Vladimir Voinovich

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Understanding Voinovich’s place in Russian literature might well begin with understanding the historical and cultural circumstances that have surrounded writers in the Soviet period. Many of these writers, Voinovich included, are regarded as belonging to one of three waves of émigrés, artists, and thinkers who fled or were forced to leave Russia in consequence of the establishment of the Soviet state. The first wave left during or immediately following the civil war of the early 1920’s. The second wave left following World War II, and the third wave (including Solzhenitsyn and Voinovich) left in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The political regime responsible for these departures also led to an ordering of literary works by three categories: “gosizdat,” or state-sponsored publications; “samizdat,” or self-published works that do not have official sanction; and “tamizdat,” or works published outside Soviet Russia. Voinovich, who during the Soviet regime was forced to publish in the West, belonged to the body of writers and writing categorized as tamizdat.

That Russian writers have had to live as émigrés is at least partly a result of the decision made by Communist officials as early as the 1930’s that the proper function of literature was to promote socialist realism. Proletarians and their achievements were to be presented in flattering terms, while people representing bourgeois culture or attitudes were to be drawn as class enemies. What imaginative writers often found was that the reality they undertook to imitate did not always conform to the political or social ideology which they were expected to advance. Socialist realism, or any other “realism” that is required to conform to a political ideology, is a contradiction in terms. Most writers who attempt to represent the real world do not permit themselves the emotional luxury of the politically assured by thinking that human rectitude is specific to a single ideology and its partisans. This was Voinovich’s problem as a writer in the Soviet Union.

Voinovich seems to have been able to turn his problem into an artistic advantage. He was obliged to become aware of the eternal and universal nature of human stupidity. His work from before the time of his expulsion from the Writers’ Union is openly satiric. His satire has developed considerably from his recognition of disparities between the ideal and the actual in the period of Soviet rule. His most famous work, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, is not so much a satire on the Red Army, however, as on the inevitable follies of any self-important bureaucracy. Human pretense and ineptitude are conditions of the species. The business of the satirist, a business that will never end as long as people remain people, is to expose pretense by playing it off against an implied standard of conduct that, if not without blemish, is at least more desirable. The collapse of the Soviet Union does not mean that Voinovich’s work is done, only that it is altered in the details.

Critics of Voinovich’s work have noted on more than one occasion the absurd character of the world he depicts. This may result from his deflation of the socialist ideal, which has appealed to many in the twentieth century, or it may result from his willingness to attack institutions and attitudes of more than one kind, as if competence and reason are nowhere to be found. Like all good satirists, however, Voinovich does not seem to create a world absurd to the point of hopelessness. The absurdity in his novels results more often than not from a failure in people who ought to be able to do better....

(This entire section contains 2555 words.)

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From characters who seem entirely fictional to those who bear clear resemblance to prominent figures of the Soviet era, satire seems to be directed at this conditional failure. After all, if the world were absolutely absurd, if there were no scheme of values nor humane goals, satire could not function.

Voinovich is not entirely satiric, moreover. Criticism has also noted him as a writer of comic fiction. The difference seems to be that where Voinovich is comic, the people he represents are benign. Private Ivan Chonkin is somewhat bumptious, harmlessly naïve, and simply funny in his resentment of the pig Borka. Failures of abstinence with sex or alcohol in various fictions are treated as lapses in human conduct that cannot be eliminated and thus must be tolerated. The difference between comic figures and satiric figures is that comic figures cause little suffering. The same cannot be said for the latter. Voinovich is occasionally ironic, implying by circumstance or tone in his writing that human failing can be both harmful and irremediable. More often, though, the manner is satiric, making the point (directly at the end of Moscow 2042) that life ought to be easier for people, and that perhaps the goal of the imaginative writer is to achieve that end by attacking things that can be changed.

Most of Voinovich’s work is readily accessible and grasped without difficulty. He frequently attacks foibles that seem peculiar to Russian life in the Soviet era, so a certain number of his points are lost on readers not familiar with that time. The Ivankiad, for example, might strike some people as a dull book if they are not aware of the housing shortage that plagued Russia for many years and that led to elaborate ploys for getting something from a bureaucracy not noted for efficiency. Of Voinovich’s completed work, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin appears to have a secure place in modern Russian fiction. Though other books may come to the same status, it seems unlikely that anything will move ahead of it.

