Laughter in the Dark

Stalin has had a rough time at the hands of Russian novelists in recent years. Though polls continue to show he is venerated by nearly half of his countrymen, the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin, in his 1999 novel Blue Lard, coupled him — Stalin out front — with the whistleblower who denounced his personality cult, Nikita Khrushchev, a flourish that earned Sorokin a court date on charges of distributing pornography. Now comes Monumental Propaganda, the latest work from renowned emigre satirist Vladimir Voinovich. His Stalin is made of iron, and his erection atop a pedestal in the provincial city of Dolgov in the lean years following World War II, thanks in large part to the exertions of a fanatical disciple, Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina, is the engine for Voinovich’s book. Voinovich tastefully keeps his Stalin from coming to life, but that doesn’t prevent the Wise Leader from introducing his devoted Aglaya, who takes the statue into her home after Khrushchev discredits her idol, to the joys of spontaneous ejaculation. The novel’s climax–which takes place in the 1990s, after Aglaya has endured decades of political vicissitude about Stalin’s legacy–is a fire-and-brimstone eruption caused by an explosive device detonated by a local bombmaker, which pins Aglaya below her charge, where she “received him with every inch of her spread-eagled body.”

Voinovich is a connoisseur of ironies and transgressions. Born in 1932 in Stalinabad, the capital of the Soviet Central Asian republic of Tajikistan, which had recently been renamed in honor of the Soviet dictator, he was 3 when his father was hauled away to a labor camp. Initially Voinovich was a rising star in the Soviet literary establishment, composing the lyrics to a song that became an anthem for Soviet cosmonauts and another (“I Believe, Friends”) that Khrushchev once sang in Red Square. But Voinovich’s stock plummeted in the late 1960s, when part of his satirical novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin — about a simple-minded Red Army recruit who unwittingly exposes Soviet hypocrisy and corruption — was published abroad, to official displeasure at home. When Voinovich defended Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974, he was evicted from the Writers’ Union and, soon thereafter, nearly thrown out of his apartment, a demotion he satirized in a novel, The Ivankiad, Or the Tale of the Writer Voinovich’s Installation in His New Apartment.

By 1980, Voinovich’s provocations had become intolerable, and he was exiled. He did not go quietly. When Leonid Brezhnev stripped Voinovich of his Soviet citizenship for political insubordination the following year, Voinovich responded with a decree of his own: “Mr. Brezhnev,” he wrote, “you have highly overestimated my activities. I did not undermine the prestige of the Soviet government. Thanks to the efforts of the Soviet leadership and your own efforts, the Soviet government has no prestige. Therefore, to do justice, you should deprive yourself of citizenship.”

Though Voinovich has published a dozen novels and works of nonfiction, some of them masterpieces of satire, his stature has never quite matched his talent. The method itself may be to blame. There was a common misperception of his writing: Things couldn’t really be that bad if he was laughing so hard. And because his rebuke of Soviet power took the form of droll wit that ruefully mocked the Soviet way of life instead of the more overt political denunciations of books like The Gulag Archipelago, his fiction never delivered the simple ideological satisfactions of much dissident literature, whose politics was often surer than its craft. Voinovich’s metier as a miniaturist–he is a master chronicler of Everyman: the petty bureaucrat, the decommissioned soldier, the lonely housewife, the neighborhood drunk–didn’t help, either. There are few monumental heroes in his work, and few monumental villains. Most, if not all, of his characters are deeply flawed, but they are incompetent or comically self-important rather than malicious or cruel. Such moderation of scale rarely took front stage in the titanic struggle against the Evil Empire.

In Monumental Propaganda, Voinovich has created a slightly different protagonist, though in selecting a senior citizen who is an unreformed Stalinist, he has hardly made life any easier for his publicists. (Who knows, though: In a recent editorial titled “Nyet to Barbie,” the New York Times gushed that Russians “are tired of the beauty cult” imported from the West, “tired of the would-be Barbies,” and that being “inhumanly svelte” is no longer “every Russian’s idea of progress.”) The problem with Aglaya Revkina isn’t her age but her unbending faith. The doubtless Stalinist whose commitment remains unslaked fifty years after Stalin’s exposure as a monstrous tyrant is a psychological marvel, indeed, but also a one-dimensional creature. It’s not that the totalitarian psyche is unimaginable to a mind as liberal and enlightened as Voinovich’s. He gets into her head just fine; it’s just that there isn’t much there. That was the trouble if you signed up for the personality cult–there wasn’t much room for ambivalence. Either you were in–all the way, all the time, in precise imitation of the chorus from above–or you were in the camps.

