In Russian philosophical discussions of the 1970s–80s, cosmism emerged as one of the most influential trends. It has come to designate not only a particular movement, but an overarching property and legacy of Russian philosophy as a whole. Cosmism literally means a “cosmic orientation” of thought, not only because the cosmos is the object of this thought, but because the thought considers itself to be a part of the cosmos. Thought is both a cognitive reflection of cosmic reality and a constitutive force of cosmic evolution. To offer a concise definition: cosmism is a philosophy of active evolutionism, presupposing the possibility and necessity for the human mind to regulate and transform the laws of nature. It is important to distinguish Russian cosmism from cosmicism, the philosophy developed by the American writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937) in his horror narratives, which present humans as pathetically insignificant in the larger scheme of cosmic existence. Envisioning a universe ruled by evil gods, cosmicism entails, in particular, a dread before the cosmic void. Russian cosmism generally asserts an active and optimistic perspective on the transformative impact of human reason on cosmic evolution, whereas Lovecraftian cosmicism is associated with pessimism and nihilism.
The Origins of Cosmism: Russian Orthodoxy
It is difficult to pinpoint the genesis of cosmism in the history of Russian thought, mainly because it is intimately tied to the longstanding intuitions of Eastern Christianity. Many commentators have observed that, while Catholicism evinced a predominantly historical orientation in directing the fates of the world, Orthodoxy was far more concerned with the cosmic and mystical dimensions. The “theosis,” or “deification of the creature,” a foremost aspiration of Eastern Christianity, presupposes the transfiguration not only of human flesh but also of the entire substance of the universe and of all living beings. This tendency may be explained by the duality of Russian Orthodoxy, which brought a considerable pagan inheritance to its Christian foundation; in many cases, its believers worshipped forces of nature under the names of Christian saints. Via this “dual faith” or “double belief” (dvoeverie), Christian communities consciously or unconsciously preserved pagan beliefs and/or rituals, in effect adhering to a syncretic religion.
Historically, Russia functioned as a vast agrarian economy, and Russian Christianity accommodated the preconceptions of the peasantry, whose imagination was oriented toward cyclical processes in nature, as opposed to the linear, historical dimension of a more urbanist Western civilization. Perhaps the first monument of Russian cosmism is the so-called Deep Book or Dove Book (Golubinaia kniga). This collection of spiritual verses from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries presents popular Christian beliefs, expressed in religious folk songs, as a mixture of cosmic and anthropomorphic elements. According to the Deep or Dove Book, for example, human thoughts derive from heavenly clouds, and bodies from the moist earth, with numerous other parallels drawn between the life of humankind and the workings of the universe, thus anticipating the basic presupposition of contemporary cosmism—that human beings and the cosmos are symbiotically joined.
The Origins of Cosmism: Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky, and Vernadsky
In a conventional sense, the founder of Russian cosmism is considered to be Nikolai Fedorov (1829–1903), a cult figure for all later cosmists. Fedorov focused his attention on the problem of death, which, as an inevitability of nature, is also, in his view, an insult to humanity. Thus, he directed his philosophical project, which he called the “common cause” (obshchee delo), toward overcoming death through technological and social advancement. In his understanding, Christianity is primarily a religion of resurrection, which echoes the Orthodox privileging of Easter over all other holidays, including the Nativity, the celebration of Christ’s birth prioritized in Catholicism. The moral task of humanity, then, is not to wait for the Last Judgement, but to follow the example set by Christ and endeavor to make bodily resurrection possible on Earth, to transform the entirety of human existence into a manmade and continuous Easter.
