New publications on Russian science fiction

Regular readers will be delighted to learn of two new (both 2014) publications in the field of Russian science fiction studies. kremThe first is Nikolai Krementsov’s long-awaited survey of the interaction between early Soviet science and fiction, Revolutionary Experiments: The Quest for Immortality in Bolshevik Science and Fiction. See full details and order a copy from the publisher’s website, here. The cover illustration looks as if it may owe some inspiration to this blog’s home image!

matthiasThe second book is equally long-awaited and fascinating (although unfortunately, for now, available only in German): Matthias Schwartz’s Expeditions into Other Worlds: Soviet Adventure Literature and Science Fiction from the October Revolution to the End of the Stalin Era. Here is the publisher’s blurb in English translation:

Adventure literature and science fiction were among the most popular literary genres in the Soviet Union. It was within these genres that collective desires and fears about the present could be projected onto distant and exotic worlds. At the same time, this “literature of the masses” was very controversial. Adventure literature was regarded as ideologically problematic colonial literature, while science fiction was seen as challenging the official optimism about science and the future. This volume is the first to take an in-depth look at this neglected field of popular literature. The author reconstructs the journalistic and internal debates around the genres’ creation and presents a selection of texts that reveal the changing poetics within this field. He thereby provides fundamental insights into the operation and aporias of Soviet cultural policy. You can order a copy here.

Matthias Schwartz is a scholar of Slavic studies and a historian. He is currently a researcher at the Centre for Literary and Cultural Research (ZfL), Berlin. Nikolai Krementsov is a professor in the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto.



Time to get slaughtered! The Arkanar Massacre is here

Film lovers… Strugatskiis fans… Russian science fiction watchers… your moment has (almost) arrived. Fifteen years in the making, the long-awaited magnum opus of the great Russian director Aleksei German Senior, who sadly passed away on Feb 21st of this year, is about to premiere at the Rome Film Festival next week (Nov 8th – 17th). It’s Hard To Be A God (which had the working title of The Arkanar Massacre) is black and white and 170 minutes long. This, his final film, co-authored with his wife Svetlana Karmelita, is based on the well-loved science fiction novel It’s Hard To Be A God (Трудно быть богом, 1964) by Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii (see previous blog post for Boris Strugatskii’s obituary). A prior screen version of the novel made in East Germany, Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein (dir. Peter Fleischmann, 1989) is available on YouTube (purportedly with English subtitles).

It’s been a sad year for Russian science fiction, with the deaths of the great director German and the much-respected author Boris Strugatskii following close on each other. Let’s hope we will soon have the opportunity to watch It’s Hard To Be A God on screens closer to home.

Here’s a useful site with links to other pages; and for Russian speakers, here’s a link to Ksenia Chudinova’s review in Snob magazine. Her review is ironically titled ‘It’s hard to be a viewer’. She writes that although the cream of Russian intellectual circles was present at the pre-premiere screening in Russia in April (when the film was not yet fully sound-edited), many exited the auditorium mid-film, loudly banging doors. She writes: ‘Meanwhile, on screen an ambitious and primarily physiological bacchanal unwound: close-ups of mud, animal and human excrement, blood, guts, a donkey’s penis, a woman’s vagina, crumpled clothing, horses, dirty fingernails, animal corpses. The characters are constantly defecating, spitting, scratching themselves, beating each other, cutting stomachs and throats, copulating or killing each other. Without speaking’.

Mikhail Khodorkovskii’s PA Kulle Pispanen, who also saw this first public screening, described it as ‘not a simple film, and definitely a bit of a downer’ – my free translation of ‘непростое зрелище, и совсем не деньрожденьческое‘. She described Aleksei German Jr, the director’s son, who contributed to the final edits, as ‘crushed’ (‘раздавлен’) by the audience’s response. Still, all the best productions get terrible audiences on their first night. Take The Inspector GeneralThe Seagull… The Playboy of the Western World!

Here’s a kinder review by Boris Akunin, writing as Grigorii Chkhartishvili, also for Snob: he is more sympathetic to German’s unusual sound and visual effects, interpreting the film’s medieval chaos as a parable for modern societal dysfunction.


