“Red Star” and “What to do?”

Image: Mira Schendel


Considerations on the urban issue in Aleksandr Bogdanov's science-fiction and in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel

The tenuous balance between privacy and public life has always been a constant concern between Intelligentsia Russian pre-revolutionary socialist and later among Soviet urban planners. In What to do?, Vera Plavlovna, protagonist of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel, is presented in dreams to the socialist future. In a vast field of wheat, stands a palace made of crystal and aluminum, inhabited by countless men and women. These toil in the fields and, upon returning to the palace, they sup at large collective tables.

As in Fourier's phalansteries, private life is indivisible from communal life. Nothing is hidden behind the crystal walls. Chernyshevsky makes his utopian vision a portrait of the super-realism he defended in his thesis: beauty is life and it is life and its transformations that must guide art and sociability. The artist is not a being separated from his work; he is the work he produces and his work refers to the way he acts in the world, just as it is his life that guides his artistic production. There is no space for gaps between public living and private living.

The translucency of the walls of the phalanstery, imagined as an extrapolation of a world freed from oppressive relations, also served as a pattern for the production of powerful exercises of oppression, in which the lack of privacy is produced not by the transparency of social relations, but by the constitution of an omniscient and omnipresent panopticon where any secrets are criminally typified.

Dostoevsky – a brilliant and brilliant Slavophile – saw in London's Crystal Palace a symbol of industrialized inhumanity, which divided men between the lascivious rich and the drunken and sectarian poor. Perhaps the most powerful dystopia of Soviet Russia's formative years is About (мы) by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Published in 1923, About depicts a megalopolis built entirely of glass, whose citizens – named with serial numbers – have every aspect of their personal lives surveilled and controlled by a totalitarian state. Chernyshevsky's Crystal Palace is also a testament to the dialectical relationship between utopian dreams and dystopian nightmares.

Vera Pavlovna's dream is the full realization of the agrarian socialism of the Narodists and What to do? markedly influenced later revolutionary generations. Communal life, marked by the hegemony of sociability over the private space, found its roots in the very obshchina and it was therefore a common theme among Russian writers in the late XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries.

A obshchizhitie (общижитие) (communal dwelling) is the everyday living space in the play Mir (1904) and in the novel Republic of Southern Cross (1907) by Symbolist poet Valeri Bryusov. From the Revolution of 1917, the transforming possibilities of obshchizhitie seduced a generation of urban planners, who incorporated a series of innovations into their projects. The objective was not only to deal with the enormous housing deficit in the big cities, caused by gigantic migratory waves, but also to revolutionize existing habits and develop new forms of sociability.

Several phalanstery projects emerged in the early years of the nascent Soviet state, such as the phalansteries of Tverskoi and Burishkin (1921) and the Moscow housing complexes (1922), designed by Leonid Vesnin. These consisted of several housing complexes with interconnected service areas and connected by a large leisure area. The objective was to maximize the time spent together among its inhabitants, as well as to free women from domestic tasks, a project dear to Alexandra Kollontai, then Commissioner of Social Welfare and founder of Zhenotdel. [1]. Despite the difficulties of food distribution during the Civil War, the communal restaurants were proof of the success of these first urban projects: in 1920, 90% of the population of Petrograd ate communally; in Moscow, this percentage reached 60%.

Em Red Star, Aleksandr Bogdánov tried to provide a balance between the individual needs for privacy and the collective effort for sociability: Menni's residence is still a nuclear, individualized residence. Its architecture is indistinguishable from the surrounding residences, yet its floor plan appears to be ordinary. Although the house as a core space for the exercise of individuality is the common form of housing, this is not the only one.

Bogdanov reserves socialized living for specific age groups. While visiting the children's colony, Leonid discovers that Martian children live in obshchizhitii. Children of different ages coexist there, accompanied by a few adults who act as educators. When questioning the near absence of adults for Nella, the supervisor who accompanies him on the visit, Leonid learns that the few adults present are apprentice educators and parents. He then discovers that there are individual residences in the colony for parents who want to live with their children and children who want more privacy.

Bogdanov thus justifies an intermediate position between the valuation of the individual-bourgeois space and the subsumption of the individual in phalansterian and communal forms, fundamental for the constitution of new experiences of sociability and which serve as the basis for the education of Martian socialists.

Large cities are present on Mars, but Bogdanov did not devote considerable space in his work to describing them. We assume that this absence can be related to the pedagogical and propagandistic character of Red Star, whose audience was the workers of Russia and not its intellectuals. The small town, with a few hundred workers, comes close in terms of size and administrative complexity to obshchina, fundamental unit of sociability of these workers.

