The immortalisation Commission: Russian Cosmists versus death
SD TUCKER rolls back the decades to the earliest days of the Soviet Union in search of the Russian diplomat Valerian Muravyov, father of the forgotten Communist plot to gain control over time.
I n 1928, a strange little volume named
Ovladenie Vremenem, or Control Over Time, hit the bookshelves of the new Workers’ Paradise of postRevolutionary Russia. Published at the author’s own expense, the book laid out a comprehensive programme for the alchemical transformation of mankind, with the ultimate aim of freeing a new, postSoviet breed of collectivised humanity from the bonds of time itself. The author, however, was not some lone crank sitting in his garden shed and claiming to have invented a time-machine – indeed, he dismissed such an HG Wells-style idea as being one of unacceptable bourgeois individualism – but a well-connected Russian diplomat sitting at the heart of the new Bolshevik governmental machine. A gifted linguist with a brilliant intellect, Valerian Muravyov (1885-1932) proved highly useful to the early Red regime. He was acquainted with Leon Trotsky, and this was a friendship that proved useful to Muravyov at first. However, once Trotsky fell out of official favour, this alliance became more of a liability than an asset, with Muravyov being arrested as an ‘enemy of the people’ in 1929 and packed off to internal exile in Russia’s frozen farnorth, where he died of typhus in 1932. It turned out that Muravyov’s rather esoteric hopes for the alchemical, time-abolishing future of Communism were not shared by those who held the real power at the top of the Party. In the immediate aftermath of the Revolution of 1917, however, he could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise; what follows is not a wind-up.
A GREY CUBE IN RED SQUARE
In 1924 the Soviet Union’s first leader, Lenin, died. Or did he? Some influential Bolsheviks at the time simply refused to accept the sad news, and insisted that he was merely sleeping. In particular, one Leonid Krasin (1870-1926), Soviet Commissar of Trade, and the man who had enabled the Bolsheviks to stay afloat financially post-1917, had trouble adjusting to reality and insisted upon keeping his hero’s corpse firmly above-ground. Most people who hang onto the dead bodies of loved ones and refuse to allow them burial are pointed firmly in the direction of the nearest loony-bin; Krasin, though, found himself indulged. Made head of a new ‘Immortalisation Commission’, the trained engineer was handed responsibility for creating Lenin’s tomb. However, a tomb was not precisely what the authorities got from Krasin. Instead, he built them a timemachine. Krasin had a touching faith in the future ability of Soviet science to perform wonders. He was “certain”, he said, that Communist doctors would one day be able to resurrect the dead, a task which would obviously be made easier if their corpses could be preserved properly. With this in mind, Krasin commissioned the architect AV Shchusev to design Lenin’s tomb, partly on account of Shchusev’s unusual beliefs. Shchusev was a fellow-traveller of the Russian Futurist movement in literature and the arts, several of whose members also refused to accept the death of Lenin. “Lenin, even now, is more alive than all the living!” proclaimed the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky when the great man’s death had been officially announced, before penning the propaganda slogan “Lenin lived! Lenin lives! Lenin will live!” for the use of his Party masters.
More significant in the eyes of Shchusev, however, was the work and thought of the Russian-Polish Futurist-Suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich, best known today for his 1915 painting of a black square which is meant (amongst other things) to depict eternity. Undoubtedly, Malevich loved all things square and cubic; these days, he would live on a diet exclusively of Square Crisps, get square-eyed through watching too much television, spend his leisure-hours trying to solve the eternal riddle of the Rubik’s Cube, and hang all his works in London’s White Cube Gallery. Inspired by Theosophy and the writings of the Russian mystic PD Ouspensky, Malevich believed that geometrical shapes represented a higher reality existing beyond the human world. With this in mind, Malevich proposed that the shape of Lenin’s tomb should definitely be that of a cube, because cubes, in his view, represented the fourth dimension, a timeless zone which somehow enabled people to escape death. By placing Lenin’s corpse within a giant grey cube, said Malevich, it would ensure that he lived on in a “supra-material kingdom of the ideal spirit”. These brand-new FuturistSuprematist cubes of his, he claimed, were time-machines which partially occupied the fourth dimension itself, and so had magical, death-defying properties. “Lenin’s death is not death,” argued Malevich, and a Communist cube was no longer really a cube, but “a new object, taking as its form the cube... with which we can maintain Lenin’s eternal life, defeating death.”
