Now a film, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” by George Carey, and a book, “The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers,” by George M. Young, make Russian Cosmism much more accessible to a Western audience.
The Russian Cosmist scientific, philosophical, and spiritual movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, was not well known in the West until recently. Most Cosmist writings are not available in other languages, and many aspects of Cosmist thinking were frowned upon in the Soviet era before 1991. Though Russian Cosmism is one of my main inspirations and one of the foundations of my own worldview, I am unable to read the original texts because I don’t speak Russian. Fortunately, there are more and more popular and scholarly works dedicated to Russian Cosmism. Now a film, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” [Carey 2011] by George Carey, and a book, “The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers,” [Young 2012] by George M. Young, make Cosmism much more accessible to a Western audience.
I recommend watching George Carey‘s film “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” aired by the BBC on the 50th “Yuri’s Night,” 50 years after Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering flight to space, to all those who are interested in space, the history of the Russian space program, the amazing beautiful philosophy known as Russian Cosmism, our place and future in the universe, technological immortality, and resurrection.
The film captures the popular enthusiasm for space in the Soviet Union of the 60s. We had the same enthusiasm in the West at the time, and God knows we could use it now, all over the planet.
I think we can look, again, at the Cosmist philosophy to renew our enthusiasm and drive with beautiful and energizing cosmic visions, and to remember that wonderful adventures are waiting for us in outer space. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the founding father of astronautics, was a brilliant scientist and engineer, but his motivation and drive came from his philosophical convictions, his belief in humanity’s destiny to leave the Earth and colonize the universe, and his vision of a deep unity between man and the cosmos.
Today, following the Cosmist tradition, Russia has a lively transhumanist community and Singularity scene, with the only operational cryonics facility not in the U.S., and the Global Futures 2045 conferences dedicated to immortality and mind uploading.
Carey’s film features Gagarin, Russian scientists and space engineers, Tsiolkovsky and many other Cosmist thinkers, but the real protagonist is Tsiolkovsky’s mentor, the Cosmist mystic Nikolai Fedorov. He was one of the first modern thinkers who dared to suggest that, some day, science and technology may be able to resurrect the dead and bring back to life every person who ever lived.
Fedorov suggested that science was a tool given to us by God to enable us to resurrect the dead and, as promised, enjoy immortal life. He added that because the Earth could not sustain a population that never died, we must first learn to conquer space. His ideas about human evolution, and in particular the idea that humans should take control of the process and direct it towards their own goals, inspired generations of Russian scientists and led directly to contemporary transhumanism.
Fedorov thought that the physical resurrection is to be brought about by restoring the body to a condition that existed prior to death. A person is made up of atoms, and when a person dies these (finitely many) particles are scattered. Resurrection of the person occurs as a consequence of restoring the atoms to their previous arrangement. To carry out the resurrection it is necessary to determine what this arrangement was and then to reposition the particles. This is a problem to be solved by science rather than by appeals to an outside power.
His resurrection theory reflects 19th-century models of the universe and seems naive today. New technological resurrection theories based on contemporary science have been proposed, for example by R. Michael Perry [Perry 2000] and Frank Tipler [Tipler 1994]. But Perry’s and Tipler’s approaches, and mine, will probably seem equally naive to future scientists. Fedorov must be credited for the idea of technological resurrection, and we, his followers, are happy to see that many people are warming up to his vision. Following Fedorov, future scientists will scan the fabric of spacetime to find the dead, and bring them back to life.
Of course the super-science of technological resurrection, perhaps based on weird quantum physics (the term “Quantum Archeology” is often used), may not be developed until a very far future, perhaps thousands of years. But why hurry? To us, subjectively, no time will pass between death and resurrection. In the meantime, the Cosmist philosophy can give us the positive, solar optimism that we need.
Nikolay Fedorov was the illegitimate son of a Russian nobleman called Gagarin – Pavel Gagarin, Fedorov’s father, was not related to Yuri Gagarin the first cosmonaut, but this is an interesting coincidence to say the least. The film shows many aspects and protagonists of the the Russian space program and the young Soviet icon and folk hero Yuri Gagarin, but it’s centered on Fedorov’s ideas and legacy. In his “cosmic garden” Valery Borisov, a colorful Cosmist with a cowboy attire and an encyclopedic knowledge of Fedorov’s life and times, explains Fedorov’s ideas in a nutshell:
“Fedorov believed that science must help realize God’s plan for man’s salvation and for the resurrection of mankind. Christ said: what I have created, you must create too – and go further. What was it that Christ did? He rose from the dead. Literally, Christ was telling us to accomplish our own resurrection. Not to wait for some mystical event but to meet God halfway. Fedorov said if we resurrect everybody, they won’t all fit on Earth. And he said wisely: ‘In the Cosmos, abodes aplenty will appear.’ That’s why we need the Cosmos. The Cosmos offers empty planets where resurrected people will settle, and from there, direct the workings of the universe.”