Even though hundreds of thousands of workers live in the factory suburbs of Moscow, Yekaterinburg and Saint Petersburg, Bogdanov is fully aware that these are still peasants, whose social experience, even if spatially detached from the countryside, sends them back to the Mir. In an important study of pre-revolutionary Russian workers' organizations, Nikolai Mikhailov identified several elements present in the working life of Russian workers that directly referred to the peasant traditions of the obshchina, such as the ostracism of bad workers and the corporatist struggle to restrict job openings for workers from a certain location [2]. It is these workers, who live in an ambiguous state of sociability between the countryside and the city, who form the social group Bogdanov addresses.

The settlement of workers at the chemical laboratory where Menni works is located in the middle of a park, whose residences are illuminated by the reflection of the sun on the fodder. Beyond this brief description, Bogdanov provides us with a more accurate image of the urban landscape when he describes the children's colony, an educational center that is present in all Martian cities: “Large two-story buildings with the familiar blue roofs spread among gardens with streams, ponds, areas for games and gymnastics, fields of colors and gardens of medicinal herbs, as well as small houses for animals and birds”.

The idyllic character of Martian cities is also highlighted in Leonid's description of the art museum, in the company of Nella, pedagogue and Netti's mother: “The museum was located on a small island, in the middle of a lake, connected to the banks by middle of a small bridge. The rectangular building, surrounded by a garden full of fountains and beds in blue, white, black and green, was luxuriously adorned on the outside and bathed in light on the inside.”

There are no stains on the urban landscape of Mars produced by the anarchic process of colonization of space by capital. Menni's laboratory is underground and his workers live in the middle of a park. The space where children are educated amalgamates carefully planned human spaces and elements of Martian flora and fauna; the museum is surrounded by flowers and fountains and makes one think of an impressionist painting by Monet.

The natural space merges with the urban space. Bogdanov removes in his description of a heavy factory all the traits that determine the unhealthy character of factory production in his time: “The factory was completely free of smoke, soot, odors and dust. The machines, bathed in a light that illuminated everything (…) operated methodically in the fresh air, cutting, sawing, planing and drilling gigantic pieces of steel, aluminum, nickel and copper”.

We can see in the description that Bogdanov makes of the urban space a point of intersection with the hostility and distrust that the Intelligentsia Russia has historically dedicated to modern cities. Bogdanov seems to agree with Tolstoy. There is no room in advanced communism for the “horrendous chimneys of the big factories”. This hatred is a constituent element of the Russian revolutionary tradition and penetrated into the early decades of the Soviet state.

Fear of cities as a corrupting source of the Russian soul has always run strong among Slavophiles. [3], who saw in cities the chaos inherent in western modernity. Cities – always thought of in terms of the great Western urban centers – were seen as nests of crime, dissidence, poverty, disease and addiction. Slavophil hatred of everything city was present both among the nobility and the most reactionary sectors of Russian society and in Russia itself. Intelligentsia XNUMXth century radical. For those, cities carry within themselves the sedition that swept Europe in revolutionary and regicide waves; for them, cities are centers of poverty and social injustice that bring with them all the tragedies of capitalism.

Examples of the moral condemnation of urban life proliferate in the literary tradition of Intelligentsia Russian. We can cite as an example the work Travel from Saint Petersburg to Moscow (1790) by Aleksandr Radishchev, an important Enlightenment author and considered one of the forerunners of Intelligentsia radical, which describes cities as unhealthy and immoral dens. Among populists these criticisms were even more frequent: Sofia Perovskaya, an important figure of the movement Narodnaya Volya, blamed the artificial stimuli of urban life for the precocious sexual maturation of girls; Nikolai Zlatovratski saw cities as “incarnations of sinister force”. Bakunin believed that cities deserved nothing less than total destruction.

There is an “urbanophobic” tradition in Russian science-fiction literature that has been little studied and that allows us to reflect on the impression of its authors on urban space. Perhaps the inaugural work of Russian science fiction is Fromtheyear4338: LettersfromSt. petersburg, by Vladimir Odoyevsky. In this work, Odoevsky presents a large nameless megalopolis, which came into being from the conurbation between St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Odoevsky describes an idyllic city – very similar to Martian cities – and uses this city to describe the overcoming of the debate between “Slavophiles” and “Occidentalists”. Its city is adorned with various technological marvels, but such a city is only possible in Russia, whose orthodoxy ensured the survival of the State while the rest of Europe fell into ruins (Odoievski, 2007).

