The Post-Soviet Optimistic Pessimism of Vladimir Voinovich

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"Our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness."

Vladimir-Voinovich.jpgDmitry Rozhkov/Wikimedia Commons

Writer Vladimir Voinovich broke onto the Soviet literary scene in the 1970s with the satirical novel The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. But as the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union ossified, he soon fell afoul of the authorities. Stripped of his citizenship and expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980, Voinovich settled in Munich and worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Russian Service. In 1986, he published his classic dystopian novel Moscow-2042, which depicts a totalitarian Soviet Union run by a combination of the KGB, the Orthodox Church, and the Communist Party.

For Voinvovich's 80th birthday on September 26, I spoke with the author about how present-day Russia compares to his dark vision of the future.

Did you think that you would see so much of what you predicted in Moscow-2042 already in 2012?

Well, there are only 30 years left until 2042. ... But, to be honest, I didn't expect this. I described a future that I hoped would never happen -- it was not a utopia, but a dystopia. But now reality, it seems, is already exceeding what I wrote then. In my novel, the country is ruled by the KPGB -- the Communist Party of State Security.

And there was an ideological pentagon -- patriotism, security, religion, and so on. I have heard many times that the patriarch is sometimes referred to as Father Zvyozdony [editors' note: Father Zvyozdony was the major general of religious service in "Moscow-2042"].

But the stupidity and vulgarity that are becoming the banner of our times -- no one could have expected that. The most idiotic laws are passed, the most monstrous trials are going on. Take the notorious Pussy Riot case. That exceeded everything that could be written in satire.

Moscow-2042 was published in 1986 -- a time of transition, perestroika. Now many in Russia are speaking of another looming transition. Do you see such a thing coming?

In 1986, perestroika was just getting under way. But already then -- in its very first stages, I viewed it with enormous hope. But, to get back to the novel -- since those times I have begun to think that reality somehow moves in the other direction and, God willing, things won't turn out as they did in my novel.

But then I look and I see -- no, things are unfolding as I imagined them, as if someone didn't want reality to drift too far [from the novel]. I don't consider myself a prophet. But some things really do seem prophetic.

But it wouldn't be right to compare the present with those times because the beginning of perestroika was the beginning of hope. Events now produce a despairing pessimism, though, the kind that makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Then can you compare the present with the years before perestroika, when you were expelled from the Soviet Union. Did the hopelessness of those times differ from the current hopelessness?

The situation then, surprisingly, fostered hope. I could see that the Soviet authorities were doing stupid things that would ultimately lead to destruction or to an attempt at renewal, which, in fact, happened in the mid-1980s with the arrival of [Mikhail] Gorbachev. When I left in 1980, I was saying all the time that radical change would begin in the Soviet Union in five years. Maybe I was off by a couple of years, but that isn't important -- I turned out to be pretty correct. If you build your optimism on the expectation of collapse, then I guess you can say the same thing about the present.

Let's take a look at the ideological pentagon of your novel. Populism -- we already have that. Party loyalty -- only about half of what we had back then, but we still have it. Religiosity -- no doubt about that. State security -- well, of course. Vigilance -- we have that. Four and a half out of five. What can we expect going forward, according to Moscow-2042?

I already said that we are once again in a phase when it is possible to make optimistic forecasts based on pessimistic assumptions.

This is because all branches of power are working as one. The Duma writes some laws; the courts try Pussy Riot; the church does its work -- in short, all the social institutions and branches of power are approaching some sort of explosion. That explosion will definitely come because it isn't possible to upset such a large -- and daily growing -- number of people day after day.

Someone once said that you can fool some of the people all the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.

That someone was Abraham Lincoln, and he didn't really have Russia in mind.

Yes -- our history shows that most of the people can be fooled for a very long time. But now all this idiocy is coming into clear contradiction with the fact that we have some level of openness: RFE/RL's Russian Service exists, there are some opposition publications, the Internet can't be controlled, although they try to restrict it.

But against this background, it all looks very stupid. A naked person only seems natural in a sauna. When he goes out into the street, people will either laugh at him or stone him.

People often say about you that your predictions were self-fulfilling.

Yes, they have said that. They've even proposed that I write another book -- with an optimistic view of the future. It really does seem that reality is trying to imitate my imaginings -- so if I think up something optimistic, then reality will imitate that.

And do you take such suggestions seriously?

As soon as we finish this interview, I'll start working. I'll write a glorious future -- communist -- and then we'll [see]. ... By the way, in Soviet times they more or less said the same thing -- that writers must depict the glorious future and then people will imitate it and it will be brought about.


Translated from Russian by Robert Coalson. This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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