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L'ère électrique. The Electric Age

Olivier Asselin
Silvestra Mariniello
Andrea Oberhuber


Electric Origins: From Modernist Myth to Bolshevik Utopia

Anindita Banerjee

Texte intégral

1In November 1920, Vladimir Il’ich Lenin issued a slogan identifying electricity as the only remaining step in Russia’s path to Communism: “Communism is equal to Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country” (Kommunizm est’ sovetsksaia vlast’ plius elektrifikatsiia vsei strany). The declaration signified the Communist Party’s approval of a plan forwarded by GOELRO, The State Commission for the Electrification of Russia (Gosudarstvennaia komissiia elektrifikatsii Rossii). Lenin’s statement, which until recently adorned the central power station in Moscow, remains in collective memory as the moment when electricity was officially named by the state as prime technological instrument of utopia.

  • 1 Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, “Zapisnye knigi 1907–1911” [“Notebooks 1907–1911”], Polnoe sobranie sochine (...)

2The proposition seems daring in light of the fact that, compared with that of the West, mass electrification in Russia at the time could only be called a pipe dream. By the first decade of the 20th century, electricity in industrialized nations such as Germany and the United States had come to signify both mundane household technology and massive force of social change. Commercial promotion and cheap mass distribution of inventions such as Edison’s light bulb and the Siemens Company’s dynamos had radically transformed everyday life. Lenin’s belief that a utopian state must necessarily be “electrified,” in fact, stemmed from personal experience of the transformative effects of electricity in Western Europe: travelling through Germany in 1908, he noted that electrical technology would evolve into “the strongest instrument of capitalist economy” in the age to come.1

  • 2 L. Dreier, Zadachi i razvitie elektrotekhniki [Objectives and Development of Electrical Technology(...)
  • 3 Jonathan Coopersmith, The Electrification of Russia, 1880–1926 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, (...)
  • 4 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Visions and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolut (...)

3While electricity rapidly evolved into the chief index of progress and prosperity in the West, revolution and civil war only served to slow down the tentative and uneven course towards technologization that had begun in Russia at the turn of the 20th century. A report of the Bolshevik government shows that as late as 1919, the number of electric stations in Soviet Russia and the United States was 220 and 5221, respectively; consumption of electricity in kilowatt-hour per capita was 16 and 500.2 Historian Jonathan Coopersmith confirms that even after World War One compelled the Tsarist government to recognize the importance of electrical technology for the first time, efforts to promote and distribute it remained “extremely slow”; after 1917, “electricity production dropped sharply and did not regain pre-Revolutionary levels until the mid 1920s.”3 Assessing Lenin’s call for electrification against the infrastructures available for actuating a technological utopia, Richard Stites comments that the Bolshevik leader’s “visionary speculation” was equally a “desperate measure designed to make the economy work and the Soviet regime survive.”4

4In a context where most of the population had no direct access to electric power and little experience of its beneficial effects, Lenin’s slogan displays a remarkable way of bridging the disjuncture between utopian vision and material reality. While couched in the seemingly infallible language of a mathematical proposition (“is equal to,” “plus”), the slogan, rather than indicating how electricity will improve living and working conditions, represents it as abstract catalyst of political authority (Soviet power) and ontological transformation (Communism). The peculiar conflation of neo-positivist and neo-romanticist perceptions of electricity from which Lenin’s slogan derives its force remains conspicuously unexamined in macrohistories of electrification in Russia. GOELRO is usually assessed as prelude to the massive industrialization drives and five-year plans conceived under Stalin.

  • 5 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” The Question Concerning Technology and Oth (...)

5The vision of electricity as synthetic source of mystical vitalism and material change is not a product of Bolshevik utopianism alone. Lenin’s slogan represents the culmination rather than the starting point of a unique epistemic and figural continuum whose source may be discerned in a corpus of modernist narratives of creation. It was in such narratives that the two opposing connotations of electric power were first unified and amplified into a grand utopian paradigm. The modernist myth of electric origin is best explained through the analogy of an electrical circuit comprised of the positive pole of the anode and the negative pole of the cathode. When separated, the two remain inert, but once conjoined they produce a blinding spark. The anode, conventionally called the “male” part of the circuit, corresponds to the positivistic understanding of electricity as a naturally occurring energy; in the anodic mode, electricity is a rationally explicable source of power that can be mechanically harnessed and used in ways that are materially manifest. In contrast, the “female” cathode represents a distinctly non-rational approach towards electricity that views it as a mysterious organic or supernatural power; incommensurable with cognition and not subjugated by human prowess, electricity in this mode is a sacred repository of magic and miracle. Martin Heidegger’s concept of technology provides a rich frame for further apprehending the anodic and cathodic attitudes to electricity and assessing the tremendous symbolic power generated by their synthesis. According to Heidegger, technology is understood as either instrumentum, “a means,” or episteme, “knowing in the widest sense.” Only from the conjuncture of the two, he argues, can the “essence” of technology be revealed. Bringing together episteme and instrumentum opens up the latent possibilities of revelation in both, leading to an understanding of techne as poesis: something that “creates” or “brings forth.”5

