By Vladimir Voinovich
Soviet satire is an acquired taste. It's intricately plotted, alludes to opaque historical particulars unfamiliar even to well-read Westerners, and varies so subtly in tone that a casual read may pass right over the targets. Since the Soviet Union's fall, it's an era slowly slipping into mere history and already showing its age. Russian novelist Vladimir Voinovich attacks the irrelevancy issue with his first novel in 12 years, Monumental Propaganda. True to form, Voinovich is hunter-patient tracking his prey, only this time he's after everybody. Satiric revenge isn't merely served cold, but approaches a suffocating absolute zero.
Voinovich does so through an unlikely heroine, the single-woman workhorse and Stalin-era Communist Party lifer Aglaya Revkina, a hard-line politically correct party member in her remote hamlet, Dolgov. As the novel opens she tries to hide (not very successfully) her disgust with Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech denouncing Stalin at the 20th Communist Party Congress. She's soon publicly and shamefully expunged from the party, and watches as the new regime pulls down Dolgov's cast-iron Stalin sculpture, long admired for its magical likeness to the leader. Convinced this turn is but a momentary blip for a regime that will soon realign itself, she has the sculpture moved to her apartment.
For the next 40 years Aglaya and her Stalin watch as Khrushchev rises and falls, Leonid Brezhnev rises and falls, and finally communism itself falls as capitalism moves in. Through such historical turns, Voinovich never relents from skewering governing powers, their faithful minions, the shrugging populace and even fashionable dissidents. He does so with a meandering blade, however, as his prose is prone to reflective philosophical debate that an earlier novella, The Ivankiad, would never consider. This stalking style allows for some casual viciousness, such as this brief tangent about a Dolgov church early in the book: "Standing nearby was the Church of SS. Kozma and Damian, which was repeatedly being closed as part of the campaign against religion and opened again out of economic considerations while religion might have been regarded as opium for the people, it nonetheless contributed a lot of money to the budget. But then genuine opium generates a pretty decent income too."
By Propaganda's end, this blithe thorn becomes a nearly Goya-dark cynicism of the crooked and wicked leading the damned, leaving the increasingly pathological Aglaya the lone sympathetic character. What she believes in is archaic and irrational and possibly even reprehensible, but at least she believes in something. And that's more than Voinovich concedes to the rest of the thieving businesspeople and politicians running the country.