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From Incompetence to Satire: Voinovich's Image of Stalin as Castrated Leader of the Soviet Union in 1941

  • Daniel Rancour-Laferriere (a1)


The narrator of Vladimir Voinovich's Zhizn’ i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina: roman-anekdot v piati chastiakh tells us on the first page that the events he is going to describe took place during the period from late May to early June 1941. For the knowledgeable reader, this information means something terrible is about to happen: On 22 June Adolf Hitler's forces invaded the Soviet Union, starting what was to be one of the most devastating wars in human history. Yet Voinovich's novel is hilariously funny. How does Voinovich do it?

To answer this question adequately, a comprehensive theory of humor would have to be applied to both Chonkin and its sequel, Pretendent na prestol: novye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina. I will not attempt such a large task here, but I can undertake a more modest enterprise. I believe it is possible to explain why certain crucial passages in Voinovich's narratipn about the onset of the Great Fatherland War can actually provoke laughter. These passages concern the Father of Peoples himself, the Soviet dictator, Stalin.



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A version of this article was read at the AAASS meeting in Honolulu in November 1988. I wish to thank Emil Draitser, Yury Druzhnikov, and Heinz Fenkl for their constructive comments.

1. Voinovich, Vladimir, Zhizn’ i neobychainye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina: Roman-anekdot v piati chastiakh (Paris: YMCA, 1976). Excerpts of the novel have recently been published in the Soviet Union (Ogonek, no. 50, 1988, 26-30), and the entire novel has recently been published by Knizhnaia palata (1990).

Richard Lourie's English translation is titled The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (New York: Bantam Books, 1979). In quoting English passages I have taken the liberty of correcting some infelicities of the Lourie translations of Voinovich, and I have used Library of Congress transliteration for proper names.

2. Voinovich, Vladimir, Pretendent na prestol: novye prikliucheniia soldata Ivana Chonkina (Paris: YMCA, 1979). Richard Lourie's translation is: Pretender to the Throne: The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981).

3. Kasack, Wolfgang, “Vladimir Voinovich and His Undesirable Satires,” in Fiction and Drama in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, ed. Birnbaum, Henryk and Eekman, Thomas (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1980), 264.

4. See Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton, The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny (New York: Harper and Row, 1983), 229230 .

5. See, among the many other works on this subject, Whaley, Barton, Codeword BARBAROSSA (Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1973); Medvedev, Roy, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 446ff.; Nekrich, A. M., June 22, 1941 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986), 164ff.; Istoriia Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny Sovetskogo Soiuza 1941-45, 6 vols. (Moscow: Voennoe Izdatel'stvo Ministerstva Oborony Soiuza SSR, 1960-1965) 2:18; Read, Anthony and Fisher, David, The Deadly Embrace: Hitler, Stalin and the Nazi-Soviet Pact 1939-1941 (New York: Norton, 1988); Dmitrii Volkogonov, “Nakanune voiny,” Pravda, 20 June 1988, 3. Stalin's inability to deal with the threat posed by Hitler is psychoanalyzed in my The Mind of Stalin (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1988), 76-92.

6. Before writing Chonkin, Voinovieh himself had written a satirical story titled “Circle of Friends” which, in part, dealt with 22 June 1941. See Putëm vzaimnoi perepiski (Paris: YMCA, 1979), 165-190.

Of the fifty*one anecdotes on the theme of Stalin given in the most comprehensive collection of Soviet political humor, only two deal (somewhat marginally) with Stalin's failure to prepare for the Nazi onslaught. See Shturman, Dora and Tiktin, Sergei, Sovetskii Soiuz v zerkale politicheskogo anekdota (Jerusalem: Express, 1987), 216, 218.

7. See Freud's essay Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans, under direction of James Strachey, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1953-1965) 3:105. For an informative and entertaining treatment of psychoanalytic theories of laughter, see Holland, Norman N., Laughing: A Psychology of Humor (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), 4760 . For an application of the psychoanalytic theory of satire to Russian examples (including Voinovieh), see Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel, “The Boys of Ibansk: A Freudian Look at Some Recent Russian Satire,” Psychoanalytic Review 72 (1985): 639656 .

