Conversations with Vassily Aksyonov

I didn't realize it then, but the first time I heard his name I was sitting in a darkened movie theater in Fairfax, Virginia. It was 1987, and I was watching the film No Way Out, a political thriller starring Kevin Costner. At the very end of the film, when we realize Costner's character, Tom Farrell, is indeed not only a U.S. Navy officer but also the Soviet double agent Yuri, the following exchange takes place between Costner's character and the Soviet handler to whom he has returned. The handler begins speaking Russian as Farrell/Yuri is being debriefed:
FARRELL: It's difficult for me to follow in Russian--it's been a long time. HANDLER: How thirsty you must be for the sound of our language, Yevgeny Alekseevich. Wouldn't you love to hear Russian again? Imagine Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy... FARRELL: ...Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov. HANDLER: (Laughing) Even them...always the sense of humor.
Later I would come to understand why the Soviet handler had found the mention of that name--Aksyonov--so humorous.

I encountered Vassily Aksyonov's name a second time via an article in the Washington Post in June 1996. He had come to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1987 to take a position as a Robinson Professor at GMU, teaching Russian literature and culture. I was soon to be a student at George Mason, where I planned to study English and Russian literature, so I decided to take a look at some of Aksyonov's work. I began with two of his more recent novels, Generations of Winter and its sequel, The Winter's Hero, Aksyonov's epic (1,005-page) saga detailing life in Soviet Russia from 1925 to 1953. "The great Russian novel, the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace," was the way the Post characterized the novels when they came out. Generations of Winter, "will live for a very long time, and be seen as one of the more significant historical and literary achievements of a terrible century," wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books. I was amazed by the work. I told everyone I knew to read it. I decided that, if possible, the first thing I would do when I went to GMU would be to enroll in a Russian literature course with Professor Aksyonov. It seemed to me to be the sort of opportunity that very few people had had since the 1950s, when another great Russian literary émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, had taught Russian literature at Cornell University. There was no way I was going to pass it up.

So from the fall of 1997 until I completed my graduate studies in the spring of 2004 I took every class Aksyonov taught, and over that time he became more than a teacher to me--he became something of a mentor and a friend. Over the years I would spend time with him in his office, its walls lined with Chagall and Kandinsky prints as well as a couple of posters of a scowling and pointing Lenin ("Yes, he is still watching me," Aksyonov would laugh) and discuss his life, a life which, upon later reflection, I came to realize encompassed nearly all of the Soviet-Russian experience from the Great Terror of Stalin to the end of the Soviet empire. There I would listen as he settled into his chair, removed his silver-rimmed glasses from their low perch on his nose, and related some of the events of his wholly novelistic life.

Lying several hundred miles east of Moscow, Kazan is a large city divided by the Bulak Canal, a chain of lakes, and two cultural heritages, Tatar and Russian. It was here in August of 1932 that Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born. His father, Pavel Vasilyevich Aksyonov, was head of the City Council in Kazan, while his mother, Evgeniya Semyonovna Ginzberg, was a history professor. In 1937 they were both arrested during the dizzying heights of Stalin's Great Terror, and each was sent to Siberian gulags. In August of that year the Soviet secret police came for young Vassily.

"I remember it vividly," he told me one cool fall day in his book-lined office at GMU, dressed in a dove gray suit over a lilac shirt, a plum tie knotted at the collar, "Very vividly...

1. Sins of the Father

Mother was taken in February of '37; father was taken in July. I still remember quite clearly when they came to take me. The KGB had sealed off all the rooms of our house except my little room where I lived with my babushka (grandmother) and my nanny, two peasant women. Then they came in the night. It was like an arrest, really--the same style black car they had taken Mother and Father away in. I still remember that car as if it were yesterday, a big black car with blinds in the windows. Three people--two men and one KGB woman, in black leather three-quarter length jackets.

I was sleeping. They woke me up. It was three in the morning. Father had just been taken, so it was still summer. During the short, hot summer nights, it was very light--I could see everything. In fact it was near sunrise. This KGB woman gave me candy and said, "Vasya, we have come to take you to your mama and papa."

So they tricked you into thinking they were taking you to see your parents?

No, they were not lying, really, because they were taking me to where they were--to their kingdom, to Stalin's Magic Kingdom. So I went with them to the street, to the car--it was all done very quietly. But then when I was in the car the last thing I heard and saw was two old ladies, my granny and nanny, on the porch of the house wailing, wailing, like only Russian peasant women can wail, just wailing, "Oooohhh, oooohhh!" crying for their Vasya.

I was brought to the special collector of kids of those arrested. On the outskirts of town there was a red brick building which was three stories high, though it is huge in my recollections. There were a lot of kids, lots of them. I was there, all alone without any family, until one day I saw my granny by the fence, by the watchtower.

A watchtower? So it was like a prison?

Yes, exactly, like a prison. There were young kids like me, but also teenagers, and they didn't want them to escape. I found out later that the authorities didn't even tell my family where I was. They found out through some talk in the town. One day Granny came to see me through the fence. Then I noticed my aunt, my father's sister, was standing there also, and I realized they were looking for me. But they didn't let us meet. Instead they took me and two other boys my age to the railroad station with one KGB woman and put us in the compartment of a car, or coupe. The KGB woman locked the door and they took us to the city of Kostroma, an old Russian city, to the special orphanage for kids of enemies of the state, enemies of the people. I was there for a half year, until suddenly my uncle turned up.

Amazingly, he got permission to take me home with him. It was a combination of happy occurrences. Stalin had pronounced something during one of his speeches; he had said that the son is not responsible for the sins of his father. By this time my uncle had been fired--he was a professor of history at a university in Central Asia--because he was the brother of an enemy of the people. He was unemployed, and was expecting his own arrest any day. One day he saw Stalin's address in the paper, and--well, he became very courageous--he had nothing to lose, and he had started drinking, which I think probably added to his courage. He came to where the KGB was holding me, and he started raising a scandal. "Why are you keeping our child!" he screamed and started banging his fist (Aksyonov bangs his own palm on his desk twice)--and they let me out! He looked very much like my father, so when I saw him I rushed towards him screaming "Papa! Papa!" He took me from there to Kazan. Then suddenly he got his job back at Stalinabad, so I was left in Kazan with his sister, my aunt, where I lived until I was sixteen.

Something I will never forget from that period was that, one day when I was eight years old and living with my aunt, I started looking in a chest that she had. I was not supposed to open it, but I did anyway and inside I found a small wooden box. I did not know this at the time, but my father had lost his right eye in the (Russian) Civil War, fighting for the Reds against the Whites. When I opened this box there, staring at me, was my father's spare glass eye that had been left behind when he was arrested....

Something else I found out later about my childhood was that I had been baptized. My father's chauffeur was a KGB man--he wasn't arresting anyone or torturing anyone, but as he was the chauffeur of the Head of the City Council as well as my father's bodyguard, he was of course one of them. But he turned out to be religious, to be a Christian! So he and Granny and my nanny arranged a baptism in a small house, where his friend, a priest--who was a fugitive, of course, an underground priest--was hiding, and he performed the ceremony. And this was right across the street from the original Committee of the Communist Party where my father was working! Neither he nor my mother knew, of course; just Granny, nanny, and my father's chauffeur, the Christian KGB man.

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