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Aleksandr Bogdanov (1873-1928)

Information and questions for reading: Bogdanov, Part IBogdanov, Part II 

Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov (1873-1928), Red Star (1908):

The introduction to this volume is both thoughtful and informative - you might find some suggestions here for other interesting works, though (as far as I know) many of the other early socialist or socialist-ish Russian SF works have not been translated into English. Richard Stites, author of the introduction, was a super historian and wrote several excellent books:

  • The Women's Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (1978; 2nd ed. 1991)
  • Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Social Experiment in the Russian Revolution (1989, 2nd ed. 1991)
  • Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900 (1992)
  • Culture and Entertainment in Wartime Russia, 1941-1945 (1995)

To add a few comments to the introduction: As you'll see in the novel, Bogdanov was already interested in blood transfusions in 1908; in 1924 he started blood transfusion experiments, hoping to achieve human rejuvenation and longevity. [Note: if you've ever read anything about the Romanian babies with AIDS who were discovered languishing in orphanages after 1991, many of them had contracted HIV from blood transfusions routinely given to newborns on the related theory that it made them more vigorous.) Bogdanov died in 1928 in Moscow, as described in the afterword by Loren R. Graham, "Bogdanov's Inner Message." Not exactly a botched blood transfusion (which some have interpreted it as a suicide, others as an early move by Stalin to knock out the opposition - hm!), but certainly an experiment he knew was very risky. For more information on this aspect of Bogdanov see Nikolai Krementsov's book A Martian Stranded on Earth: Alexander Bogdanov, Blood Transfusions, and Proletarian Science (2011).

Questions for reading, Part I: If you hate spoilers, don't read the second set of questions until you've gotten through Chapter 8.

  1. What does it mean to have a politically engaged narrator? Anna Nikolaevna, the narrator's apparently common-law wife, is just as devoted to politics: they end their relationship because of political disagreement. The Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks (let me know if you want more about their history) were two factions of the same party, not two different parties! (It's worth noting how damn seriously they took what we might consider minor points of doctrine.)
  2. How do you react to the Martians' names (Menni, Sterni, Netti)? To me, they sound Finnish or Estonian - the double consonants, and the lack of gender specificity to the Russian ear (almost all Russian women's names end in -a, while most men's names end in consonants). It's telling that Finnish and Estonian (like other Finno-Ugrian languages) don't have pronouns that distinguish gender; perhaps that's why Bogdanov picked names that sound like these.
    How about the term etheroneph?
  3. How do these Martians look, compared to other Martians you've known?
  4. Pay attention to the descriptions of the space flight - how Earth looks from above; the sensations of decreasing gravity and eventual weightlessness.
  5. What's Bogdanov's primary interest and focus in the first part of this story?
  6. On pp. 37, 41 and elsewhere: how does the science stack up? What role does the science play in the story?
  7. Red Star was written to be popular reading - to appeal to proletarian readers and persuade them that socialism is the best way - and it went through several editions after the Revolution. Does it read to you like a best-seller? Why or why not?
  8. After his scary dream our Leonid feels as if he should kiss Netti's hand; on p. 42, "for some reason I felt involuntarily attracted to him." Late Swarthmore Professor of French George Moskos (in a paper entitled "Getting Behind the Revolution: Alien Sexualities and the Sodomitical Scene in Red Star") reads the dream scene as a homoerotic moment. I'll pick this up in the second set of questions, but for now: how does Leonid's attraction to Netti, and Menni's smiles when Leonid talks about Netti, impact your reading of their developing relationship, and their leaving the etheroneph together hand-in-hand (p. 59)?
  9. Our narrator Leonid is a mathematician - does that impact his experience of the voyage or understanding of what is going on in the ship?
  10. How socialist is he, compared to the Martians? Notice when their statements or answers surprise him. (How does their socialism compare to Chernyshevsky's forecast in "Vera Pavlovna's Fourth Dream"?)
  11. Why is our narrator so prone to vertigo?
  12. What do you make of Martian linguistics (p. 48)?
  13. What is the effect of Letta's death (p. 50) - his own quick choice, the way that scene is described, our narrator's reaction, the reactions of the others on the ship?
  14. Now and every time: what did you notice as you read that these questions didn't pick out?

Science and space travel form the matter of the first part of this novella, while the later parts concentrate on Martian society... Feel free to skim these until you find something interesting to you, instead of slogging through all of them.

