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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Monumental Propaganda

Vladimir Voinovich

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To purchase Monumental Propaganda

Title: Monumental Propaganda
Author: Vladimir Voinovich
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 365 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Monumental Propaganda - US
Monumental Propaganda - UK
Monumental Propaganda - Canada
Aglaja Rewkinas letzte Liebe - Deutschland
  • Translated by Andrew Bromfield

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good-humoured picture of changing Russia over the past fifty years

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor B+ 10/8/2004 Ron Charles
FAZ . 19/3/2002 Alexander Honold
The Nation . 2/8/2004 Boris Fishman
NZZ . 25/6/2002 Ulrich M. Schmid
The New Republic . 14/1/2005 Jaroslaw Anders
The NY Times . 3/8/2004 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/8/2004 Ken Kalfus
San Francisco Chronicle A 18/7/2004 Tom Nolan
The Washington Post . 25/7/2004 Anne Applebaum
World Lit. Today . Spring/2002 Philippe D. Radley

  From the Reviews:
  • "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." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Auch das Elend der Gegenwart nährt nostalgische Sehnsüchte, aber an die Gewalt der Lebenstäuschung Aglajas reichen sie nicht mehr heran. Ihr Schicksal, und das macht den Roman letztlich doch zur politischen Fabel, gleicht dem Dilemma Pygmalions und seiner Statue. Was sie liebt, hat niemals gelebt und ist deshalb nicht umzubringen." - Alexander Honold, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Woinowitsch zeichnet mit spitzer Feder die verkümmerte Seele einer Kommunistin, die ihre Identität nicht so schnell wechseln kann wie der Staat seine Ideologie. In dieser Romankonzeption liegt sowohl eine Stärke wie auch eine Schwäche" - Ulrich M. Schmid, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Voinovich's novel is always engaging and often hilarious. He creates his grotesque, distorted world inhabited by grotesque, distorted people with considerable skill. He clearly possess the Gogolian gift of finding the commonplace in the uncanny and the uncanny in the commonplace. (...) Monumental Propaganda shows how unreal and threatening "liberty" can look through the eyes of people conditioned to living in dull, predictable slavery." - Jaroslaw Anders, The New Republic

  • "The novel divides into two unequal parts. The first (...) is a cutting, comic romp (.....) Though the book's increasingly shaggy-dog structure seems meant to mirror the chaotic changes taking place in Russia, the later sections devolve into narrative incoherence" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "In the years since The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, Voinovich has sharpened his satire, and Monumental Propaganda is a novel that slashes and rips -- but not on every page. He expands his narrative to accommodate shrewd philosophy and inventive portraiture, a very amusing disquisition on Soviet latrines and a number of outlandish plot developments. In his translation, Andrew Bromfield deftly shifts his tone and tools as required, remaining true to Voinovich's Vonnegut-like playfulness and appreciation of the absurd." - Ken Kalfus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is, told in Voinovich's resourceful and acidic prose, at once surreal and plausible, cruel and hilarious, grotesque and heartbreaking, symbolic and real." - Tom Nolan, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "So farcical are all these people that Aglaya, a stupid, bigoted, provincial, anti-democratic Stalinist, almost winds up as the book's most sympathetic character. True, her philosophy is repellent and outdated, but, as Voinovich tells it, so is everybody else's, even his own. At least she believes in something. He, by contrast, mocks everything, including the freedom he once longed for, a freedom that has turned out to be a terrible disappointment." - Anne Applebaum, The Washington Post

  • "She is the classic example of one who ages but does not grow. We are left with the sense of being stifled in a world where there is no free breathing. (...) Voinovich has given us another chronicle of the Russia of the past eighty years; it is more sad than funny." - Philippe D. Radley, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Monumental Propaganda centres around Aglaya Stepanova Revkina, a die-hard Stalinist whose world comes undone in 1956 when the Communist Party acknowledges that he maybe wasn't such a great guy (and leader) after all. The book chronicles the changes in post-Stalinist Russia for the next half-century -- and Aglaya's struggles and bewilderment in the face of this ever-more unsettled world.
       As one character in the book suggests, Russian history since the October Revolution can handily be divided into a few eras:

