When I started writing my recently published book Russian Utopia in the spring of 2020, the Covid pandemic was devastating lives across the world and revealing, yet again, the inequalities that make the impact of catastrophes so uneven. At the same time, another police murder of an African-American, George Floyd, revealed, yet again, the devastating violence continually inflicted on black bodies and spirits and communities, a history reaching from slavery to the present. But utopia can disrupt the merely factual darkness of the lived moment. About the pandemic, the author Arundhati Roy wrote this in early April 2020: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”2 About the “Black Lives Matter” movement, the activist Nikita Mitchell wrote this a few months later: “As someone who has been in movement communities for a long time, it’s deeply inspiring to me to see this level of analysis, dreaming, imagination. We are seeing an acceleration of public consciousness not just in defense of Black lives… but the need to transform systems at the root…. We are on the cusp of something great, something historic. It keeps me going when I’m tired.”3 Might we say the same for this moment in Russian history? Russian troops invading Ukraine, bombarding familiar cities, killing hundreds, and dying, unimaginable only weeks before, has been a shock to so many Russians. There are signs of growing disgust with Putinism. Might this be a historic “portal,” a “cusp”? No one can say (or even, from this vantage point during the first days of the war, at the end of February, none can predict how events will unfold). As Bloch himself wrote in 1923, when thinking about the fate of the 1917 Russian revolution while revising his book Spirit of Utopia, “doors opened; but, of course, they soon shut.”4 The “principle of hope,” as he called it, offers no certainties. But hope can be radical and real. Closed doors can be opened.
Bloch started writing his two great books on utopia in the midst of each of the devastating world wars of the last century. Bloch approached utopia not in the traditional way as hopeless fantasy about a non-existent place or time—the literal “no-place” of “u-topia”—but as a critical method for acting in the real world, precisely by questioning our assumption about what is possible and impossible. As he famously put it, “the ocean of possibility is much greater than our customary land of reality.” Because we are located so fully in our non-utopian present, in our world of expectations shaped more by what actually is than by what might be, we mistake the visionary’s “not-yet” for the realist’s “impossible.”5 The “utopian impulse” that disrupts expectations, which Bloch traced across the places and times, is an orientation to the world, a method. And however future-oriented, utopia’s focus is on the present: a “consciousness” that “looks far into the distance…in order to penetrate the darkness so near,” to “venture beyond” the “darkness of the lived moment” in order to discover the “not-yet-become.”6 During World War I, Bloch described this consciousness in the lyrical language of dreams: as a “utopian impulse” to “summon what is not, build into the blue, build ourselves into the blue, and seek there the real, the true, where the merely factual disappears.”7 Bloch’s colleague and friend Walter Benjamin defined this utopian challenge to what we think to be the boundaries of reality and possibility as a “leap in the open air of history” (a variation on the Marxist metaphor of revolution as a “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom”), as moment what we might “blast open the continuum of history” and grasp the “splinters of messianic time.”8 To look to yet another theoretical source, we might call this radical relation to reality “realness”—the notion, rooted in the worlds of drag performance and trans lives, coined in Black and Latinx ballrooms, that both embraced and subverted the world and its normativities. As the drag artist and writer Sasha Velour put it, realness is a “revolutionary” orientation toward the real, for it acts “not by trying to create something ‘outside of reality’—but by remixing, reorganizing, recasting the rules around you until new very real possibilities emerge…. Drag isn’t interested in the world as it is—it’s interested in the world as it could be…. That is the world of realness.”9
This brings us back to Russia’s past and present. Russian history has been rich in such dreams, stories, explosions, and leaps: people disrupting the steady stream of the seemingly unchangeable, bringing the future into the present, breaking the fetters of “merely factual” reality. Walter Benjamin once wrote that history “breaks apart into images not stories.”10 And among the most telling images of the Russian revolution are wings and flight—imagery that drew on stories of gods and angels, men with crafted wings like Daedalus and Icarus, allegories and winged personifications of liberty and revolution. Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra famously declared that “for the man who has not yet learned to fly, earth and life seem grave,” for this is the world as it is, rather than as it ought to be, and thus as it will be.11 In much the same spirit, Russian revolutionaries embraced flight and wings.
