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. 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...
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