Vladimir Voinovich Voinovich, Vladimir (Vol. 147) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

*My zdes' zhivem [We Live Here] (novella) 1963

*Dva tovarishcha [Two Comrades] (novella) 1967

Povesti (novellas) 1972

Stepen'doveriia [Degree of Trust] (novel) 1972

Zhizn' i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina [The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin] (novel) 1975

Ivan'kiada: Ili rasskaz o vselenii ppisatelia Voinovicha v novuiu kvartiru [The Ivankiad; or, The Tale of the Writer Voinovich's Installation in His New Apartment] (novel) 1976

Pretendent na prestol: Novye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana...

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Frank Tuohy (review date 25 March 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Good Soldier Chonkin,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3915, March 25, 1977, p. 333.

[In the following review, Tuohy gives a positive assessment of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.]

The opening of the recent exhibition of dissident art produced some comments on the misfortune of Russian painters in working in isolation from the fashionable trends of the 1950s and 1960s. If one were to apply such judgments to dissident novelists, one could only say that to have missed out on Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, on Beckett and Brautigan, seems immensely to their advantage. Narration still narrates, “character” persists, and humour...

(The entire section is 678 words.)

Ronald Hingley (review date 25 March 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Living Space,” in Spectator, Vol. 240, No. 7812, March 25, 1978, p. 20.

[In the following excerpt, Hingley explores the insights into everyday Soviet life that are found in The Ivankiad.]

These four books [The Ivankiad, Robert Conquest's Kolyma, August Stern's The USSR versus Dr Mikhail Stern, and Anita and Peter Deyneka's A Song in Siberia] show varied aspects of life in the Soviet Union, past and present, ranging from the ludicrous to the unspeakably horrible.

Vladimir Voinovich's contribution is one of those numerous Export Only works, written in the USSR but ineligible for publication there, which have...

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Peter Osnos (review date 19 August 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Touch of Voinovich,” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. 9, No. 21, August 19, 1979, p. 7.

[In the following review, Osnos summarizes the themes of In Plain Russian, noting the poignancy of Voinovich's descriptions of ordinary Russian life.]

The flow of Russian prose published here in the last few years has been so great that all but the most devoted aficionados have undoubtedly lost track of what is really worth reading.

To simplify matters a bit, there are basically three categories of Soviet writers whose work is now available: dissident polemicists like Andrel Sakharov, Andrel Almarik and Vladimir Bukovsky; dissident novelists...

(The entire section is 924 words.)

William F. Rickenbacker (review date 25 January 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ridi Si Sapis,” in National Review, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, January 25, 1980, p. 110.

[In the following review, Rickenbacker explores the tone and the subject matter of In Plain Russian, highlighting its distinction between humor and chaos.]

It is of course no secret that a rich and boisterous literature is circulating behind the Iron Curtain, much of it in manuscript, and I mean manu-scriptum: I know men who have copied whole books in longhand because that was the only way they could possess them in the underworld of the tyrants. Those who are acquainted with the Manesse translations (into German) of the modern Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Georgian...

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Bonnie Carey (review date Spring 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski, in World Literature Today, Vol. 54, No. 2, Spring, 1980, p. 297.

[In the following review, Carey describes Voinovich's career and the themes behind Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski.]

In 1932 Vladimir Voinovich was born in Dushanbe, capital of the Tadzhik Republic, to a Jewish mother and a journalist father of Serbian descent. After receiving a rudimentary formal education and working at various trades, he became one of the Soviet Union's most daring voices, author of the satires entitled The Ivankiad and The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (see WLT 52:4, pp. 544-50)....

(The entire section is 524 words.)

Geoffrey Hosking (essay date 1980)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Vladimir Voinovich, Georgy Vladimov,” in Beyond Socialist Realism: Soviet Fiction since Ivan Denisovich, Holmes & Meier Publishers, 1980, pp. 136–61.

[In the following essay, Hosking focuses on the character development of the heroes and narrators in Voinovich's fiction, comparing his comic vision of Soviet society to the tragic vision of contemporary writer Georgy Vladimov.]

[Voinovich was b]orn 1932 in Stalinabad (now Dushanbe) in Tadzhikistan: his mother was a schoolteacher, his father a journalist. He trained as a carpenter. Served in the army, 1951-5, and published some verse, but was not accepted when he applied to the Gor'kii Institute of...

(The entire section is 12110 words.)

D. M. Thomas (review date 20 February 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Honest Constructing,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4064, February 20, 1981, p. 200.

[In the following review, Thomas lauds the narrative skill in the short fiction of In Plain Russian, while outlining the intentions of the plots and characters.]