In the nineteenth century, the populist Gleb Uspensky recorded a hallucination during his mental illness: that he could fly and that the sight of him soaring above the world would overcome the oppressors with shame and inspire the oppressed with hope, bringing about God’s Kingdom on Earth.12 We can see in this something of the heart of the utopian impulse: dreams, inspired by a bit of madness, that are a necessary critical rethinking of reality, necessity, and possibility—a vision that “interrupts” reality rather than merely “explains” it, as Susan Buck-Morss put it in her remarkable book on utopia and catastrophe.13
Russian worker poets, writing in moments stolen from work or sleep, continually reached for the metaphor of flight.14 One of very few women worker poets whose work found its way into print, Maria Chernysheva prayed for wings of escape from the “shameful chains” of “slavery” in her 1910 poem: “Give me wings! Swift, light wings… / And I would revel in the freedom of flight” and soar “toward the open expanse.”15 Socialist workers believed such wings of freedom and transcendence would be found in class struggle. In the worker Alexei Bibik’s 1912 autobiographical novel of working-class life, Toward the Open Road, when the worker hero first experiences the power and freedom of a strike, he feels that “wings” have grown on his back.16 In 1914, the president of the St. Petersburg Union of Metalworkers, Alexei Gastev, published a poem in the union’s newspaper which culminated in this ringing declaration: “Higher still, yet higher! In the smoke of victory, we dash from the highest rocks, from the most treacherous cliffs to the most distant heights! / We have no wings? / We will! They will be born in an explosion of burning wish.”17 Other worker writers imagined themselves as eagles or comets inspiring people with their flight. Sergei Gan’shin described himself as “an eagle from the skies . . . from which my mighty voice / like a tocsin” rings out for victory “in the great and sacred struggle.”18 Aleksei Mashirov portrayed radical workers like himself as birds in a black sky, as flashes of summer lightening, or as a “meteor falling into the deep abyss”—a momentary evanescence illumining the way for others.19 In the atmosphere of fear and hope during the revolution and the civil war, worker poets were even more likely to use images of wings and flight. In 1919, Vasily Alexandrovsky read at numerous public meetings a poem simply titled “Wings,” in which the bloodshed of war and revolution are overcome when flowing blood turns to empowering lava and everyone grows wings to survive and transcend the rivers of blood.20 Very often, these revolutionary wings were made not of ordinary feathers but of iron, gold, and especially fire. Indeed, “fire-winged” became a widely used post-October adjective for describing the revolution, including “fire-winged factories,” “fire-winged ideas,” and “the fiery wings of time.”21
Sergei Konenkov, Memorial bas-relief plaque: “To the Fallen in the Struggle for Peace and the Brotherhood of Peoples,” 1918. Public Domain.
Perhaps the most important visual representation of the October Revolution had wings: a bas-relief memorial affixed to the Kremlin wall in Moscow, overlooking Red Square and the graves of those who died fighting to establish Soviet power. It was unveiled in 1918 on the first anniversary of the revolution. Red Square was filled with delegates from factories, the army, and neighborhood soviets and on the podium stood the leaders of the Soviet state and the Bolshevik party, including Vladimir Lenin, who gave the main speech. The memorial, by the sculptor Sergei Konenkov, had been chosen in a government competition. It was a large, brightly colored bas-relief sculpture, dominated by a bare-chested golden-skinned figure with huge white wings, clad in a classical skirt, wearing a crown of eagle feathers. The winged figure holds a palm branch in one hand and a flowing red banner in the other. Behind her, the rays of the rising sun form the words “October 1917 Revolution.” Broken swords and discarded guns wrapped in mourning bands are stuck into the ground along with two fallen red flags. On one of these flags are inscribed the golden words, “To the Fallen in the Struggle for Peace and the Brotherhood of Peoples.” The unveiling was accompanied by the singing of a workers’ choir performing a “Cantata” written for the occasion by worker-poets. They sang “Come down from the cross, crucified people / And be transformed . . . / Roar, land, with the final storm… / Let a new day shine in the azure, / The old world transfigured.”22
Looking back across a century, we might be surprised that such imagery would be chosen by a communist state to express their vision of the revolution and to mark such an exceptionally significant place and time: the central revolutionary necropolis (later the bodies of Lenin and other leading revolutionaries would be buried or displayed there, with festive marches regularly parading past) on the very first anniversary celebration of the revolution. The imagery was eclectic and global and full of allusions to the sacred—the rising sun (the dawning age of light against the darkness of the past), the female personification of the revolution (echoing the figure of Liberty made popular by the French Revolution, reaching back to the Roman Libertas), the palm branch (a familiar symbol of martyrdom, victory, and heaven), and red banners (symbol of revolution and socialism, but also of the blood of the fallen). And then there were the motifs of crucifixion, resurrection, and new life in the proletarian cantata. Other approved public art for the first anniversary, including the runner-up proposal for the Red Square memorial,23 featured winged figures, usually female, sometimes blowing trumpets.24
We could consider other examples of revolutionary images of wings and flight in Soviet literature and art. We could look at the Soviet cult of airplanes and aviators as expressions of the ideals of science and technology, and state power, overcoming backwardness and tradition. We could look at such architectural visions as Georgy Krutikov’s project in 1928 for a “City of the Future,” widely known as the “Flying City,” where workers live in floating buildings far above the earth and fly to earthbound industrial and cultural zones in personal rockets that also worked as submarines and automobiles—a design he offered not as a practical project for the immediate present (“utopian” in the usual sense), but to explore the potentials of existing and emerging technologies (“utopia” as critical method).25 But I will pause over a different field.
