Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, front cover(The Doomed City, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016, 462 pp., $18.99)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

Brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were the most popular science fiction writers in the Eastern Bloc from the 1950s through the early 1990s (when the Bloc dissolved), and were arguably the most popular science fiction authors ever. In his illuminating forward, fellow Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky, author of Metro 2033, reveals that their many novels in the 1970s had initial press runs of 500,000 and sold out immediately. Their 1964 novel, Hard to be a God, is very probably the biggest selling science fiction title of all time, the world over.

During the 1980s and 1990s, I became a Strugatsky enthusiast and read everything I could find by them in English. So, I was excited to see the appearance of Doomed City last year — a Strugatsky novel I’d never heard of.

It turns out that they wrote it in 1972, but hid the manuscript and didn’t dare to send it to a publisher for fear of being thrown in a gulag (yes, it could have happened even to such immensely popular authors) until the perestroika period in the late 1980s. It finally appeared in Russian in 1989, and the English translation only appeared last year.

Why? Doomed City is a bleak, brutal, and very thinly veiled critique of the Soviet Union and the ideology that produced it and all of its horrors.

Doomed City is set in the City (always capitalized), a place entirely isolated that might not even be on Earth, and which is the site of the Experiment (the nature of which is never explained, nor are the experimenters named). The residents of the City are all volunteers drawn from all over the world: Russians, Americans, Brits, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Swedes, and Germans, including former Nazis. Once in the City, they’re arbitrarily assigned to jobs unrelated to their previous occupations.

The protagonist, and by far the best drawn character, is Andrei Voronin, a former astrophysicist who, at the beginning of the book, is working as a garbage collector. He’s also, not coincidentally, a former Komsomol (official Communist Party youth organization) member, a conventional Marxist-Leninist, and a bit of a blockhead.

Through the following 400+ pages, we follow Voronin and his acquaintances as he works respectively as a garbage collector, detective, journalist, political boss, and adventurer/expedition leader (while still a political boss).

What’s striking throughout all this is how Voronin’s work, the amount of power he has in each job, and his position within the City’s hierarchy, is reflected in his attitudes.

As a garbage collector, he’s a blind believer in the Experiment, despite his bottom-of-the-heap position and the grossly obvious flaws in the City and its workings.

As a policeman, he becomes distrustful, suspects everyone, and becomes increasingly willing to use brutality — supplied by former Nazis who are now fellow policemen — against those he looks down on, which is pretty much the entire population of the City, including his supposed friends.

As a journalist, he adopts an adversarial attitude toward those in power.

And as a political boss, he adopts the attitudes of a political boss: entitlement, contempt for those he supposedly serves, willingness to suck up to even the slimiest political hierarchs, willingness to use violence and coercion to remain in power, and acceptance of a rigidly stratified society, with the political bosses on top and the vast army of proles (including personal servants) beneath them.

It would be hard to provide a better description of the characteristics of the “leadership” that ran the Soviet Union.

This political critique is by far the best part of the book. Other than that, Doomed City doesn’t have much to recommend it. It has a certain dreamy quality, which, however, is largely the result of poor, or at least deliberately hazy, writing (done in part in the vain hope of disguising the political critique, or at least rendering it nonspecific).

Almost all of the descriptive passages are vaguely written, using generalities rather than concrete physical description. The geography of the City, even its size, is all but indecipherable (as is the geography of the lands Voronin explores in the final section of the book). And there are too many nearly nonsensical stream-of-consciousness passages (from inside Voronin’s head), some lasting for pages. (At many points, I found myself asking, “When will this passage end?”)

As well, the secondary characters aren’t very well drawn, there are numerous loose ends, there’s almost nothing in the way of a conventional plot, and the authors offer nothing even approaching a solution to the dismal situation they critique so effectively.

That critique is summed up in a line by Izya Katzman, the most prominent and arguably the best drawn secondary character, in the latter part of the book:

“Any elite that controls the lives and fates of other people is odious.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Recommended only for diehard Strugatsky fans and those with an interest in critiques of Leninism and the former Soviet Union.

