Entry updated 4 July 2022. Tagged: International.
Russian sf can trace its ancestry back to the eighteenth century, most of the earliest examples being Utopias. Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov's Puteshestvie v zemlyu Ofirskuyu ["Journey to the Land of Ophir"] (written circa 1785; 1896) embodies the political and social reforms espoused by the liberal and progressive elements of Catherine the Great's aristocracy. The technological prophecies of "4338 i-god" (1840; trans as "The Year 4338" in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction, anth 1982, ed Leland Fetzer), an unfinished fragment by Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky, an educationist, make him a pioneer of Russian Proto SF. In contrast to the liberalism of this work is the Fourierist vision of utopian socialism to be found in the celebrated "Fourth Dream of Vera Pavlovna", part of the radical novel Chto delat? (1863 in Sovremennik; 1864; trans B R Tucker as What's to be Done? 1883; rev and cut 1961; new trans Nathan H Dole and S S Sidelsky as A Vital Question, or What Is to be Done? 1886) by Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889).
As in most national literary traditions, Russian utopia had a twin sister, Dystopia. In the nineteenth century there are several famous examples in the satirical fantasies of Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852). The merciless novel Istoriya odnogo goroda ["Chronicles of a City"] (1869-1870) by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin still remains an unsurpassed classic of Russian dystopia in embryo. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) may also be considered a founding father of the dystopia with Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; trans by C J Hogarth as Letters from Underground 1913; vt Notes from Underground in coll trans Constance Garnett 1918), "Son smeshnogo cheloveka" (1877; trans S Koteliansky and J Middleton Murry as "The Dream of a Queer Fellow" 1915; vt "The Dream of a Ridiculous Man" in Perchance to Dream, anth 1972, ed Damon Knight) and Besy (1871-1872; trans Constance Garnett as The Possessed in Complete Works, 1912-1920 12vols; new trans David Magarshack as The Devils 1953).
Russian literature also has an impressive history of Hard SF, beginning with the first native interplanetary novel Noveisheye puteshestviye ["The Newest Voyage"] (1784) by Vassily Lyovshin and notably featuring the works of the astronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. As Russian society slowly came to terms with technological progress towards the end of the nineteenth century, its sf inevitably fell in love with "marvellous inventions".
On the other hand, the influence of impending social change was also evident in the works of those leading Mainstream Writers who turned to sf themes, sometimes with mixed feelings. Alexander Kuprin praised the coming revolution in "Tost" (1906; trans as "A Toast" in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction ed Fetzer) but feared it in "Korolevskii park" ["King's Park"] (1911); his main sf work is "Zhidkoe solntse" (1913; trans as "Liquid Sunshine" in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction ed Fetzer), a Parody of Russian Pulp-magazine sf complete with a Mad Scientist and super-Weapons. The prominent poet Valery Bryussov (1873-1924) anticipated giant domed computerized Cities, ecological catastrophe and a totalitarian state in Zemlya ["Earth"] (1904), "Respublika Iuzhnogo Kresta" (1907; trans in The Republic of the Southern Cross and Other Stories, coll 1918 as by Valery Brussof) and "Posledniye mucheniki" (1907; trans as "The Last Martyrs" in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction ed Fetzer). The three stories appear in Bryussov's collection Zemnaia os' ["Earth's Axis"] (coll 1907). The popularity and influence of H G Wells, whose works were translated into Russian from 1899 onwards, led to Alexander Bogdanov's socialist utopia on Mars, Krasnaya zvezda (1908; trans Fetzer as "Red Star" in Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction ed Fetzer) and its sequel Inzhener Menni ["Engineer Menni"] (1913), in which Cybernetics and the management sciences are foreseen in depth. Both these works are available in Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia (coll trans Charles Rougle 1984) edited by Loren R Graham and Richard Stites.
