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Vladimir Voinovich, Russian dissident and satirist, dies at 85

Vladimir Voinovich, Russian dissident and satirist, dies at 85
Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich in his cottage near Moscow. (Sergei L. Loiko)

In 1975, the KGB summoned Vladi­mir Voinovich to a meeting. The Russian novelist had just completed “The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” a World War II satire that the New York Times would later praise as “a masterpiece” and “the Soviet ‘Catch-22,’ as written by a latter-day Gogol.”

Yet the book was outlawed in the Soviet Union, where Voinovich had been blacklisted after criticizing state censorship and defending dissidents such as novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and physicist Andrei Sakharov. Booted from the Union of Soviet Writers, he was technically unemployed, leading one KGB agent to ask how, exactly, he was still going about his work.

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“I explained that I write a few pages and then I hide them,” Voinovich later told the Times. “Then I write a few more and hide those, too. That is my general method.”

He was warned against publishing in the West and, he later said, given poisoned cigarettes that left him sick but unrepentant.

Through his subsequent exile in West Germany and the United States, his return to the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization policy of glasnost, and the rise of President Vladi­mir Putin, Voinovich remained one of Russia’s most mordant critics of authoritarianism and bureaucratic corruption.

He died at 85 on July 28, according to the Tass news agency. Journalist Victor Davidoff reported in the Moscow Times that Voinovich had suffered a heart attack late the previous night.

A onetime aviation mechanic, railway laborer, carpenter and construction worker, Voinovich achieved national renown in the early 1960s when he wrote a song for Radio Moscow — loosely translated as “Fourteen Minutes to Liftoff” — that became a favorite of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

His prose drew less praise from Communist Party officials and apparatchiks.

“I wanted to be a realist, writing about what I saw. Almost like journalism,” Voinovich told the Washington Post in 1987. “But when I published my work, which I thought was really true-to-life, they said, ‘You’re writing satire.’ I wasn’t, it was just life that was so absurd. The more I’ve depicted life, the deeper I’ve gone, the more I’ve become a satirist. Or so they say.”

Perhaps his most celebrated work was “Ivan Chonkin,” about a bumbling private in the Red Army who, for good reason, spends much of his time talking to a horse. “If you say the wrong thing to a person you can get yourself in hot water,” he observes, “but no matter what you say to a horse it’ll accept it.”

Assigned to guard a plane that has crashed near a collective farm, he is soon forgotten by his unit, and refuses to abandon his post even when a group of secret policemen arrive to arrest him.

Excerpted in samizdat in the Soviet Union, the novel was published in Paris in 1975 and followed one year later by “The Ivankiad,” an autobiographical mock epic about Voinovich’s quest for a two-room apartment in the Moscow Writers’ Housing Cooperative.

The books’ release gave him international renown but further deteriorated his position in the Soviet Union. In 1980 he, his wife and their 7-year-old daughter hopped on a plane for Munich, expecting never to return. “My departure,” he later wrote, “was voluntary like a person who voluntarily takes his wallet out of his pocket and hands it to a robber who is holding a knife to his throat.”

A decade later, after publishing the acclaimed dystopian novel “Moscow 2042,” Voinovich did return. His citizenship, stripped by Leonid Brezhnev, was restored under Gorbachev, and his books began to appear on library shelves in Moscow.

As the Soviet Union gave way to the Russian Federation, Voinovich transformed from national pariah into literary hero, winning the State Prize for his 2000 novel, “Monumental Propaganda,” about a communist fanatic who rescues a statue of Stalin from demolition by moving it into her apartment. Two years later, he received the Sakharov Prize for Writer’s Civic Courage.

But history, he noted, seemed to repeat itself. State support for Voinovich receded as he became an outspoken critic of the Putin regime, rebuking its attacks on the media, political crackdowns, war in Chechnya and imprisonment of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot who was captured by pro-Russian militants amid fighting in eastern Ukraine.

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In a 2017 interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voinovich said that although Russia was not nearly as bad as it was under Stalin’s “Great Terror,” it was beginning to resemble the Soviet Union of the 1970s — only the government was handing out two-year sentences for trumped-up charges, rather than seven.

Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich was born in the Soviet city of Stalinabad — now Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan — on Sept. 26, 1932. His mother, of Jewish heritage, was a teacher; his father, of Serbian heritage, was a literary translator and journalist and was arrested in 1936 after making a critical remark about Stalin. He spent five years in forced-labor camps.

“When I’d ask where he was, my mother would say, ‘On a business trip,’” Voinovich once told the Post.

In recent years, his novel “Moscow 2042” drew renewed interest for what many critics described as its “prophetic” depiction of a not-too-distant Russia, ruled by a KGB veteran who consolidates power through the secret police and the Russian Orthodox Church. Indeed, Voinovich said, the parallels between novel and the present were “pretty close.”

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