Vassily Aksyonov, 76; Author Was Stripped of Russian Citizenship for Writings

Russian author Vassily Aksyonov, whose works brought him critical acclaim and political persecution, also taught at George Mason University.
Russian author Vassily Aksyonov, whose works brought him critical acclaim and political persecution, also taught at George Mason University. (By Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vassily Aksyonov, 76, who was one of the most gifted and eminent Russian writers of a generation that emerged in the post-Stalin cultural thaw of the 1960s and who evolved into a dynamic, racy and surreal stylist, died July 6 at a clinic in Moscow after a stroke last year.

Mr. Aksyonov was shaped by the paranoia of Stalin's rule. Despite their ardent communism, his parents were sentenced to labor camps, and he was raised in an orphanage for "children of enemies of the state." His mother, Evgenia Ginzberg, later wrote two crushing memoirs of the gulag and pushed her son to become a doctor. He gave up medicine for a thriving, and dangerously controversial, career as a novelist.

Mr. Aksyonov spent part of his youth listening to jazz and reading American novels that were to him vivid symbols of the possibility of artistic and spiritual freedom. In his book "The Burn," published in the United States in 1983, he provided an ecstatic description of a jazz party of the late 1950s: "The spirit of disobedience, the idea of freedom dashed from wall to wall like a mindless lunatic, and everyone started to dance, the chandeliers started to sway, and the plush drapes were swept crookedly aside from the windows like an old woman's skirts."

In highly colloquial novels, including "A Ticket to the Stars" (1961), Mr. Aksyonov presented a vibrant culture of teenagers obsessed with rock music, sex, sporty shoes and icons of capitalism such as Coca-Cola. It was this book that made his name. Western literary critics, looking to explain his appeal among disaffected Soviet youngsters, dubbed him "the Slavic J.D. Salinger."

Mr. Aksyonov sought to channel the disenchantment and disillusion of his generation into books about individual revolt. He adopted literary devices such as subjectivity, surrealism and the use of jarring anachronisms that tried to capture the implausibility of life under Stalin and subsequent authoritarian governments.

Predictably, Mr. Aksyonov aroused disgust at the highest levels of the government, not only for his literary output but for his vocal opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After he tried to orchestrate the publication of an anthology of banned writings, he was effectively prohibited from earning a living as a fiction writer. He became a target of official harassment.

In 1980, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev directly ordered the revocation of Mr. Aksyonov's citizenship. He spent more than two decades teaching and writing in exile, and was on the faculty of George Mason University from 1988 to 2004.

Mr. Aksyonov joked that his certificate of expulsion was his most prized souvenir, but he added, "Emigrating is something like going to your own funeral. The only difference being that after your funeral your nervous system calms down."

Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born Aug. 20, 1932, in Kazan, a city on the Volga river where his father, Pavel, was mayor. His parents were arrested in the late 1930s, were charged with treason and, being Trotskyites, were sent to prison camps. An older brother died during the German siege of Leningrad.

Vassilyspent many years in an orphanage before uniting with relatives, who were unhelpful in explaining the absence of his parents. "I was told by my aunt that my parents were on a long-term assignment," he recalled. "She called it 'exploration of the north.' "

At 16, Vassily was allowed to join his mother at a Siberian labor camp in Magadan, which was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers. His mother later published two volumes of memoirs, "Journey Into the Whirlwind" and "Within the Whirlwind," which have been compared to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago."

In 1956, Mr. Aksyonov received a medical degree in Leningrad and spent four years on the staff of a hospital in that city, mostly treating tuberculosis patients and writing in his spare time.

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