Fedor Il’in’s The Valley of New Life (1928)

Nikolai Krementsov

In 1928, one of the few remaining private publishers in Moscow released a novel with the intriguing title, The Valley of New Life.1 The book’s back cover bore a bold announcement:

“Citizens! Do you know that all of you are in great danger? Do you know that a band of determined people, hiding in an isolated valley in the Himalayas—the so-called valley of “New Life”—has long been plotting a horrific coup?! Using powerful, unknown to us technical inventions, they have created a millions-strong army of artificial people and equipped it with terrible weapons. All the preparations for the coup are finished. The band’s leaders only await the completion of a tunnel that would connect the valley with the outside world. Soon the tunnel will be ready and the iron battalions of half-people-half-machines will attack the stunned humankind. The danger is near! Everybody should know about it. Everyone must buy and read this book that describes this outrageous plot.”

Despite its clear advertising tenor, the blurb quite accurately describes the book’s contents. Narrated by one of the valley’s inhabitants, the novel indeed portrays a new civilization created by a clan of American billionaires, the Queensleys, with the help of leading scientists and engineers from around the world. They populate the valley with a race of super-advanced human beings, brought to life by in vitro fertilization, interspecies hybridization, and ectogenesis (gestation of human embryos in artificial wombs) and “educated” by means of telepathic mass hypnosis. According to the Queensleys’ vision, this race—armed with superior science and technology, including the use of atomic energy, synthetic foods, and mind control—is destined to conquer and remake the world. The novel ends with the miraculous escape of its narrator from the valley on the eve of the invasion of the world by the army of the super-humans. The novel’s content indicates that the published text was just the first installment of a larger story. However, readers excited by the novel waited in vain for its sequel. In its full form, the two-part novel would appear only forty years later.

The Valley of New Life is a fine example of a new literary genre—nauchnaia fantastika, scientific fantasy (SF), as it was called in Russian (or science fiction in English)—that took newborn Soviet Russia by storm. It echoes certain elements of Eugenii Zamiatin’s famous anti-utopia We (1921) and presages many of the themes of Aldous Huxley’s even more famous Brave New World (1932). But in one particular respect the novel differs from the multitude of SF writings flooding Soviet periodicals and bookstores at the time: hiding under the penname Theo Elie, its author was a scientist. The novel was written by Fedor Il’in (1873-1959), the chairman of the gynecology department at Baku University’s Medical School.

Il’in’s previous career gave very little indication that he might aspire to become the author of a successful SF novel. Born to a family of the Russian nobility, Fedor graduated in 1898 from the country’s premier medical school—the Military-Medical Academy in St. Petersburg (renamed Petrograd in 1914). He spent nearly a decade as a doctor with various army and navy regimens. During the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war he served on a military cruiser and was twice decorated for “bravery and exemplary service under enemy fire.” But, after the end of the war, in 1906, Il’in resigned from the military. He chose to continue his career in a field that could not have been more remote from his previous duties: he joined the staff of the Clinical Institute of Obstetrics and Gynecology in St. Petersburg. He became engaged in experimental research on exciting new subjects: the use of radium and X-ray irradiation in the treatment of cancerous tumors and the use of artificial insemination as a means to fight infertility.2 He also began lecturing on his new specialty at the Petrograd Women’s Medical School.

The October 1917 Bolshevik coup in Petrograd and the bloody Civil War that came on its tails disrupted Il’in’s research and his steadily progressing career. As did many other inhabitants of the Imperial capital, he fled to the country’s southern regions—a stronghold of the “White” forces fighting against the Bolshevik “Red” army. But unlike many others, Il’in did not emigrate when, in late 1920, the Bolsheviks won the Civil War. Instead, at the beginning of 1921, he returned to Petrograd hoping to resume his research and teaching. Alas, it was not a propitious time for scientific work in Petrograd, and in 1922, Il’in accepted an offer to organize a gynecology department at the medical school of a new university just established in Baku, the center of the oil industry on the Caspian Sea. He would spend the rest of his life in Baku, heading the department he had created, teaching successive cohorts of medical students, and attending to numerous patients at the university’s clinics.

Il’in’s novel raises a number of interesting questions. Why would this talented researcher and devoted physician, who earned the title of “Women’s God” from his grateful patients, pick up his pen to write an SF novel? What did his novel actually say about science and the scientist? How did Il’in’s specialized scientific/medical knowledge inform and shape his fiction? How did his vision of humanity’s future differ from that envisaged by other scientists and by professional writers? What does the very fact that Il’in wrote fiction tell us about the interrelations between science and literature? And how did such interrelations in Bolshevik Russia differ from those in other countries? In the following pages I will look for answers to these questions. The first section will briefly describe three different revolutions that defined the contexts of Ili’in’s novel: the Bolshevik Revolution, the experimental revolution in the life sciences, and the revolution in the public visibility of biomedical research. The second section will explore the biomedical advances portrayed in Il’in’s novel within the context of contemporary research conducted by Russian scientists, including Il’in himself. The last section will explore social anxieties (both hopes and fears) generated by biomedical research and examined in Il’in’s novel.

