At a moment when history’s revenge seems to have fallen on the Soviet Union, unleashing economic havoc and political disintegration, it is appropriate to examine anew the monstrosity known as “fully developed socialism.” Even if perestroika fails, the society that emerges from the current upheaval will surely depart radically from what we have come to think of as the “classical” Soviet paradigm. At the least, the new Soviet society will be free from Communist ideology. Whatever happens, there is little likelihood that Marxism-Leninism will soon be revived in Russia. The loss of this ideology will necessarily affect the individual and collective psyche and, although it remains far from certain that the nation will embrace democracy, some familiar bugbears, such as “class struggle” and “egalitarianism,” will surely be laid to rest.
Andrei Sinyavsky’s new book, Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, provides a penetrating epitaph for the Marxist-Leninist period of Russian history. The book’s Russian title—literally, Fundamentals of Soviet Civilization—is a drily ironic allusion to such stock Soviet university textbook titles as Fundamentals of Dialectical Materialism, and it better communicates the author’s intentions than the English title. What Sinyavsky has produced is both an introduction and a summary, a thesis and an illustration, that will help Western readers come to grips with attitudes and ideas that in many respects appear to them alien and bizarre. None of the bestsellers written on this subject by American journalists—Robert Kaiser, Hedrick Smith, et al.—or, for that matter, by professional sovietologists, are as elegant and persuasive as Soviet Civilization. In this clear-eyed insider’s account, Sinyavsky felicitously combines insightful generalization with illuminating anecdote, scholarly comment with personal experience. In the hands of a lesser writer, such stylistic variety would doubtless have resulted in a literary shambles. Sinyavsky has managed to weave the disparate threads of his argument into a compelling tapestry of Soviet life that is at once compassionate and witty.
Sinyavsky’s choice of themes bears witness to the breadth of his intellectual interests.
Sinyavsky’s choice of themes bears witness to the breadth of his intellectual interests. The book ranges widely from social psychology and anthropology to political philosophy and literary criticism—such criticism, indeed, being a craft in which Sinyavsky particularly excels. Above all, Soviet Civilization teaches us to appreciate the delusions of Soviet reality as reflected in the fictional world of Socialist Realism.
The book’s subtitle, “A Cultural History,” is an acceptable description of its genre, provided that we understand “cultural history” in the least academic sense. What Sinyavsky has given us is not a learned monograph festooned with references and statistics but rather an informed—albeit informal—meditation aimed at exposing the labyrinthine intricacies of one of the twentieth century’s greatest historical aberrations. Sinyavsky’s approach exhibits an affinity with the tradition of Russian Kulturphilosophie flourishing in émigré literature before and after World War II. For example, his book often reminds one of the works of Georgii Fedotov—an author who is frequently quoted in this volume—and Nikolai Berdyaev. Both writers were highly esteemed during their lifetimes but at present are virtually unknown to the Western reader.
Sinyavsky’s narrative also recalls more recent emigre writings on politics and society, particularly those by Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov and Mikhail Voslensky. While none of this work has received due attention in America, I have no doubt that in time Avtorkhanov’s Technology of Power and Voslensky’s Nomenklatura will come to be considered classics. In the meantime, I well remember how the latter was dismissed in a small column of The New York Times Book Review as lacking in interest for Kremlinologists.
The tradition of cultural philosophy has provided Sinyavsky with both a starting point and a perspective for his exploration of the character and achievements of the “new man,” homo sovieticus. The Emigre political writers must have influenced the way he analyzed the florid arcana of the Soviet power structure and made them comprehensible to an uninitiated reader. His book abounds in telling details. “A friend of mine from a fairly well off family of intellectuals,” Sinyavsky writes, “lived in the same small room with his parents and grandmother until he was middle-aged, sleeping on a folding bed that was stowed away during the day and set out each night, part of it tucked under the table. So that my friend slept half under the table.” Not only does this communicate something of the horror of living in a communal apartment: it also encapsulates the very idea of collectivism, the professed foundation of the Soviet way of life.
In the early 1970s, when I was still living in the Soviet Union, one of the most popular words in the milieu to which I belonged was marasmus: a strange word of dubious medical extraction. There was a general sense that “marasmus,” like God, was all-powerful and omnipresent in the life of the country. When asked by an American friend what the word means, I answered half-jokingly that “marasmus” is a coefficient indicating the contrast between the natural and unnatural orders of things. It is precisely by exploiting this implied contrast that Sinyavsky has made his “cultural history” so instructive.
