Aleksandr Nekrich

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

[In Ziyayuschiye vysoty (The Yawning Heights)] 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.

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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 … 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")….

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 non-existent 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, 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….

Zinoviev shows us many characters who "contribute nothing to society" but who precisely because of that "are indispensable." (p. 8)

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….

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. (p. 9)

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….

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. (p. 10)

Aleksandr Nekrich, "Inside the Leviathan," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1977 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXIV, No. 6, April 14, 1977, pp. 8-10.

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