Cellar Terrorism (under Lenin, when they shot people in the cellars of the Extraordinary Commission, or Cheka), 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.
       Aglaya sacrificed and was a hero during the Great War, and she liked the simple moral clarity of those times: anyone who didn't support whatever Stalin wanted was shot. Once Stalin is no longer considered the god he was so long made out to be she finds it hard to understand and accept the world. The final, universal terror of post-Soviet times (where anyone can kill anyone, for any and no reason, and won't be taken to task, much less punished, for it) is only the culmination of a world that, for her, had begun to spin out of control long before.
       Most of the action in the book takes place in the sleepy Russian town of Dolgov. It's out of the way, and there was never much going on there. Among the daily highlights is the arrival of the trains to and from Moscow, when much of the town congregates at the train station.
       A respected (and feared) Party member, Aglaya is an important person in town. But when she refuses to accept the new Party line -- that Stalin may have erred on occasion -- she is easily squeezed out. Times are changing, but she can't change with them. Meanwhile, all the local opportunists -- who learned long ago that the way to get ahead (or stay alive) was always to sway whichever way the wind blows -- readily embrace whatever the new ideology of the day is (as they will with all the future changes as well).
       Aglaya can't accept that her idol has been toppled. When they literally topple it -- a statue of Stalin she convinced the town to erect is removed from its central place of honour -- she takes the monument home with her (her three-metre-ten ceilings just high enough to accommodate it) and henceforth cares for this immortalised Stalin, while almost no one else wants much to do with any aspect of him.
       Aglaya's bewilderment dominates much of the novel. Occasionally, she meets like-minded folk, and she even gets drawn into the Communist revival, when the Party tries to play along by the new, post-Soviet (pseudo-)democratic rules. At times, the wrong paths that are taken get to be too much for her (or for Voinovich): she hibernates for some twenty years, almost entirely missing the 1970s and 80s, and only coming back to her senses when the country has been completely transformed, a Wheel of Fortune casino occupying the building that formerly housed the district committee.
       Aglaya's isn't the only changing fate that's followed: Voinovich offers several other characters that drift in and out of focus, highlighting other aspects of Soviet life. One is Aglaya's early nemesis, Mark Semyonovich Shubkin, who begins as a teacher much more willing to test the bounds of the permissible (but only the bounds), and who becomes Aglaya's neighbour, then a full-fledged dissident author, then emigrates to Israel. Shubkin as dissident (but, generally, a believer in Marxist-Leninist ideals) is particularly amusing, as state and citizen try to gauge each other -- what is permissible, what is going too far. Shubkin isn't particularly daring, and backs down when the pressure appears to be becoming too great -- to the disappointment of the powers that be, who need him to be a dissident, and push him towards being a loud, prominent protester.
       The author occasionally also appears in the text, visiting Dolgov (though not actively participating in the events described). Often he converses with the one moral (and intellectual) authority in the book, the Admiral -- who says about Shubkin, for example:
What Shubkin has is a mill-brain. If you poured good grain into it, you might get good flour. But he's loaded up his mill with Lenin's shit, so what comes out is shit too.
       Other significant characters include Vanka Zhukov, a very bright lad who winds up being sent to fight in Afghanistan and returns without legs and missing an arm and an eye -- but finds that the explosives training he received (and his own brilliance at tinkering with things) make him well-suited for the new capitalist age. What begins as a fireworks business turns into a much more remunerative (and satisfying) explosives-for-hire business that will eventually rock much of Dolgov.
       Voinovich's narrative meanders genially about. Sometimes Aglaya is at the centre, then some years pass or attention is focussed elsewhere. There are fun stories all throughout (including one about a Brezhnev birthday party), and a good number of clever takes on Soviet and then post-Soviet Russian society. From yes-men Party members ("These people did have convictions, but all they amounted to was that you should never, under any circumstances, go against the bosses") to dissidents to the new businessmen (and gangsters) of post-Soviet Russia Voinovich has good fun with all of them (and takes no prisoners: though his satire isn't particularly vicious he spares no one). But the book does suffer a bit from its lack of narrative drive: it meanders, and at times seems almost more a collection of stories and anecdotes than a novel.
       Monumental Propaganda is certainly entertaining, and provides a good overview of what has happened in Russian society over the past fifty-some years. Perhaps a bit too good-humoured for its own good, it's still a worthwhile read.

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Monumental Propaganda: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Vladimir Voinovich (Wladimir Woinowitsch) was born in 1932. A leading Soviet dissident writer, he has lived in exile in Germany since 1980

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