Winston Churchill famously characterised Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s apt, then, that the father of the Russian space program – perhaps of all space programs – was an ascetic librarian who taught that humanity should work for the physical resurrection of all the dead. Nikolai Fyodorov (whose name is also transliterated as Fedorov; 1829–1903) was the first man to seriously theorise about interplanetary travel. He also coined the term “spaceship Earth” to convey a sense of humanity’s interconnection with the cosmos.
Fyodorov, little-known in his lifetime, served as mentor and inspiration for an entire philosophical school known as the Russian Cosmists. These visionaries, often neglected, sometimes persecuted by the Soviet state, conceived of such advanced ideas as rocket travel, a prolonged human lifespan, and the use of electromagnetic energy to enhance vitality. And in many cases they produced the models and formulas that would make these far-fetched ideas a concrete reality.
The ideas of the Cosmists, always visionary, sometimes fantastic, seem closer to reality now than they did a hundred years ago, and the school of the Cosmists continues to this day in Russia, with conferences and papers dedicated to the propagation of these ideas and activities. It is time that their work became better-known.
The foremost authority on the Cosmists in the English-speaking world is George M. Young, author of The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (published by Oxford University Press in 2012). Young grew up in Madison, Indiana, in the US and received a B.A. in English from Duke University and a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Yale University. He has taught Russian and general humanities at Grinnell College, Dartmouth College, and the University of New England, and for many years between academic positions directed a fine arts and auction business specialising in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American and European paintings. He is currently a research fellow at the University of New England’s Center for Global Humanities.
Young is the author of Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction, published in 1979, and has published many essays and reviews on Russian literature and thought in academic and general magazines, journals, and edited collections. Other books include Hermotimus’ Voyages, a collection of poems, and Force through Delicacy: The Life and Art of Charles H. Woodbury, N.A. George and his wife, Patricia, live in rural southern Maine and are the parents of two grown children.
Richard Smoley (RS): The Russian Cosmists aren’t familiar to most English-speaking readers. Maybe you could begin by telling us a bit about who they were and why they’re important.
George M. Young (GY): In a recent issue of Quest magazine, Richard, you observed that over the centuries at crucial moments in history, small groups of people have emerged who were working from a higher plane of consciousness. Among these groups you mention the Pythagoreans, the Chartres school of cathedral builders, the late medieval Brethren of the Common Life, the Rosicrucians, and H.P. Blavatsky’s circle of Theosophists.
I think the Russian Cosmists, working in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, may be another such group. They did not consider themselves a group, or even a school of thought, but individually addressed similar profound, cosmic problems, treating subjects usually considered esoteric or occult as matters suitable for serious scientific and philosophical investigation. The major Cosmists include the religious thinkers Nikolai Fyodorov, Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky; the philosophical scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Vladimir Vernadsky, Alexander Chizhevsky, Valerian Muravyov, and Vladimir Kuprevich, each of whom was a broad, polymath genius, in no way able to be pigeonholed as simply “religious” or “scientific.”
Florensky, for example, wrote seminal papers in mathematics, developed crucial processes for the electrification of Russian industry, taught in revolutionary schools for workers while wearing his priest’s cassock, and wrote The Pillar and Ground of Truth, one of the great classics of Russian Orthodox contemplative spirituality.
Others were similarly multitalented. They addressed topics such as the infinite extension of the human life span, the overcoming of death, the physical resurrection of the dead, the reconstitution of the human organism, the recreation of whole human individuals from particles of identity, the exploration and colonisation of cosmic space, the reversal of time, and the practical realisation of universal human brother-sisterhood.
The Cosmists show us today how it is possible to overcome dichotomies and bridge gaps. Theory and practice, science and religion, esoteric and exoteric, ideal and real – the Cosmists found ways to unify apparent opposites. Another quality of theirs that we might take note of is the confidence with which they addressed the most enormous, apparently insoluble questions. Can we, should we attempt to overcome death? Can we, should we attempt to remake humanity? Explore and colonise space? Yes, the Cosmists said, with a conviction not much in evidence elsewhere today, we can and should, and here is how to start!
RS: Could you talk a little bit about Nikolai Fyodorov and his work? If I understand it correctly, he coined the term “spaceship Earth” back in the nineteenth century.
GY: Nikolai Fyodorov was the prime exemplar and source of Russian Cosmism. Born in southern Russia, the illegitimate son of a Russian prince and an unknown local woman, Fyodorov led an ascetic, eccentric life, first as a rural elementary school teacher, and then as a Moscow librarian of legendary erudition. That he was also a highly original thinker was known to only a few contemporaries, but this handful included Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, and Russia’s leading philosopher, Vladimir Solovyov.
