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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.
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*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 Chonkina [Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin] (novel) 1979
Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski [In Plain Russian] (essays, letters, and prose) 1979
Antisovetskii Sovetskii Soiuz [The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union] (essays) 1985
Moscow 2042 (novel) 1987
The Fur Hat (novel) 1989
*Khochu byt' chestnym [I Want to be Honest; also published as What I Might Have Been] (novella) 1963
Delo N№ 34840: sovershenno nesekretno (autobiography) 1994
*These works were originally published as short stories in the journal Novy Mir. “My zdes' zhivem” was published in 1961; “Dva tovarishcha” and “Khochu byt' chestnym” were both published in the journal in 1963.
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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 and pathos are possibilities.
At first glance, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin is old-fashioned enough. It starts with a gossipy paragraph about “the incident which set the whole affair in motion” which perhaps parodies Dostoevsky. Private Chonkin, set to guard a plane which has made a forced landing in a remote village, is forgotten by the authorities on the outbreak of war in 1941. He becomes a part of the village, sleeps with Nyura, a peasant girl, whose only friend till now has been a charming pig, Borka. He gets to know his neighbour, the disgusting Gladishev, a village Lysenko who is attempting to cross potatoes with tomatoes, but also brews vodka out of “a kilo of sugar and a kilo of shit.” Golubev, the head of the collective, is a complete fraud who lives in Gogol-like terror of a government inspection. Lyushka the milkmaid has become a heroine of labour since “she had broken with the age-old way of milking cows and from now on was going to grab four udders at the same time, two in each hand.”
Starting off as an extremely funny novel in the Clochemerle tradition, Ivan Chonkin takes off to become a grand burlesque of the Soviet system. This departure may have something to do with Vladimir Voinovich's realization (mentioned in the blurb) that the book would never be published in Russia. And so we hear of the Institution, which over the years “waged a crippling war against its own citizens and waged it with unfailing success.” Its agents arrive in the village in pursuit of Chonkin:
As soon as the villagers caught sight of the men coming, they hid in their huts, peeking out cautiously from behind their curtains. The children stopped crying, even the dogs were not barking at the gates.
There was a silence like that before dawn, when all those who go to bed late have already gone to bed and those who get up early have not yet got up. …
When an official confesses to having unwholesome thoughts about Stalin, his wife tells him to make a clean breast of it to the party:
“But what's going to happen to our son? He's only seven, after all.”
“Don't you worry. I'll raise him to be a true Bolshevik. He'll even forget what your name was.”
She helped her husband to pack his suitcase but refused to spend the rest of the night in the same bed with him, out of ideological considerations.
This blend of terror and comedy, the fearful and the farcical, gives an extraordinary feeling of elation, even of hope, to Voinovich's novel. As with so much Russian writing, pessimism may appear to be complete, but lacks the final touch of despair. Voinovich is obviously aware of Western writing—Gladishev owes something to Swift; in a nightmare some pigs dressed as party members are a tribute to Orwell; a fantasy of Stalin dressed as a woman may owe something to Evelyn Waugh's theory about Tito—but the general impression of his work is inspiriting.
Unfortunately the present translation is hardly more than serviceable. Attempting demotic American, it produces some curious effects: Chonkin and Nyura harvest their potato crops with “choppers”; someone is described as “munching on lard and eggs”; “snuck” becomes the past tense of “sneak.” More than any other form, comedy depends on style. But The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin emerges triumphantly in spite of these obstacles.
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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 somehow been spirited abroad. That it should have attracted a Western publisher is not surprising. From his previously issued The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, also available in English, we already know Voinovich as a talented author of comic fiction. Here, in The Ivankiad, he chronicles with comparable skill a preposterous real-life episode.
The book documents his own grotesque experiences as a member of a housing co-operative belonging to the Moscow branch of the Soviet Union of Writers. For five years he and his wife have occupied a small one-room flat on these premises, but now she is about to give birth and he seeks to move into a larger, three-room flat in accordance with his entitlement.
One feature to emerge from the account is that a member of the Soviet Writers' Union, such as Voinovich then was, is entitled to twenty square metres' extra living space on top of the general nine-metre allotment. However, to have a right to a residential ‘norm’ and to succeed in claiming it are two different things, as Voinovich soon finds when another tenant, a certain Ivanko, succeeds in temporarily thwarting these ambitions. Ivanko has no clear claim to be regarded as a writer, but he does have influential friends in the secret police. He already occupies a three-room flat, but he wants to take over a fourth room (thus encroaching on Voinovich's prospective new living space) so that he can install a legendary lavatory acquired during a visit to the US. Such is the prelude to a duel by bureaucratic procedure that is not only hilarious, but may even surprise the citizens of regulation-tormented Britain.
The book is valuable for far more than its humour owing to the insights that it affords into aspects of Soviet everyday living absent from the officially approved literature and little ventilated even in other Export Only memoirs. On the penetration of the Moscow Union of Writers by former and serving members of the KGB, on the means whereby manuscripts are published in consideration of favours to be expected in return, and on the general parameters of battle by committee à la russe, this Red Dunciad is a mine of information, expelled from the Union of Writers, though whether he has had to move again and just what professional disadvantages he may have suffered is far from clear. …
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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 like Alexander Solzhenitsyn (although his Gulag Archipelago is nonfiction), Andrei Sinyevsky, or most recently, Alexander Zinoviev; and talented writers whose work gets published in the U.S.S.R.—writers like Yuri Trifonov, Valentin Rasputin, various poets and playwrights.
Most of the dissenters have emigrated to the West, but they remain fundamentally Soviet in the way they write if not always in what they seek to say. No other people today are turning out so much material that makes its way into English, a distinctive tribute to the Soviet nation and our curiosity about it.
Works by any of these authors and a number of others are well worth the trouble—and trouble it often is, since they tend to be complicated of mind and spirit. Presumably part of the challenge for us in Soviet literature is that we have to penetrate psyches very different from our own.
All of this is by way of introduction, for those who need it, to Vladimir Voinovich. He is one of the finest of contemporary Russian-language writers. Unlike most of the others, his main vehicle is humor. Voinovich is, for want of a better designation, a dissident, meaning that he was expelled in 1974 from the Writer's Union, is harrassed and so on. But his problems stem as much from his support of other authors in trouble as from his own writing.
Voinovich stays on in the U.S.S.R. despite the difficulties of official isolation, and he continues to choose subjects that are for the most part more amusing and human than overtly political. What sets Voinovich apart from his colleagues of all persuasions on the contemporary Soviet scene is that he writes with deceptive and disarming simplicity. This should make his appeal to Americans all the greater.
So far it has. Two of his books have already appeared in the U.S.—The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, a very funny account of Soviet military life and The Ivankiad, a satirical tale of Voinovich's battles with Moscow bureaucrats over an extra room for his apartment. Critics have spoken well of both, particularly Chonkin.
Now comes In Plain Russian, a collection of Voinovich's short stories, a novella and some open letters to Soviet officialdom. The first of the stories What I Might Have Been, appeared in 1962 in Novy Mir, the leading Soviet literary journal. The most recent items are the letters written in 1976-77. Through the years Voinovich's style has remained recognizable, ranging across a spectrum from subtle to sardonic, usually in a voice that sounds like it is on the verge of a smile.
What I Might Have Been was denounced by a close aide to Nikita Khrushchev when it appeared in Novy Mir apparently because it portrayed Soviet workers in an unflattering light. It is about a construction supervisor who refuses to turn over a poorly finished project, despite the tyranny of a Party plan, and is punished as a result. The portrayal of sloth and petty deceit is superb.
Interestingly, when the story was first published it was called “I Want to be Honest,” a title one Novy Mir editor felt would be easier to get past the censors. Voinovich has now restored the original title, “purely,” he says in his foreword, “on aesthetic grounds.”
“A Distance of Half a Kilometer” is a grim little piece about the death of a country ne'er do-well. As translator Richard Lourie nicely puts it in an introduction: “The death … is as mundane as a death can be (one minute Ochkin is alive, living his shabby, unadmirable life; the next moment he's dead, his face in the soup) and yet we also feel the sting of reality: a person is no more.”
“From an Exchange of Letters” is the best of the stories—actually being what Russians call a povest, a novella. It concerns a hapless young soldier who strikes up a pen-pal relationship with an older woman. She then ensnares him into a marriage which he lacks the fortitude to undo. So he ends up living a miserable, wasted life in a godforsaken village. Somehow Voinovich makes the dreary picture poignant—comically sad instead of depressing.
In fact, the common bond in this book is that most of the stories deal with the least well-endowed—the homely, lonely people with none of the qualities of moral strength or socialist zeal that would make them acceptable to Soviet literary moguls.
Each branch of Soviet literature has subheadings, of course. Personal memoirists like Bukovsky and Lev Kopelev, for instance, write too well to be regarded merely for their political message. Voinovich is a subcategory all his own, a dissident whose differences with the Soviet state on profound issues of freedom have virtually nothing to do with his revealing sketches of frailty and the hard life in a great country. If Solzhenitsyn can stir and trouble, Voinovich at his best can touch. And that makes him worthwhile also.
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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 short-story writers enjoy a particularly broad avenue of access to this literature (one thinks immediately of Francisc Munteanu, Lajos Baráth, Grigol Tschikovani). In one way or another this literature expresses the pain of sensitive men trapped in a prison run by barbarians; it is a literature marked by fervor, moral revulsion, incandescent affirmation, and that final defiance of the state, a loving embrace of the particularity of person and place. But it has been, until now, a literature without humor. After all, in prison, who laughs?
So here comes Vladimir Voinovich, riding high on the waves of laughter he kicked up with his The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin and The Ivankiad, bringing new tales of life [In Plain Russian] as it is lived under the madness of the bureaucratic system. A construction supervisor staggers along under a supply administrator who doesn't give a damn. You ask for cement, you get doorknobs. Eventually a barter system among crew leaders comes into existence. The supervisor, struggling to meet an arbitrary deadline, calculates the possibilities of the market: Filiminov has linseed oil, needs roofing iron; Limar has Dutch tiles, needs window frames; Sidorkin has roofing iron, needs Dutch tiles; Ermoshin has window frames, needs tiles; our hero has tiles, needs linseed oil. The permutations break down. So it goes.
Voinovich has been around, he knows what's going on, he lays it on the line. But the most interesting aspect of his work, aside from its Rabelaisian laughter, lies in the things he takes for granted. When a new character appears on the scene, Voinovich is careful to specify that he is sober; one gathers that this condition is remarkable in some sort of way. It is taken for granted that members of the Party are on the make, cynically manipulating their little hoard of power in order to advance their careers. The proletarians, not members of the Party, understand that the regime needs them more than they need the regime, and so they pass their days and years in more or less open rebellion against their supervisors. The newspapers are simply ignored, for they carry nothing but lies. The maximum leaders are craven, ignorant, bestial gangsters. Women have no special place in this world, perhaps because it has robbed them of their femininity.
And there is no future. Money isn't to be saved (that's a crime anyway). Someone else will take care of things. One won't grow old, because the lousy diet and the menial routine and the all-encompassing madness serve to shorten life. If you have an extra kopek, go and drink it up. Don't try to work your way up the ladder; the higher you go, the more agonizing the hypocrisies you must tolerate. It is an extraordinary achievement to chronicle this chaos as if it were one huge bad joke.
I haven't examined the text in Russian, so I can't be sure of this, but I suspect there's a translation error on page 258 where ailerons are said to change an aircraft's position “relative to its longitudinal axis.” In fact they rotate the aircraft around, or on, that axis, and change the position of the vertical and lateral axes. … And “early on” is a bit of modern American faddism, quite unnecessary when “early” does the trick. Why lose faith in our language? What's wrong with simply saying “early”? Voinovich places his very life at risk when he puts a word on paper; you may be sure he doesn't tolerate such nibbling at the foundations of his own speech. Otherwise, the translation reads without a hitch; a sign, perhaps, that Voinovich has adopted a style that makes for easy translating. His works have been translated into twenty languages by now. Some day the gorillas in the Kremlin may even permit his books to be published in Russia.
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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). Voinovich's plain language and uncompromising directness reveal Soviet reality in its grotesque, dehumanizing aspects. He depicts the life of the small man, the alienated, the victim of both fate and the system. His work is imbued with a sadness over wasted human potential that is relieved by laughter at the absurd injustice of it all.
Putëm vzaimnoj perepiski (Via Mutual Correspondence) is divided into two sections, one composed of fiction and the other containing autobiographical stories and open letters. In the foreword, where he cites an example of the unfair criticism of his work, Voinovich is not completely open with his Western reader. It seems that A. Ivanov termed “pornographic” the song from Voinovich's Two Comrades that begins; “Mama, I love a pilot. / Mama, I shall marry him.” This seemingly innocent ditty, although not pornographic, is certainly suggestive, because it evokes in the Soviet mind an entire cycle of indecent častuški (couplets).
What I Might Have Been, originally published in Novyj Mir (no. 2, 1963), is the story that first brought Voinovich to official attention and set him on a path that led in 1974, after his open support of Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to his expulsion from the Writers Union. Zhenia Samokhin is a construction overseer, past his prime, who will never obtain security in life because of a stubborn sense of personal pride in his work. In refusing to hand over a new building prematurely, Samokhin forfeits a promotion and condemns himself to a wanderer's life. His is the dilemma of the lonely idealist caught in a maze of bureaucratic incompetency.
Other stories in this section deal with the death of an undistinguished man who preferred life in prison camps to daily village life, and a correspondence that ends in a serviceman's abandonment of dreams of future glory and his entrapment in an undesirable marriage. “A Circle of Friends” is a lively satire of Stalin and his henchmen. Their paranoia, servility, barbarism and incompetency are revealed. In the end Koba (Stalin) sees himself as a “superparasite,” killer and destroyer of the economy and army in the name of personal power. He is “the main enemy of the people,” a paranoid who hates even himself.
The second part of Voinovich's work includes stories about his life in a construction organization and in the military service as well as his daring “Open Letter to the President of VAAP,” “To the Secretariat of the Moscow Union of Writers” and “Top Secret,” his protest upon having his telephone disconnected after a conversation with a friend in Boston.
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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 World Literature in 1956 and 1957. He worked as a carpenter, then taught evening classes in the Virgin Lands region of Kazakhstan. In 1960 he found a job with Moscow Radio, where he composed a cosmonauts' song that won him wide popularity. At about the same time his first story was accepted for publication in Novyi Mir. His works published in that journal made him popular, though controversial. His real difficulties with the authorities came, however, when he protested against the writers' trials of 1966-68 and against the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Writers' Union. The publication a broad of Part One of Chonkin (in 1969) caused further difficulties, even though he dissociated himself publicly from it. In 1974, he was expelled from the Writers' Union, and since then nothing of his has been published in the Soviet Union.]
Every morning at a quarter to seven the alarm clock on my table goes off, to remind me that it's time to get up and go to work. Of course, I don't feel like getting up or going to work. Outside it's still dark, and the window, spattered with rain, is only just visible against the dark wall. I tug at the loop of the light switch, and then lie for several minutes with the light on, feeling the primeval desire to snooze for a while. Then I lower my legs to the floor—first one, then the other. From that moment the process of turning me into a modern man gets under way.
