Vladimir Voinovich Voinovich, Vladimir (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Voinovich, Vladimir 1932–

A Russian novelist, short story writer, and poet, Voinovich is a brilliant satirist. All of his fictional works deride social and political conventions in Soviet Russia and reflect his concern for the difficulty of maintaining an identity in a totalitarian society.

Mary Ann Szporluk

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Voinovich's fiction as a whole reflects two main literary concerns. As a social critic and satirist, he wanted to create a world of caricatures and to develop his skill at building dialogue out of cliches and banalities. He also tried to create a new kind of hero, who would not only have the satirical function of contrasting with his predecessor, the Positive Hero, but whose behavior would also reflect a different morality. The responsibilities of the individual and the struggle of the free personality against manipulation by society emerge as major themes in Voinovich's most important works, and in these the characters are given clear moral tests.

These two sides of Voinovich, the satirical and the didactic, were difficult to synthesize artistically. To some extent he had tried out both approaches in We Live Here, but later he wrote two different types of stories. Those in which social satire is dominant take place in the provinces and use many stylistic devices favored by nineteenth-century Russian satirists. The two major stories with didactic tendencies have individualized heroes and urban settings and are told by first-person narrators in a more sophisticated, ironic tone, perhaps somewhat influenced by modern short stories from the West.

In Voinovich's best work, the novel Chonkin, he again mixes both aims. In Chonkin Voinovich places a thoroughly recast "positive" hero against a background of broad social satire. The peculiar nature of this hero, a product of Russian folklore as well as literary tradition, makes this mixture successful. Chonkin combines social satire and ethical judgments with fantasy and humor and is told in an easy narrative style which should appeal to a wide audience. (p. 101)

The novella We Live Here, his first published fiction, was written in 1960–61 and set in 1960. This work is interesting in light of Voinovich's later fiction, as it shows basic themes and approaches. In We Live Here Voinovich deromanticizes country life, makes fun of Soviet cultural myths, and offers the reader a young hero who questions the behavior of his society.

We Live Here describes the life of young people who are working on construction and agricultural projects in the country. Voinovich tries to examine their private emotions and hopes for the future, but the psychological analysis can only be appreciated when this work is contrasted to the literature which had dominated the preceding period.

We Live Here consists of a series of short scenes, most of which are chosen to illustrate an obvious shortcoming of some of its characters…. (pp. 101-02)

This first work has very definite heroes and villains, chosen and developed according to slightly more liberal principles than the heroes and villains from the immediate Socialist Realist past….

In We Live Here Voinovich tried to free his hero from heroics and make him interesting as an individual. Goshka is similar to the hero-narrators of Voinovich's later stories in his honesty and concern with analyzing and judging his own behavior. Unlike Socialist Realist heroes, Goshka does not live according to a plan…. (p. 102)

Among the younger characters in the work, the main target of Voinovich's light satire is the idealistic and romantic Vadim. Vadim writes poems glorifying work on the kolkhoz, but the villagers soon learn that his work is all theory and no practice. The difference between life in the city and life in the country is an important theme in this work, and Voinovich's satire supports the view of those who work in the provinces. He shows there is nothing romantic about work on the farms and satirizes the accounts of country life written for those who live in the city. (pp. 102-03)

Although We Live Here satirizes cultural myths and contemporary morals, the work was not especially daring for its time in its social criticism. The book ends optimistically, even romantically; and as Goshka stands and proudly glances at the passing tractors, the worst seems to be over. As a literary work, We Live Here is structured rather clumsily and the characters are oversimplified. Yet the work shows Voinovich's concern with the problem of creating a good, believable, and interesting hero while at the same time amusing the reader with social satire. In several places in the work there is good dialogue and we see some of the humor which Voinovich later uses so well….

[In the story] "I Want to Be Honest," Voinovich uses a first-person narrator, a switch from We Live Here which allowed the hero to be presented more intimately and irony and sarcasm to be used more subtly. (p. 103)

The plot of "I Want to Be Honest" is structured around two moral decisions which the hero [Samokhin] must make…. Although the plot is a bit melodramatic, Voinovich's use of dialogue saves the story. Samokhin's winning ironic voice permits moral conclusions to be stated in an entertaining way.

