Michael Hagemeister, a Slavist and researcher at Ruhr-University Bochum, wrote a book on the early Russian 20th-century philosophy of Nikolai Fedorov. Here, in conversation with art critic Andrey Shental, he explains how the term “Russian cosmism” came to be and why its myth became popular among Western audiences.
AS: You dedicated your PhD thesis, published in 1989, to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov, the “hero of your youth.” At that time even in the USSR he was known only in the dissident circles. How did you discover him and what impressed you?
MH: I learned about Fedorov in the 1970s, when my professor of that time briefly mentioned him in a lecture. An absolutely unknown Russian thinker who wanted to resurrect all ancestors. I thought: either this is crazy or it might be worth getting into. I was intrigued not by the idea of overcoming death in the future (that is not very original), but by the idea of the resurrection of all former generations which would solve the problem of “victims of history”. At that time I felt close to Marxism, like many people of my generation, the so-called “68s”. The problem of “victims of history” — important for philosophers like Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch, Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno — was that if humankind reaches the “realm of freedom,” which is expected at the end of history in the form of communism, then what about those generations who had suffered and died without partaking of the fruit of progress, as they had no chance to come into this paradise on earth?
Fedorov at that time was known only to a few specialists. Fortunately, I found not only his works, the first edition of the “Philosophy of the Common Task,” but also the works of his followers — Aleksandr Gorsky, Nikolai Setnitsky and also Russian émigré authors — in a special collection at the University Library of Basel. I found there also a pamphlet called Smertobozhnichestvo (“The Apotheosis of Death”). Then I started to read Fedorov himself. It was very confusing at first, but later I became fascinated. And then I happened to get into contact with Fedorov's followers in Moscow. They opened another way to his philosophy. I met an old Fedorovian (fedorovka), Olga Setnitskaya, the daughter of Nikolai Setnitsky, who lived out of town. At that time it was illegal for foreign citizens to travel outside the city boundaries, but I did it many times. She told me about the Fedorov movement of the 1920s and 1930s to which her father belonged and provided me with rare materials. I also met Svetlana Semyonova and Arseni Gulyga, who in 1982 published the first Soviet edition of Fedorov’s work which caused a scandal.
AS: I have noticed that Western audience is often resistant to accepting thinkers associated with “Russian cosmism.” Sometimes they need a role model like William Blake, who would be comparable in terms of their eccentricity. How was your book “Nikolai Fedorov: Studien zu Leben, Werk und Wirkung ” received in Germany?
MH: I wrote it for specialists and, first of all, for myself. It had almost the same circulation as Fedorov's own first editions: most of the 400 copies went to libraries. At that time there were several conferences on Russian philosophy — a Western audience “discovered” Nikolai Berdyaev, Pavel Florensky, Aleksei Losev and also Fedorov. My book was well received and got more than 20 reviews but mostly abroad: in the USA, France, Italy, and even in the Soviet Union, but not that much in Germany. Gulyga, whom I knew at that time, published an article in a German philosophical journal. He was strongly promoting Fedorov and tried to convince a well-known philosophical publisher, Richard Meiner, to publish a selection of Fedorov's works in Germany. We made a translation of about 50 pages, but received the following answer: it is interesting, we do not know what it is, but we know for sure it is not philosophy. And I would agree: in a traditional Western understanding, Fedorov is not a philosopher. Gulyga was successful in persuading Meiner to publish one of Losev's books “The Dialectics of Myth” in German. In a Russian or Soviet context it is an interesting and fascinating book, while in Germany people asked: what is this? And the book turned out to be a non-seller. Rather successful, however, was the anthology “The New Humankind” (Die Neue Menschheit) which Boris Groys and I edited. Published by the prestigious publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag it makes not only Fedorov but also Konstantin Tsiolkovski, Valerian Muraviev, the “biocosmists” and other thinkers accessible to German readers for the first time.
To me“Russian cosmism” is a hybrid, syncretic ideology which combines a number of different key features: para-science, esotericism, neo-God-building, New Age thinking, to name only a few.
