Russian thought lecture 9: Nikolai Fedorov and the utopia of the resurrected

Reading: “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness, and the Reasons for the Unbrotherly, Dis-Related, or Unpeaceful State of the World, and of the Means for the Restoration of Relatedness” (from Philosophy of the Common Task)

So we come to the penultimate lecture for this course, and turn our attention more fully to the question of utopianism that is one of our key themes. We have already seen what might be described as utopian strands in Russian thought in, for example, the Slavophiles’ notion of a golden age of pre-Petrine Russian culture. Chernyshevsky’s depiction of the Crystal Palace as the perfectly ordered society of the future is certainly utopian, although for Dostoevsky’s underground man that same reordering of society becomes dystopian. And there is certainly a heavy dose of utopianism in Vladimir Solov’ev’s idea of the syzygic union of male and female into the figure of the androgyne who returns to God, as we saw in the previous lecture. Solov’ev was, as I said last time, significantly influenced by the work of the subject of today’s lecture, Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (1828-1903) – in a letter to Fedorov sent in 1881, Solov’ev stated, “I accept your ‘project’ unconditionally and without any discussion […] I can only recognise in you my teacher and spiritual father.” (Young, p. 8). But they were quite different philosophers, and the utopian dimension of Fedorov’s thinking is of quite a different order.

Fedorov is, I think it is fair to say, both unique and quintessentially Russian. Nikolai Berdiaev described him as:

a characteristically Russian man, a Russian seeker after universal salvation, knowing a way to save the whole world and all mankind. […] in the person of Fedorov this Russian type found its expression with genius. This is indeed truly a characteristic feature of the Russian spirit — to seek after universal salvation, to bear within oneself a responsibility for all. Western mankind readily reconciles itself to the perishing of many. And Western mankind holds in esteem values, other than of an universal salvation. But for the Russian spirit it is difficult to become reconciled not only with the perishing of many, but even of several, or even of one. Each is responsible for the whole world and for all mankind (Berdyaev, “The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection“).

This question is significant, as it highlights an important difference between Russian and Western philosophers: the fact that Western philosophy has for a very long time primarily been concerned with questions of solipsism, or the idea that the only thing one can be sure exists is one’s mind. Although this idea goes back to the Sophists of antiquity, it is cemented in modern philosophy by Rene Decartes’ Cogito ergo sum, which takes for granted the existence of the individual and the individual’s mind, which becomes the first, and indeed only, principle from which to build a philosophical system. The primary need of Western philosophy is therefore to demonstrate the existence of the world and of other people outside the individual’s mind.

For Russian thinkers, on the other hand, this is a false problem, because of the emphasis within Russian thought on unity and community, on sobornost’ or vsetsel’nost’. Therefore we can see that the existence of the other is already established – one might even suggest that in Russian thought it is the individual existence that is questioned – so the relationship to the other, and the primacy of the other, can be seen as the starting point of Russian thought. This focus on the other may be one of the reasons why utopianism is such a persistent force in Russian thought – this is a question we’ll be discussing in our seminars on this topic. What I want to do today is to focus on Fedorov’s ideas broadly speaking, so that we can discuss the specifics of his key essay “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness” next week. However, first I want to locate this question within a slightly wider framework of what utopian thinking signifies.

The first aspect of that is to define precisely what we mean by “utopianism.” One of the problems with this term is that it has two meanings. In the general sense, “utopian” is used negatively to mean unrealistic or idealistic. In this sense, I think we could brand practically every thinker we’ve read for this course as utopian in one way or another. But that isn’t a particularly useful starting-point for discussion, so we’ll be concentrating on the more specific, philosophical and (perhaps) positive meaning of utopia that refers to the creation or depiction of a perfect society. This goes back to Plato’s Republic and government by “philosopher kings” that aims to bring order and remove poverty. But its most significant early modern incarnation is in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, which depicts an imaginary society living on an island. The word “utopia” comes from the Greek for “no-place” but may also entails suggestions of “good-place,” so the implication from this starting point is not only that it refers to the perfect society, but also that such a place cannot exist.

