YVONNE HOWELL – Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky


Yvonne Howell    Apocalyptic Realism The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky 

New York, Bern, Berlin, Frankfurt/M., Paris, Wien, 1994. X, 170 pp.
Russian and East European Studies in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Culture. Vol. 1 General Editor: Willis Truitt 

Book Synopsis:

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky have been Russia’s most popular science fiction writers since their first publication appeared in 1959. The enormous and consistent popularity of their works over three decades of fluctuating political and literary conditions is all the more interesting when one considers that their primary readership has been the Russian scientific-technical intelligentsia – a sector of society whose values
and attitudes were instrumental in transforming the Soviet Union. This lively and original study of the Strugatskys’ development as writers and as spokesmen for a generation of Russian scientists is as timely as it is unique. It is also the first English language study of the Strugatskys’ previously unpublished novels. 

The Author: 

Yvonne Howell is an assistant professor of Russian at the University of Richmond. After graduating from Dartmouth College with a double concentration in Russian language and biology in 1981, she spent a year doing field work and studying zoology at Leningrad State University. Her doctoral degree is in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Michigan. She travels to Russia regularly for teaching and research purposes.


Yvonne Howell’s study is structured into four chapters: Apocalyptic Realism, False Prophets, Apocalyptic Settings and Aliens of Our Time. Howell describes general aspects and some of the literary and philosophical driving forces behind the brother’s work. She not only introduces major theme complexes surrounding the novels, the study constantly relates to a Soviet and Russian collective mental realm. Howell makes the convincing argument that the Strugatskys engaged in a constant feedback loop between SF storylines and contemporary daily lives in the Soviet Union. In other words, the novels mirror elements of culture, political and other real life occurrences and tendencies. Howell describes the Strugatskys’ textual tree in its entirety, with the roots taping into a rich East-Western literary heritage.  

The Strugatskys take inspiration from strong source texts such as the biblical Revelations or mythological tales which they then sophistically adapt, transform and interweave into their SF stories. In her postscript, Howell writes ‘In any case, it seems likely that the Strugatskys’ science fiction will gain new relevance as science history-as a portrait of the intellectual, inter-personal, political, linguistic, and mundane concerns which formed the fabric of scientific culture in the Soviet Union.’ (p. 153)

I chose the following extracts with a couple of thoughts in mind. They show the generosity and precision of Howell’s approach to literary criticism, as the passages include extended reflections on Soviet – and Western – culture at large. The passages mention a cultural subconscious sphere, which acts as fundament and support structure for the brothers literary endeavour. In Apocalyptic Realism, you read about the Strugatskys, but you will also gain additional, deep, interdisciplinary knowledge. Howells writing and reasoning is insightful, lucid even. Images by Hieronymus Bosch and Sandro Botticelli. Some highlighting in blue by myself.  MG


Towards the end of his life, the Russian philosopher and religious thinker Nikolai Berdyaev summed up the essence of the Russian national character, as he perceived it, in a book called The Russian Idea (1946). He stated that Russians are either apocalyptiscists or nihilists; thus, the ‘Russian Idea’ is eschatological; it is oriented towards the end, and it is this which accounts for Russian maximalism. Such generalisations are important insofar as they reflect a society’s mythical perception of itself – often transformed into a self-fulfilling prophesy. At least since the time of Peter I, Russian intellectuals have been occupied with defining their national identity in a land which occupies the crossroads of East and West, the old and the new, anarchy and authoritarianism, Orthodoxy and scientism. The binary oppositions by which Russia defines itself have always had a decidedly religious character – depending on one’s orientation, one pole of any given opposition is equated with the antichrist, the other with universal salvation. (For example, Peter ‘the great’s’ decision to open up Russia to the West convinced his opposition that the reign of the antichrist had arrived; just as many today associate Russia’s transition to a market economy with swerving from the road of Orthodoxy and salvation). Accordingly, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 was perceived as the final confrontation in history between all oppositions; and Marxist-Leninism, no less than any overtly religious movement, promised the dawn of a utopian new age of universal brotherhood (communism in the ‘radiant future’). The importance of the ‘Russian Idea’ (extremist and eschatological) to contemporary Russian literature, even when the Revolution’s millenarian claims have long since become the punch line of sardonic jokes, is that it continues to survive and influence scientific, religious, and political culture. (p.16-17)

