Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich (voy-NOH-vihch) is an outstanding Soviet satirist of the post-Stalin era. He joined the dissidents in the 1960’s and himself emigrated to Munich in December, 1980, continuing his writing career abroad. According to his own account in “A Few Words About Myself” in The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, he was born in Dushanbe (then Stalinabad), Tajikistan, on September 26, 1932. His father, of Serbian origin, was a journalist; his mother, who was Jewish, was a mathematics teacher. His distant ancestors served in the Russian navy, and nearer forebears were writers and scholars with a Serbian focus. His father was arrested during the Stalinist purges in the late 1930’s but was released, fleeing with his son to live with relatives in the Ukraine in time to participate in World War II.
Postwar conditions in Ukraine did not allow his parents to support Vladimir, though he began school there and established the habit of reading with the same enthusiasm as his parents. The practice was fortunate, since further schooling was sporadic. At age eleven, he began to support himself, working at miscellaneous jobs—on collective farms, on the railroad, in factories, even a short time in radio. He spent about two years at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute from 1957 to 1959. He served in the army for four years and began writing poetry and songs there, achieving quick recognition. One of the songs, “Fourteen Minutes to Go,” about Soviet cosmonauts, became enormously popular; Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself sang it to greet Soviet astronauts as they returned from space. In 1960, Voinovich wrote his first story, “We Live Here,” published in Novy mir in 1961. The story was well received by critics looking for new literature, but it was attacked by party-line critics for the “alien poetic of depicting life as it is.” A campaign of attacking the writer’s work began in earnest in 1963. Voinovich’s support of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1968 placed him with the dissidents as literary policy hardened and publication abroad was punishable.
It became clear to him that he would be unable to publish his first novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, in the Soviet Union; the book is a hilarious satire about a loyal, good-hearted, but ordinary soldier who is sent to a corrupt and lazy collective farm on orders from a Stalinist army official, who promptly forgets him. In 1973, Voinovich sent part of the book abroad for publication, a practice sure to be censured; that year, he also signed a letter in support of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and wrote letters attacking literary practices of the time. Dismissal from the...
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