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Adventures of a True Believer

Monumental Propaganda

by Vladimir Voinovich, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Knopf, 365 pp., $25.00

1.

If Russia weren’t governed by fools and reprobates, if the roads were smooth and wide and free of bandits, if Russia were suddenly a modern European country as far removed from Stalin’s legacy as today’s Germany is from Hitler’s, three groups of citizens would suffer the most: corrupt traffic cops, oligarchs, and satirists. Of this last group, Vladimir Voinovich is possibly the most important Russian satirical writer of the last fifty years, and given the absurdity and repressiveness that characterized those fifty years, one of the most subversive writers in the nation’s history. If all Russian writers (as Dostoevsky said1 ) are supposed to come “from under Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,’” Voinovich has come directly out of Gogol’s “Nose.”

The Nose,” of course, is Gogol’s famous story of the tsarist-era petty official Kovalyov whose independent-minded proboscis escapes his face and takes on a wondrous life of its own. It dons a gold-braided uniform and cockaded hat, assumes a higher rank than its previous owner ever had, piously worships in a Petersburg church, and, in an attempt to outwit that owner, mounts a stagecoach bound for Riga. “The Nose” is a satire of Russia’s arrogant, heartless, ambitious, and, in the end, utterly incompetent ruling class. The joke is that Kovalyov’s missing appendage can lead as satisfying and successful a life in the imperial capital as the rest of him. The members of the country’s elite—with their schemes of marrying up and grabbing a higher rank and a handful of medals—are one-dimensional and completely replaceable. They are nothing more than walking noses.

A century and a half after Gogol’s death, Russia’s rich and powerful are every bit as “nasal” as their tsarist predecessors (though perhaps at least some of them have a sense of humor about it: the city of St. Petersburg recently put up a statue of a giant nose in honor of Gogol’s story). And the country’s best writers continue to pillory them and hold them to account.2

Works such as Victor Pelevin’s novel Generation P3 and Vladimir Sorokin’s screenplay Moscow parody the high-living plutocrats and oligarchs who dismembered what was left of the Soviet Union during the rapacious Yeltsin years. A recent Web site, vladimir .vladimirovich.ru, follows the bumbling adventures of “President Vladimir Vladimirovich™ Putin” in running a “managed democracy” (on the Web site Vladimir Vladimirovich has a ™ added to his name in order to symbolize the ubiquitous presence of the President’s brand name in Russian life). Written by a young Muscovite named Maxim Kononenko, these brief fictional vignettes feature a childlike president entirely dependent on his cynical aides, unprepared for the task of steering a wounded country in any useful direction.

True to life, Kononenko’s Putin carries out a brutal war in Chechnya and does his best to stamp out what’s left of Russia’s democracy (as with Putin’s recent law canceling the popular election of regional governors), but on occasion he can be sympathetic. After the deadly terrorist attack on a school in the South Ossetian town of Beslan, the fictional Vladimir Vladimirovich™ appears on television to decry the tragedy. He starts with the usual boilerplate against “killers who turned their weapons against innocent children,” but then launches into an impassioned soliloquy castigating his fellow citizens:

I don’t have anything to defend you with, [Putin said]. You yourself have ruined everything with which I could have defended you. I don’t have governors, just bribe-takers and anti-Semites. I don’t have an army, because no one wants to serve in it. I don’t have any weapons, because the generals have sold them all a long time ago and built themselves dachas. I can’t put the crooks and bribe-takers into prison because as soon as I do you start screaming “Get your hands off of this one! Get your hands off of that one!” And meanwhile you’re stealing from your own factories, you’re not paying taxes, you’re just demanding, demanding, demanding—discounts, pensions, cheaper vodka, cheaper beer, cheaper gasoline.

The President ends by announcing that a war has indeed been declared against Russia. “But don’t you understand,” he says, “that we declared this war on ourselves?”

The complicity between the ruler and the ruled is one of the major themes of Vladimir Voinovich’s fiction. At a point roughly equidistant between the death of Gogol and the birth of the Internet, Russia endured the greatest tragedy a nation has ever inflicted upon itself. The tragedy was personified by one man, Stalin, but his crimes were abetted by thousands and tolerated by millions. Whether they admit it or not, most Russians will have a great-aunt or a great-uncle who wept upon hearing of Stalin’s death. The film clips of Soviet citizens lining the streets and displaying a near-religious agony after the death of “the people’s father” do not lie. Voinovich’s best fiction offers both a humorous and a scorching look at the lives of such people, and while he may be best known as a humorist, his work is serious in asking the question: “How could it have happened?”

Voinovich was born in 1932 in the Central Asian city of Dushanbe. When he was five years old his father, a journalist, was arrested in the purges of 1937 and sent to a Gulag. As a young man Voinovich worked as a shepherd, carpenter, builder, mechanic, and served in the Red Army between 1951 and 1955. He later joined the radio service in Moscow and became famous as the man who wrote the words for “Fourteen Minutes Till the Start,” the stirring official anthem of the cosmonauts.