The most basic underlying structure of all the Strugatskys’ mature works is described by two axes suggested in the generalisations above, and the hypothetical axes take as their zero point the sociopolitical event of the Revolution and the founding of the Soviet State. This moment was supposed to divide history into two periods: the exploitative and degenerate old world was to be transformed into a new, proletarian paradise. The Strugatskys do not reverse this vector to claim that the old world was better than the new; they simply describe contemporary, everyday life in the Soviet Union as appallingly banal, bureaucratic, imperfect, and spiritually bankrupt. (…) We might posit a horizontal axis of description which runs the gamut of the mundane aspects of a Soviet citizen’s contemporary existence. This axis should properly be called the axis of byt. ‘Byt’ is an untranslatable Russian term meaning, roughly, the dull, routine, hopeless dreariness which inheres in the physical reality of one’s everyday life. (…) Clearly, much of the Strugatskys’ irony is aimed at the sorry condition of the ‘new millennium’. If the Revolution signalled the end of history, than what has followed is not the Kingdom of Heaven, but its ludicrous parody: contemporary byt. However, the starting point of the Russian Revolution is also crossed by another, vertical axis. This axis is best understood as an unbroken continuum of cultural memory. That is, a succession of literary styles, philosophical trends, historical events, and religious debates which had been suppressed by the regime and largely forgotten during the Strugatskys’ lifetime is pieced back together by way of frequent symbolic or intertextual allusion. As the preliminary work for this study progressed, it became increasingly evident that a significant source of meaning and imagery in the Strugatskys’ ‘future’ or ‘alien’ worlds is derived from the literary and philosophical/religious heritage of Russia’s Silver Age and post-Revolutionary avant-garde. The authors’ intertextual allusions to Bulgakov, Bely, Platonov, and the Russian Absurdists (Oberiu poets) represent a conscious effort to respond to the theme of apocalypse present in Russian literature during the immediate pre- and post-Revolutionary era. Furthermore, the Strugatskys, like their Silver Age and 1920s predecessors, attempt to redefine the relevance of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic thought to contemporary Russian life by incorporating into their fantastic world imagery from the gnostic and Manichaean heresies, the cosmology of Dante, and – of course – the biblical Revelation.
The coincidence of allusion to Bulgakov’s Margarita and the Divine Sophia, of Bely’s Petersburg and Manichean dualism, of Platonov’s Foundation Pit and Dante’s Inferno also suggest the influence of Vladimir Solovyov and Nikolai Fyodorov on the shape of the Strugatskys’s science fiction from the 1970s on. Generally speaking, both Solovyov and Fyodorov based their eschatology’s on a distinctly Russian interpretation of the meaning of Christianity. Fyodorov, in particular, sought a grand synthesis of scientific rationalism and mystical idealism. (p.18-19)


In any case, they are among the first post-war Russian writers to retrieve this important thread of Russian culture and give it new literary shape. In short, one finds that fantastic images in the Strugatskys’ late works are taken neither from high-tech realm of cybernetics, nor from magical world of the fairy tale. Rather, they draw their images from the metaphysical systems of the early Christian heresies and dualist cosmologies, and the incorporation of these systems into the Russian modernist movement at the beginning of this century. (p.19-20)

One way in which the Strugatskys began to increase the complexity of their fiction was to incorporate the philosophical and metaphysical issues they wished to address as elements of the plot. Whether consciously or not, the authors developed a form which would let the nature of the extra-textual or intertextual material actually affect and predetermine the course of events in what was ostensibly a purely entertaining, action-packed plot. Once this was achieved, the science fiction, detective, or adventure story plot was not merely a vehicle for allegory; rather, it could in some way be shaped and anticipated by the underlying philosophical agenda.  (p. 20)

