Back in the 19th century, while secluded in his Moscow library, a mystic erudite named Nikolai Fedorov came up with a philosophy that tasked man with the godly mission of eliminating death and resurrecting past and future generations in the flesh, with the human surplus to be resettled in outer space.
Yes, Cosmism might sound a little wacky. But it also may have inspired luminaries like Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, not to mention Malevich’s black square and the Soviet space programme. Fedorov’s philosophical movement reconciled technology and spirituality, idealism and materialism. It also gave birth to some amazing art, from the 1920s Russian avant-garde to the current-day work of Anton Vidokle.
The Berlin- and US-based Russian artist fell into Cosmism some 10 years ago. He’s explored the movement in haunting video essays like This is Cosmism, The Communist Revolution Was Caused By The Sun and Immortality and Resurrection for All! You can see all three of those, plus Vidokle’s avant-garde predecessors and more, at Art Without Death: Russian Cosmism, an exhibition co-curated by Vidokle and the HKW team (see the full preview here). The first ever comprehensive international exhibition on Russian Cosmism opened to a full house, delighting a mixed crowd of curious Berliners there to check out one of history’s most remarkable movements. It continues at Haus der Kulturen der Welt through October 3.
We sat down with the artist to find out more about the movement that, as Leo Tolstoy once wrote, is “not as insane as it seems”.
Cosmism isn’t really a known movement in Berlin. When did you personally become aware of it?
About 10 years ago, Boris Groys told me a little bit about it… that there were very strange ideas floating around after the Revolution about immortality, about rejuvenation, about resurrection of the dead, and that a lot of artists were involved. Like [Kasmir] Malevich – some of his sculptural works, called architectons, were designed as prototypes for orbiting cemeteries where dead bodies would be preserved.
Malevitch was into preserving dead bodies in space?
Yes, exactly, for future resurrection. Then he told me about these very strange experiments with blood transfusions to become younger that were conducted at some laboratory in Moscow in the 1920s. All of this sounded almost too incredible. I thought, no, this can’t be historical fact, it sounds like a movie. And I kind of forgot about it until about five years ago when I was asked to interview Ilya Kabakov. And at a certain point he started to talk about the same things. And suddenly I realised that this wasn’t a rumour or anecdote, it was something actual. So I did some research and stumbled upon Fedorov and his main work, Philosophy of the Common Task, and then slowly started discovering all of the other Cosmists. What’s really unusual about this particular movement is that there are so many aspects of it. There are of course theory and philosophy, there is obviously really great art, but there is also poetry, literature, theatre, music, science, medicine. It covers almost every advanced cultural territory in the USSR following the Revolution.
So what exactly is Cosmism? How would you explain it to someone unfamiliar with it?
It’s really simple, maybe because the original idea that Fedorov had was a one-sentence philosophy: that we are evolutionarily incomplete because we are mortal, and that death is a mistake that needs to be overcome through our capacity for scientific thinking. And once we reach this technology of being immortal ourselves, we owe an ethical debt to our parents, to our grandparents, to everyone who came before us and made our lives possible, not to leave them in this condition of death but to also bring them back to life.
On the exhibition’s timeline of Cosmism, it says that in 1884 Tolstoy presented Fedorov’s ideas about resurrection to the Moscow Psychological Society, and these very rational people asked him how all those resurrected generations would fit onto Earth. He answered that, well, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to Earth. That’s where the sci-fi element comes into play, right?
Yes, the next thing Fedorov realised was that there would really be a lot of people if everybody was immortal and resurrected – so we need to research life in space, build spaceships and try to get to other planets so we can expand living space for humanity. That’s the connection with space, but it’s even more profound than that because I think he actually started with the sci-fi.
You developed that timeline with the help of Anastasia Gacheva, who heads a Fedorov museum and research centre in Moscow…
Yes, Anastasia Gacheva is a scholar who’s been studying Fedorov all her life. Her mother was the foremost Fedorov specialist; she basically resurrected Fedorov, in a sense. She started working with his texts in the mid-1970s and it became a lifelong project for her as a philosopher to publish his work, to write about his work, to analyse it, to popularise it.
So in terms of popularity, Cosmism is something that bloomed during the Russian Revolution but started with Fedorov in the mid-19th century. Why then?
