Vasily Aksyonov: Writer and dissident in Soviet Russia
Saturday 25 July 2009
The novelist Vasily Aksyonov enjoyed the freedom of Khrushchev's Thaw and came to speak for a generation, before falling out of favour.
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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