Before portraying the accumulated absurdities that constitute Soviet civilization, Sinyavsky inquires into the nature of the Russian Revolution and the origins of the Bolshevik state. In outline, his argument is that the new society was founded on the reciprocity of pseudo-science and pseudo-religion. Both affect not only the specifics of Communist ideology but also the popular imagination and the characters of the men in charge. The religious fervor that saturated the movement found tortuous expression in the visionary poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok. Sinyavsky is particularly astute in distinguishing between Western agnosticism and Russian “theomachy” or “God-resistance,” which was epitomized by Mayakovsky. “[T]he Russian atheist resister of God,” he writes,
in his innermost soul, in his subconscious, grants that God exists and begins to test him, to provoke him, or else to debate mentally with him in a contest to determine who is the better, the more just, or the stronger. This partly explains the Bolsheviks' extravagant acts against sacred objects, as when . . . they lined [icons] up against a wall and shot at them, as if, for these atheist resisters of God, the icons were living beings.
This ambivalent, though virulent, atheism is made palpable in Blok’s famous poem “The Twelve,” in which a drunken and murderous detachment of twelve Red Guards roams the streets of the capital either being led by, or aiming their guns at, Jesus Christ. It must be remembered, however, that a similar irrational dimension has been present in other revolutionary movements, from medieval heresies to the “civic religion” of the Jacobins. It helps to recall in this context the distinction introduced by the French scholar Alain Besançon regarding the psychology of religion and gnosticism. Besançon observes that the religious man knows that he believes, whereas the gnostic believes that he knows. This last is, of course, what Marxism-Leninism is all about. Despite the convoluted jargon dispensed to conceal its provenance, Marxism-Leninism remains an unlovely offspring of the illicit love affair between pseudo-religion and pseudo-science: it is gnosticism for the modern age.
A fascination with science—or with what has been considered science—constituted, as Sinyavsky points out, the most prominent feature of Lenin’s personality. The chapter on the founder of Bolshevism is subtitled “The State of Scholars.” The Russian text is not available to me, but I strongly suspect diat “scholars” is a mistranslation. The Russian word uchenyj can mean “scholar,” but the context makes it clear that the meaning here intended by the author is “scientist.” Least of all was Lenin interested in scholarship or the study of the humanities. What he had in mind—and what Sinyavsky portrays as partially implemented—is the project of “scientocracy”: a government of scientists, that is, Marxist ideologists who are scientists by definition since Marxism is synonymous with science. Had Lenin succeeded, he would have accomplished the first historical realization of a scheme as old as that announced in Plato’s Republic—the rule of the wise. Since Marxism is also synonymous with wisdom, it follows that its best practitioners are entitled to the role of philosopher-kings. In this sense, at least, the Aristotelian definition of aristocracy as “the government of the best” is in full accord with Lenin’s vision of the Communist Party. He declared that the Party is “the Mind, Honor, and Conscience of our epoch.” “If the Party is the mind of the proletariat,” writes Sinyavsky, “and Lenin is the mind of the Party, then Lenin and his dictatorship embody the entire democracy of this new type, or the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
Rationalism, however, when inflexible and fully consistent, leads to a vicious circle.
Rationalism, however, when inflexible and fully consistent, leads to a vicious circle. lust as Socrates, the seeker for truth, was forced by Plato’s own logic to implant “the noble lie” in the very foundation of the ideal city, so Lenin’s “scientificality” resulted in nothing but technology plus legalized terror. As Sinyavsky observes, “Lenin evidently lacked the irrationality that is natural in any person. And since he had only his brain, his rationalism assumed irrational proportions.”
This “irrational proportion” of rationalism proved a most fertile soil for the advent of Stalin, who transformed Lenin’s pseudo-scientific Utopia into the atheistic pseudo-Church. Sinyavsky’s discussion of Stalin’s personality is one of the most absorbing parts of the book. He is right to concentrate on Stalin’s personality to reveal the essence of Stalinism. As Tacitus observed centuries ago, under tyranny it is the tyrant’s character that matters. The pathology of the ruler is reflected in the pathology of the ruled. It suffices to recall how Stalin’s habit of working at night forced the same work schedule on the entire state bureaucracy; and it seems somehow appropriate that the draconian regime was particularly active at the hour of the wolf—the time favored by demons and vampires.