Fyodorov’s central idea was that everything we now do leads toward division, destruction, and death. Our “common task” as humans is join together in a grand “project” to use all our god-given intelligence to counter nature’s force of division and death, leading eventually to universal immortality and the resurrection of all the dead. Individual parts of the “common task” included travel beyond earth to collect the dispersed particles of our ancestors (“dust of the fathers”) in order to restore them to wholeness and life, the reconstitution of the human organism to allow us to survive in space under conditions now unable to support human life, and human control over gravity, allowing us to liberate our planet from its natural orbit and guide it through space on courses of our own choosing. More than a century before Buckminster Fuller, Fyodorov argued that we should no longer ride as idle passengers but must become “captain and crew of spaceship Earth.”
Fyodorov did not know exactly how the spiritual-scientific workers of the future would solve the technical problems of biological engineering and interplanetary voyage, but he knew what the goals should be and he believed that if humanity undertook the “common task,” future expertise would be able to find solutions.
For Fyodorov, as early as the 1860s, space colonisation was not an optional fantasy, but a necessary human step toward fulfilment of a divine plan. Dust of our ancestors is dispersed throughout the universe. The human task is to gather and revive this dust, to find homes beyond Earth for the resurrected multitudes that otherwise would overcrowd our planet, to populate the uninhabited and currently uninhabitable places in the universe, to spiritualise all the currently dead matter in the cosmos. In a sense, Fyodorov was the ultimate alchemist, attempting to turn all human knowledge and labour, all science, religion, and art, into a single task of transmuting currently dead or dying matter into eternal, universal life. His posthumously published writings seemed ridiculous to most of his early readers – perhaps less so today.
RS: I gather that Konstantin Edouardovich Tsiolkovsky, a pupil of Fyodorov’s, laid some of the groundwork for what became the Russian space program. Could you tell us a little bit about him and what he accomplished?
GY: Even before Fyodorov’s writings were published, a handful of listeners and readers recognised in him a mind far ahead of his time. Tolstoy wrote that he was proud to have lived in the same century as Fyodorov. And Solovyov wrote that since the appearance of Christianity Fyodorov’s “project” was the first forward movement of the human spirit along the path of Christ.
But the follower who did most to realise a portion of Fyodorov’s “project” was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), a mostly deaf but precocious seventeen-year-old boy from a small village who moved to Moscow to educate himself and came under Fyodorov’s tutelage at the library. As Tsiolkovsky would later write, Fyodorov guided his readings, taught him to take notes, and served as his one-man university. After a few years studying with Fyodorov, Tsiolkovsky returned to his village to teach. After school hours he built wooden model rockets and spaceships, and developed and published the mathematical formulas that eventually led to the launching of the world’s first artificial satellites. In addition to his seminal scientific papers, for which he received recognition as the grandfather of the Russian space program, Tsiolkovsky published science fiction tales about space exploration that inspired generations of young Russian readers to dream of becoming cosmonauts. And though he could not publish them through official Soviet outlets, he wrote and sometimes printed and circulated numerous esoteric and theosophical speculations concerning higher sentient beings and energies alive throughout the cosmos.
RS: What does it mean to be a “Cosmist” in this context?
GY: I think one of the main features of Cosmist thought is what Fyodorov called the shift from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican comprehension of the universe. Intellectually, we have long realised that our planet is not the centre of the universe, but emotionally, culturally, aesthetically, and in almost every other way, we cling to a Ptolemaic cosmology. The Cosmists urge us not only to think but to feel and in every way realise that we are citizens of the entire universe. Not only the planet, but the cosmos is our home, and our lives are meant to span not merely seventy-odd years, but forever. The Cosmists propose that we are not the end product, but are still in the early stages of evolution. We are still children, or at best, adolescents, with all the characteristics and problems of that age, and have a long way to go to attain maturity. The insecurities, appetites, and needs – sexual, gustatory, etc. – that now drive and dominate our lives will eventually subside. We will be greatly changed from what we now are. As Fyodorov wrote, we need to realise – to make real in every way – that we are already “heaven dwellers.”
RS: How did the Cosmists conceive of interplanetary travel?