The mid-19th century in Russia was incredibly prolific in terms of all sorts of alternative beliefs. Theosophy, anthroposophy and Masonic lodges were very popular; there was an unbelievable interest in mystical cults. There was that predisposition to very fantastical, very unusual imaginations of the future of the development of the human race. Some of that arose from Europe, some arose from Asia. Russia is kind of in between, so a lot of these ideas synthesised in a very unusual way there. But then, unlike many of these ideas, Cosmism was a materialist theory, embracing technology and science. Fedorov was a very deeply religious person, but at the same time he was totally a materialist – which is why he insisted on literal resurrection, not the resurrection of the soul in some transcendental plane.
In Christian philosophy, resurrection is supposed to be God’s job. Fedorov makes it man’s mission. We have to take death and resurrection into our own hands, that’s our great ‘common task’. Doesn’t that sound a little sacrilegious?
Well, in terms of philosophy, the great tragedy of the 19th century was the death of God. Many great philosophers dealt precisely with that phenomenon, including Fedorov. Even though he was religious, he was following all the advanced philosophy of the time. In his correspondence he debates the ideas of Nietzsche and rejects them, but it’s clear that he was dealing with the same problem: this kind of sudden and abrupt disappearance of this gigantic transcendental realm that has existed as long as human beings have had some form of civilisation.
The great tragedy of the 19th century is the death of God. So Fedorov is dealing with the same thing and what his proposal is that humanity should become godlike, we can’t wait for God to resurrect us, to give us eternal life.
So what he proposed was that humanity should become godlike. We can’t wait for God to resurrect us, to give us eternal life; we have to actually take responsibility for our existence. For him, that meant improving ourselves through science, art, technology and all forms of knowledge, so that we could become more advanced physically, socially, mentally, emotionally, in every single way, including becoming immortal.
Fedorov’s idea of immortality is very different from the kind of trans-humanist ventures undertaken by, say, Silicon Valley magnates – a very individualistic, often elitist pursuit. For Fedorov, it was a democratic idea: resurrection for all!
Yes, that would be a big difference between him and someone like Peter Thiel, this American oligarch who is doing some sort of transfusions with the blood of teenagers. Apparently it works, but it’s very expensive. Or [Ray] Kurzweil wants to resurrect his father, which is slightly more charming, but he also wants to be immortal and apparently takes over 100 vitamins a day to extend his life. For Fedorov, it was much more a social project. He would not approve of an individualist desire to live forever – he wanted to live forever with the totality of humanity.
Does that extend as far as resurrecting Hitler, for example, or other historical monsters?
If I understand his philosophy correctly, he would probably say it’s either everybody or nobody, which is radically different from the kind of ideas that float around in California and other places, of chosen perfection. It’s not elitist.
Besides the elitism, what would you say is the fundamental difference between trans-humanism through AI and the cosmic version of ‘resuscitation’?
A lot of trans-humanists and post-humanists really just translate all these medieval, religious dualities into technological terms. So instead of the soul and the body, you have the software and the hardware. They think the mind is like software, and you can somehow programme it – into my phone, for example, and this will be my father speaking through this thing. It sounds very much like medieval thinking, that there is this radical separation between the essence of a person and their physical self. So a lot of post- and trans-humanism sounds very naive to me. With Cosmism it’s much more holistic: we’re not made of two separate elements, so if you want to resurrect the spirit, you have to reconstruct the body itself.
What attracted you to Cosmism?
There are certain artists that I’ve admired all my life like Malevich and a lot of the Russian avant-garde whose work has always been quite mysterious to me.
For me, as an artist, it was because of certain artists that I’ve admired all my life – like Malevich, whose work has always been quite mysterious to me. I always liked it and knew a lot about it, but it’s very difficult to really understand the black square. Once I discovered all of this philosophy I suddenly realised, oh my god, all of this work that I’ve always paid attention to actually means something else and it makes perfect sense.
Then there is the very unusual quality that a lot of Cosmism thinkers did not create a hierarchy between different cultural fields. Fedorov is really the only philosopher I know who put art on a par with philosophy, with science, with technological inventions. It’s not some sort of quaint, decorative, leisurely activity – he sees it as something as potent as science in terms of bringing about this radical transformation of who we are as beings.
You can see the attraction to the Soviet avant garde of the 1920s. Cosmism flourished during and after the Revolution, then it disappeared. Stalin wasn’t a big fan, right?
Stalin basically terminated the whole thing. Most of the people whom I mention in the timeline ended up either dying in labour camps or in prisons, or being executed. Nobody could publish anything on the topic.
That’s an understatement. He basically terminated the whole thing. Most of the people whom I mention in the timeline ended up either dying in labour camps, or in prisons or being executed. Nobody could publish anything on the topic. It was not the version of communism, that was the orthodoxy of Stalin’s government. I don’t think Cosmism was singled out any more than anarchic socialism, or any other strains of Marxism that were suddenly considered heretical.
