Conversations with
Vassily Aksyonov

by John Pohlmann

presented by

didn't realize it then, but the first time I heard his name I was sitting in a darkened movie theater in Fairfax, Virginia. It was 1987, and I was watching the film No Way Out, a political thriller starring Kevin Costner. At the very end of the film, when we realize Costner's character, Tom Farrell, is indeed not only a U.S. Navy officer but also the Soviet double agent Yuri, the following exchange takes place between Costner's character and the Soviet handler to whom he has returned. The handler begins speaking Russian as Farrell/Yuri is being debriefed:
FARRELL: It's difficult for me to follow in Russian--it's been a long time.
HANDLER: How thirsty you must be for the sound of our language, Yevgeny Alekseevich. Wouldn't you love to hear Russian again? Imagine Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy...
FARRELL: ...Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov.
HANDLER: (Laughing) Even them...always the sense of humor.

Later I would come to understand why the Soviet handler had found the mention of that name--Aksyonov--so humorous.

I encountered Vassily Aksyonov's name a second time via an article in the Washington Post in June 1996. He had come to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1987 to take a position as a Robinson Professor at GMU, teaching Russian literature and culture. I was soon to be a student at George Mason, where I planned to study English and Russian literature, so I decided to take a look at some of Aksyonov's work. I began with two of his more recent novels, Generations of Winter and its sequel, The Winter's Hero, Aksyonov's epic (1,005-page) saga detailing life in Soviet Russia from 1925 to 1953. "The great Russian novel, the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace," was the way the Post characterized the novels when they came out. Generations of Winter, "will live for a very long time, and be seen as one of the more significant historical and literary achievements of a terrible century," wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books. I was amazed by the work. I told everyone I knew to read it. I decided that, if possible, the first thing I would do when I went to GMU would be to enroll in a Russian literature course with Professor Aksyonov. It seemed to me to be the sort of opportunity that very few people had had since the 1950s, when another great Russian literary émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, had taught Russian literature at Cornell University. There was no way I was going to pass it up.

So from the fall of 1997 until I completed my graduate studies in the spring of 2004 I took every class Aksyonov taught, and over that time he became more than a teacher to me--he became something of a mentor and a friend. Over the years I would spend time with him in his office, its walls lined with Chagall and Kandinsky prints as well as a couple of posters of a scowling and pointing Lenin ("Yes, he is still watching me," Aksyonov would laugh) and discuss his life, a life which, upon later reflection, I came to realize encompassed nearly all of the Soviet-Russian experience from the Great Terror of Stalin to the end of the Soviet empire. There I would listen as he settled into his chair, removed his silver-rimmed glasses from their low perch on his nose, and related some of the events of his wholly novelistic life.

Lying several hundred miles east of Moscow, Kazan is a large city divided by the Bulak Canal, a chain of lakes, and two cultural heritages, Tatar and Russian. It was here in August of 1932 that Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born. His father, Pavel Vasilyevich Aksyonov, was head of the City Council in Kazan, while his mother, Evgeniya Semyonovna Ginzberg, was a history professor. In 1937 they were both arrested during the dizzying heights of Stalin's Great Terror, and each was sent to Siberian gulags. In August of that year the Soviet secret police came for young Vassily.

"I remember it vividly," he told me one cool fall day in his book-lined office at GMU, dressed in a dove gray suit over a lilac shirt, a plum tie knotted at the collar, "Very vividly...

1. Sins of the Father

Mother was taken in February of '37; father was taken in July. I still remember quite clearly when they came to take me. The KGB had sealed off all the rooms of our house except my little room where I lived with my babushka (grandmother) and my nanny, two peasant women. Then they came in the night. It was like an arrest, really--the same style black car they had taken Mother and Father away in. I still remember that car as if it were yesterday, a big black car with blinds in the windows. Three people--two men and one KGB woman, in black leather three-quarter length jackets.

I was sleeping. They woke me up. It was three in the morning. Father had just been taken, so it was still summer. During the short, hot summer nights, it was very light--I could see everything. In fact it was near sunrise. This KGB woman gave me candy and said, "Vasya, we have come to take you to your mama and papa."

      So they tricked you into thinking they were taking you to see your parents?

No, they were not lying, really, because they were taking me to where they were--to their kingdom, to Stalin's Magic Kingdom. So I went with them to the street, to the car--it was all done very quietly. But then when I was in the car the last thing I heard and saw was two old ladies, my granny and nanny, on the porch of the house wailing, wailing, like only Russian peasant women can wail, just wailing, "Oooohhh, oooohhh!" crying for their Vasya.

I was brought to the special collector of kids of those arrested. On the outskirts of town there was a red brick building which was three stories high, though it is huge in my recollections. There were a lot of kids, lots of them. I was there, all alone without any family, until one day I saw my granny by the fence, by the watchtower.

      A watchtower? So it was like a prison?

Yes, exactly, like a prison. There were young kids like me, but also teenagers, and they didn't want them to escape. I found out later that the authorities didn't even tell my family where I was. They found out through some talk in the town. One day Granny came to see me through the fence. Then I noticed my aunt, my father's sister, was standing there also, and I realized they were looking for me. But they didn't let us meet. Instead they took me and two other boys my age to the railroad station with one KGB woman and put us in the compartment of a car, or coupe. The KGB woman locked the door and they took us to the city of Kostroma, an old Russian city, to the special orphanage for kids of enemies of the state, enemies of the people. I was there for a half year, until suddenly my uncle turned up.

Amazingly, he got permission to take me home with him. It was a combination of happy occurrences. Stalin had pronounced something during one of his speeches; he had said that the son is not responsible for the sins of his father. By this time my uncle had been fired--he was a professor of history at a university in Central Asia--because he was the brother of an enemy of the people. He was unemployed, and was expecting his own arrest any day. One day he saw Stalin's address in the paper, and--well, he became very courageous--he had nothing to lose, and he had started drinking, which I think probably added to his courage. He came to where the KGB was holding me, and he started raising a scandal. "Why are you keeping our child!" he screamed and started banging his fist (Aksyonov bangs his own palm on his desk twice)--and they let me out! He looked very much like my father, so when I saw him I rushed towards him screaming "Papa! Papa!" He took me from there to Kazan. Then suddenly he got his job back at Stalinabad, so I was left in Kazan with his sister, my aunt, where I lived until I was sixteen.

Something I will never forget from that period was that, one day when I was eight years old and living with my aunt, I started looking in a chest that she had. I was not supposed to open it, but I did anyway and inside I found a small wooden box. I did not know this at the time, but my father had lost his right eye in the (Russian) Civil War, fighting for the Reds against the Whites. When I opened this box there, staring at me, was my father's spare glass eye that had been left behind when he was arrested....

Something else I found out later about my childhood was that I had been baptized. My father's chauffeur was a KGB man--he wasn't arresting anyone or torturing anyone, but as he was the chauffeur of the Head of the City Council as well as my father's bodyguard, he was of course one of them. But he turned out to be religious, to be a Christian! So he and Granny and my nanny arranged a baptism in a small house, where his friend, a priest--who was a fugitive, of course, an underground priest--was hiding, and he performed the ceremony. And this was right across the street from the original Committee of the Communist Party where my father was working! Neither he nor my mother knew, of course; just Granny, nanny, and my father's chauffeur, the Christian KGB man.

2. Chattanooga Choo-Choo
     Would you say that, after your return to live with your aunt in Kazan, you had what would be considered a normal Soviet upbringing?

No, you can't say so, because it was abnormal. After the 1930s, the years of terror, the war broke out and we in the city of Kazan found ourselves flooded with semi-starved evacuees and the rear of the Soviet army. So it was not a normal Soviet upbringing by any means. It was strange indeed--the country was fighting, and very hard times had descended upon us--so there was not so much attention being paid to the process of bringing up kids in the Soviet manner, certainly not like after the war. Strangely, the war was to a certain degree like a liberation from Stalinist officialdom because they were too busy fighting to worry about indoctrinating the youth. Of course I did not realize it at the time, because I was only eight years old when Germany invaded Russia. I was a young kid, and I was jubilant when the war broke out, like everybody else in the circle of boys I was friends with. We said, "Hurrah! The war, finally, the war!" Not because of any liberation from officialdom but because we thought it would be a great adventure--yes, the adventure of it,
*Aleksey: Vassily was the only son his parents had together—he also has a half-sister from his father's first marriage, while Aleksey was his half-brother from his mother's first marriage.
as young boys do! Of course we soon realized what war really meant for us--hunger, hunger. And my half-brother, Aleksey*, died during the war. He was in the siege of Leningrad--he died of famine and infection. He got out of Leningrad--when the siege was finally broken they began to evacuate the disabled, and he was in one of the trains--but he died on the road. He was only sixteen. Yes, it was very hard times, especially in 1942.

After that it was a little bit better. By then a system of distribution had been devised, with coupons to ration out food. That's what allowed my family to survive--a very meager supply of course, but enough to survive. And the American program of Lend-Lease--since the Soviet Union was part of the anti-Hitler coalition, we were recipients of supplies from Lend-Lease--which literally saved millions of lives and also supplied us with food. It was very good food indeed, very nutritional. We got powdered eggs, Spam, lard, and condensed milk--oh, that was fantastic!--and sometimes even chocolate. It was very substantial food. It kept us going.

This liberation from the Soviet officialdom, along with this limited contact with the West, allowed us to be exposed to Western culture in a way we otherwise would not have been. In fact we got to see many of what we called matinee movies. We were seeing American and English movies. I remember especially seeing Sun Valley Serenade with the Glenn Miller Band in it. It was the first time I had heard jazz-- "The Chattanooga Choo Choo!"--and it was absolutely fantastic! Just a completely different rhythm, in fact even a different way of walking. When you hear (he begins to hum Chattanooga Choo-Choo) it can't help but change the way you walk! It was just totally contrary to the Young Leninist Pioneer way of marching.

3. The Cambridge of Kazan

Things began to get better after 1942. I went to school there in Kazan, and not even a regular school but to School #19. It was where the children of the Kazan intelligentsia went, and it had a tradition of family dynasties of professors--you know, grandfather was a professor, father was professor, son a professor--and people would always proudly talk of that famous School #19. It was like the Cambridge or Eton of Kazan. I was able to attend this school only because I lived nearby, not because of any dynastic reasons. The education was very good, though things began to get bad in the school as the war went on. Many schools were being closed then to be used as hospitals for wounded soldiers, so many kids from bad areas began to go to the school, kids who were just young criminals coming to school with knives in their pockets. There was lots of fighting then. We had breakfast free of charge at the school--not much, just a roll with something inside, like a layer of lard or something--and often you had to fight for your breakfast with these young criminals. Much later I wrote a story about this, quite famous in Russia, called "Breakfast 1943". It's one of my best stories, and in fact a movie was made of it.

*Basketball: Aksyonov's passion for basketball has not waned with the years. He once told me, "I am still crazy for basketball. I still play by myself. I am shooting much better now than when I was young. Each session I take ten shots from the free-throw line, ten shots from the key, and ten three-pointers. I even sometimes make shots from the half-court line! It's so much fun, the best exercise. You don't need a partner...the hoop is your partner. I like to watch basketball, too, players like Michael Jordan...oh, he is just a miracle!"
My interest then was sports. I played basketball*. We were fascinated by basketball, it was an obsession in School #19. The sport was in a poor state in the Soviet Union before the war, but after, when the Baltic states became part of the Soviet empire, it got much better because many of those states, especially Lithuania, but also Latvia and Estonia, had great teams. We learned basketball from them. We were just obsessed with learning the game, with the way of moving in the game. Many of my friends played hockey of course, but not like the hockey Americans think of. We played hockey not with a puck, but with a ball, and it was always played outside in the open air, on a playing surface much bigger than in regular hockey. This was the Russian way of playing hockey, called bandi, and some people still play it this way in Russia. It wasn't until after the war that hockey with a puck, what we called Canadian hockey, began to be played in the Soviet Union.

