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Citizens of the universe

'Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds'
Cosmopolity, 1927

On 3 October 1942 a V-2 A4 rocket designed by German scientist Werner von Braun became the first man-made object to enter space. This historic event provided proof of concept that human beings could one day travel beyond Earth.

Though the V2's implicit promise of a future for mankind in space was compelling, it was a message Soviet citizens had already taken to heart. As far back as the 1920s a group of people who called themselves Cosmopolity, or Citizens of the Universe, had made preparations to join a coming interplanetary society. But serious interest in space travel had taken hold in Russia even earlier than that.

Cosmic consciousness rises in Russia

Cosmopolity exhibition 1927Russia's love affair with theories of space exploration was ignited by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's pioneering work in rocketry in the late 19th century but had cooled somewhat by the 1920s.

Then in 1923 the newspaper Izvestiia published an article entitled 'Is Utopia Really Possible?' that focused on the spaceflight theories of rocket scientists Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard. It prompted a huge resurgence of interest in space travel and rekindled interest in Tsilokovsky’s ideas. 

Between 1921 and 1932 nearly 250 articles and over 30 nonfiction books about space were published in the USSR, as well a number of influential space-themed science fiction novels including Alexey N. Tolstoy's 'Aelita'. In the late 1920s space culture was ingrained in the national consciousness and the stage was set for the Cosmopolity group to appear.

Cosmopolity's formation had been foreshadowed in the opening decades of the 20th century by the emergence of cosmism, a philosophy developed by Russian thinkers including Tsiolkovsky and Nikolai Fedorov that contributed to a notion that the Soviets were masters of the cosmos.

The members of Cosmopolity were sympathetic to cosmism's goals of populating the universe and achieving eternal life, and shared its dream of distant planets populated by new societies. Eager to communicate their vision of the future to the wider world, they requisitioned a shop in Moscow and staged the first ever space travel exhibition.

Human societies on alien worlds

Visitors to the 'World's First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials' were greeted by an arresting diorama that depicted a spacecraft landing on a craggy lunar surface and Earth rising majestically above the horizon.

Cosmopolity exhibition window display 1927

The image was framed by words written in an unfamiliar-looking language. Translated into English they read, 'Cosmopolitans invent the roads to new worlds'.

Cosmopolity believed that mankind's exodus to these new worlds was imminent, and its members radically restructured their lives in preparation for it.

They cut down on sleep, neither drank nor smoked, and encouraged the wearing of masks as a means to promote social equality. While seeking a complete substitute for food, they adhered to a strict vegetarian diet. The strange writing in the exhibition's window display was in fact an example of a new language created by the group themselves, with the intention that it would be spoken on all future worlds.

Cosmopolity's exhibition of 1927 was a success, attracting over 10,000 visitors and comprehensively achieving the small group's aim of putting its ideas across to a large audience. A documentary album from the exhibition survives that includes notes left by some of the visitors, such as 'We welcome those who dare to reveal the unknown',  signed Pereligin and Protopopov.

Salomey Vortkin, a journalist for 'Working Moscow', addressed his note to the inventor Fedorov: 'I want to fly with you on the first flight. This desire is intense. As soon as I have news that you are ready, I will do everything within my means to join you. Please don't let anything prevent this.'

Philosophical and spiritual identification with the cosmos has been uniquely fundamental to Russian culture ever since, resurfacing again and again throughout the history and pre-history of the space programme.

Sputnik signals the world's imagination

The launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 stunned the world and fired the starting gun of the space race. However, Nikita Khrushchev's Soviet government had not foreseen how strongly the public would identify with the little metal sphere, or that Sputnik would quickly become a focus of imagination worldwide.

Girl listening to SputnikIn the USA, Sputnik was regarded by some as a symbolic and military danger that represented not only the superiority of Soviet space technology but presumably Soviet nuclear capability as well.

For the citizens of the USSR, the beeps of Sputnik's onboard radio transmitter spelled out an interplanetary message that told of the great power of the Russian people and their future life in space.

While amateur radio enthusiasts across the globe tried to pick up a signal from Sputnik as it passed overhead, Soviet civilians imagined themselves actually travelling inside it.

Maria Kartseva, a young student, sent a letter to the Moscow Radio Committee expressing her hope of becoming a test subject for a spaceflight. 'I write to you again for your help,' it read. 'My request is as follows, I ask that you send me inside of a Sputnik. I keep thinking that I will not rest until I have flown. Whatever may happen to me, I ask that no-one worry.'

Dreams of the future made real

The Soviet Union's space fad reached its peak on 12 April 1961, when military test pilot Yuri Gagarin was launched into orbit and circled the globe for 108 minutes, becoming the first human being to enter space and achieving instant celebrity. 

An unprecedented global celebration followed. In a nation still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, Gagarin's flight became one of the most powerful beacons of hope for Russia's future.

Today when we look at images of Earth taken from space or tune in to the International Space Station, we can consider these early visions of cosmic consciousness and remember that it was vivid imagination above all that inspired the first space technology engineers–the men and women whose work enabled humans to take the first steps away from Earth.

Written by Julia Tcharfas, Curatorial Assistant for the Cosmonauts exhibition

Image credits

1. and 2. Displays in World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Apparatus, Mechanisms, Instruments, and Historical Materials, Moscow, 1927 © Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics
3. A young girl listening to a signal from Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite, launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 © Press Association