And that sense of the impossibility of utopia also quickly transforms into its opposite, the supposedly perfect society that turns into a nightmare of oppression. This is not the place for even a partial survey of the range of utopian and dystopian literature, because this has become a very popular theme, with particular resonances for science fiction. But among the most famous works in this genre, one could mention Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), which has has elements of both utopias and dystopias, the designer William Morris’s utopian socialist/science fiction work News from Nowhere (1890), and H. G. Wells’s optimistic Men Like Gods (1923), about a parallel universe. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) was written in part as a critique of Wells’s simplistic utopianism, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1948) are probably the most famous examples of the genre in English. Orwell has particular resonances for the study of Russian utopias because Animal Farm acts as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, and 1984 was inspired in part by the reality of the Stalinist regime and in part by the fictional totalitarian state of Evgeny Zamyatin’s novel We (1921).

So this is far from being a uniquely Russian theme, but it is nevertheless true to say that that it has been embraced by Russian thinkers and writers (not that you’d know it from the Wikipedia article on utopia, which does not refer to a single Russian author). Both the religious and the radical traditions of Russian thought contain strongly utopian and dystopian features, sometimes with both featuring in the work of a single author. I’ll examine some these, including Zamyatin, in more detail in the final lecture, but now I want to turn to Fedorov, because I think he represents the pinnacle and the most extraordinary example of Russian utopian thinking, and is able therefore to tell us a great deal about what utopianism means in the Russian context and what its particular features are; it should also become apparent how his utopianism relates to later developments, both in Russia and elsewhere, not only in science fiction, but also in actual scientific advances.

Nikolai Fedorov, by Leonid Pasternak

Nikolai Fedorov, by Leonid Pasternak

Nikolai Fedorvich Fedorov was born in 1828, and was the illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Ivanovich Gagarin and a peasant woman (information on Fedorov’s biography comes from George Young’s Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction,  and from the introduction to the translation of Fedorov’s works, What was Man Created For?). He was a second cousin of the anarchist Petr Kropotkin on his father’s side. His father died when Fedorov was four years old, and this illegitimate family (there were other children) experienced great hardship during Fedorov’s childhood. He did receive a good education (he studied at a lycee in Odessa), but he was an outsider in Russian society, and it was this perspective that he brought to his writing. He taught history and geography in various provincial schools, but never stayed in one place for very long. He later became a librarian at the Rumyantsev museum in Moscow (which became the Lenin Library and is now the Russian State Library). He was extraordinarily well read, and when – as still happens in Russian libraries – readers gave him their book order forms, they would receive not only the books they had requested, but also all sorts of other materials he thought they would find useful. He was renowned for his great erudition; his reputation was for knowing more about pretty much any subject than readers or specialists on those subjects. This was probably because, by all accounts, he would never have left the library if he had been given any choice. He apparently had no personal life whatsoever, and led an ascetic, self-denying existence, for which Tolstoy admired him greatly. (Tolstoy, as we have seen, was incapable of putting his ideas into practice consistently; Fedorov was quite the opposite in this regard.) As Young puts it:

The only coat he wore was more rag than coat, and strangers easily mistook him for a beggar on the streets. He had no furniture, and each time he moved to new quarters he gave away whatever objects the room had accumulated. He spent nothing on entertainment, diversion, or any conveniences, and refused to take cabs even in the coldest winter months. He drank only tea, ate hard rolls, sometimes accompanied by a piece of cheese or salt fish, and lived for months without hot food (Young, p. 35).

The above is the only known picture of Fedorov, drawn surreptitiously by Leonid Pasternak (father of the poet) in the library. Fedorov had a small group of devoted followers, and was considered by those who knew him (including Solov’ev and Dostoevsky) as a man of great wisdom and holiness; N. O. Lossky described Fedorov as an “uncanonized saint,” while Lord notes, “It is too easy to dismiss Fyodorov as preposterous. Yet there must be few who have not been affected by his ‘moral persuasiveness’. Some of his appeal is obvious and fundamental” (p. 409).

