Alexander Zinoviev
Alexander Zinoviev; drawing by David Levine

Though it deserved all the praise it got, The Yawning Heights was nevertheless of a size bound to tell against its long-term fortune. Its successor, The Radiant Future, treats the same themes at about half the length. It would be nice to think that Zinoviev had now, after recovering from the initial impact of leaving the Soviet Union for the West, struck his true sense of proportion. Telling against this wish, however, is the awkward fact that we have not yet even got to the end of what he produced before being expelled from the Soviet Union, and the further fact that from his mighty output there are at least two more behemoths on the way.

L’Antichambre du Paradis, a satirical treatment of the Soviet psychiatric hospitals, is of the same dimensions as The Yawning Heights: presumably its appearance in English will be not long delayed. Beyond that, and looming rather than hiding, there is a two-volume blockbuster which at the time of writing has not yet appeared even in French, but whose Russian title might perhaps be translated as The Yellow House. (Apparently the French translation will be called La Maison de fous.) In Dom Knigi, the marvelous Russian bookshop in Paris, I saw a copy of this last-mentioned whopper lying spine-up on the counter and can remember letting out a discreet groan. The man’s books generate themselves like yogurt. One continues to be grateful, but with trepidation.

For The Radiant Future one’s gratitude is unalloyed. It is nearer than The Yawning Heights to being an ordinary narative and is thus easier for the reader to follow. There is a central character to get interested in and care about, even though he is not very likable. The central character is the narrator, head of the Department of Theoretical Problems of the Methodology of Scientific Communism. (The department’s offices are in the Yellow House, which suggests that Zinoviev’s forthcoming works might link up in more than just a thematic way to the ones we know already.) The narrator’s career as a philosopher has some resemblance to Zinoviev’s own, and indeed it is possible that an element of self-hatred has been incorporated. Zinoviev has good reason to be proud of his achievements as a dissident, but he seems very slow in forgiving himself for his career as a Soviet academic. According to one of the cardinal principles of The Yawning Heights, it is impossible to flourish, or even grow up, in the Soviet Union while still retaining a moral sense. Therefore almost anybody you have ever heard of is automatically reprehensible.

This principle would be intolerably strict if Zinoviev did not in the first instance apply it to himself, and more rigorously than to anyone else. The Radiant Future, I think, is clear evidence that he does so. The book has an expiatory quality that gives it a dimension missing from The Yawning Heights, in which the squalor is without pathos. The narrator of The Radiant Future is enough of a recognizably human character for us to identify with him and realize that his compromises might have been ours if we had shared his circumstances.

The circumstances are those of the Soviet Union nearly unaltered. For the most part of its enormous bulk, The Yawning Heights draws on the Russian satirical tradition that goes back at least as far as Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The History of a Town, and beyond that to the whole Western tradition of utopian satire, which is essentially a means of drawing attention to a state of affairs by exaggerating it. In Saltykov’s town, all the different governors were united in the assumption that the function of the ordinary inhabitants was to be whipped. Thus was Tsarist rule satirized by exaggeration, even if the exaggeration was not great. But another, and equally important, part of The Yawning Heights simply analyzes things as they are. This part of the book grows out of the more recent post-revolutionary satirical tradition founded by Zamyatin’s We. In this satirical tradition the true state of affairs is found to be already so exaggerated that its enormity can be conveyed only by analysis. Rather than to create a fantasy, the main effort is to understand a fantasy that is already there.

The closely argued passages of sociological analysis in The Yawning Heights belong to this second tradition and are, in my view, by far the most original parts in the book. As an exercise in neo-Swiftian scatological imagination The Yawning Heights leaves Swift’s title safe, but as an analytical treatise it has great vitality. The Radiant Future is the same sort of thing but more economically done, since there is no supererogatory burden of fantasy. Instead of being called Ibansk (Fucktown) as in The Yawning Heights, or Glupov (Dumbtown) as in The History of a Town, the earthly paradise in The Radiant Future is called Moscow. The title itself is not a parodic extrapolation but an actual Party slogan. No time is wasted on thinking up accouterments for an imaginary madhouse. The real madhouse is taken to be more than sufficient.


At first glance the narrator is ideally equipped to thrive in the Soviet academic system. He has no interest in his subject beyond the means it offers to gain advancement, usually by suppressing any signs of originality in others. We recognize the state of affairs characterized by Sakharov when he outlined the tragedy of creative life in the Iron Curtain countries. But the narrator makes one mistake. He listens to his colleague Anton instead of taking immediate steps to crush him. Anton, a revenant from Stalin’s camps, has analyzed the Soviet system and written a book about it. Reading the manuscript, the narrator becomes infected with Anton’s penetrating realism, and the onward march of his career falters as a consequence.