Along with basketball I also played soccer and participated in track and field. I was a high-jumper, and again I was just obsessed with learning all the techniques you need to know to be a high-jumper. I did this in school and in youth camps, called Pioneer camps. Here there was a bit of indoctrination in the Soviet way, but not as much as you might think--just some participation in official rituals and learning certain songs and such. They would try to indoctrinate us in school at times, like trying to make us stukach, or stool pigeons. They tried to make us think this was a good thing. In Russian, stukat' means "to knock," but stukach was the slang for stool pigeon because an informant, when going to the secret police, would always look around to make sure no one was watching, then knock on the door to enter and squeal on someone. Whenever a classmate would do some punkish thing the teacher would say, "Tell me who has done it! You are all cowards, you are not brave enough to tell me--it takes a brave person to tell on others! That will make you a real Lenin's Pioneer." And other horrible things like this were told to children. Many of us of course believed this--others of us learned that a stukach was really the most contemptuous of people.

The main interest in these summer camps was...well, in school boys and girls were separated, but in the camps we did things together. And of course we boys were all enthralled, [having] our early fascination with girls. The way you would meet a girl was you would walk up to her and say (in a hushed, child-like voice), "Excuse me, let's have a friendship--would you like to have a friendship with me?" And maybe the girl would say, "Okay, I will have a friendship with you. But what are we to do?"

     Here you are laughing and growing nostalgic over what must have been a horrible childhood.

Well, you know it was a relatively peaceful childhood--though without parents, of course.

4. Into the Whirlwind

*Magadan: Magadan was one of the largest camps in the Soviet gulag system, and is located in the Kolyama region of far-eastern Russia. The town of Magadan was itself built by camp inmates. Aksyonov's mother wrote two books about her time in the gulag, Journey Into the Worldwind and Within the Whirlwind, both considered classic accounts on par with Solzhenitsyn's work.
     In 1948 you were allowed to leave Kazan and go to live with your mother, who you had not seen in over a decade, in Magadan*. She had served her ten-year sentence in the camps, and was now in a kind of internal exile. How were you able to join her there?

When I was pushing sixteen years of age my mother started a campaign to bring me to Magadan to be with her. It was very hard to get permission--and you absolutely could not travel to Magadan at that time without official permission. And here was my mother, an absolute outcast of society, who'd spent ten years in the camps and then after her release was required to live for five years within seven kilometers of the camp, with absolutely no rights of citizenship. But she was such a stubborn, persistent woman, that she tried some connections of my stepfather's there in Magadan. You see, by that time, my mother had married--though not officially of course--Dr. Anton Yakovevich Walter, a fellow "enemy of the people." They had met there in the camps and they loved each other very much--in fact, it was the great romantic story of their lives, and it all happened in the camps...

My stepfather was a homeopathic doctor and very popular there in Magadan. So popular in fact that even though he was a convict he had permission to go around the town--even without guards--just by himself, [with] only his small bag of homeopathic drugs as a companion, treating people, including the families of the top-ranking KGB officers! He also treated a certain General Nikishov, under whose command all of the gold mines, all of the uranium mines, all of this gigantic region of Kolyama, was placed. General Nikishov had a mistress--though she was in fact mistress of the whole region--by the name of Aleksandra Gridasova. This Gridasova, whose title was Deputy of the Magadan Town Soviet, had her own theater, what was known as a theater of variety entertainment, where popular songs were sung and there was dancing and a chorus and even jazz--she had a jazz big band there. But all of the performers were convicts. It was really the Theater of the Convicts, and Gridasova was making large profits for herself from this slave-labor theater, though no one complained because being a performer saved you from working in the mines.

The first time I saw this I just couldn't believe my eyes! There in the street I saw a column of well-dressed people, men in fedora hats and ladies in furs with some sort of fashionable clothing, including high heels, and they were all walking not on the sidewalk--where [convicts] were not allowed to walk--but in the middle of the street. Behind them were Red Army soldiers with machine guns, escorting them. It was only later that I found out that they were convicts being escorted to MAGLAC--the Magadan Labor Camp Variety Theater--for rehearsal.

My mother used my stepfather's connection with General Nikishov to get an audience with his mistress. So here was my mother, going to see this Gridasova, who had seemed to have lost all feeling and understanding of what it was to live like a human being, who had just limitless power, really just feudal power in the region--who had only to pronounce something for it to come true, whatever she wanted--to ask her to allow me, her Vasya, to come live with her. My mother told Gridasova her story: how she had lost her husband, been deprived of her children, how her oldest son had died in the siege of Leningrad, and only young Vasya was left who she hadn't seen in so long...and Mother started sobbing as she told her story. And to my mother's utter astonishment this Gridasova started sobbing, too. She told my mother not to worry, that she would take care of everything, that I would be allowed to come and be reunited with my mother.

When I arrived, was just absurd! I understood nothing, I couldn't make out what was going on. It was like I had been sent to another country. And really I had. I had traveled over so much geography, a flight over the entire Soviet Union, thirteen time zones,> which took seven days even to fly over, with all the stopovers and changing of planes. When I finally arrived I saw this unbelievable city. A city of watchtowers standing on every corner, and barbed wire and trained dogs and men with machine guns and people walking around in shackles with numbers on their backs, and all these Japanese soldiers who were prisoners of war and who worked on construction projects. In the center of the city, at the crossroads of Lenin Street and Stalin Street, you had six- or seven-story buildings. Here it was sort of like a normal city until you looked around and saw all the criminals just released from these horrible camps, and they looked, well...semi-human. And it was here that I was reunited, after all these years, with my mother, who I hadn't seen since I was four years old.

We lived there on the outskirts of town, members of the lowest strata of society, because my mother was a former prisoner and still a non-citizen. There she had a little dilapidated hut, which had once been part of the camp as well. And you know what? My mother was happy. After all she had been through--from solitary confinement and prison, then sent to the gulag for years--well, to have finally been released from the camps and to have her own room and her son with her made her very happy.


There he was! A skinny teenager in a threadbare jacket sitting awkwardly huddled up in one corner of an immense couch.

He stood up. He looked quite tall and broad in the shoulders. He looked nothing like the chubby four-year-old who used to totter around twelve years before in our large apartment in Kazan. That child, with his blonde hair and blue eyes, had resembled the country children of the Ryazan branch of the Aksyonov family. But this one, the sixteen-year-old, had chestnut hair and gray eyes that at a distance looked
*Alyosha: A diminutive of Aleksey, Vassily's half-brother.
hazel like Alyosha's*. To me, then, he resembled Alyosha rather than his own, earlier self.

All these observations were made by a person who existed quite independently of me because I, so numb as to be incapable of coherent thought, had to direct all my energy toward remaining upright and not simply folding up in a heap from the hammering of the blood rushing to my temples, my neck, my face...

He did not hesitate. He walked over to me and self-consciously put his hand on my shoulder. And then finally I heard the word that I had been afraid of never hearing again, and that now came to me across a chasm of almost twelve years, from the time before all those courts and prisons, before the death of my first-born, before all those nights in Elgen+.
*Elgen: Elgen was another labor camp, a few miles north of Magadan.

"Mother," said my son, Vasya.

His eyes were certainly not hazel. Not like Alyosha's. Alyosha's hazel eyes were closed forever. They would not be seen again. And yet...How much he resembled Alyosha as he was when I last saw him, at the age of ten--no, nearly eleven. My two sons had merged for a brief moment into one and the same person.

"Alyosha, my darling," I said in a whisper, almost involuntarily.

Suddenly I heard in a subdued but deep voice:

"No, Mama. I'm not Alyosha. I'm Vasya."

And then he quickly whispered in my ear:

"Don't cry in front of them..."

I quickly took hold of myself. I looked at him in the way that those who are truly close, who know each other completely, who are members of the same family, look at each other. He understood my look. It was the most crucial moment in my life: the re-forging of the broken links in our chain of time; the recapturing of our innate closeness that had been severed by twelve years of separation, of living among strangers. My son! And, even though I hadn't said a word to him, he knew who we were and who they were, and he appealed to me not to debase myself in their presence (pg 264-265).


I was sleeping on a folding cot, the same folding cot I had spent all my young years sleeping on, and then suddenly someone knocked on the door. My aunt went to open it, and she started screaming like crazy. It was her brother, my father, at the door. I remember he had this huge bag with him, and he started taking things, books, a kerosene stove and some firewood. I said "For what?" and he said, "For a campfire." He had been gone so long he had forgotten about civilization. In fact when we asked him why he hadn't sent us a telegram to tell us he was coming, he said he had forgotten that there even was such a thing. There he was, with his sack over his shoulder, looking at me, and he said, "You are my son? No, I don't believe it! I cannot recognize you at all."

He had been eight time zones away from my mother, in the Gulag in European Siberia, a bit west of the Ural Mountains near the Arctic Circle, where temperatures dropped to as low as 50 to 60 degrees below Celsius. He would certainly have died there if he hadn't found a friend. He would have been doomed if he had had to work his entire term (15 years) in the mines. Death was certain for those sent to the mines. Only those who found odd jobs in the camp territories were able to survive, those known as priduraki--that is, "the crafty ones," or "ones who fool others". All others died, without exception. My father had worked nearly three years in the mines, and he was dwindling away to the final stages of life. Then all of a sudden he was able, through a friend, to get a job as a bookkeeper in the camp, although he had never done bookkeeping outside the camp. This allowed him to survive.

After his term was up he had to serve three years in exile, and it was then he went through his worst time. He was sent eastward to Siberia and just thrown to the taiga with no means of living, no job, no food, nothing at all. He said later it was there that he was afraid he would die. It was worse, much worse, than even the camp had been. Then Stalin died, and that really saved his life--after that he was able to get a job there. Then, after eighteen years, his case was closed...and during all this time we had not heard from him. He had been living like a savage, like Robinson Crusoe, only not on a tropical island, but in the Russian taiga.
      After your father was rehabilitated by the Party, didn't he became, in a Kafkian sort of way where the unjustly punished comes to believe their guilt, once again a true believer in the Soviet Union?

Yes, it's a very strange psychology, but one that was common for many of my father's generation. Yes, very strange indeed. My father did still hate Stalin, but for him Lenin was just a saint. When he came back, in 1955, he wasn't yet rehabilitated; but while he was still in exile he was told by the authorities that he could come back, and he was given some documents so he could return to Kazan. When he got back, he received a letter from the Central Committee that invited him to begin the process of rehabilitation. He was reinstated and given a pension by the government--not a big one--and he got an apartment in Kazan. He even got an award during a Soviet jubilee. It was during an anniversary of the Revolution, and they gave him the Order of Lenin, the highest award. He was always very proud of this.

My father died in 1991. Despite all the horror he'd gone through, eighteen years in the camps and in exile, he lived to be 92--just amazing.


I was told by my mother and stepfather, "You simply should be reasonable--you must realize that you are not like other young people. You won't be allowed to get into prestigious schools. The most preferable thing for you would be medical school." I asked why, and they said, "Vasya, doctors have a better chance to survive in the camps." They had in mind that I would finally end up in the camps--certainly that was prescribed for me, as a son of two enemies of the people--but Stalin's death actually stopped that.

