Millennium in Moscow, 2040. Satire on future glasnost is a comic commentary on today's
Moscow 2040, by Vladimir Voinovich. Translated by Richard Lourie. San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 242 pp. $16.95. It takes a special kind of satirist to reveal the reality of the Moscow seen today through the rose-colored glasses of glasnost. But that Moscow has found its satirist in Vladimir Voinovich.
Now living in West Germany, the author appears to be an improbable mixture of two major kinds of Russian writer, the prophetic and the purely artistic.
One can see these strains delineated in Voinovich's life in Russia, which was one of ups and downs. Born in 1932 (his father was Serbian, his mother Jewish), Voinovich left school after fourth or fifth grade to help on the collective farm. Later he joined the army and took night classes. Determined to be a writer, he once decided to write a poem a day for a year. He worked in radio and published short stories. Some of his lyrics became the anthem for the Russian space program, and at festivities for cosmonauts Nikolayev and Popovich they were sung by Premier Nikita Khrushchev himself from the top of the Lenin mausoleum!
Still, Voinovich's first major story got him in trouble with Khrushchev's adviser on cultural affairs. Voinovich became outspoken in his support of dissidents, including Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom he once called ``the greatest of our citizens.'' In 1975, a year after Solzhenitsyn was deported, Voinovich was expelled from the Writers' Union. His great novel, ``The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin,'' was rejected for publication at home but came out in Paris in 1975. Voinovich was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1980.
Thanks to the underground samizdat system of distribution and photo copying, however, it's certain that copies of ``Moscow 2040,'' like his other novels and stories, are all over Moscow 1987.
The hero of his new novel, Vitaly Nikitich Kartsev, is a Russian writer living in Munich. Like Voinovich himself, Kartsev claims he's apolitical. Still, as a writer, he is of interest to the authorities, even those living in AD 2040, more than 50 years after the publication of this novel.
Through the time-worn fiction of time-travel, Kartsev visits the Moscow of the future.
No doubt about it, the Moscow of 2040 is the Moscow of glasnost fulfilled: Jesus joins Marx as a predecessor, and both are criticized. The leader is called not General but Genialissimo. The KGB has merged with the government. Moscow is a dry town, to the exasperation of Kartsev. All needs are met, though it's agreed that the elite have more needs than the regular citizens. And there's plenty of toilet paper: In fact, Pravda is printed on rolls and used for that purpose.
True to the ``open'' nature of the Moscow of 2040, Kartsev is welcomed as a kind of hero - that is, if he will make certain changes in his book, a book he reads now for the first time. Kartsev's novel is considered subversive primarily for his depiction of Solzhenitsyn-like fellow exile, Sim, a tape of whose book Kartsev carried into the future. Many long for his ``second coming.''
In pages that recall Voinovich's earlier books for raw power and insight into human loneliness and suffering, Kartsev becomes an outcast for refusing to correct his novel. He's saved by the coming of Sim, who has been preserved for the event by being frozen in a Swiss vault. And yet Kartsev is no more at home in Sim's Moscow than he was in the communist utopia.
The prophetic, millennial, strain of Russian thinking and feeling is cold comfort to Kartsev. Next to it, Voinovich's own liberal, ``Western'' attitude does indeed seem ``apolitical.''
Despite the shopworn elements of his description of the communist utopia - the vegetarian food, the calculated sex, the control of the weather, the dismissal of the old and feeble - ``Moscow 2040'' is consistently entertaining because of its style.
The style reflects the odd mixture of sad and funny things, of real and imaginary, that make up the human world. That mixed style, so true to life, is precisely what gets Kartsev in trouble: It deflates pomposity! For instance, the authorities gag on his description of the food in their utopia, especially since that description comes after a lyrical passage about ``the sun shining all the time and the palm trees growing and the birds singing and the girls in their little tennis skirts...''
``There I was all excited,'' says the examiner, ``and you hit me with that business about the vegetarian pork!''
``Moscow 2040'' unfolds in seven parts, and the parts unfold in brief, sometimes beautifully turned chapters. In the chapter called ``A Secret Revealed,'' Kartsev is taken on a tour of a writing center in which authors are encouraged to compose on computers. These computers are linked to a mainframe that doesn't exist. ``...There are people who just want to write,'' says his guide.
Clearly, Vladimir Voinovich does more than just write. And yet, ironically, compared to the ideologues and the millennialists, Voinovich is ``just a writer'' - and suspect because of it! Glasnost or no glasnost, ``Moscow 2040'' is superior entertainment. The only word that seems to describe it is one that current politics has almost ruined, the old word ``gay.''
Perhaps that's fitting. The gaiety of ``Moscow 2040'' - so piercing, so elegant, so free - makes it a very special novel. It should make Voinovich, already popular at home, known everywhere.
Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.