So what were his ideas that Solov’ev “accepted unconditionally” and of which Dostoevsky wrote “rarely have I read anything more logical” (A Writer’s Diary, 1876), and how do they relate to this extraordinary lifestyle? Fedorov was not a systematic writer (and that is true to an even greater extent than some of the other writers we’ve looked at of whom this could also be said) and he never gathered his works together in a systematic fashion, or published anything in his lifetime. This was possibly because he was an opponent of copyright, which he saw as detrimental to the spread of knowledge (an important question for Fedorov), but also because he saw writing as simply a prelude to action – albeit a necessary one – and thereafter ultimately as obsolete. As Lord says, this results in a “disconnected, rambling style, with its frequent repetitions and even apparent contradictions, [that] will quickly exhaust any reader’s patience” (409). Perhaps the same could be said of many of the writers we have studied for this course; in any case, this rather ignore a poetic side to his writing that other critics emphasize (see esp. Young, pp. 81-4).

But it is certainly the case that his work was not in a publishable state. After his death, two of his followers, Nikolai Pavlovich Peterson and Vladimir Alexandrovich Kozhevnikov, sorted out his notes, drafts and essays on a wide variety of topics. The resulting book was The Philosophy of the Common Task, and everything in this work, whatever subject he is ostensibly writing about, is aimed in some way at the achievement of this idea of the “common task.” (Note that in the spirit of Fedorov’s belief in what we now call open access, the translators of this work have made it freely available on the web, for which I, for one, am very grateful.)

Put simply, Fedorov defined the “common task” as the abolition of death, and resurrection of the dead – all the dead, from all generations. I said in my last lecture that initially his ideas appear far more eccentric than Solov’ev’s, but I would suggest that is only the case at first glance. And that’s because of the way he approached this idea. The clue here is in the word “task.” Fedorov does not believe that the dead will simply start rising from their graves at some point. Rather, humanity needs to direct its work towards the sacred task of physically resurrecting the dead; this is active resuscitation, not passive resurrection (Lord, p. 410), and his meaning is not figurative, it is literal. You may well now be thinking “in what way is that less eccentric or obscure than visions in the British Library?” but I would argue that it is so, because it is practical project and not some sort of mystical vision. Berdyaev described Fedorov as a “pragmatist” rather than an idealist or mystic, and Fedorov himself was very critical of Solov’ev’s idea of syzygic transformation and reunion with God precisely because it was an infinitely deferred mystical moment, and Solov’ev had no practical plans to work towards its implementation (Young, p. 39).

For Fedorov, as for Herzen, who (perhaps surprisingly, given the latter’s anti-utopian credentials) was probably an early influence, knowledge had to lead to action – hence Fedorov’s ascetic lifestyle, which can be seen as devoted to knowledge with no distractions; Lord states, “he was actually in the first stages of his own ‘project’, according to which individual life is an inferior form of existence” (p. 410). Simply expecting or hoping something will happen without human beings working towards it is an abdication of our responsibilities towards God and ourselves, and others, in Fedorov’s view. Solov’ev envisaged immortality being achieved as the eventual result of a vaguely-defined and gradual improvement of the human spirit; Fedorov insisted that the physical world needed to be changed in order for death to be abolished, and that this could only happen by human action (Young, pp. 57-9).

Fedorov believed that the task of resurrecting the dead was the central purpose of humanity because for him the most important question facing philosophy was: why do people die? (or why does death exist?) As Young puts it:

He believed that all problems known to man have a single root in the problem of death, and that no solution to any social, economic, political, or philosophical problem will prove adequate until men have solved the problem of death (Young, p. 13).

He saw death as disintegration – and therefore a move in the opposite direction from unity (which he, like other Russian thinkers, saw as key), and therefore “the common task is to reverse the natural flow of life” towards death (Young, p. 14); he saw “the victory over death [a]s the only moral solution to the drama of history” (Walicki, p. 387). When this victory was achieved, there would be no more birth or death, and all those who had ever lived would be restored to life. The latter is a essential component of the drive towards unity; if the realization of immortality is achieved only by those who are alive, the exclusion of the previous generations will prevent unity being achieved.

