The Outlook Interview: Vassily Aksyonov Talks to Malcomb Byrne; Vassily Aksyonov, 52, was, until his departure in 1980, one of the most popular writers of his generation in the Soviet Union. The son of Pavel Aksyonov, the communist mayor of Kazan, a city 450 miles east of Moscow, and the historian/author Yevgenia Ginzburg, Aksyonov grew up under what he terms "rather typical" Soviet circumstances: In 1937, when he was 5, his parents were arrested as part of Stalin's purges and sent to labor camps thousands of miles apart. Aksyonov spent the next 10 years with relatives before being allowed to rejoin his mother who, at the time, was in exile in Magadan, in northeast Siberia. He did not see his father again until 1955. When Khrushchev denounced Stalin in 1956, Aksyonov was beginning a career as a doctor. However, encouraged by Khrushchev's cultural thaw, he decided to pursue his passion to become a writer. His first works, which described in graphic -- some thought pornographic -- style the romantic, sexual, Westward-looking ideals and concerns of Soviet youth, appeared in 1960. His heroes were dubbed shestidesyatniki -- the people of the '60s. They were immediate hits, but critics savaged their anti-socialist outlook. But the thaw didn't last. Aksyonov and other nonconformists found it more and more difficult to publish their work. He was forced to work as a screenwriter of officially sanctioned films while continuing to write "for the drawer" outspoken novels like "The Burn," published here in English last fall, that could never be approved by Soviet censors. In 1979 Aksyonov helped organize an anthology of experimental works by Soviet authors, including himself, called "Metropol." He and other contributors insisted that the collection be published officially, and without censorship. After this bold action and the unauthorized publication in Italy of "The Burn," Aksyonov was forced out of the Soviet Union of Writers. Movies he had worked on disappeared, as did his books from the shelves of Soviet libraries. There was no longer any prospect that he would be published in the Soviet Union. Aksyonov finally decided that the only course of action open to him was emigration. He left the Soviet Union in July 1980 Aksyonov now lives in Adams Morgan, and teaches at Goucher College and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Malcolm Byrne is a student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Q: How difficult was it for you to get used to life in the U.S.?
A: We couldn't adjust for a long time to some things of everyday life here. Now, living here, we realize that we are not only Russians, we are Europeans too. We settled in Washington because it's the most European city here. We enjoy city life here. We didn't enjoy it in Los Angeles. We didn't realize, right away, what we were looking for. We look for city life, for strolling along the streets, standing on the corners chatting. We found that here in Washington.
I remember, for instance, how I was a long time irritated by the smell of movie houses, this popcorn, you know. But now I tell myself that I like it. We were sick of American coffee, and now I found myself liking that. That's strange -- that nostalgia itself has something to do with chemistry, some contents of the air, water, food, some elements.
I missed the sports coverage on TV. I was always a fan for soccer, for track and field, for volleyball. I couldn't find that on TV. Now, I find myself losing this urge. I have no interest now in information on the European soccer championships.
Q: Didn't you set yourself a goal of trying to figure out football and baseball?
A: Yes. I didn't become the baseball fan, but I did become the football fan. I was involved in this Redskin fever two years ago. Yes, I really suffered when they lost to these Raiders.
Q: Does anything in either of those sports tell you anything about us, about Americans?
A: Yes. I was irritated from the beginning by this rather chauvinistic approach to the sport. I asked myself, why do they call these bloody baseball games "The World Series"? Nobody plays those things.
Q: What do you do for relaxation or exercise?
A: Just jogging. I started taking the golf lessons.
Q: That's pretty bourgeois, isn't it?
A: Yes, that's why -- to become absolutely bourgeois. I just bought a computer. I cannot operate. I'm going to study that. It's a word processor.
Q: You've got a huge large-screen TV downstairs, a stereo. I even heard that you bought a Mercedes now. You sold your Oldsmobile?
