Materialist Ideology of Prometheanism and its Dangers. An Examination of Soviet Mass Culture–Part 1 of 3

Prometheanism was the prime culture mover in the Soviet Union. It is an ideology that gets its name from the Greek myth in which the Titan Prometheus is able to thwart the ruling gods by giving man fire to become god-like.  It is an ideology of turning away from the path of providentialism as humanity becomes fully vested to manipulate the world with their own abilities. What is interesting is that proponents of Materialism fail to understand that within the story of Prometheus is a literary warning, as Prometheus from challenging the gods would pay the ultimate price for his transgressions in the Greek tragedy. During the Russian Revolution and in its aftermath, many of the common people who rejected what was seen as providentially ridden existence under the Tsar in favor of an existence determined by the agency of labor, fire, fire, science and no religion were doomed to the sentence of being chained to the rock of the state like Prometheus.

A perfect illustration of a warning to adherents of  Prometheanism and its sentence of suffering can be examined through some of the literature at the end of the Russian Revolution and Civil War, expressed by Eugeni Zamyatin in his 1922 short story The Cave. Zamyatin paints a vivid picture of the harsh reality in the lives of Masha and Martin in a Petersburg bedroom, “One thing is clear: it is winter. And you must clench your teeth tightly to keep them from chattering, and you must split wood with a stone ax, and each night carry your fire from cave to cave, deeper and deeper.”[1]

Zamyatin expresses through literary imagery the state of the Russian people as at “the end of the Civil War Soviet Russia was exhausted and ruined. The droughts of 1920 and 1921 and the frightful famine during the last year added the final, gruesome chapter to the disaster.”[2] The author brings the reader front and center to the Prometheus chains bringing forth the ideas of how Russian society has been degenerated into a primitive state by using the imagery of wood, stone ax, and of course, the cave.

One of the most important metaphors in the short story was the iron stove as it relates to the Promethean power of fire. Zamyatin explains to the reader how god-like the fire is to Masha and Martin, writing, “The god roared mightily. In the dark cave, the great miracle of fire was wrought.”[3] The concepts that Zamyatin explores begs the question, “Did Masha and Martin have their doom sealed by Russia choosing the wisdom of man rather than God?”  The rest of the story examines the nature of need and its power to change ethics as Martin gives into stealing[4] and Masha decides to commit suicide.[5] In fact, in our modern secular society, religious apologists, in conversations with materialistic atheists insist that atheists can have a good moral end in sight. However, the difficulty with this assessment is that it is only an assessment that can be made with atheism juxtaposing Christianity. The imagery of fire in the story brings forth the desire for knowledge, industry, and separation from providentalism of Christianity and it appears that Zamyatin may believe that Masha and Martin’s fate is the unforeseen result of Prometheanism.

Examining the origins of Prometheanism and the desire to reach humanity’s full potential, one can examine a poem by the title of The Iron Messiah by Vladimir Kirillov. Kirillov believes in the Promethean model that the fire of industry that is “the savior, the lord of the earth.”[6] “Mountains give way,”[7] as well as nature, to the power of the Iron Messiah. The rhetoric to the Russian people is an intoxicating message of hope and change as Kirillov expresses the continual desire for an Iron Messiah who by delivering “a trail of ringing iron rail;”[8] he “destroys the thrones and prisons, he calls the peoples to eternal fraternity.”[9]

In 1924 in the Blue Blouse Skit “the workers and the peasants” who “swept the tsarist throne away” may have believed in the anointed powers of industry;[10] however, the warlike environment needed to feed the Iron Messiah crucified the well-being of the Russian people.  The Iron Messiah didn’t liberate Pavlik Morozov’s father, as he disappeared by being betrayed by his own son for hiding grain for next year’s seed.[11] Perhaps, Russians who desired Prometheanism didn’t fully understand the lesson of the story, as the story of Prometheus wasn’t a story of victory as they imagined it. Prometheus stole the fire and paid the consequence for his actions, and so by humanity committing the same crime, and becoming fully aware of its potential it appears the Russian people met the same fate as Prometheus.