Shchusev liked the idea, and designed a tomb for Lenin consisting of a trio of cubes corresponding to the Holy Trinity, one of whose members had famously come back to life Himself, 2,000 years previously. Krasin liked the idea too, but insisted that a large German refrigerator also be placed inside the mausoleum for Lenin to rest in, just in case. Then, when Russian science had advanced far enough, the frozen leader’s soul could be summoned back into our own time-frame to reanimate his body to guide the nation once again. For good measure, Malevich proposed that miniature magic cubes be distributed to the proletariat so
EARTH WOULD BE TRANSFORMED INTO A GIANT SPACESHIP
they could set up cubic shrines called ‘Lenin Corners’ in their homes and factories, thus allowing them to meditate upon how Communism had freed mankind from time and death – a suggestion which was accepted. When Malevich himself died in 1935, he was buried in a field with a white concrete cube as a grave-marker, no doubt designed to ensure his future resurrection. 2
How could demonstrably intelligent and capable men like Leonid Krasin come to believe in such madness? Simply put, because such madness was very much in the air at the time. Krasin belonged to a movement called the ‘God-Builders’, or
bogostroiteli, who promoted the view that mankind, through advances in science and social organisation, was in the process of transforming itself into a species of living gods. Many of these God-Builders held prominent positions in government, such as Anatoly Lunacharsky, Commissar of Enlightenment, who defined God as being simply “the socialist humanity of the future”, a God “not yet born, but being built.” Lunacharsky, like many later commentators, viewed Bolshevism as being essentially a religious movement, with science as its new form of ‘rational’ magic, and was the founder of a Russian equivalent of the British SPR, where the God-like powers of Communist super-men of the future, like telekinesis and telepathy, were researched; all those later Cold War tales of Nina Kulagina and her psychokinetic ilk have their ultimate origins with Lunacharsky and his God-Builders. 3
The God-Builders themselves, though, were the inheritors of another tradition now known as ‘Russian Cosmism’, the bizarre creation of the ascetic Moscow librarian and philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903). Almost unpublished in his own lifetime, the true scope of Fedorov’s thinking was only revealed with the posthumous printing of an anthology of his writings dubbed The Philosophy of the Common Task, which laid out his unlikely argument that mankind had a sacred duty to resurrect our ancestors, all the way back to Adam and Eve, by hoovering up their “ancestral dust” and then patching it all together again. Nothing was to disrupt this plan; if any dust had floated off into space, then Earth would have to be transformed into a giant spaceship to recapture it, the ultimate aim of the programme being to achieve total “knowledge and control over all atoms and molecules” in the Universe. Once this had occurred, Eden would be scientifically restored; death, illness, hunger, war, work and all other ills could be abolished forever. Even sex would be discontinued as, with the dead living forever, there would be no need for reproduction. Then, instead of eating animals or crops, humanity would eventually evolve into “autotrophic” beings, feeding off sunlight and thin air. Gradually, we would shed each of our body parts in turn, transforming into a race of asexual super-psychic space-plants, living in what Fedorov called “rich mind-fields”, merging with the Universe itself and becoming an inseparable part of it. 4
Amongst the early wave of Bolsheviks, there were plenty who would have deemed themselves Cosmists as well as Communists. Indeed, to some the two terms seemed inseparable. However, such Fedorovian wonders could only be achieved by everyone pulling together and following the same path. In the era of Tsar Putin, we are always being told that the Russian people love a strong leader. Fedorov would have agreed, feeling that the Tsars of his own day had been given the divine task by God of bringing all lands under their rule and making Moscow into a ‘New Rome’, from which all human endeavour was to be directed. No friend of individualism, he argued that his Common Task had to be overseen by a ruthless Russian autocrat. Dictatorship, he said, represented “the duty to the dead of all the living”, whereas democratic constitutions represented only the selfish desire of the living to be free, or “the recognition of amusement and play as the goal of life”, rather than the holy task of resurrecting the dead. 5 Put a Soviet spin on that, however, and you get an image not unlike that of the absolute dictator Stalin doing whatever he likes in the name of World Revolution. Bizarrely, some incurable optimists amongst the Cosmists began to speculate that Stalin was murdering so many people following his full accession to power in 1929 simply so that he could later resurrect them, within the New Soviet Eden. 6 Before he was sent off to Siberia, perhaps Valerian Muravyov would have been one of these same deluded fools.
LEFT: Leonid Krasin, head of the Immortalisation Commission responsible for designing Lenin’s tomb.
BELOW: Nicolai Federov, Moscow librarian, philosopher and leading light of Russian Cosmism.
ABOVE: One of AV Shchusev’s designs for Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square. ABOVE RIGHT: Lenin’s embalmed body, photographed for the first time in 30 years in 1991.