Books: Cultural Amnesia — Aleksandr Zinoviev |
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Aleksandr Alexandrovich Zinoviev (1922–2006) has suffered a fate predictable only in retrospect. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed, it buried the reputations of those who had tried to point out its flaws from the inside. Today there might seem nothing remarkable about what Zinoviev tried to tell us: but there was, and there still is, because nobody else carried penetrating criticism to quite such a depth. His The Reality of Communism (1984) is one of the key short books of political analysis in the history of its subject. It might stand out more in the memory if some of his other books—especially the satirical novels, of which The Yawning Heights attracted the most attention—had not been so long. But at any length, he was telling the story from the centre of the action, because he was a philosopher and sociologist who actually worked within the system until he figured out that it was broken. Handsome and energetic, a natural leader along Gagarin lines—he looked more cosmonaut than academic—Zinoviev was no rebel when he started off. During World War II he was a pilot, and afterwards a star student at Moscow State University, rising to academic posts both there and at the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. For his increasing anti-Stalinism he was first of all harassed by the KGB and finally expelled from the Soviet Union in 1978, after being stripped of his rank with maximum opprobrium. He settled in Munich, where he continued to write copiously in his native language. His many books were usually published in Russian by Editions l’Age d’Homme in Lausanne before being translated, first into French and then into English. So his work was plentifully available: some might say too much so for its own good. Rarity value would have given him more impact.

After 1990 he entered a new, strange phase in which he backtracked on his own discoveries and declared that the Soviet Union had disintegrated not because of the internal stresses he had pointed out, but because of a brilliantly successful concerted attack mounted by the imperialist West. There was little market for this idea even among diehards. But what ensured the eventual fading of his name was that he had been so clamorously proved right when the yawning heights caved in. Suddenly everyone was an expert, and nobody wanted to be reminded of a time when he wasn’t.

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I know of no more pitiable spectacle in human society than the Soviet people’s intimate closeness to one another.

AFTER ALEKSANDR ZINOVIEV was expelled to the West in 1978, I met him briefly in London. I was reading a lot of Russian at the time—if you were reading only Zinoviev, you were reading a lot of Russian, because he was torrentially productive—but I couldn’t speak enough of the language to sustain a meaningful conversation. His English was in the same transitional stage, so the encounter turned into a smiling competition. I had been reviewing his books as they came out. Some of the books were physically huge. There was a hell of a lot to keep up with. Zinoviev had been told that I was keeping up and he smiled with gratitude. I hope my smile of gratitude was as dazzling as his. I thought he had done mighty things, but I suspected already that his reputation in the West would rapidly plunge now that he had made himself available. An accelerated Solzhenitsyn scenario was easy to predict. The main difference was that Solzhenitsyn’s principal message really was contained in his big book The Gulag Archipelago, rather than in the satellite works. Zinoviev’s principal message was in his smaller books, especially this one, later translated as The Reality of Communism. His big books inflated into comic fiction what was perfectly apprehensible as a factual argument. Nor, indeed, was the comic fiction quite as funny as it might have been if the author had been given a strict word limit. In the not very long run, the big books duly flopped on top of the little ones, and Zinoviev’s literary reputation slowed to a crawl. Today, very little of him is even in print.

But it should be remembered that the man who could write a sentence like this wrote hundreds more just as acute. Most of the dissident literature understandably stressed how hellish life was for the dissidents and their dependants. Zinoviev’s field was the hellishness of everyday life. He was not an Englishman and had never heard the crack about every Englishman’s dream being to travel alone in a first-class compartment. He was a Russian and had been brought up in conditions of enforced propinquity. His genius was to guess that there was something wrong with it. People were not meant to live on top of each other. He always wrote acutely on the subject of housing. While experts in the West were still arguing that a certain amount of overcrowding was the inevitable price of Russia’s domestic accommodation being provided at low rent, Zinoviev pointed out that there was no question of the rent’s being low: the rent was paid out of stolen wages. The same, he said, applied to the free medical care: not only was it no good, it cost the patient almost everything he should have been earning. All this was observation: visiting Western observers had done some of it, but Zinoviev had the advantage of being on the spot full-time.

What made him exceptional, however, was the theoretical structure that he erected on top of his observations. There was nothing abstruse about the structure. It was as carefully built as it was solidly based. He said that the living conditions could never be allowed to improve beyond a certain point because they were a control mechanism. The system packed everyone together but the resulting irritability had the useful consequence of minimizing human contact. People who spent a large part of the day either standing in long queues or pulling wires to dodge them would not only lack free time to conspire, they would never trust each other. As a theorist, Zinoviev overdid it only when he predicted that even dissidence would turn out to be part of the plan: a built-in safety valve. Commendably, he backtracked on that point not long before he packed his bags. He would probably never have said it if he had not been reduced to despair by the thuggishness with which he was stripped of his academic posts and honours. He was drummed out of the country through a shower of abuse. We tend to forget that the people who were bright enough to predict that such things would happen to them still needed a lot of moral courage to remain calm when they did. But Zinoviev didn’t despair for long: not in Russia, at any rate. In the West, he went silent, sharing the fate of several of the prominent émigré dissidents, which was to find out the hard way that they had destroyed the glamour of their special subject by helping to deprive it of its power.