The years surrounding the Bolshevik uprising of 1917 witnessed a rapid evolution in both the direction and content of Russian culture. The collapse of the Romanov dynasty and the ascension to power of the Bolshevik Party was accompanied by a torrent of social, political, and cultural experiments. At the same time that idealistic leaders of the young Soviet state worked to bring about the immediate transformation of Russia from a backward agrarian nation into a modern industrial state, leading Russian artists and writers sought to realize utopian experiments of their own. An important but little-known aspect of these experiments was the influential role of the cosmos and space flight in shaping contemporary visions of culture and the arts. Although space travel would not become a reality until the 1950s, depictions of space travel flourished as artists and writers used the cosmos to explore the utopian ideals of the early Soviet state.
Fig. 1 Yakov Protazanov, director. Aelita. 1924. Aelita, Queen of Mars, and Gor, Guardian of Energy, in the Tower of Radiant Energy, next to the telescope to Earth
The origins of Soviet science fiction are conventionally traced to Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928), a scientist, philosopher, and left-wing political activist who founded the socialist civic-religion of "god-building" in the years that followed the revolution of 1917. Schooled as a physician, Bogdanov proposed a future society organized according to the exact sciences. He elaborated these views in two of Russia's earliest science-fiction novels: Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1912).
Published nearly a decade before the Bolshevik seizure of power, Red Star provided readers with a utopian vision of communism seen through an imaginary account of life on Mars. (1) Combining his idiosyncratic view of science with a liberal dose of ideological didacticism, Bogdanov chronicled the experiences of the Bolshevik activist Leonid, who travels with a Martian companion, Menni, to the red planet. Disheartened by the social inequalities and political repression prevalent in contemporary czarist Russia, Leonid longs to discover a world in which the injustices of modern life have been resolved and peace and harmony reign. He realizes this dream on Mars, where he is treated to a vision of the future in which all social problems have been solved through the application of science and technology.
Fig. 2 Yakov Protazanov, director. Aelita. 1924. Queen Aelita of Mars in her Constructivist regalia
In Bogdanov's Martian utopia there is no state, nor even a political system. Still, the inhabitants of the planet possess clothing made of synthetic materials, three-dimensional cinema, and a death ray. Martians reside in planned settlements bearing names such as the "City of Machines" and the "Children's Colony," where, in accordance with the Marxist vision of communism, free choice of labor and unlimited consumption are economic realities. Equality, collectivity, and the full emancipation of women are key features of Martian society. Moreover, scientific principles, rather than religion or philosophy, structure the outlook of the planet's inhabitants, and social discord has been resolved through the eradication of rank, deference, and all forms of coercion.
The drama of everyday life (once manifested in conflict between individual citizens) is realized by the ongoing collective struggle to master the natural world. To this end, technology provides the Martians with the essential weapons they require to tame the environment. Agricultural production is mechanized and the cultivation of the planet's red "socialist" vegetation provides ample food for its inhabitants.
Red Star provoked a sympathetic response from contemporary Soviet readers. Although the novel predated Russia's communist takeover by almost a decade, it proved most popular after the revolution and was reprinted no fewer than five times. More important, the novel helped to inspire the emerging genre of Soviet science fiction, which, during the decade of the 1920s, witnessed the publication of some two hundred original literary works. (2)
Where Bogdanov's Red Star provided Soviet readers with an early literary glimpse into the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, the 1924 feature film Aelita (released in the West as Aelita: Queen of Mars) supplied Soviet audiences with their first visual images of a fictional cosmos (figs. 1, 2). Based upon a short story originally published by Aleksei Tolstoi, Aelita combined interest in outer space with the growing popularity of the new cinematic medium.
Directed by Yakov Protazanov (1881-1945), this silent film incorporated innovative set and costume designs derived from contemporary avant-garde styles to create an aesthetically arresting vision of life and politics on another planet. The film is now considered a classic of early Soviet cinema.
