Navigating Spaceship Earth: Four Russian Cosmists

Printed in the Summer 2013 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Young
, George M. "Navigating Spaceship Earth: Four Russian Cosmists" Quest  101. 3 (Summer 2013): pg. 105-108, 120.

By George M. Young

Theosophical Society - George M. Young is a Fellow at the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,  a tendency emerged in Russian thought that went beyond socioeconomic, political, and geographic considerations to examine our cosmic dimensions, and to suggest that our field of awareness, activity, and influence extends even beyond planetary boundaries to include the entire universe.

The Russian Cosmists, as these thinkers are called today, did not consider themselves part of a coher­ent school, and only in retrospect can they be seen to have shared a common core of themes and convic­tions. Some, like Vladimir Solovyov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Sergei Bulgakov, and Pavel Florensky, were primarily religious thinkers. Others, like Vladimir Vernadsky, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and Alexander Chizhevsky, were scientists. What they shared was a conviction that we are very much more than earthly beings, that we are active agents of our own evolution, and that we should direct all spiritual, scientific, and even esoteric knowledge and effort to realize the long and widely held dream of universal human immortality. We are, as one of these thinkers put it, not earthlings, but "heaven dwellers."

Of the ten or so major Cosmists I would like to focus here on four: Nikolai Fyodorov (1829-1903; his surname is sometimes transliterated as "Fedorov"), the eccentric librarian and futuristic religious thinker from whom— or sometimes against whom—all the later Cos-mists develop their positions; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who as a teenager considered Fyodorov his "university" and went on to become the grandfather of the Russian space program; Alexander Chizhevsky (1897-1964), who as a young man was mentored by Tsiolkovsky and went on to investigate (among other things) periodicity in nature and the influence of cos­mic energy on cycles of human behavior; and Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), an eminent scientist proficient in many disciplines, who developed the idea of the "noosphere," a sheath of mental energy surrounding the planet.

Fyodorov, the founder of the Cosmist tendency, was born in the south of Russia, an illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Gagarin, who was a scion of one of Rus­sia's oldest and most distinguished families. The roots of the Gagarins extend back to Riurik, the legendary founder of Russia, and extend forward to include Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Prince Pavel himself was a black sheep; he left the Gagarin estates to lead a bohemian life as impresario of a theater and bur­lesque house in Odessa. Almost nothing is known about Fyodorov's mother, and his surname came from the godfather at the christening. Fyodorov grew up as both a Gagarin and not a Gagarin, and in his mature writings always takes the point of view of the outsider looking in, a voice from the uneducated masses speak­ing to a learned elite. A major theme in all his writ­ings is the need to overcome divisions: between classes, generations, and academic disciplines, between theory and practice, ideal and reality. All now divided must be brought back together, especially sons and fathers, the living and the dead. Duty and responsibility were cardinal virtues for Fyodorov, absent in the world as it is, dominant in the world as it ought to be.

In his lifetime Fyodorov was best known for his twenty-five years of service in the great Rumiantsev Museum, which now forms a wing of the enormous Russian National Library. Occupying a minor position and refusing all offers of promotion, he became a legend of erudition, said to know not only the title but a sum­mary of the contents of every item in the vast library, and a reader ordering materials would often receive extra items he had not even heard of that turned out to be relevant, even essential, to his research. A lifelong ascetic bachelor, Fyodorov lived alone, changing resi­dences every year or so, usually a single closet-sized rented room or corner of someone's apartment. He slept on a humpback trunk, sometimes bare, sometimes covered with newspapers, placing under his head not a pillow but some hard object, usually a book. The only coat he wore every day, summer or winter, 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 he refused to take cabs even in the coldest winter months. He drank only tea, ate hard rolls, sometimes accom­panied by a piece of old cheese or salt fish, and lived for months without a hot meal. He considered wealth poisonous and vile, rejected all offers of raises, gave away most of his meager salary, and cursed himself if he came home at night with a few kopecks left in his pocket that he had not managed to give away.

Every researcher at the library knew Fyodorov as an ideal, if eccentric, librarian. But only a very few knew that he was also a thinker—in Berdyaev's opinion the most original and "most Russian" in Russian his­tory. Leo Tolstoy, who looked down on tsars, generals, popes, and emperors, considered himself fortunate to have lived in the same century as Fyodorov. Solovyov, usually considered Russia's greatest philosopher, con­sidered Fyodorov his master and spiritual father and Fyodorov's idea the first forward movement of the human spirit since the time of Christ. So what was so important about Fyodorov?

