Alexandre Zinoviev - Alexander Zinoviev - Alexander Sinowjew

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Philip Hanson and Michael Kirkwood

The reception in the West of Alexander Zinoviev's writings has been a blend of admiration and incomprehension. The main aim of this book is to reduce the latter.
Both as a writer and as a thinker, Zinoviev can benefit from intermediaries, especially in the West. His style and the structure of many of his writings are without close parallels. His ideas are often the opposite of any conventional wisdom. For example, his moral contempt for Soviet society is apparent throughout his fiction, yet he argues that the Soviet social system is not merely stable but based on popular support.

To embark on making this controversial writer more accessible, one does not have to be an uncritical admirer of his work. In fact, uncritical admiration would be a handicap. What the contributors to this volume share is a belief that Zinoviev is a writer who is worth interpreting, assessing, criticising and, in general, coming to terms with.
To give some preliminary idea why this should be so, and why a special effort should be needed, it is worth considering the reception of Zinoviev's fiction and social analysis in the West from the time of its first appearance in the late 1970s. The development has been an odd one: admiration peaked early and incomprehension has, if anything, increased ever since.
Zinoviev, as Charles Janson recounts in his biographical sketch, had a distinguished career as an academic philosopher in the Soviet Union before he began to write fiction. Several of his works in formal logic were translated into German and English. (The bibliography at the end of this volume gives the details.) He wrote Yawning Heights in 1974, at a time when he had got into severe trouble with the authorities. The appearance of the novel in English followed soon after his de facto expulsion from the USSR in 1978. It had also been quickly translated into French and German after its original publication in Russian in Lausanne. Yawning Heights was widely reviewed and highly praised. Almost all the reviewers agreed that it was a remarkable book. Most of those reviewers, however, had no special interest in the Soviet Union. As far as they were concerned, the publication of Yawning Heights was above all a literary event.

The early admiration still seems justified. Ibansk, the imaginary country or, on occasions, world, of Yawning Heights, is a bizarre invention. It amazes the reader much as a strange and vivid invented world can amaze the reader of a science fiction novel like Frank Herbert's Dune. At the same time, Ibansk is obviously not a freely invented fantasy. It is based on the Soviet Union. Yawning Heights is a passionate and hilarious piece of invective, directed against something large and real. Western reviewers therefore treated it as a work of social and political importance. Most of them, however, were vague about the nature of this social and political importance.

For the Western reader Yawning Heights is still intellectually puzzling. It is easy to see that it contains whole sequences of dazzling parodies of official Soviet rhetoric. But it pays almost no attention to Ibanskian officials. It says little about the people who are conventionally blamed for the drab and oppressive nature of Soviet life: the Party officials and secret policemen. The main characters are Moscow intellectuals. All of them are more or less 'liberal', though in many cases only when drunk and among friends. On the whole they are not dissidents. Many of them are conformists who rail against a society in which conformism entails the most ludicrous hypocrisy. Zinoviev and his characters tell jokes about this society, concoct verses about it, propound paradoxes about it and elaborate sociological theories about it. But most of them are not heroes of any sort of resistance. They are themselves part of the problem, and they know it. To make things more trying for the Western reader, Zinoviev's characters are not impressed by the West. Over There (that is, the Western World) is envied for its freedom, comfort and variety, but it is simultaneously condescended to for its naivete and incomprehension about Ibansk -and is expected to become, in due course, Ibanskian.

Zinoviev's subsequent writings have elaborated his social and moral account of Ibansk. The Radiant Future, which appeared in English soon after Yawning Heights, is the most straightforward piece of fiction that he has so far written. The characters are easily distinguishable from one another; they have motives as well as ideas, and there is a plot. The Radiant Future describes vividly the deceptions of oneself and others that are needed to make an intellectual career in Moscow. It is true that hypocrisy is not a recipe for failure anywhere, but what Zinoviev presents in The Radiant Future is a society in which ambitious people are absolutely required to be hypocritical; in which the hypocrisy is required to be grotesque, and in which the consequences for innocent bystanders can be lethal. The central character, in pursuing his own advancement, has contrived to send a close friend to the camps.

