AS EARLY AS a year before the first manned space shot, Soviet planners were marshalling their poetic reserves, and the order was issued to compose a song on space flight; the words and the music had to be ready within a week. Vladimir Voinovich, an unknown young writer, completed the verbal part of the assignment in one day, the music was written on the following day, and the recording was made ahead of schedule. A triumphant Khrushchev wheezed if from Lenin's mausoleum, and Soivet cosmonauts Popovich and Nikolaev crooned it from orbit: "Our footprints will mark the dusty paths of distant planets. . . ." The footprints later turned out to be American, but the already famous Vladimir Voinovich made his debut that year on the pages of the leading Soviet journal, Novy mir.
Voinovich proved to be a politically undisciplined writer. Soviet Marshal of Defense, Rodion Malinovsky, called one of his humorous poems a gun "shooting into the back of the Soviet army" (in one of the poems Soviet girls give preference to officers). Issued numerous rebukes from the Soviet Writers' Union, Voinovich announced in 1974 that he no longer wished to have anything more to do with that organization and was expelled from it shortly thereafter. So severe was the official pressure on him to emigrate that it no doubt contributed to the heart attack deaths on August 5, 1980 of both his wife's parents, while he himself was hospitalized with a heart condition. He emigrated shortly thereafter and has taken up residence in a suburb of Munich. This summer Russian authorities stripped him of his citizenship.
Pretender to the Throne is a continuation of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1977). Chonkin is a Soviet Svejk -- an ordinary soldier caught up in the machinations of an enormous bureaucracy. In volume one, Chonkin is sent to guard a plane during World War II, and he uses the opportunity to set up housekeeping with a local peasant woman, Nyura. His own political interests are limited to taking Nyura to bed, but there is a misunderstanding and Chonkin's post is attacked by a Soviet army unit. Chonkin bravely fends off the attack and even captures the enemy. Ultimately, however, he is himself captured and brought to trial.
In Pretender to the Throne this lop-eared, bowlegged peasant is accused of actually being Prince Golitsyn, an agent of Himmler and a would be heir to the Romanov dynasty. Mistaken identity is one of the time honored devices of comic literature, but the specific work which comes to mind here is Gogol's 19th-century play, The Inspector-General, in which the misidentification of a copeckless young officer as a senior government inspector casts dread into the hearts of the corrupt local politicians. Chonkin's mad menagerie of tormentors is controlled by a satanic force which twists them into something less than human (like Gogol, Voinovich takes the demonic quite seriously). The editor of the local newspaper has become a machine whose sole function consists of suppressing the news and distorting the style of his reporters; the prosecutor is a drunk who spends his evenings threatening to execute his wife with a shotgun next to the outhouse and who has Chonkin convicted even though he realizes the ludicrousness of the accusation; the defense lawyer declares that "there is no punishment which could even begin to approach the defendant's appalling crimes." On the backdrop of this Gogolian zoo, Hitler and Stalin come off curiously human -- due to misunderstanding, they both issue orders at the last minute to save the "heroic" Chonkin.
Like Ivanushka the fool in Russian folklore, Chonkin wanders blissfully among the evil creatures intent on murdering him. When asked by a fellow prisoner (arrested as a Latin spy" after having declaimed a passage from Virgil in the original) what he thinks of the government, Chonkin naively responds that it is doing "a pretty good job."
A few Russian writers in exile have chosen to voluntarily cross their names from the annals of Russian literature and declare themselves, to use a Soviet phrase, "rootless cosmopolites." Voinovich is not one of these; he is a writer who is still writing for a Russian audience. His readers, hungry for a break in the deadening pompousness of officially approved literature (particularly that dealing with World War II), have shown a special appreciation for his particular brand of social satire.
Still, the Russian emigre author has traditionally sought his audience among his fellow exiles. (This was true even of so cosmopolitan a writer as Nabokov for a very long time.) Nevertheless, the years are taking their toll, and the Russian diaspora is being replaced by a Russian-speaking Jewish diaspora -- people with bitter memories of their country of origin and who thus are likely to be assimilated even more quickly than the previous two "waves." If Russian emigre literature is to survive, it will have to find an audience among Western readers. Isolated as we Americans are, we often fail to see any relevance in the experience of other cultures, and the soviet experience seems to us to be particularly irrelevant to our lives. Besides, who wants to read sad books?
Pretender to the Throne is not the gloomy fare to which we have become accustomed in emigre and dissident writings. It is a hilarious farce, albeit one rooted in tragedy, and it is a book which Americans will read and enjoy. Furthermore, it has a strong lyric, romantic note (Voinovich claims the elements of social satire arose "spontaneously" far later than the concept of the book itself). Ultimately, there will be a third, concluding volume, so Chonkin fans need not yet say goodbye to their hero.