powered by FreeFind
         RUSSIAN         FRANÇAIS         ENGLISH         DEUTSCH         Contact        

ALEXANDER ZINOVIEV


Alexander Zinoviev: Experiences of a Soviet Methodologist

Charles Janson

After Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Zinoviev is probably the most celebrated member of the Third Russian Emigration.[1] He is an exceptional, almost maverick, emigre. For unlike most of his fellows he has settled (after a short spell at Munich University) to no academic, editorial or other salaried job. He writes at least one book a year, which is always arresting and soon translated into other languages. He supplements his writer's living by lectures, articles and telecasts. During the last five or six years these media-appearances have earned him the reputation of a brilliant and doggedly controversial personality. This is the more remarkable as Zinoviev is not fluent in any foreign language; and in some countries has to be translated during the television performance itself. But then a good deal of the argument is to be seen in his face.

Alexander Zinoviev is not a man of the camps. He has never been arrested since he was 18. But he is very much a man of the war, in which he fought and suffered hard. He is a first-generation academic, a formidable intellect who was in the 1960s, by all accounts, the Soviet Union's leading mathematical logician. (Logic, like chess and possibly dentistry, was one of the refuges from Marxism-Leninism.) Zinoviev is also very gifted in the visual arts, as are both his daughters. He is a very accomplished amateur painter and, surely, one of the world's great political cartoonists. By turning from formal logic to his own sociology and thence to his astonishing documentary fiction, he traversed a route never, I think, taken before in science or literature.

All his novels are an amalgam of theory, drama and portrait- painting; the portraits being usually not of persons but of Soviet stereotypes. Zinoviev writes not Solzhenitsyn's epic prose but sequences of soliloquy and dialogue, vocally passionate and cuttingly satirical. I have a letter from Alexander which says: I am only 10% satirical'. Yet it is as a satirist, undoubtedly, that he impresses the Western reader: and it is perhaps no accident that one of his British admirers is Anthony Burgess who himself inclines to a picaresque, fantastic and satirical style.

Nobody has better described Zinoviev's style than Vittorio Strada, Professor of Russian at the University of Venice.

Alexander Zinoviev made his debut in Russian literature with a book which had no precedent and was unclassifiable: a work of art and science, satire and philosophy that combined romanesque fiction with sociological truth . . . The Yawning Heights was the matrix of all Zinoviev's subsequent work. In it he explored the Soviet world through an uninterrupted flood of chatter and discussion: an absurd intermingling of voices making a parody of the dialogues of Plato. The voices didn't arrive at a definite catharsis: they remained a tangle of viewpoints revealing facets of a single logos: the logos of real-life communism. In moments of crisis communism goes into a series of modulations of its inner essence which constitute a kind of tragicomic nonsense.[2]

It is this nonsense which permeates the whole of Soviet official life to this day, a decade after the publication of The Yawning Heights.

European capitals have always had their intellectual elites. Moscow, even Stalin's Moscow, was no exception. Those who knew the city's luminaries of the 1950s and 1960s of this century well remember Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zinoviev [3] as a deliverer of aphorisms, luminous speculations and philosophical judgements. He was always a great lover of paradox and mordant observation, to be compared perhaps with England's Hugh Trevor-Roper, the historian; or, to balance the proposition, with Cornwall's Dr A. L. Rowse, who resembles Zinoviev in sharing the kind of frustration that is generated by success.

Witnesses of the Muscovite experience begin by stressing that the Soviet authorities, including the KGB itself, have always respected men (it seems to be men rather than women) who are gifted well beyond the official norm and who act in some sense as beacons in the encircling gloom. This is understandable in a society committed to the hilt to the neo-Calvinist communist classics and to a monochrome incestuous ideology. Within a system that lacks on principle life's graces and redemptive humour, masters of the unexpected serve as more than light relief: they ornament society much as G. K. Chesterton or Bernard Shaw enlivened the overall reputation of the (rather serious) British Empire eighty years ago.
Of course, under Sovietism the sword of Damocles always hangs over voluble Russian talkers. Only recently there was the sad case of the wife of the Soviet official in London who, when on leave in Moscow, remarked at a party that the trouble about the Soviet Union was that there was too much Marx and not enough Spencer. How much more dangerous for a dialectician and congenital enfant terrible.