First of all I sit on the bed staring vacantly at some unspecified spot on the opposite wall, scratch myself, sigh and open my mouth wide. I have a bad taste in my mouth, and there is a kind of gurgling in my chest, probably because I smoke too much. My heart aches. Or rather it doesn't ache, it's just that I'm conscious of it, as if someone had inserted a round cobblestone under my skin there. Anyone lucky enough to observe me at this moment would get quite a bit of enjoyment from the sight. There can be few things on earth more ridiculous than my face, my person and the posture I adopt during these moments. Then I begin to wiggle my toes, wave my arms about and perform other gestures distantly reminiscent of gymnastic exercises. On the floor under the radiator lies a pair of dumb-bells that I bought last year. They are covered by a thick layer of dust and look bigger than they really are. I haven't used them for a long time, and the dust on them gives me a certain excuse—I don't want to make my hands filthy. But there was a time when I could do gymnastics and be out on parade within three minutes of reveille with my pack, my tommy-gun and all the other paraphernalia. Sergeant Shuldykov, who first taught me how to do it, he'd say: ‘I'll have you up and ready to go in three minutes even when you get back to civvy street. I'll teach you how to do it. That's the aim of my life.’
If he had no other aims, then one must conclude that Sergeant Shuldykov lived in vain.1
Much of the essence of Vladimir Voinovich (born 1932) is in this passage, which opens his short story “I Want to be Honest” (“Khochubyt' chestnym,” 1963). The general tone is that of ‘youth prose’: the somewhat self-deprecatory approach, the ironic use of words and phrases slightly too pretentious for the trivial subject, the insistence on minor and unprepossessing details of everyday life, the amused self-observation. The narrator, Samokhin, is a man without any evident motivation or ideal, the trivia of his life exist per se unilluminated by any purpose: he has simply to deal with them as they come. Why then is the story called “I Want to be Honest”? How does a man as vacant as Samokhin come to express any such sentiment? This is where Voinovich's individual features as a writer begin to assert themselves. We see something of them already in this opening passage in phrases like ‘primeval desire', ‘turning me into a modern man’ and in the irony over the aim of Sergeant Shuldykov's life. There is something unusually gaunt in Voinovich's initial presentation of his characters: in Two Comrades (Dva tovarishcha, 1967), indeed, they are all naked, undergoing a medical examination at the military draft board. At the beginning of his stories, they nearly always appear as people without qualities, without apparent purpose or inner motivation, bewildered by the world, but still very open to experience precisely because of their inner emptiness. Often they are very young. The author begins by showing them in the midst of their everyday preoccupations, where their aims are strictly limited and short-term. Only gradually do more serious, long-term purposes emerge out of this daily friction with reality; only gradually do the characters discover themselves. Some of them never do so, or discover false, inauthentic selves, like Sergeant Shuldykov, whose sarcasm masks the fact that his life probably did indeed have little purpose beyond getting his platoon on parade in impeccable external order.
In a sense, Voinovich was rethinking the concept of the ‘positive hero’. In his first published work, We Live Here (Myzdes'zhivëm, 1961)—note the bald, declaratory titles—Goshka, the unassuming, muddled chief character, is exhorted by his girl friend—who is thinking of leaving him for the attractions of the capital—to carry out some ‘great deed’ to prove his love for her. When he misses work in order to revise for an examination—the chairman of his kolkhoz reminds him that in the Civil War Red Army cavalrymen were on horseback without a break for three days and nights. Even his friend Anatoly assures him that he is a ‘negative hero’. But the point about Goshka is that he remains stolidly unimpressed by all these well served up literary and historical models and lives his own life as best he knows how, on the humbler values derived from a village childhood, and with the vague desire to improve himself by passing his exams and going into the town for further education.
An even more unlikely positive hero is Afanasy Ochkin, of Half a Kilometre Away (Rasstoyanie v polkilometra, 1963), a shirker of military service, a man who has spent most of his life with a criminal record in labour camps and has caused his wife constant distress and deprivation. His ‘life path’ is summed up in the last sentence of the story: ‘Ochkin, who had been born half a kilometre from his grave, had travelled much and seen much—yet all the same he had covered only this half kilometre, had traversed in forty years a distance that for a normal person on foot takes only seven minutes.’2
There was clearly no Purpose to his life, only trivial, immediate, expedient purposes with a small ‘p', such as the avoidance of trouble. But for Voinovich ‘positive heroes’ are not defined by any great Purpose, or even small ones. Two of his characters spend a great deal of their time arguing about how many columns there are to the portals of the Bolshoi Theatre. The argument has many variations, is often accompanied by drink and is resumed every time they meet. When one of them settles the question for himself in his own favour by getting hold of a postcard of the theatre, his triumph turns to dust in his imagination, and in the end he does not even claim the drink that is his due—he simply quietly tears the postcard up, so that the argument can continue. Much of Voinovich's work is a comic commentary on Nadezhda Mandel'shtam's distinction between ‘aim’ and ‘meaning’:
When I was young the question of the meaning of life had been superseded by the search for an aim. People are so used to this that even now they fail to see the difference between the two. In those years it was the revolutionary young who raised the question of an aim in life, and they had only one: to bring happiness to mankind. We all know where that landed us. The problem of meaning, as opposed to aim, is appreciated by very few people when they are young, since it can be grasped only through personal experience, and is tied up with the question of one's own identity. People are thus more inclined to think about it in their old age—and then only those who prepare for death and look back on their past life.3
For Voinovich's characters the situation is reversed: all aims have already been discredited, and there remains only the search for meaning.
Samokhin too is offered a purpose, in the usual party style: he is to hand over his section of an apartment block in time for the approaching Komsomol celebrations. He will then be promoted from mere senior foreman to the prestigious post of chief engineer, so that not only the party's purpose, but his own self-interest will be advanced. But something about this offer brings Samokhin up against his own rock-bottom sense of the things that are important to him. Everything that we have been told so far about him, his job and his work environment speak of a world completely without values. He has become a construction expert by sheer accident. He has no particular ambitions, and the building site on which he works is plagued by slovenly workmanship, poor quality tools, missing materials, and general cynicism amounting to bloody-mindedness. Samokhin, in his capacity as narrator, has recounted all this faithfully and clear-sightedly, but we have had no indication that he intends to stand out against it in any way. This offer of promotion, however, brings out his reserve of principle, for he knows there is no chance whatever of handing over the building in habitable condition by the deadline—and he suddenly realizes that he is not prepared to hand it over in any other condition. In the normal sense, in the sense in which his mother uses the term, he is a failure, because he has become ‘neither a scholar nor a high-up boss’ by the age of 42. So what remains?
My work is no better, but also no worse than anyone else's. Whether this is really my calling or not I still don't know, and frankly I'm not terribly interested. One's calling is only really put to the test in a job that requires a particular talent. A foreman doesn't need much in the way of talent—it's quite enough for him to be able to get hold of materials, read a set of plans and fill in the workers' job sheets in good time. There's no way, for example, I can build a house better than it is on the drawing-board.
But sometimes they want me to build the thing worse than I am capable of, and that annoys me. And when I object, that annoys the authorities.4
That is what motivates his decision: the realization that this is all he has left to sustain his own self-respect—‘whether my work is good or bad, it's all I have.’ As so often in Voinovich's work there is an enormous gap between the formalities and the reality. The members of the inspection commission are not in the least interested in the quality of the work they are looking over: the sanitary inspector wants to get his suit from the dry cleaners before the queue gets too long, and the representative of the district executive committee has to buy provisions for his family for the holiday. They are both anxious to get the job over as soon as possible, without muddying their boots in the process, and are unconcerned by doors that do not close and even by a balcony railing that comes loose. They regard the Komsomol representative who insistently calls attention to the deficiencies as both naïve and a careerist. It is their negligent and slovenly attitude that finally stings Samokhin into refusing to sign the transfer document, when he was almost prepared to acquiesce out of weary cynicism.
Primary peddler of the appearances which mask reality is the newspaper reporter, Gusev, who comes to interview Samokhin, with his article about him and his promotion already almost completely written:
‘I'd like to begin with the war. I need to show you blowing up houses, but dreaming of building new ones. The theme of the struggle for peace is very important just now. Were you an officer in the war?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘in the war I was a sergeant-major, and I didn't blow up any houses because I was in intelligence.’
‘It doesn't matter where you served,’ he said. ‘I want you blowing up houses for the principle of the thing. But tell me: when did you decide to become a construction engineer, during the war or as a child?’
‘Well, I don't know what to say,’ I hesitated. ‘You see, after I was wounded I lived right opposite the construction institute. To get to any other institute I would have had to take a tram, but to get to that one I just had to cross the road. And I was on crutches then …’
‘I see,’ said Gusev, but did not write anything in his notepad.5
The ‘magnificent prospects’ of the distant future, the construction of communism, projected in official propaganda, have been allowed to smother present realities completely, leading most people to ignore the limited but genuine values that can still be preserved. In that respect Samokhin's irascible assertion of his sense of himself and the things he stands for is a reaction against the doublethink characteristic of public life. In his private life he goes through more or less the same evolution. His girl friend Klava is divorced, approaching middle age, and very dependent on him. She lies on her sofa, reading countless novels and drawing from them effective phrases to use in her dramatic but never quite convincing appeals to him. He is impatient at her persistence, always on the point of leaving her, but never quite able to bring himself to do so. His image of Klava is clouded by the memory of Rosa, a beautiful Jewish girl whom he had loved chastely more than twenty years ago, and who had been killed by the Nazis at Baby Yar. She is still for him the ideal of womanhood, beside whom Klava seems a mere grey everyday comfort.
Klava, however, becomes pregnant, and a settlement of their uncertain relations becomes imperative. When Samokhin is injured (carrying an oxygen cylinder, trying to get the building finished quickly, even after it can no longer mean promotion for him), Klava visits him in hospital, and offers to take him home to look after him. ‘No, no,’ he says at first, ‘I don't want you carrying my chamber pots after me.’ This does not at all accord with his picture of Rosa, but he reflects all the same: ‘Maybe that's what real love is, carrying chamber pots.’6 At any rate he agrees rather hesitantly that the baby should be born and that he and Klava should make a family for it. In private as in public life, Samokhin finishes by standing up for the limited but real as against the distant or unattainable ideal.
The split between reality and ideal, between reality and appearance runs right through the work, and is explored in comic vein in the person of Ivan Adamovich, Samokhin's neighbour in the communal apartment. When appearances and the ideal are as dominant as they are in Soviet society, the individual is often tempted to doubt his own autonomous value, even his individual existence: this is the source of most of the cynicism with which this story is filled. Ivan Adamovich, who has been reading the old idealist philosophers, takes this one stage further and comes in one evening to Samokhin to announce: ‘You think you exist. But in fact you don't. … You don't exist, neither does this room, nor this table—nothing. Everything is our imagination. A universal vacuum.’ However, he too is brought up rudely against reality, in the shape of a two-year-old girl parked on him by a niece who has gone off for the night with her lover. When the little girl cries, he tries at first to comfort her, but soon loses his temper and shouts: ‘I can't hear you crying. … Your crying doesn't exist. You don't exist and I don't exist. …’7 This denial of reality collapses in the face of the evidence of dirty nappies:
Ivan Adamovich was holding up some little towelling panties in two fingers, and his face was a picture of complete discomfiture. ‘Zhenya,’ he said, ‘look what the little horror has done.’
‘I can't see anything,’ I said.
‘How d'you mean?’ said Ivan Adamovich, taken aback.
‘Very simple.’ I shrugged my shoulders. ‘I can't see anything, that's all. It's all your imagination, Ivan Adamovich.’
With his free hand, Ivan Adamovich thoughtfully scratched the back of his head. ‘But it stinks,’ he said uncertainly.8
Moral nihilism and philosophical solipsism are defeated by chamber pots and dirty nappies. Everyday reality and family life assert their rights with reassuring solidity, even in their least prepossessing forms. But in Soviet public life the last word remains with appearances. Gusev, having heard of Samokhin's refusal to hand over an incomplete building, has published on him, under the title ‘High Principles', exactly the same article that he was preparing for Samokhin's promotion to chief engineer. ‘I was right about Gusev,’ is the narrator's parting comment.9
The struggle to discover personal identity and to act in accordance with it is conducted not only against the pretences and chicaneries of public life, but also often against the love of one's nearest and dearest, as Voinovich shows in his Two Comrades (Dva tovarishcha, 1967). Valerka, the narrator and chief figure, lives alone with his mother and grandmother, his father having left with another woman. These two devoted women have marked out his entire future career for him: he is to study hard, pass his exams, go to an electrical engineering institute and become a successful electrical engineer. To this end, they try to supervise all his free time and his friendships:
I hadn't got a girl friend. I only had mother and grandmother, who for their own peace of mind wanted every incident in my private life to take place before their eyes. At nineteen I realized that restriction of the freedom of personality is a grave infliction, even if it is the result of someone's infinite love.10
By way of compensation he strikes up a friendship with the worldly and—by provincial adolescent standards—sophisticated Tolik, whom his mother cannot stand. ‘I can understand it,’ she says, ‘when common interests bring people together, or when they become friends out of ideological conviction.’11 But, as Valerka explains to the reader, neither he nor Tolik have any ideological convictions: it's just that they live in the same block of flats, and work in the same factory, which makes important and secret objects for the space research programme—but in the downbeat fashion of Voinovich's heroes, the two of them have no part in making the objects themselves, only the boxes in which the said objects are packed:
I think Tolik secretly hoped that they would launch the boxes themselves into space. For that reason, inside the boxes he sometimes pencilled in his surname. Bozhko, so that if any of them should reach another planet, his name would become known not only on earth but beyond it too.12
The early part of the work is taken up with various escapades of the pair, youthful pranks as a substitute for scrawling one's name on other planets. The last prank turns out to be much more important. Tolik, who is always the leader, takes them to an airfield, where they manage to wangle themselves onto a training flight. Afterwards Valerka cannot get the sensation of flying out of his mind. He resolves to become a pilot, even though—or perhaps because?—the best way for him to do this is to fail his exams and be drafted into the armed forces, taking just the road that his mother and grandmother most dread for him. The exams become in fact the moment of his self-assertion and self-discovery. He is supposed to be writing an essay on the ‘Moral Character of Young Soviet Man', but what he does is to assert his own ‘moral character’ in his own way by writing a passionate description of his first flight in an aircraft. Ironically, the examiner who marks his paper is a woman with literary pretensions herself: she recognizes real quality in his writing, and gives him a five, the highest mark. She, though only briefly portrayed, is one of Voinovich's self-deceivers, and one who tries to mould others according to her image of them: she reads Valerka some of her dreadful verse, overloaded with alliteration, and enrols him for her literary seminar. Eventually Valerka has deliberately to take an exam in German instead of English (which he has been learning in school) in order to fail sensationally in a foreign language.
That was a real delight. I got my own back in full measure on everyone who was trying to push me into that institute, and on everyone who wanted to turn me into the local literary genius. The ancient walls of that institute had probably never heard such idiotic answers, and the examiner was so shaken that her pen broke as she wrote in my ‘fail’.13
Compared with this, Tolik's worldly adroitness is now seen to mask an inner lack of genuine identity. He and Valerka are set upon by a gang of hoodlums. The maliciously inventive leader of the gang decides to add moral to physical injury by forcing Tolik to beat Valerka up. Tolik at first tries to escape, then to get away with a half-hearted swipe at his friend, but finally under pressure hits Valerka repeatedly and zealously.14
This is the turning point of the novel. From now on the relationship between Valerka and Tolik is reversed. Tolik seems reduced in stature, dependent on Valerka, and becomes obsessed with excusing himself for what he has done. ‘It was better for you that way because they would have hit you even harder,’ he pleads. ‘There's a philosophy for you,’ Valerka comments to the reader. ‘I came across it later in other circumstances, heard almost those very words from people hastening to do what someone else would have done anyway in their place.’15 Earlier on, he had felt sympathy for the fate of the apostle Peter because he denied Christ and then repented.16 But faced with Tolik's analogous betrayal, he does not feel much sympathy. His attitude is not one of straightforward moral condemnation: it is just that Tolik now seems a smaller and less interesting person, and Valerka, having found his own feet, does not need a friend who has disclosed his inner emptiness so dramatically.
