(1986), a dystopian satirical novel by Russian novelist Vladimir Voinovich, follows exiled Russian writer Vitaly Nikitich Kartsev as he travels into the USSR of the future, where he finds it more deluded and less functional than ever. A satire of Soviet Communism in the 1980s, the novel also contains an extended lampooning of the Soviet émigré writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Voinovich, best known for The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
(1969) is regarded as one of Russia’s most important living novelists and Moscow 2042
as one of his major achievements. Some critics have described the novel as “prophetic” due to similarities between the regime described in the novel and the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The novel opens in 1982, in a beer garden in Munich, where the exiled Russian novelist Vitaly Kartsev is drinking with his German friend Rudi Mittelbrechenmacher. Rudi takes Kartsev to task for his lack of interest in science fiction. Kartsev explains that he prefers to write from direct experience. Rudi assures him that time travel is possible.
Kartsev visits a travel agency and finds that he can indeed book a three-hour trip to Moscow in the year 2042, so he makes the booking.
Soon word of Kartsev’s impending trip gets around, and people approach the novelist with various offers: a CIA agent agrees to fund the trip in exchange for intelligence, and agents from the Middle East offer Kartsev money if he will bring back the plans for a futuristic nuclear weapon.
Kartsev discovers that he is being followed by a senior K.G.B. officer: the man is a former friend and classmate of his named Bukashin (which literally means “insect”).
Just as he is about to set off for the future, Kartsev is summoned to Canada to meet another Russian writer, Sim Simych Karnavalov.
Simych lives in rural seclusion. Kartsev pokes fun at Simych’s moral pretensions and weak beard. Simych is a committed slavophile, as strongly opposed to Western liberalism as he is to Soviet Communism. He wants Kartsev to transport to the future copies of his new, 860-page novel, “the first of a projected series of sixty.” Simych dreams of returning to Russia as a savior mounted on a white horse, to take over the country and install his own political regime.
Kartsev returns to Germany and boards the time machine. It is nearly indistinguishable from a plane, and it is even owned by Lufthansa.
The Moscow of 2042 turns out to be a city-state, called the Moscow Communist Republic, or “Moscowrep.” After the “Great August Revolution,” the Communist Party and the K.G.B. have merged into a single government entity called “The Communist Party of State Security,” headed by a man known as the “Genialissimo.” The Genialissimo has rehabilitated the Orthodox Church (with himself as Patriarch): Jesus is coupled with Stalin and Lenin as one of the great forerunners of the Genialissimo. The Genialissimo himself is reported to be orbiting Earth in a spaceship.
Within the walls of the city, the Party claims to have instituted a “classless and systemless communist society.” Beyond the city are three “Rings of Hostility.” The inner ring comprises “filial republics,” the second ring “fraternal socialist” regimes, and the outer ring capitalist enemies. In practice, the filial republics and fraternal regimes are the rest of the former USSR, abandoned to destitution, but still controlled by Moscow. The death penalty has been abolished in Moscow: instead, dissidents are exiled to the outer rings, where the death penalty is still in force.
Nor are things utopian within the walls. Everyone in Moscow is allocated resources “according to his needs,” but individual needs are decided by the Genialissimo, who decrees that his chosen supporters have “extraordinary needs.” Everyone else scrapes by, enduring shortages, enforced conformity, and doublespeak.
Kartsev is informed that he is free to take photographs—so long as there is no film in his camera. False denunciations have been curtailed—because no one can find any paper to write them on. At the state-run brothel, the “Palace of Love,” customers are invited to satisfy themselves “on a self-service basis.”
Kartsev is surprised and gratified to discover that his own work is still valued. The authorities show him a copy of Moscow 2042
, which he hasn’t yet written, and ask him to remove all its references to Simych.
Kartsev learns that it is forbidden to mention Simych: however, he is the hero of an underground dissident faction, almost a cult. The “Simites” believe that Simych will return to rescue Russia. Their belief is more practical than they realize: Simych’s body is frozen in a vault in Switzerland.
Kartsev’s exploration of Moscow is interrupted by the arrival of the defrosted Simych—riding a white horse. The Genialissimo’s regime is overthrown, and the Genialissimo revealed to be none other than Bukashin. Simych appoints himself “Tsar Serafim the First,” and Russia returns to feudal autocracy.