By Vladimir Voinovich
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Knopf. 365 pp. $25
Perhaps it is unfair, but I've long suspected that the work of the Soviet writers who were so adamantly admired and idolized by three generations of Soviet intellectuals would not stand the test of time. With the exception of a few poets with exceptional linguistic gifts, such as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, I fear most will be remembered in the same way we now remember, say, Etruscan sculptors. Whether officially recognized social realists, dissidents or emigres, Soviet writers were chroniclers of a peculiar, lost civilization, one whose bizarre morality and strange aesthetics will seem increasingly alien with time, not only to Westerners but also to a younger generation of Russians. Even the greatest Soviet writers -- the satirist Mikhail Bulgakov, for example, and the prophetic Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- may eventually seem obscure to their countrymen, simply because the society they described, with its layers of secrecy, propaganda, absurdity and cruelty, will become impossible to understand.
Monumental Propaganda, the latest novel by Vladimir Voinovich, one of the best-known and best-loved Soviet emigre writers, differs from other satires of Soviet life in that it takes that irrelevance -- of ideas, of philosophies, of people, of morality -- as its theme. This is a subject Voinovich should know well. An "official" Soviet writer whose works were published in the U.S.S.R. in the 1960s, he grew disillusioned first with Soviet propaganda and later with its opponents as well. In his long career, Voinovich has mocked everything from the Red Army, in The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, to the Soviet bureaucracy, in The Ivankiad. Exiled since 1980, he was reinstated in the 1990s. But if this new book is any guide, he doesn't seem to think much of post-Soviet Russia either.
In Monumental Propaganda, Voinovich's anti-heroine, Aglaya Revkina, is a deeply believing Stalinist who is therefore irrelevant from the book's very beginning. As first secretary of the District Party Committee of Dolgov, it had fallen to Aglaya to unveil a statue of Stalin in the town's central square. Later -- after she had been expelled from the party, having refused to denounce the Stalinist personality cult following the dictator's death -- Aglaya moved the statue to her own apartment. And there Stalin remained until her own death, sometime in the post-Soviet present.
Over the course of the novel, through the five decades of the statue's residence in Aglaya's front room, much changes. Stalin dies; Khrushchev rises. Khrushchev falls; Brezhnev rises. The U.S.S.R. itself falls; capitalism rises. Mercilessly, Voinovich caricatures the cowardly toadies whose views changed along with the politics of the times, poking fun at their provincial manners and pompous declarations. Among them are Shaleiko, the local party bigwig, whose slapstick 1956 tryst with Aglaya is ruined at the climactic moment by the sound of a clandestine radio, blaring through the thin walls of her apartment. The radio reports a coming purge of "Stalinists," giving Shaleiko a "sudden unpleasant feeling in his chest" -- as well as a premonition that Aglaya might no longer be a politically correct mistress. Instantly, the tryst is over.
There is Aglaya's son, Marat, a second-generation communist who wears jeans, owns a light-blue Volga, worked in Cuba in the 1970s because it paid well, and looks down his nose at revolutionaries like his mother. There is Marat's blonde wife, an Intourist guide, who regales Aglaya with the story of how an entire hotel was once built solely for the purpose of hosting Jawaharlal Nehru:
"The walls were decorated with a motley selection of lamps and animal horns, and that day the bar sold all sorts of drinks never seen before by the locals, while the newspaper kiosk offered all sorts of newspapers, local and foreign, including, of course, Indian ones. In order to create the impression that publications and beverages could be freely purchased, KGB agents approached the counters and bought both kinds of items, but everything was taken away from them at the exit to prevent them from trying Coca-Cola and being infected with the spirit of consumerism."
There is also Gen. Burdalakov, a friend of Brezhnev, who carries with him a red battle standard "riddled by bullets and shrapnel and perforated here and there with a kitchen knife," and speaks pompously and grandiosely of World War II experiences he no longer remembers. Finally, there is Shubkin, the town "dissident" -- a speaker of multiple foreign languages, author of a bad prison novel ("The Timber Camp"), convert to Christianity, emigre to Israel -- who winds up seeming the silliest of them all. Voinovich finally disposes of him rather cruelly, off-handedly letting a character remark that he "died of blood poisoning after his circumcision."
So farcical are all these people that Aglaya, a stupid, bigoted, provincial, anti-democratic Stalinist, almost winds up as the book's most sympathetic character. True, her philosophy is repellent and outdated, but, as Voinovich tells it, so is everybody else's, even his own. At least she believes in something. He, by contrast, mocks everything, including the freedom he once longed for, a freedom that has turned out to be a terrible disappointment. "Until recently," one character explains in the novel's final pages, "we were living in a zoo. We all had our own cages. The predators had theirs and the herbivores have theirs. Naturally, all the inmates of the zoo dreamed of freedom and were desperate to escape from their cages. Now they've opened up our cages. We've got our freedom and we've seen that you can pay with your life for the pleasure of running around on the grass. The only ones who are unconditionally better off are the predators, who are now free to eat the rest of us in absolutely unlimited quantities."
Monumental Propaganda is written as a satire, and its wacky characters and ludicrous plot lines contain all of the elements of what should be a classic comic novel. But in the end -- like the work of Jonathan Swift or George Orwell -- the novel is dark rather than laugh-out-loud funny. In the very last scene, Voinovich's narrator turns back to look at the pedestal where Aglaya's statue of Stalin once stood:
"Its lower section was wreathed in mist, so that the top appeared to be separated from the ground and floating above it. And then above the pedestal, fashioned out of the foggy vapor and my no-doubt-fevered imagination, a figure took shape. Something human in form. It watched me as I drove away, grinning and waving with its raised right hand."
Everything has been tried, and everything has failed; the only thing that remains is the return of a new Stalin. From a writer famed for his humor, this is a very pessimistic vision indeed. *
Anne Applebaum, a columnist and member of the editorial board of The Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction this year for "Gulag: A History."
Jonathan Yardley is on vacation.