A letter about Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov

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“He was a searcher for universal salvation. In him the feeling of responsibility of all for all reaches the ultimate and acutest expression… there was no man on earth who felt such sorrow at the death of people and such thirst to return them to life.” —Nikolai Berdyaev

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Culture I/O is now Common Task. New name, same stubborn utopianism.

So, why Common Task?

Blame it on a 19th century Russian called Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov.

I’ve been thinking about Fyodorov a lot over the past few years. Nobody on earth has taken utopia as seriously, on an intellectual, spiritual, and practical level, as the Russians. We have the Brits (by way of Sir Thomas More) to thank for the name and a general distrust of the idea, and America may have been founded on some ostensibly utopian notions, but it’s the Russians who ultimately took the idea with the seriousness it merits and followed it to its (tragic, in their case) conclusion.

Fyodorov was a contemporary of the intellectual and literary heavyweights we sometimes just abbreviate to “the Russians”: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Turgenev. Half a century after Fyodorov’s death, Camus would write that if you wanted to be a philosopher, you should write novels. These writers were the embodiment of that observation. It’s strange, then, to think that just a few decades earlier, Russia was considered an intellectual wasteland:

“Standing alone in the world, we have given nothing to the world, we have learnt nothing from the world, we have not added a single idea to the mass of human ideas; we have made no contribution to the progress of the human spirit, and everything that has come to us from that spirit, we have disfigured.… Today we form a gap in the intellectual order.”

That’s Pyotr Chaadayev writing about his homeland in a magazine called Teleskop, circa 1836. It’s a quintessentially Russian statement: overly dramatic, full of tragic feeling, yet recognizably true. The name of the periodical (Telescope) is prescient, given the role Russia would have in opening space more than a hundred years later, and the direct role Fyodorov would have in inspiring those who paved the way.

Very few people knew the name Nikolai Fyodorov while he was alive. Even fewer knew of him after he died, and practically nobody outside of the country had heard of him until well into the 1970s. He lived an ascetic life, working as a museum librarian in Moscow and sleeping on a trunk in a tiny rented room, forgoing warm food for months and owning as close as possible to nothing — not even a winter coat (this is pre-warming Russia, remember).

Yet this lowly librarian somehow managed to attract the admiration and respect of the greatest Russian thinkers of his day. Tolstoy said of him: “I am proud that I live at the same time as such a man.” Dostoevsky wrote of Fyodorov’s work: “I am in complete agreement with these thoughts. I read them as though they were my own.” Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the father of manned spaceflight, met Fyodorov when he was a teenager and was also deeply influenced by him: “I regard Fyodorov as an exceptional individual, and my meeting him as my good fortune. For me he took the place of university professors, with whom I did not associate.”

Fyodorov rejected private property both materially and in the realm of ideas. He wrote no books and sought no recognition. His writings, when they were finally published after his death by two of his students, were released for free (the originals are labeled “not for sale”) as the two-volume Philosophy of the Common Task. It’s a strange and powerful body of work, the sort of stuff you can dismiss as the ravings of a lunatic during the daytime and be moved to tears by late at night — the stuff of genius, in other words.

In it, Fyodorov described a comprehensive vision of humanity’s “common task”. The first step was to bring the climate and nature itself under man’s control. Russia in his time was plagued by drought and famine, and he envisioned the use of science and military technology to manipulate the weather (sound familiar?) and ensure the well-being of all people through a reliable food supply.

Then it gets really interesting.

Once famine and other natural disasters were vanquished and people no longer had to struggle for survival, they would finally be able to roll up their sleeves and unite to focus on the real task: the physical resurrection of the dead. All of the dead. Every human being who has ever lived. Not in an afterlife, not in some metaphorical sense, but here and now on Earth. And because this would inevitably lead to crowding and strain the limited resources available on our planet, humanity would colonize space to make room for everyone. The hundreds of generations who toiled and suffered and procreated and died in the great human relay race would be resurrected by their children to live among the stars. Whether they liked it or not.

Though he was a deeply religious Orthodox Christian, Fyodorov rejected mysticism and divine involvement in the world. He considered the task of resurrection and humanity’s expansion into the cosmos to be a human project: a task for men, not God. This is crazy, but not as crazy as it sounds. You have to remember that he wrote in the 1800s, at a time when Newtonian cause-and-effect still reigned supreme, before Einstein and Heisenberg and uncertainty turned everything upside down. The problem of resurrection was a problem of physics to him: a restoration of previous configurations of matter, which could be extrapolated backwards from the present. He believed that museums, whose role it was to preserve the past, would play a fundamental role in this. He also thought that the proper place of museums was in cemeteries, which makes a perfect sort of sense.

Fyodorov was obsessed with kinship. Humanity to him wasn’t a mass of individuals but rather an intricate web of fathers, sons, and daughters (but mostly fathers and sons — he was an unabashedly patriarchal thinker in the long tradition of Russian patriarchy, and mothers are almost entirely absent from his vision). This idea of kinship is central to the common task: he wrote that “we live not only at the expensive of others, not only at the expense of blind nature, but also of others like oneself, even the closest, replacing and supplanting them; and such an existence makes us not only unworthy, but also transgressors.” Each person, in his view, lives at the expense of his ancestors, and owes a debt to be repaid. The common task is the repayment of this debt, and in the settling of accounts we will be made free. How’s that for a quintessentially Russian statement?

In Fyodorov, the idea of a universal utopia found its ultimate expression: a utopia for all, and that includes not just the living, but all who have ever lived. Humanity’s common task as the obliteration of death and, in some real sense, time as well. This wasn’t just some philosophical exercise for him: he felt it in his bones, and singlemindedly devoted his life to advancing the idea.

The word “task” is important, here. A task is not something to be thought or believed, but something to be done. It is not a question of faith, but of action. Fyodorov insisted that knowledge without action was worthless, and he disliked Western philosophy for its endless arguments and intellectual gymnastics that he felt led to nothing. His “common task” of resurrecting the ancestors was something to be enacted by all the living, together. It was to be the first and final common human project.

Fyodorov died in 1903, but his ideas would resonate through the entire 20th century and well into ours. He’s considered the founding figure of Russian Cosmism, a term retroactively applied to a loose intellectual movement that combined science, art, religion, and utopian socialism to explore a limitless human future at a time when it seemed just out of reach, before the darkest days of Stalinism and WWII. Transhumanism is just one of many descendants of the cosmists: cybernetics (now gutted, redecorated and being sold as “systems theory”) is another branch on the tree of cosmism, along with upstarts like simulation theory and accelerationism.

To be clear, though: Fyodorov’s project is not our project. It was such a specific and singular vision that it had to die with him, and despite its outsize influence, it was very much a product of its time and place. But we can, echoing Bruce Lee, take what is useful and discard the unnecessary. The very idea of a common task, a universal human undertaking that we are all participants in, may be Fyodorov’s greatest legacy. And so: Common Task.

I’ll let Nikolai Berdyaev, who wrote what is probably still the best summary and critique of Fyodorov’s thought way back in 1915, have the final word:

“All the contradictory thoughts of the XIX Century spoke of a philosophy of the common task, all mixing up in it the old with the new and that to come. And in the XX Century the future philosophy will work at extracting the true kernel of the ‘philosophy of the common task’ and toss away the old trappings.”