A Courtly Comedy in Three Acts

By Vladimir Voinovich
Edited and translated by Eric D. Meyer

Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies

Vladimir Voinovich’s Tribunal: A Courtly Comedy in Three Acts is a wildly satiric send-up of the 1960s/1970s Soviet show-trials by a Soviet dissident who was sometimes called ‘Russia’s greatest living satirist.’ Voinovich is also the author of Moscow 2042 and The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin. 

Paperback, 132 Pages


April 2022

£25.00, $40.00

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About This Book

Vladimir Voinovich’s Tribunal: A Courtly Comedy in Three Acts is a wildly satiric send-up of the 1960s/1970s Soviet show-trials by one of the most famous Soviet dissidents, who was also sometimes called 20th Century Russia’s ‘greatest living satirist.’ Based upon his reaction to the Sinyavski/Daniel trial in 1966, which caused him to begin to write scathingly critical letters to Premier Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet Writer’s Union and finally resulted in his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1981, Voinovich’s Tribunal is a monument to the Soviet dissidents of the Cold War period and a sardonic critique of the censorship and persecution of dissident writers everywhere. Following in the classical tradition of the theatre of the absurd that stretches from Aristophanes to Sartre, Frisch, and Havel, Voinovich’s comedy describes the black humoresque high jinks and wildly outrageous shenanigans that dizzily unfold when an unsuspecting couple of Soviet citizens, Senya and Larissa Suspectnikoff, clutching their free tickets in their innocent hands, walk into a crowded theatre, expecting to watch a Chekhovian comedy, only to become caught up in the sinister machinations of this Soviet criminal tribunal and its madcap version of the Moscow show trials. 

When The Suspectnikoffs arrive at the theater, they are surprised to find that the stage-sets for this curious theatrical production strangely resemble the precincts of a Soviet criminal justice tribunal, complete with tables and benches for The Prosecutor and The Public Defender and a wild beast-cage for The Defendant. There is also a Greek statue of The Goddess of Justice, Themis, who holds in her outstretched hand the wavering scales of Soviet justice, with on one pan, a hammer-&-sickle, and on the other, a Kalashnikoff. After a few uneasy moments while the stagehands put the props in place, The Bard strolls on stage and strums a few tunes on his guitar, in the futile attempt to set the audience at ease. But from outside the theater come the frightening sounds of screaming police-sirens and the flashing red-and-blue lights of an automobile cortege rushing past at great speeds; and when the hysterical rush of the speeding automobiles has passed, The Tribunal Members (The Chairman, The Secretary, and The Prosecutor, et al.) appear from the wings, strutting onstage in a burlesque chorus-line to the accompaniment of thunderous canned applause. And after this chorus-line of Communist Party bureaucrats has taken their places in the theater, the spectators are chilled to watch as black-clad security-police with submachine-guns appear at the theater-doors, blocking all the exits; and they discover, to their dismay, that they have become the captive audience in a mock-up version of a Stalinist show-trial. And so the third wall falls on this courtly theater, blurring the distinction between fiction and fact, falsehood and truth, nightmare and reality, as Voinovich describes the plight of Soviet citizens held hostage in the strange atmosphere of delirium and unreality that was characteristic of the declining and falling Soviet Union during stagnant chill of the 1970s Brezhnev years.

After a few more uneasy moments, Larissa stands up and whispers: “Senya, I don’t understand what’s going on here! Why are there so many people with guns?” To which Senya replies: “Oh, calm down, Lara! Why are you so nervous? It’s just a show!” The Suspectnikoffs do not realize that by questioning this sinister tribunal, they are destined to become the defendants in a Soviet show-trial. But the show-trial must go on! And as The Chairman says, “Where there’s a show-trial, you know, we need somebody to try!” Senya protests his innocence and attempts to get away. But protestations of innocence have no bearing on these proceedings. And by the end of Act I Scene 1, Senya has been arrested and placed in the defendant’s cage, while his faithful wife, Larissa, still stands behind her man, pleading for his release without quite believing in either his guilt or his innocence. And so Vladimir Voinovich’s Tribunal: A Courtly Comedy in Three Acts also goes on, wavering dizzily between the extremes of sardonic comic bathos and seriocomic tragedy, until Suspectnikoff finally becomes a world-famous dissident, calling upon the world’s leaders of to rise to his defense and inspiring protest movements in the Western democracies. But is Suspectnikoff to be admired for his heroic posturing? Or has he simply submitted to the pressures of the Western media to play the stereotyped role of The Soviet Dissident, who then becomes a pawn in the sinister spy-games of the Cold War superpower standoff between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R? The staggering climax of this absurdist melodrama leaves these difficult questions suspended in doubt as Suspectnikoff is dragged offstage and the stage-curtain falls on the whole cast of characters and the no-longer-innocent spectators of Tribunal: A Courtly Comedy in Three Acts.


“This new translation brings Voinovich, an important Soviet dissident writer who became wildly popular during Perestroika but (is comparatively) unknown in the West, into the overall context of Soviet dissident literature. The book would make a valuable contribution to the field and certainly appeal to scholars and general readers who are interested in Russian literature. —Marat Grinberg, Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities, Department of Russian, Reed College

Author Information

Eric D. Meyer is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. from the UW-Madison (1991). He is the author of Questioning Martin Heidegger (University Press, 2103).


Anthem Series on Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies

Table of Contents

Introduction: Please Allow Me to Introduce ... Vladimir Voinovich’s Tribunal and Soviet Samizdat Writing; Dramatis Personae; First Act; First Intermission; Second Act; Second Intermission; Third Act; Index of Names.


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