Tag Archives: Vasily Aksyonov

Vasily Aksyonov home, Moscow

Note: Click on photos to enlarge.


Here is another of those places that you won’t find without me. There’s no plaque here, no information listed, nothing to be found on the internet. The marvelous Soviet-Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov lived here in the late 1970s, right up until he was essentially pushed out of the Soviet Union in 1980 and deprived of his citizenship. The address is 21 Krasnoarmeiskaya (Red Army) Street. Aksyonov occupied Apt. no. 20. I know this from the old 1976 Writers Union phone book I have in my library. I’ll say right away that I could make this post about any number of well known writers. This building was essentially built for the Writers Union and so a large number of writers ended up receiving (under the old Soviet system) apartments at this address. For example I on occasion visited the horribly underrated short-story writer Nikolai Shakhbazov here in the early 1990s. I’ll find a way to write something about this remarkable writer and man some other day. A handful of the best contemporary Russian playwrights still live in this building today – specifically, I mean Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov.
But at this moment I am thinking about Aksyonov, a man who had no small influence on me. I had the great good fortune to be a student of Aksyonov’s for a year when I was in grad school working on my Master’s at George Washington University. Aksyonov had just showed up in D.C. and was at loose ends. I don’t know the reasons behind how and why Dept. Chair Charles A. Moser was able to hire Aksyonov to teach a seminar in Soviet literature, but he did. Moser had connections to the prominent dissident Vladimir Bukovsky – there was a memorial Bukovsky library in the GW Slavic Dept. – and maybe that was the key. Furthermore, Moser’s wife was the daughter of a prominent Bulgarian politician and political activist in exile (Georgi Mihov Dimitrov), thus putting him in circles of eminent exiles and dissidents. Whatever the reason, however, Aksyonov did end up for a short while (two semesters) at George Washington University, and I happened to be there to be one of his few students. I have always been curious as to why this information (Aksyonov as a GW professor, obviously, not my status as his student) is virtually absent in the historical record. His longtime tenure at George Mason University in Virginia is usually given as his first professional home after ending up in the U.S. Actually, it was Charles Moser and GW that extended that first hand (after Carl C. Proffer put Aksyonov up for the first few months in Ann Arbor, MI). At the time of Akysonov’s death in 2009 I wrote about him at some length in a blog on the site of The Moscow Times. There isn’t much more to pull out of my memory than what I put down there. But I will share a few more stray thoughts.

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After the Fall of the Wall and the collapse