A book (1963
) providing a satirical view at the Soviet
state during Stalin
's reign, by Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich
. Written (and read) in Russian
Briefly into the book
Ivan Chonkin, Private in the Red army, isn't a hero and never intended to be one. In fact, he's a total arch-hero; a simple-minded Russian guy, a peasant's son, not very bright nor pretty. And indeed, throughout this book, he'll be mostly a victim of others' actions and decisions, as a helpless chump from a God-forsaken village who landed into the reality of a totalitarian state of terror.
The story unwraps in 1941, on the verge of USSR's involvement in World War II. Ivan is sent to guard an airplane which was forced to perform an emergency landing in some Russian Kolkhoz (collective farm). As the guard duty days pass, he makes himself more and more comfortable, eventually moving into the house of a young peasant girl (Nura) and living with her as husband and wife, so to speak. After a month or so, his guard duty is forgotten and he is presumed to be a deserter soldier. A Secret Police group is sent into the village to capture him -- the simple minded private who doesn't even suspect he's doing something wrong, and so the story unrolls...
The setting, while beginning in the army (making one expect an army-centered satire like Catch-22), quickly slides to a Russian village, a large city and even a prison. Along with Chonkin, the readers will get to meet the head of the Kolkhoz (the beurocracy of the Soviet state in its full color), a village-educated "scientist" (to show the absurdity of the "Every kitchen maid should be able to administer state affairs" social reform the Communists tried to implement, giving a stage to every uneducated fool who claims to be on the verge of the next breakthrough invention), a jew (the cunning "surviver" jew who learned to live in perfect symbiosis with the gentiles' antisemitism), an officer of the Secret Police (equally ruthless and stupid, as a typical law-enforcer),
a newspaper editor (obsessed about his paper's "political correctness", since any depiction of The Teacher of All Peoples which could be negatively misinterpreted would be the end of his professional and personal life) and even Mr. Josef Stalin himself, as he smokes his cigars and decides affairs crucial both to the state's and to Chonkin's future. All of them are written caricatures, exaggerated and absurd -- making it possible for the totally unbelievable events and plot twists to take place.
Being satire, the humouristic descriptions and exaggerations hide much bitterness and criticism behind them; criticism of the totalitarin government which Voinovich has experienced first-hand. The fact that this book was published abroad while he was still a USSR resident is quite amazing. For its publication, he was excluded from the USSR Writers Union. He eventually emigrated in 1980.
Personally, I liked it. Initially I found the humour a bit crude, but later on it got bearable and I started enjoying the sense of absurdity it created. I'm not sure how well this book can be translated though, given some of the content can be enjoyed only by someone with an ex-USSR "cultural baggage".