D. Keith Mano
The Red Monarch is … a very funny book. Certain givens have been attributed to dissenting Soviet humor. First: that it must be, by chemistry, satiric. Second: (the direct corollary of Given #1) that it must be risky: therefore (sub-corollary) at least half-serious in intent. A monolith like Stalin attracts satire because any decent monolith will ascribe all truth to itself. But humor can't stand absolute truth: it revels in difference and not just the difference of dialectic. It has a Panurgic spirit. Every part of the Hegelian formula—thesis, antithesis, synthesis, and around again—is subject to its corrupting influence. Given #3: that, underpinning Soviet satire, there will be some kind of self-mockery: a bitterness or at least a dull resignation: Our government is ludicrous but still we put up with it and that's not so amusing. You can sense this uneasiness throughout Gulag. Every Russian satirist his own butt at last.
Not Krotkov. His "scenes" are lucid farce: the Josip and Lavrenti act will bust you up: Groucho and Harpo running a banana-peel republic. No wonder Stalin conned the Russians: they were expecting someone from a Chekhov play. The Stalin-Mao interview and the interview between Stalin and Stalin's double are pure totalitarian slapstick. I don't deny Krotkov his moments of poignance or shredding cynicism, but these are—unfortunately—familiar in dissident fiction. The joyous burlesque was new to me. Krotkov … understands what farce is: the exact negative print of terror. Both annihilate reason and order: anything can happen: no guarantees are left for the cornea-frail human psyche to nurse itself on.
Krotkov doesn't impute evil. In that he is probably wise. Stalin the Monster would have been predictable; much less frightening than Stalin the Georgian—a passionate, primitive, unstable, clever lunatic in charge of 200 million inmates. Laughter might seem indecent here; yet The Red Monarch is useful, refreshing: more accurate, in spirit, than whatever lame documentation we have on file. (pp. 688, 690)
D. Keith Mano, "Fiction: Even-Stefan," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, NY 10016), Vol. XXXI, No. 21, May 25, 1979, pp. 688, 690.