The Russian humor magazine Krokodil this week published a strongly anti-Soviet excerpt from a memoir of life in American exile by novelist Vassily Aksyonov. The excerpt, from "In Search of Melancholy Baby," is the most blatantly critical work by an e'migre' published since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost campaign began.
The book, which Aksyonov wrote here in Russian and published late last year in English translation, describes how members of his '60s generation rejected years of anti-American propaganda and began to crave Western films, books, styles and ideas. The period was, Aksyonov writes, "the beginning of a great carnival. Down with Stalin! Up with jazz! We were ready for the about-face; in fact, we were ready since before Stalin's death."
In the Krokodil excerpt, Aksyonov writes, "America rose up out of the mist as an alternative to an outdated and nauseating belief in Socialist revolution, that is, the revolt of the slaves against their masters. The intervening thirty years have dispelled many of my illusions, but on this point I have not wavered. In fact, I perceive with greater clarity that totalitarian decadence must be (and is now in the process of being) outweighed by the forces of liberalism and benevolent inequality. And I thank God that the leader of those forces is a powerful America."
Krokodil, which is known for its stinging cartoons and stories, used to direct its barbs at Aksyonov during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, mocking his "Western" avant-garde style, slang and young, often woolly characters. The weekly magazine, with a circulation of 5.3 million, once ran a parody of his novel "Oranges of Morocco" in 1963.
"They used to carry on a campaign against me and the other nonconformist writers," Aksyonov said yesterday at his home in Northwest Washington.
Although his name is often linked with such other celebrated e'migre' writers as poet Joseph Brodsky, Aksyonov's appeal in the Soviet Union was always far greater, far broader. In the '60s, millions of Soviets read his stories in Youth and other journals. His "A Ticket to the Stars," a novel that portrayed young characters in a way many readers felt was similar to J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," made him famous.
"Aksyonov was known as the brave leader of the 'young prose' movement," said Wesleyan University professor Priscilla Meyer. "And anyone in their forties or fifties in the Soviet Union knows who he is. He was a hero."
Aksyonov's mother Eugenia Ginzburg wrote two volumes of memoirs of her life in the Stalin gulags during the '30s and '40s. Aksyonov was raised by relatives before joining Ginzburg in internal exile as a teen-ager.
After Aksyonov helped edit and publish the unofficial anthology of prose and poetry, Metropol, in 1979, he went from literary hero to nonperson. The Brezhnev regime was furious. Official journals and publishing houses would not print his work.
Novels such as "The Burn," which described Stalin's work camps in the Soviet Far East, could be written only "for the drawer." He was frequently harassed by the KGB. Aksyonov said that one night a truck tried to run him and his wife Maya off the road. "We had to leave," he said. "We knew that."
Since his exile, Aksyonov's books have been removed from the shelves of Soviet libraries and bookstores, and readers often find that his stories have been razored out of anthologies in state libraries. The Soviet press has regularly vilified him. The government has been furious not only with what he has written about Russia in novels such as the fantasy "The Island of Crimea," but also for his sharp attacks in his regular Russian-language broadcasts for the Voice of America.
"The funny thing is that I've been reading from 'In Search of Melancholy Baby' on the radio broadcasts for a couple of months," Aksyonov said. "I get letters telling me that the people there love it." Parts of the books have also been available in Moscow as early as this summer in underground, samizdat, editions.
Aksyonov said he has not seen a copy of this week's Krokodil and was "absolutely shocked" when he heard the news.
Since the start of glasnost, Aksyonov has been, at best, circumspect, and even wrote a skeptical article for Harper's called "Through the Glasnost Darkly." He is skeptical, too, about Krokodil's motives for publishing him.
"To me, it's really rather ominous news. Krokodil is a nasty, reactionary magazine. I think it may be just to tarnish me, to show how appalling and anti-Soviet I am. It's a sign of glasnost, but it's a sign of perfidy, too."
The magazine's editors wrote that some readers would object to the excerpt and invited them to write letters. Aksyonov said that perhaps the magazine's invitation was a "provocation, part of a clever campaign against me and other writers."
Ardis Press' Ellendea Proffer, Aksyonov's friend and American publisher, disagreed, saying, "I don't see anything bad about this at all. I think it's a major step, maybe even toward a rehabilitation of Aksyonov. It's a case of another Soviet editor publishing things without clear permission. They do it in a hurry because they know that the door could close any minute."
This fall, Soviet authorities confiscated copies of Aksyonov's books that Proffer had brought to an international book fair in Moscow. "I remember then that I told a reporter for Sovietskaya Rossiya that they can't be afraid of publishing writers like Aksyonov," Proffer said. "And they printed what I said! It was the first positive reference to Aksyonov in the Soviet press since he left."
Aksyonov said he was angry that Krokodil did not bother to get copyright permission. The last time Aksyonov's work was officially published was 1979, when state publishing houses issued his short novel "In Search of a Genre" and his translation of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime."
The publication comes just days before Aksyonov's wife Maya leaves for a three-week visit to the Soviet Union, the first time she has been allowed back since their exile eight years ago. She applied for a visa when her mother died 18 months ago, but she never received a reply.
In introducing the excerpt of "In Search of Melancholy Baby," Krokodil archly noted that Aksyonov had said that his works would never again be published in the Soviet Union. "Errare humanum est" (to err is human), the magazine said.
Of his own pessimism about glasnost and this week's news from Moscow, Aksyonov said, "I just hope I am wrong."