The characterization in this story is again black and white. Most of the men connected with the work project are negative types, lazy, ready to compromise, afraid to disobey orders…. In addition to general dishonesty, Voinovich also satirizes the political meeting, drinking, Soviet incompetence (no one has the right materials at the right time), and Soviet journalism. (pp. 103-04)

The humor in this story is more sophisticated than that in We Live Here but the plot and characterization are too predictable. Voinovich was still trying to combine humor and social satire with the desire to create an individualized hero who could win some kind of moral victory over his society. The tone of this story is much less optimistic, though there is no direct criticism of the Soviet system as a whole. Voinovich's criticisms of Soviet life and its effects on the individual was in keeping with the general liberal spirit of many writers who were published in the early 60's.

In his story, "A Distance of Half a Kilometer,"… Voinovich made greater use of folk humor and dialect. This story, told by an outside narrator, takes place in the country, but unlike We Live Here concentrates on types and has a somewhat burlesque comic tone. Voinovich was not so concerned with character development or individual moral problems here. In treating the realities of Soviet provincial life, he uses many devices found in nineteenth-century satires. (pp. 104-05)

The value of life in the face of death is questioned [in "A Distance of Half a Kilometer"], but this philosophical speculation is...

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Geoffrey Hosking

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

As a "hero" [the title character of "The Good Soldier Chomkin"] springs from much earlier models: Chekhov's little men, Tolstoy's simple peasants, Leskov's eccentric and slightly ridiculous "saints" and, above all perhaps, Ivan-durak, the stupid peasant of Russian folk-tales, who leads a charmed life in close communion with animals and nature, and whose cheerful simplicity brings him miraculous victories over the rich, sophisticated and powerful of this world. Literary and pre-literary echoes surround Chonkin. His very origins are mysterious: rumour has it that he may be the illegitimate son of the last Prince Golitsyn. On the other hand, his father may have been a shepherd. Who knows? But he clearly springs from a twilight world of the pre-revolutionary popular and literary imagination. The irruption of this unlikely yet ordinary figure into Soviet society provides the opportunity for a satire which reveals not only the absurdities of the system but also its deeper human mechanisms….

Voinovich's first literary efforts were poems and lyrics for popular songs, one of which gained national fame because it was adopted as a kind of "cosmonauts' anthem" after Yuri Gagarin's flight in 1961. That is in a way appropriate, because his early career was a product of the Khrushchev period of cultural and scientific optimism. His first prose works, published in Novy Mir, were consonant with the general search at that time for personal integrity and more humane forms of community life. Writers were left relatively free to pursue this search in their own way, and Voinovich himself has testified that "the degree of freedom for literature in the Khrushchev period was sufficient for me personally". At that time his work could have been considered as part of a revaluation of Socialist Realism, and he himself certainly thought it consistent with the doctrine. His concern was with personal integrity and how it is, not ideally but actually, built up in the individual in the exacting and often corrupting circumstances of modern industrial and agricultural work.

His approach to the problem was, however, very different from that of the classical Socialist Realists. The heroes of his stories were vacillating young men not quite certain of themselves or their beliefs. This can be seen in all his works up to the Two Comrades of 1967. Voinovich was asking: what are the conditions in which principled action is really possible in everyday life? How is the good man formed and how does he live? In short, from the very start, he was reexamining the whole concept of the positive hero….

[We Live Here, I Want to Be Honest, and Two Comrades, the] three early major works of Voinovich, all show the same preoccupation with the way in which human beings find themselves, the way in which...

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Walter F. Kolonosky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"The Ivankiad" is a fitting sequel to Voinovich's "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Pvt. Ivan Chonkin."… It is another example of satire at its best…. By coincidence, "The Ivankiad" appears at a moment when the roman à clef is flooding the US market. It is not exactly a roman à clef, but it is "the inside story" of an authentic Soviet apparatchik.

The term "Ivankiad" is rooted in Ivan'ko, at once a person with connections as well as a personification of connections. According to Voinovich, "He is legion." It is Ivan'ko who intrigues his way into the delicate layers of decision-making in order to obtain more living space: one half of a two-room apartment which has been lawfully promised to the narrator, Voinovich himself.

The theme of a ludicrous struggle for a Moscow apartment is not new, but in the hands of Voinovich it acquires a new dimension: documentation. Any resemblance to actual persons and places in the Soviet literary world is hardly coincidental, for the entire imbroglio actually took place in 1973, a year before Voinovich was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers….

In spite of the spread of Soviet satire, this literary mode is still rather risky; it is still possible to concoct an explosive mixture of candor, humor and wit. When Voinovich asks whether a saucepan can become a member of the Writers' Union, there is really no explosion—just a lot of noise in the kitchen. This time a US publisher has not acquired a manuscript written "for the drawer," but an extremely funny drama about authors who come face to face with the territorial imperative. (pp. 114-15)

Walter F. Kolonosky, in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 1, Winter, 1977.