The society against whose background this friendship is struck up and then dissolved is sketched more sparingly than in I Want to be Honest, but one pervasive image keeps recurring, that of the enormous ‘Palace’ which divides the town in two.
To start with it was supposed to be the largest Palace of Metallurgists in the country, in the style of Corbusier. The Palace was almost finished, when it turned out that the architect was under the influence of western architecture. He got such a rocket for old Corbusier that it took him a long time to recover. Then times changed and they allowed the architect to return to his interrupted labours. But—once bitten, twice shy—he added to the building some hexagonal columns standing as though separately, just in case of anything. They called the edifice the Palace of Science and Technology, once again the largest in the country. After the erection of the columns they stopped building for a time, because under this largest thing in the country they had discovered the largest ever reservoir of sub-foundation waters. A few years went by—where the waters went I don't know—and they started building yet again, only now it was to be the largest Palace of Weddings in Europe.
The incongruity of this gigantism applied to the family and personal relations is underlined a little later when the narrator comments: ‘Our flat was not the largest in the country: the three of us lived in two adjacent rooms.’17 The unfinished Palace of Weddings, with its incomplete windows looking like dark baleful eyes, forms the background for the gang attack which is the climax of the work.
The story finishes with Tolik having become a poet, reading his banal verses to Valerka (like Gusev in I Want to be Honest he is a bearer of inauthentic experience), and then nervously fiddling with his string bag in his hand as he yet again pleads for Valerka's forgiveness.
In the end I managed to get away from him and walked on. After a bit I looked round. Tolik was standing in the middle of the road twisting his idiotic string bag first in one direction, then in the other. When he saw that I had turned round he hastily smiled and started to wave frantically. I couldn't help it—I raised my hand and made a non-committal gesture, half waving but at the same time half not waving. Its meaning was probably: ‘OK, that's enough. Let's forget about it. The past is the past.’18
If that sentiment applies to the incident which so obsesses Tolik, then it probably also applies to their friendship. But even this is not certain: there is a gentle ambiguity about the ending. Voinovich very rarely consigns anyone to complete condemnation.
All of the works mentioned above show human beings finding themselves in a complicated world of corruption and duplicity, though also of love and understanding. Voinovich was asking in effect: how is principled action possible in the modern world? How is the good man formed, not ideally but in actuality? He was posing the traditional Socialist Realist questions in an entirely new form. In each case, it is not a purpose (still less the Purpose) which draws them on, but rather they discover by trial and error, even by accident, their own authentic forms of existence, the forms in which their own personality is most genuinely expressed, in which they can ‘be themselves’. Their morality is based not on ideals or purposes, but on the concept of Solzhenitsyn's Spiridon: ‘the wolfhound is right, the cannibal is wrong.’
The discovery of the authentic self lies, in fact, at the centre of Voinovich's work in general. In particular it underlies the satire in his novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, (Zhizn' i neobychainye priklyucheniya soldata Ivana Chonkina, 1975). The fundamental absurdity which the novel brings to light is the inauthentic existence forced on everyone in Soviet society by an overbearing system of authority and ideology, whose structures partly—in extreme cases completely—replace the human personality. The chief character, the red-faced, bow-legged soldier Chonkin himself, is the ideal catalyst for this satire because, though he is subject to the external coercion as much as anyone else, he does not internalize its ideology: indeed he is too good-natured and stupid even to understand it, and in that way remains spiritually free from it. When he stands up at a political education session and, incited by an unscrupulous colleague, asks if Comrade Stalin has had two wives, his naïvety releases a pent up complex of unmentionable subjects which reduce the political commissar to helpless silence. Chonkin is the innocent fool who gets everybody at cross purposes and in the process reveals their hidden motives. He is as good a touchstone for showing up the varieties of inauthentic existence as Chichikov in Gogol's Dead Souls.
He is of course an utterly unheroic hero, as the author admits to the reader early on:
‘What a sorry sight he makes!’ you will say indignantly. ‘What kind of example is this for the younger generation? … Couldn't the author have taken a military hero from real life, a tall, well-built, disciplined, crack student of military and political theory?’ Of course I could have, but I was too late. All the crack students had already been grabbed up and I was left with Chonkin. At first I was disappointed, but then I accepted my luck. After all, the hero of your book is like your own child, you get what you get, you don't just fling him out of the window. Maybe some other people's children are a little better, a little smarter, but still you love your own more just because he's your own.19
This passage challenges the inherited Socialist Realist assumptions about literature in a number of respects. It is not only that the hero is different, but so too is the narrator, his relationship to reality and his attitude to the reader. Right from the beginning Voinovich has implied that his story is both reality and fantasy: ‘It is impossible to say definitely whether it all really did happen or not, because the incident which set the whole affair in motion … happened in the village of Krasnoe so long ago that there are practically no eyewitnesses left. … I've collected everything I've heard on the subject and added a little something of my own as well, in fact maybe I've even added a little more than I heard.’20 This ambiguity will persist throughout the novel, and is shown to arise out of the nature of Soviet reality, which (a) is fantastic, in the usual sense of the word, and (b) consists in large part of state-sponsored fantasy of one kind or another. Take the following activity of the chairman of the kolkhoz, from later in the novel, which is fantastic in both senses:
Ivan Timofeevich Golubev was sitting in his office, toiling over the composition of a report concerning haymaking in the last ten-day period. Needless to say, the report was a fraud, since there had been practically no haymaking at all during the last ten-day period. The men were leaving for the front, and the women were getting them ready—what kind of harvest could you expect? The District Committee, however, did not consider such reasons valid. Borisov would swear at him over the phone and demand that the plan be fulfilled. Of course he knew that at a time like this he was asking the impossible, but for him the papers reporting completed work were more important than the work itself—for his superiors were swearing at him too. So Borisov was collecting papers from all the kolkhozes, compiling the figures, and sending them up to the provincial level, where further reports were being drawn up on the basis of the district reports, and so on, all the way up to the top. And that's how Golubev came to be sitting in his office making his own modest contribution to the great cause of paper work.21
Most of the time Golubev is conscious of what he is doing and of the distinction between reality and fantasy, but just occasionally, looking over the immaculately tabulated figures he ‘caught himself starting to half-believe them.’22 Such is the insidious nature of consistently sustained fantasy. Fantasy has a grip on us beyond what positivist and scientistic philosophies would lead us to expect. Man brings his own inner life to bear on his perception and interpretation of the outside world. On one level, what Voinovich is doing in Chonkin is showing up one set of fantasies, inhumane and harmful, and trying to replace them with another set, more gentle, fruitful and humane. He is asking the reader to make his own imaginative contribution to this process, to respond and add to his, the author's work, ‘but if the story seems to you uninteresting, boring or even foolish, then just spit and forget I ever told it.’23
Chonkin is his ally in this process. A kind of ‘anti-Socialist Realist hero', he springs from much earlier literary and even pre-literary roots: from Chekhov's little men, Tolstoy's simple peasants, Leskov's eccentric and slightly ridiculous ‘saints', and above all from Ivan the Fool, the stupid peasant of Russian folk tales, who leads a charmed life in communion with animals and nature, and whose cheerful simplicity brings him miraculous victories over the rich, sophisticated and powerful of this world. There are all kinds of echoes and overtones in Chonkin's personality. 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 an ordinary shepherd. Who knows? But he clearly springs from a twilight world of the prerevolutionary popular and literary imagination. The irruption of this unlikely (yet on another level very 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.
At the beginning Chonkin is under the external compulsion of the system. He leaps up and down in the hot sunshine under Sergeant Peskov's orders because he has no choice. But he is notorious for his untidiness and inability to perform the simplest parade ground manoeuvre without tripping over himself. More than a year of army training has made not the slightest impression on him, and he is doing the duty most suited to his personality—managing the stable, where he can collect firewood, cart dung, and talk to horses who, unlike human beings, don't answer back. Summoned to unexpected sentry duty, however, Chonkin is suddenly freed from all immediate surveillance and compulsion. Rather quickly he sloughs off his forced existence as a soldier and resumes his natural existence as a man and a peasant:
Chonkin stopped and, resting against the plane, started to think. They had left him alone for a week with no one to relieve him. So what was he to do? According to the regulations a sentry was forbidden to eat, drink, smoke, laugh, sing, talk or relieve himself. But could he really just stand there for a week? In the course of a week, try as you might, you couldn't help breaking the regulations! Having come to that conclusion, Chonkin walked back to the tailplane and broke the regulations there and then. He looked around. Nothing happened.24
He begins to sing songs, and exchanges ribald remarks with some women passing in a cart:
All this had the pleasantest effect on Chonkin. He leaned on his rifle and was overcome by thoughts of the opposite sex, such as were not at all permitted by the regulations. He looked around again, but not as he had done before, with nothing in mind, just for the sake of a look; now he had something quite definite in mind.
And he found it.
In the vegetable garden closest to him Chonkin caught sight of Nyura Belashova, who, after her afternoon rest, had come out again to mound her potatoes. Her chopper moved in measured rhythms as she turned various sides to Chonkin, who watched her closely, evaluating her ample forms at their full merit.25
Having made this transition from regulation-bound soldier to natural man, Chonkin more or less renounces his sentry duty altogether, not from slovenliness, but because there does not seem any point in elaborately guarding a plane miles from anywhere. He moves in with the plump Nyura, helps her in house and garden plot, and in fact resumes his proper existence as a peasant—in which capacity he exhibits a competence and intelligence that would have astounded his sergeant. Indeed as a peasant he goes on in later parts of the novel to become what he never was in the army, a first-rate soldier, and to win miraculous victories over the most powerful institution in the land, the NKVD.
It is worth making the point, since the comparison suggests itself, that in this respect Chonkin is entirely different from the Good Soldier Schweik. Schweik is a born shirker, lazy, foulmouthed, often actively malevolent. He achieves his victories by wilfully obstructing the system or at best by negligence and slovenliness. Chonkin, by contrast, is unfailingly good-natured, loyal and conscientious. He believes in Stalin, seeing him as a father figure, and he wants to do his duty by him and the motherland. Indeed, it is excess of zeal that leads him to defend his plane against the NKVD troops, whom he mistakes for Germans. It is by his very devotion to the system that he defeats it and shows it up: an irony altogether more profound than that we find in Hasek's work—for all the latter's qualities.
Chonkin's good-hearted devotion to the system, coupled with his complete failure, through stupidity and good nature, to understand its doublethink, show up every other character in the book, both by contrast and as a direct result of Chonkin's actions. Take Golubev, for example. We have already seen the kind of enforced make-believe he has to take part in. His life is a hell of personal indecision and mute brow-mopping obedience, softened only by the liquor he keeps in the farm strongbox. For every decision—or indecision—he can be held responsible. His colleague, Kilin, the village party organizer (partorg), is in the same position. Their situation is summed up in the scene at the beginning of part two when the news of the outbreak of war reaches the village and all the villagers rush to the farm office to find out what has happened. Kilin, who has been told to organize a ‘spontaneous meeting’ to explain the military-political situation, is delighted that they have gathered so quickly. However, when he phones district party headquarters for further instructions about how to conduct the meeting, he is severely reprimanded for having allowed a ‘spontaneous meeting’ to assemble spontaneously:
‘You have unleashed anarchy, that's what you have done!’ Borisov let his words fall like drops of lead. ‘Who ever heard of people assembling all by themselves, without any direction from the leadership?’
Kilin went cold inside.
‘But listen, Sergei Nikanorich, I mean, you said yourself: “A spontaneous meeting”’ …
‘Spontaneity, comrade Kilin, must be directed!’ rapped out Borisov.26
Borisov's last pronouncement can stand on its own as a summary of the doublethink that dominates the lives of all the party officials, and on whose twin prongs they go in fear all their lives. This is the old conflict between ‘spontaneity’ and ‘consciousness', now reduced to burlesque: Kilin has forcibly to disperse the inquisitive crowd to their homes, and then laboriously recall them from their everyday concerns.
The speech which Golubev reads at the meeting thus perversely convened reveals much about the relationship between words and reality under this system.
‘Comrades!’ the partorg began his speech and immediately heard the sound of sobbing. Displeased, he looked down to see who was causing the disturbance. All he saw was people's faces.
‘Comrades!’ he repeated, and suddenly felt that he could not say another word. It was only at that moment that he really took in everything that had happened, the grief that had come upon them all, himself included. Seen against this grief all his recent fears and cunning moves seemed absolutely trivial. And the text on the paper in front of him also seemed trivial, empty and stupid. What could he say to these people who, at this very moment, were waiting for words which he did not have in him? Only a moment before, he had been thinking of himself as someone special a representative of a higher power that knows and understands when, what and how everything should be done. Now he knew nothing.
Soon however he gets a grip on himself:
‘Comrades!’ he began for the fourth time. ‘The treacherous attack by Fascist Germany …’. He felt some relief as soon as he had spoken the first phrase. Gradually he took possession of his text and the text took possession of him. The familiar word patterns dulled his sense of grief, distracted his mind, and soon Kilin's tongue was babbling away all by itself, like a separate and independent part of his body: ‘We shall stand our ground … we shall return blow for blow … with heroic labour we shall meet …’.
The weeping from the crowd stopped. Kilin's words caused vibrations in people's eardrums but did not reach their minds. Their thoughts were returning to their ordinary concerns.27
So crazy is this world of authoritarian fantasy, mumbo-jumbo and doublethink that Golubev gets it into his head that Chonkin is some kind of ‘inspector-general’ come to unmask all his fabrications and contrivances—just about the unlikeliest character imaginable to have been cast in this role. For some days he goes around tense, fearful and irritable, afraid to do or say anything openly. Eventually he can stand it no longer, and decides to challenge Chonkin directly. The resulting conversation is a comedy of misunderstandings, but Golubev finishes up by losing his temper and pouring out at the bewildered Chonkin years of pent-up spleen and frustration. This is the one time in the novel when he breaks out of his world of servile word-bound make-believe, expresses his real feelings, and enjoys a moment of ‘authentic existence’. He thinks that his daring will cost him years in a labour camp, but all the same he ‘returned home in a good frame of mind that day. He stroked the heads of his sleeping children and even said a tender word to his wife, who was so unused to affection from her husband that she went out into the hallway and shed a few tears.’28
Golubev and Kilin are ordinary corrupt, lazy, timid, uncomplicated human beings, who find the authoritarianism and duplicity of the system difficult to adjust to, and resort to the bottle when the strain gets too intense. Not so Revkin, the first secretary of the district party committee (and hence Borisov's superior). His personality is entirely made up of official attitudes, and for that reason, when Chonkin (in one of his ‘extraordinary adventures’) captures the entire local branch of the NKVD, he feels their absence as an internal malaise:
Comrade Revkin gradually began to sense that something was missing in the world around him. This odd sensation gradually grew stronger; it stuck in him like a splinter, and wherever he was he could not help thinking about it—in his office at the District Committee, at a conference of outstanding workers, at a session of the District Soviet, even at home. Having failed to come to any understanding of his condition, he lost his appetite, grew distracted, and once he even went so far as to put his long johns on over his riding breeches and was about to go to work like that, but Motya, his personal chauffeur, tactfully restrained him.29
The most extended portrait of an authority figure is that of the NKVD Captain Milyaga, whose suave, smiling exterior masks (or perhaps reveals?) a personality entirely formed by the inauthenticity of power. This personality is first revealed in its dual poles of lordliness and servility in the encounter with the Jewish trader, Moisei Solomonovich, whose surname turns out to be—genuinely—Stalin. The disintegration of Milyaga starts when he goes out to the village of Krasnoe to discover what has happened to the NKVD platoon he sent to capture Chonkin. Taken prisoner in his turn, he remains for some days isolated from the world in Nyura's hut, and for the first time in his life feels unneeded, not part of any smooth, well-ordered organization. He contrives to escape, but this makes things worse, because he does not know whether perhaps the Germans have occupied the area, whether (horror of horrors) the NKVD has ceased to exist locally.