In addition to Yawning Heights and The Radiant Future, Zinoviev has published a shelf-full of books since he came to the West in 1978. These books, together with his earlier books on logic, are listed in the Bibliography. Nearly all of them have been published in Russian and French (so far, one has been published only in German). Only some of them, and with some delay, have begun to appear in English. They have made less impression on Western readers than Yawning Heights and The Radiant Future. None of them has had either the ferocious exuberance of Yawning Heights or the straightforwardness of The Radiant Future. Yet some of Zinoviev's best work, in the opinion of some of the contributors to this volume, is to be found among these less known works. Of the essays that follow, those by the editors, Wenzel Daneil, Jon Elster and Geoffrey Hosking are primarily about Zinoviev as a social theorist and an analyst of Soviet society.[1] For the more tidy-minded among us, it would have been gratifying if we had all agreed on just how important Zinoviev is as a social theorist, and why. In fact, the outcome is not as tidy as that. What the reader will find in all these chapters, however, is the judgement that: 'Anyone who wants to understand the Soviet Union today must take Zinoviev into account'.[2]

This is a common view among emigre Soviet intellectuals. It is not a universally agreed view, but the emigration is not much given to agreeing. 'Zinoviev understands the Soviet Union much better than Solzhenitsyn. He's the writer who really worries the Soviet authorities.' Those are remarks which we have heard innumerable times from emigre friends and acquaintances. For them, Zinoviev is the writer who has pinned down exactly what it is that makes Soviet society tick, and that makes them both love and hate it.

The reaction of the Western specialists who read Yawning Heights when it first came out was similar.[3] One of the contributors to this book, after sitting up all night reading Yawning Heights, proposed to the then Director of Birmingham University's Centre for Russian and East European Studies that the Centre should halt all its research for a year and switch to reading Zinoviev. (In the end a compromise was reached.)

The essays that follow convey the reasons for this enthusiasm.
They also express the doubts, reservations and outright disagree ments that all of us have about one or more aspects of Zinoviev's version of 'communism as reality'.

Apart from Jon Elster, all the contributors to this book are in some way or other professionally involved with the USSR. It does not follow that Zinoviev's ideas are of interest only to sovietologists. His bleak view of Soviet society is developed quite systematically from a bleak view of human beings. Soviet society is stable, and most Soviet citizens cooperate in maintaining it, in Zinoviev's view, because it relies on the lowest human motives and these are strong and natural. The opposite pole is civilisation, and civilisation is fragile and unnatural. Hence the tendency, in Zinoviev's scheme of things, for Ibansk to inherit the world. It is an easy, downhill process. Civilising Ibansk, on the other hand, is an uphill slog about which Zinoviev's views are unsettled: it is either impossible or, in his odd moments of optimism, nearly impossible.

There is a great deal in Zinoviev's writings that is specific and down-to-earth. The fact that they also contain ideas as large and sweeping as those outlined in the last paragraph, however, guarantees a cool reception in the US and Britain for Zinoviev as a social theorist. (The notion that the growth of the hard left and the hard right in Britain is a sign of a new interest in ideas, is almost certainly wrong. We have simply become more tribal. General ideas still do not sell books in the UK as they do in France.) By the same token, Alexander Zinoviev has recently been more cultivated by the media in France, Italy and Germany than in Britain or America.

Anglo-Saxon queasiness about general ideas has been worsened, in Zinoviev's case, by some of the interviews he has given. He has tended in interviews to simplify and exaggerate the ideas that are more subtly and persuasively put in his texts. It is hard for anyone to avoid coarsening subtle arguments in conversation. The problem is serious in Zinoviev's case, for three reasons. First, he has given a great many interviews. Second, in his books the voices of his different characters convey offsetting and balancing ideas; in his interviews he has only one voice. Third, some of his interviews have been conducted in languages in which he is less at home than he is in his native Russian. That is why we have chosen in this book to concentrate on Zinoviev's texts and make little use of his interviews. His books, for all their sprawl and their sometimes exasperating perversities of presentation, contain his moral and analytical account of society in its most considered form.

Let us take this last point a little further. It is useful to attempt a typology of texts when considering Zinoviev's work devoted to the Soviet Union because, in an important sense, there is a connection between their 'surface structure' and the 'generative power' of Zinoviev's 'text-grammar'. His preference is for the short text, accompanied by a title (just to make sure that readers know what he is talking about!). This is a stylistic device which all his works have in common, irrespective of other features which allow one to differentiate between them. It is precisely this stylistic device which is the source of exasperation referred to above. It is not one of the more obvious devices which one associates with specific types of text such as the academic treatise, monograph, essay, learned article or novel.