Voinovich never applies much stress to Aglaya’s ideological armor, and her convictions remain intact until the end and her apocalyptic coitus with the Great Leader. Too bad, because it’s precisely during those fleeting moments when Aglaya momentarily second-guesses herself, or springs from the claustrophobic social conventions imposed by the Soviet state (there is a delectably Bulgakovian moment when Aglaya imagines herself gliding naked along rooftops), that the narrative picks up. Voinovich himself eventually seems to tire of Aglaya, and she is a rarer presence in the second half of the novel, where Voinovich spends more time on the secondary characters, a group that perhaps should have included Aglaya.

It is in some of these indelible portraits — particularly of Shubkin, a faithful Leninist whose devotion to theoretical Communism remains unbroken after time in a labor camp — that Voinovich demonstrates the fine detail and subtlety of a surpassing craftsman. Shubkin, who publishes a candid memoir of his incarceration, initially seems sympathetic, an ideological literalist hoodwinked by Communism’s promises of justice and equality. The book’s publication abroad leads to a KGB interrogation, as well as notoriety in the West. But at the same time that Shubkin proudly listens to himself on the BBC, he savages it as a tool of Western propaganda. And his persecution at the hands of the KGB drains as little of his belief in Communist dogma as his time in the camps.

In Shubkin, Voinovich has drawn an intricate character who is neither party hack nor dissident/democrat but rather an unthinking ideologue shaped by external forces: His faith survives because he unquestioningly retains the ideology drummed into him in his youth, and his dissent is as much the work of the local KGB office, eager to justify its existence by evidence of lurking enemies, as of Shubkin himself. Voinovich defies the easy polarities that so often impair the way Westerners see Russia. Soviets have always been more complicated than the categories Americans have devised for them — Communists or dissidents/democrats, without much in between. Shubkin is both, and neither.

Monumental Propaganda is Voinovich’s first full-length novel in fifteen years, which is also roughly the amount of time since the demise of Soviet Communism. When he was asked in the early 1990s if he was worried about remaining current, Voinovich said: “Before, this country was a madhouse, but it was an organized madhouse. Now, it’s a disorganized madhouse. The insane are allowed to do whatever they want, so in this sense everything is much funnier than before. There is plenty to write about.”

Indeed, but Communism’s fanatically maintained ideology, the unconditional compliance it required from its adherents and its fantastic perversion at the hands of its apparat made it an ideal subject for satire, which stung, in part, precisely because it was prohibited. In the New Russia, there is no ideology to pervert. These days, the country subsists on an unsavory gruel of authoritarian democracy and elephant-eat-mouse capitalism, a rather thin national raison d’etre that boasts as many detractors as supporters.

Satire is blasphemy upon the sacred, and there is nothing sacred in the New Russia, nothing invested with sufficient ideological heft to merit pillorying. A superficial life makes for insubstantial satire, after all. Russia is largely uninterested in engaging in a national reckoning with the staggering fraud of the Communist experiment and the murderous treachery of Stalin’s reign. (That’s why Voinovich’s impish but hardly heretical consideration of the Stalin years actually feels transgressive.) It lives obliviously between a disavowed past and an unformed future.

In Monumental Propaganda, as New Russia’s political irredentists scheme to return Stalin to the pedestal in Dolgov Square, Voinovich obliquely acknowledges the country’s aimlessness, its yearning for idols: “The people had no doubt that pretty soon somebody was bound to be hoisted up there. But who? No answer was forthcoming to that question, but the plot of ground around the pedestal was tended and planted with marguerites and the low openwork fence was freshly painted.”

