A Short History of Russian "Fantastica"/Part 4

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A Short History of Russian "Fantastica" by Andrei Lubensky
Part 4
Part 3 and 4 appear in Australian science fiction periodical "The Mentor", Issue 80. (October 1993)


We have already shown that fantasy in Russia (the USSR) in Stalin's time did not have any significant achievements, and it was doomed to a subservient role in Soviet literature by the course of events. But, incidentally, the atmosphere of Soviet society was fantastic; the State had its myths and fantasies. S. I. Grabovski even proposed to consider Stalin as the greatest fantast. He wrote, "There is a great temptation to consider Stalin as the greatest science fiction author of all time. No-one before him and no-one after him could produce fantasy so complete that even H. G. Wells himself would believe it for some time during his visit to the USSR in the early 30's. No-one could turn his personal failures (peasantry collectivization, the first Five-year plan, the war against Finland) into somebody else's "dizziness from success" with catastrophic results for his own former comrades.

At the very start of the period of collective farm organization, Stalin promised to make the USSR the granary of the whole world in three years. These years passed and the USSR was embraced by a disastrous famine. Six million people died of famine in the Ukraine alone, Agriculture had fallen into decay and even now hasn't come into its own. This simple fact is enough to enter into history one of the most horrendous villains. But even up till now... and after the August '91 coup attempt failure - there are millions of people, even in the Ukraine, who consider Stalin as the greatest and wisest person; one who loved his people, and took care of them. Well, even Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov taken together have no such devoted fans as Stalin has[1].

In Stalin's dictatorship the conditions were such that any science fiction writer could only write about the theme "It's nice to live in the Soviet land"[2]. And it will be better to live in the USSR in the near future. (Accordingly, one may write about "It's disgusting to live in capitalist countries" and it will be worse to live in such countries in the future).

"... Soviet reality of the 30's-50's was an astonishing mix of utopian practice with the social myth and deliberate arbitrary fantasizing of the ruling elite," wrote s. I Grabovski, "No doubt that some grandiose projects, like the transarctic railroad, an underwater tunnel to the island of Sakhalin, etc, were initiated by Stalin, not out of economic and political needs, but to leave his name in history. <...>. Literary science fiction of that period appeared as the necessary supplement to the general project of "building communism". It was "near future" science fiction, presented by a closed group of "ideologically correct" authors who were allowed to ponder future worlds"[3]. If any author was not ideologically blameless, as officials saw it, then it was very dangerous for him and he would be in great trouble. (Later I shall show this, as in the case of Soviet science fiction writer I. Efremov.)

S. I. Grabovsky also drew attention to the antiecological orientation of Soviet SF (it seems it is the first mention about ecology in articles on Soviet science fiction). In accordance with the majority of novels of that time. "...the Earth's climate is radically changed, cyclopean constructions are erected, e.g. the Polar Bridge across the Polar ocean, giant mountains are blown up or moved from place to place, the direction of rivers are changed and historical cities are completely reconstructed."

Technology and anti-ecologism are indissolubly connected with the acceleration of the so-called "class struggle". According to those science fiction writers, everywhere, in every laboratory there are spies, other vermin and "Enemies of the people", or simply people who confess to the "capitalist way of life" and Western values. All these people are trying to destroy the plans of the "building of communism", to organize shortages and to destroy the results of scientists' work. However multiple NKVD -KGB special agents render these enemies harmless. The special agents function is to save the credulous intellectuals who deliberately give the Soviet's secrets to the foreign spies, to punish the guilty and to show those doubters their place[4]. Naturally, the anti-ecological nature of Soviet SF was determined and the anti-ecological policy of the Soviet economy brought the USSR to ecological catastrophe. The Aral Sea almost disappeared, the length of human life has shortened, there were nuclear catastrophes in the Urals and Chernobyl. The projects of communism must be finished at any price, including at the cost of people's health and life. But it was an unconscious anti-ecologism. Soviet society came to recognize ecology only in the sixties. Results of the rapacity of Nature were described by I. Efremov in his novel THE BULL'S HOUR (the outside world of the planet Tormance). "...Forests disappeared, rivers dried up, fertile soils were destroyed <...> there were mountains of carcasses of wild animals which had been poisoned because people used fertilizers excessively.... Billions of tons of coal, oil, and natural gas were burned wastefully, masses of trees were felled <...> There were gigantic cities that had to be abandoned owing to lack of water, pieces of reinforced concrete, asphalt, and iron sprawled everywhere. Enormous hydro-electric power-stations were blocked with silt, huge dams were broken up by moving blocks of the Earth's crust.... "New illnesses were springing up but medicine couldn't handle the struggle with them. Heredity defects and mental illnesses became a real distress."