We follow Carey to ISRICA, the Institute for Scientific Research in Cosmic Anthropoecology in Novosibirsk, and follow experimental sessions in a “Kozyrev Mirror” built to test the controversial theories of astrophysicist Nikolai Kozyrev – technology aided meditation may unlock the latent shaman in us, and let us communicate with the Cosmos. This part of the film shows the strong spiritual, New Age component of Cosmism, strongly emphasized by many Cosmist thinkers, but condemned by the Soviet regime. On the opposite side of the Cosmist galaxy, Danila Medvedev, the young transhumanist director of the cryonics provided Kriorus, proposes a hardline materialistic approach to immortality, based on advanced technologies and mind uploading, with no concessions to spirituality.
Young’s book, “The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers,” [Young 2012], is a very intense mini encyclopedia with a lot of short biographical, literary and philosophical entries about main and lesser known Cosmist thinkers, all influenced by Fedorov’s seminal work. Fedorov himself published almost nothing, but his most important works were collected by his followers and published after his death as “The Philosophy of the Common Task” [Fedorov 1990]. The author George M. Young, a professor of Russian language and literature, dedicated decades of research to this book, a complete and authoritative reference that, I hope, will make Cosmism much better known in the Western world.
Young emphasizes the Russianness of Cosmism, the vastness of Russian land and history as a unique stage for the emergence of a system of thought so vast and daring to encompass both science and religion in a synergistic whole. The Russian cultural identity is part of the common ground that holds Cosmism together.
Surprisingly, even Soviet bureaucrats were intrigued by Fedorov’s ideas on technological resurrection:
“Revolutionary immortality meant that individuals would die, but The People for whom the individual died would live on forever, and through inevitable progress in science and labor, The People of the future would eventually restore life to the sacrificed individuals… Lenin, waiting in his glass coffin, would be the first resurrected by science.”
Like Carey, Young shows the diversity of the Cosmist galaxy, and the many co-existing scientific, philosophical, religious, spiritual, as well as esoteric, shamanistic, gnostic approaches:
“Main themes in Cosmist thought include the active human role in human and cosmic evolution; the creation of new life forms, including a new level of humanity; the unlimited extension of human longevity to a state of practical immortality; the physical resurrection of the dead; serious scientific research into matters long considered subjects fit only for science fiction, occult, and esoteric literature; the exploration and colonization of the entire cosmos; the emergence on our biosphere of a new sphere of human thought called the ‘noosphere’; and other far reaching ‘projects:’ some of which may no longer seem as impossible or crazy as they did when first proposed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
In her introduction to a valuable anthology of Cosmist thought published in I993, contemporary Cosmist Svetlana Semenova identifies the core Cosmist idea, active evolution:
“[The] idea of active evolution, i.e., the necessity for a new conscious stage of development of the world, when humanity directs it on a course which reason and moral feeling determine, when man takes, so to say, the wheel of evolution into his own hands …. Man, for actively evolutionary thinkers, is a being in transition, in the process of growing, far from complete, but also consciously creative, called upon to overcome not only the outer world but also his own inner nature.”
Active evolution, taking the future of our species in our hands and steering it toward cosmic transcendence, is also the core idea of transhumanism, of which the Russian Cosmists must be considered as direct precursors. Critics say that active evolution is “against God’s will,” but the Cosmist insight is that, on the contrary, radical active evolution IS God’s will. One of Fedorov’s favorite Bible passages was: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than those will he do.’ (John 14:12, RSV). Young refers to “Fedorov’s active, forceful, masculine Christianity” – a Christianity of action, to become more like God.
Carey, George (2011). “Knocking on Heaven’s Door – Space Race.” Storyville. BBC. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0109ccb>.
Fedorov, N. F., Elisabeth Koutaissoff, and Marilyn Minto (1990). What Was Man Created For?: The Philosophy of the Common Task : Selected Works. London: Honeyglen, 1990.
Young, George M. (2012). The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and His Followers. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.
Perry, R. Michael (2000). Forever for All: Moral Philosophy, Cryonics, and the Scientific Prospects for Immortality. Universal Publishers, 2000.
Tipler, Frank J. (1994). The Physics of Immortality. New York: Random House, 1994.