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Homo Sovieticus by Alexander Zinoviev; translated by Charles Janson (Atlantic Monthly: $17.95; 208 pp.)

May 25, 1986| Steve Wasserman | Wasserman is editor of New Republic Books, a co-publishing venture with Henry Holt and Co. and

Ten years ago, Alexander Zinoviev, a professor of philosophy at Moscow University and a prominent logician, published in Switzerland "The Yawning Heights," a scathing satire on the practices of communist ideology in the Soviet Union. He garnered widespread praise, evoking comparisons with Rabelais, Hobbes, Swift and Voltaire in the West, and with the biting comic journalism of the mid-19th-Century Russian writer, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. In Moscow, Zinoviev was awarded the Soviet Union's special accolade: He was deprived of all his appointments and expelled from the Communist Party. A decree revoking his Soviet citizenship was subsequently signed by Brezhnev. Condemned to permanent exile, Zinoviev now lives in Munich.

Since coming to the West, Zinoviev has published at least a dozen volumes, including novels, essays, memoirs and poems. Taken together, they form an astonishing meditation (perhaps monologue would be more accurate) on the nature and psychology of the Soviet state and the citizens who people it. Zinoviev contends that full understanding of the Soviet system can only be obtained "from inside," that one has to have participated in Soviet life before being able to accurately apprehend its inner essence. Zinoviev offers himself as Communism's consummate insider.

"Homo Sovieticus," ably translated by Charles Janson, is only the fourth book of Zinoviev's to have made its way into English. It is a confection of 215 fragments, or entries, presumably derived from the notebook of the narrator, a "professional scholar" recruited by the KGB and sent to the West in order to become a professional dissident. The narrator agrees to do so mostly because life in Moscow is boring, while in Paris, "people are wandering about . . . guzzling oysters, sleeping with negresses and looking through Playboy." He finds himself swept up in "Operation Emigration," a clever KGB plot to rid the country of its critics while infiltrating agents into the West. He settles in Munich, where he lives in a boardinghouse crammed with contentious Soviet emigres. He tells everyone he meets that he is a Soviet spy. No one believes him--least of all the Western counterintelligence agents who endlessly interrogate him. After all, who ever heard of a spy without a cover story?

Zinoviev has written a diary of denunciation. He spares no one, including himself. "If you want to get at the truth," the narrator declares, "the first thing to do is to get into an argument with yourself." Zinoviev's technique is that of a ventriloquist. His characters are all one-dimensional dummies whose names are derived from their creator's obsessions: thus, Cynic, Joker, Writer, Professor, Whiner, Enthusiast, Dissident, etc. Only the narrator remains nameless. He calls himself "a representative of the mass. As an individual I have no face, no profile." In "Homo Sovieticus," Zinoviev seeks to paint a portrait of the invisible man of Soviet society.

According to Zinoviev, the Bolshevik revolution has succeeded in creating a new man, Homo Sovieticus , or Homosos. He is a riddle, even for the author himself. He is a bundle of contradictions: at once envious and contemptuous, confident and fearful, pessimistic and hopeful, amoral and judgmental, cunning and stupid. The state he serves also vacillates between extremes, feeling both omnipotent and racked by doubt.

It is Zinoviev's rather perverse contribution to the literature of Soviet dissidence to suggest that even critics of communism are unable to free themselves of the taint of the society in which they were nurtured: "I'm a Communist not in the sense that I believe in Marxist fairy-tales (very few people in the Soviet Union believe in them), but in the sense that I was born, reared and educated in a Communist society and have all the essential characteristics of Soviet man."

His disgust and self-loathing deepen as his understanding of his plight grows. He rages at his impotence: "The tragedy of the Soviet opposition movement lies in the fact that it always remains inadequate to the scale and scope of our history. And the West, by inflating the insignificant doings of the dissidents to unbelievable dimensions, increases this disproportion even further." He hears in his own soul the constant echo of the communist culture he intellectually rejects but whose psychological reach he cannot escape. He is consumed by nostalgia for what he has forsaken: "Only when I got here did I sense what Russia had been for me, and what I had lost. . . . The soul of the Homosos lies in his participation in collective life. . . . I want to attend a Party meeting. I want to volunteer for work on my Saturday off. I'm even ready to do a spot of physical labor in a vegetable depot and go out to a collective farm to lift the potatoes. . . . When I lived in the Soviet Union I dreamed of living in a democratic country. . . . Now that I have lived in the West for a while I have swivelled my dreams round 180 degrees."

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