I. A. Kolchenko, in his work THE LIMITS OF FANTASY wrote - "Pictures of the destruction of the biosphere by people's irresponsibility which was depicted by talented artists stagger us by its authenticity'.[5] The novel THE BULL'S HOUR was withdrawn from all the libraries in the USSR for the reason of that authenticity. Passions about creative work and about Ivan Efremov's personality stormed up.

Ivan Efremov (1907-1972) is the greatest writer in Soviet SF (and it is not only in SF; he was a famous paleontologist). The first stories of I. Efremov (there were ten in all) were published in 1944. They were awarded the prize of the notable Russian writer Alexei Tolstoi. In 1947 the story THE STARSHIPS was published, then the transarctic dilogy THE GREAT ARCH (which was about alien civilizations) was issued and, lastly, the utopian novel ANDROMEDA was published which overcome the "emptiness" of Soviet science fiction. In this novel Efremov depicted the communist society that would exist in thousands of years time. It was an unprecedented thing for the 40's and 50's. But it wasn't an unprecedented thing for Russian fantasy at all. There had been THE YEAR 4338 by Odoevski. (Odoevski, who lived in Pushkin's time, forecast that Russia would be the first country to go into outer space. "The novel appeared as a bolt from the blue," wrote J. Medvedev in his work THE LIGHT OVER THE LAKE OF DARKNESS, "There were long queues in front of news –stands where the magazine TECHNIKA MOLODEDGY ("Engineering for Youth") was sold[6], in which this novel was first printed.

I. Efremov explained his interest in futurism in his article COSMOS AND PALEONTOLOGY, where he emphasized the unity of all that which existed in the Universe. He wrote, "... this unity allows us to understand and even to foretell processes of development of events in other worlds, and paleontology has a special place in it."

It seems to me that the decisive influence on the cosmological theme in Efremov's creative work required a knowledge of such little known works of K. Tsiolkovski as THE WILL OF THE UNIVERSE, THE CAUSE OF THE COSMOS, THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE COSMOS, THE FUTURE OF THE EARTH AND MANKIND and several others of Tsiolkovski's works. In the above Tsiolkovski showed imposing pictures of the universe, which is fully populated. He considered questions of rescuing mankind when the sun's temperature was reduced and considered questions of man's immortality and cosmic architecture[7].

J. Medvedev ascribed Efremov to "the school of Russian cosmism" which was represented by such authors as V. Odoevski, A. V. Sucho-Kobilin, N. F. Fedorov, V. I. Vernadski, N. K. Rerich, N. G. Cholodni and A. L. Chidgevski. "Now this famous list is reinforced by I. Efremov"[8]. As we can see, "the father of astronautics" (K. Tsiolkovski) ideas exercised great influence on Soviet SF. But only after Efremov's appearance did these ideas obtain powerful artistic expression[9].

There were also Efremov's novels THE RAZOR'S EDGE, TAIS OF ATHENS, THE BULL'S HOUR, which followed the novel ANDROMEDA. The latter was named by T. A. Chernishova as "the best comprehensive utopia". Chernishova writes, "In this novel was summed up the utopist's search, and the first principles of Utopia were fixed in the reader's mind. Maybe it formed the principle meaning of the novel, and maybe the secret of its world-wide success lies in that."[10]. But this novel had other things going for it. I. Mogeiko considered that "the novel ANDROMEDA is a real Utopia. It is the attempt to depict an ideal communist society. And it is in despite of its popularity up to now, it's despite the fact that this novel had many imitations and had much significance in the history of Soviet SF. I venture to say that it is only an attempt and no more"[11]. Efremov's widow disputed this opinion: "I. Efremov... considered that every writer or every scientist had a right to show his own model of the future, and to say that "that it is only an attempt" is at least inane."

