Ask the emigre Russian historian Mikhail Heller how best to gain an understanding of the Soviet Union and he will tell you to begin by reading Evgenii Zamyatin’s “We” and George Orwell’s “1984.” For unlike so many of the scholarly studies that Kremlinologists produce, these anti-utopian novels take seriously the Bolsheviks’ oft-stated intention to transform human nature, to create a compliant, collectivized New Man: Homo sovieticus.
In this companion to “Utopia in Power,” the magisterial history of the Soviet Union he co-authored with Aleksandr M. Nekrich, Heller argues that Soviet leaders from Lenin to Mikhail Gorbachev have consciously and obsessively subordinated every other goal to that Promethean project. This circumstance, he suggests, should serve as a cautionary tale. We in the West would do well to ask ourselves “to what extent . . . the reforging of human material that has been going on in the Soviet Union for seven decades (is) a universal process. Can it be extended to other countries and continents?”
Heller intended the question to be rhetorical, for he clearly believes that Soviet “totalitarianism” is exportable. Like Hannah Arendt, who popularized that currently unfashionable term, he makes repeated reference to the manner in which the Nazis adapted certain despotic innovations of the Soviet system for their own purposes. Hitler, for example, also attempted to control every aspect of the individual’s life, to make of him, as Stalin put it, a “cog” who would keep the “state machine in motion.”
But while the Fuhrer lost the war, Stalin won, making it possible for him to impose his will on Eastern Europe, starting with Poland, where Heller was permitted to live from 1956 to 1968 and where he witnessed a similar experiment in human engineering, one that Czeslaw Milosz charged with universal, and tragic, significance in “The Captive Mind.”
Heller devotes the longest section of his book to the “instruments” Soviet leaders have used to form New Men. Along with police terror, educational indoctrination, cultural propaganda, labor organization, and political mythology, he cites the way in which the Stalinist state destroyed family loyalties by inducing children to inform on their parents. And in his finest chapter, on language, he confirms W. H. Auden’s insight that both Hitler and Stalin “recognized . . . that there is something dangerous about language itself and tried to create a pseudo-German and pseudo-Russian in which it would be impossible to make genuine statements about anything.” That impossibility, Heller warns, is no longer restricted to two Indo-European dialects, for growing numbers of people around the world have come to accept Soviet definitions of words and thus, unwittingly, to extend the empire of thought control.
But although this and much else that Heller says is true, it does not necessarily follow that contemporary Soviet leaders still cherish utopian illusions. Because he believes that the history of Russia--as distinct from that of the Soviet Union--ended abruptly on the day Lenin seized power, he is reluctant to acknowledge any continuity with the prerevolutionary past. He therefore ignores the persistent role played by traditional Russian imperialism and refuses to consider the possibility that Party secretaries speak in Marxist-Leninist accents primarily because ideology alone legitimizes their authority.
It is evident, in any event, that they have failed in their effort to recast human nature. Himself a product of the Soviet system, Heller concedes that “the Goal has yet to be achieved,” but he continues to maintain that it lies within reach. Indeed his pessimism has recently grown deeper, thanks to the strange case of Alexander Zinoviev, the brilliant logician whom Leonid Brezhnev expelled from the Soviet Union in 1978.
Zinoviev earned a reputation as a dissident by publishing abroad a satirical portrait of the Soviet Union, but when he took up residence in West Germany, he shocked his hosts by proclaiming that he too was a Homo sovieticus. In an interview granted in 1984 (appropriately enough), he went so far as to express his pride at having fought for the Stalinist order, his approval of the brutal collectivization of agriculture, and his confidence “that the Communist system will eventually embrace the whole of mankind.”
Yet Zinoviev is far from typical. After 70 years of Soviet rule, there remain in Russia many of those incorrigible individualists whom Dostoevsky called “Underground Men.” Willing to pay the price for their errant ways, they insist, in the great writer’s words, that a man may sometimes “wish upon himself, in full awareness, something harmful, stupid, and even completely idiotic. He will do it in order to establish his right to wish for the most idiotic things and not to be obliged to have only sensible wishes.”
Honest historian that he is, Heller does not fail to call attention to Soviet men and women who have acted “idiotically,” even insanely, by official standards: nationalists and religious believers, a trade unionist, a ballerina, a biologist. He would have performed an even greater service had he subtitled his book “The Survival of Homo Sapiens.”