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 from scraps of a manuscript found in an Ibansk rubbish heap. This is the same public dump, we learn immediately, where the Ibanskian Zaveduyushchy (i.e., Manager) gave his historic speech, proclaiming: “The age-old dream of mankind will soon come true, for already visible on the horizon are the yawning heights of sotsism.” The term “sotsism” is, of course, a contraction of sotsializm, but also a parody of Soviet abbreviations and acronyms, recalling, for example, “sots-realizm,” short for the sole authorized literary and artistic style, “socialist realism.”
In the state of Ibansk, all the inhabitants have the same name, Ibanov, as if to underline not only their common ethnic origins but also their social and psychological homogeneity. But the author assigns special nicknames to various Ibanovs whose writings or statements figure in the pages rescued from the Ibansk garbage dump, names that hint at certain real figures; for example, Pravdets (Truth-Sayer) is Solzhenitsyn and Mazila (Dauber) is the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, reportedly a friend of Zinoviev. We may suspect that Soviet readers will recognize other figures behind such names as “Shizofrenic,” “Member,” “Thinker,” “Pretender,” or “Babbler.”
None of these characters appears to us as a person with a life of his own, and indeed the author’s relation to them is not always clear. The first of the book’s three sections, in which a nonexistent and uninhabited Ibansk is carefully and at times scabrously described, is largely a patchwork of statements—short, graphic, and mostly anonymous satirical pamphlets—from the Ibansk rubble heap. The other two parts of the book consist of a series of commentaries and reflections on Ibanskian life by a narrator who writes in the first person and whose voice we may take to be that of Zinoviev himself.
It is a brilliant voice, quite unusual in Russian letters, not least in its hilarious use of antonyms, puns, and other word games hard to translate. Zinoviev, the author of such books as Philosophical Problems of Many Valued Logic,1 mocks various kinds of logical thinking—Wittgensteinian, mathematical, structuralist, but above all Marxist dialectical materialism. Indeed the tone of the book is that of a mordant logical mind reassembling from shards of evidence the mad yet brutally effective logic of a closed society.
In Ibansk there are no secrets. Its social laws are simple, one might say even primitive: “Be like everyone else” is the sacred commandment. A person’s life here is “transparently clear. Obey your papa and mama. Obey your teachers. Obey your superiors. Chance is a manifestation of necessity, and necessity is the law. Everything can be explained scientifically.” Such are the teachings of the reigning ideology of “sotsism.”
The nonexistent people of Ibansk are wholly absorbed in this ideology; it frees them from the necessity of thinking for themselves. Except for a few heroic eccentrics such as Pravdets, the authorities do everyone’s thinking for them. In fact, this ideology, “while seeking to appear scientific, destroys the very foundation of what is human in human history—confidence in one’s own powers of reason.” It is an ideology that is all-encompassing: any citizen who reaches a certain age is qualified to work as an ideologist.
“Sotsism” is a powerful factor in social life because it has a ready-made solution for every problem. Under these conditions one quite naturally becomes an accomplice in everything that goes on in Ibansk, a complicity that in turn encourages a system of mutual denunciation. “We’ve been used to this since childhood; we live with it every day and don’t even notice it.” One perceptive Ibanov who remains anonymous concludes that the organs of state security are by no means abnormal, or a deviation from the system. Rather they are its lawful offspring and expression. If they did not exist, society would find some other way to perform their functions. “Perhaps in even more frightful form. For example, prison cells might be installed in every home and institution.”
Ibansk society is not political, because it has not place for an opposition. In the past people who were capable of acting according to norms of political law were annihilated in Ibansk, and in their place appeared mere ciphers. The number of people interested in securing legal protection for political activity is insignificant. That such people even exist is a contradiction of social laws of Ibanskian life. Since the chief standard of behavior for an Ibanskian is to “Be like everyone else,” it follows that “a remarkable mind is seen as an abnormality, and remarkable ignorance—as a remarkable mind. Here highly moral people are perceived as immoral scoundrels, and highly base nonentities—as models of virtue.” Only that which fails to correspond to the laws of the social organism is considered an injustice.
Zinoviev shows us many characters who “contribute nothing to society” but who precisely because of that “are indispensable.” What is important to Ibansk society is not the action itself but the imitation of an action. That is why Westerners find life in Ibansk so hard to understand, and hide their lack of understanding behind discussions of “the mysterious Ibanskian soul.” But Shizofrenik—the author of a scientific study of Ibansk society found in the rubbish heap—declares that all Ibanskians are whores and that “The mysterious Ibanskian soul is nothing but the Ibanskian whorehouse, carried to the nth degree and transposed to the Ibanskian mind, but not transformed thereby.” To which, in another pamphlet, Klevetnik (Slanderer), adds ponderously: “The hardest thing to unravel is a mystery that does not exist.”
