“If Russia weren’t governed by fools and reprobates,” says Gary Shteyngart:
if the roads were smooth and wide and free of bandits, if Russia were suddenly a modern European country as far removed from Stalin’s legacy as today’s Germany is from Hitler’s, three groups of citizens would suffer the most: corrupt traffic cops, oligarchs, and satirists. Of this last group, Vladimir Voinovich is possibly the most important Russian satirical writer of the last fifty years, and given the absurdity and repressiveness that characterized those fifty years, one of the most subversive writers in the nation’s history.
Yet the end of the Soviet era may have meant the demise of Voinovich’s most powerful material. According to Shteyengart, Monumental Propaganda “suffers in comparison to The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,” and some passages in the latest book suggest that Voinovich knows “he is not only satirizing but also documenting a lost way of life.”
Incidentally, if you’re trying to read selections from the Russian cannon in the original Russian, or if you, as I do, like to torture yourself with evidence of your own ignorance, visit Conradish.net. As Kevin of Languor Management observes, the site posts works by Russian heavyweights like Gogol, Nabokov, Bulgakov and Pushkin, and “provides a translation of each word in English for all of us lousy readers of Russian. Just mouse over or click on the word you don’t know. I haven’t checked the accuracy of each glossing; it looks like big fun.”