Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Moscow 2042 by Vladimir Voinovich

Russian science doesn’t see any distinctions between dystopia and anti-utopia. A utopia is a perfect place where an ideal society lives, while an anti-utopia is just the opposite. Wikipedia surprised me a lot with the term “dystopia”, which seems to be more commonly used for all kinds of not-so-perfect imaginary societies. Wikipedia says, “…dystopia does not pretend to be utopian, whereas an anti-utopia appears to strive intentionally to be utopian—to be intended by its creators to be utopian—but a fatal flaw or another unanticipated factor has destroyed or twisted the intended utopian world or conception, resulting in its antithesis.” I doubt that we can always determine if imaginary world was intended to be utopian or if this world pretends to be the ideal. I found another criterion to distinguish an anti-utopia from a dystopia. Utopias as well as anti-utopias belong to the realm of the ideal and can never come true. Dystopias can come true with ease. A dystopia is a scenario of how things might be at their worst. A brilliant example of a dystopia that comes true is Moscow 2042 by Vladimir Voinovich.

Here is a brief plot summary (sorry, there are some spoilers, but not too many): The Russian author Kartsev, living in Western Germany (just like Voinovich himself), travels through time to the Moscow of 2042. He sees no Soviet Union, but the Moscow Republic (Moscvorepa) instead. Someone called Genialissimus has decided to start building “Communism in one city”, namely in Moscow. The rest of the Soviet Union, where people are barely surviving, has been separated by walls (the three rings of animosity) from the paradise of Moscow, where communism has been realized. Communistic ideology has mixed with Russian Orthodoxy, with a patriarch among the communists’ leaders. Society is divided into the poor majority which has “ordinary needs” and a few chosen who may have “extraordinary needs”. For the first-mentioned group, life is dismal even within the privileged “Moscow Republic”. The situation finally gets so desperate that people throw themselves in the arms of the “liberator”, a fellow dissident writer and (kind of) friend of Kartsev, Sim Karnavalov (apparently inspired by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn), who enters Moscow on a white horse and proclaims himself Tsar Serafim the First. Thus, communism is a regression back into feudal autocracy.

A very smart person and talented writer, Voinovich predicted too accurately in which direction post-soviet Russian society tended to drift. His Genialissimus is a former KGB officer and, being in the very top, in fact, he has lost control over the country because of the ubiquitous flattery and lies.(no comments from my side, sapienti sat). Russian Orthodox Church today has political power and is involved into the economic and politic life too much. Russia suffered from the recent recession significantly, but not those few who sell oil and gas to foreign countries. Slavophilia, an intellectual movement that wanted the Russian Empire, is getting stronger and stronger while life is getting harder and harder for miserable majority. A journalist, who almost openly types bitter critical texts about Genialissimus, works at a computer connected to a fake network, his words go to nowhere – this is a great metaphor for the freedom of speech we have today. Voinovich himself said that he is surprised that his satirical dystopia became a book of predictions.

Is this scary? It would be scary, if it were a book by George Orwell. Vladimir Voinovich found a way to conquer fear with laughter. Humor is the best cure ever. Wikipedia said, Moscow 2042 is considered to be a masterpiece of anti-utopian satire, and I agree with this completely.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Utilitarianism and Russian Literature

Harvard University and WGBH Boston have posted online a popular course “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” Moral aspects of murder, price tag for human life, can we sacrifice one life in order to rescue thirty people? These and other moral questions are discussed during this course.

The first two episodes are devoted to utilitarianism. Wikipedia defines utilitarianism as “the idea that moral worth of an action is determined solely by its contribution to overall utility: that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed among all people. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome.” The idea is rooted in the philosophy of Epicurus, and in many ways resulted in thousand of years of European cult of rationality.

In Russia, it is literature that does the job of philosophy. Ethical dilemmas and moral choices are widely discussed in Russia’s novels of the 19th century, less so in philosophical works. Case in point, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, with all the power of his artistic gifts, demonstrated in his novels that a single person and a society cannot build happiness upon the suffering of another.Raskolnikov, the protagonist of “Crime and Punishment” killed a disgusting, wicked old woman. She was an evil. Dostoyevsky intentionally portrayed the old woman as a person with a black soul, so to speak. Presumably, the world would not miss this terrifying old lady; however, this presumption does not excuse the crime of murder. The moral bans for murder and violence against other human beings are more important than overall utility. Moreover, happiness can never be achieved by making another suffer. The most noble and bright idea isn’t worth a single tear of a child. This is what Dostoyevsky illustrated in his novels.

Now let’s turn from literature into the real life. Does primacy of human life declared in Russian novels work in reality? To be continued…