The novel THE BULL'S HOUR that was written four years before Efremov's death was the cause of his persecution by the officials. "It had occasion more than once," wrote J. Medvedev, "And especially in the middle of the 60's to say that the cause of the negative attitude of the authorities to the novel THE BULL'S HOUR was "a gloom of predictions" and "making a cartoon of the communist future". But time, as it is know, has put everything into perspective[12].

In the early 70's people were excited by the story PROTEY by the same J. Medvedev. In this story he, in an indirect way, accused science fiction writers the brothers Strugatski that they had informed against Efremov to the KGB. This story provoked great interest and many people protested (see supplement I to Chapter 4). Not long ago the popular weekly magazine ARGUMENTS AND FACTS returned to this espionage version. The magazine printed: "Who was Ivan Efremov? What does the author of ROBINSON CRUSOE Daniel Defoe and the great science fiction writer Ivan Efremov have in common? The first created the English secret service and the second probably was its agent. As we know in the 70's the KGB thoroughly examined the story that I. Efremov was an agent of the Intelligence Service. And what is interesting is that they didn't definitely rule out that Ivan Efremov and Michael A. who was a son of the English timber industry boss living in Russia before 1917, was the same person,. The reason for the long lived examination of the espionage story was Efremov's sudden death, which came an hour after he received a strange letter from abroad. It was thought that the letter was impregnated with a toxic agent and that is why the KGB was charged to examine the case of Efremov's death."

It is possible that this story is fit only for a future fantastic story[13], though another popular weekly magazine OGONEK ("The Small Light") showed an interest in what is written in the ARGUMENTS AND FACTS, and published a letter from the scientist A. Kashirtsev: "Who was Ivan Efremov? Such was an article titled in the weekly magazine ARGUMENTS AND FACTS , #18, 1992, which expounded the story of the KGB looking into Ivan Efremov's life. According to this story I. Efremov and Michael A. were the same person, who has an agent of the English secret service. I think that such a popular magazine must refrain from publishing such a story, especially if it came from the KGB. This article flings mud at our greatest compatriot."

"I was associated with I. Efremov at sessions of the Scientific Council of the Pale ontological Research Institute and also at lobbies. He was a highly talented scientist who wrote many books on old fossils and moreover, he created a new branch of science about forms and conditions of the burying of old fossils."

"It is known that Efremov was a homeless child in the years of the Revolution, then a detachment of the Red Army gave shelter to him and he was later wounded. After that he was a workman in Leningrad, served as a sailor and sailed the Caspian and Ochotsk seas. He graduated at Leningrad Mining Institute and worked at the Geological Museum. Efremov was a founder of the world-wide, well-known Paleontological Museum."

"I. Efremov belonged to the category of men with spontaneous excess talent," wrote writer Ju. Medvedev. In 1944 Efremov suddenly published ten stories and from that time his popularity as a science fiction writer grew rapidly. His books THE GREAT ARCH, ANDROMEDA and THE RAZOR'S EDGE were published at short intervals. His last novel, THE BULL'S HOUR (1968-69) had a sense of purpose against Soviet totalitarianism, but the Chinese names of its main characters mislead the censors and the novel was published. This book was a best-seller. After six months officials raised the alarm and the book was withdrawn from all libraries in the USSR. An atmosphere of hostility was created around Efremov. The story by the KGB was published with the sole purpose of discrediting and annihilating Efremov[14]. Disputes will obviously continue, but I think a statement that the espionage story was published with the sole purpose of discrediting Efremov is convincing (although in this case we haven't direct evidence, but we know that such methods were widespread and even the chief of the KGB L. Beria was, after all, declared an "English spy"!)

Whatever, Ivan Efremov launched the new stage of the recent history of Soviet SF. (This history came to a close in 1991, with the history of the USSR.) A whole galaxy of science fiction writers appeared after him. The brothers Arcady and Boris Strugatski were the most important and wellknown among these. The first novel that was written by Arcady Strugatski appeared in 1956. It was BIKINI'S ASHES and was co-written by L., Petrov[15]. This novel wasn't SF. Subsequently the brothers Strugatski created many famous literary works. They published their first SF stories in 1958.

