Matthias Schwartz on Russian Sci-Fi Cities before 1917

Talk, in English, Paul-Desmarais Theater, 30 January 2020, 6:30pm

From its foundation in the swamps of the Neva Delta in 1703, Saint Petersburg, the capital of the Russian tsarist empire, was a symbol of civil progress and a “window to Europe.” But the better world the city promised was soon linked with visions of apocalypse and doom. In what is considered to be the first Russian science fic0tion work, Vladimir Odoevsky portrays Petersburg in his fragmentary utopia “The Year 3448” (1835–1840) as the perfect city of a distant future headed inexorably toward its downfall. Modernist images like this go hand in hand with decadence and rebellion in many later fantastical Russian texts, such as Valerii Briusov’s play “The Earth” (1904) and short story “The Republic of the Southern Cross” (1905). Tracing the genealogy of this tragic urban discourse from the Romantic era to the first years after the October Revolution reveals how fantastical literary works depict the effects of scientific and technological progress and urban innovations on everyday life.

This lecture is part of Search for a new New World. The more frustrated you are on earth, the more you hope for in space. Moving beyond the terrestrial focus of the exhibition Building a new New World, four case studies from before the revolution to the space race look to Russian sci fi to probe individual hopes and ideas about new societal organization. Inherently experimental, sci-fi stories and films could reflect on what was and wasn’t possible in Russian reality and think beyond it.

Matthias Schwartz is a research associate for the project Affective Realism: Contemporary Eastern European Literatures at Leibniz-Zentrum für Literatur- und Kulturforschung (ZfL) in Berlin. His articles on Soviet science fiction include “Archaeologies of a Past Future: Science Fiction Films from Communist Eastern Europe” and “How ‘Nauchnaya fantastika’ Was Made: The Debates about the Genre of Science Fiction from NEP to High Stalinism.”

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