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.
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.
Unlike Private Chonkin and shorter works such as The Fur Hat, the plot of Monumental Propaganda involves much of Russian history between 1956 and the present; we watch a half-century take place largely through Aglaya’s eyes. In the opening pages of Monumental Propaganda Khrushchev denounces Stalin’s personality cult at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 and Aglaya’s entire life is shorn of its grand ideological purpose. Under orders from above, her major achievement so far had been commissioning a local monument to Stalin so beautiful that it inspires one Soviet art historian to declare upon seeing it, “That’s it! Now I can die.” When the book opens, the statue is destined for the scrap heap. Aglaya saves it from this ignominy and installs the iron leader in her apartment, where she proceeds to give him a bath:
As she washed, she spoke words that her own son had never heard from her.
“Now,” she intoned, “we’ll wash your nice hair, wash your lovely eyes and nose, and then your ears, then your shoulders and your chest and back and tummy…” Until she reached the place where the flaps of the greatcoat were parted to reveal the lower edge of the jacket and immediately below it the spot from which the legs began. Aglaya suddenly felt embarrassed…. She knew that Stalin was a man, but she was unable to imagine him going to the toilet or fathering children. …She began noticing that when she wiped down the statue she tried to avoid the spot that was causing her embarrassment. After a while she noticed that although he was clean everywhere else, that spot wasn’t really clean at all.
Voinovich sets up a foil for Aglaya in the character of the charismatic Jew Mark Semyonovich Shubkin, a devout Marxist-Leninist teacher in Aglaya’s orphanage who was recently released from a labor camp and is the author of the anti-Stalinist poem “And We Believed in You So Much,” which concludes with the following words: “The ascent does not always go smoothly when storming a peak that is new. I believe in collective reason, I believe in the Party. Do you?” When Aglaya tries to fire Shubkin for posting the poem on a wall at the orphanage, she runs into Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign and is instructed by a local official to write “I, Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina, being slightly crazy, have failed to understand the new policy of the Party and failed to appreciate the wisdom of Party decisions….”
The reader may find a certain justice in Aglaya’s humiliations, but Voinovich’s contempt for Shubkin’s “collective reason” is perhaps stronger than his contempt for Aglaya’s Stalinism, which at least remains consistent. The struggles between Shubkin and Aglaya form an ideological seesaw throughout the novel: when, during the Khru-shchev era, Stalin is denounced and the regime calls for more “flexible” comrades, Shubkin is promoted while Aglaya is thrown out of the Communist Party; when Brezhnev repudiates Khrushchev’s “thaw,” Aglaya is once again in official favor while Shubkin is labeled as a dissident after his awful rip-off of Solzhenitsyn, “The Timber Camp,” is published and lauded in the West. Shubkin nimbly rides the waves of history from Marxism-Leninism to dissidence to fashionable post-Soviet Russian Orthodoxy to a final reconciliation with Judaism. Voinovich finally dispenses with him toward the end of the book, when the wily self-promoter dies of blood poisoning following his circumcision in Israel.
As for Aglaya, broke and alcoholic, she joins a demonstration in Moscow, charging a line of riot police along with her fellow disillusioned senior citizens whose battle cry is “For the motherland, for Stalin—forward!” But the citizens of the new Russia barely glance at her before she is beaten up. When she wakes up in the hospital she hears a woman speaking on a cell phone in what sounds like a foreign tongue: “Groovy menu. Lobsters, roast beef, fricassee. Prawns, pudding. Chianti—sixty bucks… Okay! Dump it on the pager. Or fax it over. No e-mail yet, the provider’s changed…”
“Where am I?” she asked.
“The first-aid station,” said Mitya [a fellow Communist].
“But what country?” Aglaya asked.
Aglaya’s sex life, or lack of it, allows Voinovich to give his character some emotional depth. Her one recorded near orgasm, spontaneous yet ideologically impeccable, occurs upon seeing Stalin at the 1939 All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. But it’s not for lack of trying. History, unfortunately, is not on Aglaya’s side. During World War II she blows up her husband in a power station that is about to be captured by the invading Germans while shouting, “The motherland will not forget you!” After Stalin’s death, her tussle with a dim local Party functionary ends in disaster when a badly timed BBC broadcast about de-Stalinization cools the ardor of the two Communists.
Aglaya’s most touching love affair takes place in the resort town of Sochi during the Brezhnev years. There she meets her fellow traveler, the unrepentantly Stalinist General Burdalakov, head of the patriotic movement “For Yourself and the Other Guy.”
The general courts Aglaya by giving her a splendid blue tracksuit and tries to convince her to stop smoking. Ideology may play a part in their romance, but the two aging war horses also experience feelings of tenderness and a sense of companionship. They discuss insomnia, the difficulty of understanding abstract art, the relative merits of the film version of Chekhov’s Lady with a Little Dog, and the importance of calcium “for the female organism.” Naturally, such talk can lead only to the bedroom, but when Aglaya and the general finally decide to consummate their passion, they are interrupted by that most Soviet of horrors, a knock on the door:
He threw her down on her back, dived under her skirt and grabbed hold of the elastic of her panties. …She thrust both her hands against the prickly top of his head and pushed hard against it, and at that very moment…there was a loud knock on the door. He took fright and instantly recoiled in panic. He looked at Aglaya, then at the table, with all the food and drink that hadn’t been eaten or drunk yet. There was nothing unnatural or illegal in the situation, especially since they were both supposedly free people. But they weren’t free people; they were Soviet people, raised from their childhood in the awareness that their every desire could be instantly discovered, discussed, condemned and punished. In this particular case their travel warrants might be taken away, they could be thrown out of the sanatorium, exposed in the satirical journal Crocodile, threatened with a personal hearing or excluded from the Party….
