Vassily Aksyonov Aksyonov, Vassily - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Kollegi [Colleagues] (novel) 1961
Zvezdnyi bilet [A Ticket to the Stars] (novel) 1961
Apel' siny iz Marokko [Oranges from Morocco] (novel) 1962
Pora, moi drug, pora [It's Time, My Friend, It's Time] (novel) 1964
The Destruction of Pompei and Other Stories (short stories) 1965
Zatovarennaia bochkotara [The Tare of Barrels] (novel) 1968
Randevu [Rendezvous] (novella) 1971
Liubov'k elektrichestvu [Love for Electricity] (novel) 1971
Ozhog [The Burn] (novel) 1980
Ostrov Krym [The Island of Crimea] (novel) 1981
Skazi izjum! [Say Cheese!] (novel) 1985
V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: Kniga ob Amerike [In Search of Melancholy Baby] (nonfiction) 1987
Pokolenie zimy [Generations of Winter] (novel) 1993
Voina i tiur'ma [War and Prison] (novel) 1993
Tiur'ma i mir [Prison and Peace] (novel) 1994

∗ These works comprise a trilogy, Moskovskaia saga [Moscow Saga].

Deming Brown (essay date Spring 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Vasili Aksenov at 33," in Tri-Quarterly, No. 2, Spring, 1965, pp. 75-83.

[In the following essay, Brown examines a variety of Aksyonov's works and provides an overview of the author's career.]

Kirpichenko, a roughneck tractor driver in the Soviet Far East, begins his vacation with a three-day binge, then boards a jet for Moscow. On the plane he is fatally dazzled by the beautiful stewardess Tanya. Tamed and bemused, he spends the rest of his vacation, and all his money, flying back and forth on the Moscow-Khabarovsk run, hoping for another glimpse of Tanya. When he finally sees her again in the airport, it is too late; the broken giant retains his fair vision,...

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Priscilla Meyer (essay date Fall 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s," in Russian Literature Triquarterly, No. 6, Fall, 1973, pp. 446-60.

[In the following essay, Meyer discusses several of Aksyonov's works and comments on the author's place in the "Young Prose" movement in Russian literature.]

After Stalin's death Soviet literature had no rich indigenous tradition to proceed from directly, but there was a wide variety of elements, both Russian and Western, from which a new synthesis could be drawn. The first change that took place after 1953 broadened the range of permissible subject matter, and the first Thaw produced a rash of stories attacking bureaucratization. Subsequently,...

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John J. Johnson Jr. (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Introduction: The Life and Works of Aksyonov," in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, by Vassily Aksyonov, Ardis, 1979, pp. ix-xxvii.

[In the following essay, Johnson discusses several of Aksyonov's novels and short stories and provides a comprehensive look at the author's career.]

Vasily Pavlovich Aksenov was born on August 20, 1932 in Kazan. His mother, Eugenia Semenovna Ginzburg, was a history instructor at Kazan University who later became a well-known writer for her prison-camp memoir Journey into the Whirlwind (1962). His father, Pavel Vasilievich Aksenov, was a leading member of the Tartar Regional Committee of the Party, a professional Party man...

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Ivan Gold (review date 11 December 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exit, Pursued by a Bear," in The New York Times Book Review, December 11, 1983, p. 11.

[In the following review, Gold lauds The Island of Crimea, praising Aksyonov's skill as a novelist.]

I remember my relief as a young man to discover that the apparently monstrous mass of Greenland in the atlas is a necessary map maker's illusion, that while it is "the largest island in the world," Greenland is not, in fact, the approximate size of four Australias or capable of entirely covering the North American continent, which it abuts. But so far as I know, no one has yet blown the whistle on Rand McNally for its Soviet Union, which lumbers into the picture from...

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Jerome Donnelly (review date 28 April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Island of Crimea," in America, Vol. 150, No. 16, April 28, 1984, pp. 322-23.

[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's use of satire in The Island of Crimea is compared to the satirical elements found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels.]

A classic joke current among Russian dissidents runs, "What is the difference between Communism and capitalism? Answer: Capitalism is the exploitation of some individuals by other individuals. Communism is just the opposite." Vassily Aksyonov's new novel, The Island of Crimea, draws a sharp cultural distinction between the two "isms" by creating a geographic fantasy in which the Crimean peninsula is no...

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Ronald E. Peterson (review date Fall 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Island of Crimea, in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 28, No. 3, Fall, 1984, pp. 410-11.

[In the following review of The Island of Crimea, Peterson points out the variations in different translations of the novel and builds a case for the merits of Heim's translation.]

The Island of Crimea, a translation of Vasilij Aksenov's Ostrov Krym (1981), is the first of his novels printed abroad to appear in English. Two others, which were in fact published earlier, Ozhog and Zolotaja naša zhelezka (both 1980), have also been translated and will be brought out in the near future: The Burn, in Michael...

