Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin

photo of Voinovich - Vladimir Voinovich

"Ivan Chonkin made me laugh so hard the fillings in my teeth nearly melted." - Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), famous Russian cellist.

Information on the Writer | Questions for Reading | If you liked this book...

Vladimir Nikolaevich Voinovich (sometimes spoelled Voynovich) was born in Dushanbe, Tadjikistan, in 1932. His father was of South Slavic descent (hence the last name that might ring to you of a former governor of the state of Ohio), his mother was Jewish. Note that Russians (here I mean "people in or from Russia," not "ethnic Russians," though the two meanings of the term often overlap) tend to say his name in a "Polish" way, with stress on the second (penultimate) syllable rather than on the first, which makes the name sound Jewish rather than Serbian despite its Slavic root ("voin" means "warrior" while the suffix "ovich" means "son of"). He served in the Soviet army in 1951-5, when military service was compulsory even in peace time), then worked for Moscow radio in the early 1960s. After the end of the "Thaw" (under Nikita Khrushchev), in 1964 or so, and in the period of stagnation ("Zastoj") under Leonid Brezhnev, Voinovich's satirical fiction was no longer considerd publishable. He continued writing and let his writing ne reproduced as samizdat (underground, unofficial literature in the Soviet Union) or tamizdat (literature published abroad, sometimes in hope of smuggling it back into the Soviet Union for readers there). This and his human rights work earned him years of harassment before he was forced to emigrate with his family in 1980. They settled in Munich, where he began to work for Radio Liberty.

In 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev restored Voinovich's Soviet citizenship, and since then Voinovich has spent most of his time in Russia - writing and publishing a great deal, but not as widely and certainly not as rapidly translated as when he was a well-known dissident author. His wife died in 2004. Voinovich has won several official literary awards, especially in post-Soviet Russia, and since the mid 1990s he has ventured into graphic art: it's now possible for collectors to buy his work in Russian galleries.

FIELD TRIP! One of the pleasures of working with a living author! UPDATE: Voinovich will be speaking at the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, January 27:

Max Kade Center, 3401 Walnut Street, Suite 329A
[entrance next to Starbucks]
6:00 p.m.
Wine and cheese reception to follow

Sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, the Temple University Department of French, German, Italian and Slavic, Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College

picture of Voinovich

Unfortunately, there aren't as many pictures of living authors floating around as there are of authors like Bulgakov. Even today, Russians tend to have an attitude of veneration towards great writers, and anyone who happens to have a picture or a reminiscence about the Great One will publish it, write about it, donate it to an archive. But as long as writers are still alive and kicking...

Questions for Reading:

I have no apologies about this translation either. Indeed, it compounds one's feeling that the older classics of Russian and East European humor (Čapek, Il'f and Petrov) should be retranslated in a way that's more adequate to their amusing qualities.

illustration of Ivan Chonkin

If you liked this book...

Other works by Voinovich:

(Richard Lourie did a very nice job on our translation of Chonkin, so note how many other good books you can obtain in his versions.)

Czech director Jiri Menzel made a version of Chonkin in 1994 that was then dubbed and shown in Russia in 1995. I thought this was an extremely funny movie, but a lot of Russians did not approve of it, and it has been oddly unrepresented in the United States.

A bunch of authors who, like Voinovich, wrote excellent stuff for samizdat (and tamizdat) and mostly wound up booted out of the Soviet Union:

Well-known Vasily Aksyonov was also born in 1932 and booted out of the USSR in 1980 (his mother, Evgeniia Ginzburg, wrote Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind, essential memoirs of the GULag from the 1930s on). Aksyonov settled down in the Washington DC area and taught Russian literature at George Mason University. In 2004 he moved to Moscow and now lives in an apartment there. His novels are not devoid of humor, but the anti-totalitarian message tends to predominate. See The Burn (Ozhog, trans. Michael Glenny, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), Generations of Winter (vol. I and II of the trilogy "Moscow Saga," trans. John Glad and Christopher Morris, NY: Random House, 1994), or In Search of Melancholy Baby (from an unpublished manuscript, trans. Michael Henry Heim and Antonina Bouis, NY: Random House, 1987).

Sasha Sokolov (born Aleksandr Vsevolodovich Sokolov in 1943, in Ottawa, Canada, while his father was working there as a military attaché) emigrated to the United States in 1975. He is best known for his first novel, The School for Fools (Shkola dlia durakov, trans. Carl Proffer, Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1977).

Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990), after emigrating from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1979 (his father was Jewish, which at that point made emigration a much simpler thing; his mother was Armenian), quickly became one of the most successful Russian authors of those years - at least in terms recognized in the United States. He was the first Russian author (after Vladimir Nabokov!) to have a story published (in English) in The New Yorker. Unfortunately, he drank a great deal, which affected his health and shortened his life.

Books by Dovlatov published in his lifetime (thanks to Wikipedia!):

Amazon shows several of these available in English translation, a few in multiple copies.

Of course, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a famous Russian dissident, but the man just wasn't funny. (Indeed, Voinovich's Moscow 2042 makes fun of a Slavophile, rule-loving writer who resembles Solzhenitsyn a great deal. Grimly serious and very full of himself.) I don't know whether anyone has studied the divide of dissidents into those two groups - the humorists and the tragic or deadly serious - but it might be a worthwhile approach for a study of how writers respond to totalitarianism.

Some underground writers of the Stagnation period turned to a more pornographic style - Ann Komaromi, who taught Russian literature at Swarthmore in 2001-2004, cited scholars who argued that the experience of reading samizdat was so physically thrilling to the readers - sitting under the lamp with the blinds drawn, reading frantically so as to finish before the next day when the smudged carbon typescript had to be passed on to someone else, and in constant fear that somoene would knock three times on the door - that the only thing capable of satisfying after that was erotic or otherwise shocking literature. (There's a bit of that about Aksyonov, but especially about writers like Eduard Limonov and the somewhat younger Victor Erofeev.)