By Marie Arana-Ward, Washington Post Staff Writer.
Vassily Aksyonov. Say it to a Washingtonian and you’re likely to get a blank stare. And yet Aksyonov may well be the most important writer in this century to hold a Washington address. He has been hailed as a Salinger, a Dostoevsky, a Hemingway, a Tolstoy. Aksyonov is one of the giants of 20th-century Russian literature, but after 16 years of Washington tenure, hardly anyone seems to know he is here.
It is a curious juncture for a man who was once the leading edge of Russia’s literary avant-garde — a cocky cult figure with the artistry of a Pynchon and the mass appeal of a rock star. In the years of the shestidesyatniki — the Soviet ’60s Beat generation — Aksyonov’s stories commanded press runs of 2 million and sold out in a week.
Few novelists in America today can match that kind of star power. Many would envy it. Serious writers don’t get much attention these days. Not from the American public, and certainly not from the state. Then again, things could be worse. As the poet Osip Mandelstam once wryly noted, Russians cannot accuse their government of neglecting writers. It has murdered too many of them.
“I know why you’re writing all that trash, Aksyonov!” Nikita Khrushchev once yelled at him from a podium in the Politburo, waving his bearlike hands in the author’s direction. It was March 1963, and the wiry young Aksyonov had been summoned to the Kremlin to answer for his second novel, “Ticket to the Stars,” which was fueling the imagination of Russia’s dissident youth. “I know exactly why you’re writing it! You’re seeking revenge for your father’s death!”
“But my father is alive.”
“What? I know for certain he is dead,” growled Khrushchev. It was true that Aksyonov’s father had languished many years in Stalin’s camps.
“No, Nikita Sergeyevich, he is still alive. Believe me. I saw him yesterday.”
“Never mind!” the premier brayed, banging a fist on the podium. “We will wipe you out. Don’t forget it. We will wipe you all out!”
Husky, mustachioed Aksyonov, 64 now, tells this story as if it were a scene in a Woody Allen movie — with comic relish, his steel-blue eyes dancing. He has a right to laugh: He is a survivor.
But while the collapse of Soviet communism makes for a giddy dissident, there is an irony at work here. Good writing has been one of the victims in the rubble. No doubt about it — contemporary Russian literature is foundering. Having been handed their freedom, few writers seem to have anything to say.
Aksyonov, however, laboring at a distance over the story of his homeland, is the exception, creating works of Tolstoyan proportions. His last two works, “Generations of Winter” and “The Winter’s Hero,” are, according to critics, vivid proof of his breakthrough to a new, remarkable mastery.
Now a writer in residence and professor of Russian literature at George Mason University, Aksyonov is spending his summer traveling around Russia. Wherever he goes he is recognized, adored, remembered. He cannot walk down a street without being stopped and fawned over. He is grizzled now, stouter. But beneath the wavy hair, the doughy face, the well-grooved brow, the eyes are still young. “My faithful people,” he said grandly over the phone from Moscow as he took in the view from a friend’s apartment window.
He did not return to Russia in search of adulation, though. He went, in part, to campaign against Gennady Zyuganov, communist candidate for president. He cannot understand why in the world anyone would want to bring the country full circle to tyranny again.
“I’ve read the papers. I’ve done the research. They’re not what they say they are. These aren’t communists. They are Stalinists all over again. Sons of their fathers. Ready for revenge.”
He recalls a standoff in Samara, where earlier this month he chaired a Russian arts festival. “I was walking into one of the readings and noticed a crowd of demonstrators carrying nasty slogans around on signs. Get out of our country,’ one said. Down with Jews,’ said another. I decided to approach them and ask them what the problem was.
” You’re not a Russian writer,’ one strongly built young man told me. You may be by language, but not by blood.’
” If not a Russian, then what am I?’ I asked him.
” A Jew,’ he said, and gave me a menacing look.
” I am more Russian than all of you put together,’ I said to them defiantly. But in truth I walked away disheartened. Mother Russia has taken an ugly turn.”
From Moscow, he reports another incident: “Just the other day,” he says gloomily, his voice descending to a growl, “some guy sprang out and physically assaulted a woman on the street because she was carrying a Yeltsin sign. When I came to her defense, he started yelling at me. You’re not a real Russian! You have nothing to say!’ ” No Solace in Silence
That man was wrong. Aksyonov does have something to say. He has said it on Russian television. He has boarded a boat and taken his message down the Volga River. He has seized every opportunity to speak to crowds as the July 3 runoff between President Boris Yeltsin and Zyuganov approaches.
It comes as no surprise that Aksyonov thinks he knows what a return to communism could mean. His life bears ample scars to prove it.
He was born in 1932 in Kazan, capital of the Tatar Republic, 450 miles southeast of Moscow. His father was mayor of the city, an ardent communist and member of the U.S.S.R. Central Committee — “a very big shot,” in Aksyonov’s words. His mother was Eugenia Ginzburg, university professor, journalist, Trotskyite revolutionary and Jew. Their home was a palatial apartment, and they had a chauffeur.
