Vladimir Voinovich, Russia’s 82-year-old satirist, on why the rise of a KGB man was inevitable but why Russia’s decline and fall into authoritarianism doesn’t have to be.
Russian writers are fond of quoting the words of 20th-century poet and literary scholar Kornei Chukovsky: “In Russia, one should live a long life.” Novelist, poet and essayist Vladimir Voinovich, born in 1932 in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, has certainly fulfilled that precept: He has lived long enough to see the end of Stalinism and of the Khrushchev “thaw,” the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of a neo-authoritarian Russian regime under Vladimir Putin. (And a once-unthinkable de facto war between Russia and Ukraine—an especially bitter irony since, as a boy, Voinovich was living in Ukraine when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union.)
He lived long enough to go from successful Soviet writer to dissident, pariah and exile; to return triumphantly to a new Russia that welcomed him and his work; and then to find himself a dissident and semi-outcast once again as Putinism gathered strength.
At 82, Voinovich is still going strong. He recently rewrote his 1985 play Tribunal, which satirized Soviet-era trials of dissidents, to update it for the Putin era. He is working on a new book (though he is tight-lipped about its content). Last week, he completed a trip to the United States where he gave readings for Russian speakers in Boston, San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and several other locations.
Voinovich’s body of work, which includes novels, short stories, fables, poems, and essays, weaves a rich and vivid canvas of Soviet and post-Soviet life. His World War II epic, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin and itssequels, follows a bumbling and simpleminded but goodhearted Soviet Army soldier from 1941, when he is stranded in a village on assignment to guard a broken-down airplane shortly before the German invasion, to 1990, when he visits the USSR as a thriving American farmer, having found unexpected fortune as a postwar refugee.
The trilogy, translated into many languages—the English version, published in 1979, was hailed in the New York Times as a masterpiece of “socialist surrealism” and the “Soviet Catch-22, as written by a latter-day Gogol”—is a scathing satire, both realist and fantastic, that skewers the communist system and the Soviet myth of the “Great Patriotic War”; but the absurdist humor always coexists with a deep humanity.
“Russia is beating itself bloody.”
Other notable Voinovich works includeThe Ivankiad, the darkly hilarious true story of Voinovich’s fight for a new apartment that was also coveted by a Party apparatchik; The Fur Hat, the tragicomic fictional tale of a mediocre Soviet writer whose frustration with the lack of respect the state accords him for his loyal service turns to rebellion; andMonumental Propaganda, a Chonkinspinoff whose anti-heroine, devout Stalinist Aglaya Revkina, rescues her town’s deposed Stalin statue and takes it home. (A superb 2010 memoir, Self-Portrait: The Story of My Life, sadly remains unavailable in English.)
But in recent years, no other Voinovich book has received as much attention as his 1986 dystopian satire, Moscow 2042. The novel’s narrator, a Russian émigré writer who is clearly Voinovich’s own alter ego, travels forward in time to find a Moscow that boasts of achieving utopia—and that has uncanny parallels to today’s Russia: Soviet-style features combined with traditional religiosity and a ruler with a KGB past that resembles Putin’s biography in some startling details. (In one indication of the book’s relevance, it is being translated into Ukrainian.) Speaking to a Russian-Jewish émigré audience in Fair Lawn, N.J., last Sunday, Voinovich joked, “Next time, I’ll write a utopia. People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I’m going to write something good.”
During his stay in the New York area, Voinovich met with The Daily Beast to talk about ways to predict the future, the causes of Putin’s popularity, Russia’s missed opportunity to choose freedom, and what the West needs to understand about Russia.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TDB: I’ll start with a question that you must hear a lot. Back in the 1980s, you wrote a book called Moscow 2042, which is probably your most talked-about book right now because it is believed that you predicted a great deal of what is happening today. Do you think it really is a prophetic novel—and how did you manage that?
Voinovich: Maybe I should be modest and say, “No, no, of course not,” but considering that in my future, the state is ruled by a former KGB resident in Germany, and that he was part of a plot of angry KGB generals, a hero of “the August Revolution”—it’s almost forgotten now, but there was the coup in August ’91—and a hero of “the war in Buryat-Mongolia,” which could substitute for Chechnya… I think it’s pretty close. Besides, I’ve also got the merger of state, KGB, and church in that book.
How did it come about? I first got the idea in 1982. At first I wanted to set it fifty years in the future, and my first draft was titled “Moscow 2032.” Then I decided to move it forward by another ten years.
