Sexual Violence and Science Fiction
Cosmism and Afrofuturism: Life Against Death
Julia Tikhonova Wintner
Time: Mythological present.
Scene: State Museum of Immortality, Moscow, Russia.
Act I, Scene 1
SETTING: We are in a dimly lighted space, spot-lighted large containers on the carpeted floors. These containers preserve cryogenized bodies of people who chose resurrection in the near future. The room is decorated with photos, documents and objects that were related to the dead. These personal objects are “used to restore the personality and individual identity of the deceased. . . . In other words, the Museums of Immortality functioned as a democratized version of Egyptian pyramids” (Groys).
AT RISE: Nikolai Fedorov, (tall, white beard) the CEO of Museum of Immortality is under a lot of pressure. His “Factory of Resurrection” faces problems: the relatives of the deceased demand priority in the resurrection of their loved ones, they also insist on making the resurrection process more inclusive. The technology of resurrection needed permanent repair, financial resources were always insufficient, there was not enough space to resurrect all. Fedorov’s white beard is flowing like a sail under the blows of an approaching storm . . . For a moment, his eyes go blank—he feels that his vision of a great boat—the Earth, carrying the newly resurrected humans, is doomed to sink.
Fedorov (1828-1903), a previously forgotten philosopher and provincial librarian, today is being celebrated as the father of Cosmism (Nesbit).
I was equally surprised that Cosmism, an esoteric teaching derived from Fedorov’s philosophy, has been gaining international attention since 2015, thanks to the single-minded efforts of Russian artist and curator, Anton Vidokle. His fascination with Cosmism started in 2014, and led to Immortality for All, a film trilogy that was followed by three additional films: Citizens of Cosmos (2019), The God-Building Theory (2020), and Autotrofia (2021), all infused with exploration of Cosmism in its popularity in different geographical contexts and available on the website of the Institute of The Cosmos—a comprehensive portal documenting international symposiums, publications, and art works that have fashioned Cosmism into a potent movement.1 Vidokle has successfully leveraged his international profile to draw attention to Cosmism. Cosmism and Afro-Futurism: Life Against Death exemplifies the success of his efforts.
The growing interest in Cosmism, which might conveniently be understood as a sort of Russian futurism, suggested to me that much could be learned by placing its beliefs beside those of Afrofuturism.
Afrofuturism and Cosmism: two cultural movements that are the focus of my work originate in the speculative literature of the early twentieth century. Both movements utilized conventions of speculative writing in pursuit of their respective, unique goals. Afrofuturism challenged the Western tropes of manifest destiny and proposed its own exclusively Black future. Today, Afrofuturism makes a radical call. There will be no justice on this planet as long as it is governed by the white majority. In this way, Afrofuturism completes the journey begun when Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.”
Cosmism, on the other hand, is grounded in nationalism, and religious Orthodoxy that offered Russians a sense of destiny throughout the nineteenth century. The same sentiments are voiced out in today’s Putin governance. Cosmism is the future of the past. Afrofuturism is chasing the future of the futures.
Cosmism’s founder, philosopher Fedorov (impersonated above by the CEO of the Museum of Immortality) was an eccentric polymath, celebrated as the “Socrates of Moscow.” Fedorov proclaimed that death was not natural to humans and that all nations must unite to defeat death, gravity, and nature. His teaching inspired an entire generation of writers, artists and scientists. Alexander Bogdanov followed Fedorov’s Cosmic theory in his novel Red Star (1907). The red star is Mars where a prosperous communist society predicated on the exchange of blood as a commodity. Martian society is a system that not only facilitated economic equality but also created an embodied communal existence in which society as a whole was conceptualized as a supra-organism.
Bogdanov continued Fedorov’s ideas of resurrection through his founding of the Soviet Institute for Blood Transfusion in 1926 (“Alexander Bogdanov”). The goal was to create a “new man” through the exchange of blood between the individuals. Both fictionists believed in the importance of kinship in achieving the ideal state of society: Fedorov through the universal resurrection of ancestors, Bogdanov envisioned a unity that extended into the body itself (Huestis).
In the same year Red Star was published (1908), W. E. B. Du Bois wrote The Princess Steel, featuring a megascope that enables the protagonist to transcend time and space and finds a kidnapped African princess made from steel separated from her mother. Du Bois merges references to modern industrial technology with African aesthetics. This short story has been interpreted as a metaphor for the sense of cultural alienation and dislocation caused by slavery. Both books lay down the pre-history of each movement. Both texts appropriate outer space as un-colonized territory but for different reasons. While The Princess Steel proposes the proud embrace of the past for African Americans, Red Star centers on the collective future and the society devoid of individualism. Evidently, for Du Bois and Bogdanov, the fantasy of space travel offered abundant prospects of new economic resources, wealth, and freedom. The unique connections between these writers have remained unexplored and demand further research.