In the 1920s, the Soviet project turned increasingly toward the transformation of everyday life. Gender and sex were at the center of attention. And liberation was often given wings. Famously, Alexandra Kollontai, a leader of the Women’s Section of the Communist Party, published in 1923 an open letter to young people, “Make Way for Winged Eros.” The time has come, she argued, to create a rich and flourishing sexual life such as was unknown in the bourgeois world or possible during the hard years of revolutionary struggle in Russia. “‘Wingless Eros’ no longer satisfies the needs of our spirits…. The many-stringed lyre of the lavishly winged god of love drowns the monotonous voice of ‘wingless Eros.’” But this new spirit of the present was not yet a revolutionary leap into the open air of romantic and sensual possibility: “In the realized communist society, love, ‘winged Eros,’ will appear in a different, transfigured form complete unknown to us…. Even the boldest fantasy is incapable of imagining what it will look like…. But it is clear that in place of the meager feathers on the wings of the Eros of the past, the ideology of the dawning class can cause to grow new feathers of beauty, strength, and brightness never seen before.”26
Years before Kollontai embraced the metaphor of wings to imagine the liberated intimacy of the new person in the new world, Mikhail Kuzmin offered an even bolder vision, not limited to normative heterosexuality, in his 1906 novella Wings.27 The utopian vision in Wings was not that of an imaginary place or time, but the presence of the future in the present, the emergence of a “new person” (novyi chelovek) “with wings.” The novel’s openly gay, elder theorist of the new, Larion Shtrup, tells the unsure young hero of the novel, Vanya Smurov, that “you have within you, Vanya, the resources to become a genuine new person… a completely modern man if you want.”28 But this requires freeing oneself from the prejudiced norms of the world as it is, especially views of beauty, love, the body, and sex. The new and modern person, Shtrup argues, has a sense of beauty and pleasure that reunites Eros and aesthetics. But that is only the beginning: the real destination is a new world “flooded in sunlight and freedom, with bold and beautiful people, and it is to that place, across the sea, through the fog and gloom, we are going.” In that land, the celebration of beauty knows no boundaries, neither sexual nor moral, and lust and love are never separate. It is a land “where every pleasure would be heightened as if you had only just been born and might die at any moment,” where “miracles surround us at every step.”29 How to reach that promised land? With wings, of course. When people understand, Shtrup explains, “that every sort of Beauty, every sort of love was from the gods… they grow wings.”30 In the final pages of the story, Vanya has become more open to this liberated world of love and beauty and to his own homosexuality, which had disgusted and frightened him, and Shtrup tells Vanya, “One more effort, and you will grow wings. I can already see them.”31
Kollontai’s “winged Eros” frightened Orthodox Marxist moralists. Kuzmin’s Wings was condemned as “pornographic,” “repulsive,” and “nauseating,” though actual sexual relations are only discretely alluded to in the novel. Wings were for people who believed that beyond the boundaries of normativity lay the open air of possibility and freedom. To recall Bloch’s 1918 image, they “summoned what is not” and sought “in the blue” a truth beyond the “merely factual” life of the world as it was. But there are always people, guardians of the status quo or simply people afraid to “fly,” who echo ancient worries about flying too high, seeing in the present the ancient lesson of Icarus, whose wings melted in the sun’s heat. But the Icarian spirit persisted. And, we know, human flight was not complete fantasy.
