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Vasily Aksyonov (1932-2009)

One of the foremost Russian novelist, who entered the literary stage in the 1960s as a spokesman for young generation of the country. Vasily Aksyonov major works include A Ticket to the Stars (1961), The Burn, written between 1969 and 1975, and The Island of Crimea (1981). Both of Aksynov's parents, devoted communists, were arrested during Stalin's purges in the late 1930s. Aksyonov himself was forced to exile with his family in 1980 after publishing with other writers an unauthorized magazine in the United States. His Soviet citizenship was restored in 1990.

"And what can be more beautiful, more exhilarating to a man than independence? A man who once gets that feeling of independence (to me it's a combination of arrogance, determination and special sort of heart tremor) will tremble over it, as he would tremble over a delicate, fragile vase. . . . ." (from A Ticket to the Stars, 1961)

Vasily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born in Kazan, a town on the banks of the River Volga. His father, Pavel Aksyonov, was the mayor of Kazan until his arrest in 1937. Aksyonov saw his father again in 1955, when an amnesty was granted to a great many prisoners. Pavel Aksyonov remained a Bolshevik more or less after his release. He died in 1991.

Charged with "Trotskyist terrorist activity," also Aksyonov's mother Evgeniia Ginzburg, a professor at the University in the Department of History, was sent to gulag.  Later she gave account of her eighteen-year experiences in prisons, labor camps and forced exile in her two-volume memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind (1967) and Within the Whirlwind (1979). Separated from her husband, she formed a relationship with Anton Walter, a German doctor, who was also a political prisoner. 

Aksyonov was brough up in Kazan and Madagan. Part of his boyhood he spent in a state-run orphanage in Kostroma for "children of enemies of the state" before moving in with his aunt. After World War II he went to the Kolyma camps to join his mother, who lived in exile in the Gulag town of Magadan. The town was built by camp inmates. In Journey into the Whirlwind she described their reunion:

"He did not hesitate. He walked over to me and self-consciously put his hand on my shoulder. And then finally I heard the word that I had been afraid of never hearing again, and that now came to me across a chasm of almost twelve years, from the time before all those courts and prisons, before the death of my first-born, before all those nights in Elgen. . . .
   "Mother," said my son, Vasya."

Stalin's death in 1953 brought an end to mass terror and greater freedom in Russia. This period, called the Thaw after the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg, witnessed First Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev's speech, in which he denounced Stalin's crimes, the introduction of modern kitchens, and the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). Aksyonov recalled the effect of Hollywood films: "There was a time when my peers and I conversed mostly with citations from those films. For us it was a window into the outside world from the Stalinist stinking lair." Joseph Brodsky once said that Johnny "Tarzan" Weismuller's guttural jungle yell "did more for de-Stalinization that all of Khrushchev's speeches." 

As a student Aksyonov was hardworking, but teachers regarded him with confusion: he was also a free-spirited member of the stilyagi subculture (the Soviet Union's beatniks; "style apers"), listened to modern American jazz, and openly admired Western writers such as Moravia, Böll, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger. Bandy, a traditional Russian winter sport, did not interest him, Aksyonov's obsession was basketball.

In 1950, Aksyonov left Magadan to study Medicine at Kazan University, where the KGB kept an eye on his activities. His mother had adviced him to attend medical school because it was "easier for doctors to survive in the camps." He continued his studies in Leningrad, but was not highly motivated for a career in medicine. During these years he moved from apartment to apartment and wrote poems and stories, which he read to his friends in the literary section of the Leningrad District Youth Club. 

At the age of 24, Aksyonov qualified as a doctor. He worked at the quarantine station of the port of Leningrad, where he met British, German, and Finnish sailors, who were willing to buy and sell on the black market – a charasteristic of the Soviet economy, which the government failed to suppress. Genuine American jeans were "a miracle equal to the remains of a U-2." For a period Aksyonov worked in the rural hospital at Lake Onezhsk. After marrying, he moved to Moscow, where he was employed by the Tuberculosis Institute.

In 1959, abandoning his career as a physician, Aksyonov devoted himself to writing. His first significant work was Colleagues (1961). It was edited by Valentin Kataev and published in the journal Yunost (Youth). This partly autobiographical novella dealt with senior students at a medical institute. Kataev's magazine published also Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1933), Bella Akhmadulina (1937-2010), Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997), Anatoli Gladilin (b. 1935), and others.

