The old man.
One of the burdens Soviet writers traditionally bear is a responsibility to represent their generation, and Vassily Aksyonov has long been a spokesman for his. His novel Ticket to the Stars, published in 1961, was lauded and attacked as a manifesto of the skeptical, forthright and impatient youth of the post-Stalin thaw. His later stories about love and the family were seen by Soviet and American readers as a sign that middle-aged Russians no longer sought fulfillment in the public sphere. After his samizdat novel, The Burn, appeared in the West, Aksyonov became an example in another sense: as the object of punitive harassment, which culminated in the revocation of his Soviet citizenship when he was abroad in 1981.
In The Burn, Aksyonov exposes aspects of his contemporaries that they would probably rather forget, particularly their Stalinist past. The son of Pavel Aksyonov, a party leader, and Eugenia Ginzburg, a university lecturer in Marxism-Leninism, Aksyonov was born in 1932 into the Soviet elite. The purge of 1937 sent his parents to prison and the camps on false charges; when, as a teenager, he joined his mother in exile in the frigid town of Magadan, he still believed that their arrest had been a fluke, a mistake. Through the character of Anatoly Apollinarievich Bokov, known as Tolya, Aksyonov explores this history.
A model student at Magadan High School and a member of the Komsomol and the basketball team, Tolya studies academician L.I. Timofeyev's sanitized handbook on Russian literature behind a screen that separates him from political deportee Sanya Gurchenko and from his own stepfather, Doctor Martin, "a German, a prisoner, a homeopathist, and a Catholic!' Despite his symbolic separation from the two, Tolya admires Gurchenko for being as cool as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach and is proud that Martin takes genuine pleasure in curing the sick.
Relentlessly, pointedly, Aksyonov drives home Tolya's ambivalence. His hero forms crushes both on the daughter of a colonel in the Directorate of the Northeastern Corrective Labor Camps and on a mysterious prisoner whom he meets in the snow. Even after his Jewish origins have been revealed and he's been given his grandfather's name, von Steinbock; even after state security police Captain Cheptsov has arrested his mother and called him a "whore's brat' and worse; even after he's seen Cheptsov ram Gurchenko in the eye with an elbow during an interrogation, Tolya still keeps a place in his heart for the "Best Friend of All Soviet Athletes,' the man with the face of a kindly uncle, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. He's confused when Anna Akhmatova, whose poems express his teen-age passions, is attacked by Andrei Zhdanov, the cultural boss of the postwar era. And though he giggles rebelliously at Mikhail Zoshchenko's story "The Adventures of a Monkey' (its subversive point, according to Zhdanov, is that one breathes easier locked up in a zoo than in Soviet society), he still believes "that Zhdanov's world was normal and that Zoshchenko's world was abnormal, decadent, and shameful.'
Growing up doesn't mend the rift in Tolya; on the contrary, he splits into five characters, a scientist, a saxophonist, a physician, a sculptor and a writer, all of whom share his patronymic, Apollinarievich. Some are more creative, some more establishment than others; all are a little of both, like the contradictory boy from whom they sprang. During the post-Stalin thaw, they had hoped to reconcile intellectual honesty with the comforts of success; wearing narrow pants and Soviet imitations of baseball shoes, they had been Russia's new wave, the beatniks, the new voices, "the generation of Aksyonov's Ticket to the Stars.'
Aksyonov knows he is an emblem not just of that generation's rise but of its fall. A meeting in the Kremlin in 1963, at which Khrushchev accused Aksyonov of using his art to avenge his father, is played out in The Burn; a steel bird that flits in and out of the narrative is a character from a story by Aksyonov that was never allowed to be published in full in the Soviet Union. The Soviet boys who drove the tank through Prague in 1968, dealing the final blow to optimism, are described as reading "a yellow-covered issue of the magazine Youth, in which there was a story by one Aksyonov entitled "A Surplus of Empty Barrels.''
Written between 1969 and 1975, The Burn can be read as an eccentric historical novel about that period, when political hopes gave way to womanizing and drink. Wandering through bars cheap and fancy, Aksyonov' five protagonists may seem burnt out and sound cynical, but the Tolya von Steinbock in each of them longs for true love and sweet revenge. Their history asserts itself in memories, reincarnations and coincidences: Captain Cheptsov reappears as a cloakroom attendant; Sanya Gurchenko resurfaces as a priest in Rome; and a woman named Alisa Fokusova (fokus is the Russian for "magic trick') may be the prisoner in the Magadan snow long ago. With his disjointed narrative, Aksyonov conjures up the way past and present irritate each other in the unconscious. The brief final section, an escape to the country, offers no peace, for though the narrator--finally a single "I'--meets his Communist father, has his way with Alisa and thinks of God, he finds no pychological or philosophical resting place.
Indeed, this is a novel written against happy endings and all-inclusive systems of belief. It reads as if its author had decided to live up to his bad reputation with the Soviet establishment and demonstrate what modernism, iconoclasm and pornography are really about. Yet when a writer can say everything, perhaps he shouldn't: many parts of this book are too long, too monochromatic, too self-consciously derivative of Russian avant-garde prose of the early part of the century. It exemplifies the problems that arise when the internal censor also plays the role of internal editor: when the former is jettisoned, the latter goes too, and excesses pile up.
On the other hand, some characters and incidents are underdrawn, perhaps in the expectation that readers will recognize their real-life prototypes. But though Soviet emigres and Sovietologists may chuckle at satirical portraits, most American readers lack the keys to a Russian roman a clef. One hopes that in emigration Aksyonov's writing will not be defined so narrowly by his dissent from Soviet orthodoxy.
