Guess who's coming to dinner
One woman's crusade to save Stalin from the dustbin of history
What greater calamity could befall a Russian satirist than the collapse of the Soviet Union? For these writers weaned on absurd cruelty, inefficiency, and repression, glasnost and perestroika must have arrived like pink slips, the first layoffs in an economy that once promised lifetime employment for political critics.Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, a new comic novel from Vladimir Voinovich seems at first to be fighting the last war. The focus of his "Monumental Propaganda" is a fanatical Stalinist named Aglaya, who preaches a doctrine of unreformed communism against the tide of reformation. But what relevance can such satire have today with the Soviet Union dismantled and the Russian people flailing about in a free economy? Has Voinovich unleashed his witty arsenal against the political equivalent of the Flat Earth Society?
Nyet. First, his portrayal of Aglaya, pining for the purges and the gulag, is a soberingly relevant strike against the rise of communist nostalgia in Russia. Second, the real target of all good satire, Voinovich reminds us, is human nature, which so far has proven disastrously resistant to purification through political reorganization (See 20th century).
But surely, the collapse of a satiric mother lode like the Soviet Union has made work more challenging for Russian comics, and the chaotic crosscurrents of "Monumental Propaganda," translated by Andrew Bromfield, may be a symptom of this complicated new freedom.
The story opens in 1956 when the Communist Party announces a startling reassessment: "A certain number of individual decisions taken by Stalin were incorrect." In the little town of Dolgov, Aglaya hears Khrushchev's speech as heresy. "She had never believed in a God in heaven," the narrator writes, "but her earthly god was Stalin."
Just seven years earlier, when the town was struggling to feed itself in the ashes of World War II, Aglaya had browbeaten the citizens into paying for a cast-iron statue in the town square of "our very greatest contemporary, the wise leader, the teacher of the peoples, the luminary of all the sciences, the outstanding military leader, our own dearest beloved Comrade Stalin."
Her dedication speech had confidently claimed that this awesome statue would stand for a thousand years - even the pigeons would refuse to defile it. But when the winds of orthodoxy shift, Aglaya finds herself standing in front of a tractor, waving her arms and yelling, "Stop! Stop!
With a little bribe, she rescues the statue from the scrap heap and has it installed in her tiny apartment. There she carries on, rejected and reviled, the last true disciple of the great leader and his cause. "You're a woman of principle," a neighbor observes. "But it's the time of the flexible people now."
At great peril to her social standing and financial health, she continues to object to the Party's shift from Stalinism, but it was easier to endure a hail of German bullets: Those who refuse to accept that the purges were evil must be purged.