The hard man

Dissident, son of dissidents, and one of the greatest writers of our time, Vasily Aksyonov is now on the brink of death in the neuro-surgical department of Moscow's emergency Sklifosovsky hospital. A marvellously unpredictable, talented and idealistic man, Aksyonov is both loved and talked about in the widest of circles.
Aksyonov once told me how he vividly recalled his fifth birthday, because that was when he was taken by the Cheka secret police to a home for children of Soviet "enemies of the people", following the arrest of his parents. That night on August 20, 1937, young Vasily slept on a government-issue bed for the first time, burying his tear-stained face in his favourite toy lion. By morning, both Aksyonov's toy and his childhood had been snatched from him.

Aksyonov was eventually rescued from the home by his uncle, but not before his relative had officially renounced his brother and promised the authorities to bring his nephew up as "a real Soviet man".

Twenty three years later, Vasily Aksyonov had become a celebrity following the publication of his first novel, Colleagues, in the immensely popular Yunost youth magazine. This million-copy success was followed by Ticket to the Stars, a national bestseller which made Aksyonov famous across the whole of the Soviet Union.

Communist authorities at various stages attempted to tame the youthful talent and turn Aksyonov into a young "communist writer", but his character - tempered in a children's home, and later in the Gulag town of Magadan, where his mother had been exiled - made these attempts futile. Instead, each new Aksyonov publication triggered another stream of ideological tensions.

His tragi-comic play, Always on Sale, which had played to packed houses, was banned in the late Sixties. Overstuffed Barrels was reviled by Nikita Khrushchev for "making a mockery of everything that Soviet people hold dear". And the party's most loyal satirical journal, the Crocodile, frequently carried uncomplimentary cartoons of the Moscow playboy - as an English-speaking "Westerniser", a jazz or basketball fan.

All the same, his books continued to be published, however grudgingly. In the period of détente, authorities were obliged to tolerate the existence of a writer whose books had already been translated into many languages.

There were also rumours circulated that Aksyonov was behind the publication of the famous Metropol, a collection of texts by 25 poets and writers, previously censored in the USSR. As a matter of fact, I can attest that this was not true, although he was undoubtedly the spiritual leader of our almanac.

Aksyonov was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 after he was allowed to go on a lecture tour abroad. Nevertheless, his books were smuggled into the USSR and distributed widely, despite the fact that possession of novels such as The Burn or Island of Crimea was enough to land one in trouble with the KGB.

There was even one story of a reader who boiled his copy of Island of Crimea in a huge cooking pot, so that if the KGB burst in to search the flat, they would have found glue instead of the banned book.

Ten years later, Aksyonov returned to Moscow. The crowd that gathered to meet him at Sheremetyevo airport was, however, ultimately disappointed. Their idol had arrived at the personal invitation of the US Ambassador, John Matlock, and was to stay at his residence. This was a year before the 1991 putsch would put a full stop to the history of the USSR.

After returning to Moscow permanently, Aksyonov became a modern cultural leader once again. His trilogy, The Moscow Saga, was made into a popular TV film, while a new but still vintage Aksyonov found expression through short stories, collections of essays, and novels such as The New Sweet Style, Voltairian Men & Women, Moskva-kva-kva and Rare Earths. He became a TV personality and his behaviour was as marvellously unpredictable as ever. He could stroll into a court session and shake hands with Mikhail Khodorkovsky or dine with president-to-be Dmitry Medvedev. Some thought him a liberal and "Westerniser", others a conservative and near-nationalist. Even those who came to detest him acknowledged that he was one the brightest stars in the Russian literary firmament, unconcerned by political or critical acceptance.

I remember once walking with Aksyonov through Patriach's Ponds, the park immortalised in the opening scenes of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Young people - young enough to be Aksyonov's children and even grandchildren - were relaxing and smoking on garden benches.

"Hey, isn't that Vasya Aksyonov, the tough guy?" one of them shouted out. In a flash, the writer was surrounded on all sides by enthusiastic autograph hunters. A young man with an earring asked him to sign his passport because he didn't have any paper on him.

"The police will issue me a new passport, but I don't know if I'll ever have the chance of seeing you in the flesh again," he said.