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zinoviev was born on 29 October 1922 in the village of Pakhino in the Chukloma region of the oblast' (province) of Kostroma, an old town 600 kilometres north-east of Moscow. He is, as he always insists, the most Russian of men, whose peasant-family had lived for centuries in the same district: the women working on the land while the men gained a livelihood in the town, famous for its artisans. Zinoviev believes that Kostroma people have Viking blood. Certainly his is also a boyar name, shared by the eminent London critic, Kyril Zinoviev, alias Kyril Fitzlyon, and by Peter Zinoviev, the electronic musician. (One should perhaps establish once and for all that A. A. Zinoviev is unrelated to the Zinoviev of the notorious 'Zinoviev letter', whose real name was Apfelbaum and who adopted the old Russian name of Zinoviev as a sort of revolutionary joke.)

Alexander received an excellent education in his home-country district until 1933: his secondary education took place in Moscow. There he won the pupil's gold medal in 1939. Zinoviev remembers the big shake-up in the village when Stalin began his terror. The kind of Communist who did little but drink vodka and boast of his exploits in the civil war was liquidated as a 'chatterbox'; after which people such as schoolmasters and postmasters concentrated rather more on their jobs. He himself was a youth who benefited from the regime's glorification of education; and he has always felt greatly indebted to that feature of Soviet life, to whose standards he compares most Western education unfavourably.

In the 1930s, during his Moscow school-years, Alexander always spent the summer holidays in the country with his mother {nee Apollinaria Vassilievna Smirnova) working on a collective farm. In 1938 he joined the Komsomol, 'a pure formality for good schoolboys'.[4] Since the revolution Zinoviev's father, Aleksandr Yakovlevich, had himself been working away from the family in Moscow. His brothers and sisters gradually left Kostroma too in search of better jobs and better living conditions. There were nine surviving young children. Three of the brothers began as simple workmen and, after night-classes, ended as engineers. A fourth became an army colonel but had to resign in the 1970s after he had refused to denounce his 'disgraced' brother Alexander in public. The two sisters worked 'at the lowest level of the Soviet hierarchy'. One of the them was a laundress, and later a lift-attendant.

Alexander Zinoviev always stresses one consequence of the 1917 revolution: voluntary migration to the towns. In the countryside people had the most primitive accommodation; although the Zinovievs' house did have two storeys. But above all the Russian village exuded boredom of a quality scarcely imaginable in the West. As in other countries, but infinitely more so, peasants wanted a new life. This was promised by the slogans of an urbanising and industrialising revolution. Neither a Lenin nor a Sverdlov saw any good or any future in what they saw as the dull, dark, disorganised and unorganisable peasantry; or in its derivative the meschantstvo, or primitive small bourgeoisie. Maxim Gorky, one of the most popular pre-revolutionary writers, was of the same mind. This dishonouring of the peasantry as such has, as far as I know, never happened in any other country in the world.

Zinoviev seems from his youth to have been a revolutionary romantic.[5] To this day he remains grateful for having been born into the Soviet-Russian 'new-life movement'. But by the end of his schooldays (1939) he had become a convinced anti-Stalinist and developed in himself a 'critical relationship with the Soviet system'.[6] The reason? His awareness of the system's exploitation of the masses, of social injustice and of growing social inequality under Communism.

Alexander voiced these sentiments in the faculty of philosophy in Moscow. Just as any spirited Western student, aged 18, might have complained of capitalism in London or Paris. This bit of free speech cost him his place as an undergraduate in the Institute and led to his arrest. However, the authorities could not believe that the young Alexander could have formed his own erroneous opinions about Soviet society. They must have been inspired by somebody else. So to discover his criminal mentors they assigned him to a special flat under police supervision. But on the way to it Alexander escaped from the police; and leaped onto a train going east.