(For those new to the Strugatskys, rather than starting with Doomed City, I’d recommend Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic.)

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

Free Radicals, by Zeke Teflon front cover




We cover(We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1924)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon


Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) was already a twice-exiled (to Siberia) “old Bolshevik” when the Russian revolution broke out in 1917, even though he was only 33 at the time. He was also one of the first Bolsheviks to understand the totalitarian nightmare the Soviet Union was to become.

Remarkably, he understood this in the first years after the revolution, in 1920/1921. Even though anarchists and members of the Social Revolutionary Party had understood this even earlier on, those in the privileged class–the Bolsheviks–almost universally didn’t. Except Zamyatin, who projected his fears in the form of science fiction.

We was the first novel proscribed (in 1921) by Communist Party censors, though it was published in English three years later by Dutton in the U.S.  Shortly after that, the CP censors proscribed all of Zamyatin’s works. In 1931, probably thanks to his friendship with Maxim Gorky, Zemyatin approached Stalin and  remarkably was allowed to self-exile, rather than being murdered or sent to a gulag by Stalin. Zamyatin ended up in Paris and died there in 1937.

As for the novel itself, We is not typical of sci-fi books of the Gernsback era — which for the most part were horribly written “gee whiz!” stories about the technological wonders to come, or pulp Westerns set in space.  Rather, it falls into two much more modern science fiction categories: social science fiction (concerned with social and political trends) and dystopian science fiction (concerned with the downfall of civilization and its aftermath).

We is set in the far future, in the wake of a 200-year war in which over 99% of humanity died.  The specific setting is an enclosed city (“OneState”) which is the sole outpost of technological civilization, and which is a tightly regimented, totalitarian society under the thumb of a dictator (“Benefactor”–always capitalized) and his thugs (“Guardians”–again, always capitalized).

The story itself concerns one of the city’s citizens (“Numbers”), D-503, the head designer of “The Integral,” OneState’s first spaceship, his attempted recruitment by a resistance movement, and the results of that attempted recruitment.

The resistance movement is possible because, unlike in 1984, surveillance is not all pervasive. It’s close, but not all pervasive, as there are no omnipresent TV cameras and listening devices. Instead of cameras and microphones, OneState relies upon Numbers informing on each other, having all buildings made of specially toughened transparent glass, and cradle-to-grave indoctrination. Given how early this novel was written, the relative looseness of the surveillance system is quite understandable.

The other aspects of the novel bearing on technology are the weakest part of We. Zamyatin was no scientist, and even for the time his grasp of science was weak. The descriptions of The Integral, the spaceship, for example, are ludicrous. But one shouldn’t make too much of this. We is social and political projection, not a technological tale.

And there, Zemyatin was remarkably prescient. The political/social developments described in We largely came to pass in short order in the Soviet Union: a dictator with a pervasive personality cult; the use of euphemistic propaganda terms to disguise the nature of the dictatorship; mass surveillance; mass informing by citizens, one upon the other; state control of all means of communication; execution of dissidents; and constant indoctrination to produce “Numbers” who participate in their own oppression.

Another very strong point of We is the narration. Once you get past the nearly unreadable first two pages, concerning The Integral and written in the third person, the remainder of the narrative is written in the first person by D-503 and is poetic and haunting. It’s a remarkable psychological self-description; it chronicles D-503’s well ordered world being up ended by the resistance member who tries to recruit him, and the turmoil her new ideas bring as they challenge his indoctrination. It’s a sad and revealing self-portrait, and a very good illustration of the psychological results of indoctrination.

We‘s strengths far outweigh it’s weaknesses. It’s a great dystopian novel and is still well worth reading for both students of history and students of science fiction.


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Those interested in the devolution of the Russian Revolution to “communist” tyranny–during which time Zamyatin wrote We–should see the following: Maurice Brinton’s The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control (now part of the AK Press Brinton collection, For Workers’ Power); My Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman;  My Further Disillusionment in Russia, by Emma Goldman; The Bolshevik Myth, by Alexander Berkman; The Unknown Revolution 1917-1921, by Voline (E.K. Eichenbaum); and The Guillotine at Work: The Leninist Counter-Revolution, by G.P. Maximoff.

