Every once in a while, in the course of my ever-expanding investigations into the history of everything, I run across some obscure figure who seems worth writing about. The latest is Nikolai Fedorovich Fedorov (or Fyodorovich Fyodorov, if you prefer); I gather he’s not that obscure in Russia, but I’d never heard of him. He was born in 1828 (according to my reference books) or 1829 (according to various online sources), the illegitimate son of Prince Pavel Ivanovich Gagarin (as was customary in such cases, he was given the name and patronymic of his godfather); he had a decent education (though he was expelled from the Richelieu Lyceum of Odessa) and became a peripatetic teacher of history and geography before finding library work in Moscow in 1868. A decade later he joined the staff of the Rumyantsev Museum (now the Russian State Library), where he spent the next quarter of a century writing religio-philosophico-quasiscientific tracts that apparently impressed the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (though he published nothing during his lifetime—did they get manuscripts, or was it all word of mouth?). What he’s best known for is his insistence that mankind must become immortal and bring everyone who ever lived back to life, which sounds like standard-issue kookery but was apparently taken seriously in the Soviet period, influencing “scientific research… and even government policy” (according to S.V. Utechin). But the details! James Billington, in his indispensible The Icon and the Axe, says (on p. 443): “He also returned periodically to the idea that the assertive, artificial world of men contains less wisdom than that of animals, and that of animals less than that of the composed and earth-bound vegetable world.” So next time you eat a carrot, remember—it may be wiser than you! And according to the Russian Wikipedia entry, he refused to allow himself to be photographed or painted; the only existing representation was surreptitiously drawn by Leonid Pasternak, the poet’s father.

What has this to do with language, you say? I’ll tell you: according to Stephen Lukashevich’s N. F. Fedorov (1828-1903): A Study in Russian Eupsychian and Utopian Thought (pp. 144 ff.), Fedorov thought language began as an attempt to communicate with the dead fathers in the sky, and writing was “another fictitious resurrection of the dead fathers”:

As the evolution of mankind was accompanied by a process of secularization, the written language gradually lost its sacred, resurrectional character and its pictorial expression, until it became phonetic and alphabetical. Yet apparently this process of the secularization of the written language met with resistance, as witnessed by the fact that the writers and copyists of the Middle Ages continued to embellish their texts with a calligraphy and illuminations that often were as complex as the hieroglyphics and ideograms of the past. Moreover, their penmanship continued to retain its sacred character to the extent that it was possible to speak of a Gothic or of a Byzantine style of writing, just as one could speak of Gothic or Byzantine church architecture. But with the appearance of the cult of progress, which repudiated as evil all that was past, the written language lost its sacred, resurrectional character and became a means for preparing legal and commercial documents. Furthermore, as repudiation of the past and of the ancestors (fathers) was also a repudiation of fraternity, so too the written language, which helped the cause of progress, became a vehicle for the unfraternal relations that reigned in the modern world. Accordingly, the complex calligraphy and the intricate styles of penmanship yielded, first to plain, official writing, then to soberly efficient printing, and, finally to shorthand and stenography.

Fedorov called modern writing “the work of men who have stopped being human and who have become typewriters.” The quote is from his (posthumous) magnum opus, Философия общего дела [The Philosophy of the Common Task], originally published 1906-13 and available in English in What Was Man Created For? The Philosophy of the Common Task: Selected Works, ed. E. Koutiassov and M. Minto (Lausanne, Switzerland: Honeyglen/L’Age d’Homme, 1990). Besides the Wikipedia articles linked above (the Russian one has links to many of his writings in Russian), this webpage has a convenient summary of his views. I don’t know why, but I have an unreasonable fondness for these unaffiliated crackpots, burrowing away at their obsessive analyses of Life, God, and Meaning, glaring with half-seeing eyes at the world around them and scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. If his project for mass resurrection gets underway, I look forward to having a chat with Nikolai Fedorovich.


  1. Of course this flatly contradicts the facts, namely that the oldest writings we have are a mixture of the commercial (quipus, Linear B) and the sacred (Chinese oracle bones). Repurposing is as old as documents.
    The idea of technological immortality and universal resurrection has been taken up by sf author Spider Robinson in his Deathkiller trilogy (Mindkiller, Time Pressure, Lifehouse).

  2. Charlie Stross’s Accelerando also picks up on the theme of universal resurrection, as hyper-evolved business practices, for unknown reasons (but potentially from Fedorovism, I now suppose), re-incarnate simulations of all the dead.
    I wonder how that Fedorov took it.

  3. Fedorov also had a powerful influence on young Konstantin Tsiolkovsky when the latter was studying in Moscow. A lot of the science-fictional and space-fan themes of “our destiny is to leave the terrestrial cradle and spread life and mind throughout the universe” are traceable to him.

  4. quipus, Linear B
    Well, cuneiform. But that only confirms your actual point.

  5. The theme is carried on by Teilhard de Chardin, with the concept of the Omega Point; Frank Tipler made the link with resurrection explicit.

  6. His father was a prince with the surname Gagarin? An ancestor of that hero of the Soviet Union, Yuri?

  7. Yuri isn’t mentioned in this list of representatives of the princely family, so I don’t think they’re related. (It’s a priori unlikely that the Communists would have allowed an aristocrat, however fallen in the world, to take part in the space program.)

  8. Thanks, language.
    What a wonder is the internet! It didn’t occur to me to look up the princely family.

  9. Just found this quote in the footnotes of Jochen Hellbeck’s Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin:

    Resurrection, according to Fedorov, could be “scientifically” managed through the writing and conservation of individuals’ autobiographical writings, which described the essence of a person. This essence would bring the person back to life in a future age, once technologies were sufficiently developed to achieve this. Meanwhile society had to turn into a “psychocracy”: all citizens were to keep “psycho-physiological diaries” and gather in rituals of mutual confession to record all “biographical-psychological” details necessary for resurrection.

    I guess I have a better chance at resurrection than you saps who have never kept a diary, though I can’t say I’ve kept one continuously or with the required thoroughness. I may be resurrected only in partial form.

  10. It’s a priori unlikely that the Communists would have allowed an aristocrat, however fallen in the world, to take part in the space program.
    It was pretty common for freed serves to take surnames of their former masters.

    I am not sure soviet “science” was interested in Fedorov works, but some crackpots probably wanted to resurrect Lenin.

  11. Apparently, at least in the 1920s, some important Soviets did take him and his ideas seriously.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Now I’m trying to imagine an undead Lenin, ruling forever like Kim Il-sung, except for real…

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