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.

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.

Voinovich wields a double-edged sword here: His satire of a woman who won't loosen her grip on an outmoded, deadly ideology is brilliant. And he's just as incisive in his critique of what might be called the tyranny of liberalization, the Party's effort to enforce its new "freedom" with the same heavy hand it had always exercised. The whole situation bristles with uncomfortable lessons for organizations struggling to reform: the insanity of clinging self-righteously to outmoded ideals, and the equally dangerous tendency of reform-minded leaders to pursue their new vision with the old insistence on total unanimity.

"A schism," the Party warns ominously, "is the very thing on which our enemies have always counted."

Aglaya suffers through constant political change, from Khrushchev's thaw to Brezhnev's neo-Stalinism to Gorbachev's reforms and finally to the collapse of Russia into a gangster paradise. (Voinovich describes this as a move from different kinds of limited terror to a state of "Terror Unlimited.") Never abandoning her ideals or the giant idol in her living room, she becomes a ludicrous martyr to her own unalterable convictions. Meanwhile, the greatest rewards flow to the most cynical members of society, those morally agile enough to adopt whatever new orthodoxy the new leaders proclaim.

To be honest, this is a tough book to read, and not just because of the long Russian names, which appear in maddening permutations. As a classic fanatic, a woman with "no imagination ... no fantasy, sense of humor or feeling for beauty," Aglaya is the perfect mate for her iron idol, but she eventually becomes a leaden protagonist for a novel.

Fortunately, the side characters inspire a variety of laughs and insights. Chief among these is a pompous general who's blended his meager military service with stories of historic battles. And there's a particularly wicked portrayal of the quintessential dissident, a vain, expedient writer wholly dedicated to sanctifying his own image. (This isn't the first time Voinovich has gone after Alexander Solzhenitsyn.)

At their best, these excursions are fun and incisive, but sometimes they're merely digressive. The novel's final portrayal of Russia in the grip of gangster terrorism, for instance, sounds belabored, perhaps because it's so impossible to exaggerate the current chaos.

But don't let the heavy lifting intimidate you, comrades. There are riches to mine here, and warnings worth heeding. Leaders come and go, movements pass in and out of currency, but the old pedestal waits patiently in Dolgov Square and in the center of human history.

"It doesn't take a prophet," Voinovich notes ruefully, "to predict that people will be blinded again, and more than once, by false teachings; [they] will yield to the temptation of endowing certain individuals with superhuman qualities and glorify them." During those times, of course, it's too late to read books like this, so stock up.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments about the book section to Ron Charles.

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