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The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union by Vladimir Voinovich, translated by Richard Lourie (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $22.95; 352 pp.)

August 17, 1986|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is Opinion editor of The Times.

Steely-hearted conservatives would have Americans believe that the Soviets are not at all like us, while mushy-headed liberals insist on the similarity of every man and woman.

Separate species or brothers and sisters beneath a fragile global skin? Such sweeping if imprecise perceptions matter--in life-death matters of arms control negotiations and in diplomatic matters of sitting at summits. We have a few expert witnesses who have lived in both cultures, including a cadre known as dissident writers. And a couple of them, satirists by trade, have been testifying in print this season.

Alexander Zinoviev published "Homo Sovieticus" (Atlantic Monthly) a few months ago, insisting that it takes one to know one--that only someone who has lived the Soviet life can understand it. The one-time professor of philosophy goes on to claim that the Soviet citizen is a new creature, born of the revolution and molded by a state where schizophrenia, a simultaneous certainty of superiority and inferiority, is routine. And the author himself admits suffering a polarity of emotions, at once calling the Soviet system a grave virus and then confessing to miss the certainties of "a good old police state."

Now comes Vladimir Voinovich, novelist-in-exile, with a book of short essays on his life and times in climates of communism and capitalism. Voinovich, too, misses Mother Russia, with all her contradictions and restrictions.

From Munich, his home of refuge after being expelled from the Soviet Union 16 years ago, Voinovich writes: "I can buy a ticket and travel wherever I please. To the United States, to Italy, to Spain to any country I choose. Except for one. One, that despite everything, is still dearer to me than all the rest combined."

Odd, in light of all the monstrous anecdotes Voinovich tells about his homeland, including the Soviet writer who included hatred as a beautiful concept of humanism; the "right to work" as, in fact, a duty to perform labor for the state; the abysmal housing (27-square feet per person, 13 people living in four rooms); the inferior quality and inadequate supply of consumer goods; the bureaucrat in charge of industry who could not pass 10th grade; the corsets of censorship and impossibility of creating--"The literature they control, encourage, favor, and reward has no greater success than the agriculture they also control"--and perhaps worst of all, the peril of complaining.

Early in the book, he compares Soviet life to a group of beetles surviving in the stagnant water of an iron barrel: "There are no flowers, no grass, in the barrel, and the food is meager, but life is peaceful." Odd, too, is the absence of obvious humor in a book by a reputed satirist. Being in the barrel--or even remembering it--seems to bring out the dour nature of the writer. The funniest story Voinovich tells is not his own, but part of a series of whispered jokes about defectors. Question: How do you make a string quartet? Answer: You send a Soviet orchestra abroad.

Yet oddest of all is an unspoken analogy. The tethered life Voinovich describes for the average Soviet citizen--restraint of dissent, insistence on demonstrations of loyalty, promotions based on obedience to the bureaucracy, all prices paid for some small security--could be applied to the eight-hour life of many workaday Americans. The communists, probably unwittingly, seem to have applied the least-enlightened strictures of corporate behavior and made them pervasive, every waking hour, every day. Americans, even those unhappily employed, swim out of the barrel and away from their bosses for two-thirds of their days; Soviets have to suffer state managers overseeing all the time.

Many Voinovich vignettes make a point about the mutual mistrust that grows in an iron barrel. But many short anecdotes are followed by moralizing paragraphs, with only occasional insights into the similarities or the differences in character, individual and national. Few of these personal memories are accompanied by much literary flair or even feel for scenery. In this case, the expelled dissident appears as a passionate witness who seems to be carrying old baggage, minus fresh observation.

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