Overall, the artists, poets, and philosophers of the early twentieth century envisioned outer space as a vector to examine various futures. The fuel used for takeoff was an ideology, either Communism or Capitalism. The outer space discovered, however, was free from the political machinations and accessible for manifold visions of reclaiming history and bringing it into the future. In 1994, Mark Dery coined the term Afrofuturism in his article “Black to the Future” that opened up a polymorphous stream of creativity centered on the Black community’s embrace of the Future.
Afrofuturism is international and diasporic. Its science-driven narratives are being written in London, Lagos, and New York. Afrofuturism is inclusive. All mediums and genres, levels of art training, as well as race and class of the art practitioners, have been welcomed into its visual space. It is intrinsic to the Black culture. It is exotic for the white imagination. Among the very many exceptional Afrofuturists, the New York-based artist Sedrick Chisom is a recent seer. Chisom uses his Afrofuturistic vision to render an apocalyptic and follows the steps of Octavia Butler’s open critique of the white supremacy.
The artist proposes that all people of color have left Earth. That Earth is inhabited by white people who have succumbed to a contagious disease that has put them at war with each other. In an interview with Sofia Hallström, the artist explains “I wrote a sixty page play about different histories of monstrous races, the intersection between histories of disease and race, miasma theory versus germ theory, the relationship between the wilderness and the relationship between the eugenics.” His painting titled “The Occidental Tower The Capitol Citadel of The Alt-Rightland was Naturally Situated Over a Lake of Fire” (2021) depicts a Tower of Babel-like structure. Chisom responds directly to the storming of the United States Capitol by Trump supporters. He depicts the U.S. Capitol as a deserted and degraded Tower of Babel crowned with a burning cross. His work reminds us that post-racial future is still outside of current imaginaries (Hallström).
In contrast, Cosmists are a tight group of highly educated, well trained, white artists.
In this paper I focus only on one film from Vidokle’s trilogy, The Communist Revolution Was Caused By The Sun, which spans across the time and space of ex-Soviet Kazakhstan. During Stalin’s epoch, this republic was used as a mass-labor camp housing up to a million prisoners. The unseen protagonist of this film, notable Russian scientist, Alexander Chizhevsky, is represented by a chandelier being constructed under a blazing sun. Vidokle references Chizhevsky’s focus on the meta-historical and poetic dimension of solar cosmology. A woman wearing a white lab overall quotes Chizhevsky: “Sun exerts an influence on the biologic, psychological and social spheres of human activity. Therefore, the Sun influences the rhythm of all historical processes.” Towards the end of the film, the voice over describes the scientist’s fate: “Following the publication of his study, the scientist was invited to lecture at Columbia University in New York, and nominated for a Nobel Prize in science. Instead, he was arrested and sent to a labor camp. Because one possible interpretation of his work could lead to the conclusion that: the Communist Revolution was caused by the sun.”
These incantations are performed in a soothing voice, as if delivering psychedelic instructions. The narrative oscillates between real and staged footage.
Chizhevsky’s imagery is followed by a Muslim cemetery populated by mausoleums in traditional Islamic styles. Two Kazak men are digging a grave; and, later, we enter a slaughterhouse filled with bovine carcasses. The artist conveys a sense of fossilization, and left-behindness. A sense of the impossibility to return to pre-Russian times—of being forever colonized—hovers above the Kazakh steppes that Vidokle films. The wide camera view highlights the vastness of the landscape, suggesting “the master view” and the eye of the colonizer. He suggests that Soviet socialist modernity has destroyed Kazakhstan’s indigenous culture. This ex-colonial state is a progeny of the Soviet empire.
I am not alone in this interpretation. Overall, Cosmists have been criticized for their detached, potentially escapist, futuristic focus, and their lack of any engagement with the political realities of contemporary Russia. Cosmism is a refuge from the void produced by the cult of neoliberalism. Its oppositional forces mirror the intellectual confusion of the post-Soviet generation. Molly Nesbit calls it “a garden of forking but broken paths” (Nesbit).
