President Trump’s spotty but fierce reverence for history was on full display Thursday when he complained about “the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
The fact that we’re still arguing about whether we should honor traitors more than 150 years after the Civil War is a testament to the tenacity of racism. In certain dank corners of the American imagination, a state-sanctioned system of kidnapping, rape, pedophilia, torture and murder has been transformed into an era worthy of celebration and respect.
Hearing Trump mourn the destruction of Confederate statues reminded me of a strange Russian connection. Yes, another one.
Back in 2000, the former Soviet dissident Vladimir Voinovich published a satirical novel called “Monumental Propaganda.” At the center of the story is an unreconstructed communist named Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina. Nostalgic for the purges and gulags, Aglaya still longs for the good old days of ideological purity. When the people of her little town finally decide to tear down their cast-iron statue of Joseph Stalin, she runs out in front of the demolition tractor. When that doesn’t work, she rescues the statue of Russia’s great murderer from the scrap heap and installs it in her apartment. It’s a cramped fit, but worth it to keep the spirit of His greatness alive.
(Unfortunately, the novel has gone out of print, but you can find used copies, and it’s still available as an e-book.)
“Monumental Propaganda” doesn’t provide a direct correlation with our own monumental inanity, but it’s an illuminating comment on the persistence of false idols and historical delusions. As the novel plays out, Voinovich goes on to satirize the moral flexibility of Russians who have no trouble adjusting their principles to match the latest ideological fads.
You might recall that it was only two years ago that then-candidate Trump called for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol. But that was before he realized how crucial white supremacists — and the “many fine people” marching with them — would be to his power base.
Voinovich, now 84, is a sharp and wide-ranging satirist who once had to live in exile but now resides in Moscow. Age has done little to quell his courage. Last week in an interview, he warned against romanticizing the past: “Some people say that we have already returned to 1937. I would say that we haven’t reached 1937 yet, but we have definitely reached the 1970s.”
Trump once claimed, “I know nothing about Russia,” but Russia clearly knows something about him.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.
By Vladimir Voinovich
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield
Overlook. 369 pp. E-book, $12.99