Aelita recounts the cosmic exploits of the engineer Loss, who dreams of constructing a rocket ship that will take him to Mars. The film is composed of alternating scenes depicting simultaneous developments on Earth and in space. At home, the engineer suffers through an unhappy domestic life occasioned by frequent spats with his young wife. His marital relationship is further strained by the improper attention given to his spouse by a lecherous capitalist. To escape from his domestic turmoil. Loss immerses himself in the task of constructing a cosmic flying ship. Ultimately,
these efforts prove successful and the engineer travels to the red planet, where he encounters the beautiful Martian queen, Aelita. The two fall in love, but trouble soon ensues. Aelita is only a figurehead, controlled from behind the scenes by a cabal of court advisers.
Fig. 4 Ivan Kliun. Spherical Space. 1922. Oil on cardboard, 24 x 21 A* in. State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow, Gift of George Costakis
These intriguers oversee the oppression and exploitation of the great Martian proletariat, who are forced to labor like cogs in a machine for the benefit of the planet's ruling class. Upon discovering the desperate plight of the planet's laboring masses, Loss resolves to act. With the help of the queen, he foments a revolution that deposes the advisers and leads to the establishment of socialist harmony on Mars. Following the successful revolution. Loss awakens to find himself back on Earth. His encounter on Mars was only a dream. Stirred from his reverie, the engineer resolves to cast aside his fanciful space project and devote his time instead to repairing his relationship with his wife and contributing to the construction of Soviet society.
In many respects, Aelita followed the formula earlier established by Red Star. Although the film was less overtly didactic than the Bogdanov novel, its central message concerning the triumph of the workers' revolution over the oppressive forces of capitalism placed it firmly within the canon of the early Soviet Republic's official art. Like many feature films produced during the 1920s, Aelita served dual purposes: it was intended to entertain audiences with visions of the cosmos while educating them about the need to develop political consciousness on Earth. (3)
No discussion of space and early Soviet culture can omit Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935). A secondary-and middle- school teacher from the provincial city of Riazan, Tsiolkovsky is known as the father of Russian astronautics for his important, early speculation on the nature and means of interstellar travel. Long before space flight was a practical reality, Tsiolkovsky wrote a number of farsighted theoretical essays that elucidated principles essential to rocketry.
Fig. 5 Boris Ender. Cosmic Landscape. 1923. Watercoloron paper, 7A x 6'A in. Collection Zoia Ender- Masettl, Rome
His 1903 essay "On the Exploration of the Cosmos by Means of a Reaction Propelled Apparatus," for example, formulated the basic equations necessary for jet-powered flight and accurately described the behavior of rockets in a zero-gravity environment. In addition to producing theoretical treatises and scientific sketches forecasting the possibility of space travel, Tsiolkovsky authored several short stories and literary works, including one of the Soviet period's earliest science-fiction novels. Outside the Earth (1920). (4) Although many of his stories were peppered with fantastic descriptions of imaginary extraterrestrial aliens, his scientific and fictional writings also provided prescient visions of the space age to come. Decades before space flight became a reality, Tsiolkovsky correctly described such fundamental concepts as the basics of jet propulsion and the physiological effects of weightlessness. He also forecasted such innovations as space suits, liquid fuel propellants, multistaged rockets, and the mechanics of atmospheric reentry.
Early Soviet images of space exploration and the cosmos were not, however, generated solely by writers and theoreticians. Throughout the 1920s, leading figures in culture and the arts found inspiration in the creative possibilities suggested by outer space and interstellar flight. In the years immediately surrounding the Bolshevik insurrection of 1917, the Russian art world underwent a revolution of its own that witnessed the emergence of eclectic artistic theories and schools such as Rayonism and Constructionism.
Initially influenced by the European movements of Cubism and Futurism (which rejected established pictorial conventions in favor of a new aesthetics based on movement, speed, and the reorientation of representational space), Russian avant-garde artists increasingly experimented with color, composition, and new materials in an attempt to break free of the static, two-dimensional world of canvas and paint.
In line with contemporary speculation on the potential nature of the extraterrestrial, many artists and designers incorporated cosmic elements into innovative compositions that challenged traditional notions of spatial relations and suggested the new forms and perspectives that would be experienced by future space travelers.
