“The Telegraph”: Alexander Zinoviev

“The Telegraph”, 12 May 2006

Alexander Zinoviev

Alexander Zinoviev, who died on May 10 aged 83, was a Soviet philosopher whose biting satires of life under Communism caused him to be exiled to the West for more than 20 years.

Like his compatriot Alexander Solzhenitsyn he was equally critical of the liberal democracies which had given him refuge; after the fall of Communism he returned to his homeland an intransigent and unrelentingly gloomy commentator on the world and all its ills.

A Professor of Logic at Moscow State University, Zinoviev had already acquired a troublesome reputation by the time he wrote The Yawning Heights, the allegorical satire that was to lead him into exile. Published in Russian in Lausanne in 1976, it portrayed the Soviet Union as Ibansk (”f***town”), where the inhabitants obey the Soviet imperative that only mediocrity shall prosper; that those who stand out should be cut down, and that moral worth must be persecuted.

The town is ruled by The Boss (Stalin), who rose to the top only because he was a complete nonentity. He is displaced by Hog (Krushchev), who repudiates the boss only in order to hold on to power. The leaders are decorated for being leaders, then decorated again for being decorated. The only reason there is no unemployment is that people are engaged in an imitation of work; everything is deliberately kept inefficient.

In one episode, flying instructors who are not allowed to fail anyone take on a trainee with slow reflexes and get him through by giving him his orders well in advance. Sent to the front, he does not drop his bombs until he gets back to base. “Life in Ibansk has improved noticeably,” Zinoviev wrote. “Here are the facts. Only smoked sausage has disappeared. The other kind has remained. The price of meat has not risen by five times, as was expected, but only by three and a half.” Few protest because nearly all are involved in sustaining the lies on which Ibansk is built. Soviet society, Zinoviev seemed to suggest, had not fallen short of its own ideals. It embodied them.

The Yawning Heights created a greater stir among Russians in the Soviet Union (where it was circulated on the samizdat network) and in the West than anything written by Solzhenitsyn; and it presented the Soviet authorities with something of a dilemma. If they prosecuted Zinoviev it would have been a tacit admission that Ibansk depicted the Soviet Union. But to leave him alone would be to admit that they were powerless to react to the bitterest satirical attack on the system to appear in Russian. They therefore compromised by “persuading” Zinoviev’s colleagues to dismiss him from his university post and strip him of his membership of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, his war-time medals and all his degrees and titles.

He was finally expelled from the Soviet Union ( for “behaviour damaging to Soviet prestige”) after his next novel, Radiant Future, satirising Leonid Brezhnev, was published in the West in 1978. He settled in Munich, where he became a professor.

In 1985 Zinoviev published Homo Sovieticus, a pessimistic analysis of the force of “social entropy” which, he believed, gave the Soviet system its stability. Under Communism, individuals are free from the burdens of social responsibility and conscientious effort in their work, secure in the dismal conformity of their lives. For Zinoviev, homo sovieticus was a distinct subspecies capable of adapting to anything, like a bug which survives environmental changes that destroy other life forms. Because of this resilience, Zinoviev predicted, Communism would prove more durable than western democracies, where the “media of mass cretinisation” had raised the fear of death into the prevailing ideology. “The future is with Moscow: a disgusting future, but the future just the same,” he concluded.

The sixth of 11 children of Russian peasants, Alexander Zinoviev was born on October 29 1922 at Pakhtina, a village in the Chukhloma region, but a few years after his birth the family moved to Moscow. A star pupil, he left school to enter the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History, but he was soon expelled for his critical attitude to Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation. He was arrested, but managed to escape and went into hiding in Siberia until 1940, when he joined the Red Army.

During the Second World War, he served in a tank regiment and later as a pilot. In 1942 he composed the satirical Ballad of an Aviation Student, which he later adapted for the story in The Yawning Heights. Sufficiently decorated to be forgiven his previous anti-Stalinism, Zinoviev returned to his studies in Moscow and completed a thesis on the logical structure of Marx’s Das Kapital. Given a position in the Institute of Philosophy of the Academy of Sciences, he wrote more than 20 works on logic, including Philosophical Problems of Many-Valued Logic (1960), which won him international recognition and, in 1962, a professorship. Later he became chairman of the Department of Mathematical Logic at Moscow University.

Zinoviev’s name was often included on Soviet delegations to international conferences, but he was never allowed to go. His refusal to expel dissident professors from his department aroused official suspicions. These hardened still further when, in 1970, Zinoviev resigned from the editorial board of the leading Soviet philosophical journal in protest at Brezhnev’s personality cult. By 1974 he was almost completely isolated.

In exile Zinoviev continued to publish, and remained one of the most outspoken critics of Soviet Communism until perestroika. But his belief that the stability of the Soviet system was grounded in popular consent and that western concepts of freedom were alien to the Russian character meant that he was never very close to other dissidents, and he remained an isolated figure. Democratic ideals, he believed, were irrelevant to most Russians: “Talk about human rights, about freedoms, is something empty for these people. It is like a guitar for a clergyman. An umbrella for a fish.”

In the 1990s he emerged as one of the most vociferous critics of the reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and, in 1996, to the surprise of some, supported the Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov for the presidency. The unexpected collapse of Communism had come as a considerable shock to Zinoviev, and transformed his view. In that collapse he saw the fall of Russia, an event that had been planned and precipitated by the West. In 1999, declaring that he could no longer live “in the camp of those who are destroying my country and my people,” he returned to Russia.

Back on his native soil he predicted that the whole world would soon experience the fearful consequences of a “democratic totalitarianism” being imposed by the United States under George W Bush. A fervent supporter of Slobodan Milosevic, he was co-chairman of an international committee to defend the fallen Serbian tyrant.

Alexander Zinoviev was married three times and had several children.

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