6The promise of poesis underlies the connection between modernist myths and Lenin’s formula for collective salvation. The following sections trace how this continuum came to be codified, disseminated, and perpetuated in the Russian cultural imagination through intertextual and intermedial channels. Using material from journalism and advertisements, popular philosophy and aesthetic theory, pulp fiction and high modernist literature, policy statements and propaganda, this essay demonstrates that the vision of Communism through electrification re-signified and remediated the modernist notion of electric origin.

  • 6 Mikhail Lomonosov, Trudy po fizike [Treatises on Physics], Polnoe sobranie sochinenii vol. 3, ed. (...)
  • 7 Quoted in Egon Friedell, A Cultural History of the Modern Age: The Crisis of the European Soul fro (...)
  • 8 Alexander Radishchev, Puteshchestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu [Journey from Petersburg to Moscow] (M (...)
  • 9 L. N. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 14 tomakh vol. 8, ed. V. G. Chertkov et (...)

7The two opposing perceptions of electricity conflated in Lenin’s slogan had existed for a considerable time in Russian cultural discourse, but only as components of mutually exclusive epistemologies. Just as Lenin became the icon of the national electrification drive in Soviet Russia, in the 18th century the figure of Mikhail Lomonosov was inalienably bound with a rational perception of electricity as tractable natural phenomenon. In an age when it was widely perceived as elemental, irrational force, Lomonosov, who experimented with capturing lightning just as Benjamin Franklin did, published several seminal essays between 1745 and 1756 explaining electrical phenomena in terms of the physical sciences.6 Russian admirers of Enlightenment thought subsequently eulogized the scientist by depicting him as a modern-day Prometheus who brought electricity to humankind instead of fire. Echoing d’Alembert’s characterization of Franklin as a man who “tore lightning from the heavens and the scepter from the tyrants,”7 famed intellectual and social activist Alexander Radishchev wrote that “Lomonosov could produce flashes of lightning and repel lashes of thunder” (Lomonosov umel proizvodit’ elektricheskuiu silu, umel otvrashchat’ udary groma).8 Early in the 19th century, in contrast, a diametrically opposite view of electricity began to dominate the imagination of the Russian aristocracy and intelligentsia. Inspired by Romantic and neo-Platonic views imported from Western Europe along with the cult fashion of Galvanism and Mesmerism, this view consisted of privileging electricity as occult and psychic phenomenon. As an incident in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873–1876) demonstrates, such a perception persisted even after Edison’s invention of the incandescent lamp. In a charged moment of ideological and sexual confrontation, Levin, the pragmatist hero of the novel, accuses his beloved of indulging in table-turning and mediumism; his rival Vronskii retorts, “We acknowledge the existence of electricity, even though we do not know it; why can’t you admit there may be other sorts of energy that we have not yet named?”9

8A single innovation, Edison’s light bulb, coincided with the advent of mass media in Russia to transform the very mode of thinking about electricity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, only cosmopolitan aristocrats or isolated scholars travelling abroad could know about or speculate upon the latest scientific theories and technological inventions. Starting from the 1880s, in contrast, numerous illustrated journals made such information accessible to a wide social spectrum, especially in urban centers with a burgeoning middle class. In Russia as in the West, Edison’s incandescent light bulb began to serve as the universal metonym for the emergence of the technological age. The two most popular science journals of this time, Around the World (Vokrug sveta) and Nature and People (Priroda i liudi), literally adopted the electric bulb as their emblem. The former includes Edison’s lamp on its cover; the jacket of the latter depicts a landscape with electric wires criss-crossing the sky. An image of the electric bulb appeared at the head of a column in Vokrug sveta that reported on the latest scientific discoveries and technological inventions. Specialized periodicals sprang up to inform the amateur reader about electrical energy. The first issue of The Journal of Latest Discoveries and Inventions (Zhurnal noveishikh otkrytii i izobretenii) in 1900 offers two free supplements about “electricity in domestic use.” All through the same year, the illustrated weekly Niva carried numerous articles and pictures of the special pavilion on “Electricity” that was erected at the World’s Fair in Paris. It also devoted an issue to the newly electrified Paris subway system.