Fig. 6 Ivan Kudriashev. Trajectory of the Earth's Orbit around the Sun. 1926. Oil on canvas, 27 x 29 in. State Tret'iakov Gallery, Moscow
Of all the new avant-garde artists who contemplated the cosmos, none was more important than Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935). The son of a factory worker, born near the Ukrainian city of Kiev, Malevich studied art at Moscow's College of Painting, Sculpture, and Construction before rising to prominence in the late 1910s as one of the most innovative and controversial of Russia's new breed of painters.
Influenced by such contrasting styles as Primitivism, Realism, and Cubism, Malevich soon developed his own experimental theories of art that centered on a concept he identified as "Suprematism." Intending to realize the final stage in the development of painting on canvas, Malevich envisioned Suprematism as a universal system of art that would generate new forms, textures, and colors through the unification of painting and architecture.
Ultimately, Suprematism exerted a considerable influence on art within Russia and throughout Europe. From its very inception, ruminations on the nature of space and the incorporation of cosmic aesthetics into composition and design were integral features of the movement. (5)
Fig. 7 ll'ya Chashnik. Design fora Supremolet. 1927. India ink and pencil on paper, 24 x 30 in. Courtesy Leonard Hutton Galleries, New York
The debut of Malevich's masterpiece Black Square at The Last Futurist Exhibition in December 1915 marked the beginning of Suprematism (fig. 3). Consisting of a large black quadrilateral set against a white background, Black Square was a complete, radical break with earlier artistic forms that ushered in the modern style of abstract, nonrepresentational painting. In stark contrast to traditional methods of representing space in a pictorial fashion (through the variation of objects or the employment of light and shadow).
Black Square utilized the sharp, simple counterpoint of black on white to concentrate space onto a single surface. In effect producing the impression of a spatial infinity opening up into unfathomable darkness, the composition intimated as well the deep void of the cosmos, a fact not lost on Malevich. Although Black Square met with mixed reviews by attendees of the exhibition, it soon came to serve as the iconic symbol of the emerging modern art movement.
In addition to spearheading a revolution in artistic aesthetics, Malevich exerted considerable personal influence over the development of numerous Soviet artists. As the director of the State Institute for Artistic Culture in Leningrad from 1923 to 1926, Malevich was instrumental in training a new generation of Soviet painters and graphic designers, many of whom (including El Lissitzky and Nikolai Suetin) openly embraced and expanded upon his theories. Initially patterning their productions after the models established by Malevich, these artists gradually moved away from the absence of perspective that had initially characterized the Suprematist aesthetic towards the use of geometric shapes and the infusion of colors to communicate the sensation of movement through space.
Painter Ivan Kliun (1873-1942) built upon Malevich's artistic theories. A self-taught artist and professor at the First State Free Art Workshops and Higher Artistic Technical Workshops (VKhUTEMAS) in Moscow during the late 1910s and early 1920s, Kliun was responsible for some of the earliest Suprematist works reflecting cosmic themes. His 1922 composition Spherical Space (fig. 4), for example, with its nebulaic qualities, hinting at luminous gases and particles of space dust, indicated the presence of a cosmic consciousness that was latent in the designs of many contemporary Russian avant-garde artists. In a similar fashion, Mikhail Plaksin's Planetary (1922) and Boris Ender's Cosmic Landscape (1923) intimated the Russian avant- garde's fascination with the extraterrestrial world (fig.5).
If the visual representations depicted in the works of Kliun, Plaksin, and Ender hinted at the role of outer space in the imagination of Soviet artists, then the paintings of Ivan Kudriashev (1896— 1972) made explicit the importance of the cosmos in Soviet art of the 1920s. An artist and graphic designer who completed his education under the tutelage of Malevich, Kudriashev was keenly interested in the theories of cosmic flight developed by Tsiolkovsky.
A resident of Kaluga province, where Tsiolkovsky taught, Kudriashev had become personally acquainted with the obscure theoretician and corresponded with him for several years. These discussions clearly stimulated Kudriashev's imagination and provided inspiration for a number of innovative artistic creations.
