…And Its Discontents


Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, by Andrei Sinyavsky, New York: Arcade, $24.95, 291 pages

Now that the first and last stronghold of communism appears to be falling apart, there are still those who maintain that it didn't work because it was never tried properly. But what other way is there to judge a political ideology except by what happened when people set out to build a society on its principles? In Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History, one of the preeminent Russian writers of our age, Andrei Sinyavsky (who was slapped with seven years in labor camps in 1966 for getting published abroad and who now lives in Paris), draws on literature, history, and his own experience to offer a probing look at the realities and the myths of that society.

It is a system whose very name is a fraud, because, from the start, "it wasn't the Soviets—the elected councils—that were running the country but the Party apparatus." And yet, as Sinyavsky shows, Bolshevik ideology had its origins in the old Russian intelligentsia's passion for moral absolutes, in its religion of universal happiness. In the crucible of revolution and civil war, this passion, joined with the elemental rage of mobs let loose, was transformed into the worship of violence and terror as a way of clearing the debris of the old world to make room for the new one.

Hence the Soviet cult of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of Lenin's secret police. In a system of values that not only permitted but prescribed lies, murder, and torture for the sake of the revolution, "this chief hangman and jailer became the preeminent moral model," who, not unlike Christ redeeming humanity's sins with his death, "takes sins upon himself…in the name of the creation of a Heavenly Kingdom on earth." Eventually, the commandment to kill and lie if that was what historical necessity dictated became a commandment to kill and lie if that was what the leader wanted.

And what was the end that supposedly justified these means? The communists' utopia, of course, required the eradication of self-interest and proprietary attitudes: "The most egregious sin…is egoism or individualism, the desire to live for oneself as opposed to the common good." In a 1932 poem, revolutionary bard Eduard Bagritsky turned his rage on the owner of a small country house with a garden: Although this "suburban man" earns his living honestly even by Soviet standards, he becomes "the embodiment of the old, self-centered way of life that now must be destroyed." 

In place of the individual, however, came not the brotherhood of man but an omnipotent state with ecclesiastical claims on human souls. Sinyavsky observes that "during collectivization, the peasant who owned two cows was sent to Siberia as a 'kulak' while the district [Party] committee president next door, with access to much more than the value of two cows, prospered." The clue to this puzzle is that the peasant tries to be his own boss while the official "possesses nothing of his own, only the power and wealth conferred on him by the State whose interests he protects." Thus the promise of equality ended in a new system of privilege, all the more absurd and outrageous because, in deference to the ideological fiction of classlessness, it remained a secret (one of the world's worst kept).

While it failed to remodel the human psyche, the communist "State-Church" did quite well in warping it. Sinyavsky is at his most scathingly brilliant in showing how attempts to eradicate individualism and instill brotherhood led to exacerbated tensions, rivalries, and petty hatreds. Crowded into communal apartments with unrelated families, the new Soviet man is reduced to "battling his neighbors for his time in the kitchen or the toilet." In a 1929 short story by the great Soviet satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko, tenants fight over the electricity bill, spying on each other to find out if anyone keeps the lights on too long. At last, fearful of getting shafted, everyone tries to use up as much electricity as he can—running up a bill so huge that the electricity has to be cut off. If you think this is hyperbole, read Sinyavsky's account of his own hilariously horrifying struggles with resentful neighbors. You will see why the very word neighbors has acquired sinister connotations in the context of Soviet life.

This real dog-eat-dog competition, together with all-pervasive criminality caused by the amorphous nature of "socialist property" and the plain fact that one cannot survive without lawbreaking, adds up to the ultimate paradox: "Socialism has brought about society's desocialization." Nor has man been relieved of the need to fend for himself. On the contrary, the ultimate Soviet type is "the old fox" adept at outsmarting the state and his fellow man. "Man continues to fight for his happiness, and even more jealously than he might do so ordinarily.…All in vain. There is no life in any real sense. The way of life seems cursed for having been built on a wasteland where there is neither individual nor society, only the State."

Sinyavsky also looks at the way "proletarian internationalism" mutated into a new nationalism that emphasized Russia's special place as the mother of the communist revolution, and at the origins and significance of dissidence in the 1960s and '70s. Not to be missed are the gripping portraits of Lenin, the quiet scholar who treated killings and bombings like so many mathematical formulas (there is nothing worse than a cold, ultralogical mind acting on a crazy premise), and of Stalin, the intuitive, even "artistic" despot with a flair for the magic and mystery of power and a deadly sort of black humor. Rich in striking vignettes and provocative insights, Soviet Civilization captures better than many a hefty tome the essence of the Soviet regime as we knew it until the late 1980s.

When it comes to more recent developments, though, Sinyavsky's analysis seems seriously off-target. Unlike many who are inclined to mistrust Gorbachev but see the reform he unleashed as irreversible, Sinyavsky is rather soft on the man ("For now we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Mikhail Gorbachev and of his noble effort and intentions") but highly skeptical of the cause; he seems certain that one day things will be back to "normal." Some of his misgivings—about the army, the KGB, and the reluctance to break up the empire as powerful obstacles to liberalization—have proved prophetic But the fatal flaw of perestroika, in Sinyavsky's eyes, is that it is an attempt to introduce freedom by decree: "Once again, Soviet liberalism and the sovereignty of the Russian people are ultimately contingent on the goodwill of the father-tsar."

This certainly applies to perestroika as conceived by Gorbachevite reformers. But what Sinyavsky describes is now so distant as to have an unreal quality. The "goodwill of the father-tsar" seems to have been exhausted; at any rate it is no longer trusted by the people. Yet the freedom-loving impulse survives, emerging with unexpected strength at the grassroots level. Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are suddenly willing to stand up and march against communist slavery, even if they do not have a very clear idea of freedom—and even if their determination fails to hold up in the face of a more brutal crackdown. There is no hint of any of this in Soviet Civilization (completed in early 1990), no mention of any spontaneous political force except for the anti-Semitic Pamyat—though by all accounts its following is a mere fraction of that of prodemocracy groups. Sinyavsky continues to view Soviet public life in terms of the all-powerful state versus the lone individual whose sole weapon is his conscience. Perhaps he is unwittingly clinging to this outdated scheme because it bestowed a uniquely important role on the intellectual and, specifically, the writer.

Sinyavsky may have also made a fundamental, and surprising, mistake in overestimating the stability of Soviet civilization, on which he insists throughout the book, likening it at one point to the pyramids of ancient Egypt. This is surprising because his own observations point to a different conclusion: that it was all smoke and mirrors. Sinyavsky is right to say that, just as a pyramid cannot be "restructured" into a Greek temple, the Soviet system cannot be restructured into a democracy; it can only crumble and clear the space for a new society to be built. Perhaps the massive blocks of stone were held in place by beams of rotting wood. It is only to be hoped that, in collapsing, they do not crush too many victims under their dead weight.

Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow (Ticknor & Fields).