There is something of dreams in all this. In sleep, dreams echo our fears and desires, transgress what everyday experience tells us is possible or not, imaginatively unleash our potential, and suspend disbelief. When we dream, it seems quite realistic that people fly, become younger, or return from death, for these are our wishes. We can extend this to dreaming awake: Bloch called this “dreamwork” and “forward dreaming,” and Walter Benjamin called it “awakening” through “dream consciousness” to “truth.” Dream consciousness sees beyond the horizon of what we can see in the present, toward the possible but not yet real. Sometimes, Bloch added, this forward vision can become “the dream that goes out to shape the external world.” Again, this is utopia as method.32
Dreams are at the center of one of the most influential books ever written in Russia, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done? Stories About New People. Most of the “action” in this novel are long conversations: about the individual and society, friendship and love, oppression and freedom, hierarchy and equality. But key moments in the main character’s growing consciousness of these values, and the inspiration for key decisions in her life, are a series of dreams. For Vera Pavlovna, reasoning alone is not enough to be able to leap into the open air of the new. Dreams are needed. For they transform what experience tells us are the limits of the real into the realm of extraordinary possibility.
In Vera’s first dream, she is “locked up in a damp, dark cellar” when suddenly a door opens and she finds herself “running and frolicking” in an open field that she had not known existed. She realizes she had been born paralyzed and had not known that “others can walk and run” until she is leaping in the field. She meets the one who has cured and freed her, who calls herself “love for humanity.”33 After this dream, Vera Pavlovna begins to think of her family home as a “cellar,” to realize that she was living in a “godforsaken underworld,” and to seek the open air of freedom that she did not know was even possible.
Her second dream also produces consequences for her waking world. The dream begins with a tedious discussion among her male friends about the health or sickness of soil and the necessity of human activity and labor to ensure healthy nature. Various individuals then come to Vera to confess their degraded natures. Then, “love for humanity” appears once more to remind Vera that evil is necessary for good to grow, but in the future “when the good are strong, I will not need the wicked.”34 After this dream, she establishes a cooperative sewing workshop—a project carried forward on “the wings of daydreams.”35
In her third dream, the Italian soprano Angiolina Bosio—whose performances in Russia in the 1850s of Verdi’s La Traviata made her hugely popular—appears and tells Vera to read aloud from a private diary that Vera had not written in actual life. Vera admits in the diary that it is not her husband she truly loves but “her deliverance from the cellar.” She had married the medical student Dmitry Lopukhov to escape her comfortable but oppressive family home and a potentially disastrous marriage her parents favored. As her liberator, Lopukhov deserves “gratitude and devotion, but only that.”36
Vera Pavlovna’s fourth dream is the revelatory climax of her growing consciousness of what a new life and new people might be like, and an answer to the question “what is to be done?” A “radiant beauty” appears, who becomes Vera’s guide, promising to reveal “what was, what is, and what shall be.” They “fly” together to a world of love, sensuality, and indolent bliss ruled by the fertility goddess Astarte. But as women in that world are servile and subordinate, Vera’s guide explains that there is no place for her there. They fly to a second utopia: a magnificent city where the people worship Aphrodite. But the “radiant beauty” tells Vera that this is not a true “kingdom of love” for people “bow down before the woman, but they do not consider her an equal. They worship her, but only as a source of pleasure. They do not acknowledge her human dignity” or recognized her freedom. And so, there too, “I do not exist.” The next world is a land of knights, castles, and chivalry, where the woman is worshipped but not touched. Their goddess is Chastity, the Virgin Mary, “modest, gentle, tender,” but full of sorrow, who tells them “a sword has pierced my heart. You must grieve as well…. The earth is a vale of tears.” The “radiant beauty” again declares “no, no, I did not exist then.”
