ON A STOOL in pride of place in Vladimir Voinovich's two-room apartment in Moscow sits a disconnected telephone, plugged into nothing but the surrounding air. The KGB redered it inoperative some time ago because of displeasure at his activities. Typically, since Voinovich has become the Soviet Union's leading unofficial satirist, visitors are shown the phone as a status symbol, almost a trophy. It inspired his sarcastic protest letter to the Soviet Minister of Post and Tele-communications published in the Outlook section of The Washington Post last November).
The biggest memento of Voinovich's running battle with the authorities is his whole apartment. In Moscow comfort is not measured by the acreage of your front lawn, the size of your garage, or the shape of your swimming pool. It is bound up in the extent of your "living space." The Voinovich domain measures 34.9 square meters, a befty improvement over the one-room 24.4 square meters which he and his then pregnant wife occupied in 1973. His acquistion of those extra ten square meters against the wishes of a party funtionary, a relative of a former head of the KGB, is the subject of The Ivankiad, a sprightly true story in which democracy for once triumphs over bureaucratic pressure.
Voinovich is a temperamentally pagnacious man who went from one manual job to another before turning to writing in the brief cultural upswing of the early 1960s. For a time he was the literary bureaucrats' ideal, a genuine working-class writer who wrote the lyrics to a song of praise for the cosmonauts and had several works published.
In 1966 he drew unfavorable official attention by protesting at the trial and conviction of the writers Sinyavsky and Daniel. A comic novel. The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, ridiculed the plight of other ranks in the heroic Red Army, and was inevitably rejected by the authorities. It later appeared in Paris. In 1974, a year after winning his present apartment, he was expelled from the Writers' Union for supporting Solzhenitsyn. Although he was subsequently denied the right to publish in Russia, he still lives in relative middle-income comfort with his Moscow apartment, a little rented dacha, and a new Zhiguli car. They live on his wife's income as a school-teacher, supplemented probably with royalties from the West, which, although heavily taxed, are not confiscated entirely.
A maverick among the dissidents, Voinovich is a man who instinctively responds to the frustrations of Soviet life not just with indignation, but with a touch of wit. "He has too much sense of humor to be a real dissident," as one of the most perceptive Western reporters in the the Soviet Union put it recently. Better described as a liberal than a dissident, he is in that important group which still has social contact with "official" writers as well as the internal outcasts. Both sides privately respect and enjoy his puckish with and energy.
Voinovich has also not given up on the Soviet Union as totally as many of his colleagues. His new book shows why. It describes what happens after the assembly of the housing cooperative where he lives with other writers decides to give him the next available two-room apartment. Suddenly he learns there is another claimant, Sergei Sergeevich Ivanko, a senior official in the state publishing appartus who spent several years at the United Nations in New York and whose reputation as a writer is founded on a single work, a 44-page volume - with maps - entitled Taiwan: Chines Land from Time Immemorial. Ivanko already has three rooms but needs more space to accommodate various gadgets acquired in America.
Pressures mount on the board of the cooperative. The chairman learns a collection of his poetry may be published if . . . Hesitant friends tell Voinovich they still support him but . . . Finally Voinovich, impatient and desperate, moves into the empty apartment early one morning without the document of authorization.
When the local public prosecutor is invited to arrange his prompt eviction, she turns out to be a heroine, a large middle-aged lady who actually believes in the law and is enraged when she hears that the board is covering up the fact that the assembly originally awarded Voinovich the apartment. There ensues what Voinovich ironically describes as an impeachment process. Public opinion in the cooperative plucks up its courage.
The Ivankiad is a deftly written mock epic about greed, intimidation and bribery with some devastating shafts at various Soviet insitutions - "I often wondered why there were so many former (and not just former) punitive-service employes in the Writers' Union. And now I understand: because they really are writers. How many plots they've created, complete fabrications!" It also shows that there are flashes of justice and good humor in this higgledy-piggledy system of coziness, where most of the rulers and the ruled still live cheek by jowl.
The Soviet Union of The Ivankiad is no superpower but a uncoordinated giant of a developing country, slow and inefficient. Even the villain Ivanko, a member of the supposed elite with a chauffeur-driven car to take him to work, only lives in a three-room apartment. A retired colonel in the Red Army and a party member since 1932 is building manager of the cooperative, a lowly clerical job from which he is dismissed when he embezzless two hundred rubles (about $200). Neither is this Soviet Union an absolutist tyrany, in which every citizen lives on the edge of a cliff dropping down to Gulag. The village-in-the-city texture of Soviet life, not yet worn down to the thin impersonal level of many Western societies, is more faithfully recorded in The Ivankiad than in many longer and more prestigious recent books.