He couldn't understand now why he had escaped. It had been warm and comfortable back in the hut, but out here there was the rain and the cold and it was pitch black and he did not know where to run, or for what. … If someone had come up to him and asked: ‘Hey, what are you crying for?’ Milyaga could not have answered. From joy that he was free again? But he felt no joy. From fury? From the desire for revenge? At that moment he felt neither. All he felt was complete indifference to his fate, hopelessness and the utter futility of anything he might do.30
This breakdown of his personality is followed by a grotesque revelation of its real nature. When he is captured by a patrol from the Red Army regiment sent to liquidate ‘Chonkin and his band', he is mistaken for a German paratrooper, while he himself takes his captors for members of a German occupying force. The resulting interrogation, with its double-entendres, in which Milyaga tries to pass himself off as someone who might be useful to the Gestapo, and finishes screaming ‘Long live comrade Hitler!’ is a masterpiece of satirical revelation.
The peculiar kind of society that Voinovich is examining needs not only its authority figures, but also at least a few true believers. Such is the home-grown village scientist, Gladyshev, a figure with more than a touch of Lysenko about him, and the man who actually betrays Chonkin's presence in the village to the NKVD. Drawing his erudition from a prewar run of popular scientific journals, and ‘inspired by the progressive teachings of Michurin and Lysenko', he tries by selective breeding to produce a hybrid combining the fruit of the tomato with the roots of the potato (which plant he proposes to call a puks—short for ‘Road to Socialism’ in Russian, but also suggesting the word for ‘fart’). ‘So far these experiments had not produced any actual results, although certain characteristics of the “puks” had already started to appear: the leaves and stems were rather like those of potatoes, and the roots were absolutely tomato-like.’31 He also has an elaborate and improbable project for solving the problem of Soviet agriculture. Since, as he observes, dung is the fertilizer which starts food growing, and since all food, having been digested, returns to the state of dung, one could simplify the natural cycle and do away with the need for agriculture altogether by living on dung alone. In pursuit of this project he fills his house (to the utter despair of his wife) with pots containing different varieties of excrement in order to investigate their properties, and even concocts a home-brew from dung to offer to his guests.32
Given the name of the tomato plant, one cannot help but feel that for the author these coprophilous schemes are a kind of Rabelaisian reductio ad absurdum of the whole Purpose of using science to build a communist society. Gladyshev is the only person in the village who not only accepts the existing power system, but also accords it genuine devotion, out of belief in its progressive and scientific nature. The capacity some people have for building their whole lives out of illusion and ignoring even insistent realities is essential to a lasting totalitarian system, and this capacity is one which has always fascinated Voinovich. In “By Means of Mutual Correspondence” [from the collection Putëm vzaimnoi perepiski, 1979] he shows how a whole marriage is built out of some innocent pen-friend flirtation, exploited by a woman determined to get her hands on a man and settle down with him. The mixture of allure, cunning and brute force with which she ensnares her partner is in its own homely way reminiscent of the means used by the totalitarian state, and substitutes for love in holding the family together. In his novel Degree of Trust (Stepen' doveriya, 1973)—a portrait of the nineteenth-century revolutionary Vera Figner—there is one figure, the failed writer Skurlatsky, who wants to imagine himself a leading revolutionary, close to those who assassinated Tsar Alexander II, and who carries through his assumed role, even when arrested by the security police, interrogated and confronted with his supposed colleagues. Again, these are cases of people without their own genuine inner life, their own authentic existence—the woman who wants a husband, the writer who cannot write a novel—and who therefore fill their emptiness with grandiose and absurd substitutes. The implication is inescapable that the most zealous supporters of the totalitarian state also act out of inner emptiness.
Fantasy and imagination are eternal human faculties which can work in a variety of directions. They can tell us much about our own nature. In dreams men and animals operate on the same level and interact on each other. Ivan's dreams frequently tell him more about reality than his waking perceptions. It is in dreams, for example, that he sees Stalin as a vengeful leader, ordering him to be shot for dereliction of duty. It is in a dream too that he sees society as a company of pigs, all snorting away in identical fashion, and demanding that he snort too, not reluctantly or forcedly, but ‘with pleasure.’33
In Chonkin Voinovich shows us perverted and inhuman fantasies enslaving a whole society; but he also indicates the kind of fantasies which are fruitful and liberating. Gladyshev's pseudo-scientific imaginings are unwittingly punctured by Chonkin himself. One of Gladyshev's confident ‘scientific’ assertions is that in the course of evolution the monkey became human by hard work. Chonkin is puzzled by this statement and contends that, in that case, then the horse would appear to have a better claim to human status. After this altercation Gladyshev dreams (or thinks he dreams) that the kolkhoz workhorse has turned into a man and wants to go into town, join the party and make a career for himself. As the action of the novel develops, this horse keeps cropping up in situations which suggest it did in fact disappear and go into the town on its own; and after the battle which concludes the novel Gladyshev comes upon its corpse:
There was a scrap of paper crumpled on the ground under the horse's hoof. Seized by a premonition of something extraordinary, Gladyshev grabbed the piece of paper, lifted it to his eyes and froze, dumbfounded.
In spite of the gathering dusk and his none-too-keen eyesight the homegrown village scientist was able to make out the large wavering scrawl beneath the caked mud and bloodstains: ‘If I perish, I ask to be considered a Communist.’
‘Good Lord!’ shrieked Gladyshev, and for the first time in many years crossed himself.34
The generally accepted theory of evolution—the kingpin of positivist and scientistic thinking—is thus, in its Gladyshevian version overthrown, and we are led back to religion, fairytales and folk culture, which may be fantastic too, but are at least harmless fantasies compared with those of the Gladyshevs and super-Gladyshevs of this world.
It is Voinovich's peculiar triumph in Chonkin to have written a satire which is far more than negative. The novel does everything that a satire should do, and very powerfully, in showing up the pretences and evils of the society it depicts. But at the same time it is remarkably good-humoured and gentle. On the whole even the negative characters awake some sympathy in the reader's mind, as though the author, from some position of assured humanity, were able to feel unthreatened by their vices and to see them as merely foolish and misguided. This comes partly from the nature of his hero: Chonkin is not a positive hero in the sense that anyone would want to take him as a model for social behaviour. But at the same time his image does awaken the reader's humanity: he points to the essentials of human existence camouflaged by the gross and inflated inessentials of the system. Partly also it comes from Voinovich's narrative style: he has taken the affectionate irony which he and others developed as part of the ‘youth prose’ style of the early sixties, and applied it to his characters so that we identify with them even while understanding very clearly their foibles and faults.
This capacity for affectionate irony, illuminating uncertain personalities groping for their path in life is something which Voinovich shares with his contemporary Georgy Vladimov (born 1931), who, like him, started out from a conscious re-examination of the ‘positive hero’. His Viktor Pronyakin stands at the beginning of The Great Ore (Bol'shaya ruda, 1961), a truly Socialist Realist figure, looking out over the crater of a quarry near Kursk where iron ore is being sought. He is a man who wants to work, to excel, to take part in the great discovery of ore which is expected at any time. Though initially refused a job at the quarry, he takes over and repairs a small, clapped-out tip-up truck, then uses it to beat others, better equipped, in removing earth from the floor of the quarry up to the dump at the top. Finally, working alone in the pouring rain, when all the others have given up, he raises the first load of genuine ore, but skids in the mud on the rise and plunges to his death. What end could be more appropriate for a builder of communism?
But in the early sixties when this story was published, other influences were in the air. From the west, the stoic, laconic heroism of Hemingway, from the Soviet Union, the gentle, self-deprecatory irony of ‘youth prose’; and Vladimov's portrait of his hero is far more ambiguous and psychologically penetrating than it could have been even a few years earlier. The contrast is the more striking in that Rita, the first girl he meets at the site, is willing to regard him, in the full glow of the inherited tradition, as one of those who ‘live for a real cause, working with their own hands’. ‘They can sometimes be rude,’ she admits, ‘and I have seen them drinking, fighting and swearing. But that's because it doesn't occur to them to take a look at themselves. How much real, working-class nobility they have in them. You're like that, too.’35
Pronyakin, however, comes over to the reader as a man driven to achieve partly by internal doubt, even self-hatred, and partly by the child's need to have everything now, without waiting for it. The incident (revealed in a flashback) of his betrothal is revealing. Having been away from his bride in the war, he returns to her and expects her to welcome him as a conquering hero and to yield totally to him on the first night back. When she hesitates, he storms out of the house and off to the railway station, where he shacks up with the waitress in the buffet, and marries her instead. He wants a wife, sex, someone he can love, all at once. His colleagues observe—and resent—the same impatience in his approach to his work. As Matsuev, his brigade leader, remarks, ‘You're in too much of a hurry, Viktor … you want everything at once.’ His colleague Kosichkin takes an altogether more leisurely view of life:
‘“The ore! The ore!” Well, what about the ore! Of course it would be nice to shift a load of iron rather than earth. … But why get steamed up about it? Suppose you're destined to discover the ore on Friday, then it's not going to turn up on Monday, is it? Well then, for God's sake. Why ruin your life for it?’36
The notion that things will be as they will be is quite foreign to Pronyakin, as indeed it was to the heroes of Soviet fiction for thirty years. That is an alternative philosophy which has no meaning for him.
He has another reason for working hard, and that is to bring some degree of stability and comfort into his life. Hitherto he and his hastily acquired wife have been wanderers, much needed in the fast changing and growing Soviet industrial scene: he moves into a workmen's hostel and she joins him later. Now he wants to settle down:
‘I need to earn some money, buy things and settle down to a human existence. Then OK, then I'll turn out ten production norms for nothing. You may get irritated with me'—he was thinking of Matsuev and Fedya and probably of the whole brigade—‘but when you get home your wife greets you like a warm currant bun, and your house is like a department store, and you've probably got a motor cycle in the shed. So why should I have to sleep around, listen to other people snoring? … No, I'll burst every vein in my body, but I'll get there. And then I'll be as kind and nice as all of you. Get me?37
This restless monologue betrays much of Pronyakin's personality: his desperate need for security and warmth, his envy of others, his impatience and the urgent ambition inside him. This is what in the past has driven him to alcoholism, a degradation which still haunts him and to which he dreads to return. This too is what his colleagues sense, and what makes them suspicious of him. More interestingly, his reflections are remarkably similar to the public morality proclaimed by the Soviet government during the building of communism: that only when material security has been finally achieved will it be possible to observe moral and humane standards. Pronyakin, the obsessive, the alcoholic, the wanderer, the man who causes his own death in a burst of overweening ambition and genuine achievement, almost stands for the whole of a society in the throes of exaggerated modernization.
Would it be extravagant to suggest that Ruslan, the discharged labour camp guard dog, is no less than Pronyakin a Socialist Realist hero? That at any rate is the opinion of Abram Terts.38 And like Pronyakin, Ruslan is representative of a whole society. But in his second novel, Faithful Ruslan (Vernyi Ruslan, 1975), Vladimov has adopted a much more complex standpoint. Ruslan is a caricature of the Socialist Realist hero—and in part of the Socialist Realist narrator too, in the sense that the point of view adopted throughout the work is ostensibly his. He watches uncomprehendingly—but we, the readers, through the narrator's intermediacy, understand what is happening—as the labour camp which is his physical and spiritual universe is broken up, the prisoners are dispersed and he himself is kicked out into the wider world, which bears the traces of Gulag but lives by different laws.
Good, simple-minded but deadly Ruslan performs first of all the service of making familiar Soviet scenes strange, thus indirectly commenting on them. Here, for example, are Lenin and Stalin on a pedestal:
Two inanimate figures, the colour of aluminium feeding bowls were for some reason standing on pedestals. One of them, the bareheaded one, had his arm stretched out and his mouth open, as though he had just thrown a stick and was about to command ‘Bring!’ The other one, dressed in a peaked cap, was not pointing anywhere, but had one hand slipped inside his uniform; his whole posture seemed to say that whatever was ‘brought’ should come to him.39
Both what Ruslan takes for granted and what he finds unusual present us with an image of the whole penitentiary world in all its horror, yet also in its logic, its rationality, its orderliness, even its sacrality. More than this, observing the human scene as an intimate but also as an outsider, Ruslan can make penetrating observations about human beings in general.
At the same time he is half a human being himself: he is a vital and functioning part of an all-too-human institution. The qualities that have been instilled into him are those required also of the rank and file camp guards. He gets ‘high marks for malevolence', ‘excels in mistrust towards outsiders', qualities generally prized in Soviet subordinates. When a prisoner steps out of line, it is Ruslan who deals with him; given one additional order, he will tear him to pieces. Ruslan's world is one in which all relationships are those of guard and prisoner. He has his own primitive cosmology and sociology:
Our poor globe, girded and scarred with boundaries, frontiers, enclosures and prohibitions, flew spinning towards the pin-points of the stars—and there was not an inch of its surface where somebody was not guarding somebody else. Where one set of captives, with the aid of another set of captives, was not carefully watching over a third set of captives—and over themselves—to preserve everyone from the danger of a deadly overdose of sky-blue freedom.40
This is Ruslan's version of the Ptolemaic heavenly spheres, and when the amnesty reveals to him another, hitherto unsuspected, as it were Copernican, world, he is not impressed with it, for its ‘freedom’ seems to him mere slovenliness, indeed inhumanity: at least in the camp ‘people were not indifferent to one another, everyone was closely watched—and man was considered the highest value, even if he didn't see it that way himself. Sometimes this value had to be protected from the men themselves, when they tried to squander it in escape attempts.’41 The Service for which he has been trained is his highest ideal, and indeed ‘It was strange that the masters, for all their intelligence, did not understand that, and considered it necessary to encourage the dogs with additional rewards.’42 They treat dogs entirely as human beings, assuming they will need a little low bribery to maintain their loyalty, forgetting that in this respect at least dogs are higher creatures. What distresses Ruslan about the closing of the camp is not only the breakdown of old habits but also of the faith that had sustained them. As he observes his colleagues lapse from their high calling to seek other homes, other duties and even—horror of horrors—to accept food and caresses from non-guards, ‘what hurt him was not so much that they had grown tired of waiting [for the Service to return], but that they had grown tired of believing.’43
In all these respects Ruslan is, in slightly superhuman, exaggerated form, the model Soviet subordinate. In other respects he remains an animal, with his own view of the world and—more important—of human beings. In this capacity he is able to make astute observations about men in general and homo Sovieticus in particular. Through his devoted but perceptive gaze we see his master, an average obtuse, suspicious, callous guard: ‘His master … might not be too brave, but on the other hand he knew no pity; he might not be too intelligent, but at least he never trusted anybody; he might not be too well loved by his friends, but then he would shoot any of them, if the Service required it.’44
A straightforward, healthy, simple creature like a dog recognizes without difficulty that men are flawed and divided beings, seized by contradictory and often destructive impulses. Ruslan sees, for example, Scruffy (a newly released prisoner) drinking:
That foul liquid, Ruslan already knew, was affectionately called ‘vodka’ or ‘vodochka'—but was also known as ‘that bloody substance'—and he couldn't make out whether Scruffy enjoyed drinking it or not. In the evening he longed for it with his whole being, but in the morning he hated it and suffered from it. This was not the first time Ruslan had noticed bipeds do things that they didn't like doing, without any compulsion—which no self-respecting animal would ever dream of. It was for good reason that in Ruslan's hierarchy dogs were placed just below the masters, who always knew what was good and what was evil, but ahead of the camp inmates.45
The latter category Ruslan regards as human beings normally do animals:
They were really feeble-minded: they persisted in thinking that somewhere beyond the forests, far away from the camp, was a better life! No camp dog would ever entertain such foolishness. And, as if to confirm just how hare-brained they were, they would escape and wander around for months starving, instead of eating their favourite food, balanda, for a bowl of which they were prepared to cut each other's throats, and then they would return with a shamefaced look on their faces—only to devise new escape attempts later! Wretched, deranged souls! Nowhere could they find peace.46
The baleful influence of the labour camp does not last only while its inmates are still inside it. Even when released, many of them are still under its spell and cannot find real freedom, or even in many cases return to their pre-camp existence. Scruffy finds refuge with a certain Styura, one of the countless unattached women living near the site. He shares board and bed with her, and does odd jobs for her round the house. Ruslan assumes that this is all a continuation of the Service, in new circumstances, and escorts him scrupulously everywhere he goes. Eventually Scruffy makes an attempt to return to his own family, but he knows that much has changed there, that his wife has been with other men; to him it is unknown territory by now. At the last moment he jumps off the departing train and returns to the safe, homely arms of Auntie Styura. Ruslan interprets this as another failed escape attempt, and who is to say he is wrong?
