Thursday, May 18, 2006

Alexander Zinoviev

May 18th 2006
From The Economist print edition

Alexander Zinoviev, an eternal dissident, died on May 10th, aged 83

DURING the cold war, dissidents were front-line troops in the battle of wills and ideas. Despised and persecuted by the Communist regimes of the Soviet empire, they were idealised in the West. When they emigrated, they were idolised.

It is convenient, but too crude, to assume that anti-Soviet sentiments automatically meant pro-Western ones. Although some dissidents found material and mental well-being in exile, others were horrified by the decadence and cynicism they found. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the outspoken disillusioned. Another was Alexander Zinoviev.

A decorated wartime pilot and distinguished mathematical logician, Mr Zinoviev could have enjoyed a quiet and privileged life in the Soviet Union. But he became a fearless and scathing critic of his country's Brezhnevite senescence. He was already in near-disgrace by the time his greatest work, “The Yawning Heights”, was published in Switzerland in 1976. It parodied, with flashes of Swiftian brilliance, the inhabitants of a fictional Soviet city, Ibansk (roughly, in Russian, “Fucktown”). Ruled by nonentities and suffused with boredom and mediocrity, Ibansk embodied the mind-rotting stagnation of life in the Soviet provinces.

The Soviet authorities were perplexed. To jail Mr Zinoviev would acknowledge that this satire was not wholly fanciful; to ignore him would look weak. So they stripped him of his medals and academic positions. Two years later, he was encouraged to emigrate. He went to Munich, then a centre of émigré dissident life.

He loathed it. His next book, “Homo Sovieticus” (1985), was acclaimed for its dissection of the Soviet mindset. Today, it seems still more savage in its assault on the pampered, hypocritical West. “It's only among us Soviet people that defenders of the West's ideals can be found,” Mr Zinoviev wrote.

Even more disappointing to him, austere and idealistic as he was, were the self-important and subsidised marionettes of the émigré world. He had got away from the “swamp of the idiocies, vulgarities and lies that is Soviet ideology, only to be forced to plunge head first into the even more idiotic, vulgar and lying marsh of anti-Sovietism.”

That was a bit harsh. Not all Western support was self-interested, rejoicing at the discomfiture of the Soviet enemy; some Westerners genuinely desired Russia to be free. But when, eventually, those freedoms came, Mr Zinoviev was still not happy. He loathed Mikhail Gorbachev's half-baked perestroika reforms, parodying them in another book, “Katastroika”. He detested Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-Soviet Russia, seeing him as a pawn of the cold war's vainglorious victors.

Even before he returned to live in Moscow in 1999, he took up causes that mystified his fans and delighted nostalgic communists. He strongly supported Serbia against what he saw as Western aggression, and later became a leading member of an outfit set up to champion its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, against war-crimes charges. He became an increasingly ardent defender of the Soviet Union. Stalin had rightly punished him for “terrorism”, he said. Brezhnev was too soft on dissidents. His individualism found Western conformism worse than Soviet collectivism.

He scorned Vladimir Putin's Russia, describing it last September as a “hybrid, a hare with horns”. Its ingredients, he said, were “hidden Sovietism, elements of Western values and the retarded feudalism of the Russian Orthodox church.”

Mr Zinoviev's contrarian approach, cynical and idealistic by turns, reflected one school of the Russian intelligentsia. By contrast, Mr Solzhenitsyn, another ex-émigré, though no fan of either the West or modern Russia, has remained staunchly pro-clerical and patriotic. But Mr Zinoviev's émigré counterparts still found his intellectual journey fascinating. Dmitry Mikheyev, a former political prisoner and physicist turned teacher of Western-style leadership to Moscow businessmen, compared him to a character in a Dostoevsky novel: “someone not entirely sane and rather idealistic, sensitive, emotional, full of contradictions.”

His intellectual mischief-making may have been tasteless, but it was not rancorous; there was a playful, good-humoured streak. Vladimir Bukovsky, a consistently anti-communist dissident settled in Cambridge, once asked him why, to the dismay of his friends, he was suddenly defending Stalin. “Anyone can attack Stalin,” Mr Zinoviev replied. “It's more interesting to find arguments in favour of him; without Stalin, my family would still be peasants.” Mr Bukovsky countered that the victims of Stalin's purges seemed a high price to pay for the Zinoviev family's elevation; Mr Zinoviev assented with good grace.

Mapping his intellectual journey was complicated by his delight in misleading gullible Westerners. In his teenage years, he claimed, he had been sent to Siberia (fresh from being top of the class at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History) for plotting to kill Stalin. According to one of his oldest friends, this tale was pure invention. Mr Zinoviev was “a brilliant mystifier”. That applied to his views and his life alike.

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