Alexander Zinoviev

Writer who satirised the Soviet regime and spent two decades in exile as a result


Alexander Zinoviev, writer: born Pakhtino, Russia 29 September 1922; married (two daughters); died Moscow 10 May 2006.

The one-time Soviet dissident writer Alexander Zinoviev had a love-hate relationship with Soviet Communism that wrong-footed those who tried to pigeonhole him. Although famous for his satires of Soviet life in the 1970s, he later became disenchanted with post-Soviet democracy and called for a Communist revanche in order to restore Russia's great power status.

Indeed, like his near-contemporary Alexander Solzhenitsyn, he came to loathe Western-style materialism and as he got older increasingly believed that the West was plotting to undermine Russia.

His most famous work, Ziyayuschie Vysoty ("The Yawning Heights"), was a lengthy satire on life under the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that enraged the Kremlin, which exiled him in 1978. He was also well known for coining the term "Homo sovieticus" in a 1984 novel of the same name in which he suggested that Soviet Communism had given birth to a standardised, universal, Communist-minded male.

Zinoviev was born in 1922, in the village of Pakhtino in Russia's Kostroma region. His mother was a peasant and his father a house painter and the family lived in difficult conditions. One of 11 children, Zinoviev first ran into trouble with the authorities in 1939 for criticising Joseph Stalin's cult of personality and was expelled from the Komsomol (the League of Young Communists) and thrown out of Moscow's Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History. He was briefly arrested, but somehow escaped and went into hiding.

Zinoviev surfaced during the Second World War, took part in the defence of Stalingrad and the liberation of Berlin and Prague, and became a highly decorated bomber pilot.

In 1946 he settled in Moscow with his wife Olga and began studying to become a university professor of psychology and logic. He graduated from Moscow State University in 1951 after writing his thesis on Karl Marx's Das Kapital. A brilliant academic career followed, which saw him appointed to the Soviet Union's Academy of Sciences and chairman of Moscow State University's Logic Department.

He published numerous internationally acclaimed scientific texts in the two decades that followed, but also earned himself a reputation in the Soviet Union as a pro-dissident academic due to his refusal to expel dissident professors working in his department.

It was the publication of The Yawning Heights in Switzerland in 1976 that was to seal his fate. The book earned him the wrath of the Soviet authorities and the admiration of literary critics in the West, who compared his writing to that of Jonathan Swift. The Yawning Heights was set in a fictional town called Ibansk and made up of absurd fragmentary conversations between and about characters with generic names such as "writer", "artist", "dauber", "truth-teller" and "chatterer". The "yawning heights" referred to the gap between the Soviet state and society, and the text sought to expose the hollow and tedious nature of life under Brezhnev's "stagnation".

Punishment followed swiftly; Zinoviev was dismissed from his university job, thrown out of the Academy of Sciences and stripped of his war medals. In 1978 he was expelled from the Soviet Union after being told that he would be imprisoned in a Siberian labour camp for 12 years if he refused to leave.

The official reason for his being stripped of his citizenship was that he had "damaged Soviet prestige". Zinoviev chose to move to Munich where he remained until 1999, despite the fact that his citizenship was reinstated in 1990 by President Mikhail Gorbachev.

For as long as the Soviet Union existed, Zinoviev seemed comfortable with his role as a critic of Communism but as soon as it began to crumble he started to change his mind. He poured scorn on Gorbachev, accusing him of selling out to Western imperialism and sarcastically calling his restructuring policy of perestroika "katastroika".

Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first post- Soviet president, was not to Zinoviev's liking and he openly called for him to be replaced by Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Russian Communist Party. In recent years he had become an active supporter of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic. He also performed a U-turn on Stalin, a man he had once derided, claiming that he was the most effective leader the Soviet Union had ever had. In his final years Zinoviev gave philosophy lectures at Moscow State University.

Andrew Osborn

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