For several days I was completely under the influence of Anton’s book. Although I had only had time to leaf through it briefly, I had seen a great deal in it. Anton and I had discussed these topics dozens of times. I was already familiar with everything in the book. But here everything had been brought together and set out systematically. The effect was devastating. It was the general method which produced the greatest impression. Anton did not criticise Marxism and the Soviet way of life in the way which is generally accepted everywhere. He accepted everything as fact. He even accepted our most extreme demagogic pronouncements as truth. He looked an even more orthodox Marxist than I. For example, we all moan about the collapse of agriculture, about rising prices, about waste in the economy and so on. But Anton accepted as truth the statements of our leaders (he even quoted from our newspapers) to the effect that Soviet society today is more monolithic than it has ever been socially, politically and ideologically; more powerful than ever economically, and so on. And he set out the bases of Marxism in a way which can only be described as brilliant. Clearly, briefly, convincingly. And that creates a feeling of unease. It was as if you were being flayed alive, leaving your body like one vast wound. You can’t be touched anywhere without being in agony.

It is not difficult to guess that Zinoviev must have discovered the components of this simple but useful plot within his own experience. He himself was once, like Sakharov, a darling of the Soviet academic system. But he was also, again like Sakharov, a thinker original and brave enough to see past his own advantage and pursue and argument even if it led to heresy. Inside his own head he was both the narrator and Anton. The two personalities fought a battle, which Anton won, to the world’s lasting benefit but with decisive effects on Zinoviev’s academic career. He was stripped of his medals and ritually denounced by his colleagues, in the kind of scene which he had already said must inevitably take place if anybody in the Soviet Union gets sufficiently carried away by the truth to start telling it for its own sake. To have predicted your own fate, however, is not necessarily of much comfort on the day your time runs out.

Sometimes it is hard for us to remember that these amazing people who have had the honor to be denounced by the Soviet system still feel just as much outraged as vindicated, even when they are well aware of their own worth and of the squalid motives of their accusers. Zinoviev, a man of the highest distinction whose intellectual integrity does honor to his country, was deprived of his Soviet citizenship by personal decree of Brezhnev, whose chief quality of mind is the ability to produce speeches so boring that the Pravda compositors fall senseless into their keyboards when transcribing them for an indifferent posterity. If such is a comic event, it is for Zinoviev to say so. And of course the wonderful thing about him is that he says so.

Most of Anton’s ideas can be deduced from The Yawning Heights, but in The Radiant Future they are laid out in a more readily appreciable chain of consequence. Once again Zinoviev insists that the Soviet Union is not a distortion of communism but an expression of it, and that Stalinism was the ideal expression, toward which Soviet society will always tend to return. (Leszek Kolakowski develops the same idea, making several references to Zinoviev, in a long and fascinating interview published in the January issue of Encounter) Anton advances his thesis not as a paradoxmonger but as a simple truth-teller; that the truth keeps on coming out sounding like a paradox is simply a measure of how far things have gone. The state’s ideological apparatus has taken over even the terms by which it is criticized.


Soviet history really (and not merely apparently) is a history of congresses, meetings, plans, obligations, overfulfillments, conquests of new fields, new departures, demonstrations, decorations, applause, folk-dances, farewell ceremonies, arrival ceremonies, and so on; in brief, everything which can be read in official Soviet newspapers, journals, novels, or which can be seen on Soviet television, and so on. There are certain things which happen in the Soviet Union which do not appear in the media of mass information, education, persuasion, and entertainment. But all this represents in this context an immaterial non-historic background to real Soviet history. Everything which, to an outside observer who has not passed through the school of the Soviet way of life, may seem a falsehood, demagogy, formalism, a bureaucratic comedy, propaganda, and so on, in fact represents the flesh and blood of this way of life, in fact this life itself. And everything which may seem to be bitter truth, the actual state of things, commonsense considerations, and so on, is, in fact nothing but the insignificant outer skin of the real process.

Defenders of the Soviet Union say that it has a free health service. Critics say that you have to stand in line for it. Anton points out that neither side of the argument has anything to do with the truth. There is no free health service in the Soviet Union, since it is paid for in garnished wages, and thus by depressed living standards. The same applies to cheap housing. The fact of the matter is that it is not cheap. Whether it is easy to come by or not is irrelevant, and to argue one way or the other is to argue within assumptions that the regime can easily accommodate. Anton keeps on coming up with these awkward discoveries one after the other. There is no stopping him. He is a sort of holy fool. (The character of Anton, incidentally, is an instance of why it is never sufficient to deduce the chain of inspiration from the history of a genre. Many satirical works feature a truth-teller and often he is the author of a secret document. But Anton’s holy awkwardness is more likely to have its origins in Bulgakov’s Jesus, as portrayed in the second chapter of The Master and Margarita. The way Zinoviev’s narrator and Anton are bound up with each other can’t help but remind you of Bulgakov’s Jesus and Pilate.)