The next year they published their first SF novel, IN THE LAND OF THE CRIMSON CLOUDS. The novel received third prize in the competition for the best book about science and engineering for youth (the first prize was won by Efremov's ANDROMEDA). It was the first and only State prize for the brothers Strugatski[16], but they have had many other prizes from readers. The International Small Planets Centre (Cambridge, USA) conferred to a small planet (3054) the name Strugatskia-1977 RE7. (The planet was discovered the 11th of September 1977 by the astronomer N. S. Cherkasov)[17]. This fact, and also the other international prizes testify to the international recognition of the brothers Strugatski's creativity. Khruschev's thaw gave the brothers Strugatski a free hand. (N. S. Khruschev, who was Stalin's brother-in-arms, after coming to power moved away from the former repressive policy and gave indulgences to culture and the arts). "Khruschev's thaw period in the sphere of mind was the time of "romantic communism", wrote A. Stolyarov, "Communism was a faith, but not a theory; it was a Kingdom of God on Earth and, as any faith, it does not allow critique or analysis".

The thaw passed quickly and a lot of Strugatski's works didn't suit the authorities' taste. Their novel TROIKA'S TALE was published as an abridged edition in 1966 and its next release had to wait till 1987. It was thus because this novel was a sharp lampoon of bureaucracy. But the first part of the novel MONDAY BEGINS SATURDAY, in which criticism was disguised, had been in print all through. The book THE UGLY SWANS was written in 1967 but was published 20 years later. The novel SNAIL ON A HILLSIDE (1968) was published in a complete form in 1988. Before 1988 this novel, which "was the most intelligent and most important novel of the 20th Century" (A. Zerkalov)[18] was published in sections (THE FOREST and THE MANAGEMENT) in different parts of the country. It was published in the collection ELLIN'S SECRET, Leningrad, 1966 and in the magazine BAIKAL #1 and 2, 1968. THE DOOMED TOWN (1969) was also published in 1988. This doesn't mean that the brothers Strugatski's novels were not known to readers. The Samizdat[19] (a typical Russian phenomenon) made all these books relatively accessible (see also the supplement II to Chapter 4). But none of the State publishing houses wanted to publish the Strugatski's works, for although they didn't encroach upon the ideals of communism, they did lance boils....

The brothers Strugatski were out of favor and their works were secretly prohibited. However, there was a continuing persecution which took place, even by some writers. "The second part (of ITS DIFFICULT TO BE A GOD) and the first part (of THE DISTANT RAINBOW) only confuse our youth and they do not help them to understand the development of mankind's laws", wrote the writer V. Nemtsov. "We are all, the citizens of this socialist society, more benevolent and humane than the characters of Strugatski's works. We partake in the course of historical events, we help people who fight for liberty and for national independence. And we shall do so as long as we have any revolutionary spirit."[20]

The science fiction writer V. Nemtsov had political, not literary grievances against the science fiction writers the brothers Strugatski. But, as Kir Bulichev said, "... the offensive language only frightened the officials". An intelligent book has always been a terrible thing for communist rulers. In the novel IT'S DIFFICULT TO BE A GOD, the brothers Strugatski warned people of the danger of interfering in other people's destiny. However, the Power which is always ready to support any revolution in any part of the world didn't like this warning of danger. I. Efremov answered V. Nemtsov. He wrote: "The novel IT'S DIFFICULT TO BE A GOD I consider as the best literary work of Soviet SF of late[21].

It was later in the 60's that there was a boom in SF (it was the second boom after the 20's). Dozens of books were published, the annual FANTASTICA was commenced, and the series of books The Library of Modern Fantasy became a model for other countries. The active science fiction writers were I. Efremov, G. Gurevitch, A. Strugatski, B. Strugatski, V. Savtchenko, S. Gansovksi, O. Larionova, A. Gromova, father and son Abramovs, A. Kazantsev, V. Michnovksi, A. Dneprov, S. Snegov, G. Altov, G. Gor, I. Varshavski, E. Parnov, E. Voiskuski, L. Lagin, L. Lukodyanov and many others. The Soviet readers got the chance to read some foreign author's works. (This chance was, certainly, restricted by "ideological opinions".)

This did have an unexpected effect. As J. Grekov wrote, "... these circumstances caused a sharp polarization of the two layers of our fantasy. Hack literature immediately seized on the new examples and in a large number of works, which resembled one another, appeared a lot of Toms and Johns with laser rifles"[22]. However, acquaintance with ideas from foreign science fiction was of great significance for the development of Soviet SF. At the time of the boom (in the 60's) many fan clubs were springing up. The fan clubs in Moscow, Charkov, Tbilisi and Saratov started in 1961-72. (Taratoo club, "The Reflection", is the oldest in our country. It dates from 1965 and is still active). It, as M. Yakubovski considered, was the first wave of fandom.