As Dostoevsky asked – for clarification – in a letter to Fedorov’s follower N. P. Peterson on 24 March 1878:

does your thinker intend this to be taken directly and literally, as religion implies, and that the resurrection will be real, that the abyss that divides us from the spirits of our ancestors will be filled, will be vanquished by vanquished death, and that the dead will be resurrected not only in our minds, not allegorically, but in fact, in person, actually, in bodies (Dostoevsky, 30.1, p. 14)

The answer to Dostoevsky’s question is an emphatic “yes.” One should note the connection here with Solov’ev’s conception of sacred corporality – the transformation of the flesh implied by bodily resurrection – and that Solov’ev also saw this victory over death as the ultimate aim of mankind. But in contrast to Solov’ev’s assumption that gradual spiritual changes would eventually lead to this point, for Fedorov, inertia and the entropic forces of nature, which move towards disintegration, meant that was not the case; on the contrary, he insisted, death could only be overcome by changing nature itself. He saw,

“Death [a]s a consequence of our passive relationship to nature. Death, in man, is a manifestation of the blind force of nature that disintegrates whole entities throughout the universe” (Young, p. 94). Human beings “are not divinities,” he emphasized, “and we cannot resurrect the dead by miracles. Christ showed us what was to be done, but not how” (Young, p. 103). The world was created by God with the seeds of perfection. As God created man in his image (and therefore as potentially eternal), man must also be active, a creator himself; therefore must complete God’s work, but instead has become passive and a slave to nature and to death. The repudiation of nature and man’s animal self in order to reveal God’s image is crucial (Lukashevich, p. 213). Fedorov argues:

Our task is to assume control over everything that nature now controls, including the courses of celestial bodies, and the composition of matter. Until we make the universe our project, i.e. until we have reshaped matter to conform with our idea of the universe “as it should be”, the universe will not be a “cosmos”, that is, it will not have meaning and order, but will remain a “chaos” of large and small particles of a disintegrating whole” (Young, p. 90).

What is significant here is that he is not referring solely to spiritual work; his idea is that all branches of knowledge should be harnessed towards fulfilment of the common task, from history and museum studies (learning about our dead ancestors) to biology (understanding the physical make-up of human beings) to physics and technology (everything from controlling the weather and gravity to space exploration – of which more in a second). Walicki (who was not a great fan of Fedorov’s, and thinks his importance has been exaggerated) says on this: “he had an almost magical belief in man’s ability to master the forces of nature and to use them to find a solution to ‘ultimate issues’.” (386) Perhaps that is the case, but I would at least add that Fedorov’s contention was that knowledge/learning/technological advances had been limited in the past because of the disunified nature of society, which meant that those he called “the learned” were not focusing their energies in the right direction; therefore once they were aware of the common task and the role they had to play in it, and all learning was directed towards this aim, technological progress would be made.

The fusion of religious impetus with technological advances is one of the most striking aspects of Fedorov’s conception of the common task. Among other inventions, he envisaged rocket science and space travel as essential developments, because the means to resurrect the dead do not exist on earth due to the process of disintegration:

to recover particles of disintegrated ancestors, Fedorov imagined, research teams [would travel] to the moon, the planets, and to distant points throughout the universe. Eventually these outer points of the cosmos would be inhabited by the resurrected ancestors, whose bodies might be synthesized so as to live under conditions that could not now support human life as it is known (Young, p. 15).

And although this may have seemed rather far-fetched and more suitable for fiction than religious philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century, it is well known that one of Fedorov’s disciples was the father of Russian rocket science Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who spent three years studying in the Rumyantsev museum where Fedorov worked, and who later propounded a theory of cosmism that had much in common with Fedorov’s, as it involved space colonization as a route to human perfection and immortality.