During the next year or two Zinoviev was on the run with an all-Union search-warrant out against him. He managed to switch jobs between farms and factories so. that the police never found him. While he was dodging about the Soviet Union Alexander joined forces with some young people of the same mind. Like young terrorists of seventy years before, they discussed the assassination of the ruler. But they could not find a weapon and later split up.[7]

With Hitler's invasion of June 1941 the country was thrown into turmoil. The runaway forgot his pre-occupation with social justice; and the authorities forgot him. In the easily-joined army Alexander, to cover his tracks just in case, was able even to switch units by giving a records clerk a bottle of vodka. He became a sergeant of cavalry, then joined a tank regiment and was twice slightly wounded during the battles of the first year. But soon his educational record led to his entry into an air-force school. By the autumn of 1944 he was a commissioned bomber-pilot at the Front and remained there until the end of the war. Alexander received a fair number of medals and decorations. 'But my anti-Stalinist disposition was noticeable to those around me, so that I was continuously under suspicion and observation by the security organs.' Further he was apt to quarrel with his squadron-leader and once slapped his face; this because his superior had ordered him to taxi his own aircraft back to the hangar without warning him that bombs were still in the under-carriage.

However, Alexander Zinoviev escaped the fate of Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was arrested at the Front in February 1945 and sent to a labour camp for having made disrespectful comments about Stalin in correspondence with a friend. The philosophical faculty in Moscow took him back as an undergraduate. Nobody in the Institute denounced him for his prewar escapade which, after the dispersal of the original staff, may simply have been forgotten. Or his war service may have been deemed to exculpate him. In any case by 1947 there was, Zinoviev records, a certain relaxation in the Soviet Union and a tendency no longer to take Stalin quite so seriously. Evidence of this was, for example, the University's acceptance of former prisoners-of-war who were not Party members.[8]

Alexander continued to be an awkward customer and to declare himself an opponent of the cult of personality. And he was not alone: 'even in my own circle there were keener anti-Stalinists than myself. Moreover they were Party members. They had been front-line officers and joined the Party that way'.[9]

While he was an undergraduate Zinoviev earned his living as a docker, a coal-miner, in a brickworks, as nightwatchman and schoolteacher. He graduated with distinction in 1951 at the late age of 28. His next aim was to join the faculty of logic at Moscow University, where later he was to become Professor of Logic.

It was in this year (1951) that Zinoviev is best remembered by students who later emigrated to the West for his impeccable behaviour as a young academic in opposition to anti-semitism. Stalin, by then deranged, had turned against the 'cosmopolitan elements' in the intellectual institutes, instigating a kind of common-room terror. Zinoviev openly and continuously denounced Stalin's campaign. This record is important, for Zinoviev was later (in 1984) to make a number of complicated statements which, to some, showed a Russian anti-semitic nationalism. The remarks'" which stressed the declining reliance on Jews in the professions in the Soviet Union, belonged, he claims, to a broader thesis: that Sovietism as a regime, was detrimental to Russia because it favoured the other component nations at Russia's expense.

Those who remember Alexander's stance in the dangerous days of 1951 also remember his intellectual debut in 1954. This was the circulation in typescript of a dissertation entitled: 'A Method of Ascent from the Abstract to the Concrete with reference to Karl Marx's Capital". This work was the talk of the intellectual town. As one person said: 'It showed what a first-class philosopher could do even with Marxism'. At 32 Zinoviev was already a Muscovite Bertrand Russell. There were other young philosophers of intellect and originality at that time; for instance Merab Mamardashvilli from Georgia. Younger than Zinoviev, and a much more reserved person, Merab was Alexander's pupil. (He was later rusticated to Georgia, but finally allowed back to the centre of Soviet academic society.)

Zinoviev remains adamant that he was the only trained philosopher/logician to think outside Marxist categories. The rest were 'Soviet thinkers'.