A few years later, Vladimir Tanieev, in his utopian work Communist States of the Future (1879), envisioned a future of self-managed agrarian communes, organized into Federations. Each commune would have 2000 inhabitants and the cities would have purely administrative functions, without permanent residents.

Already in the XNUMXth century, Russian fiction was flooded with anti-urban works. Work can be cited The Cruel City (1907) by Pavel Dnieprov, which depicts St. Petersburg as a block of ice whose interior burns with lust; and the artistic movements of the “muzhik socialists” and “Scythian poets”, who condemned the cities in favor of an idyllic vision of the countryside. Sergei Yesenin referred to cities as "a labyrinth where men lose their soul". Alexander Blok, Pilniak and Ivanov-Razumnik projected the city in their poems as a space of solitude and absence of community.

Hostility towards capitalist urbanity, tempered by a tradition of bucolic nostalgia, was at the roots of Russian socialism, divided between appreciation for the productive capacity of cities and terror for the social evils of industrialism; by contempt for the “idiocy” of the countryside and the desire for an experience dictated by the rhythms of nature. Keeper of this tradition, Bogdanov, in Red Star, tried to merge urban devices and a carefully domesticated nature. His narrative solution takes us back to the architectural theory of garden cities, which was very much in vogue in the first decades of the XNUMXth century.

The idea of ​​the garden city originated from the work of Ebenezer Howard, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, from 1898, and later republished under the title Garden Cities of Tomorrow, in 1904. Howard proposed in his work a radical reform of urban spaces as a response to the rapid process of rural exodus as a result of industrialization and the consequent swelling of cities. This process led to speculation in real estate value to the detriment of the community, stimulating the shantytowns and isolation of residents, in addition to the sharp fluctuation in food prices, which at the time produced successive waves of hunger.

The garden cities would be connected through a larger urban center that would serve as a hub between the different cities and would provide more specialized productive activities, coordinating in a planned way the vocations of the cities connected to it.

The garden city movement resonated with the aspirations of the socialist intelligentsia and filled the imagination of the first Soviet urban planners. Important names of Russian socialism, notably among narodists and anarchists, produced their own projects in the first decade of the XNUMXth century. Names like Pyotr Kropotkin in Fields, Factories, And Workshops; Or, Industry Combined With Agriculture And Brain Work With Manual Work (1898) and Aleksandr Tchayanov in Journey of my Brother Alexei to the Peasant Utopia (1906) produced elaborate urban utopias in an effort to overcome the dichotomy between countryside and city. Bogdanov, with his work Red Star, is a character within that tradition.

Bogdánov reaffirms the urban world as a central living space in Martian socialism, but his city is not the capitalist city. His factory is not the factory powered by coal and steam, but the factory powered by electricity. Its workers are not reified by alienated work that only aims at the expanded reproduction of capital, but: “hundreds of workers who constantly move between the machines. (…) there is no trace of anxiety on their faces, whose only expressions are one of quiet concentration. They seem like inquisitive, erudite observers who don't interact with everything going on around them.”

When addressing the Russian workers, whose workforce is expropriated from them and put at the service of the machines, Bogdanov presents the Martian worker, master of machine-making, who supervises fully automated production. When describing an unpolluted factory – closer to a laboratory than to a Russian factory –, Bogdanov points to the terrible working conditions of the Russian proletariat, subject to the most unhealthy working existence.

Based on the description of how the Martian factory operated, Bogdánov creates what Fredric Jameson classifies as a “utopian enclave”, ie, the composition of an imaginary space within a real social space. From this enclave, the Martian utopia becomes a negative reflection that allows workers to see in the possible, in the extrapolated, the objective historical conditions in which the world is realized, beyond the ideological illusions that attenuate and hide the relations of exploitation [4].

The description of how the factory works cannot be disconnected from the city space in Red Star. The city/countryside dichotomy carries different meanings and its debate has its own history, which crosses different moments, forming polarized conceptual systems: on the one hand, city/west/industry/capitalism; from the other to obshchina / Slavophilia / Agriculture / Nativism.

The description of an empiriomonistic society is Bogdanov's main objective. From the development of the world view of work, arising from the technical mastery of machine-making, the working class advances the productive causality that makes any dichotomies irrelevant: mind and matter, subject and object, city and countryside, manual work and intellectual work. Just as the energy in machine-invoice is freely converted between different forms (thermal, electrical, mechanical, nuclear), all forms of labor are also interchangeable. By developing aspects of Martian production, Bogdánov's imagery objective is to outline the functioning of a society that has overcome the structural limits imposed on itself by the fetishistic character of capitalist production.

