Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire

Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire

Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire

Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire


Unvarnishing Reality draws original insight to the literature, politics, history, and culture of the cold war by closely examining the themes and goals of American and Russian satirical fiction. As Derek C. Maus illustrates, the paranoia of nuclear standoff provided a subversive storytelling mode for authors from both nations--including Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, John Barth, Walker Percy, Don DeLillo, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Vasily Aksyonov, Yuz Aleshkovsky, Alexander Zinoviev, Vladimir Voinovich, Fazil Iskander, and Sasha Sokolov. Maus surveys the background of each nation's culture, language, sociology, politics, and philosophy to map the foundation on which cold war satire was built. By highlighting common themes of utopianism, technology, and propaganda, Maus effectively shows the ultimate motive of satirists on both sides was to question the various forces contributing to the cold war and to expose the absurdity of the continuous tension that pulsed between the United States and the Soviet Union for nearly half a century. Although cold war literature has been studied extensively, few critics have focused so keenly on comparisons of satirical fictions by Russian and American writers that condemn and subvert the polarizing ideologies inherent in superpower rivalry. Such a comparison reveals thematic and structural similarities that transcend specific national and cultural origins. In considering these works together, Maus locates a thoroughgoing humanistic refutation of the cold war and its operative doctrines as well as a range of proposed alternatives. Just as the cold war combatants ultimately reconciled in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, Maus seeks to bring these two literary canons together now. Their thematic scope transcends cultural differences, and, as Maus demonstrates, these writers saw that there was not only the atomic bomb to fear, but also the dangers of complete national militarization and the constant polarizing threat of emergency. Thus their cold war critiques still resonate today and invite further comparative studies such as this one.


I only ever cared about the man. … I never gave a fig for the ideologies.
… I never saw institutions as being worthy of their parts, or policies as much
other than excuses for not feeling. Man, not the mass, is what our calling is
about. It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn’t notice…. And
the ideologies trailed after these impossible events like condemned prisoners,
as ideologies do when they’ve had their day. Because they have no heart of
their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves

John le Carré, The Secret Pilgrim (1990)

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, relations between the United States and Russia have progressed through several stages. From the initial flurry of optimism about (and monetary investment in) Russia’s future as a new democracy and global trading partner, through fears of a return to Communism (or worse, the hypernationalism exemplified by Vladimir Zhirinovsky during the mid- to late 1990s) and an initially warm but increasingly strained friendship between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, American attitudes toward its former enemy have vacillated considerably since George H. W. Bush’s proclamation of a “New World Order” in January 1991. To be sure, things have changed, and all-out nuclear apocalypse has been largely forestalled—if only to be replaced by a host of alternate, less totalized, but no less immediate (at least in the popular imagination) threats, ranging from so-called rogue nations to stateless terrorist organizations such as alQaida. I believe this tendency is a dual effect of governments peopled largely with individuals who cut their teeth during the cold war and an incomplete, perhaps intentionally hobbled, effort to understand the ways in which the cold war was conducted.

As a result the philosophical and political landscape of the post–cold war world is dominated by volatility, from the economic catastrophes threatened by the 1997 Asian economic crisis and again by the international banking meltdown of 2008–9, to regional conflicts with global significance (such as NATO’s 1999 military intervention in the Balkans, the resurgence of the Palestinian intifada, and the long-standing Kashmir border dispute between India . . .

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