The demons of science fiction

Science fiction is a wonderful genre. I am a huge fan of books describing possible futures for humanity. The best science fiction, like the works of Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, approach the future as developing from combinations of human decisions on the one hand and the scarcity of resources and technological advances in somewhere else.

Aleksandr Gromov is one of the best-known post-Soviet science fiction writers. Although I often disagree with his worldview, I still find his books both intellectually stimulating and enjoyable to read. There are quite a few other excellent Russian writers in this genre. Evgenii Lukin, Vadim Shefner and Yulii Burkin, for example, combine science fiction and fantasy in imaginative representations of how human societies might develop.

Still, some late Soviet and post-Soviet fantasy or science fiction works make me uncomfortable. By tackling the resurgence of nationalism that accompanied the ideological and political collapse of the Soviet Union, they are falling back on anti-Semitic stereotypes. For example, in the works of Yuri Nikitin, Vadim Panov, and Vasilii Golovachev, the protagonists are portrayed as honest, hardworking, albeit somewhat naive Slavs, while the wicked are portrayed as devious individuals obsessed with money and determined to destroy society.

As Viktor Shnirelman, historian and ethnologist specializing in far-right myths and ideologies, noted in his 2018 study Three Myths of a Conspiracy: Antisemitic Propaganda in Contemporary Russia, this association of wickedness with Judaism at the late Soviet and post-Soviet years Sci-fi fantasy represents a disturbing trend: the use of non-traditional platforms to convey anti-Semitic ideas to a new generation of Russians.

According to Shinlerman, fiction, especially the sci-fi and fantasy genres, has become a practical way to circumvent Russian laws against public expressions of racist views. After all, the idea of ​​suing someone for creating a make-believe world populated by a greedy, hook-nosed humanoid species or for using racial epitaphs to describe the long-extinct Khazars seems excessive, if not absurd.

The popularity of these genres, especially among young Slavs, is disturbing. This suggests that pervasive stereotypes about Jews are being communicated in disguised forms to the rulers of tomorrow.

Shnilerman pays particular attention to the archetypal character of the Outsiders in Russian science fiction; they are portrayed either as well-known enemies of the ancient Slavic community, like the Khazars, or as dishonest people from a future society who intend to cause destruction.

These representations, he argues, derive from deeply rooted anti-Semitic perceptions that are based on three interrelated myths about the relationship between Slavs and foreigners.

First, there is the myth of the Antichrist which threatens the existence of mankind. He is assisted by those who do not belong to the Slavic Orthodox spiritual community. These foreigners, who include all Jews, hate Christians and want to destroy them. The second myth portrays the Slavs as a superior race engaged in an eternal struggle of life and death against the inferior Jewish race. The third myth concerns the Khazars, a Turkish people, whose ruling elite in the 8th century converted to rabbinical Judaism and who were conquered by the Rus of Kiev around 965-969 CE. This suggests that the Khazars were not defeated; they pretend to be ordinary Russians and their goal is to get revenge on the Russian people.

Science fiction and fantasy based on these myths portray contemporary Russians as noble warriors engaged in an ancient and continuing battle for the salvation of the human race against an evil ethnic alien. Shnirelman notes that the war between the Slavs and certain spiritually dark and racially alien forces is a common theme in the works of Yuri Nikitin (e.g., The Holy Grail and One of Hyperborea), Alexander Baygushev (Lament for the Reckless Khazars) and other Russians. fantastic writers.

Although the ethnic villain in current Russian science fiction is almost never explicitly identified as Jewish, the portrayal either matches anti-Semitic stereotypes or Jewish surnames to make the connection. Sometimes the association is made more explicit. For example, in his 2009 novel The Non-Russians are Coming, or The Bringers of Death, Vasilii Glovachev indicates the Jewish identity of the villains by making their names, read from right to left, sound recognizable.

To be sure, not all Russian fantasy science fiction writers use anti-Semitic tropes, and implicit or explicit anti-Semitism is not unique to Russian science fiction. As Paul Sturtevant noted in a 2018 Washington Post article, goblins in Harry Potter, dwarves in The Hobbit, and Watto in the Star Wars series, also perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes. Sturtevant has shown how these villains are inspired by the stereotype of the “greedy Jew”.

However, unlike Russian fantasy science fiction, this association of greed with evil does not come with a parallel emphasis in Western science fiction on evil as an alien force invading a homogeneous homeland. It is the combination of anti-Semitic stereotypes and the altering of foreigners in the Russian sci-fi fantasy that Shnirelman finds disturbing, as it highlights the ever-present danger of a Russian nationalism that turns to racism and xenophobia.

Nearly a fifth of Russian Jews are expressing concern over a growing threat of anti-Semitism, as a poll conducted three years ago by Russian think tank The Levada Center indicates. A close examination of Russian science fiction suggests that they don’t necessarily fantasize.

Inna Stakser is a researcher at the Kantor Center.

Eight times a year, the Kantor Center publishes commentaries and analyzes on Jewish identity and culture written by members of its team. Please feel free to share your thoughts on our Outlook with us: kantorce@tauex.tau.ac.il.
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