Robert Kaiser Recalls Late Russian Writer Vassily Aksyonov's Years in D.C.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Vassily Aksyonov, one of many former Soviet citizens to take up residence in the Washington area since the 1970s, lived among us for 24 years. He held a distinguished professorship at George Mason University; he became an avid Bullets fan; he fell in love with this country, which made him a citizen. You've probably never heard of him.
Yet his death Monday in Moscow at 76 will set off days of mourning in Russia, where our former neighbor was a superstar. Literarily, he played the role of a Russian Kurt Vonnegut, but Vonnegut would have envied Aksyonov's stature in his homeland -- closer to Tiger Woods's or even Michael Jackson's. Aksyonov realized during his American years that no writer here could ever enjoy such acclaim. Russians love their writers with a fervor unknown in this country.
Eventually, Aksyonov's failure to find a large audience here discouraged him. In 2004, he sold his townhouse in Fairfax County and bought a new home in Biarritz, France. His books sold better in France than in any other Western country. But Biarritz was to be a place to hide and write; he was really trading the adopted homeland for the real thing, Russia.
Stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980, it had been offered back 10 years later by Mikhail Gorbachev. The authorities returned a spacious apartment that Aksyonov and his wife, Maya, had occupied in Moscow's "High Building," one of the Stalin-era wedding-cake towers that dot the city's skyline. They began using it occasionally during the '90s, and made it their principal home after 2004. Aksyonov reclaimed his superstar life and reveled in it until January last year, when he suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma. He never woke up.
I had the good fortune to befriend this singular character, a mustachioed charmer with twinkling blue eyes and the irrepressible spirit of a permanent adolescent. We met first in Moscow in the early 1970s, when I was The Post's correspondent there. He was still officially acceptable, a lion in the Soviet literary establishment who managed to avoid propagandizing. By the end of that decade, he had given up on a sclerotic society.
In 1979, he led a group of writers, including several who were famous and until then had toed the line, to produce Metropol, a collection of prose and poetry. None of the contents were political, but all of it challenged the reigning orthodoxy. Some pieces described sex, of all things; Aksyonov made fun of official Soviet language. It provoked a furious reaction from the KGB, harassment of all the writers involved, and Aksyonov's decision to leave the country in 1980.
He and Maya toured Europe for a couple of months, then came to the United States. They ended up in our guest room in Dupont Circle and quickly decided that America was the place for them. "The situation for smiles now in the Soviet Union is bad," Aksyonov -- Vasya to his friends and fans -- told me that fall, grinning.
The fact that Aksyonov cared about smiles, or had any capacity for them, was a miracle. Both his parents were arrested in 1937, at the apogee of Stalin's madness. The 4-year-old Vasya was sent to an orphanage for the children of "enemies of the people." Amazingly, his father's brother found him and authorities to give him up. He lived in his uncle's family for a decade. At 14 he rejoined his mother, whose term in a prison camp had ended, but who was compelled to live in Magadan, 10 time zones from Moscow. She was Yevgenia Ginzburg, whose memoirs of her experiences in the Gulag are classics.
Aksyonov made his way to medical school, but found his true calling in writing. He was one of a group of adventurous writers known as the " '60s-niks," as close as the Soviet Union had to our beatniks. Aksyonov was their leading light, and his stories and novels opened the eyes of a generation whose surviving members still revere him.
This was not an easy background to bring to America, but Aksyonov pulled it off. He bought a Buick. He drove across the country twice. He wrote a memoir of his American experience, "In Search of Melancholy Baby," which charmed our critics. "We can be proud to claim him as our own," Jonathan Yardley wrote in this newspaper.
That book also reveals the frustration with America's indifference to art that ultimately helped drive him from us: "I see with mounting astonishment that for all its scope, the American literary, theatrical and cinematic establishment has certain traits in common with a general store: preference for the hot item, fear of risk, sheer panic at the thought of innovation." This book was Aksyonov's biggest American success; it sold 80,000 copies. In the Soviet Union, some of his books appeared in editions of 2 million and sold out.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and censorship disappeared, two of his most important books, "The Burn" and "The Island of Crimea," appeared in Russia for the first time and sold thousands more copies than they ever did abroad. Then his triumphant "Moscow Saga," published in English as "Generations of Winter," appeared in 1994 to huge acclaim. In America, the acclaim came from critics, who hailed this multi-generational account of one family's experiences through the Soviet era as "Tolstoyan" (New York Times), a "tour de force that . . . could have come from Chekhov or Tolstoy" (Chicago Tribune). But the book sold poorly here.
Russians adored it; Russian television converted into a serial. It is a book that will be read for years to come.
I last saw Aksyonov five years ago, on the eve of his departure. We recalled going one night 20 years earlier to a Washington nightclub to hear the Spinners. We recalled outings to the MCI (now Verizon) Center to see his beloved basketball team or to see the Caps play hockey. We talked about Adams Morgan, his favorite Washington neighborhood, and about Café La Ruche in Georgetown, his favorite joint. We joked about the fact that he smoked like a chimney, played basketball and jogged, protesting always that he was taking good care of himself.
"But doesn't your doctor tell you to quit smoking?" I once asked.
"Of course," he answered, grinning.
Although Aksyonov moved back to Russia, in his head he never completely left America. He always kept his U.S. passport current, just in case.