But before that, there was even a Cosmist political party that tried to push a law in the newly elected Soviet parliament…
There was a tiny, tiny political party in Moscow of cosmists and immortalists. They proposed legislation for the universal right to immortality, rejuvenation, and freedom of space movement. But there weren’t enough of them, I think they had two people in the early parliament of the Soviet Union and they didn’t have enough votes to get very far.
It’s called “Russian” Cosmism. Is this a redundancy? Is there a Cosmism that isn’t Russian?
The term was coined quite late. It seems the first time Russian and Cosmism were mentioned in the same sentence was in the 1970s, in one Soviet encyclopaedia. The term did not exist in the 1920s; it clearly did not exist in the 19th century, I don’t think Fedorov would have liked the name at all. In the 1920s there was a group of painters that called themselves Cosmists, including one of the students of Malevich, Kudriashev – we have his paintings here from the Costakis collection. But from the 1970s on, there is this term ‘Russian Cosmism’, which pertains to the former Soviet Union or the Russian Empire. Not all of the protagonists were Russian. Some were Ukrainian, some Armenian, Kazakh or Chech – but they were all Russian speakers.
In your latest film about Cosmism, Immortality and Resurrection for All! (premiering at this exhibition on August 31), you tackle one of Fedorov’s pet concerns – the key role of museums in preserving and ‘resuscitating’ things past. Can you tell us more?
Fedorov saw museums as some kind of universal museum of everything. Actually, we have something like this now: the internet, where all of our records and images are preserved, like a repository. This is kind of how he saw museums in the 19th century; that they should really aim to collect everything, because you would need everything to try and bring back the past.
The connection becomes obvious when you film inside the Moscow taxidermy museum; it’s filled with preserved species, some of which date back to the 19th century. Did Fedorov go there?
This is actually a museum that I think Fedorov went to quite often; it’s very close to the library where he used to work, close to the Kremlin. It’s the oldest museum in Russia, started in 1786 by a German businessman. He started collecting taxidermied animals, and they eventually became a whole museum. The ones that are there now are very old, some over 200 years old, so I probably saw more or less what Fedorov saw. They’re very lifelike, so when we were filming there I thought, okay, I almost understand how he developed this idea because it’s very easy to imagine them coming to life, on the very literal level.
After those three films, are you done with Cosmism?
No, I feel like I just scratched the surface. It’s a vast cultural layer, as I mentioned before. It includes not only literature and philosophy, but also of course art and poetry and theatre and technology and space and all of that, so I think I am making a film early next year in Japan which will be a musical about bio-cosmism; a musical about immortality.
Why a musical, and why in Japan?
I recently discovered that Fedorov was translated into Japanese in 1944 and published in Tokyo. It kind of blew me away because 1944 is the year when Japan was losing World War II, and of course it was at war with the USSR, so I’m trying to understand why and how somebody would translate a Russian philosopher and publish it in the capital city of the empire of Japan in that year. It’s really mysterious. Also because Japan is one of the very few places in the world where they still manage to integrate ancestral worship, demons and pre-rational entities with a very advanced technological culture. Their mental universe is totally populated with ancestors and all sorts of spirits, so Cosmism could actually be quite popular in Japan.
And what about the idea of screening your films inside these mausoleum-type structures at HKW?
For Fedorov the museum is a kind of cemetery and the cemetery is a kind of museum, and it’s also a place where resurrections will happen.
There are of course some obvious metaphors involved. First of all, a lot of these films were shot in a cemetery. But also, one of the problems of contemporary life for Fedorov was that cemeteries were being put more and more out of city centres, more and more to the periphery, and unlike our rural ancestors who lived next to the graves of their parents and grandparents, we banished death out of sight. It’s allowed in zombie or vampire movies, but actually, we’ve managed to almost create this illusion that there is no death. And so he thought that in terms of social restructuring, museums should be moved to where the cemeteries are and cemeteries should be moved to the city centre because we should include the dead in our everyday activities. For him, the museum is a kind of cemetery and the cemetery is a kind of museum, and it’s also a place where resurrections will happen. So I guess what we did with this exhibition is to try to combine all those things.
Born 1965 in Moscow, Anton Vidokle currently splits his time between New York and Berlin. He is perhaps best known as the founder of e-flux in 1998, a widely celebrated platform focusing on the world of contemporary art with everything from critical writing, curating of exhibitions and various other projects. His own works have been exhibited at Documenta, the Tate Modern and the Venice Biennale.