The Soviet Matrix: On the Strugatsky Brothers’ “The Doomed City”

By Marat GrinbergNovember 5, 2016

The Soviet Matrix: On the Strugatsky Brothers’ “The Doomed City”

The Doomed City by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“WE WERE BORN to make a fairy tale a tale of truth,” proclaimed an iconic Soviet march from the 1920s. The version of it that became popular among the Soviet intelligentsia in the 1960s sardonically stated, “We were born to make Kafka a tale of truth.” The Strugatsky brothers, legendary science fiction authors of the postwar years whose novels were treated like scripture by their readers, took this motto to heart. The older Arkady and the younger Boris began as devout communist idealists in thrall of the revolutionary Soviet project, and they ended as its harshest critics and opponents, equating the drabness and nightmares of Kafka’s world with Soviet values. Science fiction for them, however, was not merely a ploy, a method for speaking of the forbidden through allegories and Aesopian language; it was the only suitable artistic response to their time’s moral and technological collapses and a deeply philosophical enterprise.

Two major propositions emerge from their historicist philosophical worldview. The first, partially borrowed from the great Stanisław Lem, presents the human-centric view of the universe as fundamentally flawed. Human history is nothing but “a picnic on the side of the road” in the wider cosmos, to use the title of their most well-known work, making perennial human challenges not merely insoluble but also insignificant. “Progress” for the Strugatskys becomes a deeply suspect word. The second proposition, their version of “civilization and its discontents,” suggests that humanity is doomed because it can never resolve the tension between chaos and order. Chaos, which signifies freedom but also destruction, should be controlled, but any attempt at doing so on a large scale turns into an enactment of terror by the state, the party, or whatever other institution takes its place. Not enamored with religion, anarchy, democracy, or utopia, the brothers see this tension between order and chaos as the only truly intractable facet of human politics and life. Their most developed and longest attempt at describing it (and perhaps unraveling it) is the novel The Doomed City, skillfully translated for the first time into English by Andrew Bromfield.

How the morose and drinking Arkady, a Japanese translator by training, and the talkative and open Boris, with a degree in astrophysics, actually wrote their 30 books together remains somewhat of a mystery. According to Boris, who survived Arkady by 21 years, there wasn’t a single sentence they didn’t compose in tandem. They worked on The Doomed City over a period of three years, from 1972 to 1975, coming to the quick realization that the novel could not be published or even brought to their editors’ attention. Their usual strategy with censorship, as Boris colorfully put it, was to write in a way that would cause the editors’ hair to stand on end in shock, but at the same time would not make them turn the manuscript over to the “appropriate organs.” With The Doomed City, their most cherished and uninhibited creation, this wasn’t an option. The Strugatskys made only three copies of the novel, which they kept hidden with friends whose association with the brothers was unknown to the KGB. The book was only finally published much later during the perestroika years in 1988 and 1989.

For the Strugatskys, The Doomed City was different because it lacked any covert allegorical language. Mystery and absurdism lie at the heart of the plot, but these are encased in a fully realist contemporary setting in a mode evocative of Kafka or Andrei Platonov. Having hinted at similar inclinations in the earlier Snail on the Slope, the brothers immerse themselves in a Kafkaesque exploration here, composing a text that is both unequivocally satirical and seriously philosophical.

The plot takes place in a city with “infinite Void to the West and infinite Solidity to the east,” where the sun is extinguished and reignited at will. Some unknown power is conducting an experiment, importing people from all over the post–World War II globe. The city constitutes a matrix, an explicit parallel mirror dimension to the Soviet Union. It also functions as a Tower of Babel: Russians, Germans, Chinese, Americans, and others labor there together, each speaking their own language yet somehow understanding each other. This linguistic miracle, however, does not at all translate into other spheres of the city’s life, which is gray, restrictive, secretive, and operating under empty slogans. This speculative setting allows the Strugatskys to condense different Soviet epochs — the Stalinist period, the liberal Thaw period, and the stagnation period of the 1970s — into one place and time. Throughout the novel these periods do not follow each other chronologically but are jumbled up and interwoven, symbolizing the unchanging vicious circle of Soviet history.

