Last month, as Russia began its takeover of Crimea and Cold War II hung in the air, about a hundred people gathered at Columbia’s Harriman Institute to hear an 81-year-old Russian visitor whom some credit with uncanny prophetic powers. Vladimir Voinovich, one of the great Soviet-era dissident writers, has several novels and nonfiction books to his name, not to mention numerous short stories and essays. But without a doubt, the one work about which he is asked most is his 1986 novel Moscow 2042. In this futuristic satire, the time-traveling narrator finds himself in a Russian state whose ideology is a fantastic hybrid of communism and Orthodox Christianity—and whose supreme ruler, revered as “The Genialissimo,” was once, like Vladimir Putin, a KGB officer stationed in East Germany.
Not surprisingly, Moscow 2042 came up often during the March event, with Voinovich jokingly wondering if the book “exerted a magnetic pull on history so that it began to move toward that future” or if “the powers that be had an urge to bring history in line with my story.”
History has taken Voinovich’s own life and career in some strange directions. The son of a former Gulag prisoner, he came of age as a writer during the post-Stalin “thaw.” His big break came in 1960, when he wrote the lyrics for a song about cosmonauts that became a big Soviet hit—thanks, in part, to the fact that it was quoted by Nikita Khrushchev. His fiction, not overly political but unsparing in its portrayal of Soviet realities, began to appear in Novy Mir, the distinguished literary magazine known for politically edgy fare, including the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
By the time Voinovich had finished his novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, it was 1969 and the thaw was long over—and, in any case, Chonkin broke too many taboos for even the most liberal Soviet times. The novel, which opens just before the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 and follows the travails of a bumbling Red Army recruit stranded in a village where he’s been left to guard a broken airplane, not only ruthlessly satirizes Soviet life under Stalin but extends its irreverence to the mystique of the Great Patriotic War—and strongly hints at the moral equivalence of Stalinism and Nazism. In one memorable scene, a captain in the secret police—mistaken for a German and captured by Soviet soldiers in a black comedy of errors that leads him, in turn, to think he is in German hands—tries to curry favor with his captors by saying that he works for the “Russisch Gestapo.”
Rejected by Novy Mir, the novel circulated in samizdat. It was also smuggled abroad and published by a Russian emigré magazine in 1974, then translated into English and other languages. While Chonkin gained Voinovich international acclaim—a New York Times review likened it to The Good Soldier Švejk and Catch-22—it was also the final nail in the coffin of Voinovich’s career in the Soviet Union. He was kicked out of the Writers’ Union, banned from print, and subjected to KGB harassment that ranged from the shutoff of phone service to possible attempted murder.
Undeterred, he participated in human-rights activism, published a mordant memoir of his battle for a new apartment (The Ivankiad, 1976), and worked on a Chonkin sequel, Pretender to the Throne, which appeared in 1979. Shortly afterwards, the Kremlin decided that Voinovich had tried its patience once too often: In 1980, he was deported to West Germany with his family.
Of course, history’s next plot twist for Voinovich was stranger than anything in his fiction. The winds of glasnost blew, and Voinovich’s Soviet citizenship, revoked in 1981, was restored in 1990—only a year before those same winds blew the house down. He came home to a warm reception, to see his works published and adapted for television and stage; in 2000, he received the State Prize of the Russian Federation for his novel Monumental Propaganda, a Chonkin spinoff focusing on a minor character from Pretender to the Throne, diehard Stalinist Aglaya Revkina.
Even then, however, Vladimir Putin’s neo-authoritarian Russia was on the rise, with its renewed pride in Soviet “achievements” and its embrace of religion-tinted nationalism—which Voinovich had disliked even as a dissident viewpoint. Within a decade, it meant a new fall into disfavor for the former exile whose outspokenness was not blunted by age. On his 80th birthday in 2012, a tribute to his life and work scheduled to air on Russia’s main cultural TV channel, Kultura, was abruptly yanked, with no explanation given. Or needed.
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.