A 1986 dystopian Russian novel basically predicted Vladimir Putin
Special To The Washington Post March 21, 2022
In 1986, near the end of the Soviet Union, a Russian satirical novelist tried to imagine the future of his homeland. He envisioned a head of state who had risen through the ranks of the KGB, used a war to cement his power, elevated his former security colleagues into positions of influence, claimed to derive authority from the Russian Orthodox Church and ruled Russia for decades.
In other words, he predicted Vladimir Putin.
The writer was Vladimir Voinovich, and his novel was “Moscow 2042,” a dystopic satire about a man who takes a journey into the next century.
The protagonist, a freelance writer named Vitaly Nikitich Kartsev, boards a Lufthansa space flight in 1982, consumes a dozen-plus in-flight vodkas and lands in the year of the title. He finds little in the way of future tech to marvel at (“People with an interest in such things should read science fiction,” narrates Kartsev), and in Voinovich’s version of postmillennial Russia, the U.S.S.R. is still going strong.
But Voinovich hit upon the country’s ruler-for-life with remarkable foresight. In the novel, he’s known as the Genialissimo: “a great political figure, friend of all mankind, transformer of nature and a multifaceted genius,” Kartsev tells a fellow citizen.
A member of the writer’s welcome party in the year 2042 is even more gushing: “The Genialissimo is simultaneously the general secretary of our party, holds the military rank of generalissimo, and, moreover, stands apart from everyone.”
As with Big Brother, details about his physical appearance are fleeting; Kartsev notices a portrait of the Genialissimo is “squinting in self-satisfaction.” But while there are no illustrations of him riding horseback while shirtless, his actions as written in 1986 bear uncanny similarities to those of the current Russian president.
First, there’s the Genialissimo’s position among a ruling gerontocracy. One fellow passenger on Kartsev’s space flight is a left-wing terrorist from Munich who’s traveling to the future to collect proof of his ideology’s endurance. He remarks that “under communism, everyone will be young, handsome, healthy and in love with one another.” Kartsev is therefore surprised to find that future Russia is ruled by the grandfatherly Genialissimo and his mob of decrepit bureaucrats.
Putin was just 47 when he first assumed the presidency. But in 2021, he pushed through a constitutional change that allows him to hold office until 2036, the year he’ll turn 84.
Advanced age isn’t the only thing the Genialissimo has in common with Putin. As a former senior KGB officer who spent many years stationed in Germany, the Genialissimo has filled his government with buddies from the intelligence services. Together, they’ve created a Communist Party of State Security, an intertwining of lawmakers and secret police who preside over a “classless and systemless communist society.”
Putin was based in East Germany from the mid-1980s until the fall of the Berlin Wall. (His Stasi ID pass was recently found in a Dresden secret police archive.) Like the Genialissimo, he has placed former security colleagues in high office. Those include Igor Sechin, the chief executive of the oil giant Rosneft, who reportedly “commands the loyalty of the FSB,” the KGB’s successor agency; Sergei Ivanov, who was the Kremlin chief of staff until 2016; and Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Security Council of Russia — which Putin also chairs.
Voinovich predicted that the church would enjoy a strong comeback in future Russia, after the crackdown in the earlier communist era. Heterosexual marriage is sacrosanct in “Moscow 2042,” with unions running for a maximum of eight years; they are “dissolved automatically when a partner’s productive years are over (at 45 for a woman, and 50 for a man).” Those lacking faith are reminded that Jesus is one of the Genialissimo’s predecessors, alongside Stalin and Lenin.
Putin might not quite consider himself head of the Russian Orthodox Church, although he has suggested a divine basis for his rule over Russia as well as Ukraine. He has also used religion to tighten his grip on power, opposing homosexuality and divorce in favor of worship.
And, like the Genialissimo, he’s made some grandiose investments. In the book, Moscow is the only prosperous city left in the U.S.S.R.; the rest of the state is impoverished and walled out, “Mad Max”-style. The publication of the Pandora Papers revealed that Putin, who once publicly condemned plutocrats and corrupt industrialists, has been linked via shell companies to luxury property purchases in Monaco.
Two other predictions from “Moscow 2042” seemed to foretell Putin’s path to power. The Genialissimo sweeps into power as a hero of “the recently concluded Great Buryat-Mongolian War.” He then seals his popularity by emerging victorious from the “Great August Revolution.”
Putin became first deputy prime minister during the Second Chechen War — on Aug. 9, 1999 — and was appointed acting prime minister of the Russian Federation later that day. By the end of the month, Russian air forces were conducting bombing raids over Chechnya, and Putin’s accompanying law-and-order persona helped boost his popularity.
And while not technically a revolution, the August 1991 Soviet coup d’etat attempt had seen tanks in Red Square as communist hard-liners tried to retake the Soviet Union by force. Putin used his KGB security contacts to shield St. Petersburg’s first post-Soviet elected mayor (for whom Putin was working as head of the Committee for External Relations). But later, in 2014, he presented one of the coup’s plotters, former Soviet defense minister Dmitry Yazov, with Russia’s Order of Honor medal for “high achievement in useful societal activities.”
“Next time, I’ll write a utopia,” Voinovich said in 2017 while addressing a Russian-Jewish émigré audience in Fair Lawn, N.J. “People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I’m going to write something good.” He would die the following year, but not before comparing Putin’s Russia to his own Soviet upbringing: “In some ways, it is worse today.”
The writer’s relationship with his motherland was tumultuous. His father was arrested when Voinovich was just 4 as part of Stalin’s Great Terror. In the 1970s, Voinovich’s World War II sendup, “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” was banned by the Soviet Union.
By 1980 — 20 years after he’d written the lyrics to “14 Minutes to Liftoff,” a huge pop hit that became the Soviet space program’s unofficial anthem — he was branded a dissident and forced into exile. Voinovich would return to the U.S.S.R. to witness Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and the economic wilderness of the post-communism years.
In 2000, Voinovich published “Monumental Propaganda.” It depicts a Stalinist’s attempts to cling to her beliefs for 50 years after World War II. After she steals the plinth that once supported a statue of her icon, she sees a figure rise from its former resting place. Voinovich describes this apparition as “grinning” and “waving with its raised right hand.”
That same year, Putin was inaugurated president.