The good years for young Muscovite philosophers lay somewhere between 1954 and 1973; and more especially during the general- secretaryship of N. S. Khrushchev (1953-64), the maverick Gensek who got into such a muddle trying to liberalise Soviet Communism.

Zinoviev's main theatre of operations was the Philosophical Institute of the Academy of Sciences (during 1954-76), where he was tutor and later Professor of Logic (the latter from 1966). But all this time Alexander, it seems, was not a trusted person; so little trusted, for instance, that he was never given a room of his own in the Institute itself and had to rent one privately elsewhere. He was suspected by his (presumably jealous) colleagues of unorthodoxy; i.e. infidelity to the ground principles of Sovietism. This despite his admission to the Communist Party in 1954, which was an essential preliminary to any high appointment for anyone. (It appears that he joined at this time in the hope of contributing to a post-Stalin liberalisation).

Alexander was very probably the best logician in the Soviet Union. So his works began to be published abroad, first in what he calls the 'semi-Western' languages of the Eastern bloc and then in Italy and Holland (where Philosophical Problems of Many-Valued Logic appeared in English as early as 1963). True, his major professional works also came out in the Soviet Union from 1960 onwards." Yet Zinoviev was not once allowed to accept any of the numerous invitations by academic institutions abroad. In other words he was deemed unfit for export; and never let out of the Soviet Union during his Soviet professional life.

The sticking-point in Alexander's most promising career was the refusal, around 1970, of the 'highest authorities', i.e. the KGB, to support his candidature for membership of the Academy of Sciences. One reason that Zinoviev gives was his own intensive, semi-private sociological studies. Here he had entered a field that was a strictly forbidden zone to anyone who was not a high Party ideologue. Only the perennial Mikhail Suslov, the Communist Party Central Committee Secretary for Ideology, and those directly or indirectly authorised by his office were authorised to make enquiries into the nature of Soviet society itself.[12] For a university professor to do so autonomously amounted to an act of subversion. As we know, it was Zinoviev's immersion in Soviet sociology that led him to write his documentary novels: in my opinion works of genius, and sui generis in the history of literature. His sociological investigations had thus lit a fuse under his whole career as a prominent Soviet citizen. By the end of the 1960s Alexander's financial renumeration was already declining. Quotations from his works were becoming less frequent. The Soviet Union has been compared with a boys' boarding school that never breaks up in which boys/people suddenly become unpopular without knowing quite why. This was happening to Zinoviev. The authorities were chilly; so were some of his academic colleagues. Brezhnevism was restoring full state vigilance over intellectuals. The Party had had enough of scintillating young men who poked their noses beyond their ken and competence. Dissidence from human rights enthusiasts had reared its head in the country and old-style repression was being partly resumed.

For the authorities Zinoviev was worse than a dissident: he was actually offering concepts for the analysis of Soviet society: by far a more dangerous happening long-term than simple and isolated demands for civil rights which could always be dismissed as eccentricity or madness or as a form of civic treachery inspired by foreign enemies. The real nature of Soviet society was, and had to remain, a State secret.

Before his final disgrace it is true that Alexander Zinoviev was one of a loose 'committee of intellectuals', a group of academics on call by the high-ups, for example the Central Committee or the KGB. But the role of these men-on-call was to have their brains picked, not to offer opinions on questions of ideology or high policy.

Twenty-five years later accounts vary slightly of the departure of Zinoviev from the editorial board of Voprosy filosofii (Questions of Philosophy): a key event in his official decline. Zinoviev mentions only his personal resignation as a protest against the incursion of Brezhnevism into philosophy.13 Other witnesses refer to a larger government intervention: the authorities' dismissal of the periodical's whole board, with six or seven people going including the then deputy-editor, Merab Mamardashvilli. In any case the event meant Zinoviev's further estrangement from the authorities and insulation from his colleagues and pupils.