AS: You call Russian cosmism a “hybrid ideological concept” and “a typical case of the invention of a tradition (also with the intent to support a tradition of invention)”. What is its ideology and why is it hybrid?
MH: The concept of “Russian cosmism” originated in the 1970s and has fed into a nationalist discourse about Russian identity in post-Soviet Russia. Before that there was no “Russian cosmism” even as a term. Fyodor Girenok claimed to have conceived the theory of “Russian Cosmism” at the end of the 1970s. As far as I know, one of the earliest sources for the term “Russian cosmism” is Renata Galtseva’s article on Vladimir Vernadsky in the 5th volume of the “Philosophical Encyclopedia” (1970). People like Gulyga and Semenova used this term in order to promote Fedorov. But I do not see any heuristic value of it. To me “Russian cosmism” is a hybrid, syncretic ideology which combines a number of different key features: para-science, esotericism, neo-God-building, New Age thinking, to name only a few. Thinkers who are subsumed under the term of “Russian cosmism”, to my opinion, are so different in their objectives and methods of research, as well as in their worldviews, that they have little or nothing in common. Take, for example, the five-pointed star by Arseny Zhilyaev in the HKW's lobby (exhibition “Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism”). In the corners you see the so-called “cosmists” Tsiolkovsky, Fedorov, Vernadsky, Chizhevsky, and Florensky. But what does the orthodox philosopher and theologian Florensky have in common, let's say, with the monist and panpsychist rocket pioneer Tsiolkovsky?
AS: As the advocates of “Russian cosmism” would say, his idea of pneumatosphere (a sphere of spirit) is similar to noosphere (the sphere of human thought) suggested by Vladimir Vernadsky.
MH: Yes, Florensky wrote about pneumatosphere in his correspondence with Vernadsky, but is this sufficient to call him a “cosmist”? I know Florensky’s work quite well. I also spent some time reading Tsiolkovsky. I started with that already in the 1970s, when I bought Tsiolkovsky’s “Kaluga publications” (Kaluzhskie izdaniya) in antiquarian bookshops, which at that time were affordable. Tsiolkovsky's “cosmic philosophy” is a weird bricolage (I would not call it philosophy) of ideas drawn from panpsychism, theosophy, and spiritualism, which he regarded as the work of a genius and redeemer. All that, however, is completely alien to, let's say, Florensky and other “cosmists.” What unites those thinkers? For its advocates “Russian cosmism” starts with Metropolitan Hilarion of Kiev, it includes Radishchev and Pushkin, and in the end nearly every genuine Russian writer and thinker can be labelled a “cosmist”.
“Cosmism” to me is an invented tradition, a myth, and I must say Boris Groys also contributes to it, when he says that Tsiolkovsky took up the cause of space-flight under the influence of Fedorov with the aim of bringing the awakened ancestors to other planets. This is, I am sorry to say, pure nonsense. Tsiolkovsky never had any awakened ancestors in mind. His solution of the death problem is completely incompatible with Fedorov's project of man-made universal resurrection. For Tsiolkovsky, death simply does not exist, it is only an illusion of the weak human mind, because the atom is immortal and wanders from one combination to another. Whereas Fedorov’s grand project aimed at a restoration of mankind in its entirety and included all deceased persons, Tsiolkovskii was solely concerned with breeding a future race of super-humans while actively eradicating all inferior beings. And Florensky is different from both of them being an orthodox theologian who believed in the resurrection initiated by God at the end of the times. It is true that Tsiolkovsky, when he was a student here in Moscow, went to the Rumyantsev Museum and met Fedorov who worked there as a librarian. But we do not know whether Fedorov shared his ideas with this young man. In fact, he was rather reluctant to discuss his thoughts because he did not want them to be published before his death. There is not the slightest indication that Tsiolkovsky was influenced by Fedorov's ideas. In any case his space projects were more likely inspired by Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion. The legend that Tsiolkovsky was a pupil of Fedorov was created in order to promote Fedorov under the guise of Tsiolkovsky, who was a well-acclaimed figure. It was a tactics at that time and some people openly admitted it to me.
