Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Paradise in 4338?

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Paradise in 4338?

Article excerpt


UTOPIAN writers have often presented their message in the form of semi-political, semi-fantastic stories, and today the frontier between "pure" utopian writing and science fiction is very hard to define. Although Russian utopian literature has produced no world-famous books such as More's Utopia and Campanella's City of the Sun, it nevertheless provides instances of remarkable insight.

In the mid-eighteenth century, Russian fiction consisted almost entirely of utopian writings, which showed traces of the influence of the French Enlightenment. Whether the setting was an imaginary island or a real place like ancient Rome, utopianism was a form ideally suited to philosophical moralizing.

When describing his novel Numa, or Flourishing Rome, Mikhail Matveevich Kheraskov wrote as follows: "This story is not absolutely true historically. It is embellished with many fantasies which make it more beautiful without depreciating Numa's deeds." Numa's wise rule prompts the author to give a piece of sagacious if somewhat cautious advice to sovereigns which still seems relevant today. The true glory of a sovereign, he says, "is not always won with weapons...for the triumphant cries of the victors are often accompanied by the lamentations of widows and orphans". Kheraskov sadly notes that his story will have hardly any impact, but "if there is no happy society on Earth let it at least exist in books and afford us the consolation that we too can be happy one day".

A pretext

for political confrontation

Many novels of this kind were written in late eighteenth-century Russia. The best-known was Alexander Radischev's Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow, a denunciation of serfdom which contains a utopian account of how prosperous free farmers could be. At the other end of the political spectrum, Prince Mikhail Scherbatov's A Journey to the Ofirian Land vigorously opposed Peter the Great's reforms, described cities as a source of moral degradation and their buildings as "heaps of stones", and advocated a return to the patriarchal way of life.

The 1825 Decembrist uprising against Tsarist autocracy left a mark on nineteenth-century Russian history and on philosophical dreams of Russia's destiny. The Decembrist Wilhelm Kuchelbecker wrote The Land of the Headless, a satirical sketch in which the narrator lands on the Moon where he finds a social system which embodies the worst aspects of Russian life. Kuchelbecker had discovered that utopias may have undesirable features, a new slant which gave rise to a flood of "anti-utopias" a century later.

The major Russian utopian work of the first half of the nineteenth century was an unfinished story by Vladimir Odoyevsky, The Year 4338. In 4338, according to Odoyevsky's calculations, the Earth should cross the path of a massive comet and possibly even collide with it. The plot centres on human efforts to avoid this disaster. In Odoyevsky's utopia, the Moon is uninhabited and serves as a source of supplies for the Earth, which is threatened by overpopulation. Electric vehicles are driven along underground tunnels. Siberia is heated by energy from volcanoes. Personal aircraft are used. Clothes are made of glass fibre. St. Petersburg has merged with Moscow, forming an immense megalopolis.

Odoyevsky makes the same mistake as many other writers about utopia. He talks about the general improvement of conditions, but devotes no attention whatever to the spiritual life of the people who live in these flourishing societies. Nikolai Chernyshevsky tried to avoid this error in "The Fourth Dream of Vera Pavlovna", a utopian chapter of his novel What is to be Done? In this socialist Song of Solomon, Chernyshevsky depicts the future as a Kingdom of Love--not puritan, abstract love, but earthly love which brings people the joy of life. Unlike Odoyevsky, with his preference for the city, Chernyshevsky believed that a healthy and happy life is only possible in a natural environment. …

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