A Soviet vision of the future: the legacy and influence of Tekhikia – Molodezhi magazine
- 18 May 2017
The history of the Soviet publication and science magazine Tekhnika – Molodezhi opens a window onto a wider story about the history and development of Soviet science fiction. From 1930-90, T-M magazine was the primary Soviet magazine to organise literary and art contests for science-fiction writers and artists; while also publishing interviews with, and works by, key Soviet and international authors. During this era it was often the first publisher of foreign science fiction authors in the USSR. Through examining the key artists and contributors it is possible to illuminate the ways in which science fiction functioned as powerful outlet for the socio-political anxieties and tensions of this period.
Throughout its publication history, the magazine’s aesthetics and content were designed to reflect the changes in socio-political, scientific and cultural life in the USSR; responding directly to the totalitarian regime of Josef Stalin, to the technological achievement of The Khrushchev Thaw, and then to the economic stagnation of the Brezhnev’s period. From space races, colonising missions and fantastical space adventures, towards a fascination with dystopian political climates and explorations of psychological depth and complexity; the development of T-M magazine tells a more general story about the scope, potential and function of science fiction. For this reason several early editions are going on display, for the first time in the UK, as part of the Barbican’s major summer exhibition: Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction. This is a genre-defining exhibition that examines the history and development of science fiction, through measuring and recording its growing impact on contemporary visual culture.
Magazines like T-M played a key role in the development of the wider genre of science fiction due to their ability to disseminate new ideas effectively among a large amount of people. In 1934, the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers was held. At this event, the genre of science fiction was exclusively defined as ‘literature for young people’. It described the genre as that which necessarily focused on the ‘scientific and technological education’ of mass readers ‘in the spirit of socialist realism’. This turn towards socialist realism marked the end of the avant-garde experiments of the 1910-20s; and thus evolved a more pragmatic genre of a science-fiction essay, as that which went without a literary plot.
For the most-part, sci-fi illustrators of the period had an engendering background that helped them to develop detailed and captivating images of the socialist future. Their main concern was on futuristic technologies which would help the Soviet Union to take control of the Earth’s natural riches and resources and to build colonies on other planets. Extraterrestrial civilisations were often depicted as friendly to the Soviets while foreign spies, imperialists and capitalists were routinely depicted as threats and enemies.
One of the first illustrators of T-M magazine was Georgy Pokrovsky. He was Professor of the Air Force Engineering Academy and had a PhD in Engineering Science as well as a Major General of Engineering-Technical Services who specialised in directed explosions, supersonic aviation and creation of an amphibious ATV (all-terrain vehicle). Significantly, Pokrovsky considered sci-fi illustrations to be a direct continuation of his research as they enabled him overcome some of the limitations of technical drawings. Konstantin Artseulov was another artist, and also an aerobatics pilot and constructor of sailplanes. During WWI he was a military pilot and an instructor in a flight school where used a tailspin figure for the first time in Russian aviation. Artseulov was also a skillful artist and was trained from early childhood by his famous grandfather the marine painter Ivan Aivazovsky. Between 1932 and 1937, a false denunciation led him to several years of exile as a victim of the Great Purge. After his return in 1937, he gave up his pilot career, but continued to express his obsession with aviation and technology through art and sci-fi illustrations for T-M magazine, books, and other outlets. Among his most well-known works are the illustrations for a slide film: A Flight To the Moon (1955). These drawings were based on his previous works for the magazine Znaniye – Sila [Knowledge is a Power], a special issue (№11, 1954) of which titled ‘from the future’ was dedicated to an imaginary race of the first Soviet rocket to the Moon. According to the magazine’s experts, this lunar mission was supposed to happen in 1974. The professional engineer and artist Nikolay Kolchitsky worked at the Central Institute for Aviation Motors. His illustrations were often called ‘the connecting link between modern science and fantasy’, as many of his ideas were derived directly from scientific literature. Kolchitsky was also notable for his masterful creation of cosmic and alien landscapes. Working across different painting techniques, he was able to combine acute details with soft gradients and expressive strokes, to depict diverse landscapes and atmospheric, imaginary planets. In addition to contributing to T-M magazine in the 1950s and 1960s, he illustrated some of the main popular science and science-fiction books about space exploration.
The next period to witness a blossoming of Soviet science fiction was largely due to the burgeoning success of the Soviet space program during the 1950-60’s. It was also related to the weakening of censorship and the bolstering of international relationships. During this period, ideas of a human spaceflight because a defining topic for Soviet sci-fi.
The artist Andrey Sokolov was a frequent contributor to T-M magazine. His aspiration – to depict the cosmos realistically – was based on the first photographs taken in space during this period; as well as his own interview with cosmonauts. From 1965 he often collaborated with the artist and cosmonaut Alexey Leonov – the first astronaut to perform a spacewalk. However, often their collective depictions of Soviet spaceships were intentionally inaccurate as the Soviet space program remained highly, and notoriously, confidential. For the 1967 illustrated book ‘Wait for Us, Stars!’ Sokolov and Leonov created a sci-fi visualisation of a “Space Elevator” that was based on the ideas of Tsiolkovsky (1895) and the technical calculations of Yuri Artsutanov (1960). The British writer Arthur C. Clarke acknowledged drawing inspiration from this illustration for his novel The Fountains of Paradise. Indeed, the first edition of this novel features the Sokolov and Leonov illustration on the front cover.