While I was a medical student in Kazan I went back to Magadan twice, during summers when school was out, to spend my vacation time with my mother. Magadan could be a quite lovely place in the summer time. Then, in my fourth year of study--by this time Stalin was already dead--I was allowed to do practical work in Magadan, as an assistant to a doctor, and so I worked with my stepfather. This was in 1954, and the year before there had been a general amnesty for criminals--not political detainees, but just for regular criminals. So hundreds of thousands of criminals just flooded Russia, and they were doing...well, God knows what. Of course there were many of these former prisoners in Magadan and in the hospital there. It was very hard to get on a boat to reach mainland Russia, so a lot of them stayed in Magadan. Some of them were living underground, living near the heating pipes that ran under the city. In the summertime, many lived in the Park of Culture, just lying around, drinking, having a good time, looking for trouble. These were very dangerous types, and one of them in particular was among the patients while I was working at the hospital. One day my stepfather told me to give this man an injection of a certain solution. This was something I knew how to do, but I was only twenty years old. He was lying there looking at me with these just awful eyes, and I was trying to find his awful vein under all these tattoos on his arm. I asked him, "Is it painful or not? What do you feel?" He just stared at me and said in a surly manner, "Go ahead, doctor." I started injecting, but I missed his vein--I was injecting under his skin. And, my goodness, that is just awful, awful pain, but he was going to show me that he's a real man, that he can stand it. So he was just gnashing his teeth. All of a sudden, I see by a slight change in his face that I'm injecting in the wrong place. Before I knew it a gigantic lump was growing on his arm, and he was close to losing consciousness. I brought my stepfather over. He said, "What are you doing, you're crazy! I don't know what to do, we may have to amputate his arm!" But he saved the man, and his arm. He made Novocain injections all around the lump to localize it, and it began to get better. Finally the patient was released from the hospital.

Some time later, as I was walking down the street, I suddenly heard this rough voice. "Hey! Lepeepla!" (Lepeela was camp jargon for doctor, I don't know why, it was their own language.) "Hey! Lepeela! Come here!" It was the man I had given the injection to, along with five or six of his people. They surrounded me, and he said, "You know what, bastard?! I was close to death, I could have lost my arm!" I thought I was about to get, well... probed, by his knife, so I started trying to explain, and said, "Guys, take it easy, I'm just a young doctor, and really not even a doctor, just a student." He was just staring at me with those awful eyes again. But I guess he just wanted to scare me, because after a while he yelled, "Well, just get out of here, you bastard!" And did I! Yes, that was just one of the ways that you got experience as a young medical student in the Soviet Union.

5. Jazz on the Bones

When I was in Kazan during my student years, I was under surveillance by the KGB. I didn't realize it at first--it was only after they began "inviting" my friends in to talk that I realized they were following me, and our whole group. It wasn't like it is here at an American university--we were all one group in our class, a group of about 30 which existed together the entire six years of study; we had all of our classes together and were all living together. Our group didn't live like regular Soviet students were supposed to live. We were...well, anarchic, living, though we certainly had no idea of this at the time, very much like the American Beat Generation--only Soviet-style.

We were what was known in the Soviet Union as stilyagi ("style-hunters"). A bunch of us were living together in a place we rented. We had posters of the Russian Futurists, girls were coming over all the time, sometimes through the windows; there was drinking and playing "jazz on the bones". Do you know about "jazz on the bones"? It was home-made jazz records, recorded on X-ray plates. We had no magnetic tape, no tape recorders, no nothing--so we would find jazz on the radio and we would record it on the X-ray plates. It was a whole movement, a gigantic movement in the Soviet Union. We would have this so-called disc, with, say, Dizzy Gillespie on it, and on this disc was a picture of a guy's chest, or maybe some arm or leg bones. So you had "jazz on the bones". Sometimes it was hard to play because the plates weren't so solid and they would lose form and rise as they rotated; so we put a heavy glass on the middle of the disc to hold it down.

So they were watching us, our young group, not only of doctors but also an architect, and a future sports instructor, and also some girls from the foreign language faculty. In Kazan we called them "spy girls," because they knew foreign languages, just like spies. And they were always the prettiest girls. Once some of these girls were summoned to the KGB offices and they asked about me, saying, "Well, what is he doing? You are under his influence He's a very dangerous young man."

This was early 1953, just a few weeks before Stalin died. But then thankfully he did die, otherwise I most certainly would have been arrested and sent to the camps. Years later I met some guys who were just a little bit older than me, and, like me, were "children of enemies of the people," children of former Party officials. They had been arrested and sent to the camps. You see, twenty years of age was the limit; after twenty you could be taken. But they hadn't quite got the command to arrest me before Stalin died. In 1966, ten years after graduation, I met some of my old friends, members of our crowd. We sat around drinking--drinking for a couple of days--and all of a sudden they started confessing. They were all telling me that they had been summoned by the KGB and asked about me. They didn't tell me at the time, but during the party they started accusing each other--"You were not sincere with Vasya!" "I was more sincere with him than you!" But I did not feel that they had betrayed me at all. They were so scared, you see. Then in the '90s I came home to Kazan, and a film crew from Moscow TV was with me, filming my return after years of exile. We went to the archives, and I was given access to my mother's KGB files. I came across a letter from the Kazan KGB to the Magadan KGB--they were asking for a copy of my mother's file, because they were starting one on me. So I realized that my parents had been right--by the time I was 18 they were already working on me, and within a month of my friends' interviews with the KGB in Kazan I would have been in a prison camp. But Stalin died, and that saved me.

They did, however, go to the administration of Kazan University, telling them to punish me for not revealing on my school application who my parents were. Of course, I hadn't--I had hoped they would never find out, as this often went unnoticed. But the KGB told them about it and I was called to the director, who said, "You're hiding some facts of your biography. We will not tolerate this from our students. You are dismissed from the university." With Stalin dead I decided I could try to go to Moscow, to the Ministry of Health which the university's medical program was under, to get the decision reversed. I went and told them my story and one official said, "Your administration in Kazan is so old-fashioned--they don't understand what is going on now." Immediately my student status was restored. I went back to Kazan with my papers, went right to the director's office and said, "I went to the Ministry, and they have restored me, and told me how old-fashioned you all are." The director flushed just as red as anyone I've ever seen, just like a boiled lobster and he yelled, "Get out of here!" And you know, I just hated him. Usually I didn't hate them, but this one I hated. And with great calm I said, "I'm not going to study at your school anymore. I'm going to Leningrad, and here's my application, already approved!: And I just left.

A really good thing happened immediately afterward. In any group of students there was one who was the head of the group, the staritsar, who was of course a member of the Party. The head of our group was a certain Alyosha, from the kolkhoz, a peasant. When I went back to say good-bye to my group, this Alyosha all of a sudden took from his pocket a substantial amount of money and told me, "I never got the command not to pay your stipend, so for all the months you've been out"--it had been eight months--"I collected your stipend, and here it all is for you." Imagine that, from a Party member...well, strange things sometimes would happen; real, human things.

After I got my medical degree in 1956 I had a dream of traveling about the world like Charles Darwin. I knew I could get a chance to do it if I could obtain a visa, but they would not clear me, a son of enemies, even though Stalin was already gone. They simply didn't trust me. And you know, they probably were right not to trust me.

6. Akhmatova's Boys & Poetry Fever

It was during this time that you began to write, wasn't it?

Always during my student years, I had in mind that I was a poet. But I was very shy about showing my poetry, and all I can say is thank God I was shy--it was absolutely horrible, amateurish poetry--simply rubbish. But while in Kazan I did have a poem published in the local Komsomol paper. I went to this paper and there was this guy, a professional poet, and he said, "Young man, I believe you have some vitamin T,"--by that he meant talent--"And we are going to publish your poem." I even got paid a fee, though not much. Afterwards I went to a restaurant and spent it all.

From the 2008 film Stilyagi, directed by Valery Todorovsky.
These were very good days. It was a new time after Stalin's death, a time with no fear, with talks in society, everything in the open. The mood was that of an absolutely new country during the Thaw. I remember I woke up each morning with a sense of happiness, each day had the promise of Spring. I was part of a new generation. Although we considered ourselves Futurists, we were in fact a Russian version of the Beat Generation, but of course we had never heard of the Beats in San Francisco. We were so carefree--I was a Leningrad student, a kak stilyaga (similar to the phrase, "cock of the walk"), a stylish playboy, with some Western clothes on me: narrow pants and a Canadian hairdo--a Canadian Cock we called it--like Elvis Presley wore. There was another group too, besides our stilyagi, the shatniki. Shtatnik comes from, "shtat, Russin for "state", as in United States. To be one of them you had to have access to real American clothing, not just European. Shtatniks would come up to you and look at your clothing, and they'd say, "Old man"--that was what we all called each other--"Old man, let me have a look at the buttons on your shirt. No, old man, that's not shtatnik. Instead of four holes your button only has three, and that's just not shtatnik. And how they had access to this...well, a good friend of mine, one of my best friends, a well-known musician, a celebrity saxophone player and composer--now he was a real shtatnik--he told me how they'd get all these real American things, how they were smuggling in shoes and shirts and these sorts of things. For me, a provincial fellow, it was simply unthinkable what they were able to do!

So here we were, stilyagi and shtatniki, in Leningrad listening to jazz and living in communes, writing hooliganish poems and dancing the boogie-woogie, with lots of drinking and sometimes even running through the streets of the city naked! We were a bunch of kids who lived as if the KGB didn't exist, though of course they were watching us. There were some attempts to criticize the youth, but they were mostly just ridiculous things like billboards mocking us. But this was during the Thaw, and we felt that we were the new generation, the one which would change things in our country.

There were some bad times as well, though, like the Hungarian Uprising in 1956. It was such a shock to us, what happened in Hungary, the tanks rolling in. At that time the resistance movement was not organized--had it been, things might have been different, it could have been grave for the authorities, but...

I remember I was in a restaurant when we heard about the uprising and what had happened. A friend of mine, a poet, cried out, "Guys, how long are we going to stand this stinking garbage? We must start something. Let's go start a fight with them tomorrow. Tomorrow let's get together at a certain time and a certain place and start fighting!" So the next day I went--but nobody else showed up! I was alone, but I was outraged, and so I started screaming, "You bastards! You will see, the tanks will some day come for you!" I was arrested, of course, and they took me to the local headquarters and started beating me, making me look for the "fifth corner." In Russia that is how it is known--they would stand in all four corners of the room and beat you, making you look for the fifth corner of the room--and I was most certainly looking for this fifth corner! They were drunk and were yelling at me, calling me a fascist, and I yelled back, "No, you are the fascists!" I thought they were going to beat me to death, but then a friend of mine showed up--he had been looking for me. They didn't want any witnesses, so finally they stopped beating me and let me go.

Later, while at school in Leningrad, I decided to try writing some prose, and I had my first short story published in the Institute's paper, which was called Pulse because it was a medical school. It was probably more of a lyrical digression, about people riding the streetcars in town, but it wasn't bad, and my fellow students said, "You, Vaska, you are a writer." Then I was approached by some advanced young men who smoked pipes and looked like writers from the Silver Age; they invited me to join their literary group, which was run by the writer Dar, who was already an old man then. So I started attending meetings with them, some of whom were Akhmatova's boys, disciples of the poet Anna Akhmatova, like my friend Tolya Neyman and Joseph Brodsky, who at that time was just a small red-haired fellow.

Then, while I was working as a doctor in the Voznesen'ye settlement, I began writing my first novel, Colleagues (Kollegi). It was published in 1960 in a fashionable magazine of the time, Youth,, which had a circulation of about two and a half million and which was edited by Valentin Kataev, a giant of Southern Russian prose. Well, my novel was extremely popular, a sensation. I woke up the next day famous. At that time people were expecting a new name to arise, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was then that the term for our generation of artists, "The Sixties Generation" was introduced, in reference to my book, about the group of post-Stalin writers who were beginning to emerge at the time. I was invited to join the Writer's Union, so I was suddenly an established writer.

I couldn't even imagine the success and fame brought about when Colleagues came out. I was all of a sudden being invited to speak at all these different institutes and universities all over the country. It was amazing--people were coming to meetings with me and they were sitting around, talking about the characters. And here I was, sitting like a fool on the stage, while they were discussing the characters, what they would do and what they would say, and it was just amazing.

One day I was walking down a Moscow boulevard and I noticed a friend of mine, a very tall fellow. He was with a woman, and as I approached him he was laughing, and he said, "You know what she was saying to me? She was saying, 'Look at that young man approaching, he looks like one of Aksyonov's characters.'" And she had been talking about me!

