“The comedy The Death of Stalin has been banned,” wrote the writer Vladimir Voinovich on Facebook in January. “Because for those banning it, Stalin is still alive – and that is no comedy.”
In 1975 the KGB summoned Voinovich to a meeting. The Russian novelist had just completed The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, a Second World War satire that The New York Times would later praise as “a masterpiece” and “the Soviet Catch 22, as written by a latter-day Gogol”.
Yet the book was outlawed in the Soviet Union, where Voinovich had been blacklisted after criticising state censorship and defending dissidents such as novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov. Booted from the Union of Soviet Writers, he was technically unemployed, leading one KGB agent to ask how, exactly, he was still going about his work.
“I explained that I write a few pages and then I hide them,” Voinovich, who has died aged 85, later said. “Then I write a few more and hide those, too. That is my general method.”
He was warned against publishing in the west and, he later said, given poisoned cigarettes that left him sick but unrepentant.
Through his subsequent exile in West Germany and the United States, his return to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalisation policy of glasnost, and the rise of President Vladimir Putin, Voinovich remained one of Russia’s most mordant critics of authoritarianism and bureaucratic corruption.
A one-time aviation mechanic, railway labourer, carpenter and construction worker, Voinovich achieved national renown in the early 1960s, when he wrote a song for Radio Moscow – loosely translated as “Fourteen Minutes to Liftoff” – that became a favourite of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
His prose drew less praise from Communist Party officials and apparatchiks.
“I wanted to be a realist, writing about what I saw. Almost like journalism,” Voinovich told The Washington Post in 1987. “But when I published my work, which I thought was really true to life, they said, ‘You’re writing satire.’ I wasn’t, it was just life that was so absurd. The more I’ve depicted life, the deeper I’ve gone, the more I’ve become a satirist. Or so they say.”
Perhaps his most celebrated work was Ivan Chonkin, about a bumbling private in the Red Army who, for good reason, spends much of his time talking to a horse. “If you say the wrong thing to a person you can get yourself in hot water,” he observes, “but no matter what you say to a horse it’ll accept it.”
Assigned to guard a plane that has crashed near a collective farm, he is soon forgotten by his unit, and refuses to abandon his post even when a group of secret policemen arrive to arrest him.
In his review for The New York Times, writer and editor Ted Solotaroff called the novel “a stunning book as well as a brave one: a tender, hilarious piece of rural naturalism leavened by a pure imagination, and a stinging, far-reaching burlesque of institutionalised fear, stupidity, treachery, delusion and absurdity. Call it a masterpiece of a new form – socialist surrealism.”
Excerpted in samizdat in the Soviet Union, the novel was published in Paris in 1975 and followed one year later by The Ivankiad, an autobiographical mock epic about Voinovich’s quest for a two-room apartment in the Moscow Writers’ Housing Cooperative.
The books’ release gave him international renown but further deteriorated his position in the Soviet Union. In 1980 he, his wife and their seven-year-old daughter hopped on a plane for Munich, expecting never to return. “My departure,” he later wrote, “was voluntary like a person who voluntarily takes his wallet out of his pocket and hands it to a robber who is holding a knife to his throat.”
A decade later, after publishing the acclaimed dystopian novel Moscow 2042 (1986), Voinovich did return. His citizenship, stripped by Leonid Brezhnev, was restored under Gorbachev, and his books began to appear on library shelves in Moscow.
As the Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Federation, Voinovich transformed from national pariah into literary hero, winning the State Prize for his 2000 novel Monumental Propaganda, about a communist fanatic who rescues a statue of Stalin from demolition by moving it into her apartment. Two years later, he received the Sakharov Prize for Writer’s Civic Courage.
But history, he noted, seemed to repeat itself. State support for Voinovich receded as he became an outspoken critic of the Putin regime, rebuking its attacks on the media, political crackdowns, war in Chechnya and imprisonment of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was captured by pro-Russian militants amid fighting in eastern Ukraine.
In a 2017 interview, Voinovich said that while Russia was not nearly as bad as it was under Stalin’s “Great Terror”, it was beginning to resemble the Soviet Union of the 1970s – only the government was handing out two-year sentences for trumped-up charges, rather than seven.
“We are surrounded by countries living by different laws, living by laws that promote the normal development of individual citizens, the normal development of society as a whole, that promote wellbeing,” he said. “But here everything moves in the other direction.”
Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich was born in the Soviet city of Stalinabad – now Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan – in the early 1930s. His mother, of Jewish heritage, was a teacher; his father, of Serbian heritage, was a literary translator and journalist and was arrested in 1936 after making a critical remark about Stalin. He spent five years in forced-labour camps.
“When I’d ask where he was, my mother would say, ‘On a business trip’,” Voinovich told The Washington Post.
Voinovich was wounded while serving in the Second World War and later graduated from a vocational school in southeastern Ukraine. When he received a rejection letter from the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, he wrote them a telegram in verse: “I am not at all pleased with your answer / My morale is still good / I will become a poet” – and moved to Moscow anyway, in 1956, working as a labourer, writing poems in his spare time.
He joined Moscow Radio as a junior editor in 1960 and soon published his first short stories, “We Live Here” and “I Want to Be Honest”, drawn from his work in construction.
Voinovich’s later works included The Fur Hat (1988), about a mediocre writer humiliated when he is forced to wear a hat made from a tomcat, and two Chonkin sequels, Pretender to the Throne (1979) and A Displaced Person (2007).
He also released a memoir, Self-Portrait (2010), and generated a stir in the Russian literary scene with the nonfiction book Portrait Against a Background of a Myth (2002), which criticised what he saw as the “cult of personality” surrounding his former mentor, Solzhenitsyn.
Voinovich was married three times, most recently to Svetlana Kolesnichenko. He had a son, Paul, from his first marriage, to Valentina Boltushkina; he also had a daughter, Olga, from his second marriage, to Irina Braude. A daughter from his first marriage, Marina, died in 2006.
In recent years, his novel Moscow 2042 drew renewed interest for what many critics described as its “prophetic” depiction of a not-too-distant Russia, ruled by a KGB veteran who consolidates power through the secret police and the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, Voinovich said, the parallels between novel and the present were “pretty close”.
“Next time, I’ll write a utopia,” he said at one talk in New Jersey in 2015. “People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I’m going to write something good.”
Vladimir Voinovich, Russian satirist, born 26 September 1932, died 27 July 2018
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