Mikhail Ryklin – The Russian-Soviet Cosmism in Zero-Gravity – 2003

Historian and philosopher

First publication symposium Visibility – Legibility of Space Art. Art and Zero G. : the experience of parabolic flights, in collaboration with the @rt Outsiders festival, Paris, 2003.

I am not, I guess, alone to be puzzled by the following riddle: why so many Russian thinkers, writers and scientists deemed it necessary for the benefit of the whole of mankind to populate the vast outer space, the Cosmos, the Universe? And what made them, inhabitants of the largest Empire, so firmly believe that the Earth and its resources are in a long run not enough for the needs of human species?

Even now we do not have definitive answers to those nagging questions.

But one remains certain: behind the entire venue of Russian-Soviet cosmonautics stood its own romantic, collectivistic ideology of which the main thesis proclaimed the Earth a non-proper place for the completion of the evolution of humankind. Moreover, man should flee the Earth as soon as possible in order to open new perspectives in the open cosmic space. This conviction was shared by both religious philosophers and scientifically-minded people like K. Tsiolkovsky, the founding-father of the Russian space research. He saw the Cosmos as a place where all earthly problems are de facto resolved; once we conquer it and the rhythms of human and cosmic evolution coincide, every trace of human wretchedness should disappear and a new Golden Age start. “The Universe as a whole, — he wrote, — is either sad or mad. On the contrary, it produces by its own happiness and perfection… It’s on Earth only, among the lower animals and even humans, there is, in contrast to the open space, as yet not enough force for it…In short, the living Universe is self-sufficient and reasonable”(1).

The Soviet Union inherited from the pre-revolutionary times a lot of these and similar ideas, and stubbornly tried to put them into practice in 1950-80. In October 1957 it launched the first sputnik into outer space, thus ushering in a new era of space research, and in less than four years it came to the first man-powered flight. Yuri Gagarin became the first Soviet superstar of the 60-th.

Literally hundreds of monuments, mosaics and statues were erected in honor of this and following flights; a new cult has arisen, compatible only with that of Lenin.

In the 90-th, after the fall of the USSR, many of the spaces devoted to the conquest of Cosmos by the Soviet men have been transformed into shopping malls, commercial areas etc. The new consumerist age began with scrapping many of the monuments of the previous age.

In October 2001, thanks to Arts Catalyst, I have had a chance to take part in a zero-gravity flight. I spent about 5 minutes in zero-gravity and about 10 minutes in double-gravity. It was quite an experience, and since then I twice tried to describe it in both written and oral form.

During such flights you feel acutely the relativity of your body: just now you flew in the air and in an instant you lie on the mats and fell your inexorably increasing weight. Even a passing stay in the alternating states of weightlessness and double gravity changes for some time one’s relation to his own body and its terrestrial possibilities. I also noticed that the time flows much more rapidly than we are used to. Maybe this experience helps to develop the intuitive, non-verbal components of our consciousness.

But one thing became clear to me. This interesting, stimulating experience has very little to do with what the representatives of the Russian cosmism in both Tzarist and Soviet times ascribed to it and expected from it; it creates as many problems as it resolves. In short, it is a far cry from what it was believed to be by the representatives of the Russian utopian tradition.

This desublimative effect proved to be important for my writing.

© Mikhail Ryklin & Leonardo/Olats, October 2003, republished 2023