Monument to Mayakovsky, Moscow.
But it wasn't just me. This was the time of the so-called "Poetry Fever", a period which lasted from the late '50s to the early '60s, when poets were treated like movie stars, or maybe rock stars. They were reciting poetry on the street corners, or under monuments, like Vladimir Mayakovsky's monument, and the crowds were amazing. Brodsky would be out there, roaring his poems--he was already being talked about as a genius, a new Osip Mandelstam. It was just incredible--even sports stadiums were sold out for poetry readings! It was just unbelievable, the unthinkable changes, and it was because people were looking for answers to their questions, and the poets were answering their questions in allegorical and metaphorical ways--and they understood everything, every hint, no matter how small, about Stalinism, about totalitarianism. I was the first of the fiction writers who was seen in this way--not quite like the poets, but still in a big way, attracting a couple of thousand people to readings.

So I quit my job as a doctor and started immediately on my next novel, Ticket to the Stars (Zvezdnii bilet). It was published a year later to even greater success, because it was controversial--it was even criticized by the Party magazines. And then my third novel, Oranges from Morocco (Apelsiny iz Marokko) was published--also a great success.

But then word got out about an interview I had given to a Polish magazine--myself and another writer, a poet. It was in an article about two writers of the new generation. In the interview, I said that there were still a lot of Stalinists in the Soviet Union, but that we shall overcome them. And that led to my meeting with Khrushchev in the Kremlin.

7. Death to Beatniks!


After that interview, a Polish communist started telling people that, "Young writers of the Soviet Union are trying to undermine our Polish youth. They are making it hard for us to educate our youth in the proper Communist manner." So the people in power said, "They are a disgrace! Let's have them explain themselves and what they are going to do about this." So Khrushchev himself invited us to the Kremlin to explain ourselves. We had no idea what this would be about. We thought it was just a typical Party propaganda rally. We thought that they would just talk, talk, talk and then we would leave and just say "To hell with them!" We were not worried--we thought that we were powerful, loved by millions of the young people in Russia. And so we went to the Kremlin, inside Yekaterinian Hall, a very elegant, oval room. The balcony was filled with the entire Politburo. Even Yuri Andropov and other party watchdogs and apparatchiks were there.Andrei Voznesensky started off by saying, "Like my great teacher, Vladimir Mayakovsky, I am not a communist," and he said that with a comma at the end, so that he may continue his thought. But Nikita Sergeyevich [Khrushchev] shouted, "And you are proud of that, aren't you! I know you are proud of that, that you are ashamed of being a Communist!" And he would not allow Voznesensky to finish his sentence. Khrushchev was screaming and brandishing his shoe; he looked like a bull, a proletarian Communist bull! "We will wipe you out!" he screamed. Voznesensky turned pale, and I, too, was on the brink of...well, I don't know what-- just collapse. He was screaming, calling us beatniks, even though he didn't know what a beatnik was. You know, beatnik sounds very Russian--the ending, -nik is very Russian, in fact 'beatnik' came from the Russian "Sputnik". They took the ending "-nik" and added it to "beat". And in Russian "nik" is to hit, to strike a blow at someone, so it sounded dangerous to Khrushchev. He had no idea what the Beat Generation stood for at all, but he had been told that beatniks started the Hungarian uprising (laughs) so he was worried about them.

Painting by Illarion Golitsyn.
Finally Voznesensky was allowed to go back to his seat, and Khrushchev shook his hand as he got up. This was very significant, it was a signal to the KGB men there to let him go, not to touch him. The audience started crying, "Aksyonov! Make Aksyonov come up and explain himself!" It was a funny thing that happened then. Nikita Sergeyevich said, "I noticed him!" He was pointing his finger at someone, but it was not me, and he screamed, "Aksyonov, stand up! I noticed you! Everyone stood up and applauded, but not you! Look at him. He didn't even wear a necktie! He came to this meeting without even wearing a necktie! He is one of those beatniks! How do respond, Aksyonov?!" And finally everybody realized that that was Illarion Golitsyn, the painter--a tall fellow, very clumsy, with a red sweater under his jacket--and he said, "" And Khrushchev said, "Yes, you, Aksyonov, come here!" He said, "But I am not Aksyonov!" but he could not be heard because he was not near the microphone and there was a roar in the room. Khrushchev started approaching him and yelling, "I know you, Aksyonov. You are trying to avenge the death of your father!" And Golytzin said, "Niktia Sergeyevich, it's true my father died in the camps, but I am not Aksyonov." Khrushchev finally realized he had made a mistake, and he barked at him like a dog, "Okay, okay, go--go back to your place!" This made him even madder. Well, everyone else calmed down, and the ideological chief stood up at the microphone and said, "Okay comrades, our next speaker is comrade Aksyonov."

At that time I was very much interested in mountain climbing. And climbing up that podium was like climbing a mountain. I got this feeling on the way up that there was an avalanche happening below me, as if the ground was giving way beneath my feet.

I got up there, and he started with the same speech he had used before, saying, "I know you Aksyonov," without calling me comrade--which was significant, a bad sign, noticed by those others in power there. "You are trying to avenge the death of your father!" But this was the wrong information again. So I said, "No, he is alive." And Khrushchev said, "How come? How come he is alive?!" And he turned red, and walked over to the man who was giving him information, and they whispered and then he turned and said, "Okay, so he is alive." I said, "Yes, he was in the camps, but now he is released, and we link his release to your name, Nikita Sergeyevich." That was true, Khrushchev was known as a liberator after Stalin's death. My father had been released and had even been given a pension. He had been reinstated in the Party.

"Okay!" bellowed Khrushchev. "If that's so, why are you spitting into the water you drink yourself?! You are going to starve and die hungry, you are a beatnik! We will wipe you out! What are you going to do?! What are your intentions?!" Luckily I had worn a necktie to the meeting, and some people told me later he had noticed that. Maybe he had other things in mind for me, but he saw me sitting there, in a jacket and necktie, looking like a regular young fellow, not a dangerous beatnik, and this seemed to calm him down a little. I said, "Nikita Sergeyevich. I am a doctor, and if you are so much upset by my actions I can quit and just work as a doctor. But all I wanted was to do good for my homeland and my country." Khrushchev yelled, "What country?! Pasternak also was talking about his homeland, but you know what country he meant?" I said, "Well, the only country we have, the Soviet Union." Then he started on this long monologue about the enemies and spies against the fatherland, waving his fists, sometimes almost forgetting about me then abruptly turning back to me and shouting at me and yelling, "Speak into the microphone!" I was confused, because I hadn't been talking at all, just looking and listening to his ranting. Finally he said, "Okay Aksyonov, I give you my hand. Now, try to write better! Remember, if you are with us, you will be published. If you are against us, we will finish you!" And they let me go. I was so scared.

So we left the Kremlin--myself, Andrei Tarkovsky and others who had come to give us support. It so happened that that day was a holiday, International Woman's Day, and all these people were in the streets. Everyone was trying not to notice us, to stay away from us. We were walking across the huge expanse of Red Square, and I wasn't sure we would ever get across; I thought we might be stopped by agents and led to an integration room. But we were not stopped. We got out and saw a very allegorical thing happening in front of us. A young gypsy woman with some packages in her hand was running, trying to escape this huge crowd that was chasing her, yelling, "She stole a baby!" She was running into the traffic and the horns were blaring and people were screaming and she was trying to escape this bellowing, threatening crowd.

Finally we reached the Writer's Club, and we all immediately took a full glass of cognac and downed it in one gulp! After a while some more friends of ours arrived, and we started laughing and making jokes...well, you know, life wasn't so tragic. We were always laughing, making jokes--why, I don't know--it was probably something spontaneous, a way of surviving. We couldn't talk without joking. In fact, those who didn't joke were considered strange fellows.

The next morning I had a call from the Ministry of Culture. A woman's voice on the line said, "Vassily, why didn't you come to pick up your passport?" "My passport?" I said. "What kind of people you young writers are! You forgot about your trip to Argentina?" I was absolutely shocked. A movie had been made of my first novel, Colleagues, and they were going to show it at the International Film Festival in Argentina. After the interrogation I was absolutely sure there would be no trip to Argentina. So I went to see the Minister of Culture--a strange fellow, I think possibly even anti-Soviet--and he said, "Aksyonov, I know everything. I know the lesson you were taught was a good one. So keep quiet, pick up your passport. You are leaving Moscow the day after tomorrow." That was how the system was; one hand didn't know what the other hand was doing.

A couple of days later, when I was airborne, my wife got a telephone call.

"Where is Aksyonov?" the voice asked.

"He is not here," she replied.

"Where is he?"

"He went to Argentina."

"Look, I am not joking here. You know who I am? I am the assistant to Comrade Khrushchev. Where is Aksyonov?"

"He really is on his way to Argentina, comrade."

"What?! How come?!"

"He was invited to the International Film Festival."

I found out later why he was calling--he wanted to find out who was still around, who was in hiding, who had committed suicide. Instead he found out that one of them was flying to Argentina!

What made you go back? Why didn't you stay in Argentina? Was it a love of Russia?

No, not for love of Russia at all. I had feelings for Russia, certainly, but I never thought about staying abroad at all. I had my family and friends back in the Soviet Union, and it was an exciting time. I was part of the movement. I felt that I had to continue in the movement to change things, and I wanted to be there when they did.

When I was flying back from Argentina we stopped in Paris to board a Soviet plane. While I was in South America I had had no idea what was going on back in the Soviet Union. When I was waiting to board the plane, I saw some newspapers and I found out that horrible pressure was being put on our group to repent. They were saying things in the press like, "Well, comrades, we made some youthful mistakes". When I went back to Youth magazine* they told me that they were going to close us down unless I went to Pravda and officially apologized. They said, "Everyone else has apologized, and you must do the same. If you do not, we will be destroyed."

So you see the pressure on me to dismiss my work was much greater from my friends than from my enemies. They impressed upon me the consequences of any refusal to comply with the authorities' wishes, for themselves as much as myself. So I went to Pravda and they happily published my apology. The editor there was a very cynical fellow--he kept changing my piece, telling me that perhaps it would be better if I expressed this idea differently, and so on. Finally I just said, "That's it, that's my final version." He looked at me and he said, "Well, you know Vassily, you didn't say a word in here about Our Beloved Party..." But so, it was published. The young readers in Russia at the time were certainly disappointed by my article. And I got so angry at myself. I said to myself, "Why were you such a...well, coward? Why didn't you shout back at them 'Shut up! Don't you dare criticize me like this!'" It was a very shameful episode for me. But I was very motivated by this sense of anger, by this humiliation, and I told myself, "Never again!"

There was another interesting reaction to the article. Some people in the liberal circles were blaming me for selling out, saying that I had no ideals. Yet people on the other side, the conservatives, were angry as well, even more so, because they felt that their prey had slipped away. They wanted to crush us all right then, but we had escaped. That's the way it always was, strange contradictions. Even within the Party itself, there were always strange fluctuations in the Party line. For example, in 1963 the Second International Film Festival was held in Moscow. Beforehand there were many Party meetings in which there was a bunch of yelling, "These artists from the West, they will try to press on us their decadent, bourgeois conventions. We must rebut them in the strongest possible ways to show them that we are united!" But then at the end of the festival the jury, which was mostly comprised of Soviets, awarded the grand prize to Frederico Fellini's 8 ½! And in our camp it was considered a great victory that this decadent film from the West, which we had made such a fuss about, had won the grand prize here in the Soviet Union.

Shortly thereafter, there was a meeting of the Congress of European Authors in Leningrad. There was to be a conference on the destiny of the novel, to which I had been invited to speak. Again it was the same thing--before the conference there was all this talk about how this was an opportunity to rebut the West. But we took this as a provocation. Here we were going to get to see with our own eyes and to speak freely with authors like William Golding, Angus Wilson, Jean-Paul Sartre and Italo Calvino--at a Writer's Conference, on the grounds of a "Mutual Drinking Party"--and they wanted to grab these people and impose their influence upon them. Of course it turned out exactly the opposite! They, the authors, had a great influence on us, and they, the Party, had absolutely none on them.

