Vladimir Voinovich 1932-
(Full name Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich. Also transliterated as Vojnovic) Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, poet and autobiographer.
The following entry provides an overview of Voinovich's career through 1993. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 10 and 49.
An accomplished satirist and one of the most popular “unofficial” writers of the former Soviet Union, Voinovich rehabilitated satire as an mode of expression in Russian literature before emigrating with his family to western Germany in 1980. With a writing career spanning nearly four decades, Voinovich gradually abandoned the literary principles of social realism which stresses the educational purposes of art in order to reinforce social awareness and Marxist beliefs among readers. In works ranging from the novella Khochu byt' chestnym (1963; I Want to be Honest) to the novels Zhizn' i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina (1975; The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin) and The Fur Hat (1989), Voinovich redefined the typical Russian hero in Soviet literature, transforming the propagandistic mouthpieces—who always beat the staggering odds working against them—into human individuals concerned with discovering and preserving their own personal integrity in a totalitarian society. Voinovich's fiction combines these concerns with a redoubtable sense of humor, deriding the inanities of ordinary Soviet life and targeting such institutions as the Red Army and the KGB as well as the scientific research and agricultural collectives. Eventually deemed subversive by Soviet authorities, Voinovich's writings were circulated in secrecy during his last years in Moscow, although they have consistently attracted critical notice in Russia, Europe, and North America. Praising his comic style and humanely honest characters, many critics have compared Voinovich to nineteenth-century Russian satirist Nikolai Gogol for his precise rendering of dialects and dogged critique of contemporary social injustices.
Born in 1932, Voinovich grew up in Dushanbe (formerly Stalinabad), Tadzhikistan, the son of a schoolteacher mother and a journalist father. Like most Soviet children, he worked for much of his youth, herding farm animals on an agricultural collective, one of the poorest and least educated sectors of the Soviet economy. As a young man, he enlisted for mandatory service in the army from 1951 until 1955; it was at this time that he first tried his hand at poetry. In 1956, Voinovich moved to Moscow to pursue a full-time writing career. Although he had published some poems as a soldier, he was twice rejected when he applied to the prestigious Gor'kii Institute of World Literature in 1956 and 1957. Meanwhile, Voinovich struggled to complete his formal education at night school while working during the day at a number of odd jobs, including joiner, locksmith, construction worker, railroad laborer, carpenter, and aircraft mechanic. Critics often attribute the accuracy of Voinovich's insights into Soviet life to his broad exposure to diverse work experiences. By 1960, Khrushchev initiated a period of cultural and scientific optimism and Voinovich took an editorial job with Moscow Radio. He edited material for broadcast, composed poems, and even wrote the lyrics for popular songs, one of which commemorated cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin's historic orbit around Earth in 1961, which has since become a patriotic anthem. At about the same time, his first story was accepted for publication in Novy Mir, the leading Soviet literary magazine that featured much of Voinovich's early fiction. These stories made him a popular but controversial figure in Soviet literature. Although they express no direct criticism of the Soviet government, several stories provoked officials to censure him for portraying young idealists who question the values of their society. As he continued to publish fiction throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Voinovich gradually met increased censorship by the authorities, partly prompted by his virulent protest against laws restricting writers, as well as the magazine serialization of his novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. In 1974, the government's tolerance of Voinovich eroded further when he decried the expulsion of several dissident writers, including Aleksandr Solzheitsyn, from the Union of Soviet Writers, which then revoked Voinovich's membership. For the next six years, he officially published no works in the Soviet Union. However, with the assistance of Western publishers, Voinovich managed to publish Ivan Chonkin, Voinovich's first novel translated into English, and Ivan'kiada (1976, The Ivankiad). Both works attracted large audiences in the Soviet Union and abroad, and were translated into more than twenty languages. Following the publication of Pretendent na prestol (1979; The Pretender to the Throne), a sequel to Ivan Chonkin, and Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski (1979; In Plain Russian), a collection of his early fiction, Voinovich and his family left the Soviet Union on Christmas Day in 1980 and settled in western Germany. Since then, Voinovich has joined the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts at Munich and has published an essay collection, Antisovetskii Sovetskii Soiuz (1985; The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union), and two novels, Moscow 2042 (1987) and The Fur Hat.