The question remains: Has Prometheanism been transposed onto the West after the fall of the Soviet Union? If so, in what ways does it manifest?


[1] Clarence Brown, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader (New York: Penguin Group, 2003), 91.

[2] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg, A History of Russia, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 503.

[3] Brown, The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, 92.

[4] Ibid, 95.

[5] Ibid,101.

[6] Richard Stites, Mass Culture in Soviet Russia: Tales, Poems, Songs, Movies, Plays, and Folklore, 1917-1953 ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 4.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Ibid, 85.

[11] Ibid, 153.

5 thoughts on “Materialist Ideology of Prometheanism and its Dangers. An Examination of Soviet Mass Culture–Part 1 of 3

  1. I suppose the first thing that comes to my mind is the story of the Garden of Eden. Breaking the law and knowing by our own lights what is good and evil, being ‘chained’ to drudgery and hard work by the sweat of the brow as opposed to the former order (for Prometheus it is the order of Zeus).

    It is not surprising that man, finding himself in this new world would do all that he could to ease his suffering by his own work and intellect; making work easier, more productive and more comfortable. We find that our efforts usually bring with them unseen additional burdens that were unexpected.

    I suppose that like Prometheus, man was looking for another Hercules to take the shackles off of our day to day pragmatic desire to better our fate or recreate a world that mimics or reproduces the benefits of the previous realm: a utopia of our own liking. But alas, we are always stymied and our efforts fail though they show great promise as we pursue them.

    Christ delivered the way, and it is not easy: love those who are enemies, look out for one another, obey the Law, seek Truth and die to self for that which is above and beyond us. Had Christ not descended to us we would not be able to ascend to him of our own efforts. Our Hercules was Christ and the Truth was Christ and it has the power to set us free but not in the way we imagined. Our only gift to God is our will and our gain is not material.

    As Fulton Sheen once related in speaking of Christmas there is only one thing which we truly have that is ours to give:

    “What is Peace? Peace is the tranquility of order…body to soul and of man to God.

    “There are two births of Christ. One unto this world in Bethlehem, the other in the soul when it is spiritually reborn..both result from a kind of Divine invasion.

    “What can I Give?

    “There is only one thing in the world that is really our own–and that is our will…Our will is ours for all eternity. That is why the most precious gift that one can give is another in his will.” — Fulton J. Sheen.

    Uniting our will to God is the answer and no matter the effort and good intentions of our materialistic pursuits, in the end, they will not succeed.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nicholas

    The materialists are the product of empiricism, which has wrought untold woe. Empiricism’s gaze is earthward. For all the material advantages it brings, it cannot see through the Veil.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. I find a parallel in the route of Bergoglio and his view of history: this is a very interesting historical piece:

      It reminds me of man trying to ascend Mt. Carmel with eyes always looking to the summit and yet someone takes a path to the right or left which inevitably leads us back down the mountain with eyes aimed squarely at the paganism from which we escaped, It seems to be story of our loss in will to keep our eyes on the prize and looking to the world as progress to an end. In reality it is a descent into chaos. One can call sliding down a slippery slope as progress if they want . . . they are, after all, progressing forward . . . but their goal and their end is diametrically opposed to the purpose of man and against the will of God. It is always easier to descend that to climb and the results are disastrous when one takes into account the purpose of life itself. The journey must be ascendent rather than descending into the slime which which, by God’s Grace we freed ourselves and began the long arduous climb to the heavens.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Soviet Mass Culture Propaganda Machine: A Mirror image of Western Media? Part 2 of 3 – On the Pilgrim Road

  4. Pingback: Religion in the Soviet Union: What Culture’s Literature Can Explain about its Society. Part 3 of 3 – On the Pilgrim Road

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