Although Krasnaya zvezda is often considered the earliest book of authentically Soviet sf, the first post-revolutionary work was Vivian Itin's utopia Strana Gonguri ["Gonguri Land"] (1922). This went almost unnoticed, overshadowed by the success the same year of the interplanetary romance Aelita (1922; trans 1957) by Alexei Tolstoy. This landmark of early Soviet sf, inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs, tells of a Russian engineer and a Martian beauty involved in a Marxist revolution. Tolstoy also wrote Giperboloid inzhenera Garina (1925-1926; 1933; rev 1939; trans 1936 as The Death Box; rev edition trans 1955 as The Garin Death Ray), in whose dictatorial Mad Scientist, inventor of a laser-like Weapon, a proto-Hitler may be discerned. It is a good example of the subgenre known as the "krasnyi detektiv" ["Red Detective Story"]: stories of adventures abroad often involving assistance to world revolutionary movements, and often with a fantastic element such as a new Weapon. Examples still in print are Marietta Shaginian's Mess-Mend (1924) and Lori L'en, metallist ["Laurie Lane, Metalworker"] (1925), Valentin Katayev's Povelitel' zheleza ["Iron Master"] (1924; 1925) and Ilya Ehrenburg's Istoriya neobychainykh pokhozhdenii Khulio Khurenito i ego druzei ["The Fantastic Adventures of Julio Jurenito and his Friends"] (1922), which depicts a Future War conducted with ultimate "atomic" weapons.
A theme born of revolutionary euphoria was the outward spread of communist humanity through the Universe, as in the works of the poetical movement known as the "cosmists", of which Bryussov (see above) was a member. Closer to home was the creation of various Earth-bound utopias, as in the works of the important Soviet writer Andrei Platonov, though he had an insight that prevented overoptimism; his mature novels were finally published in Russia only quite recently. Other authors' more naive socialist utopias, quite common in the 1920s, tend to be dull and overloaded with technological marvels, although Vadim Nikolsky's Cherez tysyachu let ["Thousand Years Hence"] (1927) depicts also a full-scale nuclear holocaust. Yan Larri's not entirely cheerful Strana shchastlivykh ["Land of the Happy"] (1930) was the last communist utopia until Ivan Yefremov's Tumannost' Andromedy (1957; 1958; trans 1959 as Andromeda).
A more caustic approach to utopia can be seen in Vladimir Mayakovsky's brilliant play Klop (1928; trans Guy Daniels as The Bedbug 1960), in which this leading Soviet poet satirizes a dull, virtuous, overclean future without condoning the energetic, alcoholic prole who represents the present generation: Mayakovsky sees both extremes as undesirable. But even more radical was the attitude of Yevgeny Zamiatin's My (written 1920 and circulated in manuscript; 1st book publication in Czech trans 1922; 1st English trans Gregory Zilboorg as We 1924; 1st publication in Russian 1927 Czechoslovakia), which until the late 1980s was proscribed in the USSR. In this literary masterpiece, which anticipates the classic anti-utopias of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, the One State, after achieving its goals on Earth, plans to export its soulless doctrine across the Universe.
The subjects of early Soviet sf vary from the classical "geographical fantasies" of academician Vladimir Obruchev to the imaginary worlds of the novels of Alexander Grin (1880-1932). Obruchev wrote in the manner of Jules Verne. His Plutoniya (1915; 1924; trans B Pearce as Plutonia 1957) and Zemlya Sannikova (1926; trans Y Krasny as Sannikov Land 1955 USSR) are scientifically credible Hollow-Earth and Lost-World novels, respectively. Grin began his writing career after his imprisonment and exile after the 1905 Revolution, having previously been largely an outdoorsman: lumberjack, fisherman, etc. His romances set in a Parallel World fed a strong appetite in Russia, especially after the 1917 Revolution when high fantasy was taboo, and they were printed in millions of copies. Containing many fantastic elements they include the stories in Shapka-nevidimka ["The Hat of Invisibility"] (coll 1908), the novels Alyie parusa ["Scarlet Sails"] (1923), Blistaiushchii mir ["The Shining World"] (1923), Doroga nikuda ["Road Nowhere"] (1930) and others.