It is this divided nature of men which, in Ruslan's eyes, makes possible their highest achievements, as well as their sometimes inconceivable baseness.
Every animal knows how great man is, and realizes that his greatness extends equally far in the directions of both Good and Evil, but an animal cannot always follow him the whole way—not even one who is ready to die for him—cannot accompany him up to every peak, across every frontier: somewhere on the way he will stop and dig his heels in.47
Thus Ruslan feels something akin to remorse at having zealously sniffed out the murderer of a ‘squealer’. More seriously, when a particularly vicious commandant orders the hosing out of prisoners who refuse to leave their barracks on a day of minus 40 degrees weather, the dogs revolt. Their leader is the skilful, artistic, even aristocratic Ingus, the dog who has learned effortlessly to do everything the training requires whilst preserving a certain inner detachment. The other dogs now all follow him, even the ferocious Dzhulbars, on whom the guards normally rely to carry out the harshest commands. When it comes, in fact, to the extremes of inhumanity—what in any other context one might call ‘brutality'—animals cannot follow humans all the way in their trampling of the moral law.
For most purposes, however, dogs (and rank-and-file human subordinates) will do anything they are trained and commanded to do. This is not entirely a matter of habit: it is also, as we have seen, devotion and even faith. The habits indeed are built on devotion and faith:
Ruslan was more than half way through his life, and the whole of the first half he had been used to never being without people, to obey, serve and love them. Aye, there was the rub: to love them. For no one lives without love in this world, neither wolves, nor sharks in the sea, nor snakes in the swamp. He was permanently poisoned by his love, by his acquiescence in the world of men, by that sweetest poison which kills the alcoholic more than alcohol itself—and even the rapture of the hunt would not replace that yet greater rapture, of obedience to the loved one, happiness from his slightest word of praise.48
This is something which applies to people no less than to dogs. They too are ‘poisoned by their love', willing cogs in a terrible mechanism simply because they have been brought up and trained to it, have received their (deliberately restricted) measure of warmth and affection from it.
It is for this reason that the shadow of the labour camps still hangs over the Soviet Union. Vladimov paints the retreat of the penitentiary system as provisional only. The sceptical Scruffy has heard the ‘little bell’ sound for him, but knows that the ‘great bell’ has not sounded for the nation as a whole. It is not only that people like Ruslan's master are sorting and filing away archives in boxes marked ‘for eternal keeping’ (restoring a transcendental concept of time which Soviet ideology otherwise rigidly denies), but also that human beings, like dogs, long for the master's hand when once they have felt it and received their modest rations from it. The point is underlined by the dramatic ending to the novel. One day Ruslan's patient vigils at the railway station (where he is waiting for a prison transport to arrive and resume the familiar routine) are rewarded by the arrival of a team of Komsomol volunteers to open a plastics factory on the site of the camp. They are a motley and undisciplined mob compared to the grave and proper zeks of yore, and Ruslan is not at all impressed with them, but still they form up on the station square and march off five by five up the road to the camp in the old familiar way. At first they sing and laugh and even pat and stroke the dogs who greet their coming. But gradually they realize that more and more dogs are joining them—Alsatians who since the amnesty have sought shelter in the nearby settlement and lapsed into slack ways but who, on seeing a column marching up the familiar road, hear the renewed call of the Service and imagine that the great days have returned.
Those watching the column from windows, boarded sidewalks or over fences, seeing that strange procession of people and dogs, were for some reason not smiling any more but began to look silent and grim. Gradually, those in the column itself stopped laughing, shouting, teasing and patting the dogs, and eventually a hush descended, broken only by the measured tramp of the people and the warm breathing of the dogs.49
Thus the final tragedy, and Ruslan's death, is prepared. Cheerful, open-minded Komsomol enthusiasm yields to the laws of the labour camp, in which ‘a step to the right or to the left is considered an attempt to escape’. ‘Poisoned by love', a society falls again into its old bonds.
Vladimov's vision is tragic, Voinovich's on the whole comic, but they have much in common all the same. They are both describing a world in which limited but attainable values have been disdained in order to reach out for unattainable ones. This hubris has had profound consequences both for public discourse and for the individual personality. The mass media are filled with ringing phrases and with statistics that conceal more than they reveal; individual human beings feel themselves to be tiny cogs in the majestic machinery of history, and doubt their freedom and even their independent existence. This schizophrenia of the political and the personal is what Voinovich and Vladimov uncover through their characters and through their narrative personae.
Novyi Mir, 2/63, p. 150.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, trans. Max Hayward, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, pp. 24-5.
Novyi Mir, 2/63, p. 162.
pp. 166, 172-4.
Novyi Mir, 1/67, p. 89.
The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, trans. R. Lourie, London: Jonathan Cape, 1977, pp. 20-1. (I quote this translation with my own modifications, by permission of the British and American publishers.) This passage is reminiscent of the prologue to Lermontov's A Hero of Our Times, where the author parodies the official ‘positive hero’ of Nicholas I's Russia (I am grateful to Martin Dewhirst for pointing out this parallel to me).
pp. 136, 138.
Part 1, chapter 15.
Novyi Mir, 7/61, p. 140.
A. Terts, ‘Lyudi i zveri', Kontinent, no. 5 (1975).
Grani, no. 96 (1975), p. 21.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
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 politics.” He attracted persecution simply because it is his nature to be straight-forward and truthful. Integrity, an almost naïve inability to distort reality, is the most striking characteristic of the two novellas which form the major part of [In Plain Russian] this miscellany of his earlier work.
These stories deal with the muddled, ordinary, commonplace ground of Soviet life. In “What I Might Have Been,” first published in Novy Mir in 1963, a construction supervisor is given orders to hand over a building before it is completely safe. The building, a housing unit, is needed as a reward to Komsomol families, and—in order that the gesture can have a political impact—it must be ready for them by a certain Revolutionary holiday. The supervisor knows it cannot be done, and his superior knows it cannot be done; and yet it must be done. The inspectors come, and for a while even they are dubious about passing the building as completed; but at last, not wanting trouble, they agree to sign the authorization. But then unexpectedly—even probably to himself—the supervisor refuses to add his signature. It means the loss of his job; he cannot help, though, but do the honest thing, not from heroism but because he is an honest craftsman. The plot reads like a parable and premonition of what was later to happen to the author.
The style is plain, slightly rambling, and with little of the humour which characterizes his later satirical masterpiece, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. There are Gogolian touches, however, in the second long story, “From an Exchange of Letters.” (Unaccountably it is called “By Mutual Correspondence” in the editor's sleeve-note.) Junior Sergeant Ivan Altinnik fancies himself as a ladykiller, but it is all at second hand, through pen-friendships. He paints fantasy pictures of himself in letters to various young women scattered over the Soviet Union. He never meets any of the women, nor even intends to. But by coincidence a train-journey he has to take at the army's behest promises to bring him close to two of his correspondence: an attractive girl (by her photograph) called Ludmilla, and a girl who admits she is slightly lame. He cables them both, asking them to meet him, without being sure he will keep the appointment with either. But Ludmilla is at the station, in the midst of nowhere, and practically drags him off the train. With sinking heart he realizes that her photo was at least ten years old: she is almost grotesque.
Altinnik and the reader are then plunged into the sordid and fetid atmosphere of Ludmilla's peasant family, who might still be subsisting in Tsarist Russia. The soldier's pen-pal, who already has a son of fourteen, engineers her seduction through vodka, and drags her seducer to the registry-office. And though he struggles to throw off his yoke, Altinnik never escapes, but sinks into the slough of wet nappies, odious mushroom pies, drunkenness, ignorance, and wifely nagging. In a way, he has asked for it; yet he attracts our sympathy. And so, more surprisingly, does the grotesque Ludmilla. We glimpse, beneath her predatoriness, the genuine desperation of an abandoned mother. A neat and haunting hiatus is the lame girl—patiently waiting, we presume, at a station farther on. She never re-enters the story, but the subtle implication is that there, at least, was an honest pen-pal.
The author's gift for grotesque humour is fully revealed in “A Circle of Friends,” a chapter withheld from Chonkin. The friends in question are Stalin and his sycophants, thinly disguised under comic names: Beria and Krushchev, for instance, are Leonty Aria and Nikola Borshchov. Stalin himself is Comrade Koba. We see them all together on the night before Koba's most trusted friend, Dolph, launched his invasion on the Soviet Union. Voinovich's grotesque treatment of a bunch of rogues is more successful than Solzhenitsyn's satirical over-kill in the “Stalin” chapter of The First Circle. In his secret room in the Kremlin, Voinovich tells us, Koba “spent the finest hours of his life in peace and quiet; there, hidden from everyone, he would sometimes sleep with the old cleaning woman who crawled in every morning through the safe with her bucket and broom ….”
Just as funny, in a drier way, is “Skurlatsky, Man of Letters.” Skurlatsky, a nineteenth-century writer who has written little or nothing, fantasizes intimacy with the great. His influence has been enormously beneficial, he claims, to his friends Alexander (Pushkin) and Nikolai (Gogol). His vanity and self-delusion turn him, in the end, into an odd kind of hero, an unintentional dissident; for he declines, whatever the cost, to retract his claim to the authorship of an eloquent letter of political protest. The cost to him includes incarceration in a mental asylum.
The collection has its dull patches, and there is occasional heavy-handedness—signs that Voinovich was still learning his craft. He is not at all helped by an aggressively American translation: “‘And how', agreed the conductor, who'd gotten into the habit of agreeing with the passengers ….” But the evidence of an impressive talent is clear in these early pieces; and evidence of a man too naturally and innocently good-hearted to be quelled by persecution.
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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 its victims. There are, however, differences of emphasis: Chonkin is a satire on the Soviet army, whereas Pretendent takes aim at the KGB and the judicial system. It is again that naïve and simple Private Chonkin who is their victim.
In Pretendent Chonkin becomes a leader of an insurrection against the Soviets in the countryside and a descendant of the Golitsyn family of nobles. He is arrested, tried and sentenced to death, but the actual sentence does not take place. And in the end, the guard who is ordered to execute Chonkin escapes with him into the woods, into freedom. Fear and survival are the most compelling motivating forces of individual actions and behavior. The judge who condemns Chonkin to death knows that Chonkin is innocent, and in the privacy of his chamber he laments Chonkin's fate. But when the time comes for the judge to make an indictment, he does it by mutilating the truth and portraying Chonkin as an evil monster because he, the judge, has a wife and children to support.
The action proceeds at a furious pace: plots, subplots, denunciations and counter-denunciations follow each other in rapid succession, from the bottom basements of the Lubyanka prison straight to the top leadership—Stalin and Beria. The events temporarily move to Hitler's headquarters to explain that the Germans did not take Moscow in 1941, because Hitler ordered Guderian's tanks to move to the village of Krasnoye to help Chonkin's insurrection and proclaim Chonkin as the new Czar. Whether Voinovich's novel is considered realistic or fantastic satire depends on one's own experience of historical events. The witnesses of the 1934-53 period in Soviet Russian history will find a great measure of truth in Pretendent, reminding them of the hard times they survived, including the thoughts of the KGB chief—“Everybody is suspect”; “Suspicion is a sufficient reason for arrest”; “Every suspect may become accused”—as well as the fake trials with false witnesses. The adjective fantastic is relative and a function of time and place.
Pretendent must be a translator's nightmare, especially those passages wherein Voinovich imitates the official political jargon of party functionaries, which does not have direct equivalents in English and must have supplementary explanations (enemy of the people, political-ideological work, et cetera). Much of the humorous effect of Pretendent is derived from the incongruous use of such political and ideological jargon. Voinovich is now, with the appearance of the two Chonkin books, the leading satirist in Russian literature. It is the hope of his readers that his move from the Soviet Union to the West in December 1980 will result in an unhindered and improved literary creativity.
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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 ideologues, presided over by a crack-brained “Genialissimo.”
But startling changes have occurred. Now hanging with the ubiquitous portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin is one of Jesus (“the first communist”). The Communist Reformed Church, replete with Saints Karl, Friedrich, Vladimir, et al., has been “granted enormous rights and powers, under only one condition—that the church not preach faith in God, who, as we know, does not exist, but faith in communist ideals and the person of the Genialissimo.”
Kartsev's own literary works, once reviled by Soviet authorities, are now reverently “studied” in universities. The students, however, are not allowed to read Kartsev. Instead they are provided with summaries by professors who applaud the author's “progressive” critiques of an earlier, outmoded Soviet society.
Alas, a shadow looms over this utopia—that of Sim Simych Karnavalov, a hilarious caricature of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Decades earlier, the exiled writer Sim Simych, desperate to see godless communism routed from his native land, had himself “and his horse Logos, … shipped to Geneva in a frozen state and there deposited for unlimited storage in a vault in a Swiss bank.” The horse was necessary so that Sim Simych, thawed out a half century later, could ride into Moscow at the head of a conquering army and duly accept coronation as the new “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.”
After the bloody “Simite” revolution of 2042, the new czar reestablishes “the true Russian orthodox faith” (membership obligatory), to abolish the automobile, the airplane and science in general. Emperor Sim Simych also decrees mandatory beards for all men over forty and forbids bicycling by women.
Thus it's hardly accurate to pigeonhole Voinovich—who in 1974 was himself expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and subsequently emigrated to West Germany—as an anti-communist satirist. His skewering of the stridently anti-Soviet Solzhenitsyn alone proves that.
Voinovich's target is self-righteous ideologues wherever he finds them. If the Soviet systems seems to breed such individuals, so does religious fanaticism and superpatriotism elsewhere.
“May the reality of the future not resemble the one I describe here,” says narrator Kartsev in Moscow 2042. “Of course in that event, my reputation for exceptional honesty will suffer some damage, but that I'm willing to accept. To hell with my reputation. As long as life's a little easier to live through. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the whole point.”
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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 ideology that has casually incorporated Kartsev himself, Jesus Christ and the Immaculate Conception. Did Voinovich foresee, when he embarked on this odyssey in 1982, that his forerunners in Utopia—Zamyatin and Orwell—would, only six years on, be published in his homeland too? If he did, he must have concluded that it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. The capacity of a “totalitarian” state to assimilate new heroes, re-write the past and future but remain fundamentally the same is the main theme of Moscow 2042.