If you'd like to look at the novella in Russian, see

More questions for reading:

  1. We started the semester with a freshly translated work, and talked about its style, etc. How does this translation read to you? (Charles Rougle has translated a number of other works from Russian: Nina Gurianova's Exploring Color. Olga Rozanova and the Early Russian Avant-Garde 1910-1918 [1999], Boris Groys's The Total Art of Stalinism [1992], and Valentin Kataev's Embezzlers [1972], among others. He also translates from Swedish, especially scholarly monographs on Russian literature, and is fluent in Finnish. He edited the 1996 AATSEEL critical companion to Isaak Babel's Red Cavalry. Very cool.)
  2. How does Russia appear in this work (in the narrator's opinions and memories; in statements by the various Martians)? Before, Leonid commented that Russia was especially full of life, but on p. 96 he refers to himself as "Asiatic" (we're presumably supposed to think that means backward or culturally inferior).
  3. Note the central planning of the system of labor and production; if you've taken Economics, how does the system described here stack up?
    Note too Menni's comment, p. 66: "'There is never any shortage of voluntary labor - work is a natural need for the mature member of our society, and all overt or disguised compulsion is quite superfluous.'" Socialists generally agree, and Russian SF will continue to assert once it becomes Soviet SF, that human beings MUST labor (a certain amount) in order to be happy, never mind to be productive members of society.
  4. p. 78: It turns out that socialist poetry rhymes and scans. In fact, in the Soviet period, Socialist Realism kept Russian poetry in a kind of "deep freeze" that lasted until the late 1980s; this was quite a bit less true of the Eastern and Central European countries, where interwar poetry looked much like the poetry in the rest of Europe or North America. Let me know if you'd like more information about this kind of thing.
  5. Enno says (p. 80) that curbing the birth rate is the last thing the Martians would resort to - and yet (as George Moskos pointed out) the sex and marriages we read about in Red Star apparently don't lead to conception. Consider as you read on: Is this a sexual utopia, or just weirdly different from the earth?
  6. p. 85: Note the brief mention of the role of mutual blood transfusions - later this was Bogdanov's big interest, but he was already considering the idea here.
  7. Does the fact that Anna Nikolaevna, his former partner, is the first of the phantoms who approach him suggest that the break with her wasn't as clean and painless as we were led to believe? Have the Martians misjudged his suitability, or the strength and stability of human personality in general?

    If you're reading these questions before you finish the novella, stop here and start again after you get to p. 93!
  8. p. 93: Netti reveals (in a surprisingly stylistically-marked way, not the calm and neutral way she has spoken until now) that she is a woman. This is much more shocking in Russian, because all the verbs and pronouns associated with Netti until now were masculine; the reader didn't even question the idea that Netti was a man. (Linguistic plausibility: if you're from a language that doesn't distinguish gender in any grammatical way, it must be easier to speak with the other gender's forms - a kind of linguistic transvestism that is more typical of written language. On the other hand, since we're told Netti knows Russian quite well, having to use masculine forms when talking to Leonid must have reminded her constantly that she had to hide her sex from him - and thus perhaps creating an energy of repression that made him more attractive to her, highlighted his sex even as she hid her own?)
    Is this revelation something you expected? (Does it convey anything particular that it's the phantom of his old revolutionary acquaintance Ibrahim - an "Asiatic" Muslim - who right before this asks Leonid "crudely" whether he really can't see who his doctor really is?) (Or: could it be that Bogdanov decided the novel was getting dull, and changed Netti's sex to spice things up?) How about the ensuing love scene? The violence, maybe even pathology, of Leonid's desire? What light does it cast on the tininess (but strength) of Netti's hand, and slightnesss of her whole body? How does it feel when Netti gives him a Martian name, Lenni?
  9. You can't tell this from the translation, but they don't switch to using informal pronouns (tu, du, thou) after they have sex and then become a couple. If you're familiar with formal and informal second persons, how would you speculate on the meaning of this? (Mutual socialist respect? Continued eliding of gender, since the formal forms aren't gender marked?)
  10. Why did Netti encourage Enno to hide her gender as well? How about Leonid's eventual affair with Enno? (Why doesn't she want to have children with him, if she rejects birth control for Martians? Why not just "resist his caresses"?) What can you infer about the sex drive on Mars from the behavior of these two women? What can you infer about the human sex drive from Leonid's behavior?
  11. Is it plausible that Enno, who was merry and lively before her affair with Leonid, is now meek and sad?
  12. What do you make of Netti's sexual history, once we learn it (p. 104: Eek, they're not monogamous!), and of Leonid's pathological response? What are Leonid's failures in Martian society - in your opinion, and then in his own socialist self-criticism (pp. 134-5)?
  13. There's a certain trace of pathology in the Martian society as well: we hear about workers being sort of hypnotized by the rhythm of heavy machinery and barely being saved from walking under the big hammer; Enno is prepared to commit suicide after ending her marriage to Menni; Menni himself is distracted and held back from his creative work by sex, and makes great leaps forward once she leaves him. (Out of her concern with his well-being - rather as Vera Pavlovna's first husband, Lopukhov, clears out so she can be with Kirsanov.) Several of them speak in ways that make clear that Martians need to balance work and relaxation, that they are vulnerable to a variety of mental conditions that timely intervention and loving support from their fellows help to avert or eventually cure. What do you make of Netti's response to Leonid's murder of Sterni?
  14. What changes after Leonid returns to Earth, and has he "redeemed" himself by the time Netti returns to collect him?