So in many ways Fedorov’s utopia contains elements we would more commonly associate with the utopias of science fiction. But it is a religious conception that envisages the restoration of man to God. And as such, it has some features in common with other religious philosophies we have examined this year; as in Slavophilism, and in Dostoevsky’s conception of the God-bearing narod, there is a nationalistic (not to say xenophobic) side that makes a virtue of Russia’s backwardness (Young, p. 137) to propose that this is precisely the place where transformation will happen, because Russian life is based on kinship and communality, and Russia has therefore not advanced so far along the (corrupt) European road that takes man away from God. His critique of capitalism has a particular moral slant that is close to Tolstoy’s ideas on both eros and violence (perhaps an indication of his influence on Tolstoy):

by producing and distributing commodities that were sensually appealing and, consequently, indispensable for the sexual attraction between sexes, capitalist industry promoted and stimulated a struggle for the possession of these commodities and, through them, for the possession of sexual mates. For this reason, it is possible to say that capitalist industry promoted and stimulated struggle for sexual selection (Lukashevich, p. 214).

Moreover, ‘capitalism fathered militarism, which was the capitalist expression of the animal struggle for natural selection.’ (ibid.)

So capitalism is viewed as a form of Darwinist survival of the fittest, but Fedorov was not a radical and did not in any way embrace socialist ideas. In fact, in his privileging of the ancestors, and repudiation of common conceptions of “progress,” he can be seen as the epitome of conservatism. But at the same time, this conservatism is combined with “the most fantastic future prospects” that distance it from other ideologies (I have borrowed that phrase from Dostoevsky, who uses it in a completely different context, in relation to his realism, but it seems most appropriate). It suggests that utopianism in not confined to one ideological position within Russian thought, but is rather connected to the universal significance of particular ideas within the Russian tradition, namely unity and love.

But if you are inclined to dismiss Fedorov as a fantasist because his technological utopia seems rather far-fetched, one should remember not only that some of his ideas, such as space exploration, have already been achieved, but also look at what he says will happen if technology is not directed towards the “common task.” He describes a future “pornocracy” in which people live according to their animal instincts, driven by lust (he wasn’t a great fan of women, and saw sex as counter to our true purpose; Young, p. 69). The goal of technology if this happened will not be not to restore life but to create maximum satisfaction and comfort for the living (Young, pp. 117-8). And even if one disagrees with his judgement on the morality of this, it would be hard to argue that there is not an element of this in the situation we live in today.

So the questions we shall discuss in next week’s seminar are, relating to Fedorov’s ideas as a whole: is his view that death is the most important matter facing humankind a valid one? What counter-arguments can be made? And in relation to the text “The Question of Brotherhood or Relatedness” (one of Fedorov’s most coherent and complete texts, written in response to Dostoevsky’s request for clarification, but not finished before Dostoevsky’s death) we’ll examine the way he constructs his argument, including what he means by “relatedness” and what role the family plays in that, his definition of “progress” (also a significant term for other thinkers), and the oppositions he employs (such as the “learned” and “unlearned”).


N. A. Berdyaev, “The Religion of Resusciative Resurrection: The Philosophy of the Common Task [Philosophiya obschego dela] of N. F. Fedorov” (1915)

Dostoevskii, F. M., Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1972-90)

Nikolai Fedorov, What was Man Created for? The Philosophy of the Common Task, trans. Elizabeth Koutaissoff and Marilyn Minto (Honeyglen Publishing, 1990)

Lord, Robert, “Dostoyevsky and N. F. Fyodorov,” Slavonic and East European Review, 40 (1962), 409-30

Stephen Lukashevich, N. F. Fedorov (1828-1903): A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (Newark: Delaware University Press, 1977)

Walicki, Andrzej, A History of Russian Thought from the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford University Press, 1979)

George M. Young, Nikolai F. Fedorov: An Introduction (Belmont, MA: Norland, 1979)

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  1. The “common task”: defeating death, and resurrecting “all the dead, from all generations” | XIX век

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