The surrealism of writers like Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin is perhaps a sturdier gallows than satire for the New Russia. It’s no accident that they’ve produced the best fiction about the country in the past fifteen years. The stylistic mastery and pyrotechnics of the last third of Voinovich’s novel, which takes place in the 1990s–there is an essentially meaningless tangle of plot lines, replete with commercial schemes, revenge killings and false piety, though the closing explosion is a clever comeuppance for the sins of Russia’s gangster capitalism–fails to conceal the superficiality of his material.

Repeatedly, it’s Voinovich’s belly-busting comic genius that saves the story. There are enough hilarious one-liners in Monumental Propaganda to make up for seven decades of Soviet earnestness: There is the nautical enthusiast Alexei Mikhailovich Makarov, aka the Admiral, whose “postgraduate dissertation on problems of linguistics…was so brilliant that at first they wanted to award him a doctorate for it, but then they gave him five years in exile instead”; the casual anti-Semitism of the grannies who pass time gossiping outside Aglaya’s apartment building, graciously extending Granny Bauman, a Jewish fellow gossip, “temporary forgiveness for the crucifixion of Christ and the matzos made with the blood of Christian infants”; and the chasteness of a Soviet life that subordinated emotion to ideology. (“Aglaya had never even heard the word ‘sex,’ and although [would-be suitor] Shaleiko had heard it, he thought it meant ‘six’ in German.”)

The ingenious humor is Monumental Propaganda‘s chief distinction, along with its exacting detail. Voinovich isn’t content with the subtle symbolism of the orphaned pedestal in Dolgov Square; he must add that the surrounding plot is planted with marguerites and the low openwork fence has a new paint job. The evocatively specific detail steeps the reader in the geography of that square. Elsewhere, nonsmokers will think twice after the deliciously drawn-out cigarette-lighting ritual of an otherwise undistinguished party functionary: “Nechitailo took a generous pinch of [tobacco] out of the pouch, scattered it evenly along his curved trough, moistened the edge of the paper with spittle and chewed it with his front teeth to make it stick better, twisted together a tightly packed roll-up as thick as his thumb and took out of his pocket a cigarette lighter made from a rifle cartridge with a little wheel at the side.” And the author’s sartorially obsessed delight in period detail–“He was dressed in the already outmoded fashion of the rural bosses of those times: a diagonal-weave Stalin field jacket with external pockets and box calf boots. He smelled of Chipre eau de cologne, shoe polish, sweat and agricultural activity”–is of a rarely encountered precision. (Andrew Bromfield, a seasoned translator, does Voinovich’s prose an inimitable service in English; indeed, the regular reader of his translations begins to wonder when we might see a novel from Bromfield himself.) Several recent short-story collections by Russian emigres such as Lara Vapnyar and David Bezmozgis have made quite a commotion on the American literary scene, but it takes only a cursory glance at the work of someone like Voinovich to distinguish between the work of a master and that of a promising, but uncertain, beginner. Voinovich draws with a depth and feeling that the comparatively superficial exertions of the New Russian novelists simply fail to match. They are the New Russia to his Soviet Union.

But there are some things even mastery can’t buy. At the close of the novel, the narrator asks the Admiral, the novel’s voice of truth and reason, who might deliver Russia from its ills.

“The [ideology] he’ll invent for us won’t be very much different from the previous one, because there really aren’t that many variations,” the Admiral replies. “Its basis will be the dream of equal happiness for all.”

“But everybody already knows that’s an impossible dream,” the narrator objects.

“Yes,” the Admiral says. “But individual human beings, when gathered together, are transformed into the people. And the people is a naive creature, willing to be deceived a thousand times over and then believe again for the thousand and first time.”

A century and a half ago, Voinovich’s literary forefather, Nikolai Gogol, asked a similar question: “Russia, are you not speeding along like a fiery and matchless troika? … You strain your chests of bronze and, with your hooves barely skimming the earth, you are transformed into arrows, into straight lines winging through the air, and on you rush under divine inspiration… Russia, where are you flying? Answer me! There is no answer.”

On his way out of Dolgov, Voinovich’s narrator casts a final glance at the empty pedestal in Dolgov Square: “Fashioned out of the foggy vapor and my no-doubt-fevered imagination, a figure took shape. Something human in form. It watched me as I drove away, grinning and waving with its raised right hand.” What that figure — the future way — is, Voinovich still doesn’t know.

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