Several social and metaphysical reorientations proceed from this “common cause.” First of all, history as a succession of generations, whereby the new supplants the old, must give way to a retrospective tendency that emphasizes immortality and the resurrection of ancestors. The highest moral duty of all descendants is to revive their forebearers, to reciprocate the gift of life received from them. Fedorov criticizes the civilization of his contemporaries for its procreative obsession, which has given rise to a “feminized” industry of conspicuous consumption oriented toward seduction. Sexuality and the cult of pleasure, comfort, and beauty distract men from the fulfilment of their highest duty. Morality, or rather “supramorality” (supramoralizm) as Fedorov puts it, demands that sons return their debt of love to their fathers by resurrecting them. All technological resources must be dedicated to this task of preserving and revitalizing the remains of deceased progenitors. Thus, the museum becomes the central cultural institution of humanity and functions also as a laboratory of resurrection science, transforming the archives, as the knowledge of the past, into the practice of re-creation. Furthermore, once the conquest over death is complete, procreation becomes obsolete and the focus of human history shifts to cosmic expansion, which will be necessary to accommodate the innumerable resurrected generations of ancestors. The religious thrust of Fedorov’s project is the overturning, not just of death, but of all natural laws, such that humanity may attain God’s omniscience and omnipotence through theosis (obozhenie, “deification”). Fedorov often repeated that everything “granted” (darovoe) must be transformed into something “crafted” (trudovoe), and that man is called to worship God by literalizing in practice all that which in scripture is usually interpreted only symbolically, as mere spiritual allegory or, at most, as miraculous intervention from another world.
The next widely recognized figure within the philosophical tradition of cosmism is Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935). Tsiolkovsky was officially honored in the Soviet period as the “father of Soviet cosmonautics” and was the first scientist to offer detailed technological parameters for the field of rocketry, in particular the “Tsiolkovsky rocket equation,” which is used to describe the motion of vehicles according to the basic acceleration principles of a rocket. He was also, however, a self-styled philosopher who published numerous pamphlets on topics such as “cosmic reason,” “Nirvana,” and “the future of the Earth and humanity.” Though celebrated as a scientist, his philosophy was suppressed in the USSR for its non-materialist and mystical claims.
For example, Tsiolkovsky, as a panpsychist, believed that all physical matter is animate and sentient, and that every atom is a living and conscious entity—the primordial citizen of the universe. Living organisms, then, are only temporary associations of atoms, which continue to live even after the organism itself has disintegrated. Unlike Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky espouses no project for immortality, since in his opinion, it is already the rule—on an atomic level. Atoms would prefer, he believed, to find their habitat in the most perfect forms of life: for instance, in the human brain. This accounts for somatic death, as atoms continue to seek a superior “social” organization; moreover, this belief also plays a role within Tsiolkovsky’s advocacy for eugenics and deliberate biological selection, that is, the disposal of inferior, and cultivation of superior, atomic associations. Two basic ideas of cosmism—the recognition of the universe as a living organism, and the active regulation of natural forces, including genetics—owe their prominence to Tsiolkovsky, who considered himself to be a disciple of Fedorov.
The third most important name in the cosmist hierarchy is Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945). If Nikolai Fedorov was primarily a religious thinker and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky a hybrid scientist/prophet, then Vernadsky, as a strict scientist, represents the other end of the cosmist spectrum. He was the originator of new approaches in the natural sciences, including within biochemistry, geochemistry, and integrative geoscience. He was the first scientist to theorize the geologic role of living matter and is the scholar most associated with the concept of the “biosphere,” referring to the total sum of living things in the universe and the influence of plant, animal, and human life on the evolution of planetary structures. Together with French thinkers Édouard Le Roy and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vernadsky developed the concept of the “noosphere,” which refers to the collective body of human thought incorporated into the biosphere as an active factor in its transformation. In his view, the geosphere organically overlaps with the biosphere, which in turn grows into the noosphere. Thought is a form of energy, an active factor of geological evolution that allows humanity to cooperate with nature as a complementary part of a living and thinking organism.
Cosmism in the Soviet Period
Cosmism, like all other non-Marxist and “idealistic” teachings during the Soviet period, was rejected by official ideology, but it nevertheless enjoyed a kind of unspoken privileged status. Fedorov’s project for the resurrection of the dead, for instance, was implicitly incorporated into some undercurrents of Soviet ideology, as manifested most strikingly in the construction of Lenin’s mausoleum, which was designed to preserve his body until the invention of some radically new technology that could resurrect him. Despite the atheism of Marxism-Leninism and the religiosity of Nikolai Fedorov, the two systems are compatible inasmuch as both attempt to give immanent realization to transcendental aspirations. The imperative of both ideologies is technological progress, which will lead to humanity’s absolute mastery over the forces of nature. Both systems critique capitalist civilization for its social inequality and materialistic obsessions—in Marxism, the greed of the bourgeoisie; in Fedorov, the dictatorship of fashion, which Fedorov considered corrupt and “feminine.” Both strive to overcome individualism and egoism to achieve a levelling of society toward the formation of armies of workers. Labor, in each system, is the highest moral duty and value, since the task of humanity is to subordinate spontaneous and chaotic processes in nature and society to teleological and creative human reason. This is why, when such celebrated Soviet writers of a decidedly communist orientation like Maksim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky glorify the immortality of omnipotent Man and the ongoing transformation of the universe through the conscientious effort of a unified humanity, they seem to pay homage to Fedorov rather than Marx. We can find Fedorovian motifs in the work of prominent writers of the Soviet period, including Andrei Platonov, Mikhail Prishvin, and Nikolai Zabolotsky, where the cosmos directly intervenes in the lives of their characters and the energy of the human mind and will work to improve the deficiencies of the existing universe.
