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 émigré 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 métier 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.