The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin/Pretender to the Throne Summary

Vladimir Voinovich

The Novels

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Vladimir Voinovich’s novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin and its sequel, Pretender to the Throne, are caustic satires of Soviet-Russian society which lampoon the labyrinthine bureaucracy, banalities, and ineptness of the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, the Soviet “secret” police.

After a small plane of the Soviet Air Force makes a forced landing on a field near the village of Krasnoe, Ivan Chonkin, a soldier, is dispatched to Krasnoe to guard the plane. Chonkin is a poor excuse for a soldier, with his short torso, jug ears, and peasant physiognomy. His posting, however, serves the double purpose of getting rid of an untrainable recruit and a potentially embarrassing situation, for Chonkin has already incurred the wrath of his unit’s political commissar for asking, in the presence of others, whether Joseph Stalin has had two wives.

Chonkin, however, proves to be a true soldier and diligently and conscientiously guards the plane. After a few days, having exhausted his meager rations, he ventures toward the outskirts of the village and strikes up a conversation with Nyura Belyashova, the local postmistress. Nyura takes a liking to him, and soon the two become lovers. In order to guard the plane and, at the same time, be near his Nyura, Chonkin pulls the light plane, with Nyura’s help, into her garden.

Despite his blissful life with Nyura, Chonkin is concerned that he has not received any further orders from headquarters. With this in mind, therefore, he turns to Nyura’s neighbor for advice. Kuzma Gladishev is known in the village as a learned man, for he not only reads books but also engages in scientific research: He grows hybrid plants whose roots, supposedly, will produce potatoes and its branches, tomatoes. Gladishev’s garden is taken up by these mysterious plants, which are fertilized with a concoction of animal and human feces. Gladishev’s house is permeated by the abominable smell of this nutritive nostrum, which he keeps in jars, despite the constant fretting and fuming of his wife.

When Chonkin comes to his house, Gladishev shows him his plants, and Chonkin, in all the simplicity and naivete which had caused him trouble earlier, asks Gladishev whether the same plants can also be made to produce tomatoes on the bottom and potatoes on the top. Gladishev, however, considers the question not stupid but challenging and proceeds to help Chonkin, his newfound friend who appreciates “scientific” problems. Together they draft a letter to Chonkin’s superiors requesting further clarification of his situation as well as additional rations and a new uniform.

In the meantime, Ivan Golubev, the chairman of the local kolkhoz (collective farm), suspecting that Chonkin is not merely a simple soldier but rather a government agent planted to spy on the locals and uncover Golubev’s unsavory deals, decides to visit Chonkin and confront the “spy.” When he enters Nyura’s house and greets Chonkin, Golubev notices on the table Chonkin’s letter to headquarters, which Chonkin has not mailed yet. The letter confirms Golubev’s suspicions that Chonkin has written a report on the questionable practices and deception of the kolkhoz staff regarding the annual grain harvest and milk production. Golubev returns to his office and resigns himself to the fate that awaits him: prison. He does not despair, however, for in prison he will have three meals a day, and the government will take care of him.

When Nyura returns home from her mail route, she finds Chonkin’s letter and tells him that she will mail it for him. She never mails it, however, fearing that headquarters may order Chonkin to another post and that she will lose her beloved. Thus life continues, until Chonkin, upset by rumors that before his arrival Nyura was sleeping with Borka, her hog, has an argument with her and leaves, once again taking up his post at the plane. Nyura tries to convince him of the stupidity of such malicious rumors but to no avail.

Meanwhile, rumors that the Germans have invaded the Soviet Union begin to circulate in the village of Krasnoe. Everyone panics, not so much out of fear or ideological concern, but because of greed and concern about individual welfare: The peasants want to hoard and stock supplies of necessities for the duration of the war. The provisions of the local store are up for grabs, with the villagers engaging in a melee of slapstick dimensions. During this fracas, Chonkin and Nyura find themselves under a heap of human bodies vying for bars of soap and cubes of sugar. The encounter rekindles their love, and once more Chonkin moves in with Nyura.

One day, Nyura asks Chonkin to fetch her cow from the field. On his way, he is distracted by the loudspeakers announcing that the Germans have actually invaded the country. Because of the announcement and subsequent discussion among the villagers, Chonkin forgets his errand and returns home to face an angry Gladishev, whose plants have been trampled and devoured by the cow. Chonkin tries to calm and mollify Gladishev by promising to replant the garden, without success. Gladishev is ready for revenge: He writes an anonymous letter to the local “Right Place” (a euphemism for the NKVD), accusing Chonkin of being a deserter and a hooligan.

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The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin/Pretender to the Throne Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Brown, Deming. Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin, 1978.

Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution, 1982.

Prescott, P.S. Review of Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin in Newsweek. XCVIII (August 31, 1981), p. 63A.

Sheppard, R.Z. Review of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin in Time. CIX (January 3, 1977), p. 80.

Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature, 1985.