In the 1950–60s, Soviet space exploration (the first Sputnik, 1957; the first human in orbit, 1961) was motivated not only by the political ambitions of communism and the scientific genius of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, but was also implicitly motivated by the metaphysical imagination of his teacher Nikolai Fedorov. In order to make space for the billions of resurrected dead and future immortals, Fedorov envisioned that humankind would colonize the entire universe. The very history of Russia, as is well known, consisted in the continuous colonization of new lands in all four directions of the compass, and then—as Fedorov insisted, referring to the vastness of the Russian plain—in the “fifth” direction as well, that of open space. Russia must lead humanity as the carrier of the Mind, that force that opposes the destruction and death of the universe, which will inevitably come should human beings renounce their role as the conduit by which divine energy enters the created world.
In the 1970–80s, Russian cosmism was further invigorated by an increased interest in environmental matters. We find certain elements of contemporary cosmism in the writings of Svetlana Semenova, Vasily Kuprevich, Nikita Moiseev, Fedor Girenok, and others, who gave rise to an intellectual strand of cosmism that can be considered the Russian equivalent of the environmental holism of James Lovelock, Gregory Bateson, and other “New Paradigm” scientists. This tradition of cosmism has been influenced by the ideas of negentropy, the anthropic principle, and the Gaia hypothesis.
At the same time, Cosmism also resonates with Transhumanism, a movement originating in the West in the 1980s that aims at the enhancement of humanity by developing new technologies to overcome fundamental biological limitations, to greatly increase longevity and cognitive abilities, and ultimately to achieve immortality. In fact, the original cosmism of Fedorov and Tsiolkovsky did not take up environmental concerns explicitly; instead, Fedorov and Tsiolkovsky emphasized the heroic thrust of humans in their attempts to transform their imperfect, dull, and sluggish unconscious nature and to subordinate it to their far-reaching plans for the future of humanity. Thus, the term “anthropocosmism” is appropriate for describing this movement, which can also be called “active evolutionism.” Among the representatives of the broadly interpreted anthropocosmism of the late 20th–21st centuries, Svetlana Semenova (1941–2014) stands out as the most articulate, coherent, and systematic thinker.
Publications concerning the philosophical legacies of Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky, and Vernadsky began to proliferate in the late 1970s. At first these claimed to elaborate new areas for Marxist thought, especially with regard to the relationship between humanity and nature. At this stage, cosmism seemed like a useful add-on to Marxism, supplementing a social doctrine with a naturalistic dimension. Cosmists argued that Marx had shown us the way to achieve a classless society, while Fedorov showed us what to do next. That is, once communism comes fully to fruition, the energy of social struggle will be channeled into the struggle of humanity united against the brutal and random forces of nature.
Indeed, over the course of time, the relationship between the two systems in Russian thought inverted itself in favor of cosmism. Increasingly, Marxism came to be inscribed within the more magnificent perspective of cosmism as one of its subordinate tools, in effect a mere technique for uniting people for the larger Common Cause. The October Revolution, Lenin and Trotsky’s war communism, Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization, the launch of the first satellite and the first manned spaceflight under Khrushchev—all these can be now reinterpreted as primitive, largely flawed, albeit productive steps in the direction of Fedorov’s vision. Today, in the Russian philosophy of nature and the environment, of space exploration, and of advanced technologies and artificial intelligence studies, including the various futuristic and globalistic approaches, the legacy of cosmism—and especially the work of Vernadsky—remains highly influential.
Mikhail Epstein, August 2021