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“In Search of Melancholy Baby”: Vasilii Aksenov and Soviet Émigré Life in Washington, DC

(This guest post is by intern Dylan Ogden, European Reading Room)

For many Soviet authors, emigration could be something of a mixed blessing: moving to Western Europe or the United States meant freedom from government censors and KGB surveillance, but it also meant exile from the culture, friends and readers that had initially shaped these authors’ writings. Vasilii Aksenov (also Romanized as Vasily Aksyonov, 1932-2009) was a writer who managed this transition more successfully than many.

In his 1987 book “V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: kniga ob Amerike” (“In Search of Melancholy Baby”), he uses his puckish wit to explore the joys, as well as the conflicts, contradictions and oddities that characterized his experiences as a Russian émigré living in Washington DC. In doing so, he also ends up taking a broader historical snapshot of DC in the 80s, along with the specific cultural and political anxieties that were shared by many other Soviet émigrés from that era, in a way that can still be surprising and revealing to contemporary readers.

Vasilii Aksenov, 1980. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, //www.loc.gov/item/2020729879/?loclr=blogint.

Aksenov portrait, 1980. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer.

Prior to his forced exile in 1980, Aksenov was already a famous Soviet author of counter-cultural “youth prose” in the 60s and 70s. Taking advantage of the relative liberalization brought on by the Khrushchev Thaw (de-Stalinization led by First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin’s death in 1953), Aksenov’s early works like “Kollegi,” (1959, “Colleagues”), Zvezdnyi bilet, (1961, “Ticket to the Stars”) and “Apel’siny iz Marokko,”  (1963, “Oranges from Morocco”) broke away from the stylistic norms of socialist realism and its ideological goals. They focused instead on a growing “unofficial” culture of Soviet youths who embraced slang, jazz and Western fashion as a way of rejecting the authoritarian order imposed by official Soviet culture. And despite Aksenov’s sometimes contentious relationship with the authorities who questioned his loyalty to the state, these works were enormously popular among Russian readers, selling millions of copies and prompting several screen adaptations. But as this era of liberalization fizzled out in the late 60s, Aksenov turned towards a more experimental and politically sensitive prose that had no chance of being officially published in the Soviet Union. Some of his now most famous novels like “Ozhog,” written in 1975 (“The Burn”) and “Ostrov Krym,” written in 1977-79 (“The Island of Crimea”). This shift, along with Aksenov’s participation in the unofficial literary almanac “Metropol” (1979) that was met with aggressive denunciation by the Soviet literary establishment, led Aksenov to take a “temporary” trip to the U.S. with his wife Maria in 1980, whereupon he was soon informed that he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and thereby forced into exile.

Aksenov was far from the only Russian writer to lose his citizenship in this way: starting in the late 60s, the Soviet government was putting increasing pressure on dissidents both within the Soviet Union and abroad. One of the few effective punishments for troublesome figures who had already left the Soviet Union was revoking their citizenship. Thus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lost his citizenship in 1974, Vladimir Maksimov lost his in 1975, and Viktor Nekrasov in 1979. These authors, along with many others, belonged to the “third wave” of Russian emigration, roughly spanning from the 70s to the mid-80s. Many of these émigrés were artists, writers, political activists and academics trying to escape from government censorship, along with a large number of Jews looking to escape from Soviet repression, though there was obviously also plenty of overlap between these groups. As scholars like John Glad have observed, the experiences of third-wave émigré writers tended to follow a familiar narrative. At first, a sense of new-found optimism about all of the opportunities and freedoms that were opening up to them in the West, followed by a gnawing malaise of culture shock and a realization that many Western readers just weren’t that interested in contemporary Russian literature outside of its ability to be used as a weapon in the ongoing Cold War-era cultural battle between Eastern and Western blocs.

