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.
I was saddened to learn of the death on July 27 of Vladimir Voinovich, who passed away in Moscow at the age of 85. It was a bit of a surprise to learn that he’d lasted that long. He was perhaps the greatest satirist of the post-Khrushchev period in the Soviet Union, then the Putin period in Russia, and unlike many novelists, in Russia or elsewhere, he worked almost entirely in the satiric mode. Voinovich first came to notice in the West with the publication of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969; published in English in 1977), the first part of a three-volume masterpiece about a somewhat dim but honest and patriotic soldier in World War II Ukraine, then in the post-war Soviet Union. In 1986/1987, Voinovich would fine-tune his satiric vision in Moscow 2042, a fantasy about the future of the Soviet Union; in Monumental Propaganda (2000), he investigated the legacy of Stalin’s personality cult in Putin’s Russia. Voinovich was also the author of several non-fiction essays.
Voinovich’s biography details many run-ins with both the Soviet Union and contemporary Russia; by the end of his life, he was castigating Putin for his brutality in Ukraine and Crimea. In a 2017 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he drew parallels between contemporary Russia and the stagnated Soviet Union under Brezhnev in the 1970s: “They are breaking up demonstrations. They are throwing people in prison on basically the same charges. True, they aren’t giving seven-year sentences, but rather two. And now they have begun driving people out of the country.” He also supported Pussy Riot’s protests.
Though very much a Russian writer, Voinovich was a brilliant satirist of all kinds of authoritarianism and totalitarianism; much of what he has to say is just as relevant in Trump’s America as it is in Putin’s Russia (though perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised by this). And the high comic spirit that infests almost every page of his work is accompanied by a rueful, pessimistic melancholy that the world would essentially never change — a trait he shared with most of the great satirists, from Swift and Twain to Joe Heller and William Gaddis.