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

Vladimir Voinovich

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Voinovich’s main goal is to debunk the Kafkaesque Soviet bureaucracy and the banality of the secret police. In doing so, however, he draws on the rich history and folklore of the Russian people. When Ermolkin, for example, is told that a horse will prove to be his undoing, Voinovich alludes to the death of Prince Oleg, who was bitten by a snake which came out of the skull of his dead horse. Moreover, in the person of Mukhin, a minor character who is the local laureate of children’s poetry, Voinovich parodies a famous incident in the life of Fyodor Dostoevski: Mukhin is awaiting his execution, when suddenly he is handed a note saying “Just kidding. J. Stalin.”

The confessions of some of the characters allude to Stalin’s purges in the 1930’s when the country was swept by terror and paranoia, which resulted in thousands being executed or sent to Siberia. Finally, the allegation that Chonkin is actually a prince alludes to a real historical situation of the early seventeenth century, when Russia was going through the “Time of Troubles”: A number of false pretenders to the throne arose who were backed by various foreign interests, just as in Voinovich’s book, Hitler wants to locate the prince and use him. Moreover, “Prince Golitsyn” is based on the real Prince Golitsyn, a pro-Western Russian personage of the late seventeenth century.