Theodore Solotaroff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"I'd Be Honest If They'd Let Me" [is a story about an] ordinary Soviet citizen who is thwarted by the System and holds out against it in the name of his integrity as a man and a worker….

This story … appeared in Novy Mir, just at the time Khrushchev was cracking down on the liberal writers, many of whom, like Voinovich, were trying to renovate socialist realism by replacing the standard "positive" hero with a human one whose true circumstances do not generally appear in Pravda. In the "cultural conferences" that were staged to call the liberals to account, "I'd Be Honest If They'd Let Me" was singled out by Ilychev, Khrushchev's chief ideologist and hatchetman, as being particularly odious and...

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Anthony Astrachan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Critics and blurb-writers have called [The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin] a "Soviet Good Soldier Schweik" and a "Soviet Catch-22." They are right, but they leave out a dimension. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is also a Soviet Gulliver's Travels. Vladimir Voinovich at 43 is not only the Soviet Hašek, the Soviet Heller, a 20th-century Gogol or Saltykov-Shchedrin. He is also the 20th-century Soviet Jonathan Swift, God help him.

I say "God help him" because his bitterness has not yet overwhelmed his humor and his tenderness, as Swift's did. But he lives in Moscow, where his telephone has been disconnected, where the bureaucrats who live by excreting the fear and stupidity and treachery that he burlesques will no doubt try to drown him in their excrement. Voinovich would appreciate the metaphor, I like to think; his book has many like it, part of the Swiftian flavor. Perhaps his surrealism will save him from the corrosion of bitterness. But it is not his surrealism. It is his characters', the surrealism of taking the absurd seriously and the serious with absurdity, of being totally unable to distinguish between them….

[The] confrontation with a Jew named Stalin may be the funniest portrayal of Soviet officialdom ever written. ("Just why are you trying to pass yourself off as Comrade Stalin's papa?" "Because I am the father of Comrade Stalin. My son, Comrade Zinovy Stalin, is the most-well-known dental technician in Gomel.") The very idea of a Jew named Stalin is one of the funniest and most frightening ideas a Russian is likely to come across. That may be one of the problems an American reader faces with this novel. Its humor is universal, but the particulars may be hard to understand if one has neither lived in the Soviet Union nor studied its life. On the other hand, if you laugh at this book, you may be on the way to a more profound understanding of Soviet life than even reading Solzhenitsyn makes possible.

Anthony Astrachan, "Good Soldier Chonkin," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 6, 1977, p. F10.

John B. Dunlop

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The plot [of Ivankiada] offers a satirist more than a few opportunities to utilize his craft. To the service of his satire Voinovich brings a style which is a delight to read: ponderous Soviet acronyms and journalese rub shoulders with outlandish Americanisms and occasional archaic Slavonicisms; passages of devastating humour alternate with serious and even moralizing commentary. The tale is fast-paced, the transitions smooth. Voinovich dextrously mixes genres: "straight" narrative is interspersed with (or derailed by) selections from the author's diary, various letters of protest or declarations sent (or not sent) to Soviet officials, the tape-recording of a phone conversation, and extended fantasies about what Ivanko's thoughts would be in a given situation.

Voinovich also frequently engages in what the Russian Formalists have called "laying bare the device"—a deliberate toying with literary conventions. The narrator will break off his account to announce what he has just done or intends to do with the plot—the reader, of course, is well-advised to take such asides with a grain of salt…. Stylistically Ivankiada impresses me as superior to and exhibiting better control than the longer and more ambitious Chonkin, which has a tendency to sag and sputter in the middle sections, though its beginning and end are nonpareil. Voinovich appears still to be maturing as a writer; if his talent is not arrested, we can expect even better things from him in coming years.

While Ivankiada is obviously not written according to the canons of Socialist Realism, Voinovich has the norms and expectations of this doctrine very much in mind. (p. 1186)

Unlike a number of talented contemporary Russian writers—for example, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Vladimir Maksimov—Voinovich is not a religious man, but there is what he calls a "moral factor" in his tale, and he shares the moral concerns of such authors. What matters, he shows, is not whether or not one wins a given battle, but how one lives….

Vladimir Voinovich must surely be one of the best satirists of our time. His talent compares favourably with that of the late Mikhail Bulgakov, whose name is frequently mentioned in the pages of Ivankiada and whose Master and Margarita may have been given him some ideas on how to depict Soviet writers. (p. 1187)

John B. Dunlop, "The Invasion of the Ivankos," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 14, 1977, pp. 1186-87.