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin

First published: Zhizn’ i neobychainye priklyucheniya soldata Ivana Chonkina, 1975 (English translation, 1977)

Type of work: Novel

A Red Army private, detached from his unit to guard a disabled airplane, is later viewed as a deserter and then a German enemy through military bumbling.

The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is a comedy of innocence and a satire of incompetence. The hero, Private Chonkin, is often comic in his innocent but never contemptible behavior. His opponents, functionaries in the Stalinist Soviet Union, are only somewhat funny in their self-approving incompetence. Frequently they are transparent fools.

Just before the beginning of World War II, a Red Army airplane is forced to land on a collective farm in the Soviet Union. Private Chonkin, a humble soldier and object of petty harassment by the military, is sent to stand guard over the downed aircraft. Within a few days Chonkin has settled in nicely, taking up with Nyura Belyashova, the lonely postmistress, and making the acquaintance of Golubev, chairman of the kolkhoz (collective farm), and Gladishev, a warehouseman with scientific pretensions. Members of the farm, which has been named Krasnoye (Red) in honor of the Russian Revolution, are silly in their patriotism and mechanical in their zeal. For example, Delhi cigarettes are suspected of being subversive because “Delhi” possibly stands for “Down with the Entire Leninist Humanist International.” Gladishev, who lives with an unlovely wife named Aphrodite and an infant son named Hercules, spouts Darwinism and aspires to revolutionize agricultural production by developing a hybrid plant that will bear potatoes and tomatoes at the same time. In support of his efforts, he fills his house with pots of fertilizer which give off an overpowering stench of dung. Chonkin manages to accommodate himself to the world he now inhabits and has no problems larger than an irrational jealousy of Nyura’s pet hog, Borka. Matters become more difficult with the outbreak of World War II.

The arrival of war leads to chaotic meetings and general hoarding by members of the kolkhoz. One evening Chonkin fails to watch Beauty, Nyura’s cow, as she is returning home from the fields, and the cow gets into Gladishev’s garden, trampling everything and eating his prized hybrid plant. Gladishev takes revenge by reporting Chonkin to the military as a drunken deserter who questions both Marxism-Leninism and Charles Darwin. The army responds by dispatching soldiers to capture Chonkin. Incompetence and cowardice pervade their efforts. The first detachment, who appear to threaten the airplane Chonkin is guarding, is taken prisoner and put to work as forced labor on the farm. Further bumbling leads to a moment of mutual deception between two groups opposing Chonkin, who has been transmuted into a German fascist. Both sides believe they are talking to Germans, and the confusion costs one man his life. After holding off battalions of soldiers, Chonkin is finally subdued by a large shell which stuns but does not kill him. As the novel concludes, Private Ivan Chonkin, a politically innocent but loyal soldier, is taken into custody.

“A Circle of Friends”

First published: “V krugu druzei,” 1979 (collected in In Plain Russian: Stories, 1979)

Type of work: Short story

Comrade Koba (Joseph Stalin), surrounded by terrified sycophants, does a crossword puzzle on the night before Adolf Hitler’s forces invade the Soviet Union.

“A Circle of Friends,” a story in the collection In Plain Russian: Stories, is set in the Kremlin on the night of June 21, 1941, a few hours before Germany invaded Russia. Joseph Stalin has cultivated an image as a tireless servant of his people, but actually his silhouette before a lighted office window is a foam-rubber dummy. His moustache and pipe are props intended to make him look avuncular. Stalin actually lives in a doorless, windowless room reached by crawling through a safe with a door at both ends. His need for the companionship of a woman is satisfied by periodic sexual encounters with a cleaning lady whose identity is not known and does not matter.

Entertaining a belief in the emotional health of gathering with a few close friends, Comrade Koba receives a group who, like Koba himself, are easily identified with officials of the Soviet Union in the early 1940’s. For example, Koba’s Ukrainian peasant friend is someone called Nikola Borshchev, that is, Nikita Khrushchev. The circle of friends undertakes to entertain Comrade Koba while controlling their fear that they will somehow displease him, Koba’s displeasure being irrational, unpredictable, and very dangerous.

