitors « discover » the lost Russia — Faith, Tsar, and  Fatherland háve become the national mottoes in an absolute monarchy run by the  tsar and his voevodas and chiliarchs as in days of yore. There are few officiais,
no political news in the press, and only one « party » : the Brothers and Sisters  of Christ. There is inequality of ownership but everyone works. Factories are  spread out into the land and networks of family shops are run by Good Russian
merchants with peasant faces. Parasitic bankers, financiers, and lawyers do not  exist. Peasant men wear beards and celebrate the ancient Orthodox rituals and  rule their families according to the Domostroi — women having been restored to
their traditional sector of labor : housekeeping. Poland and Finland háve been  rejoined to the Empire. There are Jews in this newold Russia, but « they do not  rule over us as they did before » . A military painter heads the Art Academy and the
hit play of the moment is In the Name of the Tsar and the Fatherland.
Krasnov’s utopia is more than a warmed-over Slavophilism. It is in fact the  most striking example of a Russian fascist utopia – and perhaps the only one.
Krasnov is not content with reviving the trappings and institutions of Muscovy.
Iike the emerging fascists whom he admired in exile, he has tried to corne to  terms with the technology necessary for survival in the modern world while simultaneously  clinging to the artifacts and values of the past. Advanced science is at the  ready, but is divinely inspired. Flying trains and airplanes are available for long  distance transportation, electricity for light, and rain machines in every province  to ward off the drought. But automobiles — recalling the arrogance of Commissars and Chekists – are outlawed in the land « beyond the thistle » as are noise and  pollution. Local travel is conducted on horseback and on sleighs. Children and
youth are mobilized into patriotic formations of Christian Blue Shirts who march  around in black pants and high leather boots as soldiers of the Tsar. The utopia  of Krasnov, reflecting a pathos laděn désire for a miracle of restoration with a  conventional projection of new technology, may háve been unique among the utopias of time in the revolutionary period, but it contains many deep impulses  of Russian intellectual history – some of which survive very strongly to this day.




* Conférence donnée dans le cadre du séminaire de Jutta Scherrer à l’École des hautes
études en sciences sociales le 25 janvier 1984.

1. F. and F. Manuel, Utopian thought in the Western World, Oxford, 1979, p. 697-716.
2. A good récent discussion is N. Harding, Lenin’s political thought, 2 v., London, 1977-
1981,11, p. 110-141.


1 . H. G. Wells, Russian in the shadows, London, 1921.
2. For background, see D. Tarschys, Beyond the State, Stockholm, 1971 .
3. E. J. Brown, Mayakovsky, Princeton, 1973 ; B. Jangfeldt, Majakovskí] and Futurism,
Stockholm, 1977.
4. J. Brooks, When Russia learned to read (fortheoming) ; V. Dunham, In Stalin’s time.
Cambridge, 1976 ; G. Hosking, Beyond socialist realism, London, 1980.


1. A. F. Britikov, Русский советский научно-фантастический роман, L., 1970 ; D. Suvin,
« The utopian tradition of Russian science fiction », Modem language review, 66 (1971 ).
p. 139-159.
2. Both novels, with interpretive essays, are available as A. Bogdanov, Red Star : the first
Bolshevik utopia, ed. L. Graham and R. Stites (Bloomington, 1984).
3. Ja. Okunev, Грядущий мир, L., 1923 ; I. Žukov, Путешествие звена «Красной
Звезды » в страну чудес, Xarkov, 1924 ; V. Nikoľskij, Через 1000 лет, М., 1925.


1 . Jan Larri, Страна счастливых, L., 1931 .
2. E.Zamjatin, Мы, 1920 ; New York, 1967 (transi, as We, 1924 ; New York, 1952) ;
I. Kremnev [A. Cajanov] , Путешествие моего брата Алексея в страну крестьянской уто
пии, М„ 1920, transi, in R. Ľ. F. Smith, cd., The Russian peasant in 1920 and 1984. London.
3. P. N. Krasnov, За чертополохом : фантастический роман, Berlin, 1922.


Stites Richard. Utopias of time, space, and life in the Russian Revolution. In: Revue des études slaves, Tome 56, fascicule 1,
1984. L’utopie dans le monde slave. pp. 141-154.

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