Picking a fight with a Sacred Cow: Vladimir Voinovich
Is it worth picking a fight with the establishment?
That is a dilemma that writers often face, as they oscillate between the desire to be accepted by their peers, and the creative impulse to ‘tell the truth’, no matter how unpleasant or ridiculing of others it might be.
Often, it can lead to being socially ostracized (and in this century, the unique experience of being trolled on social media).
However, many of the best Russian writers have always faced this challenge. Back in the late 1930s, an unbelievable number were either executed, exiled or sent to Gulags during the infamous Soviet purges by Stalin.* Their crime? Opposing the state (like publicly reading a poem referring to Stalin as ‘a wolf’, in the case of poet Osip Mandelstam).
However, I have just come across a PEN America interview from 1981 with Vladimir Voinovich, a writer from the other end of the Soviet era, the 60s and 70s. His transgression was to write a satire of the Red Army through his book The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, based on his four years of peacetime service in the army.
It is a very funny book, with an equally funny movie made by Czech director Jiri Menzel, about a hapless WWII soldier who accidentally crashes his fighter plane near a Russian village, and begins a romantic relationship with local farm girl, Nyura, while still attempting to fulfill his military duties.
Rejected by the literary journals, it was published outside of Russia in samizdat form without Voinovich’s permission. As a result, his life was made hell by the authorities for seven years, until he was forced into exile with his family in 1980.
In any country, the military is a sacred cow, seen as integral to the nation’s honour and historical memory. And in a country like Australia, to me, the only day that feels ‘sacred’ to the Nation is ANZAC Day, where the war dead are honoured with dawn services across the country.
I had a grandfather who was a Prisoner of War for three and a half years during WWII, and so it is also personally a special day for me. And I have to be honest and admit that I was critical of a journalist who ‘criticized’ the day on social media; and at a certain level, in respect to this article, I feel guilty for not sticking up for his right to freedom of speech.
So in a country that is meant to have freedom of speech, should anything be a sacred cow? Or in another sense, do you put the truth above people’s feelings and sentiments?
You can test this prospect out in small way by asking yourself, would you say something critical to a group of friends, even if you knew that it was going to make them all feel bad – and in turn, become resentful towards you – risking isolation from the group, and the fun and comfort that comes from having friends?
That’s the dilemma that writers always face, when wondering whether to convey an uncomfortable truth in their work; but if they don’t convey the truth, then they are writing an untruth in an attempt to spare someone’s feelings.
In this interview, Voinovich speaks about sensing a line that he was about to cross – but when he did, he felt much happier and healthier. Up until then, he had been afraid, developing illnesses at the drop of a hat (perhaps as a result of being afraid).
Voinovich’s citizenship was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 and he returned to Moscow, where he is still living now.
*The purges of the late 30s are captured in a fantastic book The KGB’s Literary Archive by Vitaly Shentalinsky. Many of these writers like Boris Pilnyak, Isaac Babel, and Maxim Gorky, have their own unique chapter, showing to what extent they were taunted and tormented by the authorities.
Photo of Vladimir Voinovich by Dmitry Rozhkov / Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0, and the Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin cover courtesy of Penguin Books.