A: Yes. That was just imprudence. It doesn't reflect my prosperity at all. First, when we came over, the first car I bought was American, an Omega Oldsmobile. And I'm absolutely sure that was last drop after which the American automobile industry started recovery. It served impeccably for three years and a half, and after that it started falling apart.
Q: Is there any way to compare the attitudes or the values of Russians with American values?
A: If you take this artistic society in the Soviet Union and the United States, there is a lot of same dreams. What's more important, from my point of view, we are already approaching the new stage of civilization.
Q: Which is?
A: Based on the technology. It's strange but sometimes I think that electronic companies make much more for equality and justice than the trade unions. For instance, if you are millionaire you buy Rolls Royce for hundred thousand bucks. If you are not millionaire but everyday citizen, you buy Volkswagen for six thousand. This Volkswagen does almost everything Rolls Royce does. You ride it, it carries a lot, gives you a light to smoke, gets very good suspension, it goes. And you are closer to almost top society. The symphony (was) accessible (only to the) elite. Now you can spend $5 to get best symphony in your room. There are a lot of signs of this new equality.
Q: A lot of people think that all of this leads to a type of superficiality.
A: Especially here, this country. You can listen to Rostropovich in your room, but on the other hand you are absolutely hypnotized by this idiotic stuff on TV, by these soaps and so on. Maybe that's because of this deluge of information. It's hard to stand this avalanche of information. They develop a block.
I wonder, how did they manage not to know what's going on for instance with Popieluszko (the priest murdered by Polish security forces) for instance? It's really strange the trend of isolation here. I didn't expect that. That was the greatest surprise. But I can notice that myself, losing that interest! Due to these oceans! That's quite an isolation. Or because of this dynamic, energetic society. It sounds paradoxic but it creates the sense, the trend of, provincialism in its energy.
Q: What do you think of one of our most famous products of Hollywood, Ronald Reagan?
A: Well, that's maybe the product I love best. Maybe because he belongs to the Hollywood past. All his motions are full of humor. He has a very good style of acting. And it's not bad that the actor, as we can see, can be president. Now French think about Yves Montand as president!
Q: What were your experiences growing up? Your parents were sent away. How was this explained to you as a 5-year-old?
A: Well, they cheated me. They told me that your parents are on a long-term assignment somewhere in the polar areas, explorers. There (was) some official propaganda about this exploration of the remote areas of the north and Far East. A lot of official enthusiasm. Many films, movies, books about those enthusiasts who were struggling for our cause, exploring this North Pole and Siberia, and Far East areas. But, as a matter of fact, there were millions of prisoners working there.
Q: Involuntary exploration?
A: Enthusiasts! There were some enthusiasts too, but most of them were prisoners. But amazing thing that's little known to Americans -- that vice president of the United States, Mr. (Henry A.) Wallace has visited the city of Magadan (in the Soviet Far East, where many political prisoners were sent in the '30s) during the war. But he and his aides and journalists who escorted him didn't notice any signs of gulag. Potemkin Villages were created meticulously for their visits. All those prisoners in the camps, in the huts, were told that you are enthusiasts, not prisoners. They visited some so-called dormitories of the enthusiast people, who came over to explore our remote areas to build socialism here. Our shining future and so on. They even tore down the watchtowers, removed all barbed wire.
Q: Your mother told you that you should become a doctor because that was the safest profession?
A: That's right. My stepfather, in Magadan -- . That was so-called camp marriage. They met each other in the hospital where he was a doctor, and she was a nurse. My father at that time was (thousands of) miles away, at a different area of gulag. She didn't even know that he still exists. They didn't get any news for eight years. She met this doctor, a Russian German, and they fell in love with each other and became spouses. He told me, "I survived only because I was a doctor. I was in the woodcutting in the permafrost" where the average temperature was about 40 degrees Celsius below zero. There were no doubts about my future.
Q: A very practical decision!