In the first novel that he has written since emigrating in 1980, Voinovich is as readable and ebullient as ever, and has brought some inventive new flourishes to his comic version of “utopia.” America, by the year 2042, has found a way to beam its images of the other life directly on to the cloud-covered sky above “Moscowrep,” so that its citizens can lie on their backs and dream of Dallas—until, that is, the fabric of the heavenly screen is torn to shreds by “Communite” aeroplanes. Meanwhile the main export of Moscowrep to the various “rings of hostility” around it appears to be various forms of human excreta, or “secondary matter,” as its politely called. A confusion in the city state between “primary matter, served on a platter” and matter of the secondary kind leads the hero Kartsev into some post-modernist reflections on the nature of art and reality. (Which comes first in the process of consumption and creation?).
In one of the odd conundrums produced by time-travel, Kartsev discovers that a book he has not yet written—the novel Moscow 2042 itself—has already exerted an uncanny influence on the citizens of the future. One of the novel's characters, one Sim Simych Karnavalov, has acquired a mass following in Moscowrep, to the consternation of the city's leaders, who fear that Kartsev himself, if he is allowed to read his own work, may fall under its influence. In vain does Kartsev protest, when his hosts urge him to delete all reference to Sim Simych from the novel, that the latter is merely a creation of his own fantasy.
Some present-day readers may doubt his protestations too. It's not hard to recognize, in the obsessive, self-aggrandizing, authoritarian Sim Simych, writing huge “slabs” of invective against the “communist predators” and advocating the restoration of the monarchy in Russia, a none-too-flattering portrait of Kartsev's fellow-exile, Solzhenitsyn. Voinovich's even-handed malice in satirizing both Soviet power and its detractors has already earned him some unfavourable remarks from the Russian émigré community. My fear is rather that the malice is wasted here. If ideologues, both Soviet and anti-, have not yet died of satire, why not try letting them die of neglect instead? I suspect that both are dying in any case, at least so far as their power over literature is concerned.
Kartsev slyly anticipates such criticisms by saying, at the end of the novel, that he would willingly sacrifice his reputation for honesty if the future turns out to be different from the one he describes. But he also invites us to consider how far his warning of what it might be like is redundant now. My hope is that if Orwell and Zamyatin have lost their sting in “utopia,” it is partly because they have administered it so effectively already. I think Voinovich disagrees. His future departs from that of Nineteen Eighty-Four or We (and becomes in part a satire on the utopian satire) mainly in that it scarcely works at all and—fortunately for the reader—is even more ludicrous than it used to be.
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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 New Man. Lenin was not in this sense an aesthete but the system he founded rapidly acquired the same characteristics, grafted on to more ancient Russian reflexes; it became obsessed with the onward and visible signs of being Soviet Man, perpetually decent, heroically overfulfilling the norm, but also intensely status conscious, living in a world of aesthetic degree where badge and rank were all-important.
In such a world “defaming the motherland” or “slandering the Soviet State” logically becomes a charge of accepted gravity: the equivalent of slashing the Mona Lisa with a razor or spraying bad words over a two-million-dollar Van Gogh. To have contempt for Soviet manners was to help to destroy an important art form. Since Western society is not an art form, and has no pretension to be one, the citizens can say what they like about it and nobody cares. But in 1980 Vladimir Voinovich was warned by friendly KGB men that the Soviet people were running out of patience with the way he represented them, and so he accepted an invitation to join the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts in Munich, where he still lives. None of his subversive work had of course been published in the Soviet Union, but it was known he had written it, as well as supported the human rights movement.
There is a certain irony, which Voinovich must have enjoyed, in leaving one work of “art”—Soviet Russia—and going to teach and study real art in a Western institution. But now all is changed—the Soviet art form has vanished. Voinovich's novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, which slandered the Soviet army, is going to be published in Moscow, and so will be his new novella, The Fur Hat, which slanders, among other things, the Soviet Writers' Union. In its famous rooms are heard such cases as that of
prose writer Nikitin, who had allowed a foreign publisher to publish his short novel From the Life of a Worm, which libelously depicted the Soviet people as worms. Nikitin himself wrote that by worms he meant worms only, nothing more or less, and it was actually the truth, but of course no one believed him.
But this freedom to publish may well cause the publication itself to self-destruct—if the Mona Lisa has become just an incoherent mass of paint there is no point in slashing her. Voinovich himself must have anticipated the possible fate of the kind of satire he writes, and it is also ironic that the warning given him when he was a subversive writer in Moscow that his life in the Soviet Union might become “unbearable” has now backfired on those who gave the warning. What could be more unbearable for a decent Soviet man than to find the art form of which he formed a part has disappeared, that he is no longer represented—humane, brave, and idealistic—in a hundred novels and movies? A character in Dostoevsky's The Possessed says that if God does not exist, all is permitted: and the same must be true of the figures in a Soviet picture when that picture is taken down from the wall. With nothing to cling to and no act to perform must he not become the victim of what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera called “the unbearable lightness of being”?
But not necessarily, Voinovich, like Andrei Sinyavsky and others, has long portrayed Soviet man as totally two-faced, saying and acting one thing and quietly doing another, paying lip service to socialism and its gleaming heights while tampering with the accounts and getting hold of foreign imports on the black market. Now there is a comfortable and understandable mode of life for you, which has been going on as long as the human race itself. The young ambitious idealists who know to behave and conform in order to get a good job in the Party or army, turn Lenin's portrait to the wall when they meet to drink together, stuck to the other side of it is a picture of a famous courtesan of tsarist days. They are doing what healthy and sensible young men have always done—supporting the State and enjoying their own freedom; having it both ways.
Yet Russians have never found that simple tactic easy, and for “good” Soviet Russians it would be very painful indeed to accept and adjust to it. Better a Soviet Gotterdammerung than an openly cynical and comfortable demoralized society. And in Valentin Rasputin's novella The Fire the idea of such a Gotterdammerung is both symbolized and openly suggested. It takes place in a small town on the Angara River in Northern Siberia, a wretched town of sheddy concrete high-rise buildings put together for the people evacuated from the old settlements on the banks of the Angara itself. A huge dam has been constructed for hydroelectric power, and the river, which flows northward from Lake Baikal, has flooded everywhere for miles along its banks. (An even more radical scheme for changing the course of the Siberian rivers is, or was, “being debated” by Kremlin experts.)
“The fire next time …” No doubt Rasputin had heard of that idea. Demoralized and dispossessed, the inhabitants of the new settlement allow its huge storehouse, which holds all the winter supplies, to catch fire, and concentrate chiefly on saving the vodka. Formerly self-reliant farmers, they have been now put to destroying the adjacent forests by unscientific logging; and only a few old taiga hands like Ivan Petrovich, the story's hero, are still capable of representing the proper sort of Soviet exemplar. The threat to the environment has now turned into a global dilemma, and although Rasputin is apt to be sentimental about the wise old Siberian hands who loved and preserved their fauna and forests, he admits that the modern Siberian destroys his environment as thoughtlessly as the State itself, if not so systematically.
The Fire continues from an earlier tale called Farewell to Matyora, the name of an island engulfed by the artificial lake. Significantly it is its heroine, Darya, and the older women who try to maintain a dignity and continuity of existence, and even to try to preserve the graves of their ancestors from the old settlement. Rasputin, who makes frequent references throughout his work to religious and superstitious belief, both Russian orthodoxy and Siberian shamanism, has disclaimed any allegiance to the rituals of the Church, but has professed a closeness to “the philosophy of old women.” Crumbling into an increasing unsureness of himself, the Soviet hero can still rely on his old mother, the pre-Soviet heroine.
As a townsman of Irkutsk, the capital of Siberia, he seems to feel a certain gloomy pride in the sturdy backwardness of the Russian people—their inability to produce sophisticated and slippery political operators. He is not a Communist, but he thinks the Party is needed now to offer some kind of reassurance to the ancient desire for authority of the old Russian narod. More disquietingly, Rasputin has said that though he feels no ill will toward the Jews; they should be required to repent of their sin in killing Christ and of their part in the “ritual murder” of Nicholas II, the last tsar. To persecute them would be quite wrong, he has said, but good manners nonetheless demand such a gesture on their part. As if this potentially incendiary talk of ritual murder were not enough, there are other sinister aspects to the “primitivism” in Rasputin's outlook. He is one of the band of ethnic Russians who feel themselves to be beleaguered by vociferous minorities in their own country, and he is keen on preserving Russian “integrity” in a manner that can hardly help to remind us of the “Aryan purity” associated with Nazi Germany.
In their selection and introduction to Rasputin's stories, his essays on Baikal and Siberia, his critical pieces on such Siberian authors as Shukshin and Vampilov, the editors do not deal with his prejudiced nationalistic attitudes toward Jews and others but they have done an otherwise excellent job, and Rasputin seems to be an author who deserves it, despite the sinister side to his thinking I have mentioned. The American idiom that has crept into the translation hardly seems to suit him, however; and it is not easy to see what the real quality of his writing is. Stories like Farewell to Maryora, The Fire, and French Lessons are unquestionably impressive, and their Siberian setting gives them a kind of independence of outlook and a freshness of manner not often found in the familiar genre of Soviet realism.
His first story, “I Forgot to Ask Lyoshka,” is about three young men building a road through the taiga who find that their friend Lyoshka is injured by a falling tree. The foreman will not allow them a truck to evacuate him; and as they carry him to the settlement they discuss the priorities of building communism or taking thought for individuals. Such a debate—itself by no means improbable in a Russian setting—is by now fairly familiar as an orthodox Soviet theme in fiction, but Rasputin manages to give it his own kind of authenticity and poignancy, especially as the closure is not conventional: Lyoshka dies before they can get him home.
In French Lessons, based apparently on an episode from Rasputin's own childhood, a young boy from the taiga is sent to a town school, and attracts the attention of a woman French teacher. The title and theme would suggest in a Western setting a conventional sexual situation, explored with more or less delicacy; but Rasputin convincingly suggests that the developing relationship has nothing sexual about it. The boy, who never gets enough to eat, is interested in food, while the woman, herself a town dweller, is intrigued by his primitive background and expectations, as well as by an odd game with stones in which she feels a longing to share. Divorced, experienced, anxiously full of kultura like most young Soviet women, she feels the urge to enter childhood again and engage in primeval ritual. After she leaves she sends the boy macaroni, which he has heard of as a great delicacy, and three red Kuban apples. “Until then I'd only seen pictures of apples but I guessed that's what they were.” So the story ends.
It may be that Soviet authors find tradition and patterning even harder to avoid than their Western counterparts do. For all his feeling and intelligence Rasputin does not entirely escape the guidelines prescribed and conditioned by a Soviet background, but his combination of thoughtful writing with an unusual viewpoint—“the philosophy of old women”—makes everything he writes original and likeable. In total contrast is Voinovich, the sophisticated emigre who yet has in common with Rasputin the difficulty of detaching his writing from a preformed and prestressed convention—in Voinovich's case that of the hilarious satire on all aspects of Soviet custom and practice. In a sense this satire is too easy, and in some cases lends itself to the kind of freewheeling irony that spins off into a fantasy that can become interminable, risking tedium and self-indulgence. Even such an accomplished and civilized writer as Sinyavsky (Abram Tertz) shows symptoms of this in his Fantastic Stories and in his political allegory The Makepeace Experiment.
Voinovich has a much lighter touch, and The Fur Hat is an enchanting and delightful tour de force, mixing Gogolian poetry with Jewish humor. The satire is obvious and its convention familiar, but that is not really the point. As Dostoevsky said, Russian prose—especially fantasy prose—comes out from under Gogol's Overcoat, and The Fur Hat borrows not only Gogol's inspiration but some of his properties. Yefim Rakhlin is a successful Soviet author who has written eleven books of Soviet-style adventure, with titles like Tanker! and Arctic!, in which decent and fearless people struggle with the elements for the sake of Soviet progress and achievement. Yefim is not a good writer, but he actually believes in his decent and fearless people, and this helps to get him medals and increase his sales. But a moment comes when the Writers' Union decides to distribute complimentary fur hats to all its members, graded downward from reindeer fawn for the most distinguished; and to his intense chagrin Yefim receives only an order for one fur hat—tomcat, domestic, fluffy—an allocation so humble that it should go only to desperate young writers who hawk unpublishable manuscripts about Stalingrad or the steppes. The scene with the official who allocates the hats is among the funniest in recent fiction.
Yefim is like all of us, only more so; and he shares with his great prototype, Gogol's Akaky Akakievich, the power to move a reader to tears even as he laughs. As status symbols a new overcoat or a fur hat are identifiable by all mankind. But Voinovich is no sentimentalist; his fun never draws attention to a meaning, even as it produces its most engaging paradoxes. In one of Yefim's most popular novels, Ore!, a member of a geological expedition breaks his leg and at first tries to conceal the fact, and even asks to be left behind, since a much-needed vein of ore has been discovered.
and if the state badly needs it, it is more precious to him than his own life. (For decent people, something is always more precious than their own lives.) The hero is naturally rebuked by his decent comrades. … They do not abandon him, they do not shoot him, they do not eat him.
At this point the narrator abandons the manuscript in despair, while reflecting on the mystery that the man who can believe and write all this is an avid listener to the BBC and loves nothing more than to hear about the ups and downs of Margaret Thatcher's government.
Chagrin disintegrates poor Yefim. He resolves to smuggle a book to the West. The narrator slyly advises him to put some sex in it, preferably homosexuality, which is greatly favored in Western novels. Accordingly, in Operation! the navigator is found in bed with the first mate, and the cook sleeps with anyone on a routine basis. But Yefim has no luck. That is reserved for the cunning Mylnikov, whose books have become steadily more popular in the West. He gets good reviews in the Times and the Manchester Guardian, where he is called a latter-day Chekhov (a nice swipe at the reflexes of Western critics), and at Yefim's funeral he recites into the narrator's ear, “neglecting no detail, an article about him that had been published in The New York Review of Books.”
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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 immediate passion of the former and the broad sweep of the latter. Narrowly focused, The Fur Hat recounts the last days of Yefim Rakhlin, who writes novels in the socialist-realist vein and thereby secures for himself a comfortable life in Moscow, although he is said not to spare himself when researching the backgrounds of his rugged heroes: polar explorers, geologists in the Pamirs, workers on oil rigs, et cetera. His writing is as flabby and compromised as his heroes are stalwart and principled; he admittedly picks his titles to fit easily into crossword puzzles: “Yefim was proud of himself, that he had hit upon such a simple way to publicize his works.” Even the KGB notes in his file, “WHNLV—work has no literary value.”
Even with his relative affluence and his ability to turn out novels regularly, Yefim is not really happy. Although his “small problem in the ethnic origin area” does not seem to cause difficulties with his career (but does help his daughter emigrate to Israel, where she discovers that she is a goy on account of her Russian mother), it is in this connection that Voinovich sums up his hero's life and destiny. When, stung by his best friend's criticisms of his work, Yefim looks into the mirror, he sees “large, prominent, Jewish eyes filled with a meaningless sorrow.” Docile, obsequious, isolated, he is ready for a fall. Perish he does, and in that manner enshrined in the Russian literary tradition since Gogol: suddenly, precipitously, absolutely, and over the merest trifle. Not an overcoat, but a fur hat.
Certainly the novella gives the reader a sense of the way life was in the “era of stagnation.” The cynicism that has been the hallmark of official Soviet life in the last decades is succinctly expressed by another, more successful writer.
I can shoot my mouth off. But only at home, because the Party demands our devotion, not our hearts. I am allowed to despise it, but when required, I am the Party's soldier. … I do what is required, and therefore I am allowed much. If you don't do what is required, you are allowed less. Much less. That's dialectics.
People are still afraid, Voinovich shows us, yet in some significant way the Terror does belong in the past; in The Fur Hat we see people living out their lives in its echo.