To a certain degree, Aksenov’s “In Search of Melancholy Baby” also falls into this broad narrative. As he explains, the concept of “America” in the Soviet Union amounted to a loose conglomeration of symbols that were impossibly idealized and distorted by a generation of post-Stalinist Russian youths. As a result, the translation of this utopian image into the lived experience of actually being in America inevitably resulted in the reintroduction of messy reality. In one passage, for instance, he remarks with surprise at the sight of rats in DC “Hefty rats running around the capital of the United States of America? No, they must be pets of some kind—giant gerbils, perhaps. Then we found a dead ‘gerbil’ next to our car.”  Yet despite his occasional criticisms of American society, which he discovers to have its own kind of dysfunctional bureaucracy and provincial attitudes towards foreign cultures, Aksenov retains an overall positive evaluation of America, seeing the American ideals of freedom and diversity as far more than just empty phrases.

Upon first moving to the United States, Aksenov and his wife lived in New York City, where many other Russian émigrés ended up settling. Soon, however, they decided to move to Washington, DC after Aksenov was offered a fellowship at the Kennan Institute, where he wrote his first émigré novel, Bumazhnyi peizazh, 1982 (“Paperscape”). Among other things, Aksenov found the architecture in DC to be more familiar and thus easier to appreciate than New York—the colonnades of the Library of Congress reminiscent of St. Petersburg, the Parisian spirit of Dupont Circle, and so on. It also helped that Aksenov already had old friends and acquaintances in DC, including fellow émigré Ilya Suslov, former editor at “Yunost’” magazine where many of Aksenov’s early works were published, as well as James Billington, whom Aksenov had met in Moscow in 1965, even before the publication of Billington’s well-known book on Russian culture, “The Icon and the Axe.” Billington was the director of the Wilson Center from 1973 to 1987 and subsequently appointed Librarian of Congress.

Hallway in the Woodrow Wilson Center, photograph by Dylan Ogden, 2021. Photograph of Dr. James Billington 1980s, //www.loc.gov/loc/legacy/librs.html.

Hallway in the Woodrow Wilson Center, photograph by Dylan Ogden, 2021. Photograph of Dr. James Billington in the 1980s.

As they settled into life in DC, Aksenov and his wife became part of the Russian community in the city, joining the parish at St. John’s, one of the two Russian Orthodox cathedrals in the city. But in many respects, Aksenov and his fellow third-wave emigrants stood out from the established Russian-American community, most of whom had arrived much earlier in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For these Russian emigrants of the first and second waves, “Russia” was usually understood as “Imperial Russia,” while communism and the Soviet Union were nothing more than foreign intrusions. For émigrés like Aksenov, though, the Soviet Union was Russia, and its influence left a noticeable mark on their language, fashion and politics. For instance, in “Melancholy Baby” Aksenov relates a story of an old woman on Connecticut Avenue who told him, in Russian, “Hello! I couldn’t help but overhear you speak Soviet.” Fitting into the Russian community, in short, was itself a matter of cultural adaptation and conflict just as much as fitting into American society on the whole.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, DC. Photograph by Dylan Ogden.

The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Washington, DC. Photograph by Dylan Ogden.

Perhaps the biggest anxiety faced by Russian émigré writers from the third wave, however, was the question of relevance: many saw themselves as cut off from the tree of Russian literature, while simultaneously being unable to attract a new audience in the West outside of other Russian émigrés. In his book “Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics,” John Glad observes how this pessimistic attitude is summed up by the author Boris Khazanov, who remarked in 1985 that “there is no new growth; how can there be any except from the mother earth of Russia herself? But there the iron gates which formerly let out the fortunate individuals have slammed shut—evidently forever….” But Aksenov took a far less dire attitude towards his position in exile. While certainly aware that his books didn’t sell as well in the West, he used to joke that they still sold more copies than his clandestinely copied and distributed samizdat writings in the Soviet Union, which circulated in the dozens. Moreover, he firmly rejected the idea that living abroad meant separation from Russian literature or its readers, noting in a 1989 paper, “The Stepson of Capitalism,” that famed Russian author Nikolai Gogol lived for 12 years abroad in Western Europe, and yet was never considered an “émigré” writer at all.

Group photograph of the Robinson Professors and President George W. Johnson, Ca. 1995. Vasilii Aksenov far left. Courtesy of George Mason University, https://scrc.gmu.edu/robinson_professors.php.

