Vassily Aksyonov 1932–
(Full name Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov; also transliterated as Vassily Aksenov) Russian novelist, dramatist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and children's author.
The following entry provides an overview of Aksyonov's career through 1995. For further information of his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 22 and 37.
Widely known for his association with the "youth prose" movement in Russian literature, Vassily Aksyonov has established himself as a satirist whose topics include political corruption, the Soviet regime, alienation, adolescent angst, and cultural differences between the East and West. His surrealistic techniques coupled with his use of jargon and slang are trademark characteristics of Aksyonov's fiction. The blending of real historical events into his novels has also distinguished Aksyonov's work. Novels such as Ozhog (1980; The Burn) and Ostrov Krym (1981; The Island of Crimea) address a variety of issues such as political imprisonment, exile, corruption, and isolation.
Born on August 20, 1932, in Kazan, U.S.S.R., Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov has gained increasing recognition as a writer of satirical, surrealistic fiction. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University. Her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962) established her as a well-known writer and heavily influenced Vassily's most ambitious and successful novel, The Burn. His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksyonov, was a professional Communist Party member. Both of Aksyonov's parents were impprisoned in 1937, and in 1948 he joined his mother in Magadan, where she was living in exile, and completed his elementary education in 1950. In 1956 he graduated from the First Leningrad Medical Institute as a medical doctor. Aksyonov served as staff physician in a tuberculosis clinic until 1958 and as a specialist in adolescent tuberculosis until 1960. After the publication of his novel Kollegi (1961; Colleagues) in 1960 in two issues of Yunost' (Youth) magazine, Aksyonov left medicine to pursue writing full time. During the 1960s Aksyonov's novels enjoyed a period of popularity when Soviet restraints on literature were less rigid. In the 1970s, censorship and increasing conflict with Soviet officials prompted him to leave his homeland. Called the Russian J. D. Salinger by many critics for his treatment of youth, alienation, and the search for meaning, Aksyonov has been praised for the wide scope of his novels, his social satire, and his historical scholarship. His works continue to be translated into English, and currently Aksyonov is again being recognized as a prominent voice in literature.
Aksyonov's first two novels, Colleagues and Zvezdnyi bilet (1961; A Ticket to the Stars), received widespread attention in the Soviet Union. A Ticket to the Stars focuses on rebellious teenagers in Moscow and was popular for its depiction of rowdy, flippant youth. Critiqued heavily for its experimental nature and its use of jargon and slang, the novel offended many Soviet officials. The novel's irreverent attitude and the author's subsequent writings prompted a public scolding from Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963 and a forced apology from Aksyonov. Pora, moi drug, pora (1964; It's Time, My Friend, It's Time) examines the themes of alienation and the search for meaning. The surrealistic novel The Burn has many autobiographical elements and traces the development of five alternate versions of Tolya Von Steinbock's persona. Divided into three sections, The Burn focuses on three different periods in Tolya's life. In The Island of Crimea, set on the Crimean peninsula, Aksyonov imagines that Crimea is an autonomous society separated from the Soviet Union. The novel is another social satire reliant on a stretch of the imagination, but it is deemed less surrealistic and far-fetched than Aksyonov's previous works. Skazi izjum! (1985; Say Cheese!) presents an account of Aksyonov's emigration to America and provides an insightful look into Soviet culture and regime. Pokolenie zimy (1993; Generations of Winter) is a sweeping epic that begins during the 1920s and ends with the conclusion of World War II. The novel has been compared to the works of Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Throughout his career Aksyonov has presented satires of both Eastern and Western society. His work has frequently been criticized for its use of dated slang, jargon, surrealistic techniques, inside jokes, and farcical situations. Critic Priscilla Meyer asserts that A Ticket to the Stars and Colleagues both attempt "to show that while contemporary youth may look and talk like stiliagi ("beatniks"), they nonetheless shared the ideals of the previous generation." Examining themes of alienation and adolescent rebellion, A Ticket to the Stars offended the "Old Guard," but was very popular with the Russian youth, according to Meyer. Aksyonov's critique of the Russian regime continued in The Burn, and the author was forced to leave his homeland upon the novel's publication in 1980. In his review of The Burn, Czech novelist Josef Skvorecky calls Aksyonov "an epoch-making writer" whose "stunning inferno" of Stalinism reminded him of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Critics such as Fernanda Eberstadt fault the novel for its "authorial self-indulgence," and "stale literary fashions," but most critics regard it highly. Meyer states: "By recapitulating his own biography, Aksyonov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s." Say Cheese! likewise is lauded for its insightful look at life during the Soviet regime. Eva Hoffman describes the book as a "disturbing and persuasive probe into the inner mechanisms of the Soviet machine on the eve of potential disintegration—or glasnost." Critic Jay Parini calls Generations of Winter "a masterly, rather self-consciously Tolstoyan epic that opens in the late 1920s and ends, hauntingly, amid the ruins of World War II." According to Adam Hochschild review of the novel, Aksyonov's blending of fact and fiction, his frequent quoting of great Russian poets, and his excellent grasp of history allow the author to present an "absorbing," all-encompassing epic in which "everything rings true."