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|Vasily Aksyonov (1932-2009)|
One of the foremost Russian novelist, who entered the literary
stage in the 1960s as a spokesman for young generation of the
country. Vasily Aksyonov major works include A Ticket to the Stars (1961), The Burn, written between 1969 and
1975, and The Island of Crimea
(1981). Both of Aksynov's parents, devoted communists, were arrested
during Stalin's purges in the late 1930s. Aksyonov himself was forced
exile with his family in 1980 after publishing with other writers an
unauthorized magazine in the United States. His Soviet citizenship was
restored in 1990.
"And what can be more beautiful, more exhilarating to a man than independence? A man who once gets that feeling of independence (to me it's a combination of arrogance, determination and special sort of heart tremor) will tremble over it, as he would tremble over a delicate, fragile vase. . . . ." (from A Ticket to the Stars, 1961)
Vasily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born in Kazan, a town on the banks of the River Volga. His father, Pavel Aksyonov, was the mayor of Kazan until his arrest in 1937. Aksyonov saw his father again in 1955, when an amnesty was granted to a great many prisoners. Pavel Aksyonov remained a Bolshevik more or less after his release. He died in 1991.
Charged with "Trotskyist terrorist activity," also Aksyonov's mother Evgeniia Ginzburg, a professor at the University in the Department of History, was sent to gulag. Later she gave account of her eighteen-year experiences in prisons, labor camps and forced exile in her two-volume memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind (1979). Separated from her husband, she formed a relationship with Anton Walter, a German doctor, who was also a political prisoner.
Aksyonov was brough up in Kazan and Madagan. Part of his
boyhood he spent in a state-run orphanage in Kostroma for "children of
the state" before moving in with his aunt. After World War II
he went to the Kolyma camps to join his mother, who lived in exile in
the Gulag town of Magadan. The town was built by camp inmates. In Journey into the Whirlwind she
described their reunion:
"He did not hesitate. He walked over to me and self-consciously put his hand on my shoulder. And then finally I heard the word that I had been afraid of never hearing again, and that now came to me across a chasm of almost twelve years, from the time before all those courts and prisons, before the death of my first-born, before all those nights in Elgen. . . .
Stalin's death in 1953 brought an end to mass terror and greater freedom in Russia. This period, called the Thaw after the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg, witnessed First Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's speech, in which he denounced Stalin's crimes, the introduction of modern kitchens, and the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Aksyonov recalled the effect of Hollywood films: "There was a time when my peers and I conversed mostly with citations from those films. For us it was a window into the outside world from the Stalinist stinking lair." Joseph Brodsky once said that Johnny "Tarzan" Weismuller's guttural jungle yell "did more for de-Stalinization that all of Khrushchev's speeches."
As a student Aksyonov
was hardworking, but teachers regarded him with confusion: he was also
free-spirited member of the stilyagi subculture (the Soviet Union's
beatniks; "style apers"),
listened to modern American jazz, and openly admired Western writers
such as Moravia, Böll, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger. Bandy, a
traditional Russian winter sport, did not interest him, Aksyonov's
obsession was basketball.
In 1950, Aksyonov left Magadan to study Medicine at
Kazan University, where the KGB kept an eye on his activities. His
mother had adviced him to attend medical school because it was "easier
for doctors to survive in the camps." He continued his studies in
but was not highly motivated for a career in medicine. During these
years he moved from
apartment to apartment and wrote poems and stories, which he read to
his friends in the literary section of the Leningrad District Youth
At the age of 24, Aksyonov qualified as a doctor. He worked at
the quarantine station of the port of Leningrad, where he met British,
German, and Finnish sailors, who were willing to buy and sell on the
black market – a charasteristic of the Soviet economy, which the
government failed to suppress. Genuine American jeans were "a miracle
equal to the remains of a U-2." For a period Aksyonov worked in the
Lake Onezhsk. After marrying, he moved to Moscow, where he was employed
by the Tuberculosis Institute.
In 1959, abandoning his career as a physician, Aksyonov
devoted himself to writing. His first significant work was Colleagues
(1961). It was edited by Valentin Kataev and
published in the journal Yunost
(Youth). This partly autobiographical novella dealt with senior
students at a
medical institute. Kataev's
magazine published also Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(b. 1933), Bella
Akhmadulina (1937-2010), Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997), Anatoli Gladilin
(b. 1935), and others.
