Electricity: Between Fact and Fiction in Fin-de-Siècle Russian Literature

With the call for electrification of the nation in 1921, electricity became coterminous with progress and new enlightenment in Bol′ševik Russia. The proposed paper reconstructs a prehistory of this metaphor through an examination of its genesis and evolution in Russian literary culture from the 1880s to the early 1920s. In order to analyze the emergence of electricity as a cultural and literary metaphor, I have chosen to focus on the mediatory role played by its representation in literature that bridged the realms of fictionalization and implementation. The paper traces the emerging relationship between literary constructs of electricity, its conceived role as a primary tool for transforming collective consciousness, and actual technological development in Russian culture of the period. Taking the method used by Richard Stites to study cultural metaphors in his work Utopia and Revolution as a point of departure, the paper focuses upon the dialogic referential course of evolution of electricity in its literary incarnations and as a cultural entity. The study incorporates a spectrum of sources comprised not only of subsequently canonized writers and texts, but also of popular science fiction, millenarian philosophy, mass media images, state policy and propaganda. It reconstructs the process whereby the electricity metaphor in twentieth-century Russian literature derived from and contributed to its resultant collective perception. The literary texts examined include poetry (Zinaida Gippius’s “Èlektričestvo,” Valerij Brjusov’s “Pri èlektričestve”), late nineteenth-century science fiction (Čexov’s “Letajuščie ostrova,” Konstantin Slučevskij’s “Kapitan Nemo v Rossii,” V. Šelonskij’s “V strane polunoči”), and twentieth-century science fiction (Brjusov’s “Respublika južnogo kresta,” “Vosstanie mašin,” “Mjatež mašin,” “Sem′ zemnyx soblaznov”; Velimir Xlebnikov’s prose cycle Kol iz buduščego, Andrej Platonov’s “Rodina èlektričestva”). Non-literary sources survey, in addition to a number of both “serious” and “popular” periodicals of the period, philosophical treatises (Nikolaj Fedorov’s Filosofija obščego dela, Lenin’s Materialism i èmpiriokriticizm).