But in 1937, the catastrophic year when Stalin’s paranoia boiled over, the NKVD — the Soviet secret service — summoned Ginzburg for “a talk.” “She kissed me, went away and never came back,” says Aksyonov, taking a long pull from a cigarette. “I was only 4 years old.” His mother was accused of treason because of her Trotskyite leanings and, without further ado, put on a train for the icy reaches of Magadan, 10 time zones away.
Within four months, Aksyonov’s father was similarly removed. At first the former mayor was charged with sedition and sentenced to death, but because he still had friends in power, his sentence was commuted to 15 years of hard labor in Siberia.
The secret police came through the Aksyonov apartment, sealing the door locks in room after room with stamps of hot wax. Little Vassily followed behind, watching the hammer-and-sickle being pressed into the soft red globs on the keyholes — until he realized that he, his grandmother and his old peasant nanny were being corralled in a single room.
A few days later an NKVD car pulled up. Three people knocked on the door and asked for the boy. He recalls a woman’s outstretched hand with a piece of candy, the warm assurance that he would be taken to his parents and then a seemingly endless walk down the stairs to the car. “All they let me take was a small stuffed elephant. For months it was the only evidence of my former paradise.” When he turned around to take one last look, he saw his grandmother and nanny at the top of the stairs, wailing.
The boy was transported to an old church in Kostroma on the outskirts of Moscow, where the secret service ran an orphanage for children of the “enemies of the people.” “They gave us new names and changed our identities,” Aksyonov says. The idea was to fold them into good, pro-Stalinist families. But half a year later, Aksyonov’s Uncle Yevgeny, his father’s brother, came to take him back to Kazan. Somehow, the NKVD allowed him to go.
For the next 12 years, Aksyonov lived with his uncle in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, Hitler’s war and the loss of his family. His mother’s father, a pharmacist, had been arrested, accused of hoarding gold, tortured. He died a few days after his release, a broken man. Aksyonov’s father was said to have been executed — but there were also rumors that he was working as a slave in the mines west of the Urals. No one knew exactly where. His mother had been sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor felling trees in the forests of Elgen, a frozen expanse far to the east, where temperatures sank to 50 below zero. Aksyonov’s half-brother, meanwhile, died of starvation during the 900-day siege of Leningrad.
In 1947, when Ginzburg completed her sentence, she left the work camps and moved into the nearby town of Magadan. She didn’t want to go far, because in the hellhole of Elgen she had fallen in love with a German Catholic doctor who had saved her life. He was still a prisoner. Ginzburg appealed to the lover of the Magadan party commandant for permission to have Aksyonov — then 16 — come live with her in Siberia.
The second of Ginzburg’s extraordinary memoirs, “Within the Whirlwind,” describes her reunion with her son in a commissar’s quarters. A raucous party was underway. The officials and their wives were guzzling vodka, eagerly waiting to see whether the youth would recognize his mother after so many years:
“My eyes found the person I had been vainly trying to pick out in the drunken hurly-burly. There he was! A thin teenager in a frayed jacket sitting awkwardly huddled up in one corner of a vast couch.
“He rose to his feet. He seemed quite tall and broad in the shoulders. He bore no resemblance whatsoever to the tow-haired, four-year-old roly-poly who used to toddle around our large apartment in Kazan twelve years back. . . . I myself, benumbed and incapable of articulate thought, had to direct all my efforts toward remaining upright and not crumpling up in a heap from the dull thudding of the blood rushing to my temples, my neck, my face. . . . He came up to me and self-consciously put his hand on my shoulder. And then I heard at long last the word that I had been afraid of never hearing again, that now came to me across a gulf of almost twelve years, from the time before all those courts, prisons, and penal drafts, before the death of my first-born, before all those nights in Elgen.
” Mother,’ said my son, Vasya. . . . And then in a rapid whisper into my ear: Don’t cry in front of them. . . .’
“I took hold of myself. . . . It was the most crucial moment in my life. . . . My son! And he knew, even though I hadn’t said a word to him, who we were and who they were.” Starting Over
Aksyonov spent the next two years getting to know his mother and her world of zeks, gulag convicts. They were a special breed — random people thrown together by fate, but so cemented by agony they could not part, even when they were finally free. And Ginzburg, in turn, learned something about her son: “I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment,” she wrote, “when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps.”
Aksyonov finished high school in Magadan, a town in which NKVD apparatchiks and former prisoners moved in surreal communion. “It was my first emigration,” he says, “a twisting of the mind.” His mother persuaded him to study medicine — doctors had the best chance of surviving the camps, she said, and you never knew when the long arm of Stalin would strike again.
In 1949 he returned to Kazan and enrolled in medical school, but when the teachers found out who his parents were, he was expelled. Years later, when the KGB archives were opened, he looked through his mother’s dossier, he says, and found memos from that period. “We’ve started working on the son’s case,” the Kazan NKVD notified their colleagues in Magadan. They had begun to arrest children of prominent “enemies” as they neared the “dangerous” age of 21.