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Josef Skvorecký (essay date 31 December 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Mess of Mother Russia," in The New Republic, Vol. 191, No. 27, December 31, 1984, pp. 30, 32-3.

[Skvorecký is a noted Czech-Canadian political novelist. In the following review, he praises The Burn and calls Aksyonov an "epochmaking writer."]

Much of the effect of literary art depends on a kind of inside knowledge, on the reverberations of personal association. We miss a lot even in the thoroughly explicated plays of Shakespeare; and even such relatively simple works as Babbitt certainly appear richer to a Midwestern contemporary of [Sinclair] Lewis than to a high school girl studying American literature in Peking. Still, more than enough...

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Priscilla Meyer (essay date Winter 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Aksenov and Stalinism: Political, Moral and Literary Power," in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 30, No. 4, Winter, 1986, pp. 509-25.

[In the following review, Meyer discusses the influences that Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Journey Into the Whirlwind, the prison camp memoirs of Aksyonov's mother, had on The Burn.]

Stalinism has necessarily been a central subject of serious Russian literature since the 1930s. The grotesque nature of Stalinist society has generated memoirs more fantastic than fiction and novels especially rooted in history. Survivors of the experience are unavoidably concerned with the moral problems of resisting and...

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Richard Eder (review date 28 June 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of In Search of Melancholy Baby, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 28, 1987, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review, Eder discusses the shortcomings of Aksyonov's book In Search of Melancholy Baby.]

Vassily Aksyonov, whose novel, The Burn, is one of the masterpieces of dissident Soviet literature, has been living in this country for the last half-dozen years. He is not really qualified to write about the United States. He is marvelously well qualified to write about himself in the United States.

In Search of Melancholy Baby does too much of the first and too little of the second. It takes a long time for an...

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Richard Lingeman (review date 19 July 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "He Likes It Here, Mostly," in The New York Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, p. 5.

[In the following review, Lingeman comments on Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, noting that the book, an account of Aksyonov's life in America after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, provides many witty and satirical insights into life in both countries.]

In 1980, after his novel of life among the Moscow culturati, The Burn, was published in Italy, Vassily Aksyonov was expelled from the Soviet Union. Now he is an outspoken skeptic about glasnost in the Russian literary diaspora. The Burn is written in a brilliantly subversive style, stuffed with...

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Stanislaw Baranczak (review date 7 September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The New Alrightniks," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 10, September 7, 1987, pp. 36-38.

[In the following review, Baranczak discusses Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby, pointing out that the account "illustrates two sides of the émigré's problem at once."]

Every Nabokov fan remembers the scene in Pnin in which the hero, an émigré Russian scholar who has lived for years on an American college campus, attempts to purchase some sports equipment:

Pnin entered a sport shop in Waindell's Main Street and asked for a football. The request was unseasonable but he was offered one.


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Michael Wood (review date 24 January 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Patriots and Other Suspects," in The New York Times Book Review, January 24, 1988, pp. 9-10.

[In the following review, Wood discusses several plays included in Aksyonov's collection Quest for an Island.]

The cold war appears to have ended not in a thaw but in a world of thin ice. Détente itself is perhaps inseparable from suspicion, and in an uncertain world dissidents are almost impossible to hold in any sort of steady focus. Heroes abroad, rebels at home, scapegoats, martyrs, traitors, criminals, they qualify for a whole range of prominent roles. The one role they can't have, sadly, is the one they most seek: that of the person who refuses all the...

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Eva Hoffman (review date 26 July 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Soviet Dissidence as Both Sides Falter," in The New York Times, July 26, 1989, p. C21.

[In the following review, Hoffman faults Say Cheese! for its tendency to utilize jokes and satire only humorous to Russian readers, but asserts that the book provides an insightful look into Russia and its political regime.]

Among Soviet writers, moral dissidence has a long and honorable tradition. Vassily Aksyonov is one of the few, however, who have managed to match their oppositional message with an equally liberated style. In the Soviet Union, Mr. Aksyonov was celebrated as one of the most provocative voices—free-wheeling, satirical, formally daring—of the...

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Zinovy Zinik (review date 13 August 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Soviet Union Is No Joke," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 13, 1989, pp. 2, 10.

[In the following review, Zinik, a novelist, points out the autobiographical aspects of Say Cheese! and faults the novel for its use of 1960s Russian jargon.]

Vassily Aksyonov tells his story of Moscow life of the 1970s as an adventure yarn about a group of dissident photographers who, in spite of KGB schemings, produce an "underground" photography album, Say Cheese! and, having failed to publish it officially, smuggle it to the West. In flashbacks between the actions we learn life stories of all the participants of this enterprise, spearheaded by the...