However, the contemporary, mundane setting of Soviet byt is also used as a symbolic repository of literary and cultural allusions. The trick is to create a double-vision of the modern age: ‘realistic’ depictions of contemporary Soviet life reveal a banal and godless landscape , while symbolic motifs within that landscape point to its true location somewhere on the battleground between Christ and the antichrist (where the antichrist, for the time being, has successfully established an anti-millennium!). Frances A. Yates’ fascinating study of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance Art of Memory provides the most useful relationship between wetting and theme in the Strugatskys’ science fiction. In the classical world, before the invention of the press, the ability to store in proper order a large or complicated set of information was of utmost importance to any intellectual endeavor. An accomplished orator of could recite lengthy speeches without the use of notes; a lawyer in Greek or Roman antiquity could keep innumerable facts about a case straight in his head (…) We should understand what kind of mnemotechnics the ancients used to achieve a prodigious ‘artificial memory’. (p. 23)

A consistent theme in all of the Strugatskys’ mature works is the catastrophic loss of cultural memory which has occurred in the Soviet Union within their lifetime. In the Strugatskys’ handling, the genre of science fiction itself is subordinate to this theme, since a culture which cannot remember its past cannot ‘remember’ its future either. The Strugatskys’ non-extrapolatory science fiction is based on the notion that the rapid loss of cultural memory has shortened the approach of the future, which, in fact, has already merged with the present. The stylistic result of this conflation of the present with an unimaginable and unimagined future is most noticeable in the description of the setting.
As we shall see in more detail, the Strugatskys’ settings provide the loci and the images to jog one’s memory of a long and complicated subtext – the Western cultural heritage of the Russian intelligentsia. The settings of all the novels discussed in this chapter are intentionally – to the point of stylistic didacticism – designed as fictional ‘rooms’ or ‘landscapes’ cluttered with half-familiar ‘images’ which represent the concepts and the texts the authors wish the reader to recall. (…) In The Doomed City, the protagonist’s daily walk home to the suburbs leads him past workers digging a foundation pit. At the same time, the reader must mentally ‘walk by’ Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit: i.e., the device insures that the reader will recall both the content of Platonov’s long-suppressed anti-utopian masterpiece, and its proper ‘location’ (order) in the broken and distorted continuum of Russian intellectual history. (…)  In The Doomed City and A Lame Fate, landscapes and interiors harbour the imagery of a rich and eclectic selection of the literary and philosophical ‘monuments to the spirit’ inherited by the Russian intelligentsia at the turn of the century. A closer examination of these settings is crucial, since it should reveal exactly what part of Russia’s cultural memory is being sculpted into the literary landscape for preservation, and why. (p. 25-26)


How are the apocalyptic and gnostic motifs underlying plot formation and sculpted into the landscape reflected in the characterisation of the protagonists? How does the relationship between the human protagonist and the alien change over time? The study of characterisation culminates the process of discovering how the Strugatskys’ unique brand of science fiction has served the needs of the Russian intelligentsia so well for three full decades. On eight expect that the intelligentsia readership has found a reflection of itself in the Strugatskys’ heroes, and this is indeed the case. Furthermore, by using the fantastic licence to model reality, the authors have actually provided a kind of cultural myth to live by. The Strugatskys’ heroes not only embody the values of the intelligentsia at any given time; they carry these values into the experimental future or alternative world of the fantastic, where they find either rejection or affirmation.
So far, we have predicted that a prefigurative plot or a ‘loaded’ landscape can refer the educated reader to a variety of other texts which are important for cultural memory. The pattern of subtexts discovered by the reader lends considerable philosophical depth to the superficially straight-forward, popular-genre format. Clearly, the more the reader knows about the inter-textual world the Strugatskys refer to, the greater the meaning (and didactic value) of the novel. A reader les literate in the cultural experience of the Russian/Jewish intellectual in the twentieth-century Soviet Union will understand the novel accordingly: as a more or less self-referential, purely fictional entertainment. Before connecting this aspect of reader-reception to the ‘myth-making’ function of the Strugatskys’ science fiction, it is necessary to look at the more obscure subtexts which inform and change the image of the hero in the late works. (p. 26)


now forward to pages 74-77, the analysis of The Doomed City. I was particularly interested in this part because of the idea of a Dantean descent into a subterranean, ‘subconscious’ compound – what I essentially explore in my In the Museum 1-3, adapted to a museum complex that Christopher Walken visits. MG