Aksyonov's work rapidly came to epitomize the new spirit of freedom in artistic expression and lifestyle. After visiting the Far East in 1961, Aksyonov published 'Oranges from Morocco' (1963), which dealt with young workers on the Island of Sakhalin. Each chapter was written from the point of view of a different narrator. His stories 'Halfway to the Moon' (1962) and 'Papa, What Does That Spell?' (1962) were attacked by conservative reviewers.

Along with other writers such as Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky (1933-2010),  Aksyanov became the target of authorities, who were horrifyed by the Westernization of Russian youth culture. The Komsomol secretary Sergei Pavlov specially criticized works by Ehrenburg, Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov, Voinovich, Nekrasov, and Yashin. In March 1963  Khrushchev gathered the cultural elites for a meeting, in which he said that Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Aksyonov could be redeemed through the party's "fatherly" care. Others had to be ostracized and above all "kept away from Soviet youth." As Aksyonov left the Kremlin after this disastrous meeting, he began to rave, "Don't you understand that our government is a gang, with no holds barred?" Although Aksyonov admitted his "mistakes" in an article in Pravda, in the next novel, a love story, one of the side characters was an outsider, who is not rejected by the society. 

A Ticket to the Stars (also as A Starry Ticket) featured Moscow teenages in search of their own way of life. The central characters are three boys and a romantic girl, who rebel against what they consider false values. After graduating from high school, they take a vacation in Tallin, Estonia, perhaps the most European Soviet city. Their language, full of slang and jargon, both broadened the literary canon of Socialist realism, and demonstrated the difference between the generations. Many of the critics reproached Aksyonov for celebrating nihilism and cynicism, and imitating such writers as J.D. Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye had appeared in Russian in 1959. A Ticket to the Stars was subsequently translated into some 30 western languages. 

The novel was quickly made into a film, entitled My Younger Brother. Aksyonov co-authored the screenplay and wrote the screen version of Colleagues. This work was also adapted for the stage. Aksyonov's first original play, Always on Sale, was a great success in Oleg Efremov's 1965 production at Moscow's Sovremennik Theatre, but banned in the late 1960s. The songs had lyrics by Yevtushenko and music by Andrei Volkonsky (1933-2008). Unleashing his rage on a story by Aksyonov, Khrushchev once stormed that the author made a mockery of everything that Soviet people hold dear.

With Andrei Voznesensky and the avant-garde composer Mikael Tariverdiev (1931-1996), he collaborated in an opera called Dlinnonogo (Longlegs). "The theatre attracts me with its unrestricted possibilities for hyperbole, grotesquerie, and fantasy," he said in an article written for the biographical dictionary World Authors 1950-1970 (edited by John Wakeman, 1975).

At the time of the 1968 Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Aksyonov and Yevtushenko were on vacation in the Crimea; Yevtushenko send a cable to Leonid Brezhnev protesting the invasion, Aksyonov drowed his protest in alcohol. The suppression of dissidents and repression of intellectuals during the Brezhnev era turned Aksyonov's optimism into bitter pessimism. Like many dissident authors, he found that science fiction and fantasy offered him a means to treat, in disguised form, taboo subjects. The Steel Bird (1965, published 1977) presented a Kafkaesque allegory of Stalinism. In the story a mysterious bird-like figure dominates a block of flats. In the play Your Murderer (published in English, 1977), a cocktail of popular junk and literary allusions, a writer tries to prevent the Masculinus Whiskey company from gaining control of the society, but he is destroyed by his own creation, a monster named Pork Sausage.

Aksyanov traveled abroad a great deal in the early 1970s, to Argentina, Japan, Paris, Rome, Delhi, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. In 1975-76 Aksyonov was visiting professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. While traveling in France, he met the 91-year old artist Marc Chagall, who thought that he was Ivan Aksyonov, a member of Mayakovsky's circle. By the late 1970s, much of Aksyonov's work remained unpublished because the authorities considered it dangerous. However, many of his works were quietly distributed in samizdat editions or smuggled into the country in foreign language editions. Unable to live by his talents as a novelist and short story writer, Aksyonov's main source of income came from screenplays.

The Island of Crimea (1980) was a hilarious parallel-world novel about Russian nationalism and self-delusion. The Crimea is an island, rather than peninsula, where pre-revolutionary "Old Russia has remained in the White hands. Far from a model society, it is a world of materialism and paranoia. At the end the island is invaded by the Soviet neighbour. Aksyonov's magnum opus, The Burn (1969-75), was both an autobiography and a tragi-comic picture of the author's generation. Joseph Brodsky, who read the manuscript of the novel for the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux,'s viewed it so disparagingly that the publishers turned it down. This ended Aksyonov's friendship with Brodsky. His next novel, Say Cheese (1980-83), featured an opportunist, Alik Konsky, who makes himself known in the West as a victim of totalitarianism. The coded version of the Metropole scandal opened also the workings of the Soviet security organs.