9As the above examples illustrate, media enthusiasm in Russia about the transformative effects of electricity closely echoed that in the West. But the resemblance ends there, because electricity did not leave the domain of utopian speculation to become an object of everyday reality in Russia as it did in Germany and the United States. Coopersmith, while acknowledging that individual engineers and investors at various times pushed the cause for adopting the new source of energy, describes how a rigid centralized system of promoting and developing new technologies in Tsarist Russia prevented the widespread adoption of electric lighting and communications, except in a few isolated urban landmarks. In addition, the imperial government did not deem new power technology strategically important—as compared to the railways, for instance—until it was proven otherwise in the First World War.

  • 10 Coopersmith 142.

10Thus, although readers of newspapers and magazines were well aware of the potentials of electric power and lured by advertisements of foreign firms selling electrical trinkets, including lights, phonographs, and radios, the same advertisements show that domestic electrical appliances would remain prohibitively expensive and inaccessible to most of the populace. An electric lamp advertised in Niva in 1910, for example, costs forty rubles; an electric “Edison” phonograph, seventy-five. As for electrification in public space, the limited import of generating equipment and its very selective use failed to dispel the illusion that electric lighting was as immaterial as electricity itself.10 An interesting compendium of advertisements in Niva in 1900 illustrates the glaring gap between imagination and implementation of electricity in early 20th-century Russia. Three different varieties of lamps appear on the same page. The most prominent, occupying about a quarter-page, declares, “Light for the Twentieth Century: Kerosene Lamp Orsa.” The next box also advertises a kerosene lamp manufactured by the Moscow firm “The Triumph.” Compared to the previous two, the least significant in size and strength of rhetoric is an advertisement for the “Electric Lamp” at the bottom of the page. It promises to be odourless and safe but nevertheless is exorbitantly priced and available at only one outlet in Petersburg. At the threshold of the 20th century, the smelly kerosene lamp remains a far more accessible and tangible technology in the Russian city than the alien, elitist miracle of electric light.

  • 11 “Miss Volta,” 4.
  • 12 “Biologicheskoe elektrichestvo” [“Biological Electricity”], Niva 5 (October 1894): 762.

11Borrowing the parlance of our times, it may be said that electricity enjoyed a peculiar “virtual existence” in Russia. Although its images pervaded the media, its applications remained purely hyperbolic and deferred to an unspecified future. As discussed earlier, the representation of electricity as mystical animating force had existed for a far longer time and bore little relation to indigenous developments in technology and industry. Such a perception resurfaces in turn-of-the-century mass media as an alternative to the absence of concrete electrical technology. The public, unable to experience the miracles wrought by electrification and to afford electrical trinkets, is offered parapsychological applications of electricity available to all and sundry. The same large-circulation newspapers and magazines that speculate how electrification would transform Russia also resurrect views about electricity as indefinable vital essence and agent for transforming the consciousness. In 1899, Priroda i liudi published a report of the “miraculous” powers of a “Miss Volta,” who cured the public with her personal electrical “aura.”11 A short sketch in Niva speculated upon the powers of a pair of magic healers who could light cigars and lamps from the “electrical tips” of their fingers.12 Through the 1910s, the Petersburg Stock Exchange News (Birzhevye vedomosti) carried at least ten daily notices from clinics specializing in electrotherapy for mental problems. Classified columns in practically every newspaper announced mesmeric séances, aided by electric shock, in prominent homes.

12But journalism offered only limited space and scope for speculation. Detailed, elaborate narratives about electricity and electrification began to be articulated in millenarian philosophies and radical aesthetic agendas underlying burgeoning modernist movements. An acute awareness of Russia’s backwardness, in which kerosene still reigns as the fuel of the impending 20th century, forms the backdrop of anxiety for this trend. Consequently, the second, readily available manifestation of electricity embodied in Miss Volta and the biological cigar-lighters, shock therapy and mesmeric séances, forms an integral part of the vision of how electricity would transform Russia. Indeed, the synthesis of its mechanical and metaphysical potentials was often presented as a uniquely “national” insight into the same power technology that the West had reduced to blind progress and frivolous consumerism.

  • 13 Nikolai Fedorov, Filosofiia obshchego dela [Philosophy of the Common Task] vol. 2, eds. V. A. Kozh (...)
  • 14 Fedorov, Filosofiia vol. 1, 475 and 30–31.