Generally, if you look at present-day trends, you can predict the future. Very few people do that, because I’ve been told that only 3 to 5 percent of people are aware of being a part of history; the overwhelming majority think things will always be the way they are now. When Stalin was alive, most people could not imagine that he would ever die. Same under Brezhnev.
When I was leaving the Soviet Union [in 1980], I said that in about five years cardinal changes would begin. I didn’t know what kind of changes; I didn’t think the Soviet Union would collapse—I wasn’t thinking in such terms. But I thought there would be drastic political changes. When I said that on the Voice of America, a friend wrote to me, “How can you say that! You know we have senile old men at the top and they are never going to die out, you know we’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on, the situation with food is a disaster, and you say there are going to be changes!” I replied, “That’s why there are going to be changes—because the Soviet regime has reached such a state of idiocy, there’s no way out.”
At the same time, I could see that people were going to church in droves; even members of the Communist Party were getting baptized, baptizing their children and so on. Religion was playing a greater and greater role, and it was clear that the state would eventually try to co-opt it for its own needs. I could also see that the KGB was assuming an increasingly important role in society. The country was being ruled by uneducated, incompetent people; they needed competent aides, and the KGB was a natural source. [KGB agents] had a better education than most others; they knew foreign languages, and they had a better understanding of the situation—the ones from the domestic sections of the KGB had a better grasp on internal affairs, and the spies had some knowledge of how the West works. The KGB elites were getting closer and closer to the men in power, and it was obvious that someday they would take power themselves and start to rule. In fact, even in those days, while I was writing the book, [Yuri] Andropov appeared on the scene—the KGB chairman who became the General Secretary—and then Putin came along.
So, all these predictions—I don’t believe in parapsychologists or psychics, but I do believe that one can make logical deductions.
Today, people ask me: So, we’ve reached that point—what now?
TDB: That’s exactly what I was going to ask: What does your historical vision tell you now?
Voinovich: Until recently, I had a very pessimistic forecast—and things also seemed very murky. But after all these recent events—“Crimea is ours!,” Donbas, all that—I realized I could get back into the business of forecasting. Until now, I didn’t feel up to it. I actually was wrong about one thing: I predicted that Putin would be forced to leave [soon], but he’s still there. Generally, once again—this time not in seventy years but in a very short time—the President and the Duma have reached the stage of such idiocy that they are constantly taking actions which are not simply pointless but harmful, to Russia itself.
The annexation of Crimea did undermine Ukraine to some extent, but less than it did Russia; this is a case in which the victim wins. Ukraine got rid of a region that requires massive subsidies and received international sympathy; meanwhile, Russia bit off this chunk it can’t chew. Then it moved on to eastern Ukraine; at first, it seemed as if things would develop along the same scenario as in Crimea—the Donetsk and Luhansk regions would fall, and then [the rest of] “Novorossiya,” and Ukraine would be reduced to a fraction of itself. And now it’s turned into a festering sore that is draining both Ukraine’s strength and Russia’s.
It’s a no-exit situation. Which is why the insanity continues, and the President and the Duma continue to pass legislation that hurts Russia itself. For instance, responding to sanctions from the West with counter-sanctions that hit Russia hardest. Russia is beating itself bloody.
“I think today's reactionary policy will end in total failure and the need for a newperestroika; there will be a ‘time of troubles,’ which may well end in the disintegration of Russia.”
Besides, there’s always a pendulum effect, not just in Russia. Here [in the U.S.] the Democrats can have the White House for two terms, five terms—but eventually the Republicans will take over and turn the clock in a different direction. But here, [the change] is not that drastic; in Russia, it is. There was Stalin, and then liberalization under Khrushchev. It was inevitable; it wasn’t just because Khrushchev was such a nice guy. Even the Communist Party leadership realized that liberalization was necessary because the country was becoming ossified. After Khrushchev, there was a new chill, because the new people in power thought Khrushchev had gone too far; under Brezhnev, there was a much milder form of Stalinism, and it continued until Gorbachev. From Gorbachev to Yeltsin, the pendulum swung one way; now, Putin has pushed it very far [in the opposite direction], and the backlash is inevitable. So I think the year 2042 could be quite interesting.
Specifically, I think today’s reactionary policy will end in total failure and the need for a new perestroika; there will be a “time of troubles,” which may well end in the disintegration of Russia.