Being a bit polemical, I applied to “Russian cosmism” what Boris Groys once said about the “Russian soul”, that it is “a commercial strategy used by some to promote themselves in the West as Russian authors, intellectuals, or artists.” According to Groys, for somebody seeking to establish himself in the West it is important to define whatever is unique about him and to turn it into a trademark. The West does not need a westernized Russia; it needs an exotic Russia. “Russian cosmism” answers this need for exoticism in the best possible way. When I see this star by Zhilyaev, depicting five “cosmists” and connecting them with the transfigured Christ in the middle, the only thing that comes to my mind is that Tsiolkovsky did not shy away from comparing himself with Jesus Christ whom he collegially called the “teacher from Galilee”.
AS: So that was a temporary tactic that in the end persisted?
MH: In Soviet times Fedorov was called a “pure materialist”, now his adherents present him as an important religious thinker, whose teachings opened up a third phase after the Old and New Testament – that of an “active-noospheric Christianity”, whatever that might be. I am not a theologian, but the way Fedorov solves the death problem seems to me incompatible with a Christian understanding of sin, death, and redemption. I mean, Fedorov was a Christian himself, but a theologian cannot accept his man-made resurrection by which he wants to overcome death and prevent what he calls a “transcendental resurrection” which leads to the eternal division of humankind at the end of time, the division of the saved and the doomed. Fedorov’s project resembles most closely the belief in Apokatastasis panton, a restitution of all things or universal salvation. This concept, however, is rejected by all Christian confessions as heretical, because it would mean that beginning and end would become one, whereby the historical process of salvation would be deprived of all significance. I was taken by the fact that Fedorov’s solution of the problem of the “victims of history” was indeed materialistic, this-worldly, and does not depend on God or any metaphysical force. Fedorov never mentions divine assistance with the project of universal resurrection and transforming the universe into paradise. Rather, his project is an essentially immanent, human, scientific and technical one. Otherwise I would not have spent ten years on studying him.
AS: You suggest a materialist reading of Fedorov, where resurrection is a purely immanent activity and this is the only way his ideas could be relevant for contemporary context. But religion, for Fedorov, was an ethical horizon that should guide science. What would happen if we absolutely secularize his philosophy?
MH: Of course, Fedorov often mentions God and Christ, and he speaks of “God’s Kingdom” and a realization of divine will, but this means a man-made transformation of our reality here, on earth, a transformation that will extend also to all heavenly worlds. He takes the example of Christ, who overcame death with the help of God, but he does not rely on God's intervention. What was important for me is this ethical impulse, Fedorov called it “supramoralism”, and this is the core of his thought: We should not enjoy our present life while forgetting the ancestors, we should not dream of a paradise on earth without caring about the fate of previous generations. Today’s transhumanists and accelerationists are wrongly referring to Fedorov, as they are striving for self-optimization and immortality only for themselves in the future. People like the early Fedorovians, Setnitsky and Gorsky, and also Semyonova believed that one day it would be possible to realize Fedorov's project of universal physical resurrection. I personally do not believe in that, and I am not interested in eternal life. This prospect is not attractive and even horrible. But as a historian, I am interested in the resurrection and preservation of the past.
It is remarkable that some Russian philosophers — and especially those labelled “cosmists” — are well received in the West. Russian thought seems to be comprehended as something strange and exotic and attractive to esoterically-minded people.
AS: Groys goes even further and reads Fedorov's project as a radicalization of socialism, even though he was openly hostile to socialism. Would you agree with such an interpretation?
MH: I have already mentioned in my book, that there are some thoughts that bring Fedorov close to Marx: the part played by labor in the process of anthropogenesis, the “true resurrection of nature”, and, most important, the practical attitude towards the world epitomized in the famous 11th thesis on Feuerbach: “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” But except for this I do not see many similarities. Marx and Engels never speculated on paradise on earth, overcoming death, and the victims of history.
AS: There is also a tendency to read Fedorov through Benjamin's understanding of history.