Far Rainbows one-day workshop


Cosmonaut training centre, from Mechte navstrechu (1963)

A reminder from the organizers that the Far Rainbows one-day workshop on Russian and Eastern European science fiction cinema will take place at Wadham College, Oxford, this Friday 12 April. There will be a truly international line-up, including presenters from the USA, Germany, Estonia, and Sweden. Most but not all of the papers focus on adaptations for cinema of the Strugatskii brothers’ novels –  ranging from Tarkovskii’s paradigm-changing Stalker to niche classics such as the German-language production of Hard to be a God (Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein, 1990) and the


The Centaurians lift off, from Mechte navstrechu

short film Mechte navstrechu (Towards the Dream, 1963) by Ukrainian writer and scenarist Oles’ Berdnyk. (Ecven the conference title is derived from a 1963 novella by the Strugatskiis, Dalekaia raduga (Far Rainbow), which has not yet been filmed – to my knowledge. Our keynote speaker Professor Yvonne Howell (Richmond), a world authority on the Strugatskiis, will give a talk on new interpretations of Stalker. Please contact the organisers at for more information. See below for a full programme of events.


Scene from the German production of Hard to be a God (1990)

A film studies workshop focusing on the legacy of Arkadii and Boris Strugatskii
All workshop events except the film screening and lunch take place in the New Seminar Room, Wadham
11 April, 4pm

  • Screening (in Russian) of The Dead Mountaineer Hotel (Otel “U Pogibshego Al’pinista”), dir. Grigorii Kromanov, 1979 (Room 3 of the Taylorian Institute, Oxford)

12 April
 9am: Opening remarks

  •  Lars Kristensen (Skövde, Sweden), Russians in Space: Ideological Problems for Red Sci-fi Cinema
  •  Tom Rowley (Cambridge), Adapting Oles’ Berdnyk: Cold War Analogy in the Early 1960s
  •  Maria Engström (Dalarna, Sweden), The Scent of a Former Life: The Czech Adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ story Malysh

 10.45am: Coffee
 11.15am-12.45pm NOT ONLY “STALKER”: Adaptations of Other Strugatskiis’ Novels (CHAIR: YVONNE HOWELL)

  •  Sofya Khagi (Michigan), Genre Film, Spectacle, and the Strugatskii Brothers in Fyodor Bondarchuk’s Inhabited Island
  •  Matthias Schwartz (Freie Universität Berlin), Visualising the Imperial Gaze: On Peter Fleischmann’s Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein
  •  Andrei Rogatchevski (Glasgow), Obscuring the Message: A Billion Years before the End of the World vs Days of Eclipse

 1pm: Lunch in the Trapp Room, Wadham

  •  Henriette Cederlöf (Södertörn, Sweden): Soviet Noir: Kromanov’s Dead Mountaineer Hotel)
  •  Eva Näripea (Estonian Academy of Arts) : Queering Gender in Dead Mountaineer Hotel: Intertextual Considerations of the Novel and the Film)

 3.30pm: Coffee
 What Are We Stalking? A Cognitive Approach to Tarkovskii’s Film Adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ Roadside Picnic
 5pm: General discussion and concluding remarks

The workshop organisers are Muireann Maguire and Andrei Rogatchevski. Please contact them with any queries at

Two new obituaries of Boris Natanovich Strugatskii (1933-2012) from Yvonne Howell and Kevin Reese

ImageKevin Reese on Boris Strugatsky’s career as a much-loved and influential writer and editor

Boris Natanovich Strugatsky passed away on November 19th at the age of seventy-nine.  Born on April 15th, 1933, Boris Natanovich lived through the Blockade of Leningrad, and, after the war, planned to become an astronomer.  His dissertation fell apart, however, when it came to light that he was inadvertently duplicating the work of the work of the great Indian astronomer Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.  He worked for several years as a computer programmer at the Pulkovo Observatory in Leningrad.  While still employed at Pulkovo, Boris and his brother Arkady began to write in collaboration, a partnership so significant that they came to regard “the Strugatsky Brothers” as a single author, one that ceased to exist with the death of Arkady Natanovich in 1991.  Together, they produced some of the most brilliant works of literature of the postwar era, including Trudno byt’ bogom [Hard to Be a God, 1963], Ponedel’nik nachinaetsia v subbotu [Monday Begins on Saturday, 1964], Piknik na obochine [Roadside Picnic, 1971], and Za milliard let do kontsa sveta [A Billion Years until the End of the World, translated as Definitely Maybe, 1974].

In the years following his brother’s death, Boris Natanovich made invaluable contributions to the historiography of the Strugatsky Brothers, providing copious background information (letters, commentary, interpretation) for each of the twelve volumes of their most complete collected works to date, published by Stalker between 2000 and 2003.  This material, entitled Kommentarii k proidennomu [A Commentary to All that Has Passed], was published as a separate book in 2003.