TDB: I know it’s difficult to answer “What might have been” hypotheticals, but based on your perception of historical processes, how inevitable was it that Russia found itself on such a wrong path after the collapse of communism? I’m sure you remember that when the Soviet Union ended, there was a surge of hope both in Russia and the West; it was widely believed that Russia was about to join the community of civilized nations, that it would have democracy. And then, of course, it all turned out very differently. Do you think this could have been avoided?
Voinoivch: As a matter of fact, I think it was not inevitable. Sometimes there are historical moments when a country’s course could be turned one way or the other, when fate can be escaped. To go back in history a bit: Khrushchev could not abolish the Soviet system, he could only soften it, and then Brezhnev could tighten the screws again. Gorbachev couldn’t really do anything, either. Starting with Yeltsin, there was a new situation; but even Yeltsin was still tied down. Then, Putin came to power. If a different kind of person had been in his place—someone more like Thomas Jefferson—at that point, anything was possible. When people say: oh, that’s just the way Russians are—no, they’re not. Russians come [to the United States] and work just like Americans do, and invent Google and things like that. A great deal depends on the people in power.
If Putin and those around him had been smart enough to go in a different direction… The country was ready. The conditions were extremely favorable—with oil prices as high as they were, it was possible to do anything. It was possible to solidify democracy. [After the Yeltsin years] people began to think that democracy is a disaster, that democracy equals misery. Putin got a lucky break—and he used it the KGB way. He turned out to be a wily KGB man, not a wise statesman.
People sometimes ask: Is Putin a clever man? Yes, he’s clever in his own way, when it comes to political intrigue, and he’s got a good head for numbers. But as soon as he took office, the first thing he did was to institute a new anthem based on the old Soviet one; that was a very major step, not a petty issue. He began at once to appeal to people’s basest instincts. It is true that people in Russia are used to obedience. There was a poll on the anthem, but it was formulated in such a way as to get the preferred result. Then [the independent television channel] NTV was strangled, then there was more in the same vein. Finally, power has gone to his head. He got lucky with the [Sochi] Olympics—it didn’t fail, it was a great spectacle—and then he thought, “Why not grab Crimea?” And ended up getting stuck. If he had been a wise man, he wouldn’t have done that. Of course, then he wouldn’t have held the Olympics, either. [laughs]
TDB: Speaking of Putin, a literary question: In the epilogue of Monumental Propaganda, which was published in 2000, one of your characters speaks of a would-be dictator who is already rehearsing for his role. Then, in the final scene, the narrator drives by the empty pedestal where the Stalin statue used to stand—the one your heroine, Aglaya, took home—and thinks he can see a shadowy figure forming on it. Were you thinking of Putin at the time?
Voinovich: No, not yet; but I was thinking of someone like Putin.
TDB: You even described him as short and stocky…
Voinovich: They say that generally, rulers—dictators—tend to be short, like me. It gives them an inferiority complex; when they were kids, they wanted to be big and to crush the small, but they were small themselves. Lenin was short, Stalin was short, Putin…
TDB: So you turned out to be a prophet once again?
Voinovich: Not quite; I also wrote that he would be [indifferent to material things]. A real dictator usually isn’t interested in money or women, just pure power. But Putin—I don’t know about women, but it looks like he definitely likes money quite a bit, and I think that’s gotten him in trouble too, with all the loot he’s handed out [to his cronies]. He’s painted himself into a corner; he has committed so many sins and crimes, he has no choice but to hold on to power. No matter how he leaves, his policies will definitely be condemned as bad and wrong, and everything will be blamed on him, just as he now blames Yeltsin. It could be done by someone who, at this moment, is professing boundless love for Putin.
TDB: On the subject of boundless love, what do you think of Putin’s 86 percent approval rating? Is it genuine or inflated?
Voinovich: As we know, the love of the masses is fickle. It will end, burst like a bubble, and very quickly too. For now, they keep feeding it, adding more fuel; but the firewood is running out. People are already hearing reports of Russians being killed in Ukraine; they go shopping and probably ponder the way [things are getting worse]. I think that right now, this rating is being artificially maintained—but not for long.
Most people consume information passively—whatever they’re being fed. Right now, they’re being fed Russian television, which tells them that in the 1990s there was a terrible catastrophe, that before that life had been all right, and then when Putin came… many people say, “I’ve never lived as well as I’m living under Putin.” And that’s true; there has never been such a level of affluence.