It was no accident that Stalin, a failed seminarian, once likened the Communist Party to the medieval military-religious Order of the Sword-Bearers. Like the reign of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Stalin’s reign was built on mystery, miracle, and authority. As Sinyavsky realizes, these hold the key to Stalin’s power. To illustrate Stalin’s “dark fascination,” he makes excellent use of many anecdotes about him, “both entirely and partially documentary, written or oral.” Comparing his task to the work of ancient biographers who treated quasi-folklore as a historical source, Sinyavsky correctly remarks that “[i]t doesn't so much matter whether it is truth or invention, since conjecture can contain more of reality than the facts.” He even recommends that an anthology of all these vignettes, historical legends, and anecdotes be compiled. It is worth mentioning that such a collection, entitled the Staliniad, has, in fact, been recently published in the Soviet Union. It makes for remarkable reading, and one hopes that it will soon be translated into English.
A true artist himself, Sinyavsky strikingly explores what he regards as the artistic dimensions of Stalin’s psyche, including his aesthetic preferences, his malicious humor, and the twisted ingenuity he displayed as both director and performer of the macabre spectacles he staged. “The endless possibilities for substituting evil for good and vice versa were the stuff of Stalin’s unfathomable mystery, of his black secret.” This uncanny vision of Stalin’s mysticism and aestheticism must have inspired the eerie and memorable scene in Sinyavsky’s latest novel, Goodnight!, where the ghost of the dead dictator is compelled to visit his victims in a futile quest, and appeal, for atonement.
Some believe that Soviet orthodoxy, all-pervasive and irresistible as it seems, has succeeded in giving birth to a new anthropological species—homo sovieticus. This, at least, has been its professed intention from the beginning. Human nature, asserted Marx, is nothing but a summary of social relations; if the latter are transformed, the former can be fundamentally remodeled. The final product, the “new man,” is a subject of Sinyavsky’s special interest. Anyone who grew up in the Soviet regime—even he who has subsequently repudiated it—knows that some visceral responses instilled in the homo sovieticus are difficult if not impossible to eradicate. For example, even now, after a decade living outside the Soviet Union, I still experience a peculiar exultation whenever I hear the Communist anthem, The Internationale.
Starting with the discussion of the revolutionary elite, Sinyavsky demonstrates how the heroism and asceticism of these “new men” could be compatible with their role as informers and executioners. The moral relativism preached by Marxists—their insistence that the end justifies the means—required an unquestioning obedience to the interests of the revolution, which in turn meant an unquestioning faith in the authority of the leader. Thus could the poet Eduard Bagritsky extol the latter with the sincerity of a true believer: “But if he says: ‘Lie!’, you will lie, / But if he says: ‘Kill!’, you will kill.”
As Sinyavsky points out, it is a grotesque irony that the founder of the Cheka, “Iron” Felix Dzerzhinsky, showed a lifelong devotion to children and the young, setting up many orphanages. Dzerzhinsky’s innermost dream, according to memoirists, was to become the People’s Commissar of Education. Such a conversion of “the chief executioner” into “the chief educator” would have signified the triumph of Communist morality. Dzerzhinsky’s pattern of behavior helps explain the collusion of literature and the secret police in the early post-revolutionary years. “The trusted writer and the responsible Chekist: both work with human material, with the complexities of psychology. Both must have subtlety and insight, an ability to read into hearts. Both must reform humanity: one with words, the other with deeds.”
But Sinyavsky—like Ortega y Gasset— saves his deepest contempt for the “standardized” man of the masses, “the most frightening thing that Soviet civilization has produced.” The usual behavior of the Soviet mass-man manifests itself in khamstvo, an untranslatable word suggesting a particularly obnoxious air of aggressive vulgarity. The source of this evil, as the cultural philosopher Grigory Pomerants put it an essay from the 1960s, is moral semi-education. The mass-man, Sinyavsky notes, “is a savage who thinks that he knows all, that he is the pearl of creation.” It was individuals of this mold who called Boris Pasternak “a nasty toad” in print and who now cry for Sinyavsky’s blood, denouncing him as the leader of the “Russo-phobic” conspiracy allegedly organized by the Jews and Freemasons.
