Episode 33: Special Circumstances

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

You may recall that back in episode 19, we discussed Vladimir Voinovich’s satirical novel “Monumental Propaganda”, about a loyal bureaucrat who never lost her faith in Stalin.  Today we’re going to discuss another work of Voinovich’s— but this time, a nonfiction memoir about an actual incident from his life.   In “The Ivankiad”, Voinovich tells the tale of his struggle to get an upgraded apartment in early 1970s Moscow, a seemingly simple task that led to a dangerous clash with a government official.   While some of his actions could have had grave consequences, Voinovich managed to maintain his sense of humor throughout.

The incident started off simply enough.   Voinovich and his wife had been living in a one-room apartment in the Writers’ Union apartment building in Moscow for a long time, one of the smallest in the building, and thought they might try to upgrade to a two-room apartment.   He hadn’t attempted such a request before.

As much as possible I try to avoid any struggle for my personal well-being.  I hate going to the authorities and making an effort to get things.   I am by nature undemanding, content with very little.  I am no gourmet, no dandy, and have no interest in luxury items.  Simple food, modest clothes, and a roof over my head, that’s all I need…  True, under that roof I’ve always wanted to have a separate room all for myself, but such a desire could scarcely be considered excessive.

The process seemed simple enough:  there were periodic assembly meetings in their building, and the assembly had to vote on who would get the next apartment.   Voinovich presented his case, and there was nobody who disagreed that he and his wife deserved the upgrade, so the vote was unanimous that they would get the next larger apartment that became available.   When an elderly writer with a nicer apartment died a few months later, he was excited that they were finally about to get an upgraded apartment.

Now I will have my own room, where in blessed silence I will be able to create my works, immortal or otherwise.  Just imagine, a separate room!   As long as I’ve lived, I’ve never known such luxury.   I some kind magician were to appear and ask my one desire, I would say, “I want a room to myself.”

But soon, Voinovich began to sense that something was wrong.   Neighbors were whispering and making cryptic remarks, indicating that they didn’t think he would actually be moving into the new apartment.    This was very confusing:  hadn’t the assembly voted?   What more was there to discuss?   One friend even whispered, “You have to keep your eyes open, you should put up a fight”.   Who was he going to need to fight?   Soon he started hearing that the building manager had a plan to convert the open two-room apartment to a one-room apartment.  This didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

I still didn’t understand…  Why should it be necessary to make a one-room apartment out of a two-room apartment?   And what would happen to the room left over, without kitchen, bath, or toilet?   

It turned out that the whole crux of the matter was this leftover room.  Sergei Sergeevich Ivanko had requested an improvement in his living conditions:  the addition of this room to his apartment.   

I still didn’t get it.  How was this Ivanko so badly off?  Did he have a poor apartment?  No, he had a three-room apartment for three people, one of the best in our building.   Perhaps he had waited a long time?   No, he had lived in our building a shorter time than others… and in October of last year he put in an application for an improvement in his living conditions, requesting a fourth room….  On what basis?  You can request anything you like.  I, too, could request four rooms, but no one would give them to me.

Having not ever heard of any writings by this fellow Writers’ Union member Ivanko, Voinovich did some research.  He discovered that Ivanko was a relative of a former KGB director, a close friend of the national Writers’ Union secretary, and on the board that supervised all publications in the Soviet Union.   Thus, he had the power to halt publication— or guarantee publication— of any book in the country.    As for actual writing, all he could find was that Ivanko had written a 44-page pamphlet on the status of Taiwan two decades earlier, perhaps giving him some expertise in territorial disputes.   Voinovich’s friends advised him not to make a fuss, and to just wait for the next 2-room apartment to open.   

It was a bit surprising that Ivanko wanted to expand an apartment in their building; with such high government connections, he could have gotten a space in a much better building altogether.   But Voinovich got even more annoyed when he discovered why Ivanko wanted to stay:

“Because, as he says himself, he equipped this apartment.   He brought a stove from America, a toilet, an air conditioner, special wallpaper, some other special stuff…  stuck in the walls, the floors, the ceilings.   Equipping an apartment costs an enormous amount of money, and to tear it all out would wreck it.   