In spite of Voinovich's gift for humor, The Fur Hat is a sad book. It is suffused with a sense of the weariness, decay, and unacknowledged tragedies of mindlessly oppressive social and political systems. Clearly, also, despite having been recently published, it is something of a dated book. After five years of glasnost', in conditions of constantly accelerating change, the Brezhnev era is receding into the distant past—all the more so in light of the revolutionary political developments of 1989. Those events raise vital questions about the personal and artistic future of Voinovich and of that large number of exceptionally talented Russian writers who were (along with their families) humiliated, terrorized, and ultimately hounded into exile. It is difficult to imagine that Voinovich will write another book like The Fur Hat, but to imagine the direction that writing done in the stable conditions of the West about a land (and language?) undergoing convulsive change is also very difficult. How the challenges and possibilities of our remarkable times will affect these writers is an open question, one to which The Fur Hat makes no attempt to respond.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5934
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 before the revolution and Demian Bednyi after were among the most prolific of writers of political fables, and I. A. Efremov and the Strugatsky brothers wrote a kind of science fiction in the late 1950s and early 1960s that conveyed a youthful optimism about the communist future.2 During the 1960s, of course, both forms changed and became a good deal more ambiguous with relation to the ideology they had earlier supported. Animal figures from fables, particularly the rabbit and the bear, became favorite characters in popular anecdotes. In addition, Western political allegories, such as Orwell's Animal Farm, that made their way into the literary underground contributed to the growing irony with which educated readers greeted such forms.3 Since the mid-1960s science fiction, and particularly the Strugatskys' work, has gained in depth and complexity.
Iskander's fable, Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, alludes to the tradition of the revolutionary fable, while more broadly addressing habits of reading and thinking that have been fostered in the Soviet era. We will see how this “antifable” plays on revolutionary themes from fables by Demian Bednyi and Maksim Gorky.4 Perhaps more importantly, it tackles readerly habits such as simplistic allegorical thinking and an unexamined didactic response, that is, an expectation that the text will furnish a simple and concrete moral. The kind of mentality that Iskander's story supports in its implied reader is specifically meta-utopian. It encourages an ability to weigh several kinds of ideology, among them that of the realized utopia, to see ideological structures individually and together in their relationship to sources of political power.
The Aesopian approach to interpretation assumed by Iskander's implied reader seeks out simple, one-to-one correspondences between the characters and their situation in the fable and real people and conditions in Soviet society and politics. Iskander's story deals with the struggle for survival between rabbits and boa constrictors (and, less importantly, the aborigines or natives [tuzemtsy]). Here the rabbits eat out of the natives' gardens. In turn, they are stalked by the boas, who swallow them whole after “hypnotizing” them into physical paralysis. The rabbits are the more intellectually sophisticated and more socially “organized,” while the boas are physically stronger. Although the story appears to invite the reader to match the figures in the fable to correlatives in Soviet life, the more one examines them, the clearer it becomes that there is no real one-to-one match. In his article on Animal Farm and Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, Richard Chapple suggests that there is in Iskander's tale an allegorical context for the triangular relationship between rabbits, boas, and humans in the international political relations between East, West, and Third World.5 This claim seems unconvincing since both boas' and rabbits' states are recognizably Stalinist. The boas have a Spartan, militaristic way of life. They are ruled by a dictator known as the Great Python who forces boas to compete ruthlessly with each other in the hunt and even to destroy divergent fellow boas. By contrast, the rabbits think of their state as a kind of elective monarchy, with the king “democratically” chosen. In fact, the tenor of political life is conditioned by the rather Byzantine court of the Rabbit King, which functions on a system of favors and rewards for service to the throne and increasingly caves into the paranoia of the King and his army of surveillance operatives and informers.
The ideologies of each likewise mimic aspects of Stalinist ideology. The Great Python justifies his hold on power with a materialistic mentality that might is right and one is what one eats. Indeed, the boa constrictors, who spend all their time hunting and eating rabbits, are characterized as being all appetite and stomach and no brain. This condition becomes the rather comic basis for a Stalin-like paranoid idelogy. The Great Python's constant reminder to his cohorts that “The enemy is within us” parodies Stalin's famous dictum “The enemy is in our midst” (RB, 89). The boas see themselves as biologically superior to the rabbits. Echoing the oft-repeated Soviet idea that communism is a higher stage of socialism, the Great Python pronounces, “Boas are just rabbits at a higher stage of their development” (RB, 94). The Rabbit King originally legitimizes his power with the utopian icon of the Cauliflower, an image of ideal happiness and welfare. Like the sign with the ten rules of the ideally just society in Orwell's Animal Farm, a banner depicting the Cauliflower hangs over the King's throne. The banner changes colors from time to time, an event that the rabbit citizens interpret as a good omen, the “mysterious but ceaseless work of history in favor of the rabbits” (RB, 98). With time and growing restiveness among the citizenry, the King invokes kinship ties, specifically fatherhood, to legitimize his hold on power. Much like Stalin, who called himself the “father of all peoples,” the King calls himself the “father of all rabbits” (RB, 144).6
Two other sources of ideological strength that would seem to challenge the Rabbit King, on the one hand, and the Great Python, on the other, have no real correlative in Soviet society, thus further undermining an Aesopian allegorical reading. These are the rabbit-philosopher, Thoughtful (Zadumavshiisia), and the young boa who becomes known as The Hermit (Pustynnik). Thoughtful is a protester who actively challenges the power of the boas over the rabbits. Having once been swallowed, he has won his way back to freedom. A Christlike figure, he preaches inner strength, claiming that the boas' alleged power to hypnotize and catch rabbits is really the rabbits' own fear of the boas. If they could conquer their fear, they would be free of the threat of the boas. His protest has further ramifications in that it reveals and directly challenges the real psychological basis for the Rabbit King's power: paranoiac fear of the enemy. He makes a bid for power and is defeated, in part because the Rabbit King fixes the election and in part because of his own political miscalculations. He is too morally principled for ordinary rabbits. In addition to his primary message of liberation, he exhorts rabbits to cease poaching in the gardens of the “aborigines” or “natives,” that is, human beings. Rabbits are not willing to be that responsible. The King meanwhile plots Thoughtful's demise. He has an opportunistic young rabbit, Resourceful (Nakhodchivyi), sing out a riddle that will tell the boas where to find Thoughtful. The young, ambitious boa who will eventually become The Hermit stalks Thoughtful on his favorite hillock. The wise rabbit uses this opportunity to test his theory that rabbits will not be paralyzed into submission if they overcome their fear of the boas. Thoughtful confronts the young boa with the thought that his powers of hypnosis are spurious. He indeed outwits the snake and would easily have escaped if he did not learn that he had been betrayed by his own kind. Falling into despair, he then decides to sacrifice himself, lying still while the boa eats him.
The young boa who consumes Thoughtful knows that he has eaten the most intelligent and best of the rabbits. Being a typical boa with a typically simpleminded, materialist boa philosophy, he believes that he is what he eats and, thus, that Thoughtful's brain will make him smarter, too! Exiled by the Great Python, who, like the Rabbit King, is embarrassed by the whole incident and anxious to have it forgotten, the young boa, now known as The Hermit (Pustynnik), works on new ways of hunting rabbits and perfects the method of smothering that older boas at the start of the story had rejected as “uncivilized.” He realizes that this “technological innovation” will give him a basis to challenge the authority of the Great Python and make a bid for power. And, indeed, when he arrives back in court, the Great Python is impressed with The Hermit's power and appoints him as his successor. As the new leader, The Hermit turns his kingdom into a technocracy and works on perfecting the new hunting technique, turning it into a vehicle for mass murder of rabbits.
These two types, the moral leader, with his great powers of suasion, and the technician or “scientist,” who commands concrete knowledge, do not really correspond to any specific person or situation in the Soviet experience and in a way expand the horizon of a possible Aesopian reading to universal limits. Thus, what is necessary for an Aesopian reading, that is, a clear context for interpretation, is lacking in this story, in which the contextual ground is continually shifting.
The Aesopian way of writing and reading is specifically parodied in the figure of the rabbit called The Poet, a Maksim Gorky figure who, as we saw earlier, thinks of himself as a strong moral voice and loves to write allegorical poetry about “storms” of political dissent and moral indignation. His poetic style mimics Gorky's famous revolutionary fable “The Song of the Stormy Petrel” (“Pesnia o burevestnike,” 1901) in its forceful, even overbearing trochaic rhythms. Iskander parodies their inexorable, forward-pushing beat as The Poet repeats ad nauseum the root trochee in the word bùria (storm), for example, “Bùria! skòro grìanet bùria! [The storm! Soon the storm will burst!]” and “Pust' sil'nèe grìanet bùria! [Let the storm burst more violently!]” The Poet promises himself that he will write a long poem, “The Storm of Disappointment” (“Bùria razocharovàniia”), about the ultimate storm of discontent over the Rabbit King's abuse of power, his nightly orgies, and, still worse, his secret liquidation of his closest “friends” and supporters. The result is just a pile of notes made on dry magnolia leaves and a series of rhythms that the King will later sequester and use for self-aggrandizement and for jingles satirizing citizens who pay their taxes late. Worst of all, he takes and alters The Poet's composition “Variation on the Storm Theme” to make the verse-riddle with which Resourceful betrays The Poet's good friend, Thoughtful, to the boas.
The Poet cannot bring himself to write his real poem of protest as long as he is still enjoying the benefits of palace life, which include the promise of a ceremonial burial with lots of pomp and circumstance. With such promises and privileges the King controls his court jester and silences a potential voice of social conscience even into the grave. The Poet does read bits of poetry to close circles of friends, who recognize the Poet's “mad bravery”—a reference to Gorky's hymn to “the madness of the brave” in “The Song of the Falcon” (“Pesnia o Sokole,” 1895)—and appreciate the social protest couched in Aesopian language. In the lines “Break over the world, storm, / Strike down the carrot oak tree! [Razrazìs' nad mìrom, bùria, / Porazì morkòvnyi dùb!]” The Poet's friends guess at his “bold” protest expressed in this “encoded part of the poem” (RB, 124). Aesopian language is thus shown concretely to be a weak and ultimately ineffectual form of social or political protest.
The other interpretive habit that Iskander confronts in Rabbits and Boa Constrictors is the didactic response, the habit of seeking an easy moral lesson, a “message.” Instead, Iskander urges in his readers a complex response, evoking and then pointing out conflicting responses of feeling and intellect. He desensitizes the reader to both boas and rabbits, in part by describing how the rabbits are eaten, a process that, it seems, would cause the rabbits pain, but in fact does not, since they are whole and breathing and able to talk when they are inside the boas. The whole hunt, thus, is made somewhat absurd, at least until the end when rabbits are being smothered left and right and are in grave danger of being exterminated.
At the end the narrator describes the kind of reader he likes best, the “sensitive” kind who is able to feel for someone else:
I have noticed that some people grow gloomy on hearing this story about rabbits and boa constrictors. Others start to get excited and prove that the situation of the rabbits isn't so bad, that they have several interesting ways to improve their life.
With all my inherent optimism I must say that in the given situation I like the gloomy reader more than the excitable one, who is maybe trying to use the narrator to influence the rabbits. (RB, 190)
Having made this general appeal to feelings of sympathy in his implied reader, the narrator undercuts its pathos with an absurd example describing the reactions one encounters when one tries to cadge money from an acquaintance. The acquaintance who “gets excited and points to the multitude of ways to make money relatively easily” is much less sympathetic than the gloomy one who looks gloomy because he “has mentally parted with his money, or, having decided not to give any, is preparing for a severe rebuff” (RB, 190). With the second type, he concludes, one still has a chance.
Iskander similarly plays with the ideological judgments of his reader. Traditional Stalinist literature points the reader to one possible evaluation, to the “right” ideological viewpoint. Iskander circumvents two ideological positions in particular: on one hand, what is traditionally known as a “utopian” vision, that is, an idealized vision not linked to concrete power, and, on the other, an endorsement of any one ideology that legitimizes existing power. The main point is that, whatever one's ideological premises, power corrupts and, when one has power, preserving it automatically becomes one's first priority.
Of the four ideological figures in Rabbits and Boa Constrictors, the Great Python is by far the most primitive. He rules largely through a policy of physical coercion, a kind of struggle among the boas for survival. Any boa who shows mercy toward rabbits or a nonconformist boa, for example, a vegetarian who eats vegetables and fruit instead of rabbits, is “a boa whom we don't need.” As we know, he also preaches a crude materialist ideology of biological superiority of boas over rabbits: “Boas are rabbits at a higher level of their development.” Iskander gives no credence to this ideology, every utterance of which mimics Stalinist thinking.
Through the Rabbit King Iskander makes a travesty of a “liberal,” utopian vision of universal education, rule by democratic vote—in short, of a kind of civil society. The Rabbit King manipulates the symbols and rituals of civil rule, using them to hide his paranoiac abuse of power. He alters the colors in the banner symbolizing the utopian dream of the Cauliflower that hangs over his throne. Thus, he mystifies citizens, playing on their ignorance and linking himself in their minds with the benevolent forces of history. When his power is challenged by Thoughtful, he insists on a vote of confidence. He fakes the voting process by organizing a session of mass aerobics as a supposed prelude to the vote. All the rabbits start to stretch, paws raised and lowered in rhythmic succession. The King puts the vote for himself when all paws are raised in a stretching motion.
On assuming power the King promises universal education and for that purpose has stored up vats of fermented elderberry ink. But he delays enactment of his educational policy for the foreseeable future. The ink becomes a symbol of social decline and degeneracy as palace functionaries, among them The Poet, discover its intoxicating effect and use it not to write and to enlighten but to get drunk. The vision of the good society gives way completely as the King builds security force upon security force to quell dissent. In this context, all his rhetoric rings false.
The Hermit's claim to the beneficial influence of technology is likewise undermined. Once this boa ascends to power, he shows himself to be much the same as his predecessor. Based on a crude materialism, his way of thinking is in no substantial way different from that of the Great Python. His belief that his “new” technique of smothering rabbits comes from having eaten the smartest rabbit, Thoughtful, is an offshoot of the Great Python's notion that one is what one eats and that “boas are rabbits at a higher stage of their development.” Finally, the notion that this change in hunting technique represents “progress” is suspect. The “discovery” of smothering is the very thing that an older boa known as Cross-Eyed (Kosoi) had rejected as uncivilized at the very beginning of the story. All in all, he shows himself to be rather ruthless, refusing to save a boa who has twisted himself into knots while practicing the new technique of suffocation. This case he dismisses as “not worth the trouble [ne rentabel'no].”
Most dramatic and full of pathos is the claim of the philosopher-rabbit, Thoughtful, to moral sway. His drama has elements of a serious parody of Demian Bednyi's 1912 satire of Russian liberalism, “Rebelling Rabbits” (“Buntuiushchie zaitsy”).7 Bednyi's poem starts with thirty or forty rabbits taking council on a hillock. They agree that life has become hopelessly oppressive and urge each other on to give up their lives for freedom. But when there is a faint rustling in the grass (possibly, although not definitively, from a snake), all the rabbits take to their heels and scatter. The poet ends the poem with the sarcastic comment that after this incident all the animals, and especially the wolves, will certainly be so scared of the rabbits that they will run away with their tails between their legs.
In both works rabbits gather on a hillock to discuss strategies for overthrowing tyranny and gaining civil rights. The difference is that, when there is a rustling in the grass in Iskander's story, Thoughtful does not flinch but acts on his theory that the boas have no real power of hypnosis. What the rabbits call “hypnosis” is really their own horror of the boas, which causes them to freeze in immobility. Thoughtful does not allow himself to become petrified with fear and, thus, proves himself to be superior to the young boa who wants to eat him. But he falls into such deep despair when he learns that he has been deceived by his fellow rabbits that he essentially decides to commit suicide and allows the predator to eat him. In this act we find Iskander's answer to Bednyi's scoffing at liberals' “cowardice.”
