Len Barnett is a former Royal Navy and Foreign and Commonwealth Officer who takes an interest in Eastern European affairs. He sheds light on Vladimir Voinovich’s works in the context of Soviet dissent as a literary movement
Best known for The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Voinovich’s work is largely acclaimed due to the comparison between his hapless protagonist and Jaroslav Hašek’s Švejk. This is unjust in many respects, as there is so much more to Voinovich’s work than a mere analogy with a different character. The novel was first published in 1969, in Russian, though in West Germany, rather than in the USSR. The novel showcases Voinovich’s craftsmanship as a relatively young writer (in his mid thirties), given that entire passages emulate the styles of past Russian masters, such as Anton Chekov or Nikolai Gogol.
Hilarious as Chonkin is, darker sides of Stalin’s Soviet Union are subtly portrayed. Apart from the quotidian incompetence and corruption of officials who had been previously depicted as such in the Tsarist days, Voinovich applies a similar technique to the NKVD. Tellingly, he refers to the infamous organ of the state as ‘the Institution’ as to avoid further political connotations.
Already disenchanted before he attempted to distribute Chonkin abroad, he was never published in the Soviet Union again. Deported in 1980 (after increasing harassment) and settling in Munich, his frustrations can be seen in another of his novels: Moscow 2042. The work was initially printed in New York in 1986 and depicts a fantasy journey into the future, with parallels to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Voinovich envisages the Communist Party and the KGB as becoming one and the same institution, nominally ruled over by the ‘Generalissimo’, denoting rule by the military. In a comedic touch of utter genius that is redolent of authoritarian states, the standard greeting of party members is ‘Glorgen’: a shortened form of ‘Glory to the Generalissimo’!
Written after the disintegration of the Soviet Union is Monumental Propaganda. On an interesting note, it was originally published in Moscow, in 2004. Gone are the euphemisms and not only is the Soviet KGB mentioned, but so is its present domestic reincarnation: the FSB. Although still amusing, in many respects this work is more akin to earlier outpourings of a contemporary and friend, Alexander Solzenitsyn. It is the study of a devout Stalinist, absolutely incapable of even adapting to the Krushchev era, never mind to what came later.
Lastly, one must shed light over The Ivankiad, written in 1976. The work differs from its predecessors, inasmuch as it is non-fiction – with the exception of a few imaginative daydreams, which Voinovich deliberately writes about. The Ivankiad follows the tale of the author’s struggle for a better flat within the Moscow Writer’s Housing Cooperative. Despite acting lawfully and benefitting from the goodwill of his neighbours and residents’ committee, the protagonist finds himself struggling against a bureaucrat with powerful connections, who is chiefly concerned with the same space for a specially imported toilet! Once again, the humour is catchy and the critique of the regime remains subtle.
Voinovich eventually triumphed as a dissident writer, a fact he himself readily acknowledged as highly unusual. In this process, he can be seen as adopting the line of Soviet officialdom, with its multifaceted corruption and practice. Nevertheless, The Ivankiad can be seen through different lenses, a spur to all those who find themselves locked in combat with mindless bureaucrats.