Ivan Chonkin

October 23, 2018

ivan chonkin

Ivan Chonkin is the hero of a trilogy of satirical novels by Vladimir Voinovich, of which I’ve read the first two, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, and The Pretender to the Throne:  The Further Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin.

The image above shows a still from a film version of the the first novel in which Ivan, an archetypal everyman who is not too sharp, is sent by his army superiors to guard a Soviet plane that has crash landed in a rural boondocks.  He is forgotten in the disaster of the opening weeks of Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, but dutifully performs his mission, while taking up romantically with a single woman near whose cottage the plane is kept.  Through bureaucratic confusion and a lot of Soviet-style self-serving malice, he gets classified as a deserter, and a squad is sent to fetch him for trial.  He refuses to relinquish his post, fights off the troops for some time, but is eventually arrested and taken away by The Right People (the NKVD, or secret police) to the Right Place (the local prison where enemies of the state are interrogated.)

In the second book, during the “investigation” into his crimes, he is somehow connected with an aristocratic emigre family and an array of totally fictitious German spies.  The NKVD puts him on trial for conspiring with the Germans in a plot to collaborate with the invasion in return for his restoration to the Tsar’s throne!  During part of his interrogation, after being beaten and tortured for a while, we have this bit of wonderful dialog that is Voinovich at his best:

Chonkin’s torments ended when Major Figurin took charge of the case again.  Having examined the situation, Figurin had Chonkin fed and brought tea, treated him to long cigarettes, which made Chonkin sweetly dizzy, and spoke to him nicely, man to man:  “Unfortunately, Vanya, not all our workers are saints.  It’s the work they do.  Sometimes it makes you cruel without your knowing it.  And besides, the people who end up here do not always evaluate things soberly, they don’t always have a correct sense of what is demanded of them.  Let’s say we bring in a man and we say to him, ‘You are our enemy.’  He doesn’t agree, he objects, ‘No, I’m not.’  But how could that be?  If we arrest a man, naturally he hates us.  And if, on top of that, he considers himself innocent, then he hates us twice as much, three times as much.  And if he hates us, that means he’s our enemy and that means he’s guilty.  And so, Vanya, that’s why I personally consider innocent people our worst enemies.”

Vladimir Voinovich wrote these novels in the late 60s and the 70s, and he was forced into exile from the USSR in 1980.  He eventually returned to Russia when Gorbachev restored his citizenship in 1990.  He continued to act as a dissident under Putin until his death this year.

VV

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