The Fire Next Time

The Fur Hat

by Vladimir Voinovich, translated by Susan Brownsberger
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 122 pp., $17.95

Siberia on Fire: Stories and Essays

by Valentin Rasputin, selected, translated, and with an introduction by Gerald Mikkelson and Margaret Winchell
Northern Illinois University Press, 230 pp., $12.50 (paper)

Valentin Rasputin
Valentin Rasputin; drawing by David Levine

Walter Benjamin made a once famous claim that the Nazis had “aestheticized” politics. Their emblems, uniforms, and parades were not just the sign of their beliefs and policies but identical with them. The Nazis were an obvious case, but it could be argued that the French revolutionaries saw themselves, and have subsequently been seen, in the same light: persons and styles of life that embodied, as well as expressed, the New Order and the New Man. Lenin was not in this sense an aesthete, but the system he founded rapidly acquired the same characteristics, grafted on to more ancient Russian reflexes; it became obsessed with the outward and visible signs of being Soviet Man, perpetually decent, heroically overfulfilling the norm, but also intensely status conscious, living in a world of aesthetic degree where badge and rank were all-important.

In such a world “defaming the motherland” or “slandering the Soviet State” logically becomes a charge of accepted gravity: the equivalent of slashing the Mona Lisa with a razor or spraying bad words over a two-million-dollar Van Gogh. To have contempt for Soviet manners was to help to destroy an important art form. Since Western society is not an art form, and has no pretension to be one, the citizens can say what they like about it and nobody cares. But in 1980 Vladimir Voinovich was warned by friendly KGB men that the Soviet people were running out of patience with the way he represented them, and so he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts in Munich, where he still lives. None of his subversive work had of course been published in the Soviet Union, but it was known he had written it, as well as supported the human rights movement.

There is a certain irony, which Voinovich must have enjoyed, in leaving one work of “art”—Soviet Russia—and going to teach and study real art in a Western institution. But now all is changed—the Soviet art form has vanished. Voinovich’s novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, which slandered the Soviet army, is going to be published in Moscow, and so will be his new novella, The Fur Hat, which slanders, among other things, the Soviet Writers’ Union. In its famous rooms are heard such cases as that of

prose writer Nikitin, who had allowed a foreign publisher to publish his short novel From the Life of a Worm, which libelously depicted the Soviet people as worms. Nikitin himself swore that by worms he meant worms only, nothing more or less, and it was actually the truth, but of course no one believed him.

But this freedom to publish may well cause the publication itself to self-destruct—if the Mona Lisa has become just an incoherent mass of paint there is no point in slashing her. Voinovich himself must have anticipated the…

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