Cows sacred, evil, and venal are shot by Vladimir Voinovich in this satiric look at the Soviet Union that reads like a combination “Ivan in Wonderland” and Zamiatin’s WE. The hero of Moscow 2042, like Voinovich, is a Soviet émigré writer living in West Germany. Our protagonist, Vitaly Kartsev, takes a 30-day trip by airplane back to a Moscow 60 years in the future.

Upon landing at the airport he sees the familiar huge portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, but a Jesus in a business suit has joined this pantheon of gods. We gradually learn that the Communist Reformed Church has taken a prominent role in the regime in return for switching to straightforward atheism—ceremonies, rituals, and religious garb are all retained.

Kartsev is given all the respect a literary “classic” deserves even though his books are not published, their titles are never mentioned, and passages are never quoted. Past and future, fiction and fact begin to blur as we learn of the intense interest the all-powerful Editorial Commission has in convincing the “living classic” Kartsev to revise one of his previous works, Moscow 2042.

After reading his book, which he has not yet written, Vitaly Kartsev is asked to delete all references to Sim Simych Karnavalov. Sim—a devastating caricature of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn—desires to return to Moscow from the West after prolonged absence in order to restore the office of the Tsar. Vitaly simply cannot understand why the very elderly leaders of the Editorial Commission are so concerned about “improving” a work of fiction.

It turns out that the State Editorial Commission censors no writers. They may write whatever they wish—only none of it can be printed. In fact, there are whole divisions of writers in the Paplesslit (Paperless Literature) department who are busy at the keyboards all day satisfying their personal need to write. The decision about what literature is more generally needed, however, is made by the Editorial Commission. The state has surpassed socialist realism for Communist realism, and all serious writing is done by the Generalissimo.

The Generalissimo, who looks very much like one of Vitaly’s old friends who was a bit of a hustler, is venerated everywhere ad nauseum. He is judged superior to Jesus, Marx, Engels, and Lenin and circles the globe in a satellite which can never return to earth. In the meantime, several deputies actually run things on earth in accord with his wishes. He can’t return because the deputies don’t want him to return after seeing the impracticality of some of his ideas. All parties agree, including the Generalissimo, that the arrangement is for the best.

As the story continues, we learn that others in Vitaly’s past life are still alive. Traces of the future can be seen 60 years earlier, but Vitaly is hardly prepared for their continued physical existence. It turns out that one of the hierarchy has developed an elixir of life—a very handy scientific breakthrough for a gerontocracy that just seems to go on and on.

There is much mordant logic throughout this book. For instance, Lenin spoke of worldwide Communism and Stalin of Socialism in one country. The Generalissimo introduced Communism in one city. Sick, dying, or ideologically suspect persons are kept outside the city in the First Ring of Hostility, which is composed of filial republics of the Soviet Union. After the Filial Ring of Hostility there is the Fraternal Ring of Hostility, composed of socialist countries. Finally, there is the Enemy Ring of Hostility composed of capitalist lands. In Moscow itself, in the innermost of three rings within the city, all of which are inside the first Ring of Hostility, we have full and complete Communism.

From each according to his ability to each according to his needs. This is not as tough as it sounds once you realize that needs have to be determined scientifically. Everyone has general needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Beyond those general needs are the higher-level needs. Sure, some might like good-tasting, nutritious food rather than the foul-smelling but minimally nutritious vegetarian pork. The question is, do they need it? Members of the Editorial Commission, KPGB (a combination of Communist Party and state security), and the Supreme Pentagon, all have, as one might well understand, the highest level of needs.

But all is not well in Moscow. The letters “SIM” appear with increasing frequency as graffiti. Vitaly learns these are written by Simites, who are beginning to penetrate the inner circle. Vitaly eventually learns that many of the upper echelons of the hierarchy are closet Simites, who are also agents of the CIA. In fact, it turns out many of these same people are total cynics who really believe whatever they must to keep these higher-level needs satisfied.

And now we learn why there was so much effort to censor Moscow 2042. Sim Simych Karnavalov has been kept on ice for 60 years in a state of suspended animation, and rumor has it that he has just been thawed out. Fiction and fact are racing very quickly toward the end of this book as the Editorial Commission pressures Vitaly to change his manuscript lest the future be affected by his past account of a future fictional event.

The book is a wholesale assault on the Soviet system and to a lesser extent on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Perhaps Voinovich has earned the right for this two-pronged attack. He put his neck on the line for Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet literature wars of the early 1970’s until his own forced exile in 1980. He clearly is distrustful of any sweeping claims to truth whether it be from the party or a literary giant.

Solzhenitsyn’s creative and historical work is epic in nature. Voinovich is a satirist capable of laughing at himself and others while Solzhenitsyn feels responsible for saving Russian history, language, and literature. It grates upon other Soviet émigré writers that Solzhenitsyn is not on the publishing circuit and stays in his high white house.

Voinovich seems to have agreed with the more modest claims to truth of Vasily Grossman, the Soviet author of Life and Fate, which he smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1980. Grossman, who died a victim of gross Soviet repression, believed in the spontaneous acts of human kindness which had little to do with the absolutist claims to the Good made by fascists. Communists, or religion.

When shooting sacred cows, it’s important to make the distinction between the cow and the sacred. In 2042 Voinovich makes one consider which is which in a most entertaining way.


[Moscow 2042, by Vladimir Voinovich (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) $16.95]