In 1979 Aksyonov edited with other writers an uncensored literary almanac, MetrOpol, which was published by Ardis in Ann Arbour, Michigan. This marked a watershed in his life. It was not a dissident publication but the attempt to undermine the control of the printed word made government officials furious, and as a result, Aksyonov lost his membership in the Union of Soviet Writers. On 21 July, 1980, he left Russia, where his books were immediately cleared from the shelves of most stores and libraries, and moved to the United States.

The new artistic freedom released several important novels for publication, beginning from Paperscape (1983), which was Aksyonov's first U.S. novel. The  Gogolian hero, who is oppressed by a flood of paper, writes a letter to Brezhnev and becomes labelled as a dissident. In Search of Melancholy Baby (1987) was a series of satirical reflections on American life, problems of emigration, and the author's own "Americanization".

Some Western critics have called Aksyonov's Moskovskaia saga (1993-1994, Generations of Winter) "the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace." Nevertheless, the novel was not particularly well received by Russian critics; it was compared to Anatoly Rybakov's trilogy Deti Arbata (1987, Children of the Arbat) but worse. Aksyonov rebutted criticism by arguing that his work was a soap opera actually. Moskovskaia saga, which traced the fate of the Gradov family and the impact of Stalinism on its members, was made into a popular TV series in 2004.

Aksyonov taught at The Johns Hopkins University, Goucher University, and then held a senior professorship from 1988 to 2004 at George Mason University, Virginia. It was not until the collapse of the Soviet Union that Aksyonov was allowed to visit his home country. The first invitation came from the U.S. Embassy, not from the Soviet officials. In 2004 he returned permanently to Russia, where he settled with his wife in Moscow. He also had an apartment in Biarritz, France. 

When accepting the 2004 Russian Booker Prize for Voltairian Men and Women, Aksyonov raised a toast to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former head of Yukos Oil Co., and Russia's most famous political prisoner. In January 2008, Aksyonov suffered a stroke while driving his car. Never fully recovering, he died on July 6, 2009, at a Moscow hospital. President Dmitri Medvedev praised Aksyonov as the literary embodiment of the 1960s period of hope. Aksyonov was married twice, first to Kira Mendeleva in 1957; they had one son. After divorce in 1979, he married Maia Karmen, who had left her second husband, the documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen.

For further reading: 'Aksenov, Vasily (Pavlovich),' in World Authors 1950-1970, edited by John Wakeman (1975); The Function of the Grotesque in Vasilij Aksenov by Per Dalgård (1982); The Artist and the Tyrant: Vassily Aksenov's Works in the Brezhnev Era by Konstantin Kustanovich (1992); Their Father's Voice: Vassily Aksyonov, Venedikt Erofeev, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov by Cynthia Simmons (1993); 'Vasilii Pavlovich Aksenov' by Arnold McMillin and Priscilla Meyer, in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. by Neil Cornwell (1998); 'Aksyonov, Vasily Pavlovich' by Konstantin Kustanovich, in  Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 1., ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Russia's Dangerous Texts: Politics Between the Lines by Kathleen F. Parthe (2004); The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag after Stalin by Stephen F. Cohen (2011)  

Selected works:

