by Vladimir Voinovich, translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Knopf, 365 pp., $25.00
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 said ) 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.
Works such as Victor Pelevin’s novel Generation P 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 …