13A prime example of the above phenomenon may be found in the writings of Nikolai Fedorov, a millenarian philosopher who profoundly influenced Russian modernist thinkers. Fedorov chose electricity as the chief instrument for the plans articulated in his monumental work Philosophy of the Common Task (Filosofiia obshchego dela, 1906–1913). In order to avert the Malthusian nightmare of overpopulation and food shortage, he suggests numerous “rationally extrapolated” applications of electrical technology that range from planting lightning rods for summoning rain from the heavens to an elaborate scheme of using electrodes to change the earth’s axis and convert Siberia into arable farmland.13 While the technological fantasies in Fedorov’s work resonate with the actual plight of agrarian Russia—especially the devastating famine of 1891—the eschatological appeal of his project rests on a different conception of electricity. Electric currents, he proposes, should simultaneously be used for galvanizing the remains of the dead collected from all over the world. Resurrecting common ancestors would re-establish the genealogical connections between all men and usher in an egalitarian worldwide “Christian Brotherhood.” Electricity for Fedorov is thus the only futuristic technology that would sustain the human race by fulfilling both its spiritual and physical needs; it is the chosen medium for inaugurating a new age in which the estranged epistemologies of “western rationality” and “eastern faith” would be brought together for the common good.14

  • 15 Zinaida Hippius, “Elektrichestvo” [“Electricity”], Stikhotvoreniia, ed. L. A. Nikolaeva (St. Peter (...)

14Philosophy was not the only sphere in which the mechanistic and mystical potentials of electricity were synthesized to form a colossal myth of salvation. Zinaida Hippius, a founder of the Symbolist movement profoundly influenced by Fedorov’s cosmogonic model of resurrection, lends a further dimension of gendered intimacy to its figuration as bridge between binary epistemological and cultural categories. She represents an electrical circuit as a set of sexual opposites in her 1901 poem, “Electricity” (“Elektrichestvo”). Anode and cathode, while separate, stand for unresolved dichotomies between noumenon and phenomenon, flesh and spirit, death and life, the past and the present. Their coming together at the end of the poem constitutes at once an explosive orgasm—denoted by razriadka, the same term as electrical discharge and catharsis—and transcendence from duality. The resulting spark causes instantaneous death to the entities of anode and cathode, but also ushers in the blinding light of Resurrection (“I smert’ ikh budet svet”).15

  • 16 Vladimir Shelonsky, V mire budushchego [In the Future World] (Moscow: I. D. Sytin, 1892).
  • 17 A. Klibanov, Narodnaia sotsial’naia utopia v Rossii [Folk Social Utopia in Russia] (Moscow: Nauka, (...)

15A pair of unusually correlated texts—one written by an obscure popular author, the other by the chief ideologue of the Russian Symbolist movement—invoke an additional dimension to the connotation of electricity as agent of physical resurrection and psychic transfiguration in the imminent future. Vladimir Shelonsky interweaves the two aspects in a novel titled In the Future World (V mire budushchego, 1892).16 This work is modeled on a traditional voyage imaginaire, with one crucial difference— the spaceship that transports an eclectic group of scientists and philosophers to the North Pole runs on electric power. Such a substitution of the magic carpet with a futuristic machine is hardly remarkable, but a matrix of spiritual allusions transforms this tale of adventure on an electric ship into a uniquely Russian allegory of Resurrection. The protagonists choose electricity as the only force strong enough to match the ultimate objective of their quest: Polnoch’, or the “Midnight Land.” According to scholars of utopian folklore, the term originated in a 16th-century legend of fugitive Old Believers who wandered about in Siberia looking for an undiscovered section of the Arctic where nobody ever grew old.17 By enabling humans to reach the mythic space, electricity in effect becomes a technological means to achieve immortality. The author ascribes the conception of the project to a Russian electrical engineer, Kirill, who incarnates both sophisticated scientist and peasant magus. Kirill, rather than his European and American companions, solves the problem of constructing a battery that can store enough electrical energy to last the duration of the journey: after much trial and error, he receives a dream revelation that gold is the only appropriate medium for trapping electricity.

  • 18 Andrei Bely, “Argonavty” [“Argonauts”], Rasskazy (Munich: Fink, 1979) 30–41.

