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Intertwining Russian History with Science Fiction

May 20, 2013

Combining science fiction elements with Russian history makes for an interesting class.

While browsing classes under the Russian Department, I stumbled upon Russian 120: Science Fiction in Russia. I was excited to take a Russian class in general, but did not anticipate the extent of what I would learn in the one I came across. It was obvious  the class would revolve around the science fiction genre, but I did not know what kind of impact the genre had on Russian culture.  Although I am not a big fan of science fiction, mostly due to the exaggeration of aliens and their cheesy appearance, I thought I would give the class a shot. Little did I know, it would soon become one of my favorite courses.

Although I am Russian, I was able to discover new things about my culture through the lens of  the sci-fi genre. I saw the Soviet Union from a different point of view and learned how science fiction was interwoven into Russian culture.  Though I had an idea of  how the people felt about the Soviet Regime, I did not know they integrated their wants and fantasies about communism into books, let alone designed whole fictitious worlds in novels that would mimic the successes and failures of their own.

This class completely changed my perspective on the science fiction genre. There is definitely more to it than just aliens and spaceships. Science fiction explores the depths of humanity, Utopian ideals, and a futuristic world. Those elements intertwined with Russian culture widened my understanding of the two topics. In class, I was exposed to a different side of Russia; one that not only reiterated the events that shaped history, but used science fiction to instill hope and aspiration in the Russian people. At first, novels that talked of utopias and perfected societies implanted false hopes in the minds of Russians. Those hopes vanished, once reality sank in. Novels began to address the reality of society and did not sugar coat the corruption within the Soviet Union.

Many students in class, including myself, engaged in discussions and analyzed how science fiction stories embodied the ideas of political leaders and the social commentary of the time in the fictional characters’ ambitions, surroundings, and overall story narrative. I found myself participating every day and was always so excited to talk and share my views on concepts, like conformity and Russian submission to the social norm. By the time I left class each day, I had plenty of ideas and connections to explore further in my essays.

Professor Jose Alaniz teaches the subject with passion and enthusiasm. He is very open to student opinions and valued our discussions. He enhanced our interest by drawing critical connections between novels and the day to day life of Soviet culture. We analyzed Russia before the Russian Revolution of 1917, life in the Soviet Union, and the the collapse of the Tsarist regime. The professor enriched his explanations with video clips of various sci-fi movies and connected them to science fiction literature. Every form of entertainment tried to tap into the social lives of the Russian people.

Aleksei Gastev and the Metallization of the Revolutionary Body, one of the short stories we read and discussed in class, featured a unique concept that enriched the persona of Russians. Gastev penned a world where people exhibited machine-like qualities, much like what was then rampant in Soviet society. It is ironic to find people who once deemed the factory a source of unfairness and over production  now embodying a “machine-like attitude.” Machines are supposed to be strong and flawless; they run endlessly and produce without error. Russians began to think like that of themselves, as strong and flawless in mindset and body. They began to mimic what they once hated; constantly working and striving to produce without error. I find the story to be a very interesting metaphor for the Russian mindset during that time period.

But not all social commentary was free to circulate. The regime was strict on what type of novels could be published. The class allowed us a  glimpse into the consequences for an author who didn’t sit well with the oppressive regime. If anyone went against the order of any political figure, his literature was banned and the author sentenced to prison or exiled from the country. Authors either had to fall in line with the political ideology of the state or accept the dire consequences that came with criticizing the regime.

Yevgeny Zamyatin was one such author. He captured how the society had embraced its loss of individuality in his novel “We.” In it, people wore the same clothing, did everything at the same time, and lived in glass houses. The government in the novel controlled every aspect of a person’s life,  just like Stalin controlled the Soviet Union. Stalin did not approve of Zamyatin’s novel and banned him from the country. He was one of many who suffered the repercussions of disobeying the Soviet Union.

After reading science fiction novels published before, during, and after the Soviet Union and discussing them in class, I can understand why people were so taken in by them. The books helped me picture myself living and struggling in those eras under the watchful eye of an oppressive regime. The search for a perfect society, that captured the hearts of so many, no longer felt like a distant concern.

So even though I still think aliens are cheesy, science fiction as a whole has definitely earned my attention!

If you’re interested in Russian SciFi, check out my course’s reading materials:

1. Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky Brothers

2. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

3. Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin

4. Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale by Ivan Yefremov


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