Vladimir Voinovich was expelled from the Writers' Union in 1974, one week after Solzhenitsyn's deportation to the West. He had bravely supported Solzhenitsyn and other dissidents, but not because he himself felt any strong political commitments. “My character,” he said, “is absolutely not that of a dissident. I am a completely apolitical person. I have never held literature to be a part of...

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Dragan Milivojević (review date Summer 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Pretendent na prestol, in World Literature Today, Vol. 55, No. 3, Summer, 1981, pp. 492–93.

[In the following review, Milivojevic commends the satirical achievement of Pretender to the Throne.]

Pretendent na prestol (Pretender to the Throne) is a sequel to The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1975; see WLT 52:4, pp. 544-50), and the two works are both part of what is eventually intended to be a trilogy describing the World War II period in the Soviet Union, especially the behavior and the customs of the Russian political bureaucracy as well as the fate of innocent individuals who become...

(The entire section is 540 words.)

Jerry Nemanic (review date 31 May 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Moscow 2042, in Chicago Tribune Books, May 31, 1987, Section 14, p. 7

[In the following review, Nemanic outlines the plot of Moscow 2042, focusing on the characterization of the various ideologues appearing in the novel.]

Satirist Vladimir Voinovich has loosed another hail of arrows at his favorite target—the Soviet mind.

Moscow 2042 describes the adventures of Vitaly Kartsev, an exiled Russian novelist who jets home a half century into the future. Upon landing, Kartsev discovers that 21st-Century Moscow has certain similarities with the Brezhnev era. Its government is run by a “senilocracy” of decrepit...

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Sally Laird (review date 22–28 April 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Future Matters,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4438, April 22–28, 1988, p. 453.

[In the following review, Laird describes Moscow 2042 as an example of utopian literature, classifying the novel as a parody of the satirical conventions of the genre.]

In the year 2042, Vladimir Voinovich, alias the exiled writer Kartsev, returns to his homeland courtesy of a Lufthansa time machine and finds that he is lionized there as a classic of Preliminary Literature. Or, in other words, literature written before the Great August Revolution, when the Genialissimo began building Communism in One City with the help of the KPGB (Party and KGB combined) and an...

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John Bayley (review date 15 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Fire Next Time,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 37, No. 4, March 15, 1990, pp. 26–27.

[In the following review, Bayley contrasts the aesthetics of The Fur Hat with Valentin Rasputin's Siberia on Fire.]

Walter Benjamin made a once famous claim that the Nazis had “aestheticized” politics. Their emblems, uniforms, and parades were not just the sign of their beliefs and policies but identical with them. The Nazis were an obvious case, but it could be argued that the French revolutionaries saw themselves, and have subsequently been seen, in the same light: persons and styles of life that embodied, as well as expressed, the New Order and the...

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Jo Ann Worswick (review date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Fur Hat, in World Literature Today, Vol. 64, No. 4, Autumn, 1990, pp. 661–62.

[In the following review, Worswick detects a sad undercurrent in The Fur Hat, and questions the novel's value following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.]

Vladimir Voinovich's latest work, a novella, is fully in the mold of earlier writing by this talented satirist (see WLT 55:4, pp. 627-28). It especially reminds one of his books of the seventies, The Ivankiad and The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (see WLT 51:1, p. 114, and BA 50:4, p. 901 respectively), though the new work lacks the...

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Edith W. Clowes (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Parody of Popular Forms in Iskander's Rabbits and Boa Constrictors and Voinovich's Moscow 2042,” in Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology after Utopia, Princeton University Press, 1993, pp. 183–97.

[In the following essay, Clowes compares the ideological aspects of two popular Soviet-era genres—the fable and science fiction—by contrasting the implied reader/writer relationship in Moscow 2042 with Fazil Iksander's Rabbits and Boa Constrictors.]

Throughout the Soviet period two popular genres, the fable and the science fiction novel, have been used as vehicles for legitimizing communist ideology.1 Maksim Gorky...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Wren, Christopher S. “Soviet Life and Adventures of a Kicker of Sacred Cows.” New York Times Biographical Service (April 1977): 622–23.

Wren provides an overview of Voinovich's life and career before his emigration, detailing his protests against the writers' union.


Carlson, Maria. “It's Not Easy Being Mediocre.” New York Times Book Review (5 November 1989): 12.

Carlson examines the satire in The Fur Hat within the context of the Russian tradition of satiric prose.

Hosking, Geoffrey. “The Good Soldier Chonkin.” Times Literary...

(The entire section is 332 words.)