Aglaya (“The Shining One”) Revkina (“The Zealous One”) may have never had an orgasm, but she does know what love is. All the passion her skinny body is capable of has been dedicated her entire life to Comrade Stalin. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the world is incapable of matching her ardor.
Lovers of Vladimir Voinovich, a leading Soviet/Russian satirist and dissident (he was exiled under Brezhnev, only to return to Russia following the collapse of the USSR and in turn begin criticizing the Putin regime), are in for a treat with this novel. Those who have never experienced the full force of Russian satire are in for a bewildering and exhilarating experience. With its constant in-jokes and frank reliance on cliches, Russian comedy is not designed to be soothing to Western sensibilities. But for those who are willing to enjoy it, or have encountered the Soviet/post-Soviet state in all its glory, “Monumental Propaganda” will have them rolling on the floor. From its delightful speaking names (District Party Secretary Porosyaninov, or “Piglet,” District Head of Public Education Nechitailo, or “Illiterate,” and so on and so forth) to its delicious send-ups of the more ridiculous excesses of the (post) Soviet period, “Monumental Propaganda” deploys every gun in its humorous arsenal, an effect that is aided by Andrew Bromfield’s spirited translation.
The action begins in 1949, when Aglaya, a heroic partisan in WWII and a staunch Party member (as a side note, Western readers may be surprised by the militant heroics and leadership roles of some of the female characters), insists on using money that could have been spent on rebuilding after the devastation of the war to install a statue of Stalin in the Dolgov town square instead. When Stalin falls out of favor and the other Party members, who a year ago were praising his name to the skies, begin condemning him, Aglaya has the statue moved to her apartment, where it looms, literally and symbolically, throughout the Khrushchev thaw, the Brezhnev stagnation, Gorbachev’s perestroika, and Yeltsin’s market reforms, until finally coming to its (not-so-final?) resting place in the explosive denouement.
Among other things, the novel gives a comprehensive, if uniquely singular, overview of post-WWII Soviet/Russian history, which is why I love to assign it to my classes on contemporary Russia. Soviet leaders make repeated appearances in the flesh (in the case of Brezhnev) or spirit (in the case of Stalin), and other important figures such as Solzhenitsyn weave in and out of the narrative, thinly disguised as fictional characters. A long-time dissident himself, who certainly cannot be accused of not having the courage of his convictions, Voinovich cannot help but poke fun at the dissident movement, while also treating arch-anti-dissident Aglaya with fond understanding, as she alone remains true to her beliefs while everyone around her goes chasing after the strongest strongman and latest fad.
Which is not to say that the novel is nothing but dusty history and empty finger-pointing. Voinovich’s tolerant warmth towards his subjects suffuses the story, even as he pokes fun at them, and, in the conversations between the unnamed narrator and the Admiral, the one true intellectual amongst the cast of characters, he philosophizes astutely on the fate and future of Russia. His conclusions, however, may prove to be all too prescient: on the final page, the narrator, driving past the now-empty pedestal of Stalin’s statue, is convinced that a new spectral figure has taken shape and is “grinning and waving with its raised right hand.” Now, more than ten years after the novel’s release, as Russia is becoming ever more authoritarian and right-wing populist movements that bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the mid-twentieth century are gaining strength, Voinovich may have proven once again the predictive power of art. It is to our detriment that so few people seem willing to pay attention.
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