Finally, Vera Pavlovna’s guide reveals the future. Women are “awakened” to the truth “that she too is a human being [chelovek].” And the “radiant beauty” reveals that she is none other than Vera Pavlovna “herself, but as a goddess.” She explains, “There is nothing nobler than a human being, nothing nobler than a woman. I am each woman to whom I appear.” Like Christ, she is a god who becomes human to show people that they can become gods. She combines and magnifies the best qualities of all the goddesses before her—sensuality, beauty, “reverence before purity”—but enriched by equality, rights, human dignity, and freedom. She unveils the future. After a great rupture, a new world is born. Its architecture and household design are bright and open, made of crystal, glass, and aluminum. Labor in factories has been replaced by the work of machines. People labor in the fields, but only to be in nature and sing in the sunshine. Everyone is free to live as they choose, though most people choose to live as others do for this is rational and beneficial—this is the kingdom of freedom and also the kingdom of heaven. To be sure, this future is still only a distant dream. But it is what Benjamin called “dream consciousness” and Bloch called “dreamwork,” which awakens and inspires forward-looking action. Finally, the goddess’s elder sister, who had appeared in the first dream as “love for humanity,” tells Vera what is to be done: “Bring as much as you can from the future into the present.”
Words bear histories, often lost in translation. In Russian, “chelovek” is one of these. It has been translated as person, human being, or man (though the Russian is gender-neutral). But as the word worked through Russia’s history, it became laden with ideas about the nature of the human being, especially reason, free will, moral understanding, and conscience, and, inevitably, ideas about human dignity and rights. And it was linked to another elusive Russian keyword: lichnost’—person, personality, self, and individual, the essence of a person’s humanity. The emerging ideal of the “new person,” with its own multifaceted global history from antiquity to communism, enriched these meanings. A world suited to the inherent dignity, even sanctity, of the human being may be the most persistent utopian dream.
For the nineteenth-century thinker Vissarion Belinsky, perhaps the most vehement Russian theorist of the human self and of the world required for lichnost’ to thrive, nothing matters more. “Russia needs not sermons (she has heard enough of them!) nor prayers (she has repeated enough of them!) but the awakening in the people of a sense of their human dignity, lost in the mud and filth for so many centuries. She needs rights and laws in accord not with the teachings of the Church but healthy thought and justice…. Instead, she offers the dreadful spectacle of a country where people traffic in human beings without even the crafty justification used by American plantation owners who claim that a negro is not a human being."37
Belinsky once said of himself that “for me, to think and to feel, to understand and to suffer, are one and the same thing.”38 What united these ways of perceiving was the ultimate moral problem: the supreme worth of the human person and the “mud and filth” in which actual men and women lived. “The time has come,” he wrote to a friend in 1841, “to free the human person [lichnost’ chelovecheskaia]…from the vile fetters of a reality not justified by reason.”39 Upon this moral foundation, Belinsky launched an unrelenting assault against everything in reality as it was that violated and degraded the high worth of the person: poverty, prostitution, drunkenness, the arrogance and self-complacency of power, bureaucratic indifference, cruelty toward the less powerful, domestic “tyranny,” and violence against women. Against the darkness of present reality, he declared, “my god is negation!” And negation will open the doors of possibility: “There will come a time…when there will be no husbands and wives but only lovers…. Woman will not be the slave of society and of men but, like men, will be free to follow her inclinations without losing her good name…. There will be no rich, no poor, neither kings nor subjects, but only brothers, only people.”40 This was utopian rage and utopian hope, a vision of a seemingly impossible but absolutely necessary reality to be.
We could tell of other stories of Russian utopia, of possibility: campaigns to promote emancipated and fulfilled “new people;” efforts to imagine and create new cities that would overcome the destructive, debasing, and ruinous cities of the present; visions of a “new state” that would advance of freedom, justice, and happiness. It is easy to dismiss all this as fantasy, as vain and hopeless refusals to accept reality, however “vile.” But it would be a mistake to see what happened in the past as the only possible story. We must resist this tyranny of outcomes. Of course, it would be naïve to think that every dream of new possibility is actually possible. It would naïve to ignore the histories of failure, the inability to overcome the darkness of lived reality, and the all-too-many cases when idealism produced terrible darkness and brutality—the dystopia that is utopia’s troubling twin. Nothing is certain when one “ventures beyond” the known and the familiar, the normative and authoritative, when one takes a “leap in the open air” of historical possibility. But the worst mistake, as Russian activists have been insisting for generations, is to dismiss as pointless the long history of human refusal to bow down before the supposed wisdom of accepting what is as the only reality—to accept the “darkness of the lived moment,” including what Belinsky called the “dreadful spectacle” of Russia’s political and social life, as impossible to overcome.