The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin/Pretender to the Throne Critical Context - Essay

Vladimir Voinovich

Critical Context

Voinovich is a caustic satirist in the tradition of other Russian writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, and Mikhail Zoshchenko, though much more direct and scatological in his approach. The latter fact is probably because these novels first circulated in samizdat (underground self-publishing in the U.S.S.R.) and then were published abroad. The books were not therefore subjected to rigorous Soviet censorship. Much in the manner of Gogol, the narrator-author of the novels is not omniscient but rather an unwitting bystander who happens to eavesdrop on his characters. Moreover, the unfolding of the novels is reminiscent of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), whose eponymous hero is not much different from Chonkin, the simple, unsophisticated, and naive waif. On the other hand, Voinovich’s novels remind one of Jaroslav Hasek’s Josef Shweik, the bungling and simpleminded “good soldier” whose actions frustrated and hindered various schemes of the Austro-Hungarian war machine in World War I.

Voinovich began the saga of Ivan Chonkin in the 1960’s and circulated it in samizdat. Finally, the saga was published abroad in Russian in 1975 (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin) and 1979 (Pretender to the Throne). The open-ended conclusion of the second work suggests that a sequel is forthcoming. Although he had won critical acclaim for his earlier writings, Voinovich was expelled from the Russian Writers’ Union in 1974 and was not allowed to publish in the U.S.S.R. because he had incurred the wrath of the authorities for having vociferously criticized government policies and for protesting Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from the Writers’ Union. In 1980, Voinovich emigrated to West Germany.