8. The facts are somewhat more complicated than this simplified account would suggest. Chonkin was only one of the reasons why Voinovieh was persecuted by the authorities when he still resided in the Soviet Union. But it was an important reason. See Voinovich's, Antisovetskii Sovetskii Soiuz (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1985), 7 .

9. Freud, , Standard Edition 8:90 .

10. See Igor’ Zolotusskii and Anatolii Lanshchikov, “Dialog nedeli,” Literaturnaia gazeta, no. 3 (5225), 18 January 1989, 2.

11. Voinovich's image of Stalin in a dress may have a subtext from Bolshevik political culture. A (possibly apocryphal) story used to circulate about Stalin dressing in a woman's mantle at a concert in Petersburg in March of 1913. Supposedly he was trying to avoid being arrested by agents of the tsarist police, but they recognized him and arrested him anyway. For Trotskii's version of the story, see Trotskii, Lev, Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence (New York: Stein and Day, 1967), 160 .

Another possible subtext is an agitprop caricature of Kerensky escaping from Red Guards in a nurse's dress. The caricature found its way into Zoshchenko's story “Kerensky.” See Mikhail Zoshchenko, Rasskazy ipovesti: 1923-1926 (Leningrad: Sovetskii Pisatel', 1959), 464-465 (I am grateful to an anonymous reader for bringing this reference to my attention).

The idea of cross-dressing appears also in Voinovich's story “Circle of Friends.” There Stalin cuts pictures of people out of Ogonek magazine and pastes the men's heads to women's bodies and vice-versa. See Putem vzaimnoi perepiski, 168.

12. On rumors of Stalin's infidelities, see Montgomery Hyde, H., Stalin: The History of a Dictator (New York: Da Capo, 1971), 260, 289. For recent evidence of Stalin's liaison with Rosa Kaganovich (sister of Politburo member Lazar Kaganovich), see Kahan, Stuart, The Wolf of the Kremlin (New York: Morrow, 1987), 169171.

13. Mikhail Kaganovich committed suicide after being accused of deliberately ordering the construction of Soviet airplane facilities too close to the German border, so that the Germans might capture them more easily. See Kahan, , Wolf of the Kremlin, 223230 .

14. See Freud, , Standard Edition 15:154 .

15. For general psychoanalytic treatments of the topic of castration anxiety, see LaPlanche, Jean and Pontalis, J.-B., The Language of Psycho-Analysis (New York: Norton, 1973), 5660 ; Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel, Signs of the Flesh (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 1985), 307340 .

16. Freud, Standard Edition 8:236.

17. For a fascinating glossary of popular terms for Stalin, see Kozlovskii, Vladimir, “I. V. Stalin v russkoi zhargonnoi leksike,” SSSR: vnutrennie protivorechiia 3 (1982): 104111 .

18. Clark, Katerina, The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 127 .

19. See Zhukov, G. K., The Memoirs of Marshal Zhukov (New York: Delacorte, 1971), 202 ; Hough, Jerry, “The Historical Legacy in Soviet Weapons Development,” in Soviet Decisionmaking for National Security, ed. Valenta, J. and Potter, W. C. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1984), 90, 111 (n. 25).

20. Example provided from memory by University of California, Davis, graduate student Valery Jossan. It should be noted that the third line of this quatrain of P. D. German's poem originally read “Nam razum dal stal'nye ruki-kryl'ia.” See Ashukin, N. S. and Ashukina, M. G., Krylatye slova (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1987), 215 . The substitution for razum of Stalin was apparently quite common, however. I found two native speakers who supplied the word Stalin, and two who gave razum.

21. These selections are quoted from Pesnia o Staline: Izbrannye stikhi Sovetskikh poetov (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe Izdatel'stvo Detskoi Litratury, 1950), 10, 26, 23. The frontispiece of this collection shows Generalissimo Stalin in his office. There is a model airplane on his desk.

22. Zinov'ev, Aleksandr, “Nashei iunosti polet,” Kontinent 35 (1983): 176206 .

23. Robert Cullen, “Letter from Moscow,” The New Yorker, 17 October 1988, 108.

24. Erickson, John, The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin's War with Germany, Volume I (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), 118 .