The city’s residents are assigned jobs and professions, which they must change on a regular basis. One resident, Andrei Voronin, acts as the protagonist of the novel, a young astronomer (like Boris Strugatsky) plucked from Leningrad in 1951, six years after the end of the war and two years before Stalin’s death. A janitor in the first part, he moves up the social ladder throughout the text: from a prosecutor, to chief editor of the city newspaper, to senior counselor in the new regime, installed by Nazi Officer Fritz Heiger. In his memoirs, Boris Strugatsky masterfully sums up the essence of Andrei’s journey as “a Komsomol Leninist-Stalinist, a thoroughgoing communist true believer, a champion of the happiness of the common people, who evolves with such spontaneous ease into a top-ranking bureaucrat, a smooth, lordly, self-indulgent, petty chieftain and arbiter of human destiny” as well as “the comrade-in-arms of an inveterate Hitlerite Nazi,” indicating “how much these apparent ideological antagonists turn out to have in common.” In his commentary, Boris invariably returns to Vasily Grossman’s magnum opus Life and Fate, whose main idea was the unity of the Nazi and Stalinist systems, a concept which also becomes the central thrust of The Doomed City.

Andrei decides to join the experiment precisely in order to see the fulfillment of the communist dream, which can then be replicated in the actual Soviet Union. In the second part of the novel, he enters the project’s holy of holies: the Red Building, where he plays a game of chess (using real humans as pieces) with Stalin, who is referred to as the Great Strategist. Andrei encounters the tyrant’s cruel “wisdom” and tricks, which shock him but do not dissuade him of the rightness of the cause. Andrei links the necessity of communism with the problem of chaos, which must be mastered and transformed “into the new beautiful forms of human relations that are called communism.” Again, this philosophic idealism quickly and (as the Strugatskys insist) inevitably transforms into a thirst for power, the satisfaction of his basest desires, demagoguery, and a fundamental disregard for individual human life.

The breakthrough occurs late in the plot, when Heiger commissions Andrei to lead an expedition into the farthermost parts of the city, where supposed enemies reside in the Anti-City. This journey results in the massacre of the expedition members; Andrei survives, and it is via the memory of the siege of Leningrad that he discovers the utter fiasco his ideology and life have become. Boris Strugatsky stayed in Leningrad with his mother during the siege — Arkady was able to leave with their father — and therefore it is especially significant that the horrors of the siege open this character’s eyes to the falsities of his and everyone else’s existence. “That was no Experiment,” he reasons. “And that city was more terrible than this one […] In that city nothing was more ordinary than death. But the authorities still functioned, and while the authorities functioned, the city stood.” The authorities, he now realizes, didn’t care about “us”: individuals did not exist for them, only an amorphous “P for Population” which could be acceptably sacrificed or even eradicated. The siege becomes a window to the totalitarian and, particularly, Stalinist mindset.

The trauma of the siege forces Andrei to return to the problem of chaos, “intrinsic to man,” and the Bolshevik ideology’s attempt at subduing it, “doing it in,” fated like any ideology to succeed “not for very long, and only at the cost of spilling a lot of blood.” Andrei rhetorically asks: “Who is really the good person here? The one who aspires to allow the free play of chaos — a.k.a. freedom, equality, and brotherhood — or the one who aspires to reduce […] ‘social entropy’ to the minimum?” The problem that he discovers is that this “free play of chaos” is equally futile since people, driven by their animalistic instincts, strive not for equality and brotherhood but power.

