Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature

Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature

Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature

Abolishing Death: A Salvation Myth of Russian Twentieth-Century Literature


The idea of abolishing death was one of the most influential myth-making concepts expressed in Russian literature from 1900 to 1930, especially in the works of writers who attributed a "life-modeling" function to art. To them, art was to create a life so aesthetically organized and perfect that immortality would be an inevitable consequence.

This idea was mirrored in the thought of some who believed that the political revolution of 1917 would bring about a revolution in basic existential facts: specifically, the belief that communism and the accompanying advance of science would ultimately be able to bestow physical immortality and to resurrect the dead. According to one variant, for example, the dead were to be resurrected by extrapolation from the traces of their labor left in the material world.

The author finds the seeds of this extraordinary concept in the erosion of traditional religion in late-nineteenth-century Russia. Influenced by the new power of scientific inquiry, humankind appropriated various divine attributes one after the other, including omnipotence and omniscience, but eventually even aiming toward the realization of individual, physical immortality, and thus aspiring to equality with God. Writers as different as the "decadent" Fyodor Sologub, the "political" Maxim Gorky, and the "gothic" Nikolai Ognyov created works for making mortals into gods, transforming the raw materials of current reality into legend.

The book first outlines the ideological context of the immortalization project, notably the impact of the philosophers Fyodorov and Solovyov. The remainder of the book consists of close readings of texts by Sologub, Gorky, Blok, Ognyov, and Zabolotsky. Taken together, the works yield the "salvation program" that tells people how to abolish death and live forever in an eternal, self-created cosmos- gods of a legend that was made possible by creative artists, imaginative scientists, and inspired laborers.


The present study was conceived and begun in 1979 at the Friedrich Wilhelm Alexander Universitët, Erlangen-Nürnberg, in the then Federal Republic of Germany. The idea to explore the theme of "abolishing death" in Russian twentieth-century literature was encouraged by Professor Dr. Joseph Schütz, head of the Slawisches Seminar, Erlangen. With his support and the financial assistance of the Stiftung Volkswagenwerk, Hannover, a series of seminars devoted to the topic was conducted at the University of Erlangen. I appreciate the stimulating contributions to the theme of "abolishing death" by the seminar participants and the opportunity to develop my ideas in discussions and colloquia. No one protested against researching such a strange topic; all were prepared to investigate its potential.

I also feel greatly indebted to Professor Wolfgang Kasack, head of the Slawisches Seminar, Cologne, for valuable discussions and encouragement of the project. In particular, I owe the Stiftung, Professor Schütz, and Professor Kasack an acknowledgment for infinite patience. All conveyed the encouraging impression that they believed the project was a worthwhile venture.

After Erlangen, I continued my research at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, where I took up an appointment as lecturer in 1980. It was finalized during a sabbatical leave granted in 1986. I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the University and the Human Sciences Research Council (South Africa), which made travel to the United States possible. The sabbatical year was spent at the . . .

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