Today, Cosmism and Afrofuturism align in the following: The Pandemic’s vast death toll provided a void for affirmative visionary cures. Russian Cosmism promised the abolition of death at a time when thousands were dying. Afrofuturism has been called as a source of survival tools for the Black Americans who are disproportionately impacted by Covid. Police brutality and corruption in both countries imposed an urgent call for emotional healing and radical reimagining of our future. Cosmism represents a savior—a system of belief capable of managing the chaos and despair felt by a large swath of the Russian populace under the Putin governance. Afrofuturism formulates a profound critique of current social, racial, and economic orders. It maps out an alternative (digital) space where the black body would not have its opposite—the white body. The singularity will help to finally dissolve ties to its racialized subjectivity. Afrofuturism actively claims digital space that has not been colonized yet. Fear of global ecological collapse renewed the appeal of Cosmism’s dream of resurrection.
Afrofuturism has its own answer to the ecology crises. The Institute of Afrofuturist Ecology brought together regenerative farmers, artists, healers, technologists, and academics to advance economic and racial justice and to solve environmental problems.
Both Cosmists and Afrofuturists are speculative narratives fueled by desperate forces of activism and resistance.
Afrofuturism answers the urgent need to imagine possibilities outside of the predominantly black pandemic’s death toll and the U.S. prison complex. The only way we can challenge the status quo is by imagining a world where this status quo does not exist.
Afrofuturism offers social justice movements a methodology to test their goals within imaginative new worlds. Afrofuturism does not offer a solution—that’s where sustained mass community organizing comes in. It is only through imagining the so-called impossible that we can begin to concretely alter our future. When we free our imaginations, we question everything. Afrofuturism tells us that other worlds are not only possible, but are on their way. We can already hear them, fast approaching.
Cosmism does not challenge the status quo, but perpetuates naïveté, mysticism, and the emphatic nationalism of its ideas. It fills the ideological void that emerged after 1989 at the clash of post-Soviet, Imperial, and neoliberal historical periods. Cosmism is, at best, a place-holder for the day when Russian artists can reclaim the dynamism as leaders of the European avant garde.
If Fedorov could wake up today, he and Afrofuturists would have a lot to learn from each other.
 Autotrofia is simultaneously a documentation of an ancient pagan fertility ritual that is still practiced in this region, and scripted fiction. The scripted content of the film explores the ecological dimension of Russian Cosmism: https://www.berlinale.de/en/programme/programme/detail.html?film_id=202101630.
“Alexander Bogdanov.” New World Encyclopedia, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Alexander_Bogdanov. Accessed 17 July 2022.
Chisom, Sedrick. Interview by Sofia Hallström. “In the Studio With Sedrick Chisom.” émergent magazine, https://www.emergentmag.com/interviews/sedrick-chisom. Accessed 17 July 2022.
Groys, Boris. “Becoming Immortal.” Institute of the Cosmis. https://www.cosmos.art/cosmic-bulletin/2020/becoming-immortal. Accessed 17 July 2022.
Huestis, Douglas W. “Alexander Bogdanov: The forgotten pioneer of blood transfusion.” Transfusion medicine reviews, vol. 21, no. 4, 2007, pp. 337-40. doi:10.1016/j.tmrv.2007.05.008.
Nesbit, Molly, “Cosmist Rays: The Rise of Cosmism.” Artforum, 2018, https://www.artforum.com/print/201802/molly-nesbit-on-the-rise-of-cosmism-73668. Accessed 8 Aug. 2021.
Vidokle, Anton. Autotrofia. 2021.
—. Citizens of Cosmos. 2019.
—. The Communist Revolution Was Caused By The Sun. 2015.
—. The God-Building Theory. 2020.
Julia Tikhonova Wintner is the director of Eastern Connecticut State University Art Gallery, in Willimantic, CT. Wintner envisions Eastern Art Gallery as a leader in situating the arts in the service of the quest for social justice and promoting the role of artists in building economic and cultural equity. Wintner presented her paper “From Louverture to Lenin: Haiti, Russia, and the Dilemma of Post-Coloniality” at The U.K. Association For Art History (AAH) Annual Conference.
In her previous position as the director of UCF Art Gallery, Orlando, FL, Tikhonova developed a solid record of multidisciplinary curating and made art a central, highly visible part of academic and co-curricular life on campus. She worked closely with faculty and students, offering the gallery environment as a space to take individual risks and learn to be together both in moments of communion and in those of disagreement. Through her exhibitions and programs, she enhanced the University’s core teaching and research mission. Tikhonova was graduated from The Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, NY.