Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Vladimir Voinovich's Private Ivan Chonkin

Vladimir Voinovich's The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin
resembles Ilya Ehrenburg's novel, The Stormy Life of Lasik Roitschwantz, and seems to draw inspiration from Gogol, whose novel Dead Souls and play, the Inspector General, satirized Russian more than a century earlier.  It's a work of high comedy that nevertheless gnaws at the very foundations of Soviet life.  The lead character, Ivan Chonkin, is a Soviet everyman who encounters every shade of absurdity in his ordinary life.

The book, the first part of a trilogy, seems to demonstrate that Stalinism should not only be approached by writers who have embraced the trope of tragedy.  Although the Soviet bureaucracy terrified and terrorized countless Soviet citizens, it was produced a bizarre and darkly comic set of circumstances ordinary men and women.  Chonkin's adventures force readers to understand that Soviet officials are expected to lie to one another about production norms and outputs.  Chonkin's adventures further reveal that Soviet ideology is often utterly at odds with the lived experience of Soviet citizens.

Chonkin's depiction of Stalin and the cult of personality around Stalin reveals that the rot of Soviet life starts at the head of top.  An accused Jewish citizen's encounter with the Soviet secret police stands as a perfect example of the ridiculous nature of Stalinism.  Voinovich fantasizes that an accused person fearlessly confronts his brutal interrogators by pointing out that insofar as he, too, possesses the name Stalin, he is immune from prosecution.  After all, the humble Jewish Stalin points out, if anyone happened to hear that a lowly official had put Stalin in jail, or hurt him in any way, heads would surely roll.  Promptly released, the anecdote about a Jewish Stalin undermines the myth of the Great Dictator and indicates that in Soviet society even the sadists fear for their own safety.

Overall, Chonkin's simple, uneducated approach to life is always overshadowed by the even more stupid men and women who represent Soviet society.  Chonkin's neighbor, for instance, relentlessly pursues the agenda laid down by Lysenko.  His home literally filled with shit (fertilizer), Chonkin's neighbor is convinced he can create a plant that is half tomato and half potato and thereby circumvent the laws of heredity.  The starkest contrast the petty ignorance of Chonkin is the titanic ignorance of the Soviet leaders who bragged about their friendship with the Germans right up until they were invaded and nearly defeated by them. 

Favorite quotes:

Some people thought he drank because he was a drunkard, while others found the cause in family problems.

All that wouldn't have been so terrible except that, as bad luck would have it, things at the kolkhoz were going poorly.  Not what you would call very poorly, you could even say things were going well, except that they were getting worse and worse every year.

Having heard and carefully considered all the hogwash which each of you, according to his ability, had proposed....

"And just why isn't it going to work? asked Opalikov impatiently.  He did not like any objections, ever.

"There won't be anybody to bring firewood to the kitchen."
"No one is indispensable," said the regimental commander.

His mother's health was frail, she neglected the house, yet somehow they kept going, living from hand to mouth until, one day, she drowned in the river.

Then, at a time known to all, a search for kulaks began in the village.  Although not a single one could be found it was mandatory to find some if only to set an example.

The Chonkins were exiled and Ivan ended up in a Children's Home where, for more than two years, they tormented him with arithmetic. In the beginning he endured it all obediently, but when it came to dividing whole numbers and fractions, he could stand it no longer and hightailed it out of his native village.

From his close observation of life and his fathoming of life's laws, Chonkin had understood that it is usually warm in the summer and cold in the winter.

"He's a decent guy at least?" asked Ninka, efficiently gathering her information.

"First you're a Communist, then you're a chairman.  And diagrams have great political significance.  It's strange to hear a Communist underestimate them.  And I still don't know whether what you're saying is just an error or a firm conviction.  But if you're going to stick to that position, we'll have to take a good hard look at you again, we'll look right into your very heart, goddammit."

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