The Communist Party spent most of its wealth on weapons and on supporting communist movements and terrorist groups worldwide; it was also really bad at management. Today, even the capitalism we have in Russia, however distorted and ugly, gives us a far more functional economy. Besides, there is no more spending on ideology; of course there are a lot of corrupt public officials, but even they can’t plunder everything. Oil prices are sky-high; so, in the large cities where revolution could happen and which shape the country’s course, the average person earns over $1,000 [a month]. It has never been this good.
“Putin is today's Stalin.”
But now, it looks like people will have to tighten their belts, and some are already having doubts. As for the rest of Russia, which was and is mired in poverty, it has no effect on the political climate whatsoever; the only thing it has an effect on is vodka sales.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of time. Remember what [Soviet-era poet Alexander] Galich wrote about Stalin: “It turns out our father was/No father, just a bitch.” Some day, they’ll say the same thing [about Putin].
TDB: Right now, we are now seeing a revival of the Stalin cult in Russia; why do you think that is?
Voinovich: It is very clearly being encouraged from above, and it’s a way of encouraging the cult of Putin. The message is that people of this type are the only ones who can govern the country properly.
TDB: In the Stalin era, there was a propaganda slogan, “Stalin is today’s Lenin.” And now—
Voinovich: And now, Putin is today’s Stalin.
TDB: Many people say that what’s happening in Russia right now is actually worse and more vile than under the Soviet system, at least in the Brezhnev years. What’s your opinion on that?
Voinovich: In some ways, it is worse today [because public apathy is more depressing]. Under the Soviet system, what was happening could at least be explained as the product of years of communist terror; people lived in fear, they were used to this. In some ways, of course, it was worse then; if I had given this kind of interview on a trip abroad, I would have been clapped in handcuffs as soon as I got back. Today, my books are still being published; under the Soviet regime, that was impossible.
But the freedoms we have are just leftovers. Freedom of travel, which was completely nonexistent in the Soviet Union; artistic freedom—so far, that’s doing fine too, virtually everything can be published. Although with some books that are too edgy politically, or are especially undesirable, the authors are already running into difficulties—[satirist Victor] Shenderovich, for instance. Theaters that produce provocative plays, or clubs [that host undesirable events] often find themselves on the receiving end of fire safety inspections and fines.
TDB: Do you feel safe in Russia at this point?
Voinovich: I wouldn’t say that. I do speak out, and I know that any statement which rubs them the wrong way is being noted somewhere. I also think that I am now an old man, so maybe I’ll give them what they want the natural way. Back when they tried to poison me, in 1975, I was forty years old, and a KGB man said to me, “You know, when a person is seventy, that’s one thing, but to meet one’s end at your age…”
At this point, though—I remember a man saying to me once, in a different context, “No one can take away my fifty years.” I can say that no one will take away my eighty-two years. And if they do take something away—well…
TDB: Can you envision being forced to leave Russia once again?
Voinovich: I can, even more than I envisioned it back then. At this point, I don’t care much where I live. I don’t feel as attached to Russia’s native woods as I was once. I used to dearly love Moscow, even though I wasn’t born there; but now, it’s [changed so much that] it’s a strange city for me. I had a bond with my friends, but most of them are gone; I haven’t made new ones, and the ones that I do have are mostly in Germany and in America.
TDB: Is there anything about what’s happening in Russia that the West doesn’t understand and needs to understand?
Voinovich: I’m not sure. I think that right now the West understands Russia better than before and feels a much greater wariness toward it. I think that, if anything, Russia’s sinister nature is exaggerated, in that most contemporary analysts in the West can’t even imagine that Russia could be different. I think it can, with a different turn of events.
They say, Russians are this, Russians are that—that’s what they were like because the regime never changed. When the regime changed in Japan, the Japanese changed; Russians too can change, as long as the conditions for it are present once again. Today, we are on the verge of a very uncertain situation when either everything will end in catastrophe, or [better] people will come to power.
Russia may soon get another chance to move closer to the West, to make a step—I do believe the first step toward democracy was made in the 1990s, and perhaps the next step can happen now. If this happens, the West needs to see it in time and support it in an intelligent way. Of course there were many people in the West—[George] Soros and others—who did try to support what was happening in the early ’90s. Unfortunately, as [19th-century liberal essayist Alexander] Herzen wrote, “Russia took up arms and defended her slavery.”
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."