NO RETURN

By Alexander Kabakov

Translated from the Russian

By Thomas Whitney

William Morrow. 94 pp. $15.95

Just when did Mikhail Gorbachev lose his grip? How did the Soviet czar metamorphose so quickly from the all-powerful Leonid Brezhnev into the vacillating Gorbachev and now into the shabby, impotent General Panayev, whose proclamations inspire fear and respect only in the hearts of children? A kind of latter-day Kerensky, this king of shreds and patches dispenses coupons instead of charismatic leadership.

These ominous questions are already history for the inhabitants of Alexander Kabakov's "No Return," an anti-utopian novella set in 1993 Moscow. Published in Russia in 1989 and now translated into English, this Orwellian prophecy, less literature than a "war report," presents a kind of "what if" scenario about an apocalyptic age of anarchy, famine and moral degradation that is already here. Kabakov's scenes flow logically from (and seem to be confirmed by) today's events.

In a recent article titled significantly "Boris Yeltsin Taking Power" (New York Times magazine, Sept. 23), Bill Keller makes the following stunning observation:

"It is hard to see why he {Yeltsin} would want the job of national leader anyway, a position whose domestic power seems more and more confined to the 69 acres of the Kremlin compound."

Is Gorbachev then destined to play a merely "spiritual" role like the pontiff in the Vatican?

His Kalashnikov rifle at the ready, Yuri Illich, a scientist who has been physically "extrapolated" into the future, takes Yulechka, a modern Candide from the provinces, on a "tour" of the havoc wrought by Gorbachev's democratization drive. These images of turmoil form a kind of fun house in which the little horrors of 1988 (when the book was written) are distorted and magnified to frightening proportions: ethnic violence, workers' strikes, assassinations, rampant teenage gang violence, massive civil disobedience, collapse of moral values, galloping inflation, famine, NEP-like profiteers, and a general contempt for Pushkin, art and all forms of authority. The ineffectual General Panayev tries to meet this sea of trouble by relying on a Commission of National Security -- shades of Robespierre -- that carries out a dual policy of radical Marxist "leveling" and selective terror.

Kabakov's 1993 harks back to earlier periods of turmoil in Russian history: the disintegration of Rus' in the 13th century, the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century and, of course, the horrors of the Russian Civil War after the Revolution of 1917. Each of these periods of anarchy ("democracy"?) was followed by a Thermidorian reaction: the first by the absolutism of Muscovy beginning in the 14th century, the second by the accession of the Romanov dynasty, the third by Lenin and Stalin.

In "No Return" the pendulum has swung so far toward anarchy that everyone fears his neighbor. Under Stalin, people could find comfort in the anonymous mass or in the kind of spiritual freedom that sustained Solzhenitsyn in the gulag. Here, however, they keep apart like lone wolves:

"In a crowd surrounded by guards people never join together. On the contrary, each individual tries to retain his individuality, evidently thereby counting on receiving a separate decision on his fate."

We in the West, who are children of the secular Enlightenment, with its clear demarcation between the rational individual (or a parliament of such rational individuals) and the omnipotent autocrat, instinctively side with the forces of revolution. We believe that out of the labor pangs of the democratic chaos will arise, by force of arms or force of ballot, an order of reason based on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

But Yuri apparently longs for the good old days "when they were not risking a spray of gunfire from a doorway opposite ... or assaults from a crowd of half-crazed twelve-year-old benzene addicts."

In fact, he hardly remembers the golden age of order represented by Brezhnev. "I think they even had meat -- or maybe it was butter. I can't quite recollect anymore. ... Maybe I dreamed of those covered dishes ... and of guests who came without weapons."

He seems to long for a center that will hold against the centrifugal forces of his questioning intellect. Here Kabakov uses what I think is the most memorable image in the book: the watch. General Panayev has banned them because of their use by anarchists as timers in time bombs. In this Russia that is on its knees, the innocent abstraction of time has become dangerous and suspect.

"No Return" seems to end on the eve of a Thermidorian reaction, that is, a return to absolutism. A return full circle to Stalinism.

And how will Yuri and the Russian intelligentsia welcome this brave new world?

"That's not what we wanted! ... But the General! And will he, too, go on to become a Generalissimo? We fear blood, but does he? Once again we will lie down under the knife -- like sheep? In accordance with our tradition. "

Konstantin Shcherbakov, who contributes an introduction, claims that "No Return" is a warning of what might be if perestroika fails. I submit, rather, that it is a prophecy of what could be if it succeeds.

The reviewer is a translator from the Russian, most recently of Viktor Shklovsky's "Theory of Prose."