Early in the evening, strain results from the absence of Comrade Zhbanov, whose wife is dying in a hospital. When Koba has mastered his anger, he turns to a crossword puzzle. Unable to come up with the name of a huge prehistoric animal, Koba telephones an important scientist who will know the necessary word, but he pretends he wants the word because he believes the reintroduction of the animal will lead to increased production of milk and meat for the Soviet people. Pleshivenko, the scientist, furnishes the word while falling all over himself in admiration of Koba’s genius in conceiving such an idea.

Further events in the evening follow the same pattern. When Koba utters high praise of Comrade Molokov, Molokov is terrified lest the praise somehow conceal irrational displeasure that will end in brutal vengeance. When Koba desires musical entertainment, Borshchev is made to dance to the piano accompaniment of Zhbanov, who has arrived, presumably from the hospital, and continues his music after being informed of his wife’s death. The evening grows late as people turn to card-playing and heavy drinking. Koba falls asleep. Word comes that Hitler, called “Dolph,” has invaded the country. At first no one dares wake him. When Koba is awakened and refuses to believe war has arrived, no one dares challenge him. Very late, Koba’s companions depart, after which he crawls through the safe with two doors to isolation. In his private room he confronts an ugly, true image of himself in a mirror. This he destroys with a pistol shot. The story soon concludes in an ironic disclaimer that the characters and incidents bear any relation to the actual.

Moscow 2042

First published: Moscorep, 1986 (English translation, 1987)

Type of work: Novel

A Russian émigré writer engages in time travel, which takes him forward to the dystopian world of Moscow in the middle of the twenty-first century.

Moscow 2042 begins in a Munich beer garden in 1982. The central character is a Russian émigré writer, Vitaly Nikitich Kartsev, who bears a strong resemblance to Voinovich himself. In conversation with a German acquaintance, Rudi Mittelbrechenmacher, Kartsev is faulted for his indifference to science fiction and his unwillingness to accept the possibility of time travel, which his friend Rudi assures him is a reality. Kartsev responds by going to a travel agency to seek passage to Moscow in the twenty-first century. His success in making the necessary arrangements means that Kartsev will have direct experience from which science fiction may be written.

When Kartsev’s projected travel becomes known, he is approached by various people who have an interest in future Moscow. John, an operative from the Central Intelligence Agency, poses as a New Times magazine representative and offers to pay the cost of Kartsev’s expensive trip in exchange for the story he will bring back. Wealthy representatives of a Middle Eastern government abduct Kartsev and offer him money if he will return with plans for a nuclear bomb. Then, before his departure in time, Kartsev is persuaded to fly to Toronto to meet another émigré writer, Sim Simych Karnavalov (Alexandr Solzhenitsyn). Karnavalov wants Kartsev to carry into the future a floppy disk containing the completed “slabs” of a very large work, here called The Greater Zone. Kartsev is also given a letter to present to the future leaders of the Soviet Union, which he discards while taking the floppy disk along with him.

Upon his return to Germany, Kartsev boards a time-travel craft and flies forward to 2042. He arrives in Moscow to discover that he has been rehabilitated, is now regarded as a classic writer, and is about to be honored by a jubilee in celebration of his one-hundredth birthday. As Kartsev becomes acquainted with Moscow-in-the-future, Voinovich’s novel turns into a dystopian speculation on Soviet communism after another sixty years of refinement.

Moscow is now a fully realized communist center, surrounded by three Rings of Hostility, the most hostile being the most remote, the capitalist enemy. Within Moscow, life is utterly regimented and largely absurd. Recycling has been perfected so far that to secure food (primary matter), residents must turn in secondary matter (human feces). Pravda is printed on toilet paper. The Christian church, reformed to eliminate God, has been integrated into the Communist Party structure and worships the Genialissimo, the isolated leader of the state. The chief threat to this system comes from Simites, twenty-first century followers of Sim Simych Karnavalov. Kartsev displeases the Communist Party when he refuses to delete Sim from Moscow 2042 after he has returned to 1982, but the moment for eliminating Sim has already passed. Sim Karnavalov had himself frozen and deposited in a Swiss bank in the twentieth century. Toward the novel’s end he is revived and enters the future, which leads to a Simite uprising, the collapse of communist Moscow, and the establishment of a militantly reactionary czarist autocracy under the direction of Karnavalov, who believes he has Romanov blood in his veins. Kartsev is allowed to return to 1982, where he hopes, as author of Moscow 2042, to encourage reforms that make life “a little easier on people.”


Voinovich, Vladimir (Vol. 10)