For 20 years, Vassily Aksyonov was a literary hero in the Soviet Union, read by millions of his countrymen. He wrote long stories about young people in love and several novels, including one about his youth as a medical doctor. He also wrote "for the drawer," as Russians put it -- such as the novel "The Burn," which he knew would never be officially approved by the Soviet Union.
Last year Aksyonov ran out of patience with the system, and he decided to challenge it. He helped organize "Metropol," an almanac of new prose and poetry that contained none of the uplifting spirit of socialism on the march favored by the censors; instead, it contained satire, explicit sex and gloomy ruminations.
The writers proposed to the authorities that it be published in the Soviet Union, but the authorities demurred. "Metropol's" only edition made its way abroad, was quickly published in Russian and will eventually appear in many languages, including English.
In Moscow, the authorities moved swiftly against those it deemed responsible for the almanac. Almost overnight, Aksyonov was officially transformed into a nonwriter. His books disappeared from libraries. (There were none to remove from bookstores, since anything he wrote sold out in a matter of hours.) A film whose screenplay he had written was yanked out of production. The KGB's grim minions began to follow him everywhere.
Months passed, and Aksyonov came to accept the necessity for his own departure from the U.S.S.R. He had no future as a writer -- perhaps no future at all, he thought, after one terrifying and inexplicable incident on a dark Russian highway when his car was almost obliterated by a truck.
Finally, he decided he would have to leave. Because of his fame and popularity, the authorities chose to make this relatively easy. He and his wife, Maya, and her children were permitted to go in July.
Though less well known in the West, Aksyonov, 48, was much more famous in Russia than ballet dancers Baryshnikov or Makarova. For several generations of enthusiastic young readers, his stories and novels were among the only examples of officially approved Soviet literature that said something real and touching. His voluntary exile is yet another blow to Russian self-esteem another reminder that Lenin's workers paradise is not a paradise for all.
For Aksyonov, all this is part of a sadness that has taken hold in his homeland. He remembers speaking not long ago in a provincial university town, when someone in the audience asked a question.
"What's happening with all this emigration (of famous Soviet writers, musicians and artists)? Are the rats leaving the ship?"
Of course, Aksyonov reflected over a hot lunch at the Szechuan in Washington's Chinatown, the rats are supposed to flee the ship just before it sinks. The questioner meant, is the ship of state sinking? The answer was not clear.
"The situation for smiles now in the Soviet Union is bad," Aksyonov said, his own engaging, ironic grin blazing from under his thick moustache. "People smile very rarely . . . The mood is very bad. In recent years the mood really has gotten worse."
The departures of famous artists make people heartsick, Aksyonov said. "They say, 'Why are we such an unhappy people that so much talent is leaving us? We work all our lives, it's hard . . . We try to create a better society, we hope for something better, but nothing turns out right. People run away.'"
There are numerous stories about that last year in Moscow, the harassment and pain and petty squabbling with the bureaucrats who run the Union of Writers. Aksyonov will tell those stories if asked, but really he is tired of them. Really he would rather talk about baseball.
"There's a pitcher, right?" he asks in Russian, sounding out "Peetsh-er" in English (which he actually speaks quite well). "And a catcher? But who are all the others? How does it work?" he wants to know. The American trying to answer remembers vaguely a Shelly Berman routine about explaining baseball to a foreigner -- it seems hopeless.
Aksyonov has every intention of figuring out baseball and football and a lot more about America, which is his new country. He'll live this fall in Ann Arbor, Mich., then next spring in Los Angeles. "The Burn," one of those books he wrote for the drawer in Moscow, will be published here this winter by Houghton Mifflin. He is eager to begin new writing projects at once.
"After a month and a half in Europe," Aksyonov said during his recent visit to Washington, "it seems to Maya and me that here in America we are well, not completely at home, but almost at home, as if we found ourselves almost in our native surroundings."
Does this mean that Russia and America are a lot alike?
"No, no -- they are absolutely not alike. That's a very superficial cliche. They are completely different countries, with different histories and different spirits."
"I can give you an example of the different psychologies. When you ask an American how are you, he always answers 'fine,' even if he's lously. But a Russian -- even if everything is actually terrific, for example he was just accepted into the [Communist] Party, just earned some big money, just bought a car and a dacha and you ask him how are you, he'll say: 'Listen, I've got nothing to brag about.'
"I've often thought about these psychological differences. Another example: When an American encounters something new -- in art, say, but not only in art -- his first reaction is, why not? But the first reaction in our country is, why do we need it? Why should it be like that, when there's already something else? Russians have a lot of wonderful qualities, but there is this conservatism in Russia. It's hard for us to loosen up."
So why does Aksyonov feel at home in America, where he has only spent a few months previously (as a visiting scholar in 1975)?
"You know, it's a strange feeling -- hard to explain. Maybe because I know the country. Maybe because I love American literature -- I've loved American literature for many years, so perhaps the psychology here is more familiar. Maybe because I speak some English. And of course, this is a nation of immigrants. I have the feeling that I can communicate here -- I can reach people . . . In America a foreigner can be quickly absorbed into the life of the country."
Will he try to write in English after a while?
"I won't be writing in English, at least not fiction. Maybe I'll be able to write some articles or essays in English. But not fiction. Maybe I'll be able to use English. A writer like Nabokov -- that's the ideal, but it's an unreachable ideal. [Vladimir Nabokov grew up with Russian parents and an English nanny and was bilingual always.] But it's a path I can follow without going into panic over the fact that I have been cut off from my own language."
The Aksyonovs spent a week in New York before coming here, and during that visit happened into a movie theater that was showing a pornographic film.It was a surprise.
"That was very funny. I remember five years ago, on Hollywood Boulevard, I saw 'Deep Throat.' And the posters then appealed to the public on the basis of the erotic, sexual character of the film. Now there's a completely reversed tendency. They advertised this film as though it wasn't erotic at all -- it was called "The Spirit of Pink Champagne' or something like that -- and the advertisements suggested it was some kind of nostalgic film about the '30s. That's why we went in to see it. And it turned out to be pure pornography! I think this must indicate some kind of crisis in the sexual revolution.
Maybe it's the last gasps of the sexual revolution." This thought evokes a deep, rumbling chuckle.
In a legal sense there was nothing irrevocable about Aksyonov's decision to leave the Soviet Union.He retains a Soviet passport and theoretically could return at any time. In fact, though, Aksyonov says, he could only return if there was substantial changes inside his homeland, changes that are now difficult to forsee.
"There's a mood of rigidity there now. There's also a growing sense of the necessity to make changes in society -- to do more for the happiness of people, to allow people to travel, to open the closed borders, to allow people to read what they want to. Everybody understands this necessity -- it seems to me absolutely everybody understands it, from the lowest to the highest, including people at the very top. But everybody is in the same strange situation -- they all understand, but for some reason nobody can take the first step. Somehow is stuck in their own indecision, stuck in the fear of being first to say, 'Ah! The emperor has no clothes!'
"But in this case, who is the emperor? It's hard to say who he is, even. We never see him. The idea of this naked emperor is absolutely mystical. Using the term, I don't have any of the present rules in mind. My impression is they want to speak out too, but fear of the emperor stops them. The emperor -- it's a surrealistic idea."