All this said, it remains uncertain whether the homo sovieticus does in fact represent a definitive and irremediable alteration of the national character. I rather think not. In the end, human nature resists, both in good and evil, artificial trappings. No amount of indoctrination can affect it permanently. Even though egalitarianism and a reliance on the authorities dominate the consciousness of the average Soviet man, the experience of emigration indicates how much depends on individual character, talent, and propensities. Some expatriates have failed to adjust and made their lives miserable; others have left their former attitudes behind and successfully integrated themselves into their new environment.
At present, with the collapse of the official ideology in Russia, a wide spectrum of social and cultural expression has come to the surface. There are even some novel types, the “anti-alcohol mystics,” for example, or the “Komsomol punks.” In my judgment, despite the threat of setbacks, all this points to the beginnings of the psychological emancipation necessary for a genuinely pluralistic society.
As for Marxism’s “new” way of life, it is not surprising that a regime founded on the “expropriation of the expropriators” and on the proclamation of public property (which in reality “belongs to everyone and to no one") led to the rise of poverty and corruption. Stealing from the state is regarded by culprits as a thing to be proud of, harsh punishments prescribed by law (including the death penalty) notwithstanding. Sinyavsky portrays with gusto the process of society’s “criminalization,” which leads finally to the convergence of the Party hierarchy and the Mafia: “On the bottom, chaos and penury reign. At the top, everything has been stolen from others. . . . There is no life in any real sense.”
It is impossible to convey Sinyavsky’s trenchant wit in summary.
It is impossible to convey Sinyavsky’s trenchant wit in summary. Like his incisive comments on the Soviet language and its own version of “newspeak”—which furnishes us with such novelties as using “Electrification” as a female name—it must be read to get the full effect. He amply recognizes the value of “countercultural” folklore and its fondness for pointed political anecdote, rightly seeing in its intricate verbal pyrotechnics proof of “the people’s vast and fertile linguistic creativity.”
The final chapter of Sinyavsky’s book, entitled “Hopes and Alternatives,” offers his perspective on the dissident movement, its achievements, and the prospects for democracy in Russia. Even the term glasnost, he notes, was borrowed by Gorbachev from the dissident vocabulary. At the same time, the activity of the dissidents has always been governed by a moral imperative, not a political program; as a result, very few dissidents are both willing and able to engage in present-day politics. The lack of unity among democrats facilitates the consolidation of the nefarious forces that one Soviet journalist aptly described as “an alliance of the Third Rome, the Third Reich, and the Third International.”
Sinyavsky likens Soviet civilization to an Egyptian pyramid “constructed of mammoth pieces of stone, painstakingly fitted together, lapped, and polished": a “mass of dead stone, an impressive monumentality dedicated to our once grandiose goals, now unattainable, for the usable space within is infinitesimal.” Such is the image: “Inside, a mummy: Lenin’s. Outside, a windswept desert: sand.” Can a pyramid, he asks, be converted into a Parthenon? This is a powerful metaphor. But being a metaphor, it is based on analogy, which—as Aristotle taught us—cannot be considered proof. History, in any event, is essentially unpredictable.
The belief in the malleability of human nature, central to the Marxist blueprint for the new society, proved to be a fatal—and fateful—error. The Soviet empire, standing on that flawed cornerstone, now begins to stagger, calling to mind not so much an Egyptian pyramid as the biblical Colossus with feet of clay. For Russia, there is no way back. During the years of perestroika, the absurdities of Soviet reality have been so thoroughly and mercilessly exposed by the media that there is hardly anyone in the entire country, including the party apparatchiks, who has not experienced at least momentary feelings of shame and revulsion. Sinyavsky, a pessimist, seems to believe that Russia’s future will in all probability take the form of a fascist theocracy, with the Orthodox Church supplanting the Soviet state. An optimist, however, can point to numerous signs of convalescence. The effects of a serious illness that has lasted for seventy years naturally will make recovery slow and painful. But one may hope that, with the arrival of a new generation uncontaminated by the past, Russia, like postwar Germany, will undergo a moral and spiritual rebirth and assume her rightful place in the community of mankind.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 10, on page 58
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