Importantly, this evolving genre of sci-fi illustration allowed artists to overcome the limitations of social realism. For instance, in the postcard series Sokolov and Leonov developed a frame-by-frame narrative structure; that started with real events and ended with pure fantasy. Another device they developed was to frequently divide a picture into two parts. One of which displayed real spaceships in full colour, and another which showed a black and white image of the distant future.
The designer and graphic artist Alexander Pobedinsky was both an illustrator and a member of editorial board of T-M magazine. His impact on the visual appearance of the magazine was highly significant. Pobedinsky was widely renowned not only for his advertising posters – which mimicked social realism- but also the complex psychological realism of his book characters. Among his most popular works are his illustrations for Ivan Yefremov’s socio-philosophical novel The Andromeda Nebula, first published in T-M magazine in 1957. Ivan Yefremov himself was one of the first Soviet writers who managed to create a highly detailed and elaborate world in the distant future. In The Andromeda Nebula and several subsequent novels he described, under the name of ‘Velikoye Kol’tso’ (the Great Circle), a cosmic community of civilisations that had reached a high level of technological, physical, and moral development. Pobedinsky’s illustrations helped readers to visualise these idealised future communities, scenarios and peoples. Yefremov presented this futuristic scenario as a polemic against the novel The Star Kings (1949) by the American writer Edmond Hamilton. Yefremov cultivated a strong conviction that a highly technological future would lead to a period of social equality and humanism; not one of wars and power struggles.
From the mid1960s onwards, the preoccupation with man’s conquest of space and different planets began to be perceived as trivial. Once a fantastic dream and land of opportunity, the cosmos instead became a backdrop for the adventures of heroes that were solving a variety of psychological, ethical, social and philosophical problems. Both in sci-fi novels and illustrations, the psychological realism and depth of the characters became more important than technical accuracy and scientific authenticity. This is reflected in the fact that Arthur C. Clarke claimed that over all the illustrations for his novel The Fountains of Paradise he preferred the works done for T-M magazine by the soviet artist Robert Avotin due to their more accurate visualisation of the main characters.
In the late 1960s and 80s, there was a marked shift towards a psychedelic graphic style and a more complex narrative that had affected Soviet visual culture more widely. The design of T-M magazine had also changed, due to the conceptual works of Robert Avotin, who was constantly experimenting with various graphic styles.
Throughout this period T-M magazine had been consistently organising multiple sci-fi art contests and exhibitions. Collectively, they worked to provide a space for greater experimentation; and helped readers to discover the works of talented nonconformist Soviet artists, such as Nikolay Nedbaylom, and many other amateur artists. For example, Gennady Golobkov – the winner of several contests- was known for his bright and vibrant images of humans in the distant future. However, only a handful of people were aware that the artist had been paralyzed since the age of 16, and died at the young age of 26 with a pencil in his hold.
During this period, the formal, generic, and stylistic diversity of Soviet science fiction largely increased. This reflected changes in a general cultural mood and social imaginary that had moved from romanticised visions of the future to images of a post-apocalyptic and dystopian world. These changes arose of out a period of economic stagnation and the tightening censorship of the Brezhnev’s era. Science fiction literature that reflected a critical and ironic view of society soon became a vital part of the Soviet underground subculture.
The 1968 issues of T-M magazine reveal the growing censorship during this period. These issues contained the novel Chas Byka (The Bull’s Hour) by Ivan Yefremov. The story, which depicted a totalitarian regime on a planet called Toramans, was officially banned in the state. As a result of this censorship, these issues of T-M have become rare. It has also been speculated that the illustrations for the novel by Alexandr Pobedensky were also the subject of censorship; as one of the four dictators depicted in the entry illustration resembled Nikita Khrushchev, the former head of the Soviet government. Nevertheless, many of the banned books and magazine publications, particularly the Strugatsky’s novels, continued to be secretly circulated among many semi-official clubs of science fiction fans.
The end of “the golden era” of T-M magazine as a leading edition of the Soviet sci-fi subculture can be marked by the dismissal of Valery Zakharchenko, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, in 1984. The dismissal was attributed to the publication of the first pages of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel 2010: Odyssey Two (1982), in which several characters had been named after Soviet dissidents.
Several examples of the T-M magazine covers and Soviet science fiction illustrations, from the collection of the Moscow Design Museum, will be showcased from June 1 to September 3, 2017 as part of the Into the Unknown: A Journey through Science Fiction, a the Barbican Centre, London. The exhibition is curated by Barbican International Enterprises with co-production partners Brandts- Museum of Art & Visual Culture, Denmark, and Onassis Cultural Centre – Athens, Greece.
Alyona Sokolnikova is one of the exhibition advisors, holds a PhD, and is Curator and Researcher at Moscow Design Museum. She also teaches critical and cultural studies at the British Higher School of Art and Design in Moscow, specializing in Russian design history.