In part 1, chapter 3 of The Doomed City, Andrei has just been catapulted out of a fantastic ‘Red House’ onto a square in the city. The ‘Red House’ appears in a different location in the city on different nights; it seems to exist at will in different places at different times. (…) The physical parallels in the two stories are made significant by paralleles on the spiritual or legendary personages who are suffering the consequences of their various willed perversions, they are also allegorical figures representing the potential for evil inherent in the poet’s own soul, and within any individual soul. It is a gross, but not inaccurate simplification of the allegory to say that until each individual recognises the hell within, it will be impossible for any community, or country, or humankind as a whole to achieve the harmony of Paradise – in secular terms, social utopia. Virgil is chosen to accompany Dante in his journey through Hell, because he represents the composite cultural and artistic achievements of Western civilisation. His art and philosophy and morality  cannot in and of themselves open the gates of Heaven, but they can awaken and guide the sinful soul onto the path of righteousness and salvation.
Dante’s epic poem is also a political jeremiad, aimed at the critical sociopolitical situation in thirteenth-century Italy. In her introduction to The Divine Comedy, Dorothy Sayers formulates the point of the historical Dante’s political concerns as ‘a protest against that drive towards theocracy… (which he viewed as) an attempt to establish the Kingdom of God here and now as an ecclesiastical-political structure’. The great twofold pattern which unfolds in Dante’s epic poem confirms a view of history as a process of redemption within time and salvation as a process of redemption outside of time. (pp. 74-75)


However, the Strugatskys’ Afterworld is not entirely imaginary or fantastic. On the contrary, it is contiguous with Andrei’s world and has a palpable quality of empirical reality – it is, after all, physically extant in many works of art. For example, the old man has no trouble identifying the location of the phantasmagoric ‘Red House’ in the temporal world, thereby ’rationalising’ its existence in the Afterworld:

‘It’s not hard to recognise it, said the old man softly.
‘Before, in that life, I often saw it depicted and described. It is described in great detail in the Revelations of St. Anthony. Of course, that particular text has not been canonised, … For us Catholics… Well, anyway, I’ve read it. ‘A house appeared to me, it was alive and in motion, it made indecent gestures, and I could see through the windows that inside there were people who walked through the rooms, slept, and ate…’ I can’t claim that this is an exact quote, but it’s very close. Then, of course, there is  Hieronymous Bosch. I would call him Saint Hieronymus Bosch, and I’m very much obliged to him preparing me for this…’ – he motioned broadly to his surroundings…
I recognise a great deal of what I see here, and it pains me to even think of those who have arrived here without understanding, and without the capacity to understand, where they are. A tortuous incomprehension of what surrounds them, compounded by tortuous memories of their sins. Perhaps this is also the great wisdom of the Creator: eternal consciousness of one’s sins without the realisation that one is being punished… Take for example, you, young man – for what sins were you healed into this abyss?’
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about,’ grumbled Andrei. ‘Religious fanatics are the last think we need in this place….’ he thought to himself. (The Doomed City, 271-272)


Thus, not only the ‘Red House,’ but the entire city, and even its geographical location, has a solid precedent in artistic and cultural icons of Western civilisation. The pattern of intertextual allusions is already evident: the setting is prefigured by artistic depictions of the Apocalypse and the Underworld. In the interplay between the Strugatskys’ ‘fantastic’ setting and its ‘real’ intertextual precedent, the discrepancy between the two planes of reality is, in fact, neutralised. Both Andrei’s perceptions and the old man’s perceptions are correct simultaneously: they are living in the Soviet Union in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they are living in Hell. If one distills and specifies the source of humour in the Strugatskys’ text, one finds that the humour of the situation arises as a kind of inevitable byproduct of the ‘neutralisation’ process: the realisation that the real and the fantastic – the contemporary reader’s world and the ‘infernos’ of world literature – are one and the same thing, evokes the ironic laughter of recognition. (pp. 76-77)