Zinoviev's works, however, can be differentiated along other para meters. Three broad genres suggest themselves. The first is 'literary', in which category one would include Yawning Heights, Notes of a Nightwatchman, The Radiant Future, V predverii ray a, The Madhouse, Moi dom moya chuzhbina, Homo Sovieticus, Evangelie dlya Ivana, Idi na Golgofu, Nashei yunosti polet. Most of these works, however, have elements of structure which are not normally associated with literary genres. A second genre is the 'monograph'. Here one would include The Reality of Communism and Die Diktatur der Logik, although neither is quite conventional. What differentiates them from the 'literary' works, however, is the fact that they consider one broad question in isolation. The style is also much more 'academic'. Finally, there is the 'public lecture/essay' genre, in which category one would place the collections of speeches and articles which Zinoviev has produced in the years since he left the Soviet Union, namely, Bez illyuzii, My i zapad Ni svobody ni ravenstva ni bratstva.

Such a classification makes the student of Zinoviev feel better. It eases the itch which is unbearable for the taxonomer who cannot pigeon-hole a specimen with precision. It is much more important, however, to note the simplicity and power of Zinoviev's device. If each individual text is seen as a playing card, all of them adding up to several packs, it becomes clear that Zinoviev can shuffle them and lay them out in an infinite series of sequences which can be differentiated in terms of length, diversity and density, both on a stylistic and thematic level. The chapters in this volume add up to an analysis of aspects of both those levels.

On the stylistic level Gerry Smith seeks to evaluate one strand in Yawning Heights, namely those texts which are written in the form of verse. Such texts appear in many of Zinoviev's 'literary' works and a consideration of their value as 'poetry' is long overdue. Smith is careful to make the point, however, that the poems in Yawning Heights must be viewed in their context, since often they are themati- cally entwined in the work as a whole. Wolf Moskovich's chapter analyses Zinoviev's use of language. Unfortunately, much of the humour in Zinoviev's work is linguistic and cannot be captured by translation. Professor Moskovich's chapter must appeal, therefore, more to the specialist who knows the Soviet system well and whose knowledge of Russian embraces a wide range of registers, to put it euphemistically. Puns are notoriously untranslatable and Zinoviev makes great use of them. The following English puns convey in only a very mild fashion something of the flavour of Zinoviev's word-play; bureaucrap, philosophistry, the crotch of dialectics, the Leadershit, dreamology, informerology, diabolical materialism, etc.

Arnold McMillin discusses Zinoviev's place in the context of unof ficial Russian literature of the 1970s and Tomasz Mianowicz assesses his significance as an artist and caricaturist. These two chapters together with Julian Graffy's provide the reader with a context in which these two aspects of Zinoviev's creative talent can be evaluated. Zinoviev's views on literature are predictably less than orthodox, and he is one of the few people who are prepared to say in print that Shakespeare is over-rated. (Bernard Shaw was another highly intellectual writer who found Bardolatry upsetting.) More interesting is his view of Orwell's 1984. He is prepared to acknowledge that the work has literary merit but argues that Orwell fundamentally misunderstood the true nature of communist society. Professor Heller in his book Mashina i vintiki [4] takes precisely the opposite view, so it is evident that Arch Tait's discussion of Zinoviev's own view of literature and its role in society provides an extra dimension which allows the reader to evaluate the extent to which Zinoviev, as it were, practices what he preaches.

We turn now to a brief review of the chapters which are concerned more with important themes in Zinoviev's work. Several of the contributors attempt to assess the importance of Zinoviev's work in the fields of political science and sovietology. Jon Elster's chapter, which has appeared before and is reprinted in this volume with permission, assesses the importance of Zinoviev's work on logic for an analysis of Soviet society and indicates that dialectical analysis is not only compatible with formal logic, but that it can only be understood through the latter. His main conclusion, however, is that Zinoviev opens up entirely new perspectives by analysing the previously neglected area of political irrationality. Wenzel Daneil, on the other hand, examines the implications of Zinoviev's work for Western readers (including politicians) who want (or are required) to make political judgements about geo-political issues. Daneil probes several key claims by Zinoviev about the nature of Communist societies and Communist attitudes towards the rest of the world in an attempt to gauge the extent to which one might actually apply Zinoviev's theories in political practice. In this connection he draws attention to the fact that the current attempt by Gorbachev to reform the way the Soviet Union does things provides a most opportune test-bed for Zinoviev's theories. If Zinoviev is right, one must expect Gorbachev to fail.