Group photograph of the Robinson Professors and President George W. Johnson, Ca. 1995. Vasilii Aksenov far left. Courtesy of George Mason University.

In a certain respect, Aksenov’s own career would go on to prove his optimism not unwarranted. He was re-granted Soviet citizenship in 1989, and even granted a Moscow apartment in the 90s, but even once he started visiting Russia again, he remained a full-time resident in the U.S. for over a decade longer as a professor of Russian literature at George Mason University. In the meantime, he continued to write novels that attracted a keen readership in Russia and America, including “Generations of Winter” (“Moskovskaia saga,” 1994), “The New Sweet Style” (“Novyi sladostnyi stil’,” 1998), and “Voltairean Men and Women” (Vol’teriantsy i vol’terianki, 2004), the latter of which won the prestigious Russian Booker Prize. Nowadays, there is little doubt that Aksenov is a significant figure in the history of Russian literature, and perhaps he can be seen as a curious footnote in the history of DC as well.

Learn more:

Vasilii Aksenov. Apelʹsiny iz Marokko. Moskva: Izograf: ĖKSMO-Press, 2000. “Oranges from Morocco” in “The steel bird, and other stories.” Translations by Rae Slonek … [et al.], Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, c1979.

__________. Bumazhnyĭ peĭzazh (“Paperscape”), Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, c1983.

__________. Kollegi. Moskva: ĖKSMO, 2012.Москва: ЭКСМО, 2012.  Colleagues. Translated from the Russian by Alec Brown. Illus. by Y. Vechersky, London: Putnam, 1962.

__________. Moskovskaia saga: trilogiia, kn. 1. “Pokolenie zimy” — kn. 2. “Voina i tiurʹma” — kn. 3. “Tiurʹma i mir,” Moskva: “Tekst,” 1993-1994. Generations of Winter. (Part 1.) Translated from the Russian by John Glad and Christopher Morris. New York: Random House, 1994. The Winter’s Hero, (Part 3) Translated by John Glad, New York: Random House, c1996.

__________. Novyi sladostnyi stilʹ, Moskva: Izd-vo “Izograf,” 1997.  The New Sweet Style. Translated by Christopher Morris, New York: Random House, c1999.

__________. Ostrov Krym, Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1981. The Island of Crimea. Translated from the Russian by Michael W. Heim, New York: Random House, 1983.

__________. “Ozhog: roman v trekh knigakh: pozdnie shestidesiatye, rannie semidesiatye,” Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1980. “The Burn: A Novel in Three Books: (late sixties-early seventies).” Translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny, New York: Random House; Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c1984.

__________. “V poiskakh grustnogo bebi: kniga ob Amerike,” New York: Liberty Pub. House, 1987. In Search of Melancholy Baby. Translated by Michael Henry Heim and Antonina W. Bouis, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, c1987.

__________. “Volʹterʹiantsy i volʹterʹianki,” (“Voltairean Men and Women”), Moskva: Izografus: ĖKSMO, 2004

Aksyonov (Aksenov), Vasily et al., eds. Foreword by Kevin Klose. Metropol: Literary Almanac, New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton, c1982.

Billington, James H. The Icon and the Axe; An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, New York: Knopf, 1966.

Viktor Esipov, Chetyre zhizni Vasiliia Aksenova, (“The Four Lives of Vasily Aksenov”), Moskva: Ripol klassik, 2016.

John Glad, “Russia Abroad: Writers, History, Politics,” Foreword by Victor Terras. Tenafly, NJ: Hermitage Publishers; Washington, DC: Birchbark Press, 1999.

Edward Moṡejko, ed. Co-editors, Boris Briker, Per Dalgård. “Vasiliy Pavlovich Aksënov: A Writer in Quest of Himself,” Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1986, c1984.

“Russians in America: The Third Wave,” http://community.middlebury.edu/~beyer/ratw/periodicals.htm.

Russian writers,” NPR Interview with Vasilii Aksenov and Tom Gleason (1982).

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