It seems that the main philosophical antecedent for this formulation of the chaos/order conundrum lies in Plato: the Strugatskys’ Doomed City echoes the doomed Kallipolis of Plato’s Republic. The brothers read Plato in a Straussian manner: according to Leo Strauss, the city Plato envisions, with its harmonious relationship between the masses and the philosophers, is “not possible” due to the groups’ irreconcilable natures. Only a perversion of it proves possible, and the regime of the bogus philosopher-king Heiger represents exactly this. The authorities, wallowing in luxury, feed the appetites of the not-yet-exterminated masses, establishing “the dictatorship of mediocrity over cretins.” Andrei, who by the end of the novel approaches the true Platonic model of the philosopher and acquires “Understanding,” is stuck like Strauss’s Plato. Estranged from everyone around him, he sees no exit from this existential condition, yet paradoxically desires to live. Like Strauss in his “Persecution and the Art of Writing,” and like the Strugatskys themselves in their other works, he must learn to communicate in duplicitous ways to survive: speaking truthfully with the select few who also have “Understanding” and who “know how to read” the “manuscripts” that “don’t lie,” but speaking circumspectly with the great majority who don’t and never will possess “Understanding.” Ironically and self-deprecatingly, Andrei calls this compromise a “comfortable niche,” the place in which many among the Soviet intelligentsia found themselves by the 1970s.

Besides this Platonic “Athens” layer of the novel there also exists another “Jerusalem” layer, represented by the story’s other protagonist, the Jew Izya Katzman, who survives the expedition with Andrei. It is through Izya, whom Andrei turned in to the Secret Police for torture in the novel’s second part, that Andrei acquires “Understanding.” The brothers, sons of a Jewish father and a Russian mother, were always fascinated with Jewishness, an interest manifested prominently in their works through characters, tropes, and allegorical constructs. Izya, “with his provocatively Jewish features,” embodies their preoccupation unabashedly, and he represents their philosophy of Jewishness. Transported to the City in 1968 — after the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, which played a crucial role in reawakening the Soviet Jewish self-consciousness, and after the Soviet invasion of Prague which shattered any illusions about the nature of Moscow regime — Izya joins the “experiment” out of “curiosity.” He acts as a Jewish Socrates, an eternal skeptic and trickster, never satisfied with any status quo yet fully comfortable with his Jewishness, even proud of it as the source of his wisdom. At the end of the novel, Izya, in whom the previously bigoted Andrei finally recognizes a true sage, develops a theory of the “Great Temple” of culture (also a corollary to Plato). The temple, “the heritage of the minority,” is being built by the select few — writers, artists, thinkers — whether the majority wants it or not; at best, history can provide conditions that do not irreversibly hinder the construction.

Izya’s philosophy is miles away from the Strugatskys’ earlier idealization of intellectuals and of the intelligentsia as the antidote to totalitarianism — views exemplified, for instance, in Hard to be a God. Izya recognizes that the temple’s builders are not immune from the impurities of life, yet they are humanity’s only positive sustaining source. Their “minority” status emphasizes the temple’s Jewish underpinnings. Indeed, the novel’s conclusion hinges on the relationship between Jew and gentile, more specifically Jew and Russian. On the last page, Andrei glimpses someone walking in the fog, and “an abrupt movement by the man who was walking toward him (tall, tattered, exhausted, with a dirty beard right up to his eyes.)” He shoots at the man and is shot at in return. Izya’s scream is heard. What transpires is very cryptic; one needs to be a fan of David Lynch to unravel the mystery. It seems that Andrei is shooting at his own double, or in fact at Izya, who earlier grew an enormous beard. Why does the disciple kill the teacher?

After the shot, Andrei is transported back to his Leningrad apartment in the 1930s, where he hears Izya’s mother in the courtyard below, calling her son home for supper. But Izya never responds, shot dead in the “doomed city,” perhaps by Andrei. Andrei will now have to assume Izya’s place, literally as if they are doubles, or at the very least philosophically, historically, and existentially. As Muriel Rukeyser put it, “To be a Jew in the twentieth century / is to be offered a gift.” The point of the experiment was not only for Andrei to gain “Understanding,” but also for him to become a Jew. The tragedy, especially in light of 20th-century catastrophes, is that in order for this to happen, the actual Jew had to disappear. This is the most provocative idea within this Russian-Jewish masterpiece, whose publication in English constitutes a long-awaited event.


Marat Grinberg is professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at Reed College.

LARB Contributor

Marat Grinberg is a professor of Russian and comparative literature at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to be Read Not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: From Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and Aleksandr Askoldov: The Commissar (2016), and a co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013).


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