How a Russian Librarian Aimed to Cheat Death
In three new films, artist Anton Vidokle explores a bizarre radical philosophy focused on achieving "immortality for all."
Still from Anton Vidokle, Immortality For All: a film trilogy on Russian Cosmism, 2014-17. Courtesy of the artist
A mummy roaming the halls of a Moscow museum; desolate powerlines dotting the faded blonde grasslands of Kazakhstan; an aero-ionization dish hanging like a chandelier over a cemetery.
These enigmatic scenes, from a trio of films by artist Anton Vidokle, match the strangeness of the works’ subject. Russian Cosmism—the esoteric techno-philosophy developed by a peculiar librarian named Nikolai Fedorov at the end of the 19th century—was introduced to Vidokle ten years ago by critic and theorist Boris Groys.
“It sounded too good to be true,” Vidokle recounted to GARAGE: “blood transfusions to reverse aging organized by one of the founders of the Bolshevik party, designs for space stations as orbiting cemeteries where dead bodies would be preserved at zero gravity made by some of the leading avant-garde artists… it sounded like fiction.” Occultish, perhaps, but this movement was very real.
Fedorov and others drew from diverse fields including medicine, poetry, Russian Orthodox Christianity, and Marxism, all in the pursuit of utopian ends, the “common task” being everlasting life, and resurrection for all humanity. “The central preoccupation of Cosmists,” Vidokle explained, “is a fight against death by all possible means: science, art, technology, social organization, et cetera. It’s not so much a philosophy, in the sense that it does not resign itself to contemplation, but rather, it embraces activism.”
Vidokle’s films, respectively titled This Is Cosmos, The Communist Revolution Was Caused By The Sun, and Immortality and Resurrection For All!!! examine Russian Cosmism through a mix of documentary, performance, and therapeutic exercise. Filmed in Kazakhstan, Siberia, Crimea, and several museums in Moscow, the trilogy poses large and curious questions: How do the laws of thermodynamics and revolution fit together? Why was Lenin’s brain removed? Does the sun determine economic trends? Is death only the beginning?
“So much in our society is based on reproduction, death, transfer of property, on being subjected to gravity, dependence on food, oxygen, and so forth,” Vidokle said. “So it becomes interesting to try to imagine things differently. Conditions can change and evolution is something ongoing.”
Toby Kamps, chief curator at the Blaffer Museum, where the films are screening, described our current world-historical relationship to time more forlornly/pessimistically: “The future is not what it once was. I’m from the very tail-end of the Kennedy era, and I woke up one morning and said, ‘I have been completely ripped off.’ Weren’t we supposed to have vacations on Mars by now, and to have cured cancer and racism?”
The idyllic futurism of this Russian movement is explored in the films via Soviet ruins, decaying but still-standing symbols that sought to inspire social equality and solidarity, and in the roofs of 17th-century orthodox churches, which represented the stars and cosmos. The Russian cosmists thought that resurrection—of all the dead people that have ever lived—would be the greatest expression of such ideals, and that space flight would be essential to a communistic union with eternity. Fedorov, writing long before cosmic travel was a possibility, inspired Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the pioneering Russian rocket scientist.
Though many of the Cosmists’ concepts are closer to sci-fi than reality, it’s the theoretical implications for the real world that are critical. “I think what interests me is maybe not so much a personal desire for immortality and resurrection, or even space travel,” Vidokle said, “but the kind of perspective that opens up if you imagine a society organized around these as main organizational principles.”
Similarly, Kamps pondered why Cosmism came about in the first place—around the same time that communism and socialism were generating heat—positing that it was possible because of Russia’s unique psychosocial makeup: “The amazing thing about Cosmism is that it’s science, it’s metaphysics, it’s spirituality, it’s a dreamscape. That’s one of the hallmarks of Russian science in general—they’re a lot more open to the spiritual side. I can only speculate why that’s the case, but maybe it’s because, in an atheist state, science becomes an outlet for spirituality.”
As for the contemporary implications of the films, Kamps thinks that they say something important about US/Russian identity and culture, and the history of their bipolar co-constitution. “Everybody thought that Russia would become like the United States, with transparency and a free press and enlightenment values. When in fact, we’ve become more like Russia.”
He also sees the films as meditations on the cancellation of the future by the West and by Russia: “That whole futuristic, high-tech narrative of the Soviet Union has been supplanted by a more backward-looking unifying narrative. Putin is talking about language and culture and tribal identities, rather than the Soviet Union, which was a sort of melting pot where technology would move everybody forward. I think that narrative is unraveling around the world.”
Vidokle’s films are haunting, almost mystical. They thoughtfully address not only arcane questions of times past, but pressing concerns of the present. If the self is a museum, as one of the films proposes, then not only is the future yet to be written, but the past too. As Vidokle narrates at one point, eerily and resolutely: “There is no escape from the labyrinths of knowledge.”
Anton Vidokle’s Immortality for All: A Film Trilogy on Russian Cosmism is playing on a continuous loop at the Blaffer Art Museum, University of Houston, through March 24, and again from June 1 to August 11.