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Alexander Zinoviev, 83, Changeable Russian Author, Dies

Alexander Zinoviev, 83, Changeable Russian Author, Dies

Douglas Martin, New York Times

Alexander Zinoviev, a philosopher turned popular author who won wide repute for his savage satires of Soviet society, only to become a surprising apologist for Communism after its demise, died in Moscow on Wednesday. He was 83.

The cause was brain cancer, his wife, Olga, told Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Zinoviev emerged from a large peasant family to become an influential philosopher of logic before writing withering, surrealistic mockeries of life in Communist Russia that were compared with the works of Hobbes, Swift and Voltaire. He drew particular praise for The Yawning Heights (1976), which depicted a society dying of boredom.
Aleksandr Nekrich, writing in The New York Review of Books, called it "the most important study of Soviet society, and of similarly closed societies, that has appeared since World War II."

Leonard Shapiro, the scholar of Russian Communism, called it "one of the most remarkable books of our generation."

Mr. Zinoviev then seemed to shift course totally. As the Soviet Union struggled to reform itself under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980's, Mr. Zinoviev, by then in exile, criticized the widely applauded changes as a charade.

After the Communist regime expired, he not only mourned its demise but also called the Soviet period the "summit of Russian history." He characterized anti-Soviet dissidents as paid stooges of the West and hailed Stalin — whom he in his youth had plotted to assassinate — as a great man.

Some viewed Mr. Zinoviev, who came to support Communist candidates in Russian elections, as innately a contrarian. But he said that his earlier criticisms reflected disappointment over the gap between Socialist ideals and performance and that he had never been really anti-Communist.

Mr. Zinoviev was far from the only former Soviet dissident to criticize post-Soviet Russia, but he was one of the more visible and vigorous. He complained that foreign capitalists were colonizing Russia, argued that Russians were by nature collectivist and became a leader in the fight to keep Lenin's embalmed body in its tomb in Red Square.

In all his phases, he was prolific. He wrote about 40 books and hundreds of articles. Some of his books published in the English include The Radiant Future (1978, 1980 in English), The Reality of Communism (1981, 1984) and Homo Sovieticus (1982, 1985).

Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Zinoviev was born in a small village east of Moscow on Sept. 29, 1922, the sixth of 11 children of a house-painter. He could totally recall whole pages of books at a young age and started grade school in the second grade.

After high school, he attended the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow, from which he was expelled at 17 for plotting to kill Stalin with a pistol and grenades in Red Square. He told The New York Times in 1979 that the authorities let him go in the hope of finding other plotters by following him. He disappeared into Siberia.

After being apprehended six months later, he joined the army, serving in a tank unit that he sardonically pointed out lacked tanks. He then took flying lessons and ended up flying 30 missions in a plane used to strafe tanks and ground troops. He won medals for heroism.

After the war, he spent eight years earning graduate and postgraduate degrees from Moscow State University, writing on the logical structure of Marx's Das Kapital. He then taught at the university and also worked at the Academy of Sciences.

He did research in mathematical logic and the methodology of science, publishing papers at home and abroad and becoming chairman of the university's logic department; however, he was not permitted to attend international conferences.

He refused to fire dissident professors and resigned from the editorial board of Philosophical Questions, a prestigious journal, as a protest against the government of Leonid Brezhnev. By 1974, he was in almost complete isolation, and in 1976, after publication in Switzerland of The Yawning Heights, he was stripped of his jobs and war medals.

Less than two years later, he was allowed to emigrate to Germany, where he taught at the University of Munich and churned out what he called "sociological novels" critical of the Soviet Union.

The most successful of his works by far was The Yawning Heights, its name a takeoff on "gleaming heights," a Soviet cliché for Socialist achievement. The book summons puns, fury and disgust in a startlingly unconventional manner: its 800 pages profess to consist of fragments retrieved from a garbage dump. There is no narrative and only the occasional anecdote. Everyone is named Ibanov and lives in a country called Ibansk, where mediocrity is the order of the day. The name is put together from the name Ivan and a coarse verb in Russian defining a process for ensuring future generations.

Characters have allegorical names like Careerist or Sociologist, with some seeming to indicate real people, like Boss (Stalin) or Truth-teller (Solzhenitsyn). The satire is biting, like the requirement that all trousers, for whatever age or size, be identical, "ideologically consistent trousers."

The work ends wearily at a crematorium where citizens end their lives voluntarily, literally bored to death.

Mr. Zinoviev completed the book in just six months, explaining to a reporter from The Times that he had written it in his head for 50 years.

If anything, his pace intensified as his criticism of the Soviet Union turned to praise, even nostalgia.

"I want to attend a party meeting," he wrote in Homo Sovieticus. "I'm even ready to do a spot of physical labor in a vegetable depot and to go out to a collective farm to lift the potatoes."

In 1990, his citizenship was restored, and on a visit to Moscow the next year he gave interviews detailing his seemingly new pro-Communist views. He returned permanently in 1999, saying he wanted to be with Russians to struggle against "the enemies of my country."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Zinoviev apparently leaves at least two children, both daughters. When he emigrated to Germany, an article by The Associated Press said he was accompanied by a 7-year-old daughter, and when he returned 21 years later, Agence France-Presse said a 9-year-old daughter was with him.

In Homo Sovieticus, Mr. Zinoviev wrote a line that might help explain his big turnabouts: "If you want to get the truth, the first thing to do is get into an argument with yourself," the book's narrator says.