But the most prominent writer of pre-World War Two sf was Alexander Beliaev, the author of more than 60 books and certainly a good storyteller. His Chelovek-amfibia (1928; trans L Kolesnikov as The Amphibian 1959), Golova professora Douela ["Professor Dowell's Head"] (1925; exp 1938) and Ariel (1941) are known to all Soviet schoolchildren, being constantly reprinted. Perhaps because of his life as a bedridden invalid, his work focuses on heroes with superior abilities. Most of his novels are set in capitalist countries whose social and scientific mores are fiercely criticized. The "Red Detective Story" theme of world revolution virtually disappears in Beliaev, doubtless as a consequence of Trotsky's disgrace and exile in 1927.
Magazines, particularly Vokrug sveta ["Round the World"] and Mir priklyuchenii ["Adventure World"], went on publishing sf throughout the 1920s, usually mad-scientist tales of adventures in the laboratory, or spy/adventure yarns about new weapons or exotic explosives. Such magazines were very popular: the circulation of Vsemirnyi sledopyt ["World Pathfinder"] rose 1926-1929 from 15,000 to 100,000. But soon, in the 1930s, tighter Communist Party control of literature compelled sf writers to become more ideologically correct than hitherto. They were encouraged to direct their readers' attention to tasks close at hand (the "close-target" theory), to stress collective over individual effort, and to set their plots within the USSR. Georgy Adamov typifies the attitudes of the new cultural climate in Taina dvukh okeanov ["Secret of Two Oceans"] (1938), where scientific information is combined with a patriotic plot involving the thwarting of Japanese spies. The official belief that speculative fiction was an undesirable escape from reality lasted at least until Stalin's death in 1953, and thus books such as Vadim Okhotnikov's characteristically titled Na grani vozmozhnogo ["Frontiers of the Possible"] (1947), which focuses on new road-laying techniques and a new combine harvester, characterize the deeply unimaginative sf of the period.
A striking exception to the ideological correctness of most Soviet speculative fiction was the borderline-sf satirical work of playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov. His work was suppressed in the mid-1920s, and a number of manuscripts written in the late 1920s and after were not published until much later, in the 1960s. His masterpiece is the fantasy Master i Margarita (written in the 1930s, unfinished at his death in 1940; 1966-1967 cut magazine publication; 1973; trans Michael Glenny as The Master and Margarita 1967), a dark, vigorous philosophical parable about a visit to Moscow by Satan, with an interesting reinterpretation of the conflict between Christ and Pontius Pilate.
The fading of Soviet sf in the late 1930s and the 1940s, partly due to the pressures of World War Two and the hardships of the postwar years, was for some time hardly interrupted, despite the arrival on the scene of new authors, Viktor Saparin and Georgy Gurevich among them. Sf in the USSR was reborn only with the publication (virtually coinciding with the launch of Sputnik 1) of Ivan Yefremov's Tumannost' Andromedy (1957 in the magazine Tekhhnika-molodezhi ["Technology for Youth"]; 1958; trans George Hanna as Andromeda 1959). This ambitious full-scale utopia, with its philosophical concept of a "Great Ring" of extraterrestrial civilizations in space, not only made its author a leader of Soviet sf but launched the decade of its Golden Age, giving inspiration to scores of gifted young authors. Others of Yefremov's books, such as Lezvie britvy ["The Razor's Edge"] (1963) and Chas byka ["The Hour of the Bull"] (1968; exp 1970), were also influential.
The late 1950s saw a dramatic upsurge in Soviet sf publishing. For example, where the popular-science magazine Znaniye-sila ["Knowledge is Power"] printed only one sf story in 1953, in 1961 it printed 19, including two by Ray Bradbury and part of Solaris (1961; trans 1970; new trans 2011 ebook) by Stanisław Lem. Writers demanded the freedom to speculate much more widely, to write "far" rather than "near" fantasy, as they put it. Encouraged by a more liberal literary climate and the example of Western work, now being translated in quantity, new and talented authors emerged and themes formerly Taboo began to appear in print: Aliens, Cybernetics, ESP, Robots and Time Travel, for example. Level-headed critics like Evgeny Brandis and Vladimir Dmitrievsky kept readers informed about developments abroad, and the names of Lem, Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Sheckley, Arthur C Clarke and dozens of others soon became familiar to Soviet sf fans.