By 1974 he had lost the right to give lectures; and of course his professorship. As a further contribution to his destruction Zinoviev instances his refusal to sign the academics' round-robin condemning Sakharov's dissidence. This refusal compares interestingly now with Zinoviev's later unveiled and insulting mockery of the same Sak-harov in Homo Sovieticus (1982). Almost certainly the non-signing would by itself have precluded Alexander Zinoviev's election to the Academy, whatever his professional merits of hypothetical use to the regime.

When Alexander Zinoviev found himself idle and in indefinite quarantine, he flung himself into sociological satire. Between 1974 and 1976 he wrote the Yawning Heights, a giant book and the first full-scale, unlicensed satirical treatment of the Soviet Union since Zamyatin and Bulgakov. This vast novel or allegory, published abroad in 1976, achieved world renown within the relevant public and almost unalloyed critical approval. Few Western readers understood Soviet society enough to follow its innumerable references exactly. But the general effect was stunning.

The book's appearance also stunned the unfortunate director of the philosophical institute who was charged with lack of vigilance. The author had been able to write and export the work at surprising speed because much of the material had already been delivered in public lectures.

After Yawning Heights Zinoviev was liquidated as an academic person. He was stripped of all his academic titles and lost his salary and his flat. For the next two years he lived on his savings and continued his writing in constant anticipation of arrest. The KGB knew that it had a potential second Solzhenitsyn on its hands. Alexander knew that he could not escape the most drastic punishment.

As in Solzhenitsyn's case, the Organs decided that Soviet interests were best served by expulsion rather than by imprisonment or internal exile. In August, 1978, Zinoviev was allowed to emigrate with Olga,14 his third wife, and their daughter Polina. The pretext was an invitation from Munich University. So at the age of 56 Alexander at last reached the West. Previously he had only glimpsed it in such places as East Prussia, Vienna and Prague at the end of the Second World War. Almost immediately after his arrival in Germany the Soviet authorities deprived him of his Soviet citizenship by decree.

So far we have said nothing about Alexander Zinoviev's private life. His first marriage was in 1944. The son of this marriage, Valery, received a commission in the militia, which however was eventually taken away from him. After his father's official disgrace he was ordered not to see him again. But like his uncles he refused to break with Alexander and saw him at least once before he went into exile. Like two of his uncles Valery then turned himself into an engineer and now works in Ulianovsk.
Zinoviev's first marriage was dissolved in 1947. Four years later he married a Moscow journalist. In 1954 they had a daughter, Tamara, who graduated from Moscow University as an art-historian. She too lost her job after The Yawning Heights and now has only temporary employment as an artist. This second marriage broke down in about 1960. No doubt one of the reasons was incompatibility between an ambitious Party journalist and an independent-minded, unpredictable husband. (Other incompatibilities are hinted at in Homo Sovieticus.)

During the late 1950s and 1960s Zinoviev, the star of the intelligentsia parties, was equally respected for his capacity to imbibe alcohol. Surviving witnesses relate with admiration the perfect harmony between the champion's two functions. Some consider that it was during those drinking years that Zinoviev peaked as an intellectual; and that later, in Moscow and abroad, he was never as happy or as buoyant. It was the doctor who warned Zinoviev that if he stayed with vodka he would die. On the same day he gave it up for ever. In the West he drinks only wine, and rarely that. If only Modeste Mussorgsky had followed the same advice!

Zinoviev has told me that only exceptionally sanguine people could dispense with vodka, for in the Soviet Union it is needed as a 'confidence-fuel' to make everyone feel that everyone else is their friend.

Alexander began his life in the West at Munich University in the faculty of logic. But his teaching there was not a great success on either side. In Europe, from 1979-81, he was becoming a very well-known interpreter of Soviet society and the Soviet system of government. By 1982 as lecturer, writer and media-personality he had taken issue with his fellow exiles and with Western sovietologists. He had also begun to startle the public. One of the main bones of contention between Alexander and his Western audience was his doctrine regarding the Stalin and post-Stalin periods. For Zinoviev the Stalin period was something very positive: the new Soviet country's childhood and adolescence; whereas Brezhnevism, or the period after Khrushchev, had turned out a nightmare of corruption, cynicism and mediocrity. By 1982, at least, Soviet leaders had for Zinoviev, become zombies, burned out by Party work; and incapable of leadership, personal or collective. With the ideology fossilised under Suslov, the subject of one of Zinoviev's most biting essays,16 the Politburocrats had become merely 'social symbols'. (At the time this was to me a very unfamiliar rendering of them.)