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Irving Howe (review date 18 and 25 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Correlation of Farces," in The New Republic, Vol. 201, No. 3896/3897, September 18 and 25, 1989, pp. 52-53.

[In the following review, Howe lauds the farcical aspects of Say Cheese! but faults the novel's attempts at seriousness in the latter half of the book.]

There's a lot of pleasure to be had from the first half of this novel, a satiric farce about the life of culture in Brezhnev's Russia. Vassily Aksyonov, an émigré Russian now living in the United States, writes with the happy abandon of a true farceur. He commands a taste for the ridiculous, cares little for cautions of verisimilitude, and has a ready supply of puns, jokes, and saucy footnotes....

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William Phillips (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dissidents Abroad," in Partisan Review, Vol. LVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 149-50.

[In the following brief review, Aksyonov's novel Say Cheese! is lauded as a "well-made, surprisingly fluid" book.]

Conformists are all alike; dissidents are all different—and more original. Andrei Sinyavsky's and Vassily Aksyonov's new novels are striking examples of this literary rule. Say Cheese! by Aksyonov is a very amusing and skillfull work, as it charts the waters of the dissident imagination. Goodnight by Sinyavsky (writing as Abram Tertz) is a strange, haunting mixture of narrative, commentary, and rumination. Both writers live in exile,...

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Jay Parini (review date 17 July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Counterrevolutionary Families Are All the Same," in New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1994, p. 6.

[In the review of Generations of Winter below, Parini, an educator, poet, and novelist, compares Aksyonov to Leo Tolstoy and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, lauding Aksyonov's "deft historical scholarship."]

Vassily Aksyonov is the most widely admired Russian novelist of his generation. A physician by training, he enraged the Soviet literary establishment with his jazzy second novel, Ticket to the Stars (1961), which featured the urbanized, Western-influenced youth of the day. Defying censorship at every turn, he produced a blistering sequence of novels...

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Adam Hochschild (review date 7 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "War and Peace, Part II," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 7, 1994, pp. 1, 11.

[Hochschild is a nonfiction writer whose works include The Unquiet Ghost: Russians Remember Stalin. In the review below, he asserts that the model for Aksyonov's Generations of Winter is Tolstoy's War and Peace and praises Aksyonov's realistic descriptions, calling the novel "absorbing" and claiming that "everything rings true."]

Near the end of her memoirs of Stalin's gulag, the writer Eugenia Ginzburg describes an extraordinary scene. She had just finished many years' imprisonment in Kolyma—the harshest, coldest, most feared region of the vast labor...

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Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (review date 8 August 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Russian Family Copes with Stalinism's Evils," in The New York Times, August 8, 1994, p. C16.

[In the review below, Lehmann-Haupt faults Generations of Winter for its use of archaic jargon and slang but nevertheless calls the book "monumental" and finds the language less distracting as the novel progresses.]

There are a few hurdles to overcome before you can get caught up in the powerful sweep of Vassily Aksyonov's Generations of Winter, a Tolstoyan historical novel that is a departure from the author's previous, less traditional fiction (The Island of Crimea, Say Cheese!, The Burn) and traces the roller-coaster fortunes of one Russian...

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John Banville (review date 3 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "War without Peace," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 18, November 3, 1994, pp. 4-6.

[In the review below, Banville lauds Generations of Winter as a "major document of our times, and one with lasting power."]

In Generations of Winter Vassily Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a twentieth-century War and Peace, mingling fictional and historical characters in a great sprawling saga tracing the history of the Soviet Union. This first volume runs from 1925 to 1945; a second volume brings the story into the post-war era. The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. To predict at this...

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Philippe D. Radley (review date Spring 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Moscow Saga, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 387-88.

[In the following favorable review, Radley provides brief synopses of Generations of Winter, War and Prison, and Prison and Peace, which make up the three-volume set entitled Moscow Saga. Radley includes a brief discussion of three major techniques Aksyonov uses in the novels.]

Beginning in 1925 with a conversation between an American newspaperman and a politically intriguing Russian political scientist and ending with the final years of the book's central character, Dr. Boris Nikolaevich Gradov, Vassily Aksyonov's major fictional chronicle...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bayley, John. "Kitsch and the Novel." New York Review of Books XXXI, No. 18 (22 November 1984): 28-32.

A review of The Island of Crimea, The Burn, and works by several other Russian authors.

Brown, Deming. Review of The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov. Slavic Review 42, No. 2 (Summer 1983): 336-37.

Brief plot synopsis of and introduction to The Island of Crimea.

Eberstadt, Fernanda. A review of The Burn, by Vassily Aksyonov. Commentary 80, No. 1 (July 1985): 39-41.


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