Aleksei Nikolaevich[NOTE] Tolstoy (1883-1945) was a very successful author in both pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union: he started out in the Symbolist vein but was known, after 1917 obviously, as “the Red Count.” He was indeed a member of the extended noble family of Lev Tolstoy, but he renounced his title after the Revolution. Aèlita: Queen of Mars was written in Berlin in 1922, during a phase when A. N. T. planned to remain abroad and live in emigration, but his political opinions changed the same year and he decided to return to Russia. The Reference Guide to Russian Literature comments that the novel is “unevenly written and somewhat didactic in tone.” (He wrote another, The Garin Death Ray (the 1955 translation) or The Death Box (the 1936 translation) (Гиперболойд инженера Гарина, literally 'The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin,' 1925-6), which is considered more successful and also has obvious science fiction relevance.) A. N. Tolstoy was largely self-educated (he spent much of his childhood in a provincial backwater, reading like crazy in the family library), though he graduated from high school in 1901 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the Department of Mechanics (but I'm not sure he ever got a degree.) He is not one of the major figures of Russian literature, so just as well that we’re reading an excerpt – though, unfortunately, not the part where Aèlita co-opts and then double-crosses the Martian Revolution. Good thing there’s a movie.
For a summary of the plot (though it’s the movie’s plot, not the novel’s), see Andrew J. Horton’s excellent article on the movie from Central Europre Review, Vol 2, No 1 (10 January 2000) at http://www.ce-review.org/00/1/kinoeye1_horton.html.
Questions for reading:
We’ll have a presentation in class on Aèlita the movie, so here’s just a bit of information to prepare you. Yakov Protazanov (1881-1945) was one of the first major Russian film directors: he directed a large number of feature films before the Revolution, the best-known perhaps his adaptation of Lev Tolstoy’s story “Father Sergiius.” After living in Europe for a few years he returned to the new Soviet Union and in 1924 made the film Aèlita, Queen of Mars. It was the first Soviet block-buster (the film industry had suffered during the Revolution and Civil War, when newspapers were the primary instruments of propaganda), the first Soviet movie to attract attention in Western Europe, and quite possibly the first full-length film about space travel. Certainly the first Soviet science fiction movie. You can see all kinds of traces of the silent-film pre-Revolutionary melodrama style, especially in the parts of the story set on earth – but also the fabulous Constructivist Martian sets designed by Aleksandra Ekster and Isaak Rabinovich, and the striking costumes designed by Ekster. We should all be so lucky in our film versions. On the other hand, the plot of the original is changed significantly in the movie version (making it almost all turn out – you guessed it! – to be just a dream).
Aèlita was later criticized in that scarey official Soviet way, and though Protazanov continued to make movies he was displaced in world opinion by Sergei Eisenstein, a younger and more politically acceptable director. For more information on Protazanov’s oeuvre, see the Internet Movie Database.
NOTE: You need to use his patronymic because there is another Aleksei Tolstoy – Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875) – a poet and playwright who was actually the first well-known literary Tolstoy. They were all somewhat related. Russians who did not appreciate A. N. Tolstoy used to comment that he was “Neither Lev, nor Konstantinovich.” He is also the grandfather of the late-Soviet and post-Soviet writer Tatyana Tolstaya. [BACK]
Return to the syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.