Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 889
In the Prologue, the first narrator, Savely Kuzmich Proferansov, sets the stage by describing the town of Lyubimov as small but progressive, with a number of intellectuals, and characterizes himself as rational and literate, although his timid asides and conclusions reveal his own cowardice and superstitiousness. An avid reader of governmentally approved literature, he finds beginning the narrative difficult and describes his writing as though it were something he is impelled to do.
The first chapter tells how at a May Day parade, the leader Comrade Tishchenko installs Leonard Makepeace (Leonid Tikhomirov), a simple bicycle repairman, as the supreme ruler. No one questions the sudden change; Lenny promises peace and freedom. Tishchenko attempts to escape but is subdued by Makepeace, a struggle which later became a folk legend that the narrator discounts, even though he presents the folk legend rather than the true account.
In the second chapter, the narrator reveals the background of Lenny’s rise to power. To win the love of the beautiful Serafima Petrovna, Makepeace agrees to lay the city at her feet. He begins reading voraciously, and one day a book, The Magnet of the Soul, falls to his feet from the ceiling. The book tells him how to gain mental control over others; Makepeace sees this gift not only as a means to power but also as an opportunity to do good for the town, and, through mind control, he has himself installed as ruler. At this point in his storytelling, the narrator is interrupted by a voice that first appears in the footnotes and eventually dominates the main text. The voice reveals itself as that of the Professor, an acquaintance of Savely who in 1926 urged him to write the story of Lyubimov. The Professor now tells Savely that he is also Samson Samsonovich Proferansov, an ancestor of the narrator and the author of the book that enabled Makepeace to rise to power. From this point forward, Samson controls the narrative, often becoming the narrator himself.
In the regional center of X, Lieutenant Colonel Almazov receives a report from the Secret Police chief Maryamov telling of the revolution. Almazov leads an expedition, disguised as fishermen on vacation, to Lyubimov. Meanwhile, Lenny prepares for his wedding; lacking adequate provisions for the ceremony, Lenny transforms surplus mineral water, pickles, and red pepper into alcohol, salami, and steak (in reality, he merely changes the people’s perception of these substances, using mind control). In a grand gesture, he temporarily turns the local river into champagne. The celebration, however, is marred by the death of a thief who has drunk too much of the spurious alcohol. Lenny’s inability to understand how the man could have died from what was only water, or why, given freedom, a man would want to drink himself to death, hints at the ultimate weakness of his plan to make the people happy by attending to all of their needs. Still, through willpower, Makepeace makes Almazov and others believe that the city of Lyubimov has disappeared, and so he is able to continue with his utopian reforms.
At first Lenny’s reforms and modernization succeed, in spite of the presence of a spy, Vitaly Kochetov, and the attempts of a greedy capitalist journalist to corrupt Lenny’s lofty ideals. Even Lenny’s devout mother accepts his godless zeal, though only to avoid displeasing her son. One day Samson confronts Lenny, and Lenny, befuddled by the specter, asks Savely to explain who this figure is. Savely tells how his ancestor, an amateur scientist and intellectual, had traveled to India, where he obtained a sacred book revealing the purpose of life; unfortunately, Samson died before revealing this truth, but his spirit survived, haunting the estate until it burned in the Russian Revolution.
An unforeseen airplane attack nearly kills Lenny, but he escapes harm and convinces the pilots that they have destroyed the city. The spy Vitaly Kochetov reveals himself, apologizing for his role as informer, for now he sees the superiority of Lenny’s method of reform over traditional governmental methods. Impressed by Vitaly’s sincerity, Lenny makes him Chief Deputy.
Gradually, however, Lenny’s reforms begin to fail. The people are unhappy with their substitute vodka, now rationed, because it cannot give them hangovers, and eventually they start brewing their own. Lenny discovers that his wife has been married before, and he forces her to tell him the truth about her background. Wanting to seem truthful, Serafima fabricates an elaborate history of lovers. Although Lenny had previously ignored his wife while pursuing his reforms, his love now turns into an irrational jealousy. Failing to seduce Lenny’s one faithful companion, Vitaly, Serafima leaves Lyubimov. Samson apparently takes back the book from which Lenny gets his powers, and Lenny begins to lose his control; distraught, he wanders through the town, his random musings and curses wreaking havoc on the villagers. Tanks storm the city, and Vitaly is its only defender, losing his life in the process; Lenny simply wanders off, hoping to set up a bicycle repair shop one day. The old order returns to Lyubimov, with the same figures in command, though demoted. The novel ends with Savely once again in control as narrator; fearing that the authorities will discover his manuscript, he asks the Professor to help him keep the book safe.
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