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Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia (pdf sample here). He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel.

Free Radicals front cover



Anarchist Cookbook front cover

(from The Anarchist Cookbook, by Keith McHenry with Chaz Bufe, Introduction by Chris Hedges, scheduled for October 2015)

Vanguard parties (i.e., any of the 57 varieties of leninist parties–marxist-leninist, maoist, stalinist, trotskyist, etc., etc.) have a long and sordid history. Their goal is always the same: seizure of the state apparatus in the name of the people. The leninist term for this is the oxymoronic “dictatorship of the proletariat”–as if an entire class of people could somehow be a dictator. But no, the dictator is, of course, the ultra-hierarchical vanguard party itself, as the expression, somehow, of the “will of the people.” (Transubstantiation perhaps?)

The Bolsheviks provide the most prominent early example of a vanguard party. The results of their power seizure are well known: over a hundred thousand prisoners murdered by the Cheka (secret police) under Lenin, over ten million more murdered or starved to death under Stalin, a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, elimination of independent unions, dictatorial control of workplaces by the party/state apparatus, tens of millions in gulags, purges, show trials, secret police, personality cults, and the rise of a new party/government elite–a “new class” that took the place and the privileges of the old elite.lenin-small

Where vanguard parties have taken power since the Bolsheviks, the results invariably have been bleak, from the surveillance state of Honecker’s DDR (East Germany), to the mass murder in Mao’s China (among other things, the murder of three million landlords–although, sad to say, that does have a certain appeal) and the subsequent transformation of the leninist state there into a fascist state, to the nightmare of North Korea, where millions starve while the state lavishes the proceeds of their labor on a bloated military, nuclear weapons, and grotesque spectacles–all in the context of a “people’s state” that is in effect a hereditary monarchy.

In fact, the record of vanguard parties that have seized power is so uniformly awful that there’s little point in examining them at length. They’re simply failures–all of them. Examining their ideologies, structures, and theories is of interest only as an exercise in forensic pathology.

At this point, some readers will say, “What about Cuba?” Well, what about it? Even after over half a century of dictatorship, many American leftists still have a soft spot for the Cuban Communists. They’ve bought into a false dichotomy: that the only choice is between U.S. imperialism and the “Communist” dictatorship. Their attitude seems to be, “Well, we wouldn’t want that here, but it’s for the best there, so, we support Fidel (now his brother Raul).” To put it mildly, this is paternalistic and smacks disturbingly of what one might charitably call hero worship.

Decades ago, a maoist friend told me about his experiences in Cuba as part of a Venceremos Brigade in the 1970s. (Venceremos Brigades were bands of American leftists who traveled to Cuba to work in the cane fields in support of “the revolution.”) At one point, Fidel himself showed up where they were working in the fields. My friend told me that he found the reaction of his fellow brigadistas sickening, that their reaction was like that of 14-year-olds at a Beatles concert. And this at a time when the Castro regime was still executing political prisoners in droves. (That regime is, of course, secretive about this; as a result, estimates of the number of those executed vary widely, from a low of a few hundred to a high of over 30,000.)

If you think a one-party state, suppression of civil liberties, government control of the media, suppression of independent unions, replacement of capitalist bosses by “Communist” bosses, secret police, prisons, executions, a network of neighborhood informers, militarism, and a personality cult are a good tradeoff for the Cuban people in exchange for good health care, free higher education, and a guaranteed low-paying job, by all means support the Cuban dictatorship–and support a vanguard party here.

But if you want individual freedom, democratic control of communities and workplaces, voluntary cooperation instead of coercion, and equality in place of domination and submission, vanguard parties are an absolutely terrible idea. On a personal level, they’re a bottomless pit of self-sacrifice, and on a societal level their results are invariably catastrophic.
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Over the coming weeks we’ll look at other possible means of social change, from the worse than useless to those that show real promise. They’ll include personal lifestyle/consumption changes, urban guerrillaism, traditional street demonstrations, educational work, utopian communities, union organizing, public space occupations, housing occupations, and workplace occupations.