Zhizn’i neobychainye priklyucheniya soldata Ivana Chonkina, 1975 (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, 1977)
Ivan’kiada, ili rasskaz o vselenii pisatelya Voynovicha v novuyu kvartiru, 1976 (satire; The Ivankiad: Or, The Tale of the Writer Voinovich’s Installation in His New Apartment, 1977)
Pretendent na prestol: Novye priklyucheniya soldata Ivana Chonkina, 1979 (Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, 1981)
Moscorep, 1986 (Moscow 2042, 1987)
Shapka, 1988 (The Fur Hat, 1989)
Khochu byt’chestnym: Povesti, 1989 (collected novellas)
Monumentalnaia propaganda, 2000 (Monumental Propaganda, 2003)
Antisovetskiy Sovetskiy Soyuz, 1985 (The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, 1986)
Delo No. 34840: Sovershenno nesekretno, 1994 (autobiography)
Zamysel: Kniga, 1995, expanded 1999
Portret na fone mifa, 2002
Putem vzaimnoy perepiski, 1979 (letters and short fiction; In Plain Russian: Stories, 1979)
Maloe sobranie sochinenii: v 5 tomakh, 1993
Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich (voy-NOH-vihch) is an outstanding Soviet satirist of the post-Stalin era. He joined the dissidents in the 1960’s and himself emigrated to Munich in December, 1980, continuing his writing career abroad. According to his own account in “A Few Words About Myself” in The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, he was born in Dushanbe (then Stalinabad), Tajikistan, on September 26, 1932. His father, of Serbian origin, was a journalist; his mother, who was Jewish, was a mathematics teacher. His distant ancestors served in the Russian navy, and nearer forebears were writers and scholars with a Serbian focus. His father was arrested during the Stalinist purges in the late 1930’s but was released, fleeing with his son to live with relatives in the Ukraine in time to participate in World War II.
Postwar conditions in Ukraine did not allow his parents to support Vladimir, though he began school there and established the habit of reading with the same enthusiasm as his parents. The practice was fortunate, since further schooling was sporadic. At age eleven, he began to support himself, working at miscellaneous jobs–on collective farms, on the railroad, in factories, even a short time in radio. He spent about two years at the Moscow Pedagogical Institute from 1957 to 1959. He served in the army for four years and began writing poetry and songs there, achieving quick recognition. One of the songs, “Fourteen Minutes to Go,” about Soviet cosmonauts, became enormously popular; Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself sang it to greet Soviet astronauts as they returned from space. In 1960, Voinovich wrote his first story, “We Live Here,” published in Novy mir in 1961. The story was well received by critics looking for new literature, but it was attacked by party-line critics for the “alien poetic of depicting life as it is.” A campaign of attacking the writer’s work began in earnest in 1963. Voinovich’s support of Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky in 1968 placed him with the dissidents as literary policy hardened and publication abroad was punishable.
It became clear to him that he would be unable to publish his first novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, in the Soviet Union; the book is a hilarious satire about a loyal, good-hearted, but ordinary soldier who is sent to a corrupt and lazy collective farm on orders from a Stalinist army official, who promptly forgets him. In 1973, Voinovich sent part of the book abroad for publication, a practice sure to be censured; that year, he also signed a letter in support of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and wrote letters attacking literary practices of the time. Dismissal from the Writers’ Union followed, making it impossible for him to earn his living as a writer. Unlike others of the so-called Third Wave of emigrating Russian writers, however, Voinovich stayed in the Soviet Union for another seven years “under constant KGB pressure, in an atmosphere of incessant threats, blackmail, and provocation.” He continued to write and to send his work and comments abroad, and much of his work circulated in samizdat (illegal copies passed from hand to hand) in his own country.
In 1980 he addressed a satirical letter to the newspaper Izvestiya on the government’s treatment of the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov; he was subsequently allowed to emigrate, and he settled in Munich. Six months later, he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship by Premier Leonid Brezhnev. The first of the works he sent abroad before his exile were translated in 1977. The completed version of The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin appeared in that year, a work that convinced Western readers that such a phenomenon as a riotously comical novel could emerge from the Soviet Union. The work made his reputation abroad, and The Ivankiad followed close on its heels. This autobiographical account of his mock-epic efforts to convince the Soviet bureaucracy of his right to a larger apartment (his wife was going to have a baby) exposed the dynamics of petty corruption in housing and literature, areas of continuing Soviet problems.
In Plain Russian followed in 1979, a collection of his open letters to various powers, together with short fiction published both in the Soviet Union and abroad but never available in a single volume. The year 1979 also brought Pretender to the Throne, a bitter work about the further adventures of Private Chonkin. In exile, Voinovich continued to publish. A collection of sketches about life in the Soviet Union, permeated with a fine sense of its ironies, came out in translation in 1986. The paradoxical title was The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, the thesis being that the government of the country was the worst enemy of itself and its people. The sketches recalled works by Soviet satirists of the 1920’s, but Voinovich’s work aimed to supply information about the lives of the Soviet people, news of whose everyday life was simply unavailable to Westerners. Scarcity and shoddiness of consumer goods, interference by secret police, and censorship and prescription in literary life were some of the topics that came under Voinovich’s knife. Voinovich noted at the end of this work that changes began under Premier Mikhail Gorbachev. The novel Moscow 2042 involves a flight from late twentieth century Munich by an expatriate Soviet writer to a Moscow of the future. This dystopian work increased the range of Voinovich’s satire: The West as well as the Soviet Union came under his gaze.
Voinovich’s novels and short works focus on ordinary life, as seen through the eyes of human types recognizable everywhere. The general decency, kindliness, and susceptibility to fear and guilt of his characters as they encounter the cruelties and absurdities of life in a dogma-dominated society sustain his view that he is not a political writer, but simply a writer, his political fate to the contrary. His works examine the gap between power-mad rulers and ordinary people who want only to live ordinary lives and experience usual human pleasures; in his fiction, this gap is the source not of tragedy (though at times tragic loss looms) but of a comedy that manages to land telling blows meant to prompt change.
After his exile–his Russian citizenship was restored to him in 1990–Voinovich also published articles in the Western periodical press. He established himself as the outstanding satirist of his generation, moving because of his exile finally to a subject matter beyond the confines of his own country. Some critics have found his attitude toward women sexist, but the books have attained wide readership because of their pace and boisterous and savagely critical humor. Underlying the Gogolian satire, however, is the assertion of human claims and unregenerate orneriness in the face of the outrages of totalitarianism.