The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin has drawn a famous dichotomy between foxes, who know many things, and hedgehogs, who know one big thing. Fyodorov was a supreme hedgehog, a thinker with one huge idea. And though it is a very complex idea with any number of parts, in its simplest statement his idea is that we all should stop everything that we are now diversely doing and devote all our time, energy, effort, and knowledge to what he called "the common task" of resurrecting all the dead. And he meant this literally. In his view everything in the physical, social, moral uni­verse is now disintegrating and pointed toward death, and it is humanity's task to overcome death and redirect everything toward eternal life. Nature is the force of disintegration, and God gave us human reason to regu­late nature. We should be mindless nature's mind, blind nature's eyes. For Fyodorov, an Orthodox believer, true Christianity can only be the practice of actively resur­recting the dead. All science must become the science of resurrection. 

As early as the 1860s Fyodorov was proposing things like what we now call cloning, genetic engineer­ing, artificial organs, space travel, and colonization. For Fyodorov, all matter contains particles of our disinte­grated ancestors. Advanced science must find a way to restore whole persons from individual particles, and since some of these have dispersed beyond earth, we must go into space to gather in the dispersed particles of our ancestors. Combining knowledge and action, sci­ence, religion, and art, everyone will join the project. Everyone living will become a resurrector, Christian in practice, regardless of belief or unbelief. Sons and daughters will resurrect their parents, who in turn will resurrect their parents, and so all the way back to Adam and Eve.

To those who worried about overpopulation and wondered where on earth we would put all those resurrected, Fyodorov answered: that's why we must colonize space. The resurrected ancestors would have new bodies engineered to live in places throughout the universe currently unable to support life. Going even further, Fyodorov proposed that as part of regulating nature we learn to overcome gravity and time; eventu­ally we should be able to guide our planet out of its nat­ural orbit and sail it like a boat in directions of our own rational choice. A hundred years before R. Buckminster Fuller, Fyodorov proposed that we become "captain and crew of spaceship earth." In today's terminology, Fyodorov wanted to turn the exploding cosmos into an eternal steady state, shaped not as constellations of figures from pagan Greek myths, but as a human-regu­lated sidereal icon of the Holy Trinity.

The few contemporaries who learned of Fyodorov's idea and incorporated at least parts of it—the moral and religious, not scientific or technological parts—into their own works included three of the greatest: Tolstoy, Solovyov, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Another younger contemporary who did incorporate Fyodorov's scien­tific ideas into his own was Konstantin Edouardovich Tsiolkovsky, a nearly deaf raw youth who came to Mos­cow penniless but in hopes of somehow obtaining in the great library an education beyond his minimal school­ing back home in Kaluga. Fyodorov immediately rec­ognized the young man's potential. He took him under Ms wing, brought him stacks of guided readings, set problems for him, taught him to take notes and use a conspectus, provided money for necessities whenever possible, and, as Tsiolkovsky later gratefully wrote, took the place of the university professors he was unable to study under. 

After a few years in Moscow, Tsiolkovsky returned to his village near Kaluga to become an elementary science teacher while dreaming of interplanetary travel. He began to make notebook sketches for rocket boats rocket wagons, and rocket-powered spaceships and to write fictional accounts of space voyages. What distin­guished Tsiolkovsky's imagination from that of any of his contemporaries is that after writing fantasy narra­tives and drawing rough pencil sketches, he developed the mathematical formulas that would make the realiza­tion of some of his fantasies possible. Over the years, while still teaching school and working after hours in a homemade attic laboratory, he built a series of large wooden model rockets, dirigibles, aerostats, wind tun­nels, centrifuges, and primitive space vehicles, and wrote the papers that would eventually lay the founda­tion for the 1957 launching of Sputnik I, the world's first artificial satellite.

Tsiolkovsky's great accomplishment as a scientist was not only to quantify the dream of space travel through mathematical equations, but to actively pro­mote and popularize the idea of flight beyond earth, to inspire an enthusiasm for rocket science among young people and even schoolchildren throughout the Soviet Union. He provided a kindly, grandfatherly, down-to-earth image for an otherwise daunting field of study.

Among the young readers who grew up to be out­standing scientists were the cosmonaut and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the Cosmist heliobiologist Alexander Chezhevsky, whose ideas we shall discuss below. 