Voinovich’s early novels can be seen as his attempts to work within the limits of socialist realism while also suggesting the moral failures of Soviet life. A well-known novel from that period, Ia khochu byt’ chestnym (I Want to Be Honest, 1963), is the tale of a building foreman who stands up to cynical planners and managers. The story has elements of agitprop, but Voinovich’s preoccupation with morality and integrity in a society that valued neither was already becoming evident.

In the mid-1960s, with the arrest of Andrei Sinyavsky and other writers for the crime of publishing in the West, Voinovich moved gradually into the dissident camp. His fiction took on an increasingly absurdist tone, one grounded in the dreariness of Soviet reality with its personal and official pettiness, backward economy, and verbal pollution. The Ivankiad (1976) tells the story of Voinovich’s fight over a prized Moscow apartment with a particularly undistinguished member of the Writers’ Union (author of the pamphlet “Taiwan: Chinese Territory From Time Immemorial”). The Fur Hat (published in the 1980s) is the tale of another hack writer who becomes unhinged after the Writers’ Union deems him worthy only of a hat made of “fluffy tomcat” rather than the reindeer and fox fur hats given to better-connected—and less Jewish—writers.

The targets of Voinovich’s satire are many: toadyism, corruption, pomposity, and, always, the anti-Semitism that pervaded Soviet life. The publication abroad of anti-Soviet works such as Voinovich’s masterpiece The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (first published in Paris in 1969 and circulated in samizdat in Russia) led to his expulsion from the Writers’ Union in 1974 and to his forced exile to Germany in 1980 (he now lives in Munich). In rescinding Voinovich’s Soviet citizenship, Leonid Brezhnev wrote that the author had “systematically taken part in activities hostile to the USSR and has brought harm to the prestige of the USSR by his activities.” Voinovich replied: “I have not undermined the prestige of the Soviet government. The Soviet government, thanks to the efforts of its leaders and your personal contributions, has no prestige. Therefore, in all fairness, you ought to revoke your own citizenship.”

With his father in the Gulag, Voinovich spent his youth among workers, peasants, and soldiers, and was thus exposed to the full range of hardship in the Stalin era. This experience he put to good use in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. The novel’s eponymous hero is a Red Army soldier of small stature and possibly smaller intelligence who, through a series of picaresque adventures and comical misunderstandings, manages to arrest all the local office workers of the NKVD and force them to labor as field hands on the local collective farm.

The story takes place during the opening days of World War II, with Stalin’s paranoid regime too busy hounding its own citizens to prepare for the impending German invasion. When Stalin, caught off guard by Hitler’s betrayal of the Nazi–Soviet pact, tells his countrymen on a radio broadcast that “in spite of heroic resistance by the Red Army, in spite of the fact that the enemy’s best divisions and the best units of his air force have already been smashed and have found their graves on the field of battle, the enemy continues to creep forward,” Private Chonkin’s peasant wisdom tells him to doubt Stalin’s assessment:

Chonkin listened to the words spoken with the noticeable Georgian accent, and believed in them implicitly, but there were still certain things he could not understand. If the enemy’s best divisions and the best units of his air force had been smashed and had found their graves, what was there worth getting so upset about? It’d be even easier to smash his weaker units and divisions. Besides that, he could not understand the expression “found their graves on the field of battle.” Why there and not some other place? And who dug their graves for them? Chonkin visualized a vast throng of people walking through unknown fields in search of their graves. For a second or two he even felt sorry for them, although he knew full well he mustn’t.

Chonkin, simple-minded and illiterate but also loyal (to Stalin), kind-hearted (in feeling sorry for the enemy), and courageous, may be as close as Voinovich comes to articulating his conception of the Russian character. Despite the staggering mistakes and delusions of Stalin and his henchmen, a nation of Chonkins won the war against the better-led German forces. Indeed, one of Voinovich’s problems is that his first novel so effectively satirized the Soviet system’s ineptitude and cruelty and, in the character of Private Chonkin, so perfectly captured the personality of the Russian common man that he made his own future treatments of these subjects in some ways redundant. A fitting comparison might be with Joseph Heller, who was never able to match the brilliance of Catch-22.

2.

The heroine of Monumental Propaganda, Voinovich’s first novel in twelve years, is the loyal Stalinist Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina. During the Stalin years Aglaya fights the invading Germans as a partisan, then serves as the manager of the local orphanage and the district Party secretary in the extremely provincial town of Dolgov—in other words, she is one of Stalin’s willing executioners (by page ten she has already been instrumental in sending a fellow citizen, “the rootless and tribeless cosmopolitan Livshits,” to a labor camp). Throughout the book, Aglaya remains one of the Generalissimo’s true believers, and her refusal to compromise her principles, such as they are, will cost her both the job at the orphanage and her powerful position with the Party.

  1. 1

    Or perhaps Turgenev. The quote has been attributed to both.

  2. 2

    For more about post-Soviet literature, see Keith Gessen, “Subversive Activities,” The New York Review, December 16, 2004.

  3. 3

    Published as Homo Zapiens in the United States. Unfortunately, this brilliant but difficult book defies even Andrew Bromfield’s best attempts at translation.

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