By analyzing Il’in’s novel in its multiple contexts, I will examine two intertwined cultural processes unfolding in Bolshevik Russia during this period. One was the transformation of specialized, esoteric knowledge generated by biomedical research into an influential cultural resource. Another was the formation of a zone of contest at the interface of four major cultural domains: religion, science, philosophy, and literature. SF literature provided a critical medium for these two processes and contributed substantially to an unprecedented increase in the public visibility and cultural authority of science in Bolshevik Russia, at the expense of the visibility and authority enjoyed by religion and literature during the pre-revolutionary decades.

Part 1. Science in revolutions

In the 1920s Bolshevik Russia, a newborn, was imbued by what US historian Richard Stites has perceptively termed “revolutionary dreams” of building a “new world.”3 Inspired by these dreams, the country experimented on an unprecedented scale with new ideas and new practices in every facet of life, from arts to sciences, state administration to education, and industry to health care. Nowhere did these dreams find a more pronounced expression than in the numerous works of a new literary genre: scientific fantasy (SF) . As its very name indicates, this genre embodied the intersection of two major cultural domains—science and literature—with practitioners in both fields actively contributing to its enormous popularity. A large portion of 1920s SF literature engaged with one particular subset of science—what today is called the life sciences, but at the time was represented by the two closely entwined and rapidly growing fields of experimental biology and experimental medicine.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, just as Russia was going through its brutal political revolutions, these fields were undergoing their own revolution. The “experimental” modifiers to biology and medicine allude to the essence of this “mini” revolution: the introduction of methods, largely borrowed from physics and chemistry, into the study of life, its past, present, and future. Armed with these new methods, scientists investigated the mechanisms of basic life processes and their pathological changes, including metabolism, reproduction, heredity, nervous and endocrine regulation, immunity, growth, evolution, and aging. The advances of experimental research quickly found applications in various branches of medicine, leading to new therapeutic treatments, surgical procedures, preventive measures, and diagnostic techniques. In the first decades of the twentieth century, successes in organ transplantation, immunization, blood transfusion, serodiagnostics, hormone-, vitamin-, X-ray-, and sera-therapies, and in deciphering the basic mechanisms of heredity and embryonic development generated a euphoric vision: science could control life and create new life forms.4 Captivated by this “visionary biology,” as US historian of science Mark B. Adams has aptly named it, many scientists the world over came to believe that new experimental techniques could provide them with the means not only to radically improve the present well-being of humanity, but to direct its future evolution.5 Russian scientists were no exception. Numerous investigators, including Il’in, became engaged in research on a variety of new biomedical subjects. After he had resigned from the military, much of his research was conducted on the cutting edge of the growing field of experimental medicine.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution gave Russian experimental biology and medicine a tremendous boost. “Visionary biology” resonated strongly with the “revolutionary dreams” entertained by the Bolshevik government that became the only patron of science in the country. Not only did the Bolsheviks generously fund a massive institutional growth of these fields, they also made knowledge generated by biomedical research an essential part of their huge science-popularization campaign aimed at undermining religion, thus leading to the rapidly increasing public visibility of such research in the newborn, Bolshevik Russia.6

The intersections of visionary biology and revolutionary dreams found expression in particular research agendas pursued by Russian scientists after the Revolution. One dominant agenda became the exploration of the possible mechanisms and plausible directions of human physical and mental evolution. Several researchers developed novel techniques of in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and interspecies hybridization, which seemed to offer simple means of manipulating and directing human reproduction to any desirable end. Others launched extensive experimental research on telepathy, which promised to uncover the “secrets of the mind” and to create effective tools of mind control. Widely covered by the media (including daily newspapers, popular magazines, radio broadcasts, and documentary films) this research generated acute societal anxieties (both hopes and fears) about the powers unleashed by the rapid advances of biomedical science. It was these anxieties that Russian post-revolutionary SF literature attempted to investigate, and Il’in’s Valley of New Live undoubtedly was one of such attempts.

  1. Teo Eli, Dolina novoi zhizni (Moscow: Krug, 1928). 

  2. See F. N. Il’in, Dal’neishie uspekhi v terapii luchistoi energiei (St. Petersburg: Orbita, 1914); idem, Iskusstvennoe oplodotvorenie v bor’be s besplodiem zhenshchiny (St. Petersburg: Orbita, 1917). 

  3. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989). 

  4. Philip J. Pauly, Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). 

  5. On “visionary biology” see Mark B. Adams, “Last Judgment: The Visionary Biology of J. B. S. Haldane,” Journal of the History of Biology, 2000, 33: 457-91. 

  6. For details, see Nikolai Krementsov, Revolutionary Experiments: The Quest for Immortality in Bolshevik Science and Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). 

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