By Eric Laursen (Regular Contributor)
In November 1922, the Soviet Embassy in Berlin held a festive literary evening for Soviet writers and émigrés sympathetic to the new regime. The occasion was the fifth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, and one of the honored guests was the former Count Aleksey Nikolaevich Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo Tolstoy). Tolstoy, who had renounced his title earlier that same year, read from his new novel Aelita, or the Decline of Mars. The first installment of Aelita would soon appear in the Soviet journal Red Virgin Soil and in a few short months Tolstoy, now nicknamed “Comrade Count,” would return from Berlin to become a fixture in Soviet literature. Aelita is Tolstoy’s offering to the Soviet Union, his testimony of personal and professional transformation and his ticket home.
Revolution on a Cold Planet
In Tolstoy’s novel two earthlings travel to Mars where they meet Aelita, a blue-skinned Princess and daughter of the Martian leader. Aelita’s father wants to speed up the decline of his cold, dying planet by destroying its cities, which he sees as a source of anarchy, irrational desire, and discontent. While the working class toils away to support them, the Martian upper class lives a life of peaceful meditation, intentionally suppressing physical desire in favor of rational thought and thereby preparing themselves for exodus into a forced pastoral idyll. Aelita is forbidden to have sex, which would prompt her descent into irrational thought, but she is drawn to the Earthling scientist Los: “In your blood an ancient force is stirring–the red mystery, the desire to perpetuate life. Your blood is in revolt.” Finally she gives in to the Earthling, thereby assuring her death at the hands of the high priests, who will throw her into a pit of giant Martian spiders borrowed from Edgar Rice Burroughs. As Los and the blue-skinned Princess make love, the other Earthling, the Bolshevik revolutionary Gusev, travels to the city and meets a Martian worker, who sees in the earthlings a “fresh, hot-blooded race” that can save the Martians. Just as Los gives Aelita the gift of sexual passion and irrational chaos, Gusev gives the Martian proletariat a violent revolution.
The Collective Hero & the Martian City
Soviet critics responded positively to Aelita, praising Gusev as the new Soviet hero. A strong, decisive man of action, Gusev immediately claims Mars for the Russian Federated Republic. Yet when the revolution he starts comes to a halt, he must fetch the intellectual Los from his spider-infested love nest to save the day. Gusev needs Los to guide him and to keep the revolution from descending into mindless destruction. Los in his turn needs Gusev, since only the presence of the simple man of action can draw him out of his continual state of angst. Los invented his spaceship to escape from his own suffering on Earth, but after traveling to Mars he starts to think about humanity’s needs more than his own and begins designing power plants for Earth based on Martian technology. Los now uses his science not to help himself but the entire planet. In transforming the angst-ridden self-centered Los into the selfless collective hero, the novel turns from escapist fantasy to Soviet utility, a blueprint for the construction of Soviet Science Fiction and the place of the intellectual in a post-revolutionary Soviet society.
The Princess of Mars on the Silver Screen
Although Tolstoy’s novel has been translated into English, Americans might be more familiar with the 1924 silent film Aelita: Queen of Mars which was based on the novel (Aelita becomes a queen, the film has a more developed Moscow plot, and the trip to Mars ends up being a dream). Directed by Yakov Protazanov, the film is best known for its wonderful constructivist sets and costumes designed by Aleksandra Ekster. The look of Martian society in Aelita has been seen to influence other futuristic films of the 1920s such as the Flash Gordon serials and Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. Along with other products of the early Soviet avant-garde, however, Aelita soon fell out of favor. Until the end of the Cold War, most Russians knew the story not from the film but from the novel.
The Aelita Prize & the Tolstoy Crater
Tolstoy was later elected to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and became a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Although he died in 1945, Tolstoy was recognized at the Nuremburg Trials for his early investigations into Nazi atrocities. He was also known as the father of Soviet Science Fiction, and scientists inspired by the novel named a crater on the planet Mars after Tolstoy. Since 1981 the annual Aelita Convention, a gathering of Science Fiction writers, scholars and fans, has been held in the city of Ekaterinburg, where the Aelita Prize is awarded to one Russian Science Fiction writer every year (http://www.rusf.ru/aelita/aelitaeng.html).