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Nearing 85, Writer Voinovich Urges Russia To Stop Looking Backward

Russian novelist Vladimir Voinovich (file photo)

MOSCOW -- Under President Vladimir Putin, Russian politics turned to face the past, focusing on purported achievements in Russia's ancient and recent history instead of building toward a vision of the future, according to famed satirist and former Soviet dissident Vladimir Voinovich.

In an interview ahead of the writer's 85th birthday next month, Voinovich tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that this approach is ultimately a dead end for both Putin and the country.

"When Putin came to power, he turned to the most conservative elements of society, especially to veterans of World War II, to the old people who participated or didn't participate in the war, who paraded around not so much with huge numbers of military ribbons, but with tokens of years of service," Voinovich says. "This was a turning to the past and it was the beginning of the politics of turning to the past. Of course, any normal politics are oriented toward the future. You need to count not on old people who are dying or are already dead, but on the young people who are being born and are growing up."

"Now they have grown up, and this [politics of the past] is not interesting to them," he concludes. In short, the older generation was impressed with assertions such as "we are so strong; we are so powerful," while the current generation wants to hear "we are happy; we are innovative; we are free."

Voinovich was born on September 26, 1932, in the city of Stalinabad, as the Tajik capital of Dushanbe was then called. His father was arrested in 1936 and spent five years in dictator Josef Stalin's labor camps. In 1969, the first part of his classic satirical novel, The Life And Extraordinary Adventures Of Private Ivan Chonkin, was published, followed by the second part 10 years later.

Dystopian Visions

Voinovich is also known for his dystopian 1987 novel Moscow 2042, in which the country is ruled by a "Communist Party Of State Security" that combines elements of the Soviet Communist Party, the Russian Orthodox Church, and the KGB secret police.

In 1974, the Soviet government began harassing Voinovich because of his writing and his human rights activism. He was stripped of his citizenship and forced into external exile in 1980. His citizenship was restored by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev a decade later, and he returned to live in Russia.

"Some people say that we have already returned to 1937," Voinovich says, referring to the year that Stalin's Great Terror was launched. "I would say that we haven't reached 1937 yet, but we have definitely reached the 1970s," the beginning of the so-called stagnation period under long-serving Soviet rule Leonid Brezhnev.

"There are some differences, but there is a lot that is the same," he adds. "They are breaking up demonstrations. They are throwing people in prison on basically the same charges. True, they aren't giving seven-year sentences, but rather two. And now they have begun driving people out of the country."

A Second Putin?

"Much is returning from those times," Voinovich notes. "The mass psychology of those times is coming back. I don't like to say it but I consider myself a cautious optimist, and I think this will come to an end soon. Because it is simply impossible. Our country just looks ridiculous in contrast to other civilized countries…. We are surrounded by countries living by different laws, living by laws that promote the normal development of individual citizens, the normal development of society as a whole, that promote well-being. But here everything moves in the other direction."

As he approaches the age of 85, Voinovich has one wish.

"I'd like to live to see a time when we elect people to the highest office for a determined period of time and that they will leave when they are supposed to no matter how good or remarkable they were," he says. "There are good choices, successful choices, and there are unsuccessful choices," he concluded. "Constant turnover is the possibility to correct mistakes."

Some Russians have expressed the concern that opposition politician Aleksei Navalny has the potential to be a "second Putin," to which Voinovich responds that "a second Putin would be better than the first."

Written by RFE/RL senior correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of an interview by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yelena Rykovtseva.