Many of his compositions, including Cosmic Movement (1924) and Trajectory of the Earth's Orbit around the Sun (1926), attempted to serve as visual representations of Tsiolkovsky's scientific conceptions concerning the motion of astral spaces and the dynamics of interstellar light and color (fig. 6). (6)
Notwithstanding his success in leading a revolution in Russian painterly aesthetics, Malevich came to realize that Suprematism had reached a creative terminus. Following the exhibition of his famous "white on white" series in 1918, Malevich withdrew from painting for nearly a decade to devote his energy to the production of what he called an "idealized architecture." Based upon the simple geometric forms that he had pioneered in his early paintings, Malevich's Suprematist architectural projects prefigured the emergence of a new style of architectural design and construction.
Suprematist architecture was built upon the principles provided by a basic form that Malevich called the "architecton." A complex three-dimensional structure that was assembled by joining together smaller geometric subsections, architectons represented Malevich's attempt to fuse the practical concern of the need for living space with an innovative vision of the cosmos. Although these models were limited to two principal variants
(one horizontal, the other vertical) by the laws of gravity, Malevich nevertheless envisioned the future construction of extraterrestrial architectons that would provide earthlings with areas of habitation both within and upon the surfaces of these structures. The experimental form of the architecton was clear evidence of Malevich's continuing association of Suprematism with the coming conquest of space. As early as 1920, he went so far as to promote his Suprematist architectural models as the theoretical foundation for a future planetary satellite system, announcing that:
(Between the Earth and the Moon] a new Suprematist satellite can be constructed, equipped with every component, which will move along an orbit shaping its new track. Study of the Suprematist formula of movement leads us to conclude that the rectilinear motion towards any plane can only be achieved by the circling of intermediary satellites, which would provide a straight line of circles from one satellite to another. (7)
Although Malevich's ideas concerning orbiting space satellites produced no practical results, they did inspire a number of his contemporaries to take up the issue of architecture and design for space exploration. Following the lead of his mentor, Malevich, ll'ya Chashnik (1902-1929) devoted considerable time to a series of elaborate sketches of interstellar cities and spaceships.
Initially modeling his designs after Malevich's architectons, Chashnik ultimately developed a series of his own cosmic forms called "supremolets," which he incor-porated into nearly all of his artistic productions (fig. 7). "Supremolet," a linguistic derivative of the Russian word for airplane (samolet), may be roughly translated as "superflyer." More than just the fanciful dreams of a young Soviet artist, these models for space-age constructs bear an uncanny resemblance to modern spacecraft both real and imaginary. In this regard, they suggest the inherent link between the experimental aesthetics of early Soviet artists and the practical designs of contemporary spacecraft.
Early Soviet images of the cosmos and space flight assumed a wide variety of forms. From the revolutionary propaganda of Alexander Bogdanov to the farsighted theories of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and innovative aesthetics of Kazimir Malevich, political activists, scientists, and artists of differing backgrounds all found inspiration in dreams of outer space. Although these cosmic visions would disappear from public view in the late 1920s,
1. The novel is available in English translation as part of a three-tale collection that includes the novel's "prequel," Engineer Menni, and the short poem "A Martian Stranded on Earth." See Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia, ed. Loren Graham and Richard Stites (Bloomington, Ind., 1984).
2. Richard Stites, "Fantasy and Revolution: Alexander Bogdanov and the Origins of Bolshevik Science Fiction," preface to Bogdanov, Red Star, p. 13.
3. For a discussion of the political-educational nature of Soviet cinema during the 1920s, see Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953 (Cambridge, Mass., 1992).
4. Outside the Earth can be found in English translation in The Science Fiction of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, ed. David Starchild (Seattle, Wa„ 1979).
5. For the best English-language treatment of Malevich's career and the place of cosmic themes in the development of Suprematism, see Larissa Zhadova, Malevich: Suprematism and Revolution in Russian Art, 1910-1930 (London, 1978).
6. Zhadova, Malevich, p. 129 (see n. 19).
7. K[azimir] Malevich, Suprematism, 34 risunka (Vitebsk, 1920), p. 2.
In: 2001: Building for Space Travel. Edit by John Zukowsky, Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Flight (Seattle, Wash.), pp. 39-44.