“…did you see when he moved in?”… “No?  Well, we did.  Two trucks with containers, and everything American.  The toilet, the stove, the devil knows what.   A sled, even a child’s sled, he brought that from America too!….  five rooms would be too small for him.”

The thought occurred to Voinovich that maybe he had an advantage due to the fact that Ivanko wasn’t a real writer, but he quickly dismissed that issue.

I saw that 90 percent of more of the members of the [Writers’] Union were non-writers.  Which is to say that they cover a certain quantity of paper with a text which is then set in type, printed, bound in a hard or soft cover, and, before being made into pulp, displayed on shop counters.   But most of the time this text has no content.  Neither moral nor aesthetic, nor even political.   I stopped carping at non-writers.

Voinovich started speaking to the building chair and other officials, pointing out that there was a unanimous vote in the assembly granting him the right to the next apartment, so he clearly should get priority over Ivanko.   But they began to criticize him on grounds of being too impolite, difficult, or demanding, and not showing a proper collective Soviet spirit of loyalty.

I began to wonder, Why do these people interpret my every word so negatively?   Perhaps I really wasn’t conducting myself properly.   No, don’t think I’m trying to be witty.  In the preceding few pages I’ve tried to produce a certain comic effect, but not here.   Here I’m trying to be completely serious. I was confused.   I thought that all rights, not only legal but moral, were so much on my side that I would be given immediate support, and that no one would stay on Ivanko’s side…  Is it good manners to try to please a bureaucrat?   Maybe I really didn’t understand something, maybe there were some special circumstances in Ivanko’s case. 

As he started to reconsider his position, he received a strange call from an old woman in his building.    

Vladimir Nikolaevich, I beg of you, don’t hang up, hear me out.  I understand, you’re in a bad situation, you’re impatient, but I have cirrhosis of the liver, general arteriosclerosis, I assure you, you won’t have long to wait.”

I suppose I started to get angry.

“Why are you bothering me?”, I said.  “Why should I wait for you to die?”

“Vladimir Nikolaevich.”  I suppose she was getting angry too.  “I was told you are a decent man.”

“Well, what of it, Why should I wait for you to die?”

“So you mean you don’t want to wait?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, now I see”— again, tears in her voice— “you are not a decent man.  You… you.. you…”


After this strange call, he made a few inquiries.  He discovered that Ivanko had attempted to resolve the issue by proposing to kick an elderly writer out of her apartment, forcing her to switch with Voinovich’s smaller one, in order to free up another larger apartment.   But Voinovich refused to accept this proposal, unwilling to make another neighbor suffer in order to please a bureaucrat who was fundamentally in the wrong.   He sent a formal letter to his apartment board, pointing out again that the assembly had made a decision and it had to be enforced.

After this, the apartment board chair, Turganov, convened a meeting to discuss the “unhealthy situation”  and  “threatening statements” that had been coming from Voinovich.   Once again his manners were criticized for pressing the issue so stridently, with Ivanko commenting that the committee was too tolerant of such “outrages”.   But Ivanko failed to get the assembly to revote in his favor, and for a while it even looked like Voinovich would win.

But Voinovich was still getting second-hand advice to give in, so was a but worried about what was coming next.   He was again advised to apologize to Ivanko and ask for his help getting a better apartment.   Apparently the board had received orders from high-level Soviet officials to “help Ivanko”, and while they couldn’t overturn the decision to give the apartment to Voinovich, they could delay it indefinitely, playing a game of attrition.   Meanwhile Voinovich continued to appeal to various government officials, always being criticized for his “selfishness”, “manners”, “provocative actions”, and similar issues.