16Shelonsky’s narrative bears remarkable resemblance to a work composed by the Symbolist poet and aesthetic theorist Andrei Bely. His short story of 1904, “The Argonauts” (Argonavty), operates on three levels of symbolic representation. The plot, like Shelonsky’s novel, consists of a perilous journey in an electrical spaceship. Its passengers call themselves “Argonauts”—an obvious allusion to the myth of Jason seeking the Golden Fleece—and choose an engineer who also possesses prophetic powers as leader of the group. This Russian engineer uses gold to construct and propel the fantastic vessel, trapping large amounts of electricity in its golden scales, and leads the group into a magical space where their bodies turn into golden rays. The story also contains an autobiographical subtext that transforms it from fiction into an epistemological and aesthetic manifesto. It narrativizes the quest of the literary group “Argonaut” that Bely founded.18

  • 19 William Carpenter, Mesmerizm, spiritizm i prochee: s istoricheskoi i nauchnoi tochek zreniia (St. (...)
  • 20 S. S. Glagolev, “Gal’vanizm i bessmertie” [“Galvanism and Immortality”], Voprosy filosofii i psikh (...)

17Both texts focus on the connection between two key elements: electricity and gold. Electricity represents the technical means to embark on the journey. Gold not only serves as the physical medium for conducting and storing electricity but also stands for the ultimate objective of the quest—a form of rapture in which the body becomes immortal and, in Bely’s story, metamorphoses from matter to energy. These works demonstrate that visionary mechanical applications of electricity could not be separated from the second, mystical strain in which contemporaneous media perceived and represented it. Images of electricity rendering humans immortal and transforming physical bodies into transcendental energy evoke the stories about Miss Volta, biological cigar-lighters, and shock-induced otherworldly experiences pervading newspapers and magazines. The association of electricity with gold, moreover, attests to a new category of speculation about purported parapsychological applications of electricity that came into vogue in Russia in the late 1890s. Alchemy—which means transmutation—involves creating gold by transforming base metals through fire. This ultimate substance, medieval scientists believed, was a panacea for solving all ills including old age and death. The writings of some 19th-century parapsychologists who hailed electricity as the magic fire that alchemists had been unable to craft were first translated into Russian at the turn of the 20th century and attained considerable popularity. One of them, the celebrated Victorian mesmerist William Carpenter, contended that electricity would unlock the secrets of transubstantiation, not only by turning metals into gold but also by changing the body to an immortal spirit. Carpenter’s book, translated in 1901, created wide ripples.19 Issues of Philosophy and Psychology (Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii), a prestigious scholarly publication, printed an article on galvanic reanimation in which the author specifically recommends golden electrical circuits.20

  • 21 Nikolai Shelgunov, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1923) 142.

18The image of an electric spark as the simultaneous moment of destruction and transfiguration began to permeate public discourse in Russia in the decades leading up to the Revolution. The term “electrifying” appears in Russian journalism as metaphor of the unrest consuming intellectuals and proletariat alike. “The political atmosphere is electrified,” writes Nikolai Shelgunov, a public intellectual and leftist activist. “Everyone’s heightened consciousness will explode into a single electric discharge” (V politicheskoi atmosfere elektrichestvo... vozbuzhdennoe sostoianie vsekh razorvetsia v edinuiu razriadku).21

  • 22 A. N. Afanas’ev, Poeticheskie vozzreniia slavian na prirodu vol. 1 [Poetic Views of the Slavs on N (...)

19The shock of an electric current was the perfect metaphor for articulating the mortal blow the first generation of the avant-garde wished to deliver to existent social and aesthetic hierarchies. Velimir Khlebnikov, the most original and complex representative of Russian Futurism, developed this theme by synthesizing positivistic and mystical perceptions of electricity in a completely new paradigm: rejecting the classical myth of Prometheus recuperated in Enlightenment figurations of Lomonosov, he turns to archetypal Slavic beliefs to articulate its special relevance in Russia. In Russian folklore, lightning was long perceived to be the divine agent that generated the universe from chaotic matter. The God Perun is believed to have animated and spiritualized the earth’s dead flesh by touching it with his sword of heavenly fire, the pre-Christian logos. According to Afanas’ev, whose research on Slavic mythology exerted a decisive influence on Khlebnikov’s imagery, lightning was long perceived to be the divine agent that generated the universe from chaotic matter. The God Perun is believed to have animated and spiritualized the earth’s dead flesh by touching it with his sword of heavenly fire.22 Correspondingly, Khlebnikov eschews the term “electricity” in favour of the archaism molniia, meaning lightning, in the numerous instances of imagining its future forms and functions.

  • 23 Velimir Khlebnikov, Neizdannye proizvedeniia vol. 4 [Unpublished Works], eds. N. Hardziev and T. G (...)
  • 24 Khlebnikov, “Sestry molnii” [“Lightning Sisters”], Sobranie sochinenii vol. 2, ed. Dmitrii Chizhev (...)
  • 25 Khlebnikov 158.