The spiritual leaders of Soviet sf during the following three decades were undoubtedly the Strugatski brothers, Arkady and Boris. They stand out as the major talents among the writers who made their mark in the 1960s, and wrote far and away the most interesting and readable sf ever produced in the USSR (now almost all translated into English). Temporarily subdued during the 1970s, after clashes with the authorities, they were nonetheless permitted, as restrictions were relaxed in the late 1980s, to travel abroad for the first time as guests of honour to a Worldcon in the UK in 1987. Soviet sf is by no means confined to the Strugatskis' work, however, nor to that of their contemporaries like Genrikh Altov, Dmitri Bilenkin, Kir Bulychev, Mikhail Emtsev and Eremey Parnov, Sever Gansovsky, Viktor Kolupaev, Vladimir Savchenko, Vadim Shefner, and Evgeny Voiskunsky and Isai Lukodianov. In his collections Formula bessmertiya ["The Immortality Formula"] (coll 1963), Pupurnaya mumiya ["The Purple Mummy"] (coll 1965) and others, the former scientist Anatoly Dneprov imagines the social impact of technological breakthroughs, particularly in cybernetics and Biology. Ilya Varshavsky, a talented short-story writer, is famous for his sombre dystopian cycle about the imaginary state of Donomaga, Solntse zakhodit v Donomage ["The Sun Sets in Donomaga"] (coll of linked stories 1966), while the veteran writer Sergei Snegov made his name in sf with his philosophical Space Opera, a trilogy on a Stapledonian scale; the trilogy's first novel has the Wellsian title "Lyudi kak bogi" ["Men like Gods"] (in Ellinskii sekret ["Hellenic Secret"] anth 1966); the second novel is "Vtorzheniye v Persei" ["Invasion into Perseus"] (in Vtorzheniye v Persei, anth 1968); the third is "Kol'tso obratnogo vremeni" ["The Ring of Reversed Time"] (in Kol'tso obratnogo vremeni, anth 1977). The first two were published together as Lyudi kak bogi (omni 1971), and all three in a separate omnibus, also entitled Lyudi kak bogi (omni 1982).
The above are mostly known as writers of Hard SF, but most Russian sf of recent years has been Soft SF. At the soft end of the scale is, for example, the otherwise mainstream author Gennady Gor, who turned to philosophical fantasies in collections like Glinyanyi papuas ["The Clay Papuan"] (coll 1966) and in the novel Pamiatnik ["The Statue"] (1972). Olga Larionova made a promising debut with the novella "Leopard s vershiny Kilimandzharo" ["The Leopard from Kilimanjaro's Summit"] (1965; reprinted in Ostrov muzhestva ["Courage Island"] coll 1971), which describes the problems caused through learning the date of one's own death. Vladimir Mikhailov demonstrated a mastery of the grand philosophical Bildungsroman in Dver's drugoi storony ["The Other Side Door"] (1974), Storozh bratu moemu ["My Brother's Keeper"] (1976) and its sequel Togda pridite, i rassudim ["Come Now and Let us Reason Together"] (1983). The latter two novels are ambitious space operas, raising serious metaphysical and religious questions unusual in Russian sf.
