In honor of Vladimir Voinovich‘s memory, I’ve been reading and enjoying Monumental Propaganda, his great satire of the cult of personality in the former Soviet Union and contemporary Russia (and, these days, the United States as well). I’m glad to see that following his death a few months ago, his body of work has been increasingly recognized as the wonderfully humane panorama that it is; most notably, Cathy Young wrote this touching memoir for the Weekly Standard.
Voinovich was one of the great satirists of the 20th century, and he became so at great personal risk, as Young’s essay will attest. Time will tell whether he was also one of the great satirists of the 21st. Beginning with his earliest fiction, collected in In Plain Russian, Voinovich evinced a sense of the absurd as well as a deep concern with ordinary Russians as they negotiated the evils of the Soviet state; his settings aren’t prison camps or the back offices of the KGB but small towns, and most of his characters are merely trying to get by. There are few actual villains in books like The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, but, as in Monumental Propaganda, there is always a sense of the oppressive evil attaching to authoritarianism of any stripe, and the foolishness and stupidity that seem to be an innate part of our makeup as individual human beings. Through all of Voinovich’s work runs the realization that, because we all live in history, the personal is political and the political is personal, and that this can have hilariously comic as well as profoundly tragic consequences.
Although many of his books are fairly easy to come across thanks to their availability in second-hand editions (and despite their being out of print), I make my own unrealistic demand here that some savvy publisher will release his final novel, The Crimson Pelican (2016), in English translation (Young has already completed one; you can sample it here), as well as his 2007 autobiography.