Vladimir Voinovich has done the unthinkable. It was unthinkable for Lenny Bruce to say “fuck” on stage in the 1950s—unthinkable but inevitable. There is nothing inevitable about what Voinovich has done: he’s written a novel about a woman who loves and believes in Stalin. Although in the West not quite as well known a genocidal demon as Hitler, Stalin is still pretty much in everyone’s top-ten list of all time murderous bastards. The amazing thing about Monumental Propaganda is that the novel doesn’t try to make you feel any less revolted about Stalin. In other words, Voinovich has managed to portray unsympathetic characters (Stalin, the woman who loves him) in a sympathetic way without robbing them of their bastardliness. That’s a nice trick, and Monumental Propaganda is a funny, devastating novel.
Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina is a middle-aged partisan and Communist Party member when the novel begins in 1957. During the “Great Patriotic War” (i.e., the Second World War), she led a unit that was twice decorated. She and her husband, a fellow partisan, together blew up a German power station. Thing is, her husband was still inside the power station when Aglaya pushed the plunger. But that’s how she is: there’s a job to be done, and nothing gets in her way. After the war she goes home to Dolgov, where she quickly rises in the ranks of the Party nomenklatura. She arranged to have a statue of Stalin made and erected in the town square: the monumental propaganda of the title. Revkina gives the dedicatory speech at the unveiling and “She managed to convey in a few words the idea of the exceptional usefulness and necessity, especially in our days, of all forms of propaganda, and in particular of large-scale, monumental visual propaganda designed to endure through the ages. The monument, she said, which had been erected despite the opposition of our enemies, would stand here for thousands of years, inspiring future builders of communism to new feats of heroism.”
Compliant after a few days of torture, Klaus Felsen, a successful German factory owner, is cashiered into the SS. His job is critical - purchasing or poaching wolfram, a particular metal need by the Reich, with Lisbon as his base of operations. More importantly, the port city is the source of wolfram. The greedy fingers of the nefarious past reach out to corrupt the future, where Inspector Coelho has barely begun gathering information for the case of the murdered girl.
Stalin’s hold on the imagination of certain Soviets (and even, to this day, of certain Russians) is known in Russian, as the human-rights activist Sergei Kovalyov (a contemporary of Sakharov and, like him, a scientist) wrote, as “derzhavnost, that is, the view of the state as a highly valuable mystical being that every citizen and society as a whole must serve.” The “slave mentality,” Kovalyov said, still exists from tsarist days: “the Gulag still exists” in the people’s “willingness to accept propaganda and lies, and in its indifference to the fate of its fellow citizens or to the crimes and transgressions including those committed by the state.” Voinovich’s novel was originally published in Russian in 2002 and, like so many ostensibly historical accounts, is meant to resonate with the present: it serves as a kind of allegory of the present in its recounting of the crimes of the past. The eerie thing about Monumental Propaganda is that its allegorical power is not limited to the current Russian kleptocracy: it serves as a critique of the mystique of power and propaganda in the U.S., as well. If, for instance, and following the aphorism of Marx found in Das Capital, “religion might have been regarded as opium for the people, it nonetheless contributed a lot of money to the budget.” The right-wing kleptocracy that currently controls the U.S. is in direct parallel, with its massive lies and its lifetime incarceration without charge, to the rule of Stalin. “Marxist-Leninists,” after all, “were good Marxists, kind people,” just as are Christian fundamentalists. “They wanted to establish a good life on earth for good people and a bad life for bad people…. And therefore they killed bad people” and, if practical, “they left the good people alive.”
Even though most Americans think the war in Iraq a bad idea, and that George W. Bush is destroying the U.S. economy, they nevertheless believe in the man and thus happily maintain that there was a connection between Al-Qaeda and Saddam. As Katha Polit recently wrote in The Nation, Americans have been sprinkled with “fear [not fairy!] dust.” We lack the courage of our common-sense convictions. We believe the lies because to not do so would result in cognitive dissonance. To avoid the insanity of cognitive dissonance, we have gone insane with fear—of terrorism, for sure, but the old bugaboos are still around: drugs, homosexuals, pagans… Why would Bush or Stalin lie about these dangers? They are the heroes of the state! After all, “a normal person understands that it’s dangerous and pointless to oppose universal insanity, and rational to participate in it. It should also be noted that people are all actors, and many of them easily adapt to the role written for them out of fear or in hopes of a worthwhile reward. The enlightened modern-day reader thinks that half-wits such as those we have described no longer exist. The author is unfortunately unable to agree. The sum total of viciousness and stupidity in humanity neither increases nor decreases….”
If this all sounds like a dark and pessimistic assessment of the state of things, and of states in general well—it is! But Monumental Propaganda is gloomy in the way that only a fine Russian novel can be: it laughs and dances in the midst of the Gulag or on its way to the gas chamber.
Stalin’s statue, like the man himself, took a fall. Power changed hands, and the “cult of personality” of Stalin was denounced. The statue, one morning, is dragged down from its pedestal. Aglaya Stepanovna is horrified, and bribes the worker charged with removing the idol to bring it to her apartment. And there it lives until Aglaya Stepanovna’s death decades later, in a tiny Soviet apartment. And “lives” is the right word for, farcically, the statue seems to be alive. Its eyes follow Aglaya Stepanovna and display approval (or not) for her actions. Middle-aged when the book begins, by halfway through (in the 1960s), Aglaya Stepanovna attracts a lover. But “I can’t with him here,” she tells her erstwhile boyfriend. Why not? the man cries, “It’s nothing but an inanimate object, cast iron, a piece of monumental propaganda, that’s all.” But, of course, it’s not just a hunk of scrap metal; it’s a personification of derzhavnost, of the mystical power of the state. For Aglaya Stepanovna “the most powerful manifestations of love and hate are quite indistinguishable from each other.”
But, of course, it’s not just a hunk of scrap metal; it’s a personification of derzhavnost, of the mystical power of the state. For Aglaya Stepanovna “the most powerful manifestations of love and hate are quite indistinguishable from each other.”
One type of derzhavnost replaces another. Another character, known as the Admiral (who thinks that “an abundance of poets is a sign of a people’s savagery”), “used to divide… post-October Revolution history into the eras of Cellar Terrorism (under Lenin, when they shot people in the cellars…), the Great Terror (under Stalin), Terror Within the Limits of Leninist Norms (under Khrushchev), Selective Terror (under Brezhnev), Transitional Terror (under Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev) and Terror Unlimited (the present time).” Ah—so that’s where we are, in the era of Terror Unlimited. Osama bin Laden is ever the great demon; never mind that he’s chained to a dialysis machine and must, therefore, be in the care of some nation (Ours? Theirs? Is there a difference, and does it matter?), he is now a brand name and terror is branded on our souls. Stalin, Bush, Osama (pick one) “is our idol” a character says in the 1990s. Monumental Propaganda “does not belong to the genre of crime fiction, being no more than a truthful reflection of our criminal social reality…” It is a brilliant novel—“so brilliant that at first they wanted to award him a doctorate for it, but then they gave him five years in exile instead.”
Ably translated by Andrew Bromfield, who has also brought us the brilliant Victor Pelevin and Boris Akunin, Monumental Propaganda is both funny and frightening, in the way that so many of the new Russian novels are. It comes highly recommended to those interested not only in Russia, but in the current state of the world as well.