Alexander Chayanov: Путешествие моего брата Алексея в страну крестьянской утопии (The Journey of My Brother Alexei to the Land of Peasant Utopia)
If you think the first novel set in a future 1984 was 1984, you are mistaken. This novel was published twenty-nine years before Orwell’s work and is also set in 1984, albeit a far more pleasant 1984 than Orwell’s. Alexei Kremnev lives in Soviet Russia and is not entirely happy there. The year is 1921. He is the director of a department of the World Economic Council. He used to enjoy rummaging around second-hand bookshops but his favourite one has now been replaced by Glavbum, the state paper authority. The government is thinking of banning all eating at home as this encourages a bourgeois family system. Afer work, he goes home and has something to eat. He starts thinking about some of his favourite writers: William Morris, Edward Bellamy, St Thomas Aquinas, Robert Blatchford and, in particular, Herzen. He starts reading Herzen after his meal and feel he has naive ideas about revolution. However, as he reads, he gets dizzy. He stumbles about the room, trying to find the light switch but stumbles against objects not in their usual places.
When he wakes up, he is on a couch. He can hear a woman talking in the next room and can see planes flying around outside. When he looks out, Moscow has changed. In particular, there are far more trees and green spaces. There are paintings on the wall. They look like Brueghel the Elder but they depict modern scenes. He sees a calendar and checks the date. It is 5 September 1984. What has happened? He imagines that he must be in a socialist novel. The woman comes in. She is Paraskeva Minin. She is not surprised to see him there but assumes he is Charlie Man, an American who has come to visit. She is surprised, but only mildly, that he speaks Russian with a Moscow accent. Unsure of where he is or why, Alexei chats to her about art and learns of the developments in art since 1921. The revolutionary style of art has gone, replaced first by a moderate form of futurism and then by an art form based on technical perfection.
Nikifor, Paraskeva’s brother arrives and he promises to show Charlie/Alexei round Moscow. Alexei is surprised to find that Moscow has changed and is now much greener. He learns that its population is now 100,000 whereas it had been around four million. Nikifor tells him that there had been a plan to eliminate cities of more than 20,000 in a Khmer Rouge style deurbanisation plan. Moscow had been too big to reduce to 20,000. Many smaller satellite towns had been built around Moscow, which is where most people now live and work and all the skyscrapers had been blown up. To Alexei’s surprise, there is still a lot of manual labour involved in agriculture but Nikifor assures him that, while the technology is there, the old ways help provide employment. They then visit Nikifor’s father and Alexei meets Paraskeva’s sister, Katerina, to whom Alexei immediately takes a fancy. (No novel is complete without a love story, Chayanov wryly comments.) Alexei reads a Russian history and learns about the German reoccupation of the Saar Basin (one of the few forecasts about which Chayanov is accurate), which is followed by a major war. However, a coup in France leads the US and Scandinavia (!) to impose order on the world and the war soon ends and the world divides into five power groups, of which Russia is one.
Alexei also speaks to Nikifor’s father, who tells how the economy is organised and he goes into some detail about agricultural economics, Chayanov’s subject. Russia has rejected collectivisation and favoured cooperativism with a modicum of private capitalism. Taxation is mainly indirect, on non-essential goods, and also on businesses. Economic policy consists of gentle encouragement rather than Soviet-style force. In pre-socialist economies, the main motivators were greed and hunger; in communist economies, as everyone was paid, there was little incentive so some economic incentive was required. However, ultimately, the aim of society is to give the people a fulfilling life. Kremnev finds himself disagreeing with some of the ideas put forward about enhancing the potential of the people. However, he notices a certain coolness on the part of some of the Minin family and then is warned by Katerine that they do not know who he is but they do know that he is not Charlie Man. As he leaves, he is arrested.
This is something of a strange book. Clearly, it represents something of Chayanov’s own philosophy, a philosophy that clearly does not coincide with Stalin’s and it is clear to see why he would later be arrested, if he espoused these views openly. Inevitably, as with many books set in the future, it turns out to be far from the truth, indeed, perhaps further from the truth than 1984. It is very idealistic. There is not much of a plot and a lot of it is Alexei Minin (father of Nikifor, Paraskeva and Katerina) telling Alexei Kremnev what had happened in Russia recently and why, much of which clearly could never have happened in Russia or elsewhere or, when it did (e.g. the Khmer Rogue style deurbanisation) had thoroughly negative consequences. Even Alexei Kremnev fears that the efforts to encourage creativity could lead to a police state. Nevertheless, it is an interesting little work, as much for the political as the literary interest. The end of the text says that it is the end of Part 1 but no part 2 was ever forthcoming so we never learn the ultimate fate of Alexei Kremnev. It is sad that the English translation is only available in a long since out-of-print academic journal, even if it is available for a high price on-line (see below).
First published in 1920 by State Publishing House
First and only English publication in The Journal of Peasant Studies Volume 4, Issue 1 (available online – for a large fee)
First French publication as Voyage de mon frère Alexis au pays de l’utopie paysanne by L’Age d’homme in 1976
First Italian publication as Viaggio di mio fratello Aleksej nel paese dell’utopia contadina by Einaudi in 1979