Anton’s talent is to see the fundamental importance of trivia. He is continually seizing on the apparently incidental and calling it essential. According to Anton nothing is essential except the incidental. The radiant future will never arrive and there is nothing here now except the yawning heights. The putative solidity of the Soviet achievement is nothing but hot air. Meanwhile all the abuses and atrocities, all the stupidity and chicanery, are not excrescences on the structure but the structure itself. Denunciations, for example, are not a regrettable by-product of the system but the system’s bedrock. Soviet society can continue to exist only if everyone is ready to denounce anyone else. Indeed it came into existence in order for that to happen.

There are human problems [Anton tells the narrator] which arise because of the presence within society of an actively operating system of morality and other problems which arise because of the absence of any such system. Only the former can be the basis of a great spiritual literature. Denunciation, betrayals, deception and falsehood for example, do not engender problems worthy of great art in a society where morality does not function as a significant social mechanism. Great art is the creation of a moral civilisation, and one of its means of existence. That is why we do not have, and cannot have, any great spiritual art. We can force the entire country to dance folk dances, take up figure skating or sing in choirs. But we will not allow great writers like Dostoievsky or Tolstoy to exist. Do I need to say any more? The facts are legion. They beg for scientific study. Yet all we do is try our best to get rid of them.

And so on. Armed with his devastating central perception, Anton is like a man with a hammer fighting one of those terra-cotta armies that the Chinese emperors used to guard themselves with in death. All he has to do is go on swinging. The state might destroy him physically but its official ideology can do nothing to defend itself. It has no intellectual substance whatever. The whole elaborate mental edifice of Marxism-Leninism amounts to nothing more than a heap of beans. Anton’s idea is so simple, and yet so wide-reaching in its implications, that even he is slow to grasp it. The narrator is slower still. And perhaps Zinoviev’s main reason for expressing it dialectically, through two opposing characters, was that he feared the world would never get the point if he said it straight.

One looks forward, with the tremor of apprehension I have noted earlier, to Zinoviev’s forthcoming satirical mammoths. I have read a good deal of L’Antichambre du Paradis in French but won’t pretend to have got far with The Yellow House in Russian—Zinoviev’s idiomatic language would be daunting for a beginner even if the book looked less like a brick, or in this case two bricks. But even on such scanty acquaintance it is perhaps allowable to suggest that Zinoviev has given the pill more sugar than it needs. As Anton’s quoted manuscript demonstrates, the argument loses little from being stated plainly. L’Antichambre du Paradis, with its account of the psychiatric hospitals, is really about the psychological engineering needed to produce the ideal Soviet citizen. Zamyatin’s We, prophetically concerning itself with that very subject, is a quarter the length and four times as effective. Zinoviev is a formidable comic inventor but he would be even funnier if he understood the importance of economical writing, and even more influential if he understood his own originality, which is less for comic invention than for clearly argued analysis.

For just how good he is at that, those of his admirers who can read some French should look at Sans Illusions, a collection of his general essays written since he came to the West. All the themes of The Yawning Heights and The Radiant Future are contained in it, shorn of fictional properties and rigorously argued to conclusions which are both logically consequent and consistently surprising. (The Moscow brand of mediocrity, for example, is defined not as an absence of talent but as a talent in itself—the talent for suffocating real talent.) It is an engrossing book which one hopes will be brought into English without delay. Among the many pleasures it offers is that of a certain measure of reassurance. In The Yawning Heights Zinoviev, through one of his emblematically named characters, seemed to be arguing that the dissident movement could do nothing except reinforce the monolithic nature of the state. In The Radiant Future he seems to be less rigid on this point, but it is not easy to be sure. In Sans Illusions he is explicit, calling dissidence the most important phenomenon in the social history of the Soviet Union, since it poses problems, for the first time, to communist society in its essence.

Dissidence exercises above all an influence on the mentalities of certain milieux, and beyond that, through them, on the public at large. It would be absurd to expect immediate, visible results in exact conformation to the ideas of the dissidents. In fact it is practically impossible to follow the mechanism of this influence and to foresee its consequences. But anyway that isn’t necessary. The historical experience of humanity furnishes us with sufficient reason to hope.

If Zinoviev ever believed, as he once seemed to, that dissidence accomplished nothing, he refuted himself with his own accomplishments. It wouldn’t have mattered much if he had been wrong on that point: it would have been merely another instance of how hard he is on himself. Nevertheless it is a pleasure to find that he can set that particular part of his vast subject in the same illuminating perspective as he has done with all the rest. He has the gravity of a man who has lived with shame but whose pride in the independence of his own mind remains unshaken. The late Nadezhda Mandelstam, who saw the vindictive state do its considerable best to obliterate the very notion of objective truth, always held that it would return of its own accord. Zinoviev is proof that not even totalitarianism can entirely expunge the human propensity to laugh at the wrong moment.

This Issue

March 19, 1981