Even after the Soviet government embraced Tsiolkovsky as a hero, it avoided promoting his philosophical views. Although Tsiolkovsky often criticized traditional religions for their “primitive” explanation of the world, he himself saw the universe in almost theological terms, as a higher being that controls life on Earth and beyond. “We are at the will of and controlled by Cosmos,” he wrote in a work titled “Is There God?” “There is no absolute will—we are marionettes, mechanical puppets, machines, movie characters.” Obviously, these were not ideas that fit well with official Marxist ideology.
With the end of the Soviet state, a full and honest discussion of Tsiolkovsky’s legacy, good and bad, began at last. “Tsiolkovsky obviously had some wrong ideas, which were typical for his time—for example, the notion that nature has to be changed for human needs,” Sergeeva says. Post-Soviet publication of his work also has brought to light his controversial views on eugenics—specifically, his advocacy of the creation of a “better” human race. Despite his remarkable gifts for prediction, Tsiolkovsky obviously did not foresee that just a few years after his death, Nazi Germany would use eugenics to justify the murder of millions. “Eugenics was not a big part of Tsiolkovsky’s philosophy; however he did have similar views,” Sergeeva says.
Today, less then a mile from the scientist’s home in Kaluga, is the futuristic building of the State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics. Founded in 1961 by Yuri Gagarin, the museum was intended to popularize the exploration of space and promote Soviet advances in the field. As a high school student in Moscow, I remember coming here on a tour—one of 400,000 people who visited the museum every year during the 1980s. In the post-Soviet period, however, the number of visitors to Kaluga has plunged dramatically, as have the fortunes of the Russian space program. Government-sponsored tours to Kaluga were discontinued after the collapse of the Soviet government, but Sergeeva sees the situation starting to reverse. More than 100,000 people have visited the museum in each of the past two or three years, and she sees more people coming on their own, by car or by train, rather than as part of government tours.
Toward the end of his life Tsiolkovsky wrote, “My entire life consisted of musings, calculations, practical works and trials. Many questions remain unanswered, many works are incomplete or unpublished. The most important things still lie ahead.” The people who keep his legacy alive in Kaluga, and a generation raised on the triumphs and promises of the Russian space program, remain hopeful that this last statement is still true.