Vladimir Voinovich: Monumental Propaganda

Monumental Propaganda - Cover Image

Author: Vladimir Voinovich

Title: Monumental Propaganda

ISBN: 0375412352

Pages: 384

Many people’s view of Soviet dissident fiction might be that it makes for an earnest but, perhaps, rather depressing read. For them, the books of Vladimir Voinovich would come as a pleasant surprise, as he has always chosen to tackle Russia’s troubled journey through the twentieth century with the kind of wry humour and satirical edge that can be often found in Russian literature. Indeed, Voinovich fits into a tradition that runs from Gogol, through Milhail Zoshenko and on to modern exponents like Victor Pelevin.

In Monumental Propaganda, Voinovich has taken Aglaya Revkina, one of the minor characters from his most well know book The Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, and used her life as a foundation from which to examine Russia’s progress, or lack of, from the Death of Stalin to the explosion of capitalism following the end of communist rule.

Aglaya is a renowned partisan leader from the ‘great patriotic war’ against the nazis, and a fervent follower and believer in Stalin. The story begins in early 1956: Stalin has died and the personality cult surrounding him and many of the excesses of his reign has been criticised by his successor, Khrushchev, in a famous speech to the twentieth congress of the CPSU.

Aglaya becomes increasing bewildered and angry as her beloved Stalin is gradually denounced by the same national and local party officials who held his every word to be gospel during his lifetime. She sees his place in history being re-written, and the giant statue of him in her town square that she worked so hard to have erected, being torn down. Her determination to stand firm in her beliefs, and to do her duty to keep his image intact, leads her to save the statue from being sent for melting down and have it placed in the living room of her apartment.

As the second part of the century moves on she is witness to favourites within the party changing, political ideology subtlety ebbing and flowing, and eventually communist rule itself collapsing. In the vacuum that is left nothing seems certain anymore as the safety nets of the Soviet welfare state are removed, and corruption and greed explode as if from Pandora’s box. Leaving some Russians to ponder whether they need to return to a stronger, Stalin like, leader once again.

There had been times when Aglaya, thinking about the revolution, has regretted being born just a bit too late and missing the romantic period of the Party’s struggle with the old Tsarist order – when young communists had turned out for meetings and demonstrations and walked along singing under the whips of the Cossacks and the bullets of the police. Of course, she had also lived in fascinating and eventful times, but she’d missed out on the revolutionary romanticism. But now…Even though, of course, many bad things had happened and the enemies of communism had seized power…Now she had been given the chance in her old age to experience the conditions under which the revolutionaries of former times had lived. She recalled the picture she had seen earlier that day; Stalin at the Demonstration in Baku. Soso Djugashvili walking at the head of a detachment of Bolsheviks in close ranks, wearing a Russian-style shirt with the collar unbuttoned, young and dark-haired, with his eyes open wide as they gazed into the future. History repeats itself. Now she, Aglaya Stepanova Revkina, was striding along in the ranks of her comrades, proudly carrying the portrait of their beloved leader.

Glancing back, she couldn’t she how far the column extended. In actual fact, it couldn’t extend very far because there wasn’t very much of it, but it seemed to Aglaya that she was striding along at the head of a procession of people. As she walked, she saw people on the sidewalks along the edges of the roadway watching the column go past and imagining them to be admiring onlookers. In fact, they were only casual passers-by who were so well used to spectacles like this that they didn’t even display any particular curiosity. Several of them actually felt uncomfortable and pitied these stupid, malicious, helpless and ridiculous old people. As people of the new generations, they thought they were quite different and could never be like them. But that is not the way things really are. The generations are no better or worse than each other; their beliefs, mistakes and behaviour depend on the historical and personal circumstances in which they grow up. It doesn’t take a prophet to predict that people will be blinded again, and more than once, by false teachings, will yield to the temptation of endowing certain individuals with superhuman qualities and glorify them, raise them up on a pedestal and then cast them back down again. Later generations will say that they were fools, and yet they will be exactly the same.

Whilst an important period of history is being addressed, and very serious issues raised, Voinovich does so with a cutting humour that makes his work a much easier read than might be imagined. The weakness of the book, and the thing that stops it from being his best work, is the meandering nature of the plot. Monumental Propaganda is written in the Russian style of narration that reads as if being told to you in person by the author, with the plot allowed to ramble a little as the author decides to flesh out interesting characters as we meet them on the way. It’s a style that dates back at least to Pushkin and Eugene Onegin, with Voinovich using it here to such an extent that you can start to lose the thread of who is who and where you are. Given the chance to read the book again I’d probably take the opportunity to make notes as I progressed.

The usual caveats for Soviet/Russian literature also apply. Use of patronymics can be confusing if you don’t make a mental or written note of them as you go. Knowledge of the time period covered is always helpful, to the point where a little research into post-war Russia may be advised before delving in. But as with much Soviet era literature, that little bit of work before hand is well worth the effort and with Monumental Propaganda the rewards can be rich indeed.

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~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

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