Zinoviev's insistence on the depersonalisation of the Soviet leaders during our talks in Munich in the early 1980s reminded me of Catholic interpretations which I had heard previously: that the deep purpose of the Soviet system was to negate what was positive and thus destroy the inherited human personality. Therefore the Soviet 'leaders' were not leaders at all but preventers of consistent, purposive action by human beings:[17] in the last resort a sort of negating mafia, bereft of religion, philosophy, logic and law, acting against good and against God.

Zinoviev himself has never explicitly rejected Sovietism which he accepts de facto as a valid, working system. On the other hand, he idolises neither Lenin nor Glorious October. He believes that his country had, in the historical sense, very bad luck to be saddled with Lenin and his 'old guard'; especially the latter who, for Zinoviev, were mainly 'chatter-boxes' like Trotsky or softies like Bukharin. Yet as a Russian nationalist Alexander has little use for any Romanovs since Peter the Great ('the last Russian autocrat') who, he believed, had given Russia an increasingly alien and German regime.

The revolution, he held, had really begun in 1861 with the emancipation of the serfs when Russians had started to travel all over the vast country in search of jobs. This emancipation had created a pre-revolutionary situation in which only a radically new government could preside over the new Russia. What happened in 1917, was, for Zinoviev, less a revolution than a complete collapse: a collapse of moral authority on the part of the Tsarist regime which had lost, or failed to win, four wars in succession. It was no doubt a pity that the successorstate was run by the Bolshevik fraction, the most outlandish politicians in the field; people moreover who owed allegiance to a single German sociologist. It would have been nicer to have had something genuinely Russian at last.

In his conversations with me between 1982 and 1985 Zinoviev always stressed the irrelevance of Marxism to Russia in the early twentieth century. But at the same time he emphasised the necessity of a strong ruler who could make the new, inevitably collective, institutions stick and so save the 'Russian lands' from a running chaos. Granted the 'hurricane of history' the Soviet Union was a relatively successful polity because Tsarism had at least been replaced by a consistent system. Further, it was a merit of Sovietism that it had preserved the Romanov empire intact. (For Westerners this line of apologetics implies that they should recognise that for Russians, if not for them, it was preferable to have a country in some sense their own instead of a fragmented, and no doubt colonisable, chaos.)

It was over the 'necessity' of a 'a Stalin' and over the validity of Soviet institutions that Alexander Zinoviev took issue sharply with his fellow exiles, with Western sovietologists and with almost the whole dissident movement within the Soviet Union. However, here too Zinoviev has a double attitude similar to his view of the Soviet system itself. He views dissidence as a valuable long-term phenomenon, but regards present-day dissidents as eccentric. Further, he is critical of their motives, sometimes accusing t,hem of exhibitionism; pernicious exhibitionism, for the West tends to be magnetised by such people and thus, according to Zinoviev, remains ignorant of the immediate feelings and needs of the 280 million people who live under 'real-life Communism'. He has even said that dissidents betray the people they profess to help.[18]

The next and most startling Zinovievan step is to hold that Sovietism, the only existing complete expression of classical Communism, is a new and permanent system in the world which in some ways answers man's normal, natural disposition. Communism, by abjuring civilisation/culture in favour of animality (albeit a rather special kind of animality) enables the twentieth-century masses, especially in the 'third world', to settle for non-civilisation in the shape of a guaranteed, simple, in some ways secure collective life. It is precisely the world's mass propensity to shirk the burden of civilisation and culture that makes Communism dangerous as a competitor of the West whose only specific raison d'etre is to establish them.