In Ibansk there are carefully defined ranks, or castes. Leaders of all ranks hold a special place. Their privileges are hard to specify because they are expressed not so much in smaller or larger salaries as in perquisites of rank—high-quality food available at cheaper prices, special stores for a restricted clientele, spacious government apartments at lower rents, free vacation homes and health resorts, subsidized travel abroad, and so forth, all according to rank. Moreover, their position automatically entails privileges that are not even covered by regulations, for example, preferential treatment for their children in secondary and higher education.
The guiding principle for an Ibanskian leader is “to present his personal interests as those of the group he leads, and to make use of the group for his own personal interests.” “Success in his career comes to a leader as the result of apparent, but never real, improvements and refinements…. The leadership prefers demagogy about improvements to actually making things better.” The higher a leader’s rank, observes Zinoviev, the lower his value. The higher the position a leader holds, the lower his intellectual capacities, his culture, and his professional ability. The profession of leader in Ibansk consists mainly in knowing how to maintain your position, push your way up, shift with the wind, and get rid of obstacles. As a leader rises to the top of the heap he thus gradually loses his ability to deal with practical problems. As he approaches the apex of the pyramid of power, the more he sharpens the qualities he needs to combat his rivals—tenaciousness, demagogy, ruthlessness, lack of moral scruples, etc.
A peculiarity of the system of power in Ibansk is that it is both omnipotent and impotent. “It is negatively omnipotent,” says one of the anonymous Ibanskians quoted by the author. “It can do all possible evil with impunity. It has enormous destructive power but hardly any power to create.” In this society cloddishness prospers, along with the insolence of officials and police, flagrant corruption, and bureaucratism throughout the state apparatus. These are not simply shortcomings of the system but its essence.
It is not surprising that this exists. What is surprising is that, in this environment, things still manage to get done. True, at a price—the price of senseless waste of time and energy, a miserable atmosphere, and a sense of blind hopelessness.
Constructive results are much denigrated in Ibansk society. That is why a positive indifference is the dominant mood. The essence of things becomes absolutely unimportant, and a great fuss over trivialities essential. In one of his ceremonial speeches the head of state, Zaiban (for Iban),2 declares, “The distinctive feature of our life is its irrepressible dynamism. We are moving forward, far in advance of our rear.” The coarse irony is appropriate. For the perennial goal of the Ibanskian leaders, “to overtake and surpass” everything in the world, amounts to nothing more than getting ahead of their own rears.
Beneath this irony are hidden the bitterness and sorrow of the author over his country’s wasted possibilities. But his sorrow neither obscures the underlying reality nor flattens his comic sarcasm. He sees clearly what has taken place, and the tiny group of characters such as Pravdets, Masila, and to a degree Shizofrenic who have somehow managed to survive with their critical powers intact sometimes speak for him. For example, in the second part of the book the narrator quotes Shizofrenic’s attempt to define what was central during the reign of Khozyain (i.e., the Master-owner, the common name for Stalin in the USSR). “Mass terror? Universal rejoicing? The collapse of agriculture? Skyrocketing industry? The downfall of culture? Outstanding successes? Despair? Joy? What, after all, did we have here? Errors, Retreats? Plans of genius? What?” He answers,
Call it what you want. That isn’t the point. The point is that during that time a new type of social individual and a system of social relations appropriate to its nature was in gestation and being born. An individual was produced who stood a head taller than Homo sapiens, but this head was very small, and the heart was empty (or made of stone).
These bitter words of Shizofrenic are, alas, well founded. The new type of person (Zinoviev does not classify him, but we might call him Homo ibanicus), generally makes common cause with the authorities, and even worse, in the author’s opinion, actually becomes a minute cog of the system of power, not only an accomplice but a participant in all of its activities. Millions of Ibanskians have a small part in the exercise of power, and the consciousness of having power, on the one hand, and the fictitiousness of this power, on the other, are among the typical features of Ibanskian life. Solidarity with the authorities follows from the fact that the authorities can make people wholly satisfied with an imitation of the deed, and hardly anyone cares that life has been replaced by its imitation. This substitution, this deception, “goes on continuously.” It “systematically” determines the quality of life.
“In the Ibanskian social system the usual terms of reference for social behavior do not apply. ‘Why? For what reason? To what end?’… Such criteria of a person’s social situation are lacking here.” For this society, the simulated form of behavior is totally natural. When truth is confronted, there is panic. So great is the fear of truth that “people are afraid of their own selves, for they know what they are.”
Some of the characters in Zinoviev’s book contend that the Ibanskian people are satisfied with their situation and have no use whatever for an intelligentsia who can think critically. “After all,” as one comments harshly, but also fairly, “the Ibanskians are a sufficiently well-educated and well-read people to take stock of their own situation. They know what they want and in general have what they want.”
The Ibanskians are also an organized people, in the sense that they have a “Brotherhood,” as the sole existing party in Ibansk is called. But contrary to the opinion, especially widespread in the West, that they are forced to join the party, whoever joins does so voluntarily. He knows in advance what obligations he will have to fulfill. And if Ibanskians, with changing circumstances, have come to rationalize joining the “Brotherhood” as the only way to work at their profession, still no one is forcing that profession upon them. They choose it freely themselves, without being coerced.