But it is not only rocket scientists who are interested in Tsiolkovsky. From early in his career through late in life, he speculated about man's relationship to the cos­mos. Some of these speculations found their way into his science fiction narratives, others were published in tiny editions as discursive pamphlets or tracts, but most remained unpublished during his lifetime, and have only begun to emerge since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result of these speculations, many of them probably derived from H.P. Blavatsky, in whose writ­ings he was deeply interested, Tsiolkovsky has become something of a New Age cult figure in Russia, and his home and museum in Kaluga (which was also the home of Elena Pisareva, a leading early Theosophist and pub­lisher of Theosophical works), have become a destina­tion for esoteric as well as scientific pilgrims.

One of Tsiolkovsky's central ideas has to do with the presence of life and spirit in all matter. He writes: "I am not only a materialist, but also a panpsychist, recog­nizing the sensitivity of the entire universe. I consider this characteristic inseparable from matter. Everything is alive, but with the condition that we consider living only that which possesses a sufficiently strong sense of feeling. Since everything that is matter can, under favorable circumstances, convert to an organic state, then we can conditionally say that inorganic matter is in embryo (potentially) living." 

An idea at the heart of most of Tsiolkovsky's non­technical writings is that of the "atom-spirit" (atorn­dukh) inherent in every particle of matter in the cosmos, recalling Fyodomv's idea of all matter as the dust of ancestors. But where Fyodorov believed that we must redirect and reshape the cosmos, Tsiolkovsky's view of the cosmos is that it is already teleological, rationally organized, and hierarchical. Lower life forms, consist­ing mainly of matter in which spirit is dormant, naturally evolve into higher ones, in which the spirit is awakened and more dominant. Eventually as we approach perfec­tion, we will outgrow our material envelopes and join the rays of cosmic energy that constitute something like the pleroma of the Gnostics. In Tsiolkovsky's view, our earth probably represents an early, primitive stage of planetary evolution, and elsewhere in the cosmos life forms have advanced much further. These advanced "atom-spirits" are already in communication with us, but only geniuses —artists, scientists, mahatmas, and the like—are attuned to their messages.

As in the 1870s Fyodorov was mentor to the six­teen-year-old Tsiolkovsky, in 1914 Tsiolkovsky became mentor to seventeen-year-old Alexander Chizhevsky, a sensitive but fragile wunderkind from a privileged background, who began his intellectual life as a poet and painter, talents he continued to exercise through life. As a child, Chizhevsky was taken to Italy every winter, where, as he writes in his autobiography, he began his lifelong fascination with, even worship of, the sun. When his father was appointed commander of a regiment in Kaluga, the family moved there, and the boy genius Chizhevsky soon came under the wing of the eccentric rocket genius Tsiolkovsky. Though they worked in different fields, their close association continued for the rest of Tsiolkovsky's life, and today in Kaluga the Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics houses a Chizhevsky Museum as a wing. It was under Tsiolkovsky's influence that Chizhevsky's intellectual interests, always broad, ranging from ancient lan­guages to neoimpressionist painting, gradually began to expand further to include the sciences.

The works that would earn Chizhevsky an inter­national reputation as a "Da Vinci of the twentieth century;' and a nomination (though unsuccessful) for a Nobel Prize, were his discoveries in aero-ionization, which included the invention of an air purification device called the "Chizhevsky Chandelier," and studies in hemodynarnics, which shed new light on the cycling of blood through living bodies. These studies, some first published in French, others in Russian, fell within the limits of acceptable Soviet science and brought Chizhevsky high national and international honors. 

But his most important work, in heliobiology, dem­onstrating the effects of solar pulsations on human life, provoked accusations of mysticism, occultism, and irra­tionality. Eventually, during the Stalinist terror, these accusations led to his arrest as an "enemy under the mask of a scientist," resulting in sixteen years in prison camps and exile, from 1942 until his rehabilitation in 1958. During this period of imprisonment and exile, despite special punishment for refusing to wear a large prison number on his back and for objecting to being addressed in the familiar second person singular, he still painted, wrote poetry, and, with whatever means he could find, continued to conduct scientific research. At one point, realizing that they had an internation­ally famous biologist in their hands, prison authorities dragged Chizhevsky barely alive from a punishment cell to see if he could stop a cholera epidemic that was sweeping the camp—which, with bleaching powder and other crude remedies at hand, he managed to do. As a reward, he was allowed to set up a minimal labo­ratory in the prison clinic. Here, using only a borrowed microscope and glass capillaries, he conducted ground­breaking investigations into the movement of blood.

