Vladimir Voinovich Has Died

Art Streetwalker

On the 27thof July, the writer Vladimir Voinovich passed away. Few details are known of his death at time of writing, except that TASS reports his wife, Svetlana Kolesnichenko, as saying on July 28 that his funeral would likely be held on July 30.

Voinovich was one of the last links to the Soviet dissident movement of the 1960s-1980s. For me, Voinovich was the quiet one. He didn’t have the flair of Vladimir Yevtushenkov or his ability to compromise. He did not have the status of Andrei Sakharov or his political effectiveness, nor was he a show man like Vladimir Vysotsky. Voinovich was the kind of dissident’s dissident. He had the uncanny ability to quietly and precisely hit the nail on the head, even if the nail was one of our own, a popular dissident figure.

Voinovich became a master of satire, quite possibly unintentionally. In an interview with David Remnick for the Washington Post in 1987, he is reported to have said: “Life made me a satirist. It was unavoidable. I wanted to be a realist, writing about what I saw. Almost like journalism. But when I published my work, which I thought was really true-to-life, they said, ‘You’re writing satire.’ I wasn’t, it was just life that was so absurd. The more I’ve depicted life, the deeper I’ve gone, the more I’ve become a satirist. Or so they say…”

Voinovich’s problem with the Soviet authorities seems to stem from his perception of reality, he saw it a little differently, and that did not fit into the rather idealist straightjacket of official Soviet life. The last straw was when he began to publish work in the West and began to speak out for writers such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel. Voinovich was originally a poet and even wrote lyrics for the cosmonauts’ anthem: ‘Fourteen Minutes to Lift-off’ (“14 минут до старта”), during the period in his life when he worked for Moscow Radio in the 1960s.

In 1974, 5 years after the first of his three-part novel ‘The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin’ was published, harassment form the State started. His telephone line was out off in 1976, and the writer was eventually stripped of his citizenship and forced into external exile in 1980. He chose to settle in Munich with his family after being invited by the Munich Academy of Fine Arts and worked for radio Liberty there.

It is perhaps difficult for today’s reading public to comprehend the trouble that the Soviet government had with writers. The media war between the East and the West started about 20 years earlier than many people realise. At that time it wasn’t only news stories, it was literature. News could be blocked effectively but it was more difficult to block different mind sets, unlike today, when people have stopped reading. By the time the stagnation of the Brezhnev period set in (roughly mid-60s to mid 80s), Russia’s progressive youth were already tuning in to the Voice of America, the World Service and putting pin ups of their favourite western heartthrobs on their bedroom walls, eclipsing Soviet idols whose status gradually diminished along with the dying Soviet ideology, unless of course, they happened to members of the so-called alternative culture. The perception of Soviet life being something that was gloomy and slow in comparison to the zippy cool West, and the lack of consumer goods in Russia’s shops only confirmed this. If Aldous Huxley warned us about what would happen if a State takes over every aspect of life, Voinovich got out his notebook and used the abundance of absurd, ‘real’ phenomena as source material. When a West German teenager landed a Cessna in Red Square, having literally flew past all of the mighty Soviet Union’s air defences, Voinovich declared: “What a Flight of genius…” The country produced rockets that could take people into space but the meat in the shops was of bad quality, if you could find it. And then there was Chernobyl, but all this is history and memories are fading fast.

Sending dissident writers abroad no longer silenced them. If access to photocopiers was restricted, novels were carbon copied on good old-fashioned typewriters and read with avid interest by intellectuals. Dissident writers’ status was elevated to that of artistic martyrs. Having to live abroad to write only hardened these writers’ attitudes, empowered their writing and galvanised their readers. Brezhnev’s attitude to literature created the dissident movement and this was one of the main reasons that the Soviet Union fell.

By the time Mikhail Gorbachev came along it was too late to stave off the inevitable, no matter what reforms were tried, people’s consciousness had already been turned away from any attempt to adapt the old ideology. Whether Soviet Citizens actually understood just what capitalism was, is another question, but who cared, it seemed to be better, at the time, at least superior than the absurdities of the mid to late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev, we should not forget, did restore Voinovich’s citizenship in 1990 and he lived out the rest of his days in Russia. Perhaps it is fortunate that Voinovich lived his last years in Russia and not in the States and thus did not experiences what the New Yorker in June called Trump’s ‘Delusional Reality Show’.

Voinovich’s ‘The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin’ ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of the Red Army during WWII. ‘Chonkin’ became institutionalised and is now part of modern Russian culture, almost folklore. ‘The Ivankiad,’ (1977) satirized Voinovich’s real-life trials and tribulations whilst trying to find a slightly larger apartment in the Moscow Writers’ Housing Cooperative. In 1986, he wrote the dystopian novel, ‘Moscow 2042’. This novel focusses on a hero rather similar to Voinovich himself who travels to the future to discover a perverse distortion of Soviet Moscow at its worst. He portrayed a country run by the ‘Communist Party of State Security’ which combined the KGB, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Communist Party. A Slavophile Sim Karnovalov (apparently inspired by Alexandre Solzhenitsyn) eventually overthrows the Party and enters Moscow on a white horse. Whether the author is also satirising Slavophil thought as a possible saviour from totalitarianism is a subject that is open for discussion. 2042 depicts a crumbling, rotten city where people raise animals on the their tiny balconies to eat and the city infrastructure has broken down. In this sense, Voinovich’s future differs from Orwell’s or Huxley’s, and also from fellow Soviet’s Yevgeny Zamyatin’s  whose banned novel of the ’20s, “We,” depicted the Soviet Union as being a perfect machine, but out of control.

In a statement, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinski praised Voinovich as a “talented writer” whose work always gave a “sharp vision of reality” and helped “strengthen freedom of expression” in Russia.

©RussiaKnowledge 30.7.18