But he made it to 1953, and then Stalin was dead and the ground shifted. Aksyonov completed his medical training, married, served as a Navy doctor and, by 1960, found himself in Moscow, a pulmonologist by day, a writer by night.
His first book was “The Colleagues,” a stark, realistic novel about a group of young doctors. It was an overnight sensation.
And so was he. It’s difficult now, meeting the avuncular, professorial Washingtonian that Aksyonov has become, to imagine the firebrand he was in the 1960s and ’70s — a blue-jeaned Lothario, inclined to wild jags of all-night drinking. But he and the “bourgeois beatniks” — as his contemporaries were called — made a new literature of dissent, and ignited a revolution with their words and style. With him in Moscow were Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andre Voznesensky, Bulat Okudzhava, Bella Akhmadulina, Vladimir Voinovich, Georgi Vladimov; and Joseph Brodsky was at work in Leningrad. Their images were raw and provocative, their behavior rowdy. Russia’s youth idolized them, but as far as the state was concerned, they were up to no good.
He was not a party member, but he believed in communism. He was also not without his privileges: He was allowed to travel abroad — Poland, Japan, Argentina, London, Paris, California. He had a nice apartment. And so Aksyonov apologized after Khrushchev scolded him. “I told them I’d meant no harm. In fact, I published an article in Pravda admitting I was wrong.”
Then the ground shifted again, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.
“I realized it was a cat-and-mouse game,” he recalls. Dangle a little freedom and then send in the tanks. Whether the mouse was a satellite country or an ordinary Russian, it didn’t matter. “If we writers were looking too robust, too pink, the KGB would decide it was time for some stranglings,” he says. “And then if we were looking too blue, they’d loosen their grip.
“Once I understood it, I began to get more anti-Soviet with every day.”
At first he recited his works in spontaneous gatherings on the streets, and then in sports stadiums with thousands of edgy youths in attendance. His wife began to object; eventually she took their young son and left. Aksyonov’s work became more biting, more sexual, more apocalyptic. He founded and edited Metropol, a literary journal that openly ignored the KGB censors.
Then came “The Burn,” a novel sassy with street slang, frankly sexual, unabashedly pro-Western, and filled with a vodka-soaked wildness. Its heroes: five former prisoners of the Siberian gulag. When Aksyonov sent the book off for publication in Italy, he was expelled from the Soviet Union. Leonid Brezhnev personally stripped him of his citizenship. The D.C. Period
Aksyonov settled in Washington in 1980. His works since then have been a parade of this and that: “An Island in Crimea” is a fantasy of what might have been if only a tiny district of Russia had been free; “Quest for an Island” is a polished collection of stories; “Say Cheese,” a complex farce about a group of picaresque photographers in trouble with the KGB; “In Search of Melancholy Baby,” an engagingly candid memoir of his life in America. But it is in his latest novels, “Generations of Winter” and “The Winter’s Hero” — written as a single volume in Russian but translated as two books — that he shows a skill worthy of Tolstoy.
This is no frivolous comparison. Hemingway once said he would gladly climb into a ring with Flaubert or Turgenev, but would have grave reservations about trading blows with Tolstoy. But one critic after another has judged Aksyonov worthy.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times called “Generations of Winter” a “Tolstoyan historical novel that traces the roller-coaster fortunes of one Russian family.” In the Chicago Tribune, Judith Dunford called the book “a tour de force — a broad, sweeping novel firmly in the greatest Russian tradition. The characters . . . could have come from Chekhov or Tolstoy, with only a pause for a change of costume.” John Banville wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a 20th-century War and Peace’ . . . . The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree.”
He has indeed. Both Tolstoy, contemplating Napoleon, and Aksyonov, recalling Hitler, deal with invasions of Russia so staggering that they dwarfed even the nation’s penchant for self-inflicted terror. Both stories are massive in scale and yet intimate in their humanity. Both have characters that linger in the mind.
Aksyonov’s story of the Gradovs chronicles three generations of a Russian family in the age of Stalin. At its center is Boris Gradov, a Soviet surgeon whom the dictator takes on as his private physician. Gradov’s wife is a gentle pianist who escapes the era’s brutishness through her music. Their son is a military man perpetually engaged in love or battle; their daughter, a poet with an indomitable and forgiving spirit.
What is remarkable about the two novels is their profound understanding of the communist experience, their fierce portrait of a country that marshaled a vast machinery to wage war against itself.
All this he remembers keenly, despite 16 years in nearly anonymous exile and despite another shifting of the Russian ground. “I don’t fool myself,” he says. “I know I am not an American, but I’m not entirely a Russian anymore, either. . . . I’m part of that in-between tribe of escapees, refugees, emigres, dissidents. We know who we are, and we know we can never go back.”
He only hopes that Russia, too, will never go back.