A: That's true. The children of the enemies ("enemies of the people," as many political prisoners were called) automatically were subject to arrest and to the camps. I avoided that because of Stalin's death. Later I found out that they were already preparing my case. After Stalin's death I was a rather easy-going student about life, I enjoyed my young life. Then I moved out of Kazan to Leningrad. That coincided with all those tunes, new smells, new times, atmosphere. The thaw.
Q: So you become serious and became a writer?
A: I considered myself a poet and step by step I became more and more involved in the circles of young literary beginners in Leningrad. That was a really great time. After graduation, at 22, I started to write my first novel, called "The Colleagues," about young doctors, of course. So typical for the beginner to write about themselves. After that my second novel was a real smashing success. It was "Ticket to the Stars." That was absolutely unexpected. I couldn't understand what was going on around me. That was quite crazy.
A: Because the heroes, the characters of the second book were the younger generation. The street youth of Moscow. And that was absolutely new discovery. It was revelation that there are absolutely no so-called real Soviet youth who are enthusiastic, who are heading to the Far East, to build something. Instead of that, my heroes were heading for West, to take a good life, you know, on the beaches.
The official criticism was absolutely enormous. Literally every morning I could find some severe articles written in the Soviet papers, written against this novel under titles like "This is a False Ticket. Where are you going? Where are you leading our youth?" and so on. Once I was denounced as a thief who is trying to steal youths' souls by the means of certain sophisticated tools.
Q: The criticism reached pretty high levels, didn't it?
A: The first secretary of the Young Communist League -- Komsomol -- became a sort of -- you know that Roman senator, Cato, who concluded all his speeches with the appeal to destroy Carthage? He concluded all his speeches with: "We have to fight those so-called 'starry boys'" and so on. We were called in Kremlin in March of 1963 and attacked by Khrushchev himself. He was threatening us and making his fist, and shouting, "We will wipe you out of earth, you, you gospoda ("misters"). "Mister," instead of "comrade." A great insult.
We were considered beatniks -- they didn't know what beatnik means. The "beat" itself sounds like Russian "bit" -- "to hit." They were frightened by the certain underground movement of beatniks -- which never existed, as a matter of fact. I was forced, as many others, to this official recantation. I even published an article in Pravda or something like that called "Responsibility." I wrote, "Well, I realize the party's right, I'm wrong, that we lost our responsibility and so we have to write with greater responsibility about the heroic deeds of our people" and so on so.
Q: Why, in 1980, did they would give you and your whole family a two-year visa?
A: They wanted me to leave, to go out. They even asked me how many adults are accompanying me. I could take as many as I wanted with me.
Q: Would you have had a choice?
A: I didn't have any choice. I could stay and fight (but) I was already out of the union. Because of "Metropol" and because of "The Burn." "The Burn" was the first cause. I was approached by KGB and they warned me against publication. When I asked them, "How did you obtain a copy of that?" They just smiled, "Don't ask us." I knew only four copies existed. One was abroad with my lawyer, a friend of mine. And three others. Two were with my close, so-called, personal friends. They were elegant enough, these KGB characters, to say to me, "Don't, please don't suspect any of your friends."
Q: What does that mean?
A: What else? Where did they get it? They just told me, "Well, that's our job, that's what we are doing. We can only tell you that it was hard to take a copy."
Q: And you apologized.
A: I apologized. So, after the nasty anti-"Metropole" campaigns, and all those arm-twisting, intimidating of our guys, frustration, I had to resign from the union. I couldn't work. I was under the closest watch of them. I felt their breathing behind, at any time. They looked my mail, they bugged my phone, slash the tires of my car.
Q: So, you had no expectation of going back?
A: I was granted a regular Soviet passport for traveling abroad. Then I was told that, "Well, maybe you will maintain your citizenship, and maybe in the future you'll be able to come back, if you change your views." After four months they officially deprived me of citizenship. So they tricked me. They'd done that to other writers.
Q: So it wasn't a shock?
A: I wasn't shocked at all. I expected things like this. But I was utraged. I thought who are they to deprive me of a homeland?