The conscience of Moscow

August 19, 2018

Dissident Russian novelist Vladimir Voinovich who passed away last month was stripped of his Russian nationality only to be fêted by his home country decades later

The conscience of Moscow

Dissidents are the conscience of a society. They speak up when almost everybody else is silent; they write when others prefer to keep their fingers in pockets. Dissidents are dissenters who challenge the dominant discourse and pay a heavy personal and professional price for their insolence.

Vladimir Nikolayevich Voinovich, who died on July 27, 2018, at the age of 86, was a dissident who endured hardships but refused to toe the official line.

He was not allowed to write and publish what he wanted because his writings mocked officialdom. His citizenship was revoked and he was rendered stateless by the state operatives who considered themselves to be the sole arbiters of national security. He challenged the state paranoia and exposed the apparatchiks. His stories, novels, and essays were frowned upon by the state but admired and loved by the people who saw meaning in his continual lampooning of state authorities.

My first introduction to the works of Voinovich came about in the mid-1980s in the Soviet Union. That was the time when the then USSR was ruled by a gerontocracy which, though breathing its last, still had the stiffness that resembled rigour mortis (stiffness of death). Though the republic did enjoy the basic necessities of life,  such as health, education, water, sanitation, power, infrastructure, and security, the Soviet system stifled all dissent. All electronic and print media were controlled by the state and Soviet citizens longed for an alternative discourse.

In 1987, one of my Ukrainian friends in Odessa shared with me a cyclostyled chapter from a book by Voinovich. Ukraine was then the second largest republic (province) of the Soviet Union after the Russian Federation. The pages of Voinovich’s book were hidden in a copy of the official Soviet newspaper Pravda that boasted of the largest circulation in the world. The camouflage reminded me of our own underground publications during the time of General Ziaul Haq that the left-wing activists carried in disguise.

The chapter that I was introduced to was from Voinovich’s satirical novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969). When I got to read this novel -- in installments, because carrying the whole book was dangerous back in those days -- it was already in limited circulation for almost 20 years by Samizdat (self-publication) in the USSR.

Voinovich wrote that novel in the late 1960s but was not allowed to publish it because it made fun of the military thinking and its regimentation. At that time, Voinovich was hardly 35 years old but had already seen and suffered tribulations at the hands of state functionaries. His father had been imprisoned and sent to Stalin’s forced labour camps in the 1930s; his mother had narrated to him the highhandedness with which the security apparatus worked. Voinovich also served in the army for a couple of years and was an eyewitness to the follies and fumbling that mark almost all the security forces around the world.

Like so many other dissenters, initially he was not opposed to the state propaganda; in fact he wrote a song that won him admiration from the Soviet authorities. The song was an anthem of the Soviet cosmonaut programme that eulogised the achievements of the Soviet Union in its space programme. This anthem gradually became a rallying cry for the youth to join the Soviet forces.

By 1970s, when Voinovich came under the Soviet hammer as a dissident and was excluded from the Soviet Writers’ Union, this anthem went off air.

Now, thanks to YouTube, it can be watched with English subtitles anytime. This song made Voinovich a favourite Soviet writer who could claim the privilege of being on the right side of the Soviet system. He became an official writer and was offered accommodation in writers’ housing society. In 1977, he wrote a satirical novella Ivankiad which is a mock epic about his experience in getting an official residence for writers.

Chonkin is an interesting character. A simple soldier who is good at nothing much, he is sent to guard a plane that crashed in a remote village called Red. The story is set in the beginning of the Second World War when the Nazi Germany had not yet attacked the USSR. Chonkin is almost forgotten by the authorities who sent him to that faraway place. The setting itself reveals how military authorities can use naïve soldiers for their senseless purposes.

There is a hilarious chain of events that exposes the weaknesses of the system that authorities try to project as perfect. A movie based on the novel under the same name The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin was made by Czech director, Iri Menzel, who in 1967 had won an Academy Award for his masterpiece film Closely Watched Trains.

This film -- also available on YouTube -- gives you an abundance of laughter, and familiarises with Russian culture and rural life. In 1980, Voinovich wrote the second part of this novel, Pretender to the Throne and in 1988, we heard of Voinovich’s dystopian novel Moscow 2042. By that time Gorbachev had started his reforms that resulted in collapse of the Soviet system.

Voinovich was exiled in 1980, which was more of a self-exile, mostly in Germany and the US, and then his citizenship was revoked that was only restored by Gorbachev in 1990. He came back and won the Andrei Sakharov Prize for Writer’s Civic Courage in 2002. He continued criticising the Putin government for resorting to almost the same authoritarian tactics as his predecessors to stifle dissent.

He was opposed to waging wars in the name of national security such as Putin did in Chechnya and Ukraine. Voinovich considered almost all state institutions to be conservative and working against the interest of the people. It was up to the writers and human rights activists to challenge the authority and expose the ruling elite that uses various excuses such as ideology, patriotism, and religion, to deprive people of their right to free expression. Some of his other books include Shapka (Fur Hat, 1988) that narrates a satirical account of how hats of different quality are given by the state to different writers.

The conscience of Moscow