Published: 2006. Click on the cover to buy from your local Booksense-affiliated independent bookseller.
Okay, Monumental Propaganda is not hot off the presses. But it was my favorite book of 2006 and I decided to review it on the blog after looking at my LibraryThing account and seeing that only 17 other people on LibraryThing owned this book. 17? Seriously? Monumental Propaganda is a terrific book. Everyone should read it. Why aren't more people reading it?
Probably because they've not heard of it, where is where I come in (I hope!). I picked up Monumental Propaganda last year because I'm always drawn to things Russian and have made a habit over the last few years of reading or rereading one of those Big Book Classics (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pasternak, etc.) every year and thought, hey, a new book. This could be cool.
And cool it was. Actually better than cool. Like I said, it was my favorite book last year. It's a satire, about a Stalinist true-believer named Aglaya Revkina who is having a hard time adjusting to the Khrushchev era, and is shocked and dismayed by the paper-thin allegiances of her Communist brethren. For Aglaya, Stalin was more than a man, more than a leader- he was a movement, a hero, and something like a god. She manages to alienate herself from her fellow Party members and slowly thereafter from society in general, after she takes a giant iron statue of her hero from the town square and locks it up in her apartment.
Over the years the statue takes on almost religious meaning for her and she sacrifices everything else in her life- career, money, love- to keep it. Told in parallel is the story of one Mark Shubkin, a Jewish dissident intellectual and writer, portrayed as a kind of a poor-man's Soltzhenitsyn, who lives in the same building along with his mistress Antonina. They make a colorful couple and their life on the other side of the Soviet equation- the outsiders- has its own ups and downs. Aglaya's and Shubkin's fortunes are told against the backdrop of Soviet history from the 1960s until the 1990s and we get to see how the changes in Russia affect them both.
Sounds awfully serious but like I said, it's a satire, so while there are serious themes running beneath the book, there is also a lot of humor and humanity. Aglaya, for all her nuttiness, is portrayed as a woman whose logic and motivations are clear and consistent, even as they lead her to greater and greater ruin. She tries so hard to adapt to changing circumstances but she just can't do it. I really enjoyed the way Voinovich plays out her story against all the huge changes that took place in Russia during the 30-odd year period he covers and shows just what would happen to someone in her position- and therefore the kinds of things that probably did happen to a lot of people. It's a great way to explain history to an outsider- throw into the mix an exaggerated, hapless-yet-determined character with iron-clad beliefs and will to survive it all. And survive it she does, right to the bitter end.
Monumental Propaganda is a rollicking good time of a satirical novel about serious subjects. Aglaya's unshakable determination coupled with Voinovich's lively prose will keep you reading as she navigates her way from the totalitarianism of the Stalin era through the anarchy of the post-Soviet years. When the end finally came I felt like it came too soon, only because that's how much I enjoyed her story.