Boris Natanovich published two novels—Poisk prednaznachenia [A Search for Purpose, 1995] and Bessil’nye mira sego [The Powerless of this World, 2002]—under the pseudonym S. Vititskii, having previously agreed with his brother that the Strugatsky name would be used only for works written in collaboration.  He was generous to younger writers of science fiction, and in 2002 Imagefounded a journal, entitled Polden’ XXI vek [Noon, 21st Century], dedicated to publishing new Russian-language science fiction.  This journal continues to be published to this day.

Due to declining health, Boris Natanovich was reluctant in his later years to meet with fans face-to-face, but made himself available online on the website “Russkaia fantastika.”  His answers to thousands of questions were recently published as Interv’iu dlinoiu v gody [An Interview Years in Length, AST, 2009].  Compiled by Svetlana Bondarenko, one of the editors of the Stalker collected works, this book is a testament to Boris Natanovich’s essential kindness.  In it, he, patiently and in great detail, answers questions not only on the works of the Strugatsky Brothers, but also their and their parents’ lives, not to mention Russian politics and culture.  Boris Natanovich was answering questions on the website as recently as early November, and the abrupt end of this decade-long “interview” is deeply saddening to those who have come to rely on his regular posts.

In their 1970 novella Malysh [The Boy], the Strugatskys write about their minor character the captain Ikov Vanderkhuze, “this weakness of his was well known, a love for familiar places” [известна была за ним такая слабость — любовь к насиженным местам].  Boris Natanovich had a similar weakness, but this did not stop him from co-writing works that confront some of the most painful and difficult aspects of human existence.   Even after the Soviet era has faded out of living memory, these novels will continue to be read.

I know that I speak for all of Boris Natanovich’s readers when I say how much he will be missed.  Светлая ему память!

Kevin Reese, UNC Chapel Hill

Yvonne Howell on Boris Strugatsky: ‘a life of incredible decency and wisdom’

The Strugatskys’ writing was never “just about the fate of an idea…” (a generic problem that renders so much science fiction flat),  but always concerned with “the fate of real people.”   One of my favorite moments occurs at the beginning of Za milliard let do kontsa sveta, when the hero, Malianov, is pretty excited about how close he’s getting to solving an all-but-insoluble problem he’s been working on for days,  and he feels the final, brilliant solution creeping around the edges of his consciousness — he’s really just about to get it!   He even starts to congratulate himself, because nobody else is around to pat him on the back, so he does it himself: “Malianov,  now there’s an idea!  Not bad at all, you genius, you!” ( a free translation of the original, Ай да Mалянов! Ай да молодец! Наконец-то, кажется, что-то у тебя получилось).  I know I’ve done just the same thing, standing in the kitchen anticipating my genius-hood!  And I know that just like Malianov, I’ve actually never made good on the promise of that great idea, because the cat was hungry and wanted food, and the refrigerator seemed wanting (even in the U.S.!) and I went to the store instead,  thinking that I’d get back to my brilliant idea later.   How did the man none of us ever met (Boris Strugatsky was nice about email, but not somebody who would come out to meet you in person),  have such a broad and deep understanding of all of us?  He especially understood how people can imagine they live in a world that seems always on the brink of disaster — unless we can think our way out of this social conflict,  or this environmental crisis…. in time?  On the one hand,  the Strugatskys are the guys who seemed to foresee and even give names to abstract geopolitical situations,  far in advance.  Roadside Picnic, with its contaminated Zone and its Stalkers materialized ten years later at Chernobyl.  I have a friend who still works in a Russian zoological institute,  and the last time I saw him,  he swore up and down that the landing dock we passed on the way to his office was really used to unload booze and other things, “exactly exactly the way it’s described in Ponedel’nik nachinaetsia v subbotu.”   For my friend (who just wrote a book depicting the ambitious future of biological cloning), the world the Strugatskys described in Ponedel’nik is the blueprint for his “real” life, and not vice versa.   And on the other hand…. the Strugatskys captured the smallest quirks of earnest Soviet astronomers and physicists in such a way that we feel a kinship with these people and their meowing cats.  At the risk of invoking horrible sentimental clichés,  the Strugatskys’ works help us understand how much we are all interconnected,  as are the societies we live in.  Less clichéd — Boris Strugatsky was a real public intellectual.  A model of humor, humility, and honesty.  I always wonder — where do people like this come from?  Is it genes? Is it upbringing?   Obviously a dash of both and none of either.  I think Boris Strugatsky liked this question —  when the world turns up good people,  in all places, times, ethnicities, and circumstances…. where does the goodness come from?  We don’t really know,  but we know it when we see it.  To invoke another cliché —  his passing marks the end of an era.  However, he left so many great books behind, not to mention a life of incredible decency and wisdom,  that we can still celebrate the fact that we all feel like we knew him in our own way.

