Ziyayushchiye vysoty (The Yawning Heights)
by Aleksandr Zinoviev
L’Age d’homme (Lausanne), 563 pp., 40 Swiss francs
The Russian edition of this book appeared in Switzerland in August 1976. And what an odd title it has. The Russian verb ziyat—”to gape cavernously, to yawn”—is normally used with such words as chasm, gulf, abyss; while in official Russian sloganese, the word usually placed before “heights” is siyayushchiye (with an “s” not a “z”), i.e., “shining, gleaming, radiant.” For example, the “gleaming heights of socialism” or the “shining peaks of communism,” toward which all the Soviet peoples are said to be striving, together with “all of progressive mankind.”
The title of this extraordinary book thus very aptly and accurately captures the absurd and paradoxical character, contrary to nature, of what goes on every day in the closed society it describes. The author, Aleksandr Zinoviev, fifty-five years old, lives in the Soviet Union, in Moscow. He is a doctor of philosophy and until recently was a professor of logic at Moscow University and a senior scholar in the Institute of Philosophy of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Many of his scholarly works have been published outside the USSR, in German and English. In the past Zinoviev was very close to the Soviet Establishment. I say “was” because since this book was written he has been ostracized, ousted from all his posts, and stripped of all his academic degrees and honors—which deprives him of a livelihood—and he lives in constant danger of something worse.
Zinoviev has succeeded in doing what no historian, philosopher, or social scientist, either in the West or the Soviet Union, has so far been able to do. He has illuminated the closed society from within, in all its hidden, twisted psychological complexities. By rigorously telling the truth Zinoviev has removed the coverings from this system; even the most deeply concealed parts of the organism, seemingly the least accessible to observation, have not escaped his attention.
In the tradition of Hobbes, Voltaire, Swift, George Orwell, Anatole France, and of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the great Russian satirist of the last century, Zinoviev has written a savage satire on a contemporary closed society, one highly reminiscent of Soviet society. His book is in fact a profound sociological study—I would call it the anatomical study—of the kind of society one finds in the Soviet Union. Zinoviev also appears in this book as a brilliant analyst of contemporary society in general, presenting his own original ideas on the state, ideology, morals, and laws of our times. His book is not only topical but of immense value both for specialists and for general readers.
In keeping with the traditions of the genre, Zinoviev has invented “an inhabited center inhabited by no one,” a place not shown on any map, which does not exist in reality. He calls it Ibansk (a double pun on the most common of Russian names, Ivan, and the verb yebat—to fuck; hence Ibansk might be called a “fucktown for the Ivans”). He begins by telling us that the book was patched together …