The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin offers abundant satire on the Soviet state from the top down, as do all the works of Vladimir Voinovich. Voinovich became a leading Russian satirist in the 1970’s. The satire is manifold but mostly political in nature. It is directed at the incompetence of Stalin, as well as that of provincial and local leaders. Voinovich concentrates on their sycophancy, lack of integrity, cruelty toward their fellows, fanaticism, and ignorance. For example, in the novel, the editor of the local newspaper makes sure that Stalin’s name is mentioned twelve times in each article.
Voinovich satirizes the Soviet judicial system through the trial of Chonkin, which he does not understand at all. The chief prosecutor commits suicide after condemning Chonkin to death without any proof, saying, “Please consider my life invalid.” The Red Army is criticized mercilessly for incompetence. For example, while attacking the Soviet plane that the soldiers believe is German, the strike force forgets to ignite their Molotov cocktails before throwing them. Chonkin, meanwhile, reassures Nyura not to worry because they will get their deposit on the bottles back later. There are many such incidents in the novel.
Sometimes, Voinovich’s satire turns into absurdity, as in Gladishev’s effort to grow potatoes and tomatoes on the same plant, in his making food and drinks from feces, in rumors of Nyura’s having sex with a pig, and in Chonkin making love several times each day and night. These improbable happenings, however, fit into the overall oddity of the novel, emphasizing the points the author is making.
Symbolically, the plane’s forced landing in the backwaters of the hinterland on the eve of the war mirrors the lack of security of the state at a fateful moment. Chonkin’s confusion about the place in which he finds himself, his lack of understanding of his mission, and his superiors’ forgetting about him reflect the inadequate workings of the state. The sexual prowess of the protagonist...
(The entire section is 849 words.)