Zinoviev’s irony also strikes at those Ibanskians who lay claim to an inner freedom, in their private thoughts. “If for example you announce from the rostrum that you are voting ‘Yes,’ but at home you tell your wife or your friend ‘No’ on the same point, officially you remain a ‘Yes’ man. As a ‘No’ you do not exist at all, although you may imagine whatever you wish on the subject.”
A large problem of Ibansk society is not that things are forbidden but that “the number of those who want permission to do anything is pitifully small.” As an Ibanskian called Posetitel (The Visitor) observes toward the end of the book, “Our present situation and the road that has led to it are not the result of illness, deformation, or artificial crippling, but the normal and healthy state that accords fully with this type of society. It is not true that it has taken this shape because certain people were eliminated at an earlier stage. They were eliminated because this type of society was coming into being.”
Here Zinoviev pierces to the heart of the question of the historical development of a closed society such as the USSR: since it was founded on violence there is therefore no reason to be surprised at the everyday occurrence of violence. In Ibansk society hatred for the intelligentsia is especially prevalent and not merely as some sort of atavistic instinct but as a central component of the ideology and politics of Ibansk. And this hatred results in the mental impoverishment of Ibansk society.
“The intelligence of a society,” writes Zinoviev, “is its capacity for objective self-knowledge and for resisting blind, instinctive, elemental tendencies. It is the capacity of a society for spiritual self-improvement and spiritual progress. In any form, by any means….” But how many people in a given society can meet these specifications? What are their social importance, their influence on society? What continuity is there among them? To what degree are they protected? Intellectuals need protection more than others precisely because it is their function to reflect critically on a society in which they exist but to which they are, to some degree, opposed. The intelligentsia is, as the author puts it,
that part of society that is hardest to replace. It is the easiest to destroy. But it is incredibly difficult to reproduce. It needs constant sheltering. To destroy it, one need not even attack it. It is enough to leave it unprotected. And society itself will destroy it. The milieu. Colleagues. Friends. Especially the pseudo intellectual milieu. It hates the genuine intelligentsia because it has pretensions to be viewed as such itself. It has power and therefore is merciless. Do you think it takes much to kill the intelligentsia? Nonsense.
Things have gone badly for the intelligentsia in Ibansk—entire schools of thought in science and culture have been wiped out. The intelligentsia as such has virtually ceased to exist. Only a tiny part has remained. But here I cannot agree with Zinoviev, who directs his irony against the so-called “liberal” intelligentsia. It would seem to me that, under the special circumstances of Ibansk society, we might find precisely here some of those who still think critically. Zinoviev ridicules everything such intellectuals do, because in his view their real function is to camouflage the full horror of Ibanskian reality. But he forgets that almost all dissidents have a liberal outlook and that they lead a real struggle for human rights. I would argue that a small group of critical intellectuals continues to fulfill its responsibility; which, as Pasternak said, is not to let the candle’s flame die out and darkness cover the earth.
Zinoviev is bitter about “détente.” In The Yawning Heights the Ibanskian government allows a monument to be placed at the grave of Khriak (an allusion to Khrushchev) and permits some artists no one ever heard of to hold an exhibit at the public dump. At this, progressives in the West cry, “The Ibanskians have reformed! They’ve improved!” In exchange for a few dissident intellectuals the Ibanskians import from America tons of shchi, the Russian national dish of cabbage soup. No one listens to the warning voices of the skeptics. They are drowned out by cries of enthusiasm from the “progressives” over the relaxation of tensions. No one wants to face the fact that the fate of Western civilization is being decided in Ibansk. “It is pointless to tell a falling person that the fall is going to have nasty consequences. But you cannot remain silent if you know this.”
In his concluding section Zinoviev tells how the gloomiest prophecies of the skeptics come true and throughout the world there triumphs the highest stage of sotsism—called “psism.”3 The main characters of Zinoviev’s satire pass into oblivion: some are helped along and others depart life voluntarily. On the doors of the national crematorium for voluntary departures is the inscription: “As you leave, take your own urnful of ashes with you!”
Is there an alternative for the inhabitants of Ibansk and for the West? Aleksandr Zinoviev does not answer this question. He concludes that “the basis for a genuinely human existence is truth” and that from now on the degree of development of a society will be defined “by the degree of truthfulness that society allows.” But how can it be achieved? Zinoviev points to full public discussion as the panacea that will resolve all problems. But how can the protection of law for freedom of expression be assured in the lawless society of Ibansk?
The Yawning Heights has been published in Russian, and a French edition will shortly appear. It would be extremely valuable to have an English translation soon. In the next two or three years Zinoviev’s book will, I predict, be read by millions. Political leaders, historians, and philosophers would benefit from a careful reading of this book, the most important study of Soviet society, and of similarly closed societies, that has appeared since World War II.
April 14, 1977