Aksyonov's work rapidly came to epitomize the new spirit of freedom in artistic expression and lifestyle. After visiting the Far East in 1961, Aksyonov published 'Oranges from Morocco' (1963), which dealt with young workers on the Island of Sakhalin. Each chapter was written from the point of view of a different narrator. His stories 'Halfway to the Moon' (1962) and 'Papa, What Does That Spell?' (1962) were attacked by conservative reviewers.
Along with other writers such as Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010), Aksyonov became the target of authorities, who were horrifyed by the Westernization of Russian youth culture. The Komsomol secretary Sergei Pavlov specially criticized works by Ehrenburg, Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov, Voinovich, Nekrasov, and Yashin. In March 1963 Khrushchev gathered the cultural elites for a meeting, in which he said that Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Aksyonov could be redeemed through the party's "fatherly" care. Others had to be ostracized and above all "kept away from Soviet youth." As Aksyonov left the Kremlin after this disastrous meeting, he began to rave, "Don't you understand that our government is a gang, with no holds barred?" Although Aksyonov admitted his "mistakes" in an article in Pravda, in the next novel, a love story, one of the side characters was an outsider, who is not rejected by the society.
A Ticket to the Stars (also as A Starry Ticket) featured Moscow teenages in search of their own way of life. The central characters are three boys and a romantic girl, who rebel against what they consider false values. After graduating from high school, they take a vacation in Tallin, Estonia, perhaps the most European Soviet city. Their language, full of slang and jargon, both broadened the literary canon of Socialist realism, and demonstrated the difference between the generations. Many of the critics reproached Aksyonov for celebrating nihilism and cynicism, and imitating such writers as J.D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye had appeared in Russian in 1959. A Ticket to the Stars was subsequently translated into some 30 western languages.
The novel was quickly made into a film, entitled My Younger Brother. Aksyonov
co-authored the screenplay and
wrote the screen version of Colleagues.
This work was also adapted for the stage. Aksyonov's first original
play, Always on Sale,
was a great success in Oleg Efremov's 1965 production at Moscow's
Sovremennik Theatre, but banned in the late 1960s. The songs had lyrics
Yevtushenko and music by Andrei Volkonsky (1933-2008). Unleashing his
rage on a story by Aksyonov, Khrushchev once stormed that the author
made a mockery of everything that Soviet people hold dear. According
to Aksyonov, the literature of socialist realism is "not literature at
all, but some kind of 'surrogate' produced by 'graphomaniacs'." (Soviet Fiction Since
Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature by Rosalind J. Marsh,
1985, p. 21)
Voznesensky and the avant-garde composer Mikael Tariverdiev
(1931-1996), he collaborated in an opera called Dlinnonogo
(Longlegs). "The theatre attracts me with its unrestricted
possibilities for hyperbole, grotesquerie, and fantasy," he once stated
autobiographical piece (World Authors 1950-1970, edited by
John Wakeman, 1975, pp. 19-20).
At the time of the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Aksyonov and Yevtushenko were on vacation in the Crimea; Yevtushenko send a cable to Leonid Brezhnev protesting the invasion, Aksyonov drowed his protest in alcohol. The suppression of dissidents and repression of intellectuals during the Brezhnev era turned Aksyonov's optimism into bitter pessimism. Like many dissident authors, he found that science fiction and fantasy offered him a means to treat, in disguised form, taboo subjects. The Steel Bird (1965, published 1977) presented a Kafkaesque allegory of Stalinism. In the story a mysterious bird-like figure dominates a block of flats. In the play Your Murderer (published in English, 1977), a cocktail of popular junk and literary allusions, a writer tries to prevent the Masculinus Whiskey company from gaining control of the society, but he is destroyed by his own creation, a monster named Pork Sausage. Five months before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Aksyonov published his satire on the Soviet utopia, Zatovarennaia bochkotara (1968, Surplussed Barrelware).
traveled abroad a great deal in the early 1970s, to Argentina, Japan,
Paris, Rome, Delhi, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. In 1975-76
Aksyonov was visiting professor at the University of California, Los
Angeles. While traveling in
France, he met the 91-year old artist Marc Chagall, who thought that he
Ivan Aksyonov, a member of Mayakovsky's circle. By
the late 1970s, much of Aksyonov's work remained
unpublished because the authorities considered it dangerous. However,
his texts were quietly distributed in samizdat editions or smuggled
into the country in foreign language editions. Unable to live by his
talents as a novelist and short story writer, Aksyonov's main source of
income came from screenplays.