"However, clubs which were born spontaneously now died spontaneously, and for different reasons. In some cases enthusiasm vanished because they were depressed by the mercenary spirit, and confirmed booklovers became "stingy knights" of books. In other cases enthusiasm blazed without warmth and it's fervor couldn't kindle an interest in social organisation. Besides, the basis of fan clubs were students, who often lost interest. This didn't contribute to the longevity of fan clubs"[23].

By the time of the second wave, the fan clubs were created mainly with the help of newspapers, where science fiction stories were published from time to time. (Such fan clubs were Rifei (Perm )[24], Fant (Chabarovsk), Kluf (Stavropol), Alfant (Kaliningrad) and all the others.) The small editorial board for SF literature [25] in the publishing house "Molodaya Gvardia" ("The Young Guard") that belonged to the Central Committee of the Soviet Young Communist League (KOMSOMOL) was of great importance for the development of science fiction at that time. "All the trends of modern Soviet science fiction were developed and clearly defined by that editorial board alone. All writers who produced literature after the appearance of the novel ANDROMEDA received their first baptism of fire by that small editorial board. That board also created the boom in the 60's," wrote A. Strugatski[26].

So, now we can summarize. During the period of time from the 50's to the end of the 60's the intellectual emptiness of Soviet SF was overcome, the "near future" principle was thrown out and science fiction works again became works of art; many brilliant writers appeared, large numbers of fan clubs arose and it was becoming easier for anyone to be published. Wasn't that great? If only!....


  1. S. I. Grabovski. Stalin and Science Fiction . CHERNOBILIZATION, #4,5. Kiev, 1992.
  2. Words from a popular song of that time.
  3. Ibid, p.8
  4. Ibid, p.9
  5. I. A. Kolchenki. The Limits of Fantasy, in a collection, SANATORIUM, series The Compass Points of Fantasy, Moscow, 1989, p. 342
  6. Juri Medvedev, The Light over Darkness Lake, in the book IN THE WORLD OF FANTASY, Moscow, 1989, pp.103-4.
  7. J. Medvedev, Ibid, p.103-4.
  8. J. Medvedev, Ibid, p.109.
  9. "The father of astronautics" believed in cosmic strangers (or did he know about them?). Once K. Tsiolkovski made a curious note on the letter that was sent to him from Tomsk city by a student, A. Jutkin. He wrote, "The high creator's endeavours to help us are possible because they are continuing even now." (ON THE BRINK OF THE IMPOSSIBLE, #9, 1992, p.2).
  10. T. A. Chernishova, "The Nature of Fantasy", IRKUTSK, 1984, p.318.
  11. From the book IN THE WORLD OF FANTASY, Moscow, 1989, p.232.
  12. J. Medvedev, Ibiden, p.103.
  13. "The Arguments and Facts", #18 (May 1992). "Who was Ivan Efremov?"
  14. OGONEK #31-33. (August, 1992), p.4.
  15. It's interesting that Z. Petrov's wife was Mr. Khruschev's (one time leader of the USSR) grand-daughter.
  16. I. Efremov still received the State prize as a scientist for his work on paleontology (THE TAPHONOMY AND GEOLOGY CHRONICLE).
  17. THE MEASURE F, #3, 1990, p.21.
  18. THE LITERARY REVIEW, #5, 1990, p.40.
  19. The underground publishing house.
  20. V. Nemtsov. "For Whom do Fantasists write?", the newspaper IZVESTIA, 19th January 1966.
  21. The newspaper KOMSOMOLSKAYA PRAVDA, Jan 22, 1966.
  22. T. Grekov. Afterword to the collection "In the Circle of Light", KISHINEV, 1989, p. 683.
  23. Bor. Bagalyak. THE LITERATURE REVIEW #2, 1984, pp.94-5.
  24. The names of cities are in brackets.
  25. The chiefs of this editorial board were Mr Gemaitis and Mrs B. Klueva.
  26. A. Strugatski, B. Strugatski, THE STATE OF LITERARY SF, 1986 (MSS).
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