Critical Context

The major theme of Aksyonov’s oeuvre is the nature and fate of Russia, a country geographically and politically located between East and West. In the imagination of Aksyonov’s generation, the East is associated with collectivism and despotism; the West with individualism and democracy. Stalin’s tyranny turned Russia into a vast, culturally barren GULag. His perversion of Communist ideology had imposed a stultifying hyperrationalism on the country: Socialist Realism in the arts, atheism in religion, and materialism in philosophy. The Revolution had betrayed its idealistic perpetrators. With the death of Stalin in 1953, the debate over Russia’s destiny was reopened by Aksyonov’s contemporaries. The 1950’s and early 1960’s were a time of exhilarating ferment for young Russian intellectuals. Censorship eased. The official ideal of rigid rationalism was challenged by that of spontaneous creativity and Socialist Realism, by more exciting artistic forms. Some of the young rejected materialist philosophical views for religious belief and idealism. Western popular culture began to penetrate Soviet society. There was strong official resistance to these winds of change. By the mid-1960’s, conservative forces had gained the upper hand. Trials took place; Czechoslovakia and then Afghanistan were invaded. Many disillusioned liberals withdrew into their private worlds, their dream of a new Russia dead. Some, like Aksyonov, emigrated—often with official encouragement. Aksyonov’s works chronicle this period, first from the optimistic perspectives of a generation on the rise confident that a new day had dawned, then growing doubts, and finally compromises and retreat. These events, stages, and themes are mirrored in Aksyonov’s fiction, the saga of a generation.