Vladimir Voinovich Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111204719-Voinovich.jpg Vladimir Voinovich Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich (voy-NOH-vihch) was born in Dushanbe, Tadzhikistan, in Central Asia, which was a Soviet republic at the time of his birth on September 26, 1932. His father was a journalist, a Russian of Serbian descent. His mother, a mathematics teacher, was Jewish, which Voinovich believes is why he was unable to qualify for flight training when he served in the Soviet military. As a small boy, Voinovich was taken by his family to nearby Khodzhent, renamed Leninabad, where he remembers camels, donkeys, a blind man, a leper wearing a bell, men in quilted robes, and women in veils. He remembers that from time to time harmless stray dogs in the city would be rounded up, slain, and boiled for soap. During this time Voinovich’s father disappeared from his home for a period of years, disciplined for an ideological indiscretion in the time of Stalin’s purges.

When Voinovich’s father was able to return to his family, they all moved to Zaporozhe, in Ukraine. At the outbreak of World War II Voinovich’s father enlisted in the army. Zaporozhe soon came under attack from German bombers, and Voinovich went to live with his family on a collective farm. He remained in this environment for the rest of the war. As a boy, Voinovich had discovered reading and books, particularly Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir, 1865-1869 (War and Peace, 1886). Despite his intellectual promise, he was given limited academic training and enrolled by the state in a trade school, where he learned to be a joiner. He served in the army for four years, from 1951 to 1955. By that time Voinovich felt himself strongly interested in literature and, upon completion of military service, applied for admission to the Gorky Literary Institute, which turned him down.

Settling in Moscow, Voinovich worked at various jobs to earn a living while teaching himself the writer’s craft. Even as he felt himself drawn to the art of fiction, he attempted poetry and kept...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The satiric fictions of Vladimir Voinovich, though considerably effective, are topical, bound up with a Soviet Union that no longer exists. Whether Voinovich’s work will carry into the future remains to be seen. It is difficult to predict what later writers will find relevant and amusing, and what will seem irrelevant and confusing. Voinovich will remain notable as a Russian novelist whose satiric art became an expression of dissent.