Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

This is part two of Jess Nevins' ongoing series, looking at science fiction under various totalitarian regimes — for part one, dealing with Germany, click here.

Science fiction has a long tradition in Russian fiction. Fantastic voyages, utopias, and dystopias exist throughout 19th century Russian literature, with interplanetary voyages appearing as early as 1784, in Vassily Lyovshin's Noveisheye Puteshestviye. And Russia has a long tradition of popular literature, in luboks (prints made from woodcuts and engravings) and chapbooks in the 18th and 19th centuries and in newspapers and kopeck novels (dime novels) in the 20th century.

But the twain of science fiction and popular literature never met. The most popular genres in Russian popular literature were bandits/crime, fairy tales, adventure, and war, while science fiction in Russian literature before the 20th century was serious fiction, written to be Art. Even works with elements which might have been pulp in other writers' hands, like Rakhmetov, the proto-Doc Savage of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Chto Delat? (1862-1863), were handled in a serious and humorless manner. The more popular form of the fantastic in Russian literature in the 19th century, the occult, was similarly somber. Even those works of science fiction with overtly pulp trappings and characters, like Valerii Iakovlevich Briusov's "Respublika Yuzhnavo Kresta" (1905), go in decidedly un-pulpish directions. Briusov's utopian Republic of the Southern Cross, a republic of working men whose capital, Star City, is a domed city in the Antarctic, is stricken by a psychological disease which ends up killing most of the city's population and ruining the city. Briusov's The Earth: A Tragedy of Future Times (1905), with its extinction of a future techno-utopia, is similarly unblinkingly, unhumorously serious.

This division between popular literature and science fiction disappeared in 1907, when the first Russian translations of American, British, and European pulp fiction appeared. ("Pulp" is used here in the broadest sense). These translations were not of science fiction, but of Westerns (the American dime novel Buffalo Bill Stories) and of detective stories (the German dime novel Nat Pinkerton, der König der Detectivs), and they were enormously influential on Russian popular fiction.

The most immediate influence was in the creation of the detective genre in Russian pulps. There was no tradition in Russian pulp literature before 1907 of detective/mystery fiction, but thanks to these translations, and a new translation of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories — the previous translation, in 1903, had been badly flawed — detective fiction quickly became the most popular of all genres. Numerous unauthorized sequels of Nat Pinkerton and Sherlock Holmes stories, and copies of those characters, appeared in kopeck novels and detective serials. These stories were all solidly in the detective genre. However, a large number of these stories imitated Nat Pinkerton in featuring science fictional characters (mad scientists, Yellow Perils with man-killing-plants, lethal mesmerists, etc) and science fictional tropes (death rays, rockets, etc).

This intrusion of pulp science fiction into Russian pulp literature did not result in the creation of science fiction pulps, as it did in Europe. The nearest Russia came to a science fiction pulp was Tref, the First Detective in Russia #1-? (1910), a fictionalization and exaggeration of the exploits of Tref, a famous Moscow police dog. The fictional Tref has near-human intelligence and is known as "the four-legged Sherlock Holmes." But the increase in pulp science fiction did result in the increasing appearance of pulp science fiction stories and novels and in the increase in science fiction in non-science fiction pulps.

From 1907 to 1913 F.K. Sologub published a series of novels under the title of "Tvorimaia Legenda" about Grigorii Trirodov, a Satanist magus and mad scientist. Trirodov experiments on dead children and raises them from the dead to serve as his assistants n a series of psychic experments. When he is finally attacked by his neighbors he activates his anti-gravity machine and flies his entire estate to the Kingdom of the United Islands, where is lover, Queen Ortruda, lives.

Alexander Bogdanov wrote two novels, Krasnaya Zvezda (1908) and Inzhener Menni (1913), set in the future, on Mars. In the first, an engineer, Menni, helps bring about a communist utopia on Mars, and in the second he helps mine Venus.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

Alexei Tolstoi is best known for his Aelita and Giperboloid Inzhenera Garina (see below), but in 1910 he published the serial novel "The Tsars of the World" in the St. Petersburg newspaper Kopeika. The novel is about a Russian mad scientist who uses his knowledge of electricity to invent a ray which can explode mines and destroy enemy fortresses from long distances. He attempts to use his device to conquer the world but ultimately fails.

And the anonymously-written serial novel Russian Warrior (1909) features a Russian strongman who has achieved superhuman strength and athletic ability by following the physical culture theories of the internationally famous Prussian strongman Eugen Sandow (1867-1925). The strongman tours Europe defeating all challengers.