There are dozens of promising names in the most recent generation of Soviet sf writers. Among them are the "brainstorming" author and scientist Pavel Amnuel – he emigrated to Israel in 1990 – whose collection Segodnia, zavtra i vsegda ["Today, Tomorrow and Forever"] (coll 1984), along with his near-future Superman novel, so far only in magazine form, "Vzryv" ["Explosion"] (1990), has appealed both to readers and to critics. Vyacheslav Rybakov, also a scientist, has written interesting sf seriously concerned with social issues; his two books are Oshna na bashne ["Fire on the Tower"] (1990), a novel, and Svoyo oruzhiye ["His Own Weapon"] (coll 1990); he has also worked in the cinema (see below). Other strong writers in the most recent generation include Andrei Lazarchuk, Andrei Stolyarov, Boris Shtern, Mikhail Uspensky; Eduard Gevorkyan, Vladimir Pokrovsky and Yevgeny and Lubov Lukin. Two other major features of Russian sf in recent decades have been the unexpected rise in the quality and amount of sf criticism and the growing interest (as in the West) shown by Mainstream Writers in using sf themes. Among the better known works of criticism are the contributions of V Bugrov, T Chernyshova, Vladimir Gakov, Julius Kagarlitski, R Nudelman (since 1974 resident in Israel) and V Revich. Sf by mainstream writers includes the powerful Post-Holocaust novella "Poslednyaya pastoral" (1987; trans 1987 as "The Last Pastorale" in Soviet Literature #8) by Ales Adamovich as well as works by C Aitmatov, Vasily Aksyonov and V Voinovich.
The most prestigious Soviet sf award is the Aelita Award (which see), initially presented for best novel of the year but latterly for life achievement. Another award, voted on by Soviet Fandom generally, is the Velikoye Koltso (The Great Ring Award) also first given in 1981, and annually since, except while it was suspended in 1983, 1984 and 1985. Further awards are: Yefremov Award for life achievement in the field, presented since 1987; Start Award, presented since 1989 for the best first book of a new author; Bronzovaya Ulitka (The Bronze Snail Award) presented by Boris Strugatski for the best sf or fantasy of the previous year since 1992.
There is a long history of sf Cinema in the USSR, going back at least to Aelita (1924), the film version of Alexei Tolstoy's novel. There were quite a few sf films in the 1960s, nearly all of them strong on special effects and production design, but with conventionally socialist plotlines; the best known is Tumannost' Andromedy (1968; vt The Andromeda Nebula), based on Yefremov's novel but de-emphasizing its more radical speculations. Several Russian films of this period, including Nebo Zovyot (1959; vt The Sky Calls; vt The Heavens Call) and the well-made Planeta Bur (1962; vt Planet of Storms), were cannibalized and recut in the USA (see Roger Corman). Vladimir Tarasov (whom see) directed several interesting animated sf films from 1976 onward. In the 1970s and 1980s the outstanding director of Russian sf cinema was Andrei Tarkovsky, whose sf films are Solaris (1971), Stalker (1979) and, marginally, Zhertvoprinoshenie (1986; vt Offret; vt The Sacrifice). Stalker is based on a novel by the Strugatskis, and the film Otel U pogibshchego alpinista (1979; vt Dead Mountaineer Hotel), made by the Estonian director Grigori Kromanov, is based on one of their novellas. A widely publicized film (shown on US television) is Pisma myortvovo cheloveka (1986; vt Letters from a Dead Man) directed by Konstantin Lopushansky, who wrote the script with Vyacheslav Rybakov and Boris Strugatski, about retreat into a bunker after a nuclear Disaster while orphaned children remain above ground. There is also a 1989 film based on a Strugatski novel, Trudno byt' bogom ["Hard to be a God"]; another version appeared in 2013. There are two Soviet film versions of Ray Bradbury's "There Will Come Soft Rains" (6 May 1950 Collier's Weekly): Golosa pamyati ["Voices of Memory"] (1980), with Nikolai Grinko good as the Robot, and a cartoon version, Budet laskovyi dozhd ["There Will Come Soft Rains"] (1984). A more recent Bradbury adaptation is Vel'd (1987).
A joint Soviet-Polish coproduction was a successful adaptation from Stanisław Lem, Doznaniie pilota Pirksa ["The Investigation of Pirx the Pilot"] (1979), directed by Marek Pestrak, with rather sophisticated design and special effects. Also notable is a two-part feature film for young adults by an enthusiastic director of sf, the late Richard Viktorov, comprising Moskva-Kassiopeya ["Moscow-Cassiopeia"] (1973) and its sequel Otroki vo Vselennoi ["Teenagers in the Universe"] (1974), which comes across like a combination of Robert A Heinlein's juvenile novels and Joe Dante's Explorers (1985). An earlier film by Viktorov was Cherez Ternii – K Zvyozdam (1980; vt Per Aspera ad Astra), about Ecological catastrophe. A late twentieth-century Soviet film in the sf/fantasy genre has become something of a cult movie, the Heroic-Fantasy Podzemelie ved'm ["Witches' Dungeon"] (1990), directed by Sergei Morozov, and based on a novel by Kir Bulychev, who also wrote the screenplay. A more recent production covered in this encyclopedia is Sputnik (2020).
