Voinovich: A Satirical Look at the New Russia

Does Vladimir Voinovich have a future as a Russian satirist?

Without a Soviet bureaucracy, a chronicler of the bureaucracy's absurdities might be feeling somewhat beached -- like John Le Carre without a Cold War. As it happens, Soviet bureaucracy may be dead, but Soviet behavior lives on.

"Before, this country was a madhouse, but it was an organized madhouse", Voinovich said in a recent interview in his Moscow apartment. "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".

It might take a Vladimir Voinovich to do justice to what has been happening in Moscow. Since Russia's literary flowering in the 19th century, the country has always made space for satirists. and for the last 30 years, this role has been played by Voinovich, the heir to Nikolai Gogol, Ilf and Petrov, and Mikhail Zoshchenko.

Now silver-haired, with a voice alternating in tone between amused and bemused, Voinovich has made a specialty of skewering the Communist nomenklatura, which in turn has done its best over the years to skewer him.

In 1974, he was expelled from the Writers Union, which meant he could no longer publish in the Soviet Union. A year later, he charged, the KGB tried to poison him with a tainted cigarette. Finally, in 1980, he was forced to emigrate, setting up shop in Munich.

Now, he divides his time between Germany and Russia -- making him a rarity among emigre authors of his generation, many of whom have acquired sinecures in the West and show scant inclination even to visit post-Communist Russia.

The proximate cause of Voinovich's earlier grief was his agitation on behalf of the persecuted writers Yuly Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, and his protest over the expulsion of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. But there was a deeper sting for the regime in Voinovich's writings.

In such books as "The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin", "The Fur Hat" and "Moscow 2042", Voinovich grafted to the basic elements of farce a mordant, at times bitter, depiction of the struggle between intimidator and victim.

Sometimes the two are merged. In "Moscow 2042", Voinovich's first novel from exile, a Russian _migr_ writer travels ahead in time to find communism still on the verge of collapse, the instrument of destruction being a megalomaniacal novelist who in many particulars resembles Solzhenitsyn.

"After the novel came out, I heard a lot of people contending that you can make fun of whomever you want except for certain individuals you can't make fun of", Voinovich wrote in a 1990 afterword to the book's English-language edition. "When I hear something like that, I quickly forget about all those you can make fun of and attack precisely those you can't".

His books are filled not only with simpletons taken for savants, but also with privates taken for generals, conformists for dissidents, cowards for heroes.

A typical Voinovich hero is an ordinary stiff provoked by the soulless system into feats of courage. The illiterate orphan Private Chonkin, dispatched to guard a crashed airplane and then forgotten by his superiors, will end up capturing a brigade of security men out to arrest him as a deserter, locking them in a cellar because they are interfering with his job.

"I would say my characters are not struggling against the system", Voinovich says. "On the contrary, it is the system that is struggling against them. They are rank-and-file people, and when the system sees the way they are, it wants to turn them into little screws of itself". The allusion is to Stalin's phrase about the role of the people in the great Soviet system.

Voinovich began returning to Russia at first not only to gather material and preserve his ties with Russian culture but with a vision of making a positive contribution. It was March 1989, and perestroika was widely advertised.

"I thought it would be possible for me to play a certain role in this society", he says. "I have lived in the West and can explain some points to the people. I thought they would listen to me. But when I came, I understood that was impossible. No one was waiting for me here".

Voinovich's newest project is a book about his encounter with the KGB, which for years refused him access to his file and then claimed it had been destroyed.

Also being negotiated is a situation comedy for American television about contemporary Russia, featuring a visiting American innocent and a canny Russian.