Vovochka: The True Confessions of Vladimir Putin’s Best Friend and Confidant
By Alexander J. Motyl
(Anaphora Press, 15O pages. $20)
This book is long overdue — a sendup of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the macho horseman and judo master so often photographed with rippling pecs. The reality, says this comic novel, is quite the opposite.
Author Alexander Motyl casts his eye back to university days when “Vovochka” (a child-like form of “Vova,” the diminutive of “Vladimir”) dreamed of becoming a dancer at the Bolshoi or maybe an opera singer if that failed. His dance career fizzles because of flat feet. “It’s not the love of horses as such that leads him to mount them but the love of riding instead of walking,” we learn in a flashback to his youth.
“His friends and colleagues, some of whom were his roommates in university, have testified that he often sang his favorite operatic arias while practicing pirouettes. That, they tell me, was a sight to behold!”
Motyl, a writer, painter, Rutgers political science professor and keen analyst of Russia and Ukraine, here proves his sideline as a parodist by taking on the Russian leader under a thinly disguised pseudonym. His tongue-in-cheek disclaimer in the foreword insists that Vovochka as “absolutely nothing” in common with the real Putin. Any similarities are “purely incidental and accidental.”
Motyl the artist also painted the cover illustration, depicting a Putinesque character in a skin-tight T-shirt like one might see on New York’s SoHo streets.
I asked Motyl in an email exchange what prompted him to write such a funny book about such an unfunny man. “How can one not laugh at someone who takes himself so seriously,” Motyl replied, “someone who preens and postures like Mussolini?”
The book, Vovochka: The True Confessions of Vladimir Putin’s Best Friend and Confidant (Anaphora Literary Press), chronicles Vovochka’s life from East German KGB days to his assumption of power in the Kremlin. His trusted adviser and best-loved friend, also named Vovochka, narrates the tale as the president’s alter ego.
Motyl pulls off a fine-tuned parody by using hackneyed Soviet language and blinkered thinking to recount historic and possible future events. The results are hilarious and often revealing of how the old Soviet mindset lives on. Vovochka the adviser remembers the “terrorist dismantling of the Berlin Wall” in these terms: “Thousands of West German criminals and foreign thugs descended on that holy ground like vultures (and)… roamed like packs of wild wolves along the grassy fields of what used to be the most peaceful place on Earth — No Man’s Land.”
The subtext of the story has the two Vovochkas eyeing each other with homosexual leers. A sauna scene comes close to explicit: “We ate, we drank, we laughed, we cried — and we wrestled and practiced judo. Like two ancient Greeks, we smeared our bodies with oil and went at it.” (Exactly what “it” was, Motyl leaves to the reader’s imagination.)
I asked Motyl what was going on between his two characters and how they relate to the Russian president. “The real-life machismo and homophobia are so excessive,” he said, “that it’s hard not to suspect that there’s more than meets the eye.”
Motyl finds his voice most effectively when dealing with the problems of Russia’s immediate neighbors. “I am tired of these little trash nations, as the great Engels called them,” adviser Vovochka says. The two men are talking strategy one day when President Vovochka has an idea. “I think we should annex Narva (a major Estonian city on the Russian border),” he says. “The Estonians will be caught with their pants down, and the Europeans will pretend nothing happened…. Northeastern Estonia could be ours in a matter of hours.”
Adviser Vovochka replies: “Interesting. Definitely something to think about.”
The logic continues. If Western powers can intervene in Africa to evacuate their own, “we can intervene in Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia to save Russians. Simple and neat.”
“But what if they fight back?”
The president explains: “Then we will crush them like cockroaches.”
Motyl saves his most acid language for adviser Vovochka’s view of Ukrainians: “The people are backward. They smell of hay and horse manure…. With time, and with our relentless efforts to promote humanity, even this benighted area of the world will rejoin the civilized Russian World.”
The two Vovochkas speak privately about their most secret thoughts. “I’m not so sure fascism is quite the monster it is made out to be,” adviser Vovochka whispers to the president. “What did Hitler and Mussolini want, after all? A strong state and a strong nation. Who can object? Their mistake was to start a war.”
President Vovochka corrects him. “Their mistake was to lose a war,” he says. The term “fascism” remains controversial, the president observes. “I think it is best to avoid using it while simultaneously introducing all its features into practice.”
Motyl’s story succeeds on two levels: it overlays actual events with a slightly skewed fictional story, and it exploits the bombast of Russian officialdom by pretending to take it seriously. The result is a parody in the great tradition of free expression.