Vassily Aksyonov

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107

Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov (uhk-SYUH-nuhv) was the leading figure among those Soviet writers who came of age following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. The writers of the new generation dreamed of turning their country away from the nightmare of Stalinism toward a new future—socialism with a human face. Literature became the herald and beacon for the young generation, and Aksyonov as the controversial leader of the “young prose” movement became its spokesman and chronicler.

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Aksyonov’s parents, both committed Communists, were falsely arrested as “enemies of the people” in 1937. Aksyonov rejoined his freed mother and stepfather, a Catholic doctor-prisoner, in Siberia at age seventeen. Because “it’s easier for doctors in the camps,” it was decided that Aksyonov would attend medical school in Leningrad, from which he graduated in 1956. Taking advantage of the “thaw,” the young doctor began to write. With the success of his first novel, Colleagues, Aksyonov turned to full-time writing. He became a major figure on the cultural scene with A Ticket to the Stars, a landmark book that served as the rallying point for the new generation. Soviet readers were not accustomed to sympathetic accounts of youthful alienation and were shocked by the book’s language and its young heroes’ irreverent attitude toward authority. In March, 1963, Nikita Khrushchev called a meeting of Soviet writers at which he half-cajolingly, half-threateningly castigated Aksyonov and his colleagues.

Throughout the rest of the 1960’s, Aksyonov succeeded in publishing only two further novels. His many short stories were even more popular: The most famous was “Halfway to the Moon” (1963); the best was “Victory” (1965). As publication became more difficult, Aksyonov turned to the theater, which he saw as a forum for social satire. Between 1963 and 1968 he wrote four plays, but only one, Vsegda v prodazhe (always on sale), survived the censor before it too was banned in 1972. Aksyonov also worked on a number of film scripts.

The Steel Bird, written in 1965 but first published more than a decade later in the United States, marks a crucial turning point for Aksyonov both stylistically and thematically. The earlier writings had remained within the limits of realism, and their optimistic themes were more social than political. The Steel Bird is a modernist political allegory warning of the return of Stalinism. The major work of the 1970’s was The Burn, written between 1969 and 1975 but published, again only in the West, in 1980. The long, complex novel is an indictment of the Russian intelligentsia for its moral collapse before the resurgent (if milder) Stalinism of the mid-1960’s.

Aksyonov was permitted to accept a one-term appointment as Regents’ Lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles in 1975. The experience is reflected in his second major novel of the 1970’s, The Island of Crimea, a futuristic fantasy in which Crimea has become an independent capitalist supercivilization reminiscent of Southern California. The novel is also Aksyonov’s most bitter indictment of the Soviet Union, for after the free Crimeans’ vote for reunification with Mother Russia, that country, unable to grasp the idea, invades. During the late 1970’s, Aksyonov and a number of his colleagues boldly undertook to publish Metropol, an uncensored literary anthology. Strong government pressure was brought to bear upon the contributors. Aksyonov resigned from the Writers’ Union in protest and was, in effect, forced to emigrate. In the months before his emigration, Aksyonov wrote his best play, The Heron, which he dedicated to his Metropol friends. The heron, a symbol of freedom, is killed at the end of the play, although there is hope that, phoenixlike, it may arise from the ashes.

Aksyonov arrived in the West in July of 1980. His major unpublished works of the 1970’s, The Burn and The Island of Crimea, appeared first in émigré Russian editions and then in translation. In the United States Aksyonov taught at various universities and was a Fellow at the prestigious Woodrow Wilson International Center and a resident of Washington, D.C. His first “American” novel, Say Cheese!, is loosely based upon the Metropol affair, although the scene is changed to the world of Moscow photographers rather than writers. Aksyonov was an active spokesman for Russian culture, making many broadcasts and participating in numerous conferences. He also proved a prolific journalist in both the émigré and American press. After his departure from the Soviet Union, Aksyonov’s works were banned until, with the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union, his work again became officially acceptable in his homeland.

Aksyonov’s tales often involve a search for some ideal, some goal, whose attainment would resolve all the perplexities of human existence. This ideal goal, never attained, assumes different forms in different works. The young heroes of the “youth prose” period scorn safe, personally advantageous choices and aspire to their “ticket to the stars.” The passengers in Surplussed Barrelware share a dream that the goal of their journey is to find “the Good Man.” A more frequent variant, the mysterious “Unknown Woman,” occurs in many of the works. The scientists in Our Golden Ironburg seek the mysterious “double fyu.” The Burn’s artists and scientists all strive toward miraculous creations, as well as the mysterious beauty, Alisa. The much-sought heron in the play of that name (the heron image occurs in other works as well) signifies love, altruism, freedom, and creativity. The Burn is the first Aksyonov work to state explicitly the theme at which he had previously only hinted. In the corrupt world of The Burn, only one character possesses the moral fiber to oppose unwaveringly the evil of Stalinism—Sanya Gurchenko, a Russian Jew who escapes a labor camp to become a Jesuit theologian in the West. He argues that all human beings seek God but that they seek God in different ways. Human beings approach this ultimate truth only in moments of intuitive, suprarational inspiration. The higher emotions, such as compassion, charity, and the urge for justice, are rationally inexplicable. Creativity is similarly transrational. Christianity, precisely because it is concerned with such unaccountable human phenomena, offers a basis for moral action.

Aksyonov was a major voice in Russian literature. He had a great theme, the fate of his country and his generation, and immense technical facility as a writer. Russian modernism traces its roots to Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852), with his love of the absurd and fascination with the play and power of language itself. These aspects of Gogol were emphasized by Andrey Bely, the Symbolist whose Petersburg (1913-1914) was the first great Russian modernist novel. This tradition, suppressed following the imposition of Socialist Realism circa 1934, was richly revitalized by the work of Vassily Aksyonov.

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