If Daneil emphasises the pragmatic aspects of an evaluation of Zinoviev's contribution to political science, Philip Hanson is more concerned to probe the extent to which Zinoviev's rhetoric gets in the way of serious analysis. His study of Zinoviev's 'grand theory' of Communism leaves him sceptical about its usefulness for understanding Communist societies in general, but he acknowledges that Zinoviev's analysis of the contemporary Soviet Union is impressive. Geoffrey Hosking, too, is concerned to evaluate the usefulness of Zinoviev's work for political scientists and sovietologists, and argues that Zinoviev's mode of writing allows him various loopholes which weaken his claim to be a 'scientific' analyst. He also has reservations about some of Zinoviev's theories of Soviet power, in particular Zinoviev's view of the role of narodovlastie ('people power') as a form of 'do-it-yourself oppression and an explanation of how the Soviet Union is administered.

The issue of narodovlastie is an important one for Zinoviev and is examined in many of his works, especially in Nashei yunosti polet. This work is Zinoviev's collected (as of 1983) thoughts on Stalin and Stalinism, but as Michael Kirkwood shows in his chapter of that title, Zinoviev's views on Stalin and his era can be traced back to the very beginning of his work. One of Zinoviev's key claims is that the Soviet Union was formed not so much by Stalin but as a result of social processes operating in the vacuum created by the collapse and destruction of the old order. For Zinoviev the relationship between Stalin and Stalinism is symbiotic if not dialectical. Stalin may have created Stalinism, but it created him as well. And whatever has happened in the years since Stalin's death, the Soviet Union is still Stalinist. Characteristically, Zinoviev argues that that is not necessarily a bad thing. Nor good, either. The crucial difference is that people can no longer believe in the 'bright future', whereas, under Stalin, many allegedly did.

Zinoviev often argues that moral judgement should not be passed on historical epochs and he has been criticised as a result by people who are ready to see him as an apologist for Stalin. Yet moral issues of right and wrong and the relationship between morality, ideology and religion are another major theme in Zinoviev's work. Michael Kirkwood's chapter on ideology seeks to locate Zinoviev's discussions of ideological issues in the context of his work as a whole.

As even a cursory glance at the select bibliography of Zinoviev's work will show, his output is immense. This volume of papers on various aspects of his work cannot hope to be exhaustive. It should be regarded as an attempt by some of us who are interested in him to 'prime the pump'. Virtually every chapter in this volume contains several questions which need further research. Hardly any work at all has been done on Zinoviev's use of language. There is a vast amount to be done in this area. Many more political scientists, sociologists and historians need to be introduced to Zinoviev's work and tackle the questions which he has posed. To dismiss him out of hand as a phenomenon somewhere on the periphery of the social sciences who 'apparently' has written 'idiosyncratic' books is at once too easy and unfortunate. If the present volume can go even a little way towards introducing people to Zinoviev's work who have not yet encountered it and/or helping people who already have, it will have served a purpose.

Notes 1. The other contributors, whose chief concerns are aesthetic, did not ignore Zinoviev's ideas. If any of us originally supposed that form and content could be kept apart, the meeting at which we discussed first drafts of these essays would soon have changed our minds. In the discussions Wolf Moskovich was particularly persuasive about the need to treat Zinoviev's writings as a single phenomenon. All of us have in fact tried, in some degree, to do this;

2. Geoffrey Hosking, 'Mediocrity for the Millions', The Times Literary Supplement, 23 May 1980, pp. 571-2.

3. To be precise, this was the reaction of those who read it right through. Many fell by the wayside, defeated by the length, complexity and linguis tic difficulty of the book. Many more never tried to read it. It was not economics, or not political science, or not sociology. They therefore thought it was none of their business.

4.M. Heller, Mashina i vintiki (London: Overseas Publications Ltd, 1985).


Read excerpts from books
About A.Zinoviev
  • Introduction - by P.Hanson, M.Kirkwood
  • Ideology in the Works of A.Zinoviev - by Michael Kirkwood
  • Alexander Zinoviev's Theory of the Soviet Man - by L.Brom