Although Aksyonov repeatedly fell afoul of Soviet censorship, he appreciates an author who worked within its bounds. Yuri Trifonov, who died in the spring of 1981, stood outside the familiar conformist/dissident dichotomy of Soviet letters. Criticized as too pessimistic by the Soviet press but also defended in it, he was euphemistically dubbed "complicated,' not a term of endearment in officialese. As Aksyonov explained in October 1981 at a conference in Toronto on The Writer and Human Rights:
Trifonov used to say that censorship doesn't always destroy the tissues of creative art. In the course of his struggle to save his work, a writer evolves a certain peculiar style, weaving a subtle web, a transparent screen, from behind which a reader can perceive the flickering of his flame. In other words, the writer creates a unique style which he would not have conceived without the existence of censorship. However, Trifonov was about the only [Soviet] writer who managed to turn censorship to his own advantage.
Like Aksyonov, Trifonov came from a Communist family that was betrayed in 1937; he was 12 when his father, an Old Bolshevik, was taken at night from his dacha, and the two never met again. Later, Trifonov combed archives and interviewed survivors to produce a short study, published in the mid-1960s, called Reflection of the Campfire (a different, darker translation is Reflection of the Stake) which attempts to reconstruct his father's life. Trifonov's fiction contains several middle-aged men--a historian, a playwright, a literary critic--who struggle unsuccessfully to make a coherent story from the experiences of earlier generations. That failure is connected with their inability to live in harmony with their own sons and daughters, for the organic connections in society have been severed by censorship and silence. The tight conditions under which extended families live in Moscow, sharing kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms, only emphasize the lack of social cohesion.
The Old Man, which appeared in the Soviet Union in 1978, follows the scattered, thoughts of Pavel Evgrafovich Letunov, which are mainly about the Civil War in southern Russia in 1919. Rather than a historical novel, it is a novel about the search for historical truth and about the lies and omissions that even the well-intentioned prefer. The mystery that preoccupies the old man revolves around Sergei Kirillovich Migulin, who is based on an actual figure in the Civil War. Why did Migulin, a commander of the Red Coccacks, decide on his own to lead his men against the White General Denikin, an act which led to Migulin's arrest, a death sentence and a last-minute Dostoyevskian pardon? That is the question Letunov poses. But it may be a red herring, masking a more politically sensitive issue: Why did Moscow and most party workers at the front mistrust Migulin, and keep him idle when he itched to fight for the revolution, until he snapped and took matters into his own hands? Migulin's charisma, his resistance to domination by inexperienced and dogmatic political commissars and his protests against the forced requisition of grain made him suspect to many party functionaries.
Though Migulin was pardoned for his insubordination, he was later tried on charges of counterrevolutionary activity and executed. Letunov, who had known the commander in Civil War days, tried to rehabilitate his name in the 1960s. One summer in the early 1970s, he is still obsessed with the Cossack leader. Behind his fixation lies repressed guilt, but the reason for it cannot be divulged without spoiling the novel's surprise ending. Suffice it to say that the young Letunov was less sure than his older self about where he stood in the battle between Migulin and the Jacobin commissars. He had vacillated, carried away by the enthusiasms of the revolutionary era:
Like lava it flows, that savage time, submerging and burying in its fire. . . . My God, and so few people were horrified; so few cried out! Because the lava blinds your eyes.
The scorching summer weather that threatens the old man's heart fuses with his memories of revolutionary hotheads to produce the image of history as a volcanic eruption. It's metaphor that ignores human volition and moral choice, yet instead of condemning the old man for his blindness, Trifonov makes the reader empathize with him. Identifying with Letunov means recognizing that we too could lose our moral bearings and commit irrevocable crimes in the name of some great cause.
Trifonov reserves his scorn for another, Oleg Vasilevich Kandaurov, a careerist intellectual whose actions can't be excused by youth or misplaced idealism. As the Letunov children's competitor for a dacha, he pursues his selfish goals "right up to the hilt,' a phrase that becomes increasingly sinister as the plot unfolds. Between the lines, one can read that a revolution that is cavalier in matters of fairness and justice is likely to create a society with similar short-comings.
Letunov's Uncle Shura, an Old Bolshevik who objected, however futilely, to personal vengeance disguised as class struggle, stands for a better communist road not taken. A kindly father figure-- some say, a fictional representation of Trifonov's own father--he is the only character in the novel who comes close to being the traditional positive hero of Socialist Realism. So it is surprising and significant that he fails to save the day. Shura's inability to shield Migulin from disaster suggests that in Trifonov's view, personal decency, while admirable, doesn't accomplish much in Soviet Russia, but he puts a politically acceptable opinion in Letunov's mouth: "The trouble was, there were no real commissars around.' By hiding behind his protagonist, Trifonov leaves his novel open to contradictory interpretations.
Such camouflages and compromises have been attacked in samizdat, but not everyone is cut out for heroics. Trifonov's way of living with censorship may have made him peculiarly aware of weakness and ambivalence, and impatient with black-and-white characterizations. "They tried it while Migulin was still alive, shrieking out words like "traitor' and "betrayer'; and they're still trying it today, with cries of "Leninist' and "revolutionary,'' thinks Letunov. "If he could simply be explained in a single word I would not be sitting here in the middle of the night rummaging through papers.'
Trifonov and Aksyonov understand the importance of memory and also its fragility. Tolya von Steinbock and Migulin are charismatic but shadowy figures. The temptation to forget is great when the past is politically suspect or personally embarrassing, and when it doesn't even seem to make much sense. If official histories contain glaring omissions and distortions, then private recollections take on special value--as do the novels that explore and preserve them.