It seems to be implicit in this opinion of Soviet Communism that Russia was for centuries Europe's primitive country, a view expressed by the anthropologist, Laurens van der Post, in his book Journey into Russia (1963). Naturally the less individualised a people is, the less value it will ascribe to the person and his interests. From this standpoint it is sometimes even argued that Soviet collectivism suits Russian people and is for them a more humane, because more appropriate, life-system than, say, the American or the Japanese (Zinoviev himself firmly states this).

But Alexander Zinoviev's main exasperation with Western sovietology arises not from a wish to extol Sovietism but from his fear that the West, by underrating Sovietism's success, will end up by succumbing to it. And this would, in his view, be the ultimate historical disaster, for then culture/civilisation would no longer have a repository anywhere.

Zinoviev, I believe, abhorred Stalin as an individual. Yet I have never heard him express more than polite regret for the labour camps - the Gulag; nor any explicit approval of any single dissident imprisoned by Stalin's successors. I did once manage to persuade him to write a letter to The Times (that is to say, I wrote it, he signed it and The Times printed it) urging the West to keep on protesting about the non-observance of Helsinki.[19] But I suspect he put his name to the letter either out of inertia or to please me or because he thought it proper that the Western liberal should continue to exist as a species. To survive, the West must ardently join battle in the 'historical struggle between the two systems'. An essential part of Zinoviev's mission to the West is to accuse it of perpetual weakness.

When all is said and done, what can be made of this extraordinary Russian intellectual writer? As a student of the Soviet Union I find him the most illuminating theorist at my disposal. Zinoviev, as Sidney Hook has said, is the only Soviet-born philosopher who, from within his own society, has given an independent critique of Marxist and Leninist/Stalinist institutions on a fundamental theoretical plane. For a Soviet academic to have expressed an original sociological vision in arresting literary form was a 'happening' indeed.

The broad Western view of the Soviet Union has always been that it was an 'empire of evil' because the regime was both cruel and mendacious. Solzhenitsyn and nearly all Third Emigration exiles agree. Zinoviev differs by attributing, as we have seen, a kind of existential value to Sovietism. He believes, still more unusually, that salvation could come from a better form of Communism under a dynamic, non-mediocre leadership. It is perhaps because he refuses to jettison the system that he is able to illuminate its inner workings so conscientiously and so well.

Another characteristic of Alexander Zinoviev is to stand back from the West/East struggle saying: 'Let the best man win!', for all the world as if he was equally pleased with the past-saturated West and the future-holding East. Indeed I have found Alexander Zinoviev much more respectful of the West than are many Tsarist and other Soviet exiles, people far more anti-Soviet than he is. Even when he is seriously annoyed he does not talk (as they are apt to do) about the 'rotten West' (gniloi zapad). On the contrary he admires it and wishes it kept systemically apart from Communism. The West should defend its glorious Graeco-Roman, etc., past while the Soviet Union makes its own progress, always in terms of 'Soviet reality' and 'Soviet social laws'.

Nothing in Zinoviev's position is especially easy to understand. The theoretical imbroglio became inextricable, as I have mentioned, with the publication by Encounter (April and May 1984) of an interview of Alexander Zinoviev by George Urban, the renowned quizzer of intellectuals and statesmen; himself a historian and until recently Director of Radio Free Europe. This interview, not surprisingly, drew protests from all over the academic world. It contained an apparent outright justification of Stalin's murderous collectivisation of agriculture; and lacked, among other things, any sympathetic reference to the present plight of Eastern Europeans bullied by Soviet-imposed Communist officials. The 'sovieto-centricity' of the supporting arguments aroused the dismay and anger of such emigre journals as Russkaya Mysl' and Obozrenie and indeed of many staunch admirers of Zinoviev's work such as Alain Besançon.

Not content with this declaration to the anglophone world, Zinoviev renewed it, with variations, in an interview with Georges Nivat in the Parisian weekly L'Express on 12 April 1985. It is fair to add about the Encounter interview that Zinoviev gave it in English, and some of it when he was nervously exhausted. Further, he was, for some reason, never given the chance to see or revise the text. (No such circumstances surrounded the interview in L'Express which, as he does not speak French and Nivat speaks excellent Russian, he must have given in Russian.)

