SOVIET CIVILIZATION:

A CULTURAL HISTORY

By Andrei Sinyavsky

Translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull with the assistance of Nikolai Formozov

Arcade Publishing. 291 pp. $24.95END NOTES

If the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is any guide, "Soviet civilization" is an oxymoron. To civilize, according to the OED, means "to bring out of a state of barbarism; to instruct in the arts of life; to enlighten and refine." In the view of Andrei Sinyavsky, what Soviet rule brought to the Russian empire had more to do with violence, amorality and the ruthless destruction of the past than anything resembling illumination, let alone improvement.

Indeed, in "Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History," Sinyavsky uses the term "civilization" as the antithesis of culture. "It is the cold, dead crust that congeals on the surface of life and culture, stifling them," he writes in his chapter on the Bolshevik Revolution. His goal is to examine some of the most salient elements of that crust, eight icons or "cornerstones" of the Soviet edifice, illustrating his arguments with examples from literature as well as his own life.

Sinyavsky devotes two chapters to Lenin and Stalin, another to the revolutionary utopia promised in 1917, and one apiece to the "New Man" and the "New Way of Life" created by the Soviet state. He dissects the peculiarly tasteless linguistic salmagundi of pomposity and mind-numbing rhetoric that is traditional Soviet language. And he splits a chapter between his own generation of dissidents and the tension between nationalism and internationalism in Soviet history.

Sinyavsky is one of the most brilliant writers to emerge from the Soviet Union over the past 30 years, and by emerge I don't refer to his 1973 emigration after seven years in a labor camp for the crime of publishing abroad. Few voices in the West, let alone within the Soviet Union, exposed the lethal deceptions of Soviet ideology as incisively as Sinyavsky did in his early works, especially in the essay "On Socialist Realism" and its accompanying novella, "The Trial Begins." As a literary scholar he is always original and frequently iconoclastic: His appreciation of Aleksander Pushkin, for instance, has become the book Russian nationalists love to hate. His fiction, especially the recently translated "Good Night!," is at once exhilaratingly playful and intellectually penetrating.

By Sinyavsky's dauntingly high standards, "Soviet Civilization" is a disappointment. In part the book is a victim of circumstance. It describes a Soviet Union that is crumbling before our eyes with incredible speed, so that although almost every word of it is true, it seems antiquated and irrelevant. When Soviet life stabilizes (or perhaps what will eventually stabilize is Russian life, Georgian life, Armenian life et al.), this book may seem a valuable historical analysis. Still, much of it has been said before, often by Sinyavsky himself. The very cadences of some sentences sound familiar. Writing about the founder of the Cheka, predecessor to the KGB, Sinyavsky comments, "Out of hatred for prison, Derzhinsky became the first jailer after the revolution ..." Thirty years ago, in "On Socialist Realism," he wrote, "So that prisons should vanish forever, we built new prisons ... So that not one drop of blood be shed any more, we killed and killed and killed."

Reading Sinyavsky is usually a pleasure, thanks to his teasing, evocative, often humorous style, well matched by the English of his usual translator, Richard Lourie. "Soviet Civilization," translated by Joanne Turnbull with the help of Nikolai Formozov, is flat, either because they lack skill or because the Russian text (not yet published) itself lacks spark. Irritating sentence fragments litter the text, and far too many sentences begin with "This ...:" "This purpose ... This movement ... This reconstruction ... This propensity ..." all in the space of one page.

Yet even in what is for him a weak book, Sinyavsky is worth reading. Often he moves beyond specific details to examine the more profound psychological processes that cause or result from them. In "The Soviet Way of Life," for example, the particulars of everyday life (lines, shortages, the black market) motivate his view of Soviet society as inherently "criminalized," both ideologically and practically. If property belongs to everyone, as Soviet citizens were once taught, it belongs to no one -- so why shouldn't anyone take it? Moreover, in a shortage economy, people are forced to steal to survive, whether their theft takes the form of on-the-job pilfering or the ubiquitous bribes. So it is that a professional thief can regard himself as the only honest man. "Stealing becomes an act of valor. ... If a man ... is a real man, he must be a thief."

Predictably, Sinyavsky is acute on the "dissembling and mystifying" powers of Soviet-ese. After a number of sadly funny examples of verbal make-believe (instead of a camel, Soviet man rode "a desertgoing vessel"), Sinyavsky concludes: "The language is used not only as a substitute for reality, but as a substitute for language. The language as a means of communication among people has been turned into a system of incantations supposed to remake the world. Which is why it is so difficult for Westerners to have a dialogue with the Soviet press or State."

Fortunately, what once seemed set in concrete is changing; many of Sinyavsky's present-tense verbs already belong in the past. Sinyavsky himself celebrates the changes, albeit warily. Meanwhile, this volume may serve as an epitaph for the moribund civilization known as the Soviet Union.

The reviewer teaches at Howard University and writes often about Russian culture. She has just completed a book about the Soviet novelist Iurii Trifonov.