Red Star fits into the long tradition of the Russian publicist genre. At its core we find the subsumption of art in relation to life as a guiding tool for political action. The root of this criticism is the Realnaia Kritika, developed by Belinski in the 1840s, a method of interpretation that sought to make the existing line between life and art transparent and extract from the text the process of artistic creation from the concrete analysis of historical, social and psychological contexts.

A Realnaia Kritica would later be radicalized by materialist critics of the 1860s, who extrapolated Belinski's realism beyond literature, conditioning realism to the very political action of the Intelligentsia. literature is mimesis of life, a pale reflection of the social forces that underlie the creative process.

Chernyshevsky, in his thesis “the beautiful is life” defended that “art for art's sake” merely produces universal types from real, particular men, and therefore is always incomplete. Bogdanov's criticism is heir to the critical realism of Pissarev and Chernyshevki in its entirety. Bogdanov saw in this gap between the artistic universal and the real particular the same dichotomies present in the most diverse spheres of human experience. Only through the perfect harmony between “form” and “content” would it be possible to unify art in a superior monistic system capable of guiding the collective in the creation of a truly proletarian art, fundamental for the constitution of the proletarian worldview.

Bogdánov constructs his answers to questions posed by narodists and Marxists through fictional narrative; Slavophiles and Occidentalists; urbanizers and deurbanizers. From his work, the author juxtaposes to the existing conditions of production that are contemporary with them, technological extrapolations that aim to produce what Darko Suvin categorized as a defining concept – Novelty – of science-fiction: cognitive estrangement, ie, the extrapolation of reality that allows the reader to unwind the oppressive relationships to which he is subjected.

The Martian city is the final product of the formative process of an urban society which, in turn, is described by Henri Lefrebve as a process of domination imposed by industrialization that absorbs agricultural production. Lefevbre sees this phenomenon through the advancement of the process of valuing space that starts to organize production and produce discontinuities in the historical development of space. Such discontinuities accumulate up to a certain critical point, when then an explosion occurs that throws the various fragments that make up the city into space. These discontinuities represent the totalizing impetus of capital that metamorphoses work-space into product-space, which bears the mark of merchandise and transforms spaces into exchange values, whose ends and uses are always historically determined. [5].

Martian space is urban, industrial, but based on Lefebvre's definition, it is not urban. Mars has passed all the critical stages of its development and the explosion of its cities not only caused irreparable damage to the Martian ecosystem, but also led to the disappearance of the countryside as a space for social reproduction.

The Martian revolution stems from this fact. The city described by Bogdánov is a consequence of overcoming these discontinuities whose last critical phase results in a final explosion that reconfigures space and experiences. This explosion launches art, science and work throughout space. The city is no longer the reproduction space of capital, but becomes the space for the realization of the generic being of man: its value as a commodity disappears and only exists as a planned space, as a barracks in the eternal struggle between the Martian productive forces and the nature.

* Pedro Ramos de Toledo Master in History from USP.



Aleksandr Bogdanov. Red Star. Translation: Ekaterina Vólkova and Américo Paula Vaz de Almeida. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky. What to do?. Translation: Angelo Segrillo. Curitiba, Prisms, 2015.



[1] Zhenotdel (женотдел), acronym for “Women's Section”, was a hierarchically centralized bureau and executively submitted to the Commissariat of Welfare, which aimed to operationalize the process of female emancipation and attract women to the socialist cause.

[2] MIKHAILOV, Nicolai. “Non-Party Worker's Organizations in St. Petersburg and the Provinces Before and During the First Russian Revolution.” In: PIRANI, Donald Fitzer; Wendy Z.Goldman; Gis Kessler; Simon (Ed.), A Dream Deferred: New Studies in Russian and Soviet Labor History, pp.30-45. Bern: Peter Lang, 2008.

[3] It is important to emphasize that “Slavophilia”, ie, the belief in the unique character of the Russian people, whose particularity projects uniqueness both to its history and to its possible futures, is not a politically charged term. Its meaning flows according to the different historical conjunctures that invoke it to legitimize or delegitimize different political projects. It is this dubiousness that Lenin attacks in “The Heritage We Renounce” when he points out that Slavophilia brings the Narodists closer to the Russian autocratic sectors and in this approach they end up rejecting the Enlightenment heritage of the radical generations of 1830 and 1840.

[4] JAMESON, Fredric. Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005.

[5] LEFEBVRE, Henri. the urban revolution. Belo Horizonte, UFMG, 2004.


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