Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Unlike in the Soviet Union and the West, Empire isn’t the Subject of Russian Science Fiction but of Russian Life

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 3 – Despite the obsessions about empire and its recovery or decay that remain at the center of Russian life, Roman Popkov says, its authors haven’t been able to produce the kind of science fiction about empires and their collapse that were typical in the Soviet Union and remain a focus of Western societies.

            In fact, the Moscow commentator argues, “present-day Russia, an imitation quasi-empire, has not been capable of creating a great story of this kind, even a frightening one.” Instead, it has had to turn to the past or to the West for stories of this kind (

            For the West, the subject of empire has “disappeared from actual politics” and instead taken a central place in science fiction writing, an indication that “the theme of empire attracts not just the Russians” and that it can’t be destroyed by a few decades of political correctness of one kind or another.

            And when it isn’t the center of politics, it often becomes the center of the strivings of creative intellectuals who talk about it not in contemporary or historical terms but rather discuss it in terms of “an unimaginable distant future” where people can be entertained, provoked to thought, but not driven to political action.

            According to Popkov, “the popularity of such universes among readers, film viewers and gamers is so great that this phenomenon may say a great deal about humanity.”

            He discusses in some detail the imperial visions of three Western intellectuals: Edmund Hamilton, George Lukas, and Isaac Azimov.  Among Popkov’s comments about them, perhaps the most intriguing are those concerning the ways in which each of these figures was accepted or rejected by the Soviets and by Russians.

            Hamilton’s two volumes which Lukas has said inform his own vision “were not published in the USSR for ideological reasons until the time of perestroika.” They were too much a challenge to authoritarianism for that.  “But there is a theory,” Popkov says, that in response to his work, the great Ivan Yefremov wrote his classic Andromeda Nebula.

            Lucas in his films “forced humanity to again live through the tragedy of het death of the Republic and the birth of the Empire” and to reflect about the source of justice in each.  The Soviets could have shown his films without a problem, but they didn’t for at least two serious reasons.

            On the one hand, “paranoid” Soviet officials were afraid of what USSR citizens would conclude seeing such a high-tech portrayal of life; and on the other, when some in the West christened Ronald Reagan’s strategic defense initiative “Star Wars,” there was no possibility his works could be shown until “the very end of perestroika.”

            As for Azimov, his reflections about empire were based on his early exposure to Gibbon’s decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Soviets did not view him as a threat in the same way they viewed Hamilton and Lucas, but his philosophical reflections on the nature of empire may ultimately have had at least as great an impact on Russian thinking.

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