8. Hideous Pig Snouts

It was now that you began to work in a different vein. Before, your writing had concentrated on disaffected Soviet youth, but now you began to write scathing satires of the Soviet authorities. And some of this work was done in theater, wasn't it?

This was my response to them then--the more they clamped down, the tighter they turned the screws, the stronger my response to them would be. Finally I realized that I have nothing in common with them, I will have nothing to do with them--I must be against them. It was really the end of what had remained of my Soviet idealism, when I had hoped for better things to come, for radical changes--as was said then, for "Socialism with a human face." I lost all hope for Socialism with a human face when I saw all these hideous pig snouts around us, these idiots who could not even promote their own cause properly! So at that time I worked out for myself the idea of "total satire". I would combat them by means of satire. For this purpose, I thought the theater was the best place. At the time I had never written a play, but during a short period of time I wrote four plays, all provoked by this idea of total satire. The first was Always On Sale which was produced at the Contemporary Theater. It ran for five or six seasons and it was just a sensation.

How did you get the censors to allow its being produced?
We got it through by any means...including seducing girls from the reparatory committee. We were sending handsome guys from the company to them, making some, well, arrangements. They made them our supporters so they would say to the pig snouts, "Well, comrades, it's nothing really. It's a very useful play. It's against the philistines in our Soviet society, it's a play against petty bourgeois manners", and things like this. And of course really it was just absolutely, unbelievably anti-Soviet!

Another play of mine, Pork* [Translated into English as "Your Murderer"], was unfortunately never produced. It was accepted by Anatoly Efross, who was the artistic director of a big Moscow theater, Lenin's Komsomol, or Lenkom, as it was called. It still exists under the same name. Efross got started on the production--he hired the art director, started casting, and everything was all right. But then all of a sudden Efross was fired, kicked out, and that was the end of that. Someone I guess had figured out that the play was just a direct allegory of my meeting with Khrushchev, and the authorities were not very pleased.

Speaking of displeased Soviet authorities, weren't you involved in a protest movement concerning the Sinyavsky/Daniel trial in 1966?

Yes, I was involved. I was actually the author of the very first letter of protest. It was in the beginning of 1966 and the Writer's Union was distributing tickets to the trial, so we could see what was going on. The executive secretary of the Writer's Union, a former KGB general, said to me, "Vasya, I'll give you a ticket. You are one of the select few, and I am absolutely sure that you will see that the authorities are correct in this matter."

I went to the trial, and I was absolutely indignant at what was going on. It was just so dirty, such a dirty show from the very first word to the very last. The judges were just insulting everything, every little bit of what was still human in the society. When this day of the trial was over, I went straight over to the Writer's Club, and some of the guys were sitting there, many of them drunk already. I said to them, "Guys, we cannot tolerate this anymore. Let's write a letter." So we had an address in Paris for Louis Aragon, who was a surrealist poet and also a communist. He was writing for a very influential magazine of the time for the left intelligentsia. We figured that if he would publish the letter it would be best, not only because we would be heard, but also because it would be in a magazine run by communists. So I wrote the first draft--I had initiated it, so I wrote it. After this first letter many others by other writers followed. When Anna Akhmatova found out that I had initiated this she said, "Aksyonov molodyets. He is really a molodyets." Which means, he is a good boy.

After this, such protests became almost habitual. Any action such as this on the part of the Soviet authorities was followed by an almost automatic response on our part.

So at this point you still held out hope that things could change?

By that time already, no. But there was just no other way than to resist.

Did you have any thoughts of defecting?

At that time, no. Even though many people started leaving, I wouldn't leave; not without being kicked out. I was part of something, and I wanted to see it through.

9. Anti-Soviet Underground

You were still able to leave the Soviet Union at times though, weren't you?

Yes. In fact I remember once in 1967 I had gone to England as a member of a Soviet writer's delegation, where I received an honorarium. At that time we were not supposed to get any money from the West. So before we were to go back to the Soviet Union I tried to spend the money with all my might, buying somestylish British clothes and other things.

Then I went into a major bookstore in London, and there was a huge section of Russian literature, and I was just, well, swooning! I was looking for some titles, some Nabokov. I found three or four titles and bought them--I didn't have the money to buy more. There was no one around me, no one spoke to me. I just went to the cashier and paid.

The next morning, around six o'clock, there was a knock on my hotel door. I didn't know what was going on, maybe it was a fire or something. So I opened the door. There was no one there. But there was a huge paper sack at my door, and when I looked inside, I saw it was filled with books banned in the Soviet Union. I realized someone at the bookstore had recognized me, and some, I don't know, anti-Soviet underground group or something had decided to leave me these books, so that I could be a sort of courier to get these books into the Soviet Union.

I tell you, I was in a state of intoxication at the sight of this treasure! With the last of my money I went out and bought a big suitcase--that was only the second suitcase I'd ever owned in my life--and I packed all these books in it. When I got back to Moscow, one of the customs officials said, "Let us see what you have in your suitcases--both of them. Put them up here." I was thinking how horrible it would be when they opened this case full of forbidden books. I don't know, I guess my time in the West had made me forget that I lived in a totalitarian country. Luckily this guy recognized me, and he started talking to me, asking, "Why don't you publish anymore?" I said, "Well, you know how things are now," and he said, "Yes, I know just what you mean." Then he looked at me, and without looking inside my bags he just said, "Welcome back," and I said, "Thank you," and that was that.

Prague, August 1968.
Of course the big crackdown, the real end of the Thaw, came in 1968 after Brezhnev sent the Soviet Army into Czechoslovakia in response to the "Prague Spring." Where were you when the tanks rolled into Prague?

I was in the Crimea, at a writer's colony. The invasion actually coincided with my birthday (August 20th), so while it was going on we were having a party out on the terrace. We had no idea that this was going on. People had been talking about it, of course, some saying, yes, you will see, they will invade, while others said they would never do it, that if they did it would ruin socialism. Which it did, by the way--with this act they ruined any chance that socialism could work. But that night we did not know it was in fact already happening.

We found out the next morning. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was there. He had arrived late the night before at my party, and he had a huge short-wave radio on which he could pick up broadcasts that were usually jammed by the authorities. On one frequency he found an appeal to him from Prague, from...I don't now recall their was two famous drivers who had crossed deserts in a Czech-made car, and they were enormously popular in that part of the world. Anyway, they were fighting with Dubcek and the reformers, and they were addressing Yevtushenko over the radio, "Zhena, Zhena, don't keep silent! Speak out for all of us! This is an aggression from the darkest forces, save us!" Yevtushenko was at that time the major idol of all the socialists--like his idol Mayakovsky had been in the 1920s. He went to the local telegraph office and sent a telegram to Brezhnev, imploring him to stop the invasion.

In the meantime I got drunk and I was out on the street yelling, "Instead of sending cables to them we should hang them all on the lampposts!" I was lucky they didn't kill me that time. If I had been in Moscow I'm sure they would have at least arrested me. But because I was in a small town in Crimea...

Did you know right off that things were going to change for you, that as a result of these actions there would be a crackdown against artists in the Soviet Union?

It completely changed my outlook on everything around me. Everyone was shocked by this, by the extent of the crackdown on an entire generation of writers. It was as if we all had a collective breakdown. After that, a lot of people started talking about emigration. You didn't hear a whole lot about emigration before--most people were involved in the struggle against these idiots and we still had some hopes for winning the battle. Before the crackdown people said, "Look at Czechoslovakia, they started a new type of socialism." Socialism With a Human Face as it was called. But after '68 we started talking about "Socialism With an Inhuman Asshole." The Thaw was over, and the deep frost of a long Soviet winter was upon us. I realized after the crackdown that it was the end--all of our hopes had been murdered.

Wasn't your mother threatened once again by the Soviet authorities?

My mother had been, like my father, rehabilitated, restored and reinstated in the Party. She was never a believer again, as my father was, of course, but she pretended to be happy within the Party. Because for her, complete rehabilitation and reinstatement meant that she was completely okay now, that her "sins" had been forgiven.

But when the first book of her memoirs, Journey into the Whirlwind--which had been circulating in the Soviet Union through samizdat circles--was smuggled out and published in Italy, it created a real scandal, practically an international scandal. The chairman of the KGB at that time--a certain son of a bitch, Vladimir Semichastny--met at that time with a reporter from the Soviet newspaper Izvestia and he said, "Ginzberg has published her work, an anti-Soviet work, in the West, and now we are trying to decide what to do with her. We are thinking we will revise her rehabilitation."

When my mother found out about this she was very frightened. She said to me, "Vasya...if they would come again, I would die." Fortunately at this time there were some hidden liberals within the Central Committee, and an appointment was made for me to speak with one of them who was head of a certain section in the Committee. I told him that my mother and I were very troubled by the situation, by the threats the KGB had been making in the press. He started asking some questions, to find out to what limit we were willing to go. When I assured him that we were not going to make any major moves, he said that he would try to fix the situation. In the end they made my mother write a short letter to an Italian communist newspaper, saying that the work had been published against her will. Although this was distasteful, still it was better than the alternatives.

The decade following the Czechoslovakian invasion was a very difficult time for you in many ways, wasn't it?

Yes, from the beginning the '70s were a very gloomy time for me, a very dark time. I had a lot of trouble getting things published. This is how they were, to me and all artists in the Soviet Union--they would be like this (he puts both his hands to his neck as if choking himself). Then after a while they would say, "Oh, look, he's getting blue, let's let him breathe some now." Then a little later they would say, "Oh, he's starting to get too rosy, time to cut off some of his breath again." That was the typical Party attitude to writers.

A good way to measure my standing in their minds was by my ability to travel abroad. During this time it was simply unthinkable. Only by 1975 did things finally get a little bit better, and I was allowed to travel to the United States. At that time there was a short period of detente, when things such as the link in space between Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft were occurring, when the relationship between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was milder. But then came Afghanistan, then Sakharov was expelled, and things began to get more and more idiotic.

In the artistic community, we didn't have any sources for earning a living, but still you would survive. People in the movie industry, for example, would come and say, "We will give you an advance. Come, just write three pages and we will give you an advance." Or maybe you could get some work translating something. The artistic community tried to help each other, to encourage one another, telling each other, "You know, old man, maybe we still have some chance of publishing something." There were people within the Party who were quite disaffected by what was happening, and who would be very instrumental in changing things. My next door neighbor at the time, a naval intelligence officer--after the invasion in Czechoslovakia he was just devastated, and he would shout, "This bloody bastard Brezhnev, I hate him! He has smeared our glorious armed forces!" And this was a man who was very close to the top of the Party and the KGB. So there were some people even then, some Russian Dubceks, who had an idea of this final dismantling of the Soviet Union. Some seeds of perestroika were being sown, though of course the Party had a nose for this sort of thing and tried to crush it.

By this time I started to get more and more reckless toward them, and that helped, and even worked to my advantage sometimes. In particular I recall what happened with In Search of a Genre (Poiski zhanra), a short novel I had written that was prepared for publication in Novy Mir, the most influential publication in Russia. I had a visit in Moscow by two KGB guys, and they warned me, "Should you dare to publish this, we will have to say good-bye to you." I responded, "Well, I was not really planning on publishing it. I wrote it just for myself." And they said, "Well, in that case you are free to do what you want," although they cancelled a trip I had been planning to Italy so that I would understand.

Then I remembered I had a two-year-old invitation to go to West Berlin for a writer's conference. I checked on this and found out that they didn't know about it, so I was able to go. It was just red tape--somebody never checked on it or cancelled the trip. So I went to Berlin, and from there I made a call to Paris, secretly asking for a visa. And so I just disappeared. But they were already behind me, ready to get me. They demanded that I go to East Berlin--they were waiting for me there. I just refused. They started saying things like, "Did you hear about what happened to so-and-so? He was killed recently in a car accident, you know," and threats like this.