As mentioned, pulp science fiction also began appearing in non-science fiction pulp literature. At this time one of the most popular genres with the Russian reading public was the bandit genre. One of the most popular fictional bandits was Anton Krechet, who appeared in over 800 stories in Kopeika from 1909 to 1916. Krechet is a cultured Russian aristocrat who leads a gang of bandits from his hideaway, the Wolf's Lair, and adventures across Western Europe and the entire Russian empire and even, during the Russo-Japanese War, behind enemy lines. In one later story Krechet encounters a Robur-like mad scientist who Krechet aids in developing his maneuverable airship. Similarly, another popular genre was the master criminal genre, heavily influenced by the Fantômas novels (1911-1963) of Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Most Fantômas-style master criminal pulps at least flirted with the fantastic, but the 1914 film The Phantom, about a Fantômas-style crimelord in Moscow, openly embraced it with several high-tech deathtraps.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

This first wave of pulp sf ended with the beginning of the first world war — sales had actually begun to fall in 1910. The second wave began in the early 1920s. In 1918, following the Revolution, the Soviet government issued a decree suspending the publication of all serialized literature, and even labeled genre fiction as bourgeois spectacle. But during the "New Economic Period" (1921-1928), after the Revolution was over and when the West's attempt to overthrow the nascent Soviet Union had failed, the Russian people began buying and reading adventure novels of all genres. Many Western writers were popular, from Jack London to Joseph Conrad, in large part because Russian novels had traditionally been slow-moving, with an emphasis on a character's psychology and motivation, and Western novels stressed action, adventure, motion and thrills. Classic adventure novels were popular, but most popular of all were the cheap, disposable, and above all regularly published pulps, including those featuring Nick Carter, Nat Pinkerton, and the endless Sherlock Holmes knock-offs.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

The Soviet government immediately began pressuring writers and publishers to make the characters more ideologically correct. In a few cases this led to a backlash: Yevgeni Zamyatin (1884-1937) was critical of aspects of the Revolution almost from the start, but it is at least arguable that his glum dystopia We (1921), set in a completely regimented and controlled city-state — sexual partners are assigned by the state and even the number of jaw motions used to chew food is regulated by state order — would have been less morose and despairing of the future without government meddling. But generally the influence of the government is least slightly positive, so that the Russian Nat Pinkertons — unlike his American strike-breaking counterpart — are openly sympathetic to the workers, and the Russian Sherlock Holmeses are sardonically critical of capitalism's excesses.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

In 1923 the Soviet government began a more organized campaign for the exploitation of the popularity of the adventure genre and of Nat Pinkerton in particular for ideological and propagandistic purposes. This campaign was the krasnyi Pinkertonitscha, or "Red Pinkertonism" movement, which made use of the classic tropes of adventure and detective fiction, but slaved them to the theme of international class struggle and the triumph of Revolution. As the most popular genre detective fiction was the heaviest influenced, and the Russian Nat Pinkertons became overt communists. But the burgeoning genre of science fiction was also influenced, and over the next decade a large amount of communist pulp sf appeared. The archetypal character of both 1920s Soviet pulp sf and of the krasnyi Pinkertonitscha in general is Marietta Shaginian's Mike Thingsmaster, who appeared in three novels (1923-1925) as well as a German pulp in 1924 and a film serial in 1926. Mike Thingsmaster is an American woodworker who leads Mess-Mend, a secret international alliance of workers who are dedicated to cleaning up the mess left by capitalism and fascism. Thingsmaster and Mess-Mend fight international conspiracies of capitalist oppressors and, despite their possession of technologically-advanced planes and bombs, ultimately triumph and ensure the survival of both the Soviet government and the worldwide communist movement

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

However, most of the science fiction of this time had little to do with krasnyi Pinkertonitscha. Alexei Tolstoi wrote Aelita (1922, as a film 1924) and The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin (1926). Aelita is a planetary romance in which Los, a Soviet scientist and inventor, travels to Mars and, with the help of a Red Army officer, overthrows the fascist civilization there and institutes a Communist paradise. The film version of Aelita was parodied in an 1924 cartoon Interplanetary Revolution, which depicts what happens when a group of capitalist and national socialist "ghouls," who literally drink the blood of the workers, encounter the communist Martians). Engineer Garin is about the titular American engineer who invents a "hyperboloid," a laser-like heat ray, and uses it to try to conquer the world. He briefly succeeds in ruling the decadent, capitalist United States before he is toppled thanks to the efforts of a sexy adventuress and a poor-but-honest Russian policeman.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