MH: In Benjamin we find the famous image of Angelus Novus, the angel of history, who, driven by the storm of progress into the future, looks back to the past and sees its victims. He wants to save them, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed, but he seems to be unable to do so. Benjamin believed that there must be a solution to this problem. He was deeply influenced by Jewish messianism, the belief in a messiah who will come and make everything whole. Fedorov, a Russian thinker, was concerned with the same problem, but his solution is completely different.
AS: As for Fedorov's attitude towards nature, advocates of his ideas claim that his (as well as Florensky’s and Vernadsky's) non-exploitative views on the earth are relevant in terms of ecological consciousness. In my opinion, his notion of a “regulation of nature” could be an antidote to defeatist discourses around “Anthropocene.” Nevertheless his image of a planet as a spacecraft looks today quite scary. James Lovelock in his Gaia principle uses a similar term “self-regulation,” showing that all the natural balances are very nuanced and fragile.
MH: Ecology is a modern concept. It is also used to promote these thinkers. And at the same time, it is a good example to show how greatly they differ from each other. Nature, for Fedorov, is a blind, death-dealing enemy that has to be defeated. Fedorov's “regulation of nature” means that everything nature-given, including man, has to be converted into something man-made. Fedorov never tires of repeating: “Our body must be our work”. As long as people come into the world through being born, they are doomed to die. Therefore they have to gradually transform themselves from perishable natural creatures into self-regulating, independent artificial entities. Ecology wants to save nature, “regulation” wants to overcome it. In some ways Fedorov’s attitude towards nature comes close to Tsiolkovsky’s. Tsiolkovsky wants to eliminate all imperfect, useless and harmful forms of life, animals, plants, defective humans. Among his monstrous projects are global disinfection measures, the deforestation of tropical forests, the draining of the seas and the industrial processing of the earth’s atmosphere. In the end the earth is only to serve as a source of energy and raw materials for the inhabitants of the sky, who had left their “cradle” a long time ago. Tsiolkovsky’s views are therefore bluntly anti-ecological. But what connects Tsiolkovsky vaguely with Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis is that he sees the whole universe as a living being (zhivotnoe), an animated self-regulating organism. These ideas, however, were already present in the ancient atomists and in Renaissance philosophy and there is nothing original in them. Tsiolkovsky and other so-called “cosmists” have nothing to do with our understanding of ecology.
AS: But what about Vernadsky?
MH: Vernadsky is also different. He is a very original thinker with his concept of noosphere, which is gaining more attention thanks to the notion of Anthropocene. He is by far the most serious thinker among the so-called “cosmists”. His philosophical works — “Thoughts of a Naturalist” and others — are a level above those of, for example, Tsiolkovsky. Tsiolkovsky was an eminent rocket science pioneer, but his “philosophy” is rather primitive.
AS: Would it be true to say that, in contradistinction to Russian interpreters, foreign scholars of cosmism like George M. Young and yourself find thinking associated with “Russian cosmism” totalitarian? Is this really what we are talking about?
MH: Fedorov's solution to the death problem is indeed totalitarian, because the aim of his project is all-encompassing. There is a short story by Valery Bryusov “The Triumph of Science” (1918), describing the resurrection of prominent people in a “Theurgical Institute”. At the end of the story the narrator asks “do not resurrect me!”. This would be impossible in Fedorov, because everyone without any exception has to be resurrected. Fedorov elaborates an image of humanity, which spreads its “noocratic” rule over the universe, turning itself into an almighty and immortal single universal entity, thus attaining the status of God. The conjunction between the two adjectives – single and universal – is, however, a sign of totalitarian thought. Tsiolkovsky, who promotes the idea of eliminating all imperfect forms of life, decides himself who is imperfect and who is not. We know horrible examples of this kind of eugenics. But I do not see anything totalitarian in Vernadsky, for example.
As for Young, I find his book “The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers” not critical enough. He is very sympathetic to these people, while highlighting esotericism. Esotericism is alien to me and I have never been close to any of these thinkers. It is remarkable that some Russian philosophers — and especially those labelled “cosmists” — are well received in the West by esotericists and followers of the New Age movement. It was anthroposophists who recently published and disseminated Pavel Florensky's works in Germany. Russian thought seems to be comprehended as something strange and exotic and attractive to esoterically-minded people.