The Russians in Stockholm : Russian SF presented in the Stockholm Culture House
Stockholm Culture House (Stockholm Kultur Huset)
When the Scandinavian SF Association – “SFSF” in the Swedish abbreviation – arranged an afternoon minicon in the December 21st, the freshly-baked PhD in Russian science fiction, Henriette Cederlöf, held an interesting lecture about her doctoral thesis.
Tomas Cronholm first talked about Mars in science fiction, from Wells to Kim Stanley Robinson with lots of nice slides from old pulp magazines. We noted for instance 2005 worldcon fan-GoH Lars-Olov Strandberg in the audience (complaining about his legs getting bad, but otherwise in reasonable health – let’s hope Roscoe protects him!) comprising 30+ people.
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
It was the 27th of September that Henriette Cederlöf defended her thesis at Stockholm University, titled “Alien Places in Late Soviet Science Fiction : The “Unexpected Encounters” of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky as Novels and Films“. It was written in English (Cederlöf also knows Russian) and you find it for free download here:
From the abstract:
“The dissertation consists of an analysis of three novels by the Strugatsky brothers (Arkady, 1925-1991 and Boris 1933-2012): Inspector Glebsky’s Puzzle/The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Otel’ U pogibšego al’pinista, 1970), The Kid (Malyš, 1971) and Roadside Picnic (Piknik na obočine, 1972) and two films : Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Estonian : Hukkunud alpinisti hotell/Russian : Otel’ U pogibšego al’pinista, Grigori Kromanov, 1979) and Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979).
The three novels, allegedly treatments of the theme of contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence, were intended to be published in one volume with the title Unexpected Encounters. The films are based on two of the novels.”
Stalker (1979) ; Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)
But her thesis, and her lecture during the SFSF minicon, also covered a lot of Russian genre history. In Russia (or the Soviet Union for some 70 years) it has been up and down for the SF genre through history. The Year 4338: Petersburg Letters (1835) by Vladimir Odoevsky is usually considered the first Russian SF novel (available in English translation here: http://www.feeldothink.org/the-year-4338-translation-from-russian/). A lot of Russian SF was produced through the 1800’s and the early 1900’s . This continued during the first years after the communist revolution when there was a thaw in the cultural climate. Some authors believed in the marxist dogmas and wrote utopian stories of the glorious future to come.
But frost struck during the 1930’s and 40’s. The Soviet Writers’ Association proclaimed that “socialist realism” was the only acceptable genre, as it represented “the tomorrow in the today”, and the future was already decided “scientifically” by Marx and Lenin. Limited SF visions were allowed under the “doctrine of the small steps”. Writers could only travel within the Solar system and Cederlöf said that a typical SF Soviet story of those days would be describing the technology of building a better tractor…
But Stalin died, alone on the floor of his luxury dacha, and some thawing came about. And even more in 1957 when Sputnik was launched, as the first artificial satellite. Suddenly the SF genre was seen as a vehicle to glorify Soviet space exploration and science. Science fiction usually had less problems with censorship since it by its very nature is “unrealistic” – ie you don’t have to take it too seriously – and also often set in other worlds and times. SF could in a way be a zone for a social debate, which wasn’t allowed elsewhere. Some of the most popular western SF writers were also translated, like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.
Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel, “Solaris”)
Despite a relative thaw Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky would at times have problems getting works published, especially in the 1970’s when things became more rigid again. The three Strugatsky novels Cederlöf studied are all about alienation, in one way or another, meetings between humanity and something alien that perhaps doesn’t portray humanity as perfect (as marxist doctrine preaches, if we only follow Marx’ materialist dialectic “laws”).
Stalker (1979), directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (based on the Strugatsky’s brothers novel, “Roadside Picnic“)
The 1980’s came with Glasnost and Perestroika, and the Strugatskys could thus be GoHs of the 1987 sf worldcon in Brighton. But inevitable forces were dissolving the USSR. As systems shift there will be friction and great strains, the publishers began translating western sf en masse in the 1990’s, a lot of escapistic fantasy was printed and this was a “lost decade” for Russian SF.
In later years Russian sf has bounced back. A lot of new Russian sf authors have appeared – some are also translated to English, like Dmitry Glukhovsky, Nick Perumov and others – and hundreds of Russian sf and fantasy novels are published every year. And as the political climate now seems to become more frosty (You Know Why!) we are told that the debate is ranging much more free in Russian sf circles than in the mostly Putin-controlled media.
Henriette Cederlöf’s speech was followed by input from the audience (and then the minicon had a panel about Swedish sf and finished with a coming conventions info session) and I couldn’t resist to raise my hand and tell Dr Cederlöf that I have met the Strugatsky brothers. That was as they were Guests of Honour on Conspiracy ’87, the mentioned SF Worldcon that year, and with my borrowed tape recorder I made an interview which was later broadcasted on Swedish radio as well as Radio Sweden International’s Russian program.
I believe Lars-Olov must have met the Strugatskys too, because he was at the big Conspiracy worldcon also.
Henriette Cederlöf : “Alien Places in Late Soviet Science Fiction : The “Unexpected Encounters” of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky as Novels and Films”
P.S. More views on the development of the genre in Russia came from the sf author Olga Slavnikova, as reported earlier on Europa SF: https://europasf.eu/meeting-russian-fantastic-author-olga-slavnikova-ahrvid-engholm-sweden/
Editor’s Note :
Ahrvid Engholm is a swedish author, editor, journalist and SF fan.