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Prophet of Ukraine

The Russian novelist who’s seen it all coming.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By CATHY YOUNG
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At the same time, Voinovich’s star has dimmed somewhat in the West, perhaps because dissident Russian writers have lost their erstwhile luster. His 2007 novel The Displaced Person, the long-delayed final installment in the Chonkin trilogy, had to wait five years for publication in English and garnered little notice, unlike his earlier books. His 2010 autobiography, Self-Portrait: The Story of My Life, is still unavailable in English. Too bad. Voinovich, whose earthy realism is leavened with a keen sense of the surreal and the absurd, may be the best fictional chronicler of Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.  

The Chonkin trilogy, whose conclusion spans decades and takes its hapless hero to the United States, where he finds unexpected good fortune (before briefly going back to his bedraggled native land in the Gorbachev years), is a particularly rich 20th-century saga, a tale of human comedy and drama amidst the inhumanity of totalitarianism and war. It has star-crossed lovers, Chonkin and his village girlfriend Nyura, whose romance can have, at best, a bittersweet ending; it has political intrigue, in which the most paranoid nightmares can come true; and it has a vast array of major and minor characters who, whether sympathetic, loathsome, or somewhere in between, have distinct and vivid personalities. 

Voinovich’s boundless invention creates darkly hilarious scenes (a female NKVD worker trains her preteen son for a future career by playing the suspect in mock interrogations in which he binds her hands and shines a bright lamp in her face) that, however bizarre, are no more than a match for the realities of that age. Even his forays into outright fantasy—a subplot in The Displaced Person reveals the carefully guarded secret that Stalin was the unnatural offspring of man and mare—fit effortlessly into the realistic narrative. In an acerbic aside, Voinovich notes that, far-fetched though this version of Stalin’s parentage may be, “the author finds himself overwhelmed by even greater doubts when he wonders how such a monster could possibly have been produced by an ordinary human mother.”

Monumental Propaganda completes the epic, pulling off the difficult feat of following Russia’s journey from Stalin to Boris Yeltsin through the eyes of a character with, frankly, odious views. Aglaya is a fanatical Communist who manages to be both repugnant and sympathetic. She worships Stalin so devoutly that, when her town’s statue is taken down as part of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, she brings it to her apartment—where it stands until it topples and kills her (symbolism intended). The book ends with an eerie moment in which the narrator passes by the empty pedestal where Aglaya’s idol once stood and thinks he sees a figure forming on it in the fog, “grinning and waving with its raised right hand.” 

Written on the cusp of Putin’s ascendancy, these words, like parts of Moscow 2042, feel uncannily prophetic. It is an ironic role for Voinovich, who has always frowned on the tendency of some Russian writers—Solzhenitsyn, for example, a frequent target of his criticism—to assume a prophet’s mission. Speaking to his New York audience, he acknowledged that the cultural status of the writer in Russia, once seen as an intrepid truth-teller and a source of moral authority, has waned as society has gained more freedom. (He also stressed that he sees it as a worthwhile tradeoff.)

Yet, considering the latest events in the country to which he would soon be going home, Voinovich wondered if things might change: “If Russia becomes a complete police state, then a writer might become heroic again, and interest in literature will grow; I hope that doesn’t happen.” 

Though even now, everything old in Russia is new enough to make Voinovich a very relevant guide to both past and present. And Voinovich is still busy: In December he published Tribunal, a modernized rewrite of his 30-year-old play spoofing Soviet political trials. He is writing a longer work as well, and although he remains tight-lipped about the subject, he does say that if Russia continues on its present course, “I’ll have to write another book: Moscow 2092.”

Cathy Young is a columnist for Newsday and Real Clear Politics and a contributing editor to Reason magazine. 

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