Satirist Vladimire Voinovich, ending a decade's repression for lampooning Soviet officialom, left the Soviet Union today with a last-minute victory over obstinate customs officers who seemingly sprang to life from one of his banned novels.
As in his best stories, a serious confrontation hinged on something faintly absurd -- 10 pages of old notes to himself on possible visions to a biography he wrote years ago of revolutionary figure Vera Figner when his career had official approval.
After picking through the family's belongings for more than an hour at Moscow's Sheremetyevo II Airport, the cutoms officers decided that the notes could neither be returned to the writer nor handed back to waiting friends, as they had allowed for other belongings.
"Then I'm not leaving," declared Voinovich, whose best-known fictional character, the hero of "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Pvt. Ivan Chonkin," ultimately thwarts the Red Army and the secret police by being wise, cunning and stubborn. Voinovich retrieved luggage just cleared by customs, slid the bags outside the barrier and looked angry.
A classic Soviet face-off began, with the six customs officers nonchalantly smoking cigaretts and staring blankly over their counter as the minutes to flight departure ticked away, and Voinovich telling his wife, Irina, and daughter, Olya, that they would not be leaving for West Germany after all as required by their official Soviet passports today.
More than 30 friends and relatives pressed forward at the customs barrier, fascinated and uncertain. The baggage line to the plane was closed, and the clerks began putting away their papers. But 20 minutes before takeoff to Munich and what he hopes will be artistic freedom for at least a year, a senior customs official suddenly bustled forth with the notes in his hand. Scowling disdainfully, he instructed the others to turn them over to Voinovich's friends.
With a wave of his dark cap and a huge victory smile, Voinovich ushered his family toward the departure gate while his friends cheered.