Vasily Aksyonov: Writer and dissident in Soviet Russia

Author: By John Riley

Aksyonov’s father, Pavel, was a senior administrator in Kazan and his mother,
Yevgenia Ginzburg, a teacher and journalist. However, in 1937 both were
arrested for alleged Trotskyism. Older step-siblings Alexei and Maya went to
relatives in Leningrad while Aksyonov stayed with his grandmother and nanny.
Shortly afterwards, as the son of “enemies of the people”, he was
put in Kostroma state orphanage. Alexei would die in the siege of Leningrad
in 1941.

In 1938 his uncle rescued him, though he was forced to denounce Aksyonov’s
father. In 1949 his mother was released and exiled in the far- eastern Gulag
city of Magadan. Aksyonov joined her before studying medicine in Kazan and
Leningrad, graduating in 1956. His mother had been rehabilitated the
previous year, but her searing two-part memoir Journey into the Whirlwind
and Within the Whirlwind was only published in the Soviet Union in 1988.

The veteran novelist Valentin Katayev, who had moved from experimentalism to
socialist realism and back again, encouraged Aksyonov to write. His first
novel, The Colleagues (Kollegi, 1960), drew on his life as a doctor.
Aksyonov became one of the leading figures of the shestidesyatniki ? the
1960s generation ? which was crucial to Khrushchev’s Thaw.

Aksyonov’s popularity grew with A Ticket to the Stars (Zvyozdny bilet, 1961)
and It’s Time, My Friend, It’s Time (Pora, moi drug, pora, 1964), which were
fast-moving, slangy and full of Americanisms. They perfectly captured the
world of the stilyagi ? style-obsessed Soviet youths, independent and
Western-influenced (through bootleg records). “It was amazing,”
Aksyonov later recalled. “We were being brought up as robots, but began
to listen to jazz.”

A series of popular novels, film scripts and plays followed but Aksyonov’s
work danced on the edge of acceptability (Khrushchev extracted an apology
for A Ticket to the Stars). Entering the period of Brezhnev’s stagnation, it
became increasingly fantastical and satirical. The Burn (Ozhog, 1975),
wildly inventive, anarchic, almost Gogolian, follows five alternate versions
of its hero through three time periods. Josef Skvorecky likened it to Bosch.
It was banned, as was The Island of Crimea (Ostrov Krym, 1979), an alternate
history in which Crimea is an island which rejected Bolshevism.

In 1978 Aksyonov’s translation of EL Doctorow’s Ragtime was published but
attracted little press attention, probably because he was one of around 20
writers working on a collection of stories to be called Metropol. Misreading
the degree of freedom they might be allowed, they planned to include
previously banned stories. When Metropol shared that fate, there was an
international outcry. 1980 saw The Burn published in Italy and Aksyonov
invited to UCLA. This turned out to be a step too far and Aksyonov was
stripped of his Soviet citizenship. Moving to Washington DC, he taught
Russian literature at George Mason University, also broadcasting on Voice of
America and Radio Liberty.

He continued to write in Russian, feeling that his English would never be the
equal of his imagination. His strain of autobiographical fantasy continued
in Say Cheese (Skazhi izyum, 1983), which satirises intellectual life in
stagnation Moscow. But, though he was happy in America, In Search of
Melancholy Baby (V poiskakh grustnogo bebi, 1987) was not an unalloyed paean
to his new homeland: in Hollywood “everyone’s eyes seemed glazed over
with dollar signs”. Eventually he did write Yolk of an Egg (1989) in
English, but it flopped.

After perestroika, his citizenship was reinstated and he regularly visited the
country that now published his work freely. In 1994 he retired from the
university and his overtly Tolstoyan epic Generations of Winter
(Moskov-skaya saga) appeared, following the Gradov family from the death of
Lenin to the death of Stalin. Its tenth anniversary was marked in Russia
with an adaptation as a 20-hour TV mini-series.

In 2004 Aksyonov left the US, spending a little time in Biarritz before
returning to Moscow. That year his historical fantasy set in 18th-century
Russia, Voltairiens and Voltairiennes (Volteryantsy i volteryanki) was
awarded the Russia Booker Prize.

In 2008 he suffered a stroke while driving and had been in hospital since.

Vasily Pavlovich Aksyonov, author: born Kazan 20 August 1932; married first
Kira Mendeleva (one son), second Maya Zmeul; died Moscow 6 July 2009.

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