Imagining the Cosmos: Utopians, Mystics, and the Popular Culture of Spaceflight in Revolutionary Russia
This essay investigates the explosive Soviet interest in space travel during the New Economic Policy (NEP) era of the 1920s, as expressed through amateur societies, the press, literature, painting, film, and other popular culture. In recovering an obscured history of the roots of Russian cosmonautics, it shows how the cause of space exploration in early twentieth-century Russia originally stemmed from two ideological strands: technological utopianism and the mystical occult tradition of Cosmism. The former (seemingly modern, urban, international, materialist) alternately clashed and meshed with the latter (superficially archaic, pastoral, Russian, spiritual), creating an often contradictory but urgent language of space enthusiasm. Cosmic activists, who saw themselves as part of a new Soviet intelligentsia, actively used both ideals to communicate their views directly to the public. The essay argues that despite superficial differences, technological utopianism and Cosmism shared much of the same iconography, language, and goals, particularly the imperative to transform and control the natural world. In other words, the modern rocket with its new Communist cosmonaut was conceived as much in a leap of faith as in a reach for reason.
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