20In a letter to fellow-Futurist Alexei Kruchenykh, Khlebnikov defines modern electric power as the reincarnation of primordial lightning. He outlines its tremendous potential for reconstituting not just material life but logos itself. Futurist language, he contends, is an “electrical discharge” (razriad) because it breaks down stratifications of “high” and “low,” “intellectual” and “folk” diction—a leveller of social difference through the metaphor of language.23 The implications of this vision are fictionalized through a narrative poem composed between 1915 and 1921— a period beginning before the Revolution and ending after the Civil War—in which electricity forms the basis of an elaborate cosmogonic myth. Khlebnikov casts the ancient deity Perun as feminine “lightning sisters,” Sestry molnii, who become “the only Gods” of the future.24 The story of creation revolves around the premise that a radical transformation of the environment—such as that posited by a Marxist revolution—would remain meaningless until the “talking sword” (govoriashchaia mech’) of electricity kindles the human spirit.25

  • 26 Khlebnikov 170.

21In Khlebnikov’s mythopoesis, lightning is the power animating the New Man, who is portrayed as both technician and poet whose mechanical or artistic creations remain lifeless until fired by the electric spark of inspiration. Lightning is the feminine “muse” (zhena poeta) that injects life into unborn words and populates vast future construction sites that exist only as blueprints in the imagination.26 Such feminization of electricity stands out in the very masculinist cult of the machine associated with Futurism. But Khlebnikov’s bipartite model of electricity rests upon a synthesis. Masculine power technology is complemented by, and indeed dependent upon, a feminine creative and animistic impulse that hearkens back to both folk mythology of creation and what I term the “mystical naturalization” of technology that can be found in both Fedorov’s philosophy and Hippius’ poetry.

  • 27 Khlebnikov, commentary on “Sestry molnii,” 268.

22It is the enduring mystical perception of electricity—which imbued it with an unsullied aura of the virginal, non-corporeal, divine, and miraculous— that aided its survival as one of the few icons of true utopian thought in the years of civil war and privation that followed 1917. The continued absence of electricity from everyday life further contributed to its potential for becoming the only untainted myth of salvation. The worst years of War Communism were also the period when the government first began to valorize mass electrification, with Lenin’s official declaration marking the culmination of the movement. With universal access to electric power still a purely utopian dream, however, more synergy than divergence can be observed between modernist mythologies of creation and Bolshevik rhetoric about instantly modernizing Russia. Indeed, Khlebnikov would pronounce in 1920 that “electricity is now the only force that can conquer tears.”27

  • 28 Andrei Platonov, Elektrifikatsiia [Electrification] (Voronezh: Proletarskaia literatura, 1921) 5–7

23In the economic and social devastation following the Civil War, while the actual production of electricity plummeted, speculation around its magical power for resuscitating both body and soul flourished in the creative imagination. The writings of Andrei Platonov, an engineer and author, underscore how the metaphysical aspect of Lenin’s slogan superseded and even undermined the material promises of electrification. Platonov began his involvement with the Bolshevik electrification plan at the level of local politics in his provincial hometown Voronezh in the Tambov region. In 1921, Platonov composed a pamphlet titled “Electrification” (Elektrifikatsiia). The rhetoric of this ostensibly “informational” essay, however, closely mirrors the continuum of representing electricity in modernist creation myths. While it contains many exegeses about how electrification will bridge the rift between town and country, radically improve both industrial and agricultural labour, and change the quality of life for workers and peasants, it also describes the Revolution as a cosmic event, a lightning discharge (razriad molnii), an “explosion” (vzryv) that has changed the world. Along with expressing hope that electricity will save historically deprived sections of Soviet society, Platonov also proclaims that it is the new instrument for transforming the consciousness. Not only would electrification provide shorter working days and domestic comfort to workers, but it would also produce a complete change in the intangible “essence” (sut’) of the proletariat.28

24In sharp contrast to this initial figuration of the Bolshevik electrification drive stands a short story Platonov wrote after five years of actual participation in GOELRO, working as an electrical technician among the starving masses in the Russian countryside. Written in 1926, the short story “Homeland of Electricity” (Rodina Elektrichestva) recuperates the same continuum of modernist creation myths and Bolshevik utopian vision delineated above—but in a profoundly ironic mode. What results is a searing deconstruction of the gap between utopian rhetoric and existential reality.

  • 29 Platonov, “Rodina elektrichestva” [“Homeland of Electricity”], Izbrannye proizvedeniia, ed. M. A. (...)
  • 30 Afanas’ev 227.