When Thoughtful makes his discovery that the boas' power of hypnosis is really the rabbits' fear of confrontation with the boas, he wins a following and, for a brief time, has a broad impact, threatening even to unseat the King. His ideology of inner discipline and power seems a genuine alternative to the utopian fakery of the King. And yet the narrator undermines his would-be hero: he points to the ultimate absurdity of Thoughtful's lonely, caring moral consciousness. As Thoughtful contemplates his political fate from his favorite green hill, the “dog-eat-dog” realities of natural life in the jungle play themselves out before him:
Thoughtful sat on his green hill near the river. To the left stretched the pampas, and to the right the broad Frog Ford. Thoughtful watched surrounding life with sad yet penetrating eyes. More exactly, with penetrating and therefore sad eyes Thoughtful watched surrounding life.
Over there a mosquito got lazy [zazevalsia] and flew too low over Frog Ford and was snapped up by a frog. The frog got lazy, and a heron stabbed it with her spearlike beak. And over here a heron, looking enviously at the first heron swallowing the frog, got lazy, and a crocodile snapped her up in his terrible jaws. And there the natives had managed to catch a crocodile who had let down his guard, after which they chopped him into what seemed to them to be tasty morsels and loaded him onto the boat and crossed to the far shore. They had not quite reached the village when one of them who had bent too low over the water was grabbed by another crocodile. (RB, 132-33)
This picture has so much death in it that one becomes desensitized to it, and is inclined to laugh at the absurd repetition of the natural cycle. It is Thoughtful's response, “And that's what they call life,” that brings one to one's moral senses for a moment.
After Thoughtful sacrifices himself to the young snake who will become The Hermit, the narrator actually abandons his lightly humorous narrative tone to pontificate angrily about the faults and failings of Thoughtful's thinking and behavior. This emotional outburst certainly suggests that the narrator is most moved by Thoughtful, over all the other political figures who arouse in him only a strong sense of irony and the absurd. Here parody will not work. Thoughtful's thinking and language are indeed too fresh and powerful; only polemic can answer it.
Finally, the question arises: What sort of attitude does Iskander encourage in his implied reader, cynicism or a sense of searching? Although his treatment of all his characters is absurdist, his polemic with Thoughtful suggests an underlying indignation and a sense of urgency about understanding how moral ideals and feelings anticipate the practice of real power and how actual power distorts the ideal. Only through seeking out and defining the tension between the two can people possibly go beyond the twin dead ends of despotism and failed utopia.
[In Moscow 2042] Voinovich's implied reader is a consumer of popular potboilers, particularly science fiction. In his play with this implied reader, Voinovich goes a good deal further than other meta-utopian writers, even Iskander. He makes the ingenious distinction between the mass reader who seeks entertainment in literary “fantasy” and what I will call here the intrusive reader who seeks in literary “realism” a lever of ideological control.8 This intrusive reader can be a form of censorship or a political or religious leader who tampers with the spontaneous relationship between a writer and his audience, who treats art as a tool for creating an ideologically desirable version of reality.
The tension between these two kinds of reader is established concretely in the novel's first chapter when Kartsev is drinking beer with his German friend Rudi in Munich's English Gardens. Kartsev has given copies of his books to Rudi, an avid reader of science-fiction novels and mechanics journals. He knows that Rudi has not read any of them, although he loves to boast to his acquaintances about his Russian friend who is a writer. It is Rudi as the model of the popular reader who throws down the challenge to Kartsev that realism is passé, that no one reads it anymore and that Kartsev should start writing science fiction since it sells much better. He invites Kartsev to compare the size and number of printings of his books with those of any current science-fiction novel (M, 11). A Russian emigré writer, Kartsev has never encountered this attitude of irreverence toward realism or the possibility of a spontaneous mass readership. Affronted, he responds stiffly that popular narrative forms, such as detective novels or science fiction, are on a level with computer games: all they do is contribute to mass idiocy. He insists that art is not about technological predictions (Rudi points to Jules Verne). Nor, in his view, is it capable of real political prediction: Orwell's novels, he says, are satires of a political situation existing in Orwell's own time. (Kartsev does not mention Zamiatin.) He claims that people would much rather read about themselves than about some Martian civilization. Despite this rather curt dismissal of popular fiction, Kartsev's curiosity is piqued. Clearly interested in exploring the gap between fantasy and reality, he inquires about the realizability of various elements of science fiction, such as time travel. Rudi claims that time travel has indeed become possible, although not necessarily desirable. (He has already traveled to ancient Rome, where he barely escaped with his life from a gladiator fight in the Coliseum.) Thus, one of the fantastic elements in classical science fiction becomes realizable for Kartsev, who as a faithful “realist” refuses to write about people and events he has not actually witnessed. He answers Rudi's challenge by participating in a story that inadvertently (for Kartsev) mimics science fiction as well as another popular narrative form, the international spy thriller.
Voinovich makes fun of the rather simpleminded mass consumer of science fiction by ironizing over such generic conventions as time travel (which is no different from any other airplane flight), space travel (the only strange phenomenon Kartsev encounters is his old KGB friend Leshka Bukashev, who has been put into orbit around the earth for being too outspoken and controversial in his role as Genialissimus), and the full-fledged communist utopia of the future (which repeats and reinforces all the bad aspects of the Soviet experience). However, Voinovich also challenges and extends the mental skills of this reader by presenting him with paradoxes related both to the nature of time and space and to the interaction of memory and imagination of the sort already discussed in Chapter 3. Moreover, Kartsev, who has presented himself as a thoroughgoing realist, soon subverts this posture. As a true realist, he has claimed in his foreword to rely on memory in writing about his exotic adventures and assures the reader of the reliability of his memory. He also insists on the realist's basic claim to have “seen” everything that he has recounted here. It soon becomes clear, however, that he is a wholly, if inadvertently, unreliable narrator who unwittingly treads the boundaries between fantasy and reality. His muddled assurances about the verisimilitude of his project invite the reader also to explore these boundaries:
I am telling only about what I saw myself with my own eyes. Or heard with my own ears. Or that someone whom I really trust told me. Or don't really trust. Or don't trust at all. In any case, what I am writing here is always founded on something. Sometimes it's not even founded on anything at all. But every person who knows the slightest thing about the theory of relativity knows that nothing [nichto] is a variation of something [nechto], and something is also something definite (but I'm not sure exactly what) [chto-to], from which one can derive a certain something (but I won't tell you what) [koe-chto]. (M, 6)
As he plans his trip to Moscow, Kartsev runs into trouble with the intrusive reader. He is not permitted simply to appeal to and play epistemological games with a mass audience. All of the figures of the intrusive reader type in Moscow 2042 are Russian writers and political leaders of the type familiar to anyone who knows the long history of Russian literary politics.9 Unlike Iskander, who characterizes the implied reader as naturally having didactic expectations of the literary text, Voinovich suggests that it is the intrusive reader, in the form of the self-righteous, moralistic writer and the political censorship, that has created these expectations. Karnavalov, for example, goes beyond his historical prototype Solzhenitsyn in that he not only views himself as a “second government,” an independent moral voice, but has ambitions to become a “primary government,” that is, to rule Russia. He uses his “art,” as it turns out, very successfully to harangue his reader into rebellion. And he treats Kartsev as little more than a servant of the “cause,” at first demanding that he distribute copies of his sixty-tome opus, The Big Zone, around Moscow. On Kartsev's return, he insists in a tone more in keeping with that of a despot that Kartsev modify his account of his trip in order to manipulate the opinion of the leaders [zaglotchiki] in power sixty years hence.
Karnavalov hardly differs in intelligence and literary discrimination from his opponents in the Kremlin of 2042. In the twenty-first century literature has all but died out. Indeed, only “works” of The Genialissimus are printed on paper. Everything else is punched into a “computer” without a screen that, as it turns out, is not even plugged in. Despite this nonsensical situation, certain precommunist (predvaritel'nyi) classics, among which are works of Kartsev (and Siniavsky-Terts!), do appear. True to Soviet tradition, what Tynianov called “literary personality,” that literary legend assimilating the writer's biography with the lives of his or her characters, is most carefully cultivated while the actual literary works are all but impossible to find. Thus, Kartsev's only readers turn out to be the five leaders of the ruling Pentagon and a few others. With them, as with Karnavalov, the usual writer-reader relationship is reversed: rather than the author “teaching” the reader, it is the reader as censor who controls and forms the author. Like Karnavalov, they treat Kartsev very much as a tool of their particular political aims (M, 154). Their attitude toward fiction is highly self-contradictory and all the more worrisome for all its contradictions. On the one hand, they view art as a kind of magic, a modern-day surrogate for the Bible, potentially more powerful than their own political power, with the ultimate capability of determining the outcome of historical events. On the other, they wish to manipulate the artistic text in such a way as to render it a harmless fantasy! Ironically, although they view fiction as the ultimate reality, they are wary of too much of what Vzroslyi calls “naturalism” (M, 223).
Voinovich is clearly playing with the notion of the reader's “horizon of expectation” when he names the chief censor and deputy to the ineffable Genialissimus Gorizont Timofeich Razin. It is indeed Gorizont, or “Horizon” in English, who artificially fixes the expectations of the contemporary readership. Like the members of the ruling Pentagon, Gorizont is very pleased with Kartsev's initial bright dream from his first night in Moscow of a communist utopia filled with light, beautiful people, and lots of consumer goods. He encourages Kartsev to include more such material and to delete the “naturalist” part. As Vzroslyi cynically puts it, “we all live by our illusions. Dreams are primary, and life is secondary” (M, 224). Clearly the ruling elite-as-censor hope to neutralize the historical “reality” of Kartsev's work by reducing it to a series of absurd dreams. Their worst fears are confirmed when Kartsev gives into the unbearable pressure to alter his text. They believe their hold on power to be saved when in a public forum before the citizens of Moscow he agrees to delete Sim Simych Karnavalov from his work. This announcement comes in the nick of time, just as they have received a telegram from Sim Simych warning of his imminent invasion of Moscow and urging Muscovites to surrender peacefully. They are horrified to learn that Kartsev has decided to take out the name but to keep the character type, renaming him “Serafim.” A look at the same telegram after Kartsev's announcement reaffirms their notion of literary text as historical truth: the telegram is now signed “Serafim”! (M, 307)
Kartsev has the last laugh over this kind of reader as well as the mass consumer, showing the intrusive reader to be still more benighted than the reader of pulp fiction. It is in the epilogue that he has his final say about both readers, one intended and the other an imposter. He suggests that a truly mass readership has not been allowed to develop in the Soviet Union because of tampering, on the one hand, by despotic, preachy would-be rulers like Karnavalov and, on the other, by actual leaders fearful of uncontrolled ideological opposition. He looks forward to the time when political leaders will stop meddling with the fictive worlds created in works of art and will apply themselves to what is really their domain, improvement of the social environment. Thus, they would assure that the so-called prophecies in fiction did not come true. Forced to acknowledge political leaders as his chief readers, Kartsev challenges them indirectly to make a liar of him and ruin his reputation as a “realist.” By such reverse psychology Kartsev conveys a hope for an opportunity eventually to write books for a popular readership of the sort represented by Rudi, who will enjoy his work as the “fruit of an empty and harmless fantasy” (M, 339).
The two works considered in this … [essay] challenge the reader's interpretive skills considerably more than Zinoviev's, the Strugatsky brothers', Tendriakov's, or Aksënov's popular experiments do. While those tackle interpretive problems especially of Aesopian language, doublespeak, the subjugation of memory and imagination to very restrictive, exclusive ideological systems, and the coercive, censorious relationship between rulers and writers, they do it in a more or less close relationship with traditions of “realism.” Iskander and Voinovich take their implied reader beyond these bounds. Iskander engages the reader in an interpretive game that calls into question both typical emotional responses and interpretive approaches to the text. He particularly foils any effort of the reader to take sides emotionally, to find a simple one-to-one allegorical correspondence between animals and possible political prototypes, or finally to seek out a “good” single ideology. Through the use of a narrator who is in exile, living physically beyond Soviet borders, Voinovich goes beyond the bounds of canonical Russian reader-writer relationships, implicitly contrasting a Western notion of the mass reader, such as Rudi, with the Soviet intrusive reader, and their two uses of popular art. This vantage point beyond the borders of the Soviet cultural sphere allows him to question the very notion of a true mass consumer of popular literature in the context of a politically controlled reading culture. Thus, Voinovich and Iskander both use their parodies of popular form to penetrate to the heart of problems raised more superficially in other popular meta-utopias: simplistic reading habits and the noncritical approach to ideological constructs implied in them and the coercive power relationship between reader and writer that inheres in the Russian literary tradition.
Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 167-89.
Peterson, “Fantasy and Utopia,” 81-85.
So far no thorough reception history exists for these popular forms. For more information on Animal Farm, see Chapple, “Fazil Iskander's Rabbits and Boa Constrictors.”
In her unpublished paper “Iskander's Anti-Idyll,” read at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 22, 1992, Laura Beraha refers to Iskander's story as an anti-idyll. I prefer the term antifable because, in my view, it suggests more fully Iskander's parodic attention to allegorical and didactic strategies of interpretation.
Chapple, “Fazil Iskander's Rabbits and Boa Constrictors,” 34-36.
For more on kinship relations in Stalinist literary culture, see Clark, The Sovle Novel, 114-35.
Dem'ian Bednyi, Stikhotvorenila i poemy (Moscow-Leningrad: Sovetskil pisatel', 1965), 76-77, 531. This poem allegedly satirizes the liberal political leader A. I. Guchkov and the supposedly faint efforts of his “Octobrist” party to bring about a parliamentary form of government in Russia after the revolution of 1905.
See Carol Avins, “Reaching a Reader: The Master's Audience in The Master and Margarita,” Slavic Review 45, no. 2 (Summer 1986), 272-85. Avins speaks of the “intrusive presence” of the state in the communicative process between reader and writer. This presence may also be viewed as a type of reader per se, one inimical to the creative and often subversive workings of imagination.
A good recent study on writers and political leaders is George Gutsche, Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986).
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 332
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 Supplement, No. 3854 (23 January 1976): 93.
Hosking praises Voinovich's achievement in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, focusing on Voinovich's radical characterization of the novel's hero and the implications the novel had on Soviet literature as a whole.
Lingeman, Richard R. “Down on the Collective Farm.” New York Times Book Review (23 January 1977): 6.
Lingeman highlights the satirical aspects of Ivan Chonkin.
Shub, Anatole. Review of The Ivankiad by Vladimir Voinovich. New York Times Book Review (7 August 1977): 10-11.
Shub examines the accuracy of Voinovich's portrayal of the Soviet system in The Ivankiad, as well as summarizing the novel's plot and themes.
Solotaroff, Theodore. Review of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin by Vladimir Voinovich. New York Times Book Review (26 March 1977): 17–18, 24–25.
Solotaroff discusses Ivan Chonkin within the context of Voinovich's career, tracing the novel's origins and publication history as well as explicating its plot and principal themes.
Starr, S. Frederick. “Laughing All the Way to the Border.” New York Times Book Review (31 August 1986): 5.
Starr assesses the merits of The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union within the context of an emergent tradition of satire in Soviet literature.
Steinberg, Karen. “Soviet Farce with Twist of Lemon.” Christian Science Monitor 73, No. 10 (10 August 1981): B3.
Steinberg analyzes the truths beneath the humorous narrative facade of Pretender to the Throne.
Additional coverage of Voinovich's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81–84; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 12; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33 and 67; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1.
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