GY: Tsiolkovsky developed formulas and designed rockets for human beings as we are today. But he, Fyodorov, and others also imagined possible interplanetary, even intergalactic travel for more advanced levels of humanity. A step in that direction would be the cessation of what Fyodorov called “cannibalism” (i.e., that we stop eating organic matter, all of which he believed is made up of particles of our ancestors), and the attainment of an autotrophic way of life, in which, like certain plants and other organisms, we would feed on air, sunlight, and other elements. In Cosmist thought, we must direct our own evolution. Instead of taller, heavier bodies, we should choose to develop smaller, lighter bodies, and eventually perhaps eliminate all our mass and become bodiless minds, free from gravity, god-men able to be anywhere and everywhere in the cosmos. At that stage, interplanetary travel would be automatic and instantaneous: decide to go to Jupiter and you’re there.
RS: It seems that the Cosmists were among the first thinkers to conceive of human possibilities beyond the limits of the physical earth. What do you think were some of their most important contributions in this regard?
GY: Fyodorov and the other Cosmists tried to make literal sense of ideas such as “resurrection of the dead,” “heaven on earth,” “eternal life,” “oneness with God,” “manna from heaven,” etc. They believed that we should not merely dream and pray for “heavenly peace,” but could and should take the actualisation of such concepts as our human duty and task. So the first step for them was a shift in consciousness, changing speculations about things “not of this world,” into tasks to be realised in this world, turning metaphysics into engineering projects. Writers like Jules Verne, Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky, and others had written entertaining speculative fiction about a future with space travel, but the Cosmists said: “Let’s not just talk about these things, let’s do them.”
As far as results are concerned, Tsiolkovsky published the formulas enabling man-made objects to escape Earth’s gravity. Solovyov developed a philosophy of active love pointing humanity toward a higher, spiritually mature, androgynous level of existence. Bulgakov countered Marx’s earthly, materialist philosophy of economics with a Cosmist, spiritual “Philosophy of Economy” that casts man as responsible owner and regulator of the universe. Vernadsky developed the idea of the noösphere, a sheath of mental energy as real and influential as the stratosphere, ionosphere, and other spheres of energy surrounding our planet. Muravyov proposed new socioeconomic structures that would facilitate mass human control over time. Chizhevsky invented devices that focused electromagnetic energy to invigorate workers and increase animal productivity, and further discovered correlations between periodic solar storms and cycles of mass human activity. And Kuprevich laid the foundation for remarkable Russian advances in gerontology and human longevity research that is now being conducted. I think, then, that one of the major contributions the Russian Cosmists have made is to take seriously the idea that humans are made for infinite space and infinite time.
RS: Tsiolkovsky held not only that life is distributed throughout the universe, but that the most advanced forms of life are not to be found on Earth. How did he conceive of, and portray, these forms of life?
GY: Tsiolkovsky was a panpsychist, recognising life and sensitivity throughout the universe. He believed that a spiritual atom (atom dukh) inhered in every particle of the material universe. Tsiolkovsky’s cosmos, moreover, is teleological, rationally organised, and hierarchical. Lower life forms, consisting mainly of matter in which spirit is dormant, evolve into higher ones, in which spirit is awakened and more dominant, and eventually as we approach perfection we will outgrow our material envelopes and join the rays of cosmic energy that constitute something like the pleroma of the Gnostics.
For Tsiolkovsky, integral life is distributed throughout the universe, and the most advanced, most highly developed life forms are not to be found on earth. In cosmic evolution, higher life forms move on, leaving lower forms behind, and the higher life forms guide and shape the evolutionary paths of the lower forms. So in Tsiolkovsky’s view, we are being guided and shaped by higher life forms from somewhere beyond our planet. The past is endless, and many universes have come and gone before the present one, and the processes and forces that guide and shape our paths are real and intuited, but beyond our present rational understanding.
RS: There has been an enormous amount of interest in extraterrestrials and UFOs over the past two generations. Do the Cosmists have anything to contribute to this conversation?
GY: Most Cosmist speculation focuses on our human role in and toward the cosmos, but some attention has also been given to how cosmic beings or forces interact with us. Tsiolkovsky, as noted above, thought that higher life forms beyond Earth guide and shape our evolution. And his younger colleague Alexander Chizhevsky (1897–1964), who lived and worked in the same town as Tsiolkovsky, devoted most of his scientific research (he was also an artist and a poet) to the influence of solar and other cosmic waves and particles of energy on earthly life. He won recognition and honours for his “Chizhevsky Chandelier” – an electromagnetic device that produced negatively charged aero-ions for curative and therapeutic uses and to stimulate more productive animal and human output in henhouses. But his best-known work today is his discovery of correlations between solar and human cycles of activity. In a series of charts and graphs covering two millennia of human history, he demonstrated – though not entirely convincingly – that wars, revolutions, and other examples of mass upheaval coincided almost perfectly with the eleven-year cycle of solar eruptions, and that during the middle, less active years of the solar cycle, peace, prosperity, and creative mass movements flourished.