Ilya Ehrenburg's D.E. Trust: A History of the Demise of Europe (1923) describes how Jens Boot, bastard son of a Dutch peasant and a European prince, forms the D.E. Trust, dedicated to the complete destruction of the decadent, avaricious, and materialistic societies of Europe. In 1940, after thirteen years of effort, financed by American millionaires and using germ warfare viruses and poison gas, Boot and the D.E. Trust succeed in smashing every European country. Valentin Katayev's Erendorf Island (1924) describes an attempt by Matapal, the world's richest man, to create the perfect capitalist paradise after what is predicted to be a world-destroying series of earthquakes and tidal waves. Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov's film Death Ray (1925) has a death ray created by a downtrodden factory worker suffernig under an oppressive capitalist dictatorship. Aleksandr Beliayev's The Struggle in Space (1928) has a timeslipped Russian from the modern era witnessing a future conflict between the technological utopia of the Pan-European and Pan-Asiatic Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the vile, corrupt capitalist United States. In the war death rays, energy shields, cellular telephones, powered winged jet packs, and remote-controlled tanks are all used. Beliayev's Lord of the World (1929) describes the duel between a Soviet engineer with mental powers and his wicked German opposite. And Yevgeni Zamyatin's The African Guest (1929-1930) is about the slow conversion, through careful indoctrination, of an African ape to Soviet communism.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

But nearly as much pulp sf that appeared in the Soviet Union during these years was only lightly communist, despite the efforts of the government, and much of it, with few if any alterations, could easily have appeared in the west. Aleksandr Beliayev (1884-1942) was one of the Soviet Union's leading writers of science fiction during this era, and much of what he produced was pulp. Professor Dowell's Head (1925) is about a mad scientist who turns his colleague into a Brain In A Jar. The Man Who Does Not Sleep (1926?) and Flying Carpet (1927?) describe the efforts of wacky, unlucky inventor Professor Wagner to cure people of the need for sleep (German capitalists steal his cure and inflict it on their workers) and to create artificial means for men to leap as far and high, proportionally, as fleas can (Wagner ends up jumping into the stratosphere). Hoity-Toity (1927?) is about the shenanigans which ensue when a human's brain is transplanted into an elephant's body. And The Amphibious Man (1928) is about an Argentine boy who has sharks' gills implanted into his body and grows up as an amphibian.

Venjamin Kaverin (1902-1989) was better known as a literary writer, but wrote Engineer Shvartz (1923), about the imminent invasion of the Soviet Union by the two-dimensional Country of Geometrists, and Cask (1924), about the discovery that London and its suburbs are actually on the inside of a giant wine cask which is rolling along an extradimensional surface. Mikhail Bulgakov, better known as the author of The Master and Margarita, wrote Fatal Eggs (1924), a kaiju novel avant-la-lettre about an inventor whose attempt to grow giant chickens to feed the masses creates snakes, crocodiles, and ostriches, which rampage across the countryside outside of Smolensk. Bulgakov also wrote Heart of a Dog (1925), in which a scientist surgically implants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead criminal onto Sharik, a stray dog, in an attempt to create a "psychically lofty personality." The dog becames a lewd, foul-mouthed, alcoholic half-man half-canine who terrorizes the scientist and achieves great success in Soviet society. Vladimir Obruchev wrote Plutonia (1924), about a trip into the Hollow Earth, and the film Wings of a Serf (1926) describes what happens when a serf in late 16th century Russia invents a flying machine.

Science Fiction Under Totalitarian Regimes, Part 2: Tsarist and Soviet Russia

The krasnyi Pinkertonitscha movement continued through the 1920s into 1932. Its authors faced increasing criticism from hardline literary critics for their "bourgeois" elements, from the formulaic characters to the supposed ideological incompatibility of Soviet collectivist values with individualistic protagonists. But the Soviet government did not put an end to the krasnyi Pinkertonitscha until 1932, when the government decreed that Soviet literature and film must be explicitly collectivist and Communist, and literature bearing foreign influence, such as genre fiction, was fundamentally suspect. The production of pulp sf, like pulp detective fiction, began to dwindle, although it did not disappear until the start of World War Two. As late as 1938 Aleksandr Beliayev wrote "Black Light," about an eye transplant which gives its recipient the ability to see electrical currents, telegraph signals, and even the human nervous system. In 1935 Georgi Grebner made the film The Loss of Death, about an American inventor who invents a set of robots who are very strong, inexhaustible, and lack the ability to feel emotions. Wicked capitalists soon take the robots away and bad things follow.

But the archetypal Russian pulp sf took place in the 1930s, during the years when it was being phased out. Just as the archetypal Gothic, Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, was published in 1820, near the end of the Gothic's era, so did Ilya Selvinsky write the ultimate Russian pulp sf in 1933. Selvinsky's play Pao-Pao is about a German scientist who transplants a human brain into the head of an orangutan. The result is Pao-Pao, who the scientist teaches to become a proper communist. He succeeds, and Pao-Pao tries to help his primate brethren in the Moscow Zoo, but he is rejected by a gorilla, and when a Soviet scientist tries to rescue Pao-Pao the scientist is killed. The play ends with Pao-Pao holding up the body of the Soviet scientist, turning to the audience, and saying, "Now do you understand the meaning of life?"