I’m afraid I’ll be accused of slander.  Did I really not meet a single positive official on my path?  I did.   Two.   One at first also reprimanded me for acting provocatively, but then said anyway (and thanks to him for this), “Ivanko is acting illegally, but he is powerful.   You’ll never get in to see Promyslov, but Ivanko can go to see him any time.   You can’t even imagine what kind of people plead for Ivanko over this telephone.”…

The second positive official was a worker at the Central Committee of the CPSU, to whom I managed to tell this story.

“Ivanko?” he asked.  “Sergei Sergeevich?”

“Ivanko”, I affirmed.  “Sergei Sergeevich.”

“What a scoundrel!” said my interlocutor, shaking his head.

That was all the reaction I got from the two positive comrades.

Finally tired of this war of waiting and attrition, Voinovich made a bold move:  he and his wife went ahead and moved into the new apartment on their own.   After all, they had the legal right to it, so why wait for actions by others?   When officials came around to tell him and his wife to leave, they presented the written document from the original assembly meeting, showing that they had a right to the apartment.   They also pointed out that his wife is pregnant, and did they really want to force a pregnant woman to move?    Voinovich, being a famous satirical writer at the time, was also popular among his neighbors, so they consistently confirmed his claim.

Miraculously, various officials seemed to start to come around to accepting that he really did have a right to the apartment, and allowed him to stay.   Apparently Ivanko wasn’t quite powerful enough, or the issue just wasn’t that important enough, that the higher-level Soviet officials would want to get directly involved in overriding the local apartment board.   The assembly was convened once more, and held another vote confirming Voinovich’s right to the apartment.  

Although a number of factors affected our victory, I would suggest the following in particular:  the pregnancy of woman, a unified collective, and my own stubbornness.   Now that the conflict is over, I am quite content with the fact that in the future my writings won’t be published; I am prepared for the Minister of Culture… to condemn my writings.

To save face, Ivanko blamed the whole fiasco on incompetence by the apartment board chair, Turganov, and arranged to have him impeached, as well as preventing the publication of a two-volume collection of his works.   Perhaps not wanting to face his neighbors after all this, Ivanko then transferred to a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he got to spend some time living in the US again.

Now our respected colleague represents our great country at the United Nations…  I believe, however, that he still has a bit of time and money left to prowl around the Manhattan shops for new equipment for his little nest… Perhaps in Manhattan they’re selling toilets of the latest design.  What kind?   My fancy is insufficient to imagine…  Perhaps some sort of stereophonic toilet, or one that turns the raw materials it devours into pure gold.

In the end, Voinovich only got to enjoy his apartment for a few years:   an official harassment campaign by the government began soon after, he lost telephone access in 1976, and he and his family were forced into exile in 1980.   

Afterwards, Voinovich reflected on this series of events:

When you examine the principal factors of our story and attempt to find and explain the reasons for great social changes… do not overlook the humble drudge with the simple, unmemorable, greedy face.   Gentle, smiling, obliging, efficient, ready to do you a good turn, flatter your self-esteem, he is present in every cell of our society, breathing life into all those changes.    And when you plan great reform programs, build castles in the air… or try to see an X chromosome through a microscope, our humble drudge, with his sharp little eyes, watches carefully to see if, under the guise of struggling against alien ideology, he can get something from you:  an apartment, a wife, a cow, an invention, a position, an academic title.   Gradually, in a leisurely fashion, he heats up the atmosphere, and then you notice, on his humble face, not a smile but a wolfish grin.

Before leaving the Soviet Union, the novelist Viktor Nekrasov wrote a letter about the condition of our culture, about the fact that many honest and talented people are subjected to senseless badgering and are forced to leave the country where they were born and grew up, which they served, and without which life is inconceivable.

“Who needs this system?”  Nekrasov asked.

Well, just take our hero for example, Sergei Sergeevich Ivanko.

He needs it!

<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you enjoyed today’s podcast, be sure to check out Voinovich’s memoir, “The Ivankiad”, available at the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.



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