25. As quoted in Popovskii, Mark, Tretii lishnii: on, ona i Sovetskii rezhim (London: Overseas Publications, 1985), 85 .

26. Freud, Standard Edition 15:155; 11:125.

27. Otto Rank, Psychoanalytische Beiträge zur Mythenforschung (Leipzig: Internationaler psychoanalytischer Verlag, 1922), 37-38 (compare Freud, Standard Edition 5:583). Goldstein, Laurence, The Flying Machine and Modern Literature (London: Macmillan, 1986), 34, 100, 119, 123, 140, 181; Hart, Clive, Images of Flight (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 119192 ; 211-243. Dean S. Worth, “A Sexual Motif in the Igor Tale,” Russian Linguistics 11 (1987): 209-216.

28. Vladimir Kozlovskii, Argo russkoi gomoseksual'noi subkul'ture: Materialy k izucheniiu (Benson, Vt.: Chalidze, 1986), 42. Drummond, D. A. and Perkins, G., Dictionary of Russian Obscenities (Oakland: Scythian, 1987), 16, 42, 87. Alex E., Alexander, “The Two Ivans’ Sexual Underpinnings,” SEEJ 25 (1981), 32 . The couplet is from a chastushka; see Vladimir Kozlovskii, Novaia Nepodtsenzurnaia chastushka (New York: Russica, 1982), 30.

29. Thanks to an anonymous reader for this information.

30. The Russian original is “Ne nashim ‘ishakam’ s messerami tiagat'sia” (164). “Donkeys” is Lourie's rendition of “ishakam.” But “ishak” is also the acronym for the Soviet fighter plane 1-16, that is, ‘I-shestnadtsat'.” I am grateful to an anonymous reader for pointing out this untranslatable pun.

31. I am grateful to Rick Leitzman for pointing out this particular example to me in my Seminar on Current Russian Prose in May of 1986.

32. See Bol'shaia sovetskaia entsiklopediia, 65 vols. (Moscow: OGIZ, 1939) 43:468-469; Sovetskii entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ (Moscow: Sovetskaia Entsiklopediia, 1980), 955; Scott, John, Duel for Europe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942), 223225 .

33. See Kozlovskii, “I. V. Stalin v russkoi zhargonnoi leksike” and Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, trans. Max Hayward (New York: Atheneum, 1976), 200

34. Carey, Claude, Les proverbes erotiques russes (The Hague: Mouton, 1972), 76 .

35. See Avtorkhanov, Abdurakhman, Zagadka smerti Stalina (Frankfurt: Possev, 1979), 308309 .

36. See Dunlop, John B., “Vladimir Voinovich's Pretender to the Throne ,” in Russian Literature and American Critics, ed. Brostrom, Kenneth (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1984), 30 .

37. Dal', Vladimir, Poslovitsy russkogo naroda, 2 vols. (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia Literature, 1984) 1:275 . Compare also “Kuritsa ne ptitsa, a baba ne chelovek;” “Kobyla ne loshad', baba ne chelovek” (ibid.).

38. Kozlovskii, “Stalin v russkoi zhargonnoi leksike,” 106.

39. See Hosking, Geoffrey A., “Vladimir Voinovich: Chonkin and After,” in The Third Wave: Russian Literature in Emigration, ed. Matich, Ol'ga and Heim, Michael (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1984), 149.

40. Lowe, David, Russian Writing since 1953: A Critical Survey (New York: Ungar, 1987), 7273.

41. Loseff, Lev, On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature (Munich: Sagner, 1984).

42. Hosking argues that “Chonkin is deliberately composed on the border line between fantasy and reality, in a world where the fantastic and grotesque have become real, and ordinary human beings like Chonkin belong almost to the fairy tale.” See “Vladimir Voinovich,” 150. Lewis puts it this way: “Stalin is never a reality [in Chonkin]. He is the ultimate comic absurdity, always a myth, a myth which can only be exposed in the most grotesque form possible: the Gogolian dream.” See Lewis, Barry E., “Vladimir Voinovich's Anecdotal Satire: The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin ,” World Literature Today 52 (1978): 545 .

From Incompetence to Satire: Voinovich's Image of Stalin as Castrated Leader of the Soviet Union in 1941

  • Daniel Rancour-Laferriere (a1)


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