  • Kollegi, 1961
    - Colleagues (translated by Margaret Wettlin, 1961; Alec Brown, 1962)
    - Virkaveljet (suom. Alli Airola, 1963)
    - film: Kollegi, 1963, directed by Aleksei Sakharov, screenplay by Aleksei Sakharov, starring Vasili Livanov, Vasili Lanovoy, Oleg Anofriev, Nina Shatskaya, Tamara Syomina
  • Zvezdnyi bilet, 1961 (in Iunost)
    - A Starry Ticket (translated by Alec Brown, 1962) / A Ticket to the Stars (translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew, 1963)
    - Matkalippu tähtiin (suom. Esa Adrian, 1964)
    - film: Moy mladshiy brat, 1962, directed by Aleksandr Zarkhi, screenplay by V. Aksyonov, Mikhail Ancharov, Aleksandr Zarkhi, starring Lyudmila Marchenko, Aleksandr Zbruev, Oleg Dal, Andrey Mironov, Oleg Efremov 
  • Kollegi, 1962 (play)
  • Papa, slozhi!, 1962 (in Novyi Mir)
    -  (in The New Writing in Russia, translated, with an introd., by Thomas P. Whitney, 1964)
  • Na polputi k lune, 1962 (in Novyi Mir)
    - Half Way to the Moon (in Four Soviet Masterpieces; translated by Andrew R. MacAndrew, 1963; in The New Writing in Russia, edited by Thomas Whitney, 1964; in Steel Bird and Other Stories, translated by Valentina G. Brougher and Helen C. Poot, 1979) / in Half-Way to the Moon: New Writing from Russia, translated by Ronald Hingley, 1965)
    - Kuumatkan puolivälissä (in Kananjumala: uutta venäläistä proosaa, suom. Markku Lahtela, 1963)
    - film: Na polputi k lune, 1966, directed by Dzhemma Firsova, starring Vasili Aksyonov, Anatoliy Azo, Yelena Bratslavskaya, Lev Durov, Valeri Nosik 
  • Kogda razvodyat mosty, 1962 (screenplay)
    - film 1962, prod. Lenfilm Studio, directed by Viktor Sokolov, starring Vladimir Yemelyanov, Valentina Belyayeva, Iya Arepina, Leonid Bykov, Yuri Khazov, Yevgeni Gvozdev
  • Apel'siny iz Marokko, 1963 (in Iunost)
    - Oranges from Morocco (in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, translated by Susan Brownsberger, 1979)
  • Katapul'ta, 1964
  • Tovarishch Krasivyi Furazhkin, 1964 (in Iunost)
    - Comrade Smart Hat (in Soviet Short Stories 2, translated by Anthony Wood, 1968)
  • Vsega v porazhe, 1965 (play) [Always on sale]
  • Pora, moi drug, pora, 1965
    - It's Time, My Love, It's Time (translated by Olive Stevens, 1969) / It's Time, My Friend, It's Time (tr. 1969)
  • Malen'kii kit - lakirovshchik deistvitel'nosti, 1965
    - Little Whale - Varnisher of Reality (The Steel Bird and Other Stories, translated by Susa Brownsberger, 1979) 
  • Mestnyi "khuligan" Abramashvili, 1966 [The local "hooligan" Abramashvili]
  • Papa, slozhi!, 1966 (screenplay and story)
    - film 1966, directed by  Inessa Seleznyova, starring Vladimir Ferapontov, Vasili Livanov, Vyacheslav Nevinnyy, Vladimir Retsepter, Anastasia Voznesenskaya 
  • Zavtraki sorok tretyego goda, 1966 (screenplay and story)
    - film 1966, directed by Inna Tumanyan, featuring Vladimir Basov, Maya Bulgakova, Aleksey Eybozhenko, Vsevolod Larionov, Tamara Loginova
  • Zatovarennaia bochkotara, 1968 (in Iunost) [The overstocked barrels]
    - Surplussed Barrelware (in Surplussed Barrelware, edited and translated by Joel Wilkinson and Slava Yastremski, 1985)
  • Moi dedushka pamiatnik, 1969 [My grandmother's monument]
  • Zhal', chto vas ne bylo s nami, 1969
    - It's a  Pity You Weren't With Us (in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, translated by Paul Cubberly, 1979) 
  • Khozyain, 1970 (screenplay, with Akiba Golburt)
    - film 1970, prod. Lenfilm Studio, directed by Mikhail Yershov, starring Mikhail Kokshenov, Yevgeni Gvozdev, Tatyana Bedova, Aleksei Smirnov, Marianna Vertinskaya
  • Liubov' k elektrichestvu, 1971 (in Iunost) [Love for electricity]
  • Buran / T. Akhtanov, 1971 (translator)
  • Indiiskaia povest' / T. Akhtanov, 1972 (translator)
  • Mramornyy dom, 1972 (screenplay)
    - film 1972, directed by Boris Grigoryev, starring Sergei Khorev, Rifat Musin, Yelena Tomosyants, Irina Shevchuk, Sergey Nikonenko, Nikolai Rybnikov, Valeri Nosik
  • Geografia lyubi, 1975