Yvonne Howell, University of Richmond

Mourning Boris Strugatskii

Admirers of science fiction and Russian literature will be saddened to learn that the last surviving half of the Strugatskii brothers’ formidable writing team, Boris Natanovich Strugatskii, died yesterday in St Petersburg after a long illness. An obituary will follow on this blog. For now, please see here for more details (in English), here for a Russian version, and here for a recent Russian-language profile of the author in Snob magazine.

Please use the comments feed to share other posts, articles and obituaries about Boris Natanovich as they appear.


Call for Papers: Far Rainbows Science Fiction Cinema Conference

We are actively seeking paper submissions for a one-day international workshop, FAR RAINBOWS: Russian and Soviet Science Fiction On Screen, which will take place at Wadham College, Oxford University on April 12, 2013 (Cosmonauts’ Day!).Image
Papers of approx. 20 mns’ length are encouraged on any aspect of the adaptation of Russian and Soviet science fiction for cinema, television, and other media. The organisers are particularly interested in studies of how the Strugatskii brothers’ novels have been adapted for the screen, although papers on adaptations of fiction by other authors will also be welcomed. Confirmed speakers include Professor Yvonne Howell (Richmond), Henriette Cederlöf (Stockholm), Dr Andrei Rogatchevski (Glasgow), Professor Sofya Khagi (Michigan), Dr Muireann Maguire (Oxford) and Dr Matthias Schwartz (Berlin).
Please contact Muireann Maguire ( and/or Andrei Rogatchevski ( with any queries, or try our conference email address:

Possible areas to explore include intertextuality, representations of utopia and dystopia, auteur cinema versus the role of censorship, how symbolism and meaning change between media (and over time), casting, and film theory.  If you wish to submit an abstract about an adaptation of the Strugatskiis’ novels, please note that the following films and directors (Stalker, Days of Eclipse, The Sorcerers/ Letters of a Dead Man/Ugly Swans, The Dead Mountaneer Hotel and Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein) have already been preselected by invited speakers.

Closing date for submission of abstracts: 15 December 2012

Urban Apocalypse and Renaissance – Conference Review

text by Eric R. Laursen (University of Utah)

The SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association) Conference was held in Detroit from June 28 through July 1 (see programme here).  The conference theme this year was Urban Apocalypse, Urban Renaissance: Landscapes in Science Fiction and Fantasy, an especially appropriate theme given its venue, next to the Renaissance Center in beautiful downtown Detroit.  For the first time, there was a panel devoted to Soviet science fiction.  Anindita Banerjee (Cornell University) delivered a paper entitled “Of Mothers among Other Things: Ethno-Racial Eruptions in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.”  Richard Lee Pierre (University of Michigan) delivered a paper entitled “Familiar Foreign: Geographic and Linguistic Commons in A.N. Tolstoy’s Aelita.”  Eric Laursen (University of Utah) delivered “Energy Monsters & the Soviet Social Network: Ivan Efremov’s Andromeda Nebula.”  Sofya Khagi was scheduled to speak on Pelevin and the Strugatskys but unfortunately fell ill at the last moment.  There was a lively discussion following the panel, and participants hope to resurrect it next year, when SFRA will combine with the Eaton Conference in Riverside California, April 10-14, 2013 to hold a joint conference on science fiction in multiple media (see here).

Other highlights of the conference included an opening panel discussion with scholars Eric Rabkin, Melissa M. Littlefield, Steven Shaviro, and science fiction writers Saladin Ahmed, Minister Faust, Robert J. Sawyer, and Sarah Zettel.  There were lively debates about science fiction in the classroom and its current directions in American culture.  Featured authors were available to sign their most recent books throughout the conference and each of them read from their work at some point.  Panels devoted to scholarship on science fiction were spread over three days, with an awards banquet on the final day.  The Pilgrim Award was given to Pamela Sargent for life-time contributions to SF/F studies, especially her work in promoting female science fiction writers.  The Pioneer Award for outstanding essay-length work of the year was given to David M. Higgins: “Toward a Cosmopolitan Science Fiction” American Literature 83.2 (June 2011).  The Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service  was given to Arthur B. Evans.  One of the most touching moments of the 2012 SFRA Conference was a Memorial panel to Ray Bradbury held on the final day, when a series of documentary clips were shown of Bradbury discussing his work in a variety of offices over the course of his career.  Bradbury’s offices were like his mind, filled with wonderful, fantastic things–rockets and aliens, comic books and classics, toys and photographs.  The landscape changed, but over every desk he posted a sign giving valuable advice for any writer:  “Don’t Think!”

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