With that one paragraph Voinovich goes farther than a dozen Party congresses in rehabilitating Aglaya and her companion. As it turns out, the hotel concierge knocks on the door because he wants to deliver a harmless message, but, of course, “they were Soviet people,” and their exaggerated sense of danger kills the mood. The paranoia of the Stalin regime not only consumed its young but its older citizens as well, not only its true dissidents but its most ardent believers. The concierge brings a note from Brezhnev summoning Burdalakov to come immediately. “And will you go?” Aglaya asks him. “He looked at her in amazement, and she realized that she’d asked a dumb question.”
For the remaining half of the novel, as in the preceding half, Aglaya will remain alone—alone save for her lodger, the iron Stalin, gleaming from her regular scrubbings with the exception of the one earthly spot she is too timid to clean.
Voinovich loses his footing toward the end of the book, when he shifts the focus away from Aglaya’s story and concentrates on the activities of an assortment of gangsters, biznesmen, and corrupt politicians. Aglaya drifts in a semi-stupor through the post-Communist chaos, having lost track of who’s in power and noticing only that her apartment is freezing—her pension hasn’t left her enough money to fix a broken window. It turns out that her apartment building sits on top of a mineral water spring that several biznesmen want to develop after tearing down the building. When Aglaya makes it clear she will not sell her apartment (because newer apartments have low ceilings that can’t accommodate the Stalin monument), a contract is taken out on her life.
For a while the biznesmen are too busy killing each other to get Aglaya, but in the end she is not spared. A bomb-maker in her building, a crippled Afghan war veteran, runs a legitimate fireworks business and also supplies biznesmen and gangsters with high-tech explosives for assassinations. He decides to kill himself to avoid imminent arrest by the police and sets off all his explosives and fireworks at once, bringing the entire apartment building down around him. Aglaya is pinned beneath Stalin’s statue and is finally—just before she dies—granted the sexual fulfillment she’s been denied all along.
Monumental Propaganda suffers in comparison to The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. This may be, in part, because the Soviet era provided far more powerful material for a satirist of Voinovich’s background. The consumerism and greed of Russia’s current masters is both laughable and shocking in its scale and vulgarity, but the years between 1917 and 1991 were a satirist’s dream because the Soviet Union faithfully chronicled its own stupidity and brutality in countless declarations and acronyms, a kind of creaking anti-literature that in Voinovich’s case inspired a brilliantly subversive instinct.
Voinovich may understand the new terminology—“No e-mail yet, the provider’s changed”—but his humor about the New Russians, with its focus on cartoonishly violent gangsters and plutocrats, is broad and predictable. When it comes to the perspective of today’s ordinary Russian, Voinovich sometimes seems at a loss. The new generation of writers such as Victor Pelevin, who were young adults in the netherworld between communism’s collapse and Russia’s headlong dive into kleptocratic turbo-capitalism, so far seem better equipped to characterize the wreckage around them. It was Pelevin, for example, who created the famous and often-used definition of contemporary Russia as a “banana republic that imported its bananas from Finland.”4
I remember reading Private Chonkin as a child in upstate New York and laughing at Chonkin’s romance with the sturdy and barely literate postmistress Nyura and at the antics of her beloved pet hog. Describing a collective farm he mentions a gelding loftily named Osoaviahkim, a Soviet acronym which stands for “the Society for Assistance to the Defense, Aviation and Chemical Construction of the USSR.” I had left the USSR before encountering the full range of its absurdities, but the idea of a horse named after the Society for Assistance to the Defense, Aviation, etc. was inherently ludicrous, and somehow Soviet to the core. Russians who are born today, at a time when the Soviet vocabulary is already receding into memory, may not readily recognize these references. Some passages in Monumental Propaganda suggest that Voinovich already seems to know that he is not only satirizing but also documenting a lost way of life. In the end, his Soviet Union is best immortalized by its communal toilets:
Naturally, in these little sheds (the younger generations perhaps cannot even picture this) on both the M side and the W side the wooden floor was embellished with a dozen or so large holes in a long row and soft heaps deposited haphazardly around them….
The visitors squatted in a row, like sheaves of wheat standing in the field, and I recall with particular sympathy the old men suffering from arthritic joints, constipation and hemorrhoids, who strained until they turned blue, wheezing and moaning and groaning as if they were in a nativity home.
[The narrator’s friend] used to say that if it was up to him to decide what monument to erect to our Soviet era, he would not have commemorated Stalin or Lenin or anyone else, but the Unknown Soviet Man squatting like an eagle on the peak of a tall mountain (Mount Communism) deposited by himself.
May 26, 2005
Or perhaps Turgenev. The quote has been attributed to both. ↩
Published as Homo Zapiens in the United States. Unfortunately, this brilliant but difficult book defies even Andrew Bromfield’s best attempts at translation. ↩
That phrase is taken from Pelevin’s Generation P (the “P” stands for Pepsi). ↩