Running through Aksyonov's work is a constant longing for a civilized, affluent and happy Russia over a traditionally gloomy, impoverished, downtrodden and isolated present. He looks to break out of the inferno, into freedom and tranquility, into a country whose people have regained their dignity. Aksyonov has been and always will be talked about in Russia. He is loved and I hope he knows it, even as he fights for his life in Sklifosovsky hospital.

Yevgeny Popov is a writer and close associate of Vasily Aksyonov

A life in words

Born August 20, 1932, into the family of a party functionary.

1937. Aksyonov's parents arrested for "anti-Soviet activities". They remain in labour camps and exile until the early 1950s.

1960. His novel Colleagues becomes an overwhelming national success, and he is admitted to the Soviet Writers' Union.

1979. Following the authorities' crackdown on the independent almanac Metropol, published in the West, Aksyonov resigns from the Writers' Union protesting against the expulsion of two younger writers.

1980. Aksyonov is stripped of Soviet citizenship while on a trip abroad.

1981. Becomes professor of Russian literature at George Mason University, Washington, DC, in the US.

1991. Regains Russian citizenship.

2004. Receives the Russian Booker Prize for his novel Voltairian Men & Women.

Vasily Aksyonov has been married twice. His son Alexei (born in 1960) by his first wife, Kira, is an art director at Mosfilm Studios. His present wife, Maya, was formerly married to the Soviet documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen. Indeed, her affair with Aksyonov was a major source of gossip among the Moscow literati in the 1970s. Aksyonov's The Burn, about life in Moscow at the time, is dedicated to Maya.

Aksyonov and a decade of dissidents

The Sixties generation

The word "shestidesyanniki" - or "people of the Sixties"- owes its existence to Aksyonov. First used in a review of his Colleagues, the term was later to become a popular by-word not only for a new Soviet generation, but also the entire post-Stalin era of cultural and political detente known as "the thaw". Vasily Aksyonov's prose, Vladimir Vysotsky's music, drama at Moscow's Taganka Theatre, Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poetry and Andrei Tarkovsky's films were all symbols of free thought closely associated with the "shestidesyatniki" movement.

Seven years for a book

In the 1960s and 1970s, Vasily Aksyonov's popularity was comparable to that of a pop star. Fans flocked in their thousands to his readings, and spent hours discussing Aksyonov's characters. But after Aksyonov emigrated to the US and was stripped of Soviet citizenship, being an Aksyonov fan was a dangerous pastime. The Burn and Island of Crimea had to be smuggled into the country, and secretly copied and distributed. Owning them was punishable by seven years in a labour camp and by five years of internal exile.

Writing in exile

Vasily Aksyonov had a limited US readership. None of his books - with the exception of The Burn - was a bestseller or commercial success. Aksyonov tried to write in English, but his first and only effort, Egg Yolk, was a flop. When Random House refused to publish his books, Aksyonov left America for France.

The quotes

"I have never thought of myself as an intellectual leader, and I've never understood why people flocked to hear me speak. I once addressed a crowd of a thousand students. A dancing party was in progress on the floor above and I asked them: `Why don't you go and dance instead?' They preferred to stay because they wanted to find out whether Galya in my Ticket to the Stars was faithful to the main hero or not."

"In general I do consciously try to widen my circle of readers, but it does inspire and surprise when I find out young people like my books. I was once on Solyanka Street in downtown Moscow when a gleaming Mercedes pulled up in front of me. The driver, a guy of about 30, got out and started reeling off quotations from my works..."

"Soviet and Russian writers have always treated me with mistrust and tried to take me down a peg. They said Aksyonov was a spent force, divorced from his country and had lost the use of his pen. The disdain was there, but I pretended not to notice it. Young friends tried to nominate me for literary prizes several times, but their applications were turned down out of hand. So when I got the Booker Prize, it was like the return of the prodigal old man."

"There were several turning points in my life. The biggest one was not the emigration to America, but my arrival in Gulag town Magadan at the age of 16 to join my mother. After being separated from her for 11 years, it was like meeting her for the first time. It was a transition to an entirely different life. At the time Magadan was the freest city in the Soviet Union. Many people there were not afraid to speak their minds because they had nothing to lose after they had gone through hell. The worst that the authorities could do to them was to send them back to a labour camp."

"I never expected to live as long as 70. And I don't really feel my age, especially when I am jogging in the morning or heading for a basketball court. My basketball scoring is now much better than when I was young, you can take my word for it."

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