It has, I think, been a great misfortune for everyone that Zinoviev's public intransigence has put him into semi-quarantine among fellow-academics in the West. Few of them outside France and Italy now seem to take Alexander Zinoviev seriously as a theorist, although the man who is perhaps the greatest of them. Professor Leszek Kolakowski, is an exception. Does Zinoviev's own brand of genius simply preclude him from academic co-operation and what might be called the collegiate search for truth? Alexander Zinoviev's eight years of exile have certainly depressed him, as his latest volume of poems Evangelie dlya Ivana (A Gospel for Ivan) (1985), amply confirms. Emigration at the age of 56 must be a depressant for anyone. It could hardly be expected that the Muscovite star of lecture-hall and salon could remain as buoyant as a freelance in a Munich suburb. But I suspect that the matter is a good deal more complex.

Zinoviev is a sincere and impassioned novelist who wishes to sustain great themes. He is a trained and inspired theorist, capable of flights of virtuosity as well as profound apergus. But he has something of the clown in him too which comes out particularly in his publicism. And that is when the trouble starts. Clowns are often noble and moving persons who mourn life's deep and tragic absurdities. But there is also the clowning of the enfant terrible. In an astonishing manner Alexander Zinoviev is, I think, both kinds of clown and modulates from the one genre to the other. This creates ambiguity. And ambiguity is disconcerting when it comes to the science which he intends to promulgate. Ambiguity sits even worse with the statesman-like deliberations which Alexander, when wearing his pro-Western hat, enjoins on us. The resulting extravaganza is often highly entertaining, but the wreckage has to be considerable.

Zinoviev is fond of saying he is a 'typical Soviet man'. This is quite untrue. He is not a typical anything or anybody. But one may perhaps say that he is a very Russian man, with all the Russian's impulsiveness (proizvol) and generous mood-swing. Yet even among Russians Alexander is a very rare bird. Not many of them, surely, can feed off so many different berries and sing so many songs. Let us call him 'the Mozart of Soviet sociology'. I once did; and he liked it -for a split second.


Notes 1. This term usually applies to Soviet citizens who emigrated from the Soviet Union after about 1960.
2.Corriere della Sera, 24 September 1985, L'Antimondo di Zinoviev.
3. Zinoviev has now adopted the standard Western spelling of his first name.
4.Curriculum Vitae (1985), a brief biographical outline supplied to the author by Zinoviev.
5.See, among his articles, NYP and ZhD in particular: also the curriculum already cited.
6.Curriculum vitae.
7. Firearms are unavailable to the public in the Soviet Union, so that would-be assassins have to steal them from the army or militia or to be a member of these groups.
8.Curriculum vitae.
9.Ibid.
10. In his interview with George Urban, 'Portrait of a Dissident as a Soviet Man', Encounter, April and May 1984. The text of this interview was not shown to Zinoviev for checking before publication. See the Bibliography.
11.See the Bibliography.
12.Suslov died in office in January 1982 at the age of 79.
13.Curriculum vitae.
14. Nee Olga Mironovna Sorokina. Born 1945; graduated from Moscow University in the history of philosophy.
15. The Bibliography shows the considerable number of his works published in these years.
16.NSNRNB, pp. 69-9.
17.A thesis discussed further in Chapter 10 in Jon Elster's contribution to this book.
18.Interview in L'Express, 12 April 1985.
19.The Times, 9 February 1984.

15.05.09: Read in Russian

Alexander Zinoviev - 2009-1

ZINOVIEV - The Magazine, 2009/1
Download PDF file

29.10.08: Read in Russian

Alexander Zinoviev - 2008-2

ZINOVIEV - The Magazine, 2008/2
Download PDF file


BIBLIOGRAPHY


Read excerpts from books
Articles
Interviews
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