A great book that would be relevant to this discussion, though it deals with later authors, is Eliot Borenstein's Men without Women: Masculinty and Revolution in Russian Fiction, 1917-1929 (available in Tripod).

Perhaps the most interesting thing in this book is the trouble with gender and sexuality. George Moskos was right to point out queer elements of the text: Leonid's dream about Menni makes him feel powerless in a way that's not entirely unpleasant; he wakes from that to feel attracted to Netti, taking her for Menni (and wanting to kiss her hand - both an erotic move and a pre-Revolutionary way to greet an upper-class woman); twice he refers to Netti as a brother or a man, which provokes Menni's smile. We later learn that Netti and Enno agreed to hide from Leonid that they were women - making the ship appear to be "manned" by a single-sex crew. When a woman is in drag (be it in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare or in the misconception of our narrator), it always raises issues of gender and sexuality, who and what we are attracted to. As if (I think) Bogdanov means us to be concerned: "uh-oh, Leonid's attracted to this man Netti: what if he turns out to be gay? What if Menni is gay and smiles because Netti is not his brother, but his lover?" Then we're supposed to be relieved (or titillated?) when he learns (as do we) that Netti's a woman. It's telling that once Netti reveals her sex, Lenid says, "But please, let Menni remain a man, because it would be terrible if I were to fall in love with him!" - even though he's free now to love Netti, the idea of falling in love with Menni seems to continue to trouble him, and Netti gives him an odd look. (?) Bogdanov seems to take it for granted that having women in a spaceship's crew would be dreadfully distracting to Earthmen - and even our calm Martian Netti has started a second marriage, with Letta, when she discovers that he has not known the pleasures of a woman's caresses. Is homosexuality impossible in a socialist utopia?

At least there are hints of attention to homosexuality in Red Star: we won't see much more of that in this course.

About Leonid's heterosexual relationships: Once he finds out Netti is a woman, he thrusts himself on her, and she comments "your love is like murder." (Does "your" mean Leonid's, or does it mean all humans'? we can't tell, since she's using the formal/plural pronoun with him.) After Netti leaves for Venus he starts sleeping with Enno, but then freaks out when he learns that Netti used to be married to Sterni (and then at the same time to Letta, who at least is already dead so doesn't need to be murdered later) (though in a way Leonid is responsible for his death too). As an Earthman, he's plausibly a bearer of the old double standard - but why would a nice Martian like Netti be attracted to that? ("He killed my ex-husband, he must really care for me!") Troubling. (Not to mention what his face must look like to Martians, with those tiny eyes and the narrow forehead.)

I'm leaving out the influence of the records of Sterni, Netti and Menni discussing what to do with the Earth, which impacts Leonid's attitude towards Sterni. Their last conversation certainly shows Leonid as obsessed with both Sterni's marriage to Netti, and with Sterni's words about exterminating humanity; he's also barely articulate and certainly not in a normal mental state.

Bogdanov's treatment of sex draws on the Victorian and general Christian distrust of sex, reflected in the asceticism of a lot of revolutionary fiction even when it was written by non-believers (Kollontai's an exception; Chernyshevsky's exemplary Rakhmetov in What Is to Be Done sleeps on a bed of nails to mortify his flesh!). On the other hand, fin-de-siècle decadence made consideration of non-monogamy and even hints of homosexual attraction part of literary discourse and thus possible here. In the end it's all right because Netti promises that she'll be with him alone; because he's been wounded in the revolutionary fight - "punished" for his violence with Netti, Enno, and Sterni, and maybe also tamed a bit by this physical suffering?

Bogdanov seems to run out of ideas for new characters once the etheroneph gets to Mars. We wind up meeting three women - Netti, Enno, and Nella - and Leonid winds up sleeping with two of them. Would the broad socialist possibiity of Mars feel more persuasive if Leonid actually met a few more people?

As Stites briefly suggests in his introduction, it would be lots of fun to read Bogdanov side by side with Aleksandra Kollontai (1872-1952), a Russian revolutionary who went from significant power and (rhetorical) influence in 1917-18 to being parceled off as the first female ambassador (to Norway, in 1923). She wrote no science fiction; (like Chernyshevsky) she wasn't a particularly good writer, but her fiction from the 1920s (Vasilisa MalyginaA Love of Worker Bees) deals in extremely interesting ways with feminism, gender relations and free love.


Sibelan Forrester

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