Russian and Russian-Ukrainian genre authors with works first published or translated into English in the 1990s and twenty-first century to date include Fedor Berezin, Gleb Bobrov, Dmitry Glukhovsky (see also Metro 2033), Oleg Kashin, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (though he died in 1950), Victor Pelevin, German Romanov – a copious producer of Alternate History Military SF, like Harry Turtledove in the USA – Georgiy Savitsky, Gary Shteyngart (in the USA from 1979), J M Sidorova (in the USA from 1979), Ol'ga Slavnikova, Vladimir Sorokin, Anna Starobinets and Tatyana Tolstaya. For all these writers, see their linked entries in this encyclopedia. [VG/AM/IT/PN/DRL]
Several anthologies of Russian sf stories have been published in English translation, including the Moscow Foreign Language Publishing House anthologies A Visitor from Outer Space (anth 1961; vt Soviet Science Fiction), The Heart of the Serpent (anth 1961; vt More Soviet Science Fiction) and Destination: Amaltheia (anth 1962), and the three Mir anthologies Everything but Love (anth 1973), Journey across Three Worlds (anth 1973) and The Molecular Café (anth 1968). Anthologies published in the UK and USA include: Vortex: New Soviet Science Fiction (anth 1970) edited by C G Bearne; Last Door to Aiya (anth 1968) and The Ultimate Threshold (anth 1970) edited by Mirra Ginsburg; Russian Science Fiction (anth 1964), Vol II (anth 1967) and Vol III (anth 1969) edited by R Magidoff; Path into the Unknown (anth 1966) edited anonymously; New Soviet Science Fiction (anth 1979) edited anonymously; World's Spring (anth 1981) edited by Vladimir Gakov; Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction: An Anthology (Seven Utopias and a Dream) (anth 1982) edited and translated by Leland Fetzer; Aliens, Travelers, and Other Strangers (anth 1984) edited and translated (uncredited) Roger De Garis. View from Another Shore (anth 1973) edited by Franz Rottensteiner and Other Worlds, Other Seas (anth 1970) edited by Darko Suvin both contain stories by Soviet sf writers.
Further scholarly and critical overviews are listed below. Patrick L McGuire's book is to a degree is updated and summarized by McGuire in his introduction to "Chapter 6: Russian SF" in Anatomy of Wonder (3rd edition 1987) edited by Neil Barron.
- Darko Suvin. Russian Science Fiction 1956-1974: A Bibliography: Original Books, Translated Books, and an Annotated checklist of Criticism; with an Appendix on Criticism of Russian SF Before 1956 (Elizabethtown, New York: Dragon Press, 1976) [nonfiction: bibliography: chap: hb/nonpictorial]
- John Griffiths. Three Tomorrows: American, British and Soviet Science Fiction (London: Macmillan, 1980) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Alan Myers. "Some Developments in Soviet SF since 1966" by (June 1980 Foundation #19) [mag/]
- Patrick L McGuire. Red Stars: Political Aspects of Soviet Science Fiction (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985) [nonfiction: hb/]
- Rosalind J Marsh. Soviet Fiction since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature (London: Croom Helm, 1986) [hb/photographic]
- Rafail Nudelman. "Soviet Science Fiction and the Ideology of Soviet Society" (1989 Science Fiction Studies #47) [mag/]
- Darko Suvin. "Russian SF and Its Utopian Tradition" in his Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Peter Lang, 2016) [nonfiction: rev of 1979 edition: pb/]
- Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin, editors. The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia: Language, Fiction and Fantasy in Modern Russia (London: I B Tauris, 2020) [nonfiction: hb/]
previous versions of this entry