The Island of Crimea
(1980) was a
hilarious parallel-world novel about Russian nationalism and
self-delusion. The Crimea is an island, rather than peninsula, where
pre-revolutionary "Old Russia has remained in the White hands. Far from
a model society, it is a world of materialism and paranoia. At the end
the island is invaded by the Soviet neighbour. Noteworthy, at the time
the novel was written, Crimea was still part of Ukraine, but it was
seized from Ukraine by Russia in 2014.
magnum opus, The Burn
(1969-75), was both an autobiography and a
tragi-comic picture of the author's generation. Joseph Brodsky, who
read the manuscript of the novel for the publishing house Farrar,
Straus & Giroux,'s viewed it so disparagingly that the publishers
turned it down. This ended Aksyonov's friendship with Brodsky. His next
novel, Say Cheese
(1980-83), featured an opportunist, Alik Konsky, who makes himself
known in the West as a victim of totalitarianism. The coded version of
the Metropole scandal opened
also the workings of the Soviet security organs.
In 1979 Aksyonov edited with other writers an uncensored
literary almanac, MetrOpol,
which was published by Ardis in Ann Arbour, Michigan. This marked a
watershed in his life. It was not a dissident
publication but the attempt to undermine the control of the printed
word made government officials furious, and as a result, Aksyonov lost
his membership in the Union of
Soviet Writers. On 21 July, 1980, he left Russia, where his books were
immediately cleared from the shelves of most stores and libraries, and
the United States.
Some Western critics have called Aksyonov's Moskovskaia saga (1993-1994, Generations of Winter) "the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace." Nevertheless, the novel was not particularly well received by Russian critics; it was compared to Anatoly Rybakov's trilogy Deti Arbata (1987, Children of the Arbat) but worse. Aksyonov rebutted criticism by arguing that his work was a soap opera actually. Moskovskaia saga, which traced the fate of the Gradov family and the impact of Stalinism on its members, was made into a popular TV series in 2004. Aksyonov's last finished novel, The Mysterious Passion (2009), portrayed in a slightly veiled form central characters of the liberal intelligentsia of the 1960s (the socalled shestidesjatniki), Bella Akhmadulina, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Andrei Tarkovskii, Andrei Voznesensky, Vladimir Vysotskii, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Aksyonov himself, and others. With intense richness of detail, this nostalgic and engaging evocation of the period has been called a "Russian Mad Men," referring to the awarded American television series.
Aksyonov taught at The Johns Hopkins University, Goucher University, and then held a senior professorship from 1988 to 2004 at George Mason University, Virginia. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that Aksyonov was allowed to visit his home country. The first invitation came from the U.S. Embassy, not from the Soviet officials. From 2004 he spent long periods with his wife in Moscow. He also had an apartment in Biarritz, France. Aksyonov was a member of the Russian PEN, but in difference from many other members of the organization, he defended with Yevgeni Popov the Russian government in the Second Chechen War.
When accepting the 2004 Russian Booker Prize for Voltairian Men and Women,
Aksyonov raised a toast to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of
Yukos Oil Co., and Russia's most famous
political prisoner. In
January 2008, Aksyonov suffered a stroke while driving his car. Never
fully recovering, he died on July 6, 2009, at a Moscow hospital.
President Dmitri Medvedev praised Aksyonov as the literary
embodiment of the 1960s period of hope. Aksyonov
was married twice, first to Kira Mendeleva in 1957; they had one son.
After divorce in 1979, he married Maia Karmen, who had left her
second husband, the documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen.
For further reading: 'Aksenov, Vasily (Pavlovich),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); The Function of the Grotesque in Vasilij Aksenov by Per Dalgård (1982); The Artist and the Tyrant: Vassily Aksenov's Works in the Brezhnev Era by Konstantin Kustanovich (1992); Their Father's Voice: Vassily Aksyonov, Venedikt Erofeev, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov by Cynthia Simmons (1993); 'Vasilii Pavlovich Aksenov' by Arnold McMillin and Priscilla Meyer, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Aksyonov, Vasily Pavlovich' by Konstantin Kustanovich, in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1., ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Russia's Dangerous Texts: Politics Between the Lines by Kathleen F. Parthe (2004); The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin by Stephen F. Cohen (2011)