  • Sunduchok v kotorom chto-to stuchit, 1976 [The box in which something thumps]
  • Kruglye sutki non-stop, 1976 (in Novyi mir) [Around the clock non-stop]
  • Tsentrovoy iz podnebesya, 1977 (screenplay)
    - film 1977, directed by Isaak Magiton, starring Sergei Kretov, Lyudmila Suvorkina, Aladdin Abbasov
  • Stal'naia ptitsa, 1977 (in Glagol)
    - The Steel Bird (in The Steel Bird and Other Stories, translated by Rae Slonek, 1979) 
  • Vash ubiitsa, 1977 (play; in Performing Arts Journal)
    - Your Murderer (translated by D.C. Gerould and J. Kosicha, 1977)
  • Poiski zhanra, 1978 (in Novyi Mir) [Search of the genre]
  • Ragtime / E.L. Doctorow, 1978 (translator)
  • Poka bezumstvuyet mechta, 1978 (screenplay)
    - film 1978, prod. Mosfilm, directed by Yuri Gorkovenko, starring Nikolai Karachentsov, Lyubov Reymer, Emmanuil Vitorgan, Rolan Bykov, Vladimir Basov, Evgeniy Steblov
  • The Steel Bird and Other Stories, 1979 
  • Chetyre temperamenta, 1979 (play; in Metropol')
    - The Four Temperaments (translated by Boris Jakim, 1979) 
  • Metropol': literaturnyi al'manakh, 1979 (editor, with Viktor Erofeev, Fazil' Iskander, Andrei Bitov, and Evgenii Popov)
    - Metropol: A Literary Almanac (tr. 1982)
  • Zolotaia nasha Zhelezka, 1980
    - Our Golden Ironburg: A Novel with Formulas (translated by Ronald E. Peterson, 1988)
  • Aristofaniana s liagushkami, 1981 (play) [Aristophaniana and the frogs]
  • Surplussed Barrelware, 1985  (edited and translated by Joel Wilkinson and Slava Yastremski)
  • Ozhog, 1980
    - The  Burn (translated by Michael Glenny, 1984)
  • Ostrov Krym, 1981
    - The Island of Crimea (translated by Michael Henry Heim, 1983)
    - Krimin saari (suom. Esa Adrian, 1984) 
  • Pravo na ostrov: razzkazy, 1983
    - Quest for an Island (various translators, 1987)
  • Bumazhnyi peizazh, 1983 [Paperscape]
  • Tsaplia, 1984 (play; in Sovremennaia dramaturgiia, 1990)
    - The Heron (in Quest for an Island, translated by Edythe Haber, 1987)
  • Skazhi izium: roman v moskovskikih traditsiiakh, 1985
    - Say Cheese! (translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1989) 
  • Bliuz s russkim aksentom, 1986 (film script; in Granii) [The blues with a Russian accent]
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1987-
  • V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: knigi ob Amerike, 1987
    - In Search of Melancholy Baby (translated by Michael Henry Heim and Antonina W. Bouis, 1987)
  • Kapital'noe peremeshchenie, 1990 (in Voprosy literatury) [Capitalist displacement]
  • The Destruction of Pompeii: And Other Stories, 1991
  • Zheltok iaitsa, 1991 (in Znamia) [The yolk of an egg]
  • Residents and Refugees, 1991 (translated by Galya Aplin & Hugh Aplin, in Under Eastern Eyes: The West as Reflected in Recent Russian Émigré Writing, edited by Arnold Barrett McMillin, 1991)
  • Moskovskaia saga, 1993-1994 (3 vols.)
    - Generations of Winter (translated by John Glad and Christopher Morris, 1994)
    - TV series 2004, prod. Risk Film and Video Studio, starring Yuri Solomin, Inna Churikova, Aleksandr Baluev, Olga Budina, Ekaterina Nikitina
  • Sobranie sochinenii, 1994-95 (5 vols.)
  • Novyĭ sladostnyĭ stilʹ: roman, 1997
    - The New Sweet Style: A Novel (translated by Christopher Morris, 1999)
  • Negativ polozhitel'nogo geroia. Rasskazy, 1999 [The negative of a positive hero]
  • Kesarevo svechenie: roman, 2001
  • Amerikanskaia kirillitsa: proza i stikhi, 2004 
  • Volteryantsy i volteryanki, 2004 [Voltairian men and women]
  • Desiatiletie Klevety: Radio-Dnevnik Pisatelia, 2004
  • Zenitsa oka: vmesto memuarov, 2005 [The apple of my eye: instead of a memoir]
  • Moskva Kva-Kva, 2006 (in Oktyabr) [Moscow kwa-kwa]
  • Kvakaem, kvakaem-- : predisloviia, poslesloviia, interviu, 2007
  • Redkie zemli, 2007 [Rare earth]
  • Avrora Gorelika: pʹesy, 2008
  • Tainstvennaia strast': roman o shestidesiatnikakh, 2009
  • Logovo lʹva: zabytye rasskazy, 2009
  • Lend-lizovskie = Lend-Leasing, 2010

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