Chizhevsky’s argument might make sense in a general way: human life and history may well be influenced more than we now recognise by unseen, unmeasured forces from the sun and from other sources beyond our planet. But Chizhevsky’s charted and graphed correlations seem too neat for the little we actually know about “universal” mass activity in remote places and eras. A more nuanced presentation of the same overall data might be more convincing.
As for UFOs, Cosmist thinkers have little to contribute, perhaps assuming that entities wishing to interact with us and our planet would probably have passed beyond physical planes of existence, and if they did appear to us as visible entities, it would only be as illusions – adaptations dumbed down for our convenience.
RS: Could you say something about Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) and his ideas of the noösphere?
GY: Of all the Cosmists, Vernadsky had the most conventionally productive life. Others were exiled, imprisoned, even executed for their Cosmist ideas, considered heretical at the time. Vernadsky, thanks in part to his international reputation and to his apolitical devotion to pure science, but perhaps mainly because of the economic and military value of his work in atomic energy, was permitted to conduct and publish his research through even the worst periods of Stalinist repression.
He is best known today for his formulation of the “biosphere” as the planet’s sheath of “living matter,” and the emergence of the “noösphere” (from nous, the Greek word for “mind”) as the biosphere’s sheath of “thinking matter.” Though better known in the West through the writings of his French colleagues Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Edouard Le Roy, who probably developed their ideas while attending seminars taught by Vernadsky at the Sorbonne, the idea of the noösphere is most extensively developed by Vernadsky in Russian. Like Chizhevsky, Vernadsky emphasised the importance of cosmic forces on the shaping and development of our planet. The biosphere serves as a transformer converting cosmic radiation into active energy in electrical, chemical, mechanical, thermal, and other forms. Radiation from all stars affects the biosphere, but we measure and are aware of only a small portion, mainly from the sun. The noösphere, emerging through the biosphere, is a new geological phenomenon, as important as the earlier emergence of the biosphere on our inert planetary rock.
Humanity, for the first time, becomes a major geological force, and thinking matter will change the planet as thoroughly as did the emergence of living matter. Vernadsky insists that we can and must alter our habitat by labour and thought. Like other Cosmists, he is confident that our efforts are more likely to improve than destroy our environment. The noösphere is not the final, but merely the latest stage of biological evolution in geological history. He writes that many stages have preceded and many will follow but this is our present stage, and its course is only beginning to be apparent to us.
RS: Where do you think the ideas of the Cosmists can take us in the twenty-first century?
GY: The ideas of the early Cosmists have been further developed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. In Moscow, the Nikolai Fyodorov Museum and Library sponsors seminars, publications, research presentations, and other activities for today’s Cosmists. In Kaluga, the town where Tsiolkovsky and Chizhevsky lived and worked, the Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics also sponsors wide ranging research and publishing projects. Other centres in St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and elsewhere engage in studies and activities related to but not directly linked to the Fyodorovian tradition of Cosmism.
Some of the most intense activity related to Cosmism is in the field of human longevity and immortology – the science of immortality. One scientist, Igor Vishev, has predicted that technology is advancing so rapidly that there are already people alive today who will never die. Others, of a transhumanist orientation, emphasise the coming union of man and computer, human and artificial intelligence. Other researchers have investigated alternative realities, developing mechanical devices to induce states of altered, perhaps higher, consciousness.
In remote areas of Russia and Siberia, utopian groups have emerged, attempting, as Fyodorov and Florensky did, to create an alternative human communal future by looking deeply into the Russian past. For Fyodorov and Florensky, the spiritual past with a future lay in pre-Petrine Russian Orthodox Christianity. For the communal Cosmists of today, the spiritual past with a future lies for the most part in pre-Christian Slavic paganism. At academic conferences on Cosmism, a feature of many presentations and discussions is the interdisciplinary character of the research. Since Fyodorov’s day, the division of knowledge into narrow specialties, along with the separation of thought from action, has been viewed as an example of modern intellectual decline and death. Today’s Cosmists follow their classic predecessors in fearlessly addressing the big questions and proposing bold, active, comprehensive solutions. The Cosmists are aware that the problems and solutions they discuss today may not be the ones they will be discussing tomorrow. But they are also aware that Cosmists past and present have made an important start, and the discussion will continue.
The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers by George M. Young (Oxford University Press, 2012) is available from all good bookstores and online retailers.
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