25The story is set far from urban and even provincial technological centers; it unfolds literally in the middle of nowhere—a perfect topology for critical enactment of utopia. The inhabitants of an unnamed Russian village, ravaged by war and famine to the extent that their bodies are literally shrinking, are ready to receive any succour available. Paradoxically, the lack of equipment and information—the village is simply allotted a broken-down generator with no fuel supply—places them in a pre-GOELRO time warp when electricity simply did not exist in its mechanical manifestation. Their perceptions and representations of electrification, therefore, are rendered through a literalization of the myth of electric origins. The “dead” generator, far from eliciting the villagers’ wrath, is regarded by them as an animate, supernatural, feminine being that women compare with a miracle-working icon of the Madonna. Veneration of this new God takes place through repetition of Party policies, such as incantation in the hope of miracles. “Now life will be mighty and beautiful, and there will be eggs for everyone” (Teper’ zhizn’ budet moguchei i prekrasnoi, i khvatit vsem kurinogo iaitsa), the village head sings, paraphrasing the promise made to the downtrodden in the Hymn to the Third International: “Now life will be mighty and beautiful, and there will be bread for everyone” (Teper’ zhizn’ budet moguchei i prekrasnoi, i khvatit vsem khleba).29 Pre-modern folk eschatology, rather than revolutionary zeal or technical knowledge, lies at the basis of this eccentric association of electrification and eggs. Equipped only with a broken dynamo and no fuel, famine-ravaged peasants fail to understand that electrification is meant to revolutionize agriculture. Instead, they regard the non-functioning generator as repository of life in its most cosmic manifestation. Eggs represent the fountainhead of creation in Slavic mythology, in which the world is said to have originated from a “cosmic egg” (mirovoe iatso), a symbol that later evolved into colourful eggs of Resurrection shared at Easter.30

  • 31 Coopersmith 163.
  • 32 Platonov, “Rodina Elektrichestva,” 36, 40.

26The narrator-protagonist of Platonov’s story, a mechanic summoned from town to help the villagers, constitutes an alter ego of the author. Caught in the rift between rhetoric and reality, his subjective perceptions also begin to literalize the paradox of rural electrification—the ambitious principal goal of GOELRO.31 Full of “official” zeal, he arrives at the village only to find himself in a parallel universe. At first he is sceptical about the villagers’ adoration of the generator, but in the absence of infrastructure, he begins to accord it the same anthropomorphic, or deistic, status. In order to provide the necessary energy for starting the dynamo, he first attempts to fuel it with grain liquor—a profane waste of the plentiful “bread” promised in the Third International—and then coaxes out his own “vital energy” (energiia zhizni) to start the recalcitrant machine (“mashina” in Russian is grammatically feminine). Following the directives of the local council, he attempts to educate the villagers about the new-fangled source of energy. But scientific, mechanistic explanations completely fail their purpose, and the protagonist finally resorts to the same metaphysical terms as Futurists in an earlier era. Citing folkloristic myths of creation, he sums up the definition of electricity: “It is molniia, lightning... the spirit of the Gods” (Eto molniia... dusha bogov).32

27Electricity in early-20th-century Russia serves as a rich and powerful illustration of the role imagination plays in transforming technology from commodity to cultural metaphor. Electricity was the most marvellous artefact of the technological revolution for both epistemological and material reasons. It symbolized the end of mechanistic explanations of reality that had dominated scientific thought since the 18th century. Unlike gas or steam, its production was impervious to empirical observation: electricity was a form of energy itself rather than a generator of energy. In the West, however, this mystique dissolved quickly as it developed into a palpable instrument of modernity and most celebrated metaphor of the ongoing techno-economic revolution. In Russia, despite the fact that cosmopolitan journalists and visionary intellectuals recognized its potential, electricity did not begin to transform material life and production systems until the late 1920s.

  • 33 Quoted in Coopersmith 142.

28The unique “Russian” formula for new life through electrification arose from the absence of both first-hand knowledge and technological infrastructure—two conditions that Howard Segal identifies as imperative for a viable model for technological utopia.33 As demonstrated in this essay, in the absence of the two conditions, the cultural imagination recuperated 19th-century perceptions of electricity, conflated them with mechanical applications recognized in the early 20th century, and emphasized its potential of cosmogony and poesis rather than its ability to transform the environment. The bivalent semiotic paradigm for perceiving and representing electricity proved particularly conducive for Russian utopian visions both before and after the Revolution, because it corresponded with historically entrenched tendencies to construct national identity in explicit opposition to the West. The dual paradigm of electricity as vitalist force and energy source developed into a full-blown alternative, “non-western” model of modernity in Russian cultural discourse, and was disseminated prolifically through the intertextual and intermedial channels outlined above. Assessments of Bolshevik utopianism are usually circumscribed by the chronological boundaries of the Revolution and the discursive boundaries of propaganda. The symbolic power of electricity, however, demonstrates more continuity than disjuncture between pre-Revolutionary and Soviet visions of the promises of technology to transform life and art.

