- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 13, 2004

MONUMENTAL PROPAGANDA

By Vladmir Voinovich,

Knopf, $25, 365 pages

REVIEWED BY ROGER FONTAINE

The late and unlamented Soviet Union was an evil empire. It was also a complete fraud ? a failed state that defied collapse for seven decades.

All the above is true, but hardly memorable. Vladimir Voinovich’s “Monumental Propaganda” is. Mr. Voinovich has done this before which once earned him a one-way ticket to the West courtesy of the Soviet authorities. The author now resides in Munich, but clearly returns to Russia whenever he pleases.

“Monumental Propaganda” is monumental in scope. In less than half the size of Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov,” Mr. Voinovich paints a picture of Russian society from the 1956 Twentieth Party Congress in which N.S. Khrushchev secretly denounced J. V. Stalin until more or less today with its explosive conclusion. The author does so by giving us glimpses of a small Russian city, Dolgov, on a railroad line from Moscow.

The protagonist who has appeared in earlier Voinovich works is Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina, a Great Patriotic War partisan-heroine who blew up a power station and incidentally, her husband, before the Germans could capture either. The latter is thought to be regrettable collateral damage, but as the novel progresses one cannot be entirely sure about that. She is also a true believer in Stalin who as a loyalist to the Georgian cobbler’s son experiences a political career that rockets downwards after the Great Father of the Peoples mysteriously expires in March 1953.

The author, naturally, has great fun with Aglaya and her mania for Stalin ? the incident that begins her relentless descent is her ceaseless agitation for a monumental statue of Mankind’s Genius to be planted in the town square. When word reaches the local comrades that the new crowd in the Kremlin is taking revenge on their former master, Aglaya’s statue is hauled off the to Daglov’s ash heap where it is rescued by an indignant Aglaya and installed in her living room where it is cared for over the next thirty years until the novel comes to its end.

The author through a patently Russian novelists’ device of a manqu author has much fun with this including Aglaya’s post-purge job as director of the Felix Dzerzhinsky Children’s Home, a splendid but slightly morbid joke that typifies Mr. Voinovich’s acerbic look at the Soviet and post-Soviet experience.

Although one laughs — Dostoyevsky’s make us laugh too despite enduring some pretty awful translations — the pain Mr. Voinovich portrays is equally vivid. There is Vanka Zhukov, a limbless Afghan war veteran who returns home and opens a small fireworks business. As for Comrade Aglaya, she is sharply satirized, but hardly irrelevant since a majority of Russians still think Stalin was more positive than negative. But why shouldn’t they think so? Consider the pack of fools and knaves who have ruled over them since.

As a result, “Monumental Propaganda” takes a dark look at them all making Aglaya look, oddly, not entirely wrong. She is neither a craven opportunist nor particularly cruel ? although not entirely intelligent either. But Mr. Voinovich is more than a satirist. He is after all, a novelist in the Russian tradition.

His story unfolds with a nice narrative pace with characters introduced and observed as they change throughout the post-Stalin years — the artist who fails to overcome his one talent ? portraying Stalin in heroic sculptures; the would be dissident who keeps changing his weltanschauung; a party official who returns to Russian Orthodoxy; the New Russian businessman who had been preparing a doctoral dissertation at Moscow State on the philosophy of Konstantin Chernenko whose passing left him with other career possibilities; and on and on.

Even those with only a passing notion of Russian history will get the idea. In the land of Official Truth the truth keeps changing. The author in serious circles might even be accused of nihilism — after that was a charge leveled at Dostoyevsky — but I doubt it will stick. Russia is still looking for something to believe in beyond the government of the moment.

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