While I was in Paris I heard that Novy Mir had now rejected my already approved novel. So I called to Washington, D.C., to the Voice of America. Despite jamming efforts, everyone in the Soviet Union listened to VOA. I asked them to help me, told them that I wanted to give an interview to them. They asked me, "Are you sure you want to do this?" They knew how dangerous it could be to me. So this fellow came to my hotel in Paris to interview me, and in the interview I said that they were trying to suppress me, to intimidate me, that my novel had been rejected under the command of the Central Committee. I said that if they didn't restore my novel in Novy Mir it would push me to the ultimate decision, meaning of course that I would request political asylum. Immediately after that my novel was restored! It got published! No doubt that after the broadcast there was a call from the Secretariat to Novy Mir telling them it was okay to publish it. So my recklessness in that case worked, although I was really only blackmailing them, bluffing. I would not really have left, but the threat of it was enough.

Out of this time came the novel a lot of critics consider to be your masterpiece, The Burn. Was it a response to what had been happening to you and other writers?

Certainly, certainly, from the very beginning. It was strange, because when I write I usually don't know what is going to happen, even five pages ahead. But in The Burn I knew. Also, the idea of Czechoslovakia was there from the very start.

I had at the time some dissatisfaction with my work. I was successful, everything was all right, but still I had such a great, such a terrible, background, and I was blaming myself for my reluctance to write about these, well...what we called "imperishable things." I don't recall who first came up with the term, but we called such things netlenka, or something that will never decay, something eternal. Many writers were working on both tlenka, or "perishable" things--regular things that could get published--and "imperishable" things, things that were made with greater literary aspirations, but which could not be published in the Soviet Union. Things that were written strictly "for the desk drawer" as was said. I had been working on many "perishable" things, some of which I was quite proud of, and many I had been able to publish. But then all of a sudden I realized it was time to start work on my "imperishable" work.

Did you have a feeling when you were writing it that this would be your greatest work?

I was absolutely sure. I knew a book like this had never been written before.

Did you think it would ever be published?

*Carl and Ellendea Proffer, a husband and wife team at the University of Michigan, were personally responsible for getting many of the texts suppressed in the USSR published in the U.S. Aksyonov's 1977 story Quest for an Island is "Dedicated to all Proffers."
I finished it in January 1975--I began the first draft in 1969--but it wasn't published for almost another five years. It was simply unthinkable at the time that it would be published, and I never approached anyone about publishing it in the Soviet Union. In fact I only made four copies of it, and gave them only to my closest friends. But I was able to send it abroad, to two addresses--one to a lawyer in Seattle, Washington, whom I had met and who was a very active advocate for dissidents. I had asked if he would mind if I sent it to him. The other went to Italy, where it was first published, in Italian. In the United States it was first published by Ardis, in Michigan, in 1980, by the Proffers*--the great Proffers (clasping his hands together in thanks). They were just fantastic friends to Russian authors.

10. A Sting Operation

How did you get the manuscript out?

It was sort of a sting operation (laughing), a complete sting operation. I was looking for some, well, transportation for my novel, and there was at the time (1975) in Moscow a woman who had been my mother's cellmate in the camps, who was by this time an old lady. She was German, and lots of people from Germany were coming to her small, humble apartment in Moscow, including some famous writers, such as Heinrich Böll, and others. I said to her, "Mishka"--that is what we called her--"Mishka, what if I were to bring you my manuscript--would you be able to get it out?" And she said, "No problem." Just like that, this very small old lady, just, "No problem."

So I brought it to her, and she said something to a young lady from the Austrian Embassy, who told me that she couldn't take it right then because, she said, "I always have a tail on me when I am in Moscow. But perhaps we can make a certain arrangement." She said, "Why don't you go to this particular place outside, some five or six blocks away, at a certain time and stand with your manuscript ready, and we'll pick it up."

So I was standing there. It was just a horrible March day, with sleet and melting snow. Down the street a lot of dump trucks were coming. This was a typical sight in Moscow under communism, always there were dump trucks going down the street, for no apparent reason. No one knew why there were so many of them, with no work at all, just empty, all of them. They were a horrible picture, they were ugly, just ugly. All of a sudden while I am standing there in this terrible weather I saw a very bright spot amidst the crowd of these horrible muddy steel elephants. It was a bright yellow spot, and it was coming through the traffic lights, closer and closer. I saw that it was a Volkswagen with diplomatic plates. It was her. She quickly pulled up next to me on the street corner. I hurled my manuscript in the car, and she immediately pulled off, no words exchanged at all. She just disappeared.

Later she got the manuscript out via a diplomatic pouch. I thought it would go to Seattle; but later that year, when after nine months of struggle I was finally able to go to the United States, I went to Seattle, to see Len Schroeder--that was the lawyer's name--and he said, no, it had never arrived. I had been hoping that maybe someone could have read it over already and maybe we could find a publisher, but.... I was sure it had been lost somewhere. So I started thinking about other channels through which I could get a nother copy out. But then all of a sudden while I was in the U.S. it arrived--it had taken almost six months to get there. So he offered it to some publishers in New York, and some people were very much interested in it. They thought it was great and that it could be a sensation, as long as something didn't happen.

Joseph Brodsky with Carl and Ellendea Proffer, 1972.
Well, something of course did happen. Remember that trip to West Berlin in 1977 I told you about? While I was there I called Carl Proffer from Berlin, and of course by now it had been two years since my manuscript had been smuggled out, and Carl said, "I read your book, Vassily, and it's great, but we are not going to publish it because we are too small; we cannot handle it. It needs to be published by a bigger house." So it appeared that it would be published by one of the large houses in New York. But meanwhile in New York Joseph Brodsky was telling everyone that The Burn was shit. He had been given a copy by a publisher--he was considered one of the most important Russian readers--and he wrote something nasty about my book and was just going everywhere in New York trying to create this hostile atmosphere for my book. Even to this day I don't know why. We had been good friends for years. It had just been two years earlier, when I was in the U.S., that I called him from Los Angeles--Brodsky was in Michigan then--and he told me he'd just got his driver's license and a car, for the very first time. He said to me, "I will immediately start driving to you, just to see you. I will leave right now. I can't wait." I talked him out of this, because otherwise he certainly would have been killed. He just couldn't drive at all. On my way back to Russia I went to Michigan, and from there we went to Bloomington for a lecture at Indiana University. He was driving and, oh, it was horrible--he was just a horrible driver! But then we went to New York, and he was taking care of me there, introducing me to people, everything friendly, like it always had been. Then, all of a sudden it changed. He actually got the book killed in one of the New York houses. I found this out later when I came to New York after my immigration.

But John Gallory of Random House--at that time he worked for Houghton Mifflin in Boston--happened to be an Italian reader; he is of Italian origin. By this time The Burn had come out in Italy, and Gallory got a copy. He read it over and he said, "It's a great book. We will publish it." So it turned out Brodsky just slowed it down, by about five years. Also during this period, when I went back to Moscow, I had a visit from the KGB, who already had a copy of the manuscript. I asked them how they got it and they said, "It is our job to get copies of such things." I suspect they got it from someone in one of the publishing houses in New York, because they told me not to suspect any of my Moscow friends. They had stolen it in the West--I believe it was most likely in the U.S. When Len Schroeder was trying to help me get The Burn published in America he made several Xerox copies and mailed them all around to many publishing houses. Of course it would never occur to an American attorney that this could be quite dangerous. But by doing this he made it very easy for someone to get their hands on a copy and send it to someone else, and then this someone else would send it to still another someone, and then finally it would be sent to the KGB. That they had gotten a copy was not good at all.

Later--though of course it still had not been published in Russia--copies started making their way into the country, being smuggled in. Some funny incidents came of this. Once on a beach in the Crimea I was approached by a certain person who said, "I cannot believe my eyes--are you Aksyonov"" I said, "Yes, I am," and he said, "Well, I have to tell you something. A few years ago I was in Athens, Greece, at a conference for psychiatrists"--he was a psychiatrist--"and just by chance while walking through the center of Athens I saw you. I was close to swooning because I had with me in my briefcase a copy of The Burn which I had purchased secretly. There I was walking down the street with this book I had been staying up at night in my hotel room reading and then there you were! So I said to myself, 'I will get him to autograph my copy,' and I was walking behind you for ten blocks but I could not approach you, because I noticed that I was not the only one following you--some KGB guys were tailing you also. So now I see you on this bloody beach, this horrible Soviet beach, and do you know what? I have my copy of The Burn with me!" So he finally got his autograph, many years later.

11. The Color of Freedom


Old Man Chagall
It was in Provence, actually, where he had a house, a big villa. It was in 1976. Chagall's daughter, Ida, lived in Paris and we met her one day. She found out we were driving to Nice and she said, "Maybe you will visit my daddy?" Well, okay, of course! So she organizes it. She calls there to Chagall's home and says that Aksyonov and his mother, Ginzberg, are coming. When we arrived it was Sunday, so there were no servants there, they all had the day off. It was just Chagall and his wife, Vava (Valentina). Chagall himself met us at the door. He started crying with a certain bewilderment, "Qu'est-ce que c'est? Qu'est-ce que c'est?" And I said to him in Russian, "Marc Zakharovich, your daughter, Ida, called and said we'd like to see name is Aksyonov." And he said, "Aksyonov, Aksyonov...sounds familiar...are you from Mayakovsky's circle?" That was Ivan Aksyonov, a Futurist--no relation, but a very good poet indeed, who wrote the first book on Picasso in Russian. But he was from the 1920s. Of course by this time Chagall was a very old man, nearly ninety, so, though he knew the name, he had his, well, chronology confused. But then he invited us in, and there was his wife--I remember they both spoke perfect Russian. Also two people from Chicago were there, a husband and wife from a gallery. They were discussing some purchases from the Chagalls for, well, millions. So we spent a few hours together, sipping coffee.

One moment that has stuck with me was when Chagall said to me that lately he had traveled to Moscow for a small exhibition--this was after decades of a total ban on all his pictures in the Soviet Union, and even on his name. In fact it had been for so long that almost nobody even knew who he was. Then he arrived at this exhibit of his work at the Pushkin Museum, and a gigantic crowd surrounded him. The museum was ringed by thousands and thousands of people who were eager to see him. He told me how the Minister of Culture at the time, a Comrade Furtseva, asked during all this adulation, "Marc Zakharovich, how could you have left your motherland?" Chagall said, "I told her I was looking for a color, that's why I left. And she said, 'What color?' And I told her it was the one color not available in all of the vast country of Russia, and so I needed to look for it outside the country." As he was about to finish his story Chagall looked behind him, as though he were looking for the ghost of this Comrade Furtseva still lurking about watching him. He motioned me closer and whispered, "I didn't mention to her that the color I was looking for was the color called 'freedom'!"

What a thrill it was for my mother! Not only to meet Chagall, but to be outside the Soviet Union. It was the first time out of the country for her, and she just couldn't believe it. She was traveling abroad--it had never even occurred to her that she would ever be allowed to travel outside of the Soviet Union!

It made me so happy that she was able to go because of me. At the time my mother was very sick. She had cancer, inoperable cancer. Already before we made the trip she couldn't walk because of the metastasis. But then she started getting medicine, a certain hormone medicine, from the Solzhenitsyn Fund, which was a clandestine, underground system providing dissidents and victims of repression with medical help. They had found out that Ginzberg was terminally ill, so they started sending her this medicine. She started using it and it was...well, it was just a miracle! Suddenly there was a great remission of the tumors. They just disappeared from the X-rays, and she started walking again. She was getting better and better. Then, all of a sudden, everything came back, just as quickly as it had left.

I wanted to bring her outside the Soviet Union to see some European doctors before it was too late, before she couldn't move again. I applied to a special government section for travel visas, and immediately rumors started to spread in Moscow saying, "Aksyonov is going to emigrate with his mother." Probably the rumor was spread by the KGB's disinformation section--that was the sort of things they would do--so that my visa application would be denied, so that I would be refused travel and so that they could crack down on me, refuse me the right even to publish, just a total block, which they knew would certainly lead me to a confrontation with them and then they would cut me off entirely from all Soviet literature.