Notes de fin

1 Vladimir Il’ich Lenin, “Zapisnye knigi 1907–1911” [“Notebooks 1907–1911”], Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 45 tomakh, (Moscow, Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo politicheskoi literatury, 1958–70, vol. 22) 233.

2 L. Dreier, Zadachi i razvitie elektrotekhniki [Objectives and Development of Electrical Technology] (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1919) 8.

3 Jonathan Coopersmith, The Electrification of Russia, 1880–1926 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992) 121.

4 Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Visions and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989) 46.

5 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. and ed. William Lovitt (New York: Harper, 1977) 4–5, 12–13.

6 Mikhail Lomonosov, Trudy po fizike [Treatises on Physics], Polnoe sobranie sochinenii vol. 3, ed. S. I. Vavilov (Moscow: Akademiia nauk, 1952) 3–40.

7 Quoted in Egon Friedell, A Cultural History of the Modern Age: The Crisis of the European Soul from the Black Death to the World War vol. 2, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1930–1932) 183.

8 Alexander Radishchev, Puteshchestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu [Journey from Petersburg to Moscow] (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1964) 203.

9 L. N. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 14 tomakh vol. 8, ed. V. G. Chertkov et al. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1951) 60.

10 Coopersmith 142.

11 “Miss Volta,” 4.

12 “Biologicheskoe elektrichestvo” [“Biological Electricity”], Niva 5 (October 1894): 762.

13 Nikolai Fedorov, Filosofiia obshchego dela [Philosophy of the Common Task] vol. 2, eds. V. A. Kozhevnikov and N. P. Peterson (Farnborough: Gregg International, 1970) 252–260.

14 Fedorov, Filosofiia vol. 1, 475 and 30–31.

15 Zinaida Hippius, “Elektrichestvo” [“Electricity”], Stikhotvoreniia, ed. L. A. Nikolaeva (St. Petersburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1999) 111.

16 Vladimir Shelonsky, V mire budushchego [In the Future World] (Moscow: I. D. Sytin, 1892).

17 A. Klibanov, Narodnaia sotsial’naia utopia v Rossii [Folk Social Utopia in Russia] (Moscow: Nauka, 1977) 231.

18 Andrei Bely, “Argonavty” [“Argonauts”], Rasskazy (Munich: Fink, 1979) 30–41.

19 William Carpenter, Mesmerizm, spiritizm i prochee: s istoricheskoi i nauchnoi tochek zreniia (St. Petersburg: S. Volkov, 1901), trans. of Mesmerism, Spiritualism, &c., Historically & Scientifically Considered (New York: D. Appleton, 1877).

20 S. S. Glagolev, “Gal’vanizm i bessmertie” [“Galvanism and Immortality”], Voprosy filosofii i psikhologii 19–20 (1894) 1–19, 1–26.

21 Nikolai Shelgunov, Vospominaniia [Memoirs] (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, 1923) 142.

22 A. N. Afanas’ev, Poeticheskie vozzreniia slavian na prirodu vol. 1 [Poetic Views of the Slavs on Nature], ed. Iu. P. Kuznetsov (Moscow: Indrik, 1995) 125–135.

23 Velimir Khlebnikov, Neizdannye proizvedeniia vol. 4 [Unpublished Works], eds. N. Hardziev and T. Grits, Sobranie sochinenii (Munich: Fink, 1971) 367.

24 Khlebnikov, “Sestry molnii” [“Lightning Sisters”], Sobranie sochinenii vol. 2, ed. Dmitrii Chizhevskii et al. (Munich: Fink, 1968) 155–170.

25 Khlebnikov 158.

26 Khlebnikov 170.

27 Khlebnikov, commentary on “Sestry molnii,” 268.

28 Andrei Platonov, Elektrifikatsiia [Electrification] (Voronezh: Proletarskaia literatura, 1921) 5–7.

29 Platonov, “Rodina elektrichestva” [“Homeland of Electricity”], Izbrannye proizvedeniia, ed. M. A. Platonova (Moscow: Ekonomika, 1983) 40, 42.

30 Afanas’ev 227.

31 Coopersmith 163.

32 Platonov, “Rodina Elektrichestva,” 36, 40.

33 Quoted in Coopersmith 142.

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