Much of Voinovich's early fiction was originally published in the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir. These stories and novellas, along with other unpublished nonfiction works, first appeared in English in In Plain Russian, a translation of Voinovich’s earlier collection Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski. Most pieces in this collection contain no explicit criticism of the Soviet system, but Voinovich's protagonists are presented as strong individuals at odds with communist ideology. In I Want to be Honest, for example, a construction worker refuses to clear an unfinished apartment building for occupancy because he considers the dwelling unsafe, despite the urging of his superiors. Consequently, the man loses his job but retains his ethics and personal dignity. In “By Means of Mutual Correspondence,” also published as “From an Exchange of Letters,” a young soldier is trapped into marriage by a manipulative female pen pal and her family. The soldier's plight illustrates both the lack of personal freedom in totalitarian society and the insidious ways that individuals succumb to government control. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Voinovich's best known work in Europe and the United States, was first published in Paris. Set during World War II, this novel centers on Private Chonkin, an amiable bumbler who resists authority through his innocent pursuit of personal pleasure. He is ordered to guard a crashed airplane near a remote collective farm, where the Soviet bureaucracy promptly forgets about Chonkin, who then can freely romance the local postmistress. Following a series of comic mishaps, Chonkin is charged with treason for arresting of a group of secret police, which he had mistaken for German soldiers. Pretender to the Throne, the sequel to Ivan Chonkin, opens with Chonkin imprisoned and awaiting trial. Rumors are circulating throughout Russia that Chonkin is actually Prince Golitsyn, the illegitimate son of a former czar, and that he is reputedly conspiring with Adolf Hitler to sabotage the Soviets and restore the Russian monarchy. After a ludicrous KGB investigation, orders are issued to pardon Chonkin and to execute the actual Prince Golitsyn. The Ivankiad presents a mock-epic account of Voinovich's true-life encounter with the Soviet bureaucracy, lampooning Soviet ideology with examples of its practical applications. Because Voinovich and his wife are expecting a child, they are entitled to a larger apartment, according to the Soviet maxim “to each according to his needs.” However, when a minor bureaucrat requests a larger apartment in order to install Western-style bathroom facilities, a committee appointed to decide the matter vacillates over whose claim they should honor. By the novel's end, victory seems more the product of persistence than of merit. The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union collects Voinovich's essays on such topics as the circumstances leading to his exile and the ways in which ordinary citizens resist various governmental controls in contemporary Russia. With a science-fiction format and self-reflexive satire, Moscow 2042 follows the adventures of an exiled Russian writer returning to the Soviet Union in the twenty-first century, now known as the city-state Moscowrep. By all appearances, Moscowrep seems to be a communist utopia, but beneath its perfect veneer flourish the evils of previous regimes, particularly those of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's. Blending humor and social criticism, this novel offers insight into the precarious situation of Soviet exiles, juxtaposed with the fundamentalist attitudes of Westerners toward their plight. Inspired by the satirical methods of Gogol and suffused with the cynicism typical of Soviet life in the early 1980s, The Fur Hat traces the declining career and last days of a financially successful but artistically mediocre social-realist novelist. His demise comes after the writer's union purposely issues him the lowest grade of an honorary fur hat, made from the skin of a fluffy, domestic tomcat.
Critics on both sides of the former Iron Curtain have long relished Voinovich's formidable sense of humor, even to the astonishment of some who doubted that Soviet culture could produce such humor. Impressed by the subtle but biting satire running throughout Voinovich's fiction, both Russian and Western critics have noted that his renditions of ordinary Soviet life frequently illuminate the inconsistencies between the theoretical principles and practical applications of life in a totalitarian state. Perennially popular with the Soviet public and consistently challenging to the Soviet censors, Voinovich attained international celebrity with the publication of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Ivan Chonkin and The Ivankiad, his first two books to appear in the United States. Suppressed in the Soviet Union because officials deemed it subversive, Ivan Chonkin was widely circulated in secret and became an underground success. Acknowledging Voinovich's achievement in Ivan Chonkin, a number of critics have compared the novel to Jaroslav Hasek's Good Solider Schweik and Joseph Heller's Catch-22, two works which emphasize the common sense of individuals who persevere despite bureaucratic absurdities. According to some critical speculations, the relevance of Voinovich's later writings to Russian letters has depreciated, due both to his emigration to the West and in light of the political upheaval of 1989. Despite Western critics' enthusiasm for the stories of In Plain Russian, Voinovich's subsequent publications have been deemed dated by several reviewers, who claim that his work no longer reflects the social realities of contemporary Russian life. Critics also have debated their value as “exile” literature with reference to the shifting social and political contexts of the late twentieth century. However, literary scholars generally agree that Voinovich's comic vision and style of humor have reinvigorated a number of neglected genres in twentieth-century Russian literature, including the fable, the picaresque, the mock-epic, and utopian science fiction.