Soviet Mammoth: Vasily Aksyonov, 1932–2009

By Margarita Meklina

Even in his late seventies, the Russian writer Vasily Aksyonov played tennis, jogged, smoked like a chimney, listened to jazz, dressed with a certain bohemian flavor, flirted with women, divided his life between sunny Biarritz and snobbish Moscow, and drove a car. It was in the car that he had a stroke, caused a minor accident and, since January of last year, never woke from a coma. He died in July 2009 in a Moscow hospital, at the age of seventy-six, and his death immediately prompted numerous TV shows in his honor, rock concerts, and a flow of memories from his prominent friends, most of them shestidesiatniki (the Sixties' generation), who climbed on stage to remember "Vasya," themselves showing signs of aging and approaching death.

Immediately after his passing, Aksyonov's life became a symbol of what had been happening in Russia since he was born in 1932, in a family of a staunch Russian Communist who was jailed in 1937, during the height of Stalin's repressions, and the journalist Yevgenia Ginzburg, Jewish by birth, who was sent to Gulag for ten years. Her non-fiction work, Steep Route (it appeared in English under the title Within the Whirlwind), which describes her grueling experience, became a must-read during Perestroika and later was turned into a theatre play.

Little Vasya was placed in an orphanage, and only in his teenage years was able to go to Magadan, a cold and lonely place in the Soviet Far East, filled with repressed dissidents and violent criminals, to reunite with his mother. Later in life, the writer boasted that before her death in 1977, he took his mother to Europe "where she could speak all the languages that she knew and look at European paintings."

Hiding the fact that his parents were political prisoners, Aksyonov entered the Medical Institute in Leningrad, upon his parents' advice that, if sent to a Gulag, doctors "usually have a better chance of survival" and became a medical doctor. During this time he started writing and sent his short stories to Yunost [Youth], one of the most prestigious literary magazines of the time. In 1961 and 1963, movies were made based on Aksyonov's novels Colleagues (about medical doctors) and Ticket to the Stars, which propelled Aksyonov to fame.

There were no political overtones in those works, which had energetic language, dynamic plots and focused on the romantic ideals of the younger generation. Yet, in the Seventies two Aksyonov's novels, autobiographical; The Burn, where he described his youth in Magadan, and utopian; The Island of Crimea which showed what Russia would have been, if not for the violent Communist coup of 1917 and the victory of the Red Army, were censored and not allowed to be published.

In 1980, Aksyonov left the Soviet Union for the U.S. and stayed there prompting officials to revoke his Soviet citizenship. To place things into proper context, it is worth noting that revocation of Soviet citizenship for all the immigrants, including World War II veterans, was a usual practice in Russia until 1992, and the only difference with Aksynov was that the Soviet veterans suffered in silence, stripped both of the citizenship and their well-deserved pensions. Because of Aksyonov's fame and his years at "Radio Liberty," all the Soviet ugliness suddenly was brought to light.

In 1990, his Soviet citizenship was restored, and the ostracized Aksyonov again became popular in Russia, with his works describing life in the U.S. suddenly available in Novyi Mir [New World] and other major literary magazines, with circulations of more than a million. Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby reached me in a perfectly bound Novyi Mir: there was such a love for written language those years in Russia that people would borrow magazines for just one night from each other, and binding them made perfect sense.

In Search of Melancholy Baby is a unique travelogue describing the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, American college campuses, drive-through restaurants, hippies, free love and free spirit. Inundated with American slang and describing the highly individualistic society, this work was a fresh breeze in a country which guarded itself with an iron gate and placed the "working collective" before individual happiness.

Grateful to the U.S. for giving him shelter, Aksyonov still bitterly noted that he had to leave America with a grudge against its publishing industry. This industry, in Aksyonov's words, turned books into a commodity and had a growing practice of rejecting novels where protagonists simply try to understand what is going on inside themselves. Aksynov claimed that in contemporary Russia this process of devaluing the "self-expression books" is a bit slower.

After teaching for twenty years at various American universities, Aksyonov retired, bought a home in Biarritz and started commuting between France and Moscow, becoming a familiar figure in Russia, admired and hated by many. Known mostly by the older generation for his Sixties success and for being a dissident, he left the younger generations indifferent to his former exploits: nowadays, Russia tries to forget its gloomy past, and stories about repressions and dissidents raise teenager's eyebrows, followed by sighs of boredom. Still, newer Aksyonov's works become known even to these younger generations, due to the twenty-two-part television series based on his work, Generations of Winter.

Awarded the Russian Booker Prize in 2005 for the novel Voltairiens and Voltairiennes about life in France in the eighteenth century, a novel criticized by many and read by none due to its highly-wrought style, unneeded embellishments, and complex themes, Aksyonov continued writing. In January 2008 he said in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda that he was ready to die and would die very soon. A week after the interview he had a stroke and fell into coma, not reacting to relatives who surrounded his hospital bed. Rumors had it that he was still responding to jazz.

In the U.S. he became a symbol of the last Soviet dissident writer with revoked Soviet citizenship; in Russia, former dissidents are perceived as archaic mammoths totally irrelevant to modern life and unable to grasp reality. Aksyonov succeeded in acquiring new fame by adapting to a modern Russian reality, and his uneven yet frequently brilliant literary output is worthy of reexamination.

Margarita Meklina is a bilingual essayist and fiction writer originally from St. Petersburg currently residing in San Francisco. In 2003, she was awarded the Andrei Bely prize for her Russian collection of short stories Battle at St. Petersburg. In 2009, she was awarded the Russian Prize, established for Russian writers living abroad by the Fund of the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for her manuscript My Criminal Connection to Art. Her English-language articles have appeared in The Contemporary Pacific, The Context (by Dalkey Archive), Landfall (New Zealand), and many other publications.


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