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Vladimir Voinovich: Монументальная пропаганда (Monumental Propaganda)
Voinovich’s post-glasnost, post-perestroika novel is a vicious but very funny satire on pretty everything connected with the Soviet Union/Russia since World War II up to the present day. His attacks are on the mighty – Stalin, Brezhnev, Yeltsin and other lesser Russian politicians – as well as on the less mighty – the various Party officials, dissidents, new capitalists and a host of other ordinary mortals. Everyone is out to look after their own interests and to freeload as much as possible and they do.
But the story is about Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina. Aglaya is a committed communist. More than that, she is a committed Stalinist. At the beginning of World War II, she blew up the local power station (with her husband in it) to prevent the advancing Germans from taking it. She became a partisan and fought bravely against the Germans. After the war, she became secretary of the local communist party, though she has subsequently been demoted to director of the local children’s home and, during the course of the book, will be further demoted to teacher at the home, before retiring. After the war, despite massive poverty and shortages, she persuades inhabitants of her town (the fictitious town of Dolgov) to contribute to the construction of a statue of Stalin. Reluctantly, they do and a famous monumental sculptor makes a statue out of metal, which stands in the middle of the town at the crossroads. It does serve some purpose, besides the glorification of Stalin, being a minor tourist attraction as well as being a key reference point for giving directions. Despite her demotions, Aglaya remains a committed Stalinist, even after his death, when others are less so. She is very concerned when Khrushchev and his fellow Politburo members start to find mistakes in Stalin’s work because, for Aglaya, Stalin was perfection. The ultimate insult comes when she is returning home one day and sees a truck dragging the statue away to the scrap heap. She persuades the truck driver and a local crane operator to take the statue to her apartment, which is larger than the Soviet norm, in recognition of her contribution. The statue is placed in her living room and immediately cracks appear in the ceiling of the apartment below. Despite various officials coming to check the statue out, she manages to keep it by bribing them all with the money she has saved (honestly) over the years. Eventually, they lose interest and Stalin stays, a topic of conversation for her visitors.
Things change and Khrushchev is ousted to be replaced by Brezhnev. Aglaya hopes that things will revert to pre-Khrushchev times but, though there are some changes, Stalin is still not rehabilitated. She drifts though the rest of the communist period and suddenly realises that the communists have gone and the capitalists are here which, of course, disgusts her. Only when the communists now decide to run for election, does it seem that Stalin might be rehabilitated but, of course, as we know, thing don’t quite turn out as she wanted, though there are plans to put the statue back in the square.
Voinovich’s great skill is his portrayal of Aglaya Revkina. Despite her support of one of the most hated men of the twentieth century, she turns out to be one of the two decent people in the book, though not without her foibles. Her total commitment to Stalin and the communist cause, means she is one of the few if not only honest person in the book. She has principles and she fights for these principles while all around her, people are trying to help themselves. (The other decent person is called the Admiral and is the one that comments on events, with a somewhat cynical detachment, throughout the book and is, presumably Voinovich himself.) What also makes the book is his witty and savage attack on Russians of all kind. Aglaya’s rival, for example, is Mark Shubkin, a dissident. Dissidents are sent to Dolgov and Shubkin, after having spent time in a labour camp (with Solzhenitsyn) ends up in Dolgov, teaching at the children’s home where Aglaya teaches. Shubkin is a committed Marxist-Leninist, though not a committed Stalinist, which is why Aglaya dislikes him. He also switches sides, becoming a committed Christian and going to Israel (and coming back). He writes a book in imitation of Solzhenitsyn. In short he is somewhat of an opportunist. The old general who has made a living out of his wartime exploits, the school nerd who invents a photocopier for copying samizdats is caught and sent to fight in Afghanistan where he is badly wounded and returns home to make bombs to be used by the new capitalists against other new capitalists and the American-style politician head of the post-glasnost communist party are just some of the superb characters Voinovich creates for us to mock. If you think Russia, now or then, is wonderful, you might not enjoy this book but others will.
First published 2001 by Izografus
First English translation Knopf 2004
Translated by Andrew Bromfield