In one of his most controversial works, published in 1922, Chizhevsky provides a number of charts in which he correlates the fluctuations of sunspots with the up-and-down periods of violence in human history. In these charts, covering two thousand years, the cor­relation is almost too perfect to be credible, with peri­ods of what he calls maximum universal excitability coinciding with maximum solar activity, and stretches of relative international calm coinciding with minimal solar activity.

During his career, Chizhevsky, like the other Cosmists, was frequently accused of trying to take science back to a prescientific state, for  attempting to replace chemistry with alchemy, astronomy with astrology. Chizhevsky, like the other Cosmists, strongly denied these allegations, but added that he did respect and did wish to restore to modern science not the actual prac­tices of alchemy and astrology, but the intuition under­lying those prescientific efforts. He argued that in some very profound and mysterious but eventually definable way we and all matter in the cosmos are one, and that through exchanges of energies and matter, via particles and rays, elemental transformations, cosmic and local, physical and psychological, can result. 

Vladimir Vernadsky was another scientist hon­ored for his writings on the biosphere but derided for speculations about what he called the transition of the biosphere into a "noosphere" (from the Greek nous, "mind"), a sheath of life increasingly infused with and directed by the human mind. In the West, the concept of the noosphere is best known through the writings of Vernadsky's French colleague, Pierre Teilhard de Char-din, who attended a course of lectures Vernadsky deliv­ered at the Sorbonne and probably developed his own concepts under the influence of and in collaboration with Vernadsky. But it is through Vernadsky's deeper and broader extensions of the idea that the noosphere has become such an important concept in Russian Cos-mist speculation. Vernadsky contended that although it cannot be measured or detected by standard instru­ments, the noosphere is as real and important as the stratosphere or ionosphere. He believed that our plan­et's transition from the biosphere, the sheath of living matter, to the noosphere, the sheath of thinking matter, will be as crucial a stage in geology as earlier transitions from a lifeless orbiting rock to a teeming biosphere. In Vernadsky's view, we share the biosphere with all liv­ing matter—vegetables, animals, other humans. We are related to all, and, as the rational component of living matter, we bear responsibility for all.

Although not religious in any traditional sense, Ver­nadsky was a deeply spiritual thinker, and his idea of the noosphere as a nonmaterial sheath of intellectual matter and recorded mental activity enveloping the biosphere in some ways resembles the Theosophical concept of akasha. Vernadsky's spiritual and scientific vision was of a wholly interconnected cosmos. Man in Vernadsky is both a result of and an active partici­pant in the ongoing natural evolution of the cosmos, which nonmaterial as well as material realities operate. Like the other Cosmist thinkers, Vernadsky assumed that knowledge was whole, that scientific, spiritual moral, theoretical, and practical approaches would not lead toward different directions and goals, but would in the end unite in ultimate truth. As a political, cultural, and intellectual moderate living and working among radicals of all stripes and tendencies, as a profound traditionalist in revolutionary times, Vernadsky suffered official slights, threats, and harassment throughout his career. But even through the worst conditions, he remained loyally, thoroughly Russian, refused to adapt science to politics, refused all opportunities to emigrate, and as conditions have improved has emerge as a model of scientific genius and intellectual integrity.

None of the Russian Cosmists was a pure Theo­sophist, but all were at one time or another familiar with, attracted to, and influenced by HPB's writings. They were not afraid to go against current intellectual tendencies, nor hesitant to undertake unconventional researches. They found new scientific worth in long ignored or rejected bodies of knowledge and directions of enquiry. Though not intended as such, their works as a whole can be read as reasonable responses to the Third Object of Theosophy: to investigate unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent in humanity.


George M. Young is a Fellow at the Center for Global Humanities at the University of New England. He is the author of The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers (Oxford University Press, 2012).


Further Reading

Bales, Kendell E. Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolution: V.I. Vernadsky and His Scientific School, 1863?1945. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Holquist, Michael. "Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: Science Fiction and Philosophy in the History of Soviet Space Exploration." In Intersections: Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. George E Slusser and Eric S. Rabkin (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987), 74-86.

Masing-Delic, Irene. Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Rosenthal, Bernice Glatzer, ed. The Occult in Russian and Soviet Culture. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997.

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