I was ready to fight. I tried to get in touch with some human rights activists, these sorts of things. During this time I was in the offices of Literaturnaya Gazeta, which was the most popular weekly in the country at the time. It was run by a certain Comrade Chakovsky, a Soviet Socialist Realism expert and novelist, Aleksander Chakovsky, who was a Jew, and a much needed Jew to the Central Committee. He was very close to some Central Committee circles, always representing Soviet culture abroad...and a great liar. Lying everywhere, inventing some reasons for him to be a Socialist rather than an anarchist--or worse, Capitalist! So I had come to Literaturnaya Gazeta to pick up a story of mine that had just been mysteriously killed. While I was in the corridor I ran into Chakovsky. For some reason he always had a certain strange feeling toward me. He liked to talk with me, and so he just caught me by the button and he said, "Listen old man, is it true?" I said, "It's not true; it's a lie." We both understood what we were talking about. He said, "Let's talk, let's talk." He led me to his study, his official office, which had special telephones with direct connections to the Central Committee offices, and he said, "Tell me about this. I heard you are going to leave your motherland." I said, "It's just a lie. The only thing I really want to do and that I will try to do with all my might is to bring my sick mother abroad to show her to the doctors in France." He looked at me and said, "Mother is just holy...mother is a holy meaning." Suddenly I saw before me this really good Jewish boy who loves his mother, and he saw me as a boy who wants to do something good for his mother. "Tell me it is true that you are just going to take your mother to the doctors," he said. "It's absolutely true," I said. Then he said, "Well, I promise nothing so far, but I can help you." And in three days we not only got our passports, but also some papers saying that we were correspondents for Literaturnaya Gazeta! So I'm still grateful to him, for what he did to help out someone who was just trying to help his mother.

Though in the end she refused to see any doctors over there. She had the mentality a lot of people who are terminally ill get--to just deny they are even sick. But she enjoyed the trip so much. For her it was a distant dream come true, just something fantastic, like going to the moon. When I first went to her and told her we were going to Paris she said, "Don't be crazy! Don't talk about this! You are crazy! Don't even talk about that with me!" And I just said, "Well, we'll see, Mama."

We took the train from Moscow to Paris. She didn't believe we would ever cross the border of the great, vast Soviet Union. When we finally did cross the border between Russia and Poland...well, she just couldn't believe it. Even though we were still in a Socialist state, we had left the Soviet Union. There she was standing in the corridor of the car, the coupe, and she was just looking, looking, looking, and all of a sudden the world became much smaller. We had left the great expanses of the Soviet Union, and now we were in this much smaller country. Germany was next, and of course part of Germany was also Socialist at the time, so we crossed the border into the German Democratic Republic heading towards Berlin. We entered East Berlin--and you know the situation was rather complicated at the time because Berlin was still under the occupation of four great powers after World War II--there was a Soviet section, and also a British, French, and American section. For a brief time we would cross from Socialist East Berlin into the Western, free part of Berlin, then back into Socialist East Germany for another two hours before finally re-entering the West. But this small part of West Berlin was the most exciting part of all for my mother, she simply could not believe that we could suddenly... well, occur, in this free world. So she stood in the corridor of the train car, looking at these totally empty train stations as we went through the part of Berlin called "no-man's land." The only thing you would see in these stations were guards with machine guns in what looked almost like Nazi uniforms marching to and fro. As we passed these stations my mother was unable to realize where we were, and she would keep saying to me as we came upon each station, "Is it the West?" And I would say, "No, Mama, not yet. Mama, just wait; it will be the West." And then all of a sudden I saw a station as empty as all the rest--except in this station there was just a tall old man dressed in a long tweed overcoat with three dachshunds on a leash. I turned to my mother and said, "Mama, we are in the West!"

12. Metropol: Panic in the Writers Union


When did you first conceive of putting together the collection that would be Metropol?

It wasn't my idea originally. By then I had made friends with two young writers, Yevgeny Popov and Victor Erofeyev. We talked often about the situation, and they said to me, "They are just burying us; we can't get anything published. Because of what we are writing, because of our style and content, it is automatically rejected, and we don't see any prospects for our writing life. Our literature cannot find access to the surface."

I talked a lot with them, and once--by the way, very strangely--our discussion happened in dentist chairs. Popov and I went with Erofeyev to a friend of his, a dentist, to have some dental work done. We were sitting in chairs next to each other--this doctor had given us some anesthesia, he had given us shots in the mouth. While we were sitting there we kept talking about literature, and I pronounced this idea, just...well, just out of some fantasy--that sometimes I think it would be good to flee to some island and start a new literature. Victor said, "Why should we go to some island? Let's do it here." And you know that started it all.

From the start we thought we would not get enough authors for this collection--instead we got a lot of people who wanted to take part and we had to make some selections. We thought people would be afraid, but instead everybody was in such despair that they decided to go over all hurdles to challenge them, even though we warned them that it could be dangerous, that there could be some serious consequences. But still people were coming to us, to be a part of Metropol.

Vladimir Vysotsky as Hamlet
A typical case was Vladimir Vysotsky, who was a very popular singer, just fantastically popular in the Soviet Union. His songs were distributed in the millions of copies on audiocassettes recorded by his fans. By the way, the tape recorder was one of the killers of Soviet power--spreading dissent like samizdat literature. Anyway, everybody knew Vysotsky, everybody loved him in all strata of society, including KGB officers and other Party people! But also taxi drivers and intellectuals. He was also a popular actor in the theater. But still he had never had any of his lyrics published in any official publication, or any LPs or tapes. He was always in somewhat of an ambivalent position, because he was the husband of a French movie star, and she was a communist--actually she was a member of the French Communist Party Central Committee--and because of this he had a free exit visa any time he wanted to go to France. But on the other hand he was one of the personalities most suspected by the authorities.

So when I went to see him to ask if we could publish some of his lyrics I was afraid he would say no, so as not to jeopardize his situation. But he immediately agreed. He was happy to receive the invitation, he thanked me and he gave me just a sack of his texts. We selected some 20 songs, well known to his fans, and published them in Metropol.

There were many other people like this--not as popular as Vysotsky, of course--like Yevgeny Rein, an established and true poet, who had never been able to publish any of his poems. But we published him, and, well, many others as well.

We put this all together in an apartment that had been my mother's. She lived in a Writer's Union co-op, and when she died, her very small apartment, a studio apartment actually, was empty. I was going to take it, but I failed to get permission from the authorities. At that time Popov was homeless in Moscow. He came from Siberia. When he first came to Moscow he looked like a patriot, like just a village writer with a long beard--and he was invited to patriotic gatherings. They wanted to use him as a voice of the real Russia--but they didn't know that he was a dissident from Siberia, a product of the Gulag culture of Siberia. He didn't have anywhere to live, so I gave him the keys to my mother's old apartment. He lived there, and we used it as our headquarters for Metropol. Everyone was coming there, and we would work and drink and have, well, kind of parties. It's strange--everyone understood that they were tailing us, that they were eavesdropping on us, but everyone was just saying, "To hell with them!" We were really enjoying this community spirit that developed, we were all in this together--we had created this group, and we were happy to be together, us against them.

After you and the other editors had decided which texts would be in Metropol you took it to the Writer's Union to ask for it to be published...

Well, actually that was just a certain subterfuge. We knew they would never publish it--we were kind of blackmailing them. We came to them first and said, "We just made this collection, please consider it for publication, but with one condition--no censorship. We will not accept any of your editing or any sort of censorship at all." Which we knew they would not agree to.

Illustration from original Metropole by Boris Messerer.
But events were already unfolding rapidly. We smuggled out two copies. One went to the United States, to Ardis and the Proffers, and how we got that one out was like a thriller movie. We had a party at my wife's country house, and invited an American diplomat, Ray Benson, who was a cultural attache. In the night, under a full moon, we loaded this gigantic work into his car. It was more than 1,000 typewritten pages, so we had decided not to make it all in one regular book--it would be too thick. So instead we used some very thick paper and glued four pages on each side, so it would not be that thick--but still awfully heavy. We made a cover which looked like marble, and then we used shoelaces for binding it all together. We called this design the "aesthetics of poverty". The closest thing to imagine is a scrapbook, a giant scrapbook.

It was taken out of the country by special diplomatic pouch. When this guy from the embassy took it to the ambassador's mansion in Moscow, he took it to the ambassador without saying a word. The ambassador, Malcolm Toon, saw he was bringing something in and he went like this (Aksyonov brings his right index finger to his mouth, as if to say "Shhhh"). When he saw what it was he went like this (Aksyonov removes the index finger from in front of his mouth and thrusts it out to his right), telling them without speaking, "Do it!"

The other copy was smuggled out to France, but in different circumstances. Again it was a Secretary of Cultural Affairs, a lovely Frenchman who was a friend of Victor's. He took this other copy and said, "No problem, don't worry about it." We asked, "How will you do it?" He said, "How will I do it? I will just put it under my arm and carry it on to the airplane." And he did! He just walked it right onto the airplane, no secret operations at all, and he took it to Paris.

It was first published though by Carl Proffer at Ardis. That signaled some alarms, because he made an announcement on Voice of America, he said, "We have just received a collection of uncensored Russian writing, and we are definitely going to publish it. We will do it as soon as possible." Everyone in the Soviet Union listened to VOA, including the KGB, and they started ringing everybody's doorbells immediately. The next morning there was panic in the Writer's Union. They started inviting us in, one by one, trying to pressure us. They launched a campaign against us. There was a series of rallies under the auspices of the Writer's Union. They never mentioned the KGB or the Party that time, even though we knew for sure that people at the very top were involved. We had sent a letter about Metropol to Brezhnev and members of the Politburo, and they were discussing us at the very highest levels of power, not to mention the KGB, who were, well, omnipotent at the time. But they decided to do the dirty work through the Writer's Union.

And then you resigned from the Writer's Union.

Yes, I resigned after they expelled Popov and Eroyefev from the Writer's Union, but really that was just a pretext. They had been looking for a reason to kick me out of the Union, but they hadn't found it yet, so I decided to just go out myself in protest. I felt that would be a good move, not to wait for them to expel me but to do it on my own initiative, to choose my fate. And I was followed by many others, including Semyon Lipkin, who was the oldest member of the Metropol group--he was 70 years old at the time. The youngest to resign was only 20 years old, so writer's from 20 to 70--50 years worth of writers--left the Writer's Union in protest.

Did you know when you started this that it would result in you being stripped of your citizenship?

My participation was just a pretext to kick me out. They hated The Burn and they even used some go-betweens to let me know that if I gave up The Burn they would forgive me for Metropol. But there was no way I would do that.

13. Your Own Funeral

You were actually in the United States when Brezhnev stripped you of your citizenship, weren't you?

I was in the United States, but at first I didn't know about it. I still had a Soviet passport when I left in July; by September I was in the U.S. First I went to Michigan, to Ann Arbor, to teach a seminar at the University of Michigan. Then I was invited to L.A., to USC--so I went to Los Angeles. I was driving across the country, and when I finally arrived one night in Pacific Palisades, where a friend of mine was living, I got a call from Craig Whitney of the New York Times and he said, "You know they just published a Supreme Soviet Decree declaring you stripped of your citizenship." So that's how I found out--from the New York Times while in Los Angeles. After Craig told me I just said, "Assholes", or something like this, though in Russian of course.

Were you able to get anything out of Russia?

I had anticipated something like this happening, so I had already rewritten the deed to my country house, making my son (Aleksey) the owner. All I really had was an apartment in Moscow and this country home. It wasn't actually a house but a part of a bigger house, but still there was a lot of land and it was of real value because of its proximity to Moscow and the prestige it had, since it was in the writer's village, Peredelkino. Then I also had some possessions shipped over to the States, through some Americans in Russia.

Were you going to teach at USC?

Yes, I was teaching Russian literature to the USC Trojan football team. We always had class outside under the palm trees, and they were just these, well, huge guys, and one of them said to me in the very first session, standing there towering over me, "Well, so tells us a bit about this Dostoevsky."

What about after USC?

In the spring of '81, when the term at USC was done, I got an invitation from the Kennan Institute, a "think-tank" in Washington, D.C. I was in the Smithsonian Building, the Woodrow Wilson Center it was called, writing Paperscape in the flag tower of the Smithsonian. It was fantastic. There was only one office on each floor. I had a French fellow above me and under me an official Chinese diplomat, a communist, and there was no staircase--only some rickety old-fashioned elevator--and an escape hatch in the floor for nuclear attack escape...very strange, indeed.


Generations is so different from the work you had been doing--why the change to a more traditional, realist style?

This book was based on a television project that originated here in the States. A producer from California approached me about doing a documentary on Stalin's time--the major goal was to help educate Americans about Stalin and that time in Russian history. So some contracts were made with PBS, and as I began to collect materials for this project I said to them, "Why don't we make a motion picture out of this instead?" So I created this family, the Gradovs. I showed them [the producers] what I was doing and they were just fascinated with the idea. So we changed the project into a mini-series. Everything was going smoothly--we already had some TV studio in Hollywood which was working with us, but then there was a change in leadership at PBS, and the new guys killed the project.

When my publisher at Random House found out that I was working on this mini-series he had said to me, "Why don't you do a novelization of the scripts?" which is the opposite direction from the one in which I was used to working, but I went ahead and made a contract with them to write a novel. When the PBS contract was killed the guys at Random House said, "No problem, go ahead and write the novel and we will publish it."

So I went ahead with the writing. When the television dreams ended I was already so engrossed with the material--and some remnants of the TV original are left in the novel--that I just wanted to write this novel. After the book came out some Russian critics were saying, "Why is he telling us things we already know about here for so long?" I rebutted them saying, "I wasn't looking to make any historical discoveries at all. It is not a political book. It is a soap opera actually, just the story of a family and how they lived during that time, how they loved each other, how they suffered and how they hoped for a better day."

It was published as two books here in America and as three separate books or just one big book in Russia. It was just amazingly popular. Many critics were comparing it to Tolstoy, to War and Peace...

That's quite a compliment.

Yes, it is indeed. But you know Tolstoy was writing a soap opera, too. Same thing, just a family story set in a time of war and hardship.

In your next novel, The New Sweet Style, you went back to your usual style, a style that seems to be difficult for some American readers.

*Skaz: a term that originated in Russian Formalist criticism that refers to the recreation by the narrator of a certain style of speech used by a character that helps define who that character is. Skaz usually incorporates a folksy, quirky, or awkward style of speaking that enlivens the work and can indicate a character's social class or regional roots. The great Russian novelists and short-story writer Nikolai Gogol, a hero of Aksyonov's, is often credited with perfecting the early use of skaz.
Yes, that book is much more in my usual style. I don't understand why it is so difficult for some American readers. It seems to me the main reason is probably that they simply don't like this permanent usage of ironical skaz*.

This intonation makes them nervous, it seems. But you know I just love this book; it is my favorite. Some American critics had problems with the book, but others just loved it. I had a review in Harper's, just a rave review saying that finally a Russian had managed to write a great American novel. They are preparing to make a movie of it in fact, in Russia--we are supposed to make the script this summer.

You've written a lot of screenplays--do you enjoy that as much as writing novels?

Yes, I have written quite a few screenplays. It was in fact my major source of income in the Soviet Union. Certainly it is much different than writing novels, but still I just love the atmosphere of movie-making. Sometimes when I had the blues I would go to the Moscow film studios (MosFilm) just to walk around the corridors and talk to people I knew there, going from set to set watching the work, saying, "Hey, guys, what are you making over there?"

But whatever art form you're working in--novels, movies, painting, etc.--it's all the same really, because to me all art, all true art, is a struggle against time. It's the lot of man that we are always struggling against time--we think we are heading toward the future, but it always eludes us, instantly becoming the present--it's like swimming against the tide in the ocean. Art is man's attempt to evade this trap of time, to have a certain success--success in quote marks--in retarding the flow of time, so that, even if we can't capture the future, we can at least relive the past. It's only through art that we are able to step in that allegorical "same stream" twice. So time is what we struggle against, and time is what I have always struggled against in my work, both the times of my own life and the larger time that frustrates us all.

You've just finished a new novel, haven't you?

Cover of
Voltairyansi i Voltairyanki
Yes, I have. It was just published in Russia. It's called Voltarians. In Russian the title has somewhat comic connotations; it's called Voltairyansi i Voltairyanki--Voltairians, male and female. There's no real translation for it in English.

It is set in the 17th century, part of it in France, part on an island in the Baltic Sea, and part of it in Russia. The characters were all there early on, but I needed to decide what language it would be written in-- either 17th-century language or 21st-century language. That was a most complex problem, because in order to create the skaz of these characters I could not use modern expressions and modern metaphoric images. I needed to create something which would immediately, with each phrase, put the reader in that time period, that 17th century gallant age, with people in wigs striding around on high heels. At first I thought I would write this book in a realistic style, a so-called "real story which never happened." But it's not in a realistic style. It's more of a grotesque, Gogolian style.

Will you continue to write novels?

I had thought about quitting after I finished The New Sweet Style. I had an idea it would be my last one, my farewell, and some people believe it is. But then all of a sudden these...I would say some sort of psychological secretions started up again, and I began thinking about a new book and processing these thoughts over and over. So now I am embarking on a new novel adventure. I once knew a writer who was so much inside literature that he could not imagine anyone doing anything else. I guess I am now like that--I cannot even imagine existence without writing.

And now you're going to retire from teaching after this semester.

Yes, this is it. I've been teaching for over 20 years now. It's time to stop. Plus you know, well, it may be a sign of aging or something, but I feel like I have no time for writing anymore, especially during the school semester. So I will live in a small home in Biarritz on the Bay of Biscay with my wife, Maya. I didn't make a fortune so it is a modest house, but it will be my retreat where I will write. And from there I will travel to Moscow--I still have an apartment there.

But you won't live permanently in Russia?

No, I'm not going to. I am now really an emigre, and I'm not used to living in just one place. I really feel sometimes like a tumbleweed. I have no maudlin, sentimental feelings for Russia. I certainly have nostalgia for some things--for example, nights around the table in kitchens with close friends, you know, the "Russian kitchen culture" of just sitting around drinking vodka and talking, talking, talking, and drinking more vodka and telling stories, recalling the past, discussing literature and politics for hours and hours. When I was first allowed to return to Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I was absolutely sure that it would be a very emotional trip. But it was nothing like that at all. It's really strange, it really is--I don't belong to this country or that one, I feel like some strange tribal refugee. In 1990 I was offered back my Russian citizenship, but I said, no, I already have my American citizenship. You know what the Russian ambassador said to me? He said, "Well, you have more than one pocket in your jacket, don't you?" So now I have dual citizenship. The strangest things sometimes happen. Just this past winter (2003) I represented Russia at a writer's conference in Israel. Then about a month later I represented the United States in Norway, under the auspices of the U.S. State Department--"State Department Lecturer/Specialist" was my title. So I represented two different nations in one month! But immigration really is an awful thing. It's like your own funeral in some ways.

You seem to like America quite a bit, unlike Alexander Solzhenistyn, who doesn't seem to think much of this country even though he emigrated to the U.S.

To me what he says is embarrassing, really embarrassing. I don't always agree with everything America does, but Solzhenitsyn hasn't even made any attempt to understand the United States, to understand the West. He made a hysterical speech at Harvard like he was some kind of prophet, and his major position was just totally wrong. He is a strange fellow--he is a Russian nationalist--and he's just sitting up there in the woods in Vermont. He should travel some, just travel, to New York or Paris or London, just to live, not as some kind of statement, but just to stroll around, visit some museums or a few pubs, or whatever, and maybe he would see things differently.

My wife, Maya, had trouble at first when we started living here. She was always clashing with her daughter (from her first marriage--this is Aksyonov's second marriage as well) because she (her daughter) is such an American patriot. But now Maya says she has gotten used to this country, and when we move to Biarritz she says she will not cut off her ties to the U.S. It's f unny, you know she likes to talk to Americans now, anyone, salesmen, plumbers...(laughs).

A couple of years ago you were not particularly optimistic about Russia's future--you felt that the early promise of Yeltsin's presidency had never been realized and you were concerned that reactionary forces may rise once again to the fore. How do you feel now about your old country?

So many times I have expressed the opinion on television and in newspapers that it all depends on their closeness to the West. They must be a part of the West, otherwise they will be destroyed. A lot of people in Russia still don't understand what they're facing--they don't understand how great the threat is to Russia from Islam and from China--and the only solution is to be a part of the West, to join NATO. I think Vladimir Putin understands this. I disagree with his domestic policy--in fact I am very worried about the recent crackdowns in Russia, and with many aspects of his various positions. But with his tendency to come closer to the United States, to Europe, to be a part of this world--well, I completely support this.

Looking back on it now, how do you feel about what your generation, the generation that came of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s, has accomplished?

We've been very successful, I think. I still keep in touch with many of my old friends from that time, though many people are already no longer with us, at least not in this world. For a while there was a great deal of irritation towards us, the 60ers. The new generation was saying that we were taking their places, that we must be removed, attacking us as being politically ambiguous. Of course a similar thing has occurred here in the U.S., when the American Sixties generation was being discussed. But our generation was very important in Russia, for changing society--Gorbachev always identifies himself as a man of the Sixties. And to me the Sixties was a bohemian time of a semi-underground world of people who were challenging the very existence of the totalitarian regime, not by political means but in other ways, doing something which was totally unthinkable.

And in the end your generation won.

Certainly, no doubt about it. We paved the road, we brought about the uprising which toppled the Soviet regime. We turned out to be the first generation of non-slaves in the Soviet Union. It was an amazing and inexplicable thing because we were the generation that was very much prepared to become the perfect slaves, just out of the fear of sharing the fate of our parents' generation. But in fact it turned out just the opposite. We were the first generation to say, "We are not going to have anything to do with you, we have nothing in common with you. Do that without us, or at least try to." That was a complete rejection of our fathers--I don't mean the fathers in the jails, in the camps, but the fathers who were the guards of these camps.

We were the first generation of dissidents and artistically we restored the tradition of modernism. Our generation was a new avant-garde, with a Renaissance mentality--a group of very talented people, among them some true geniuses, who were willing to take great personal risks to fight a repressive, murderous regime. In the end, we won. We paid a high price, but we won.*

* Since this interview occurred, Aksyonov's position on the politics of Russia's current regime has hardened. When accepting the Russian Booker Prize, Aksyonov raised a toast to jailed Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky whose humanitarian organization, Open Russia, sponsored the Russian Booker, referring to him as "our prisoner" and calling for his freedom. Aksyonov told The Moscow Times that the awarding of the prize presented, "An absurd paradox. People gather at a luxurious hotel in the center of Moscow to give a prestigious literary award, with television crews and journalists everywhere, while the man who made it possible is behind bars. We are getting mixed signals from the authorities all the time. It's bizarre and confusing."

last saw Aksyonov at his retirement party at George Mason in May 2004. He was a bit distressed at having found no American publisher for his new novel. The publishing world he had known was gone. Large corporations now run many publishing houses and business people, rather than book people, decide what gets published. With the fall of the Soviet Union, it no longer seems so adventurous to publish the works of Russian authors in the U.S. So it was a melancholy Aksyonov I saw that day--though he still smiled and laughed and seemed to have a good time, he confided in me that having been tossed aside by the American publishing world had been hurtful to him.

So it was with particular pleasure that I found out later that year that Aksyonov's new novel had been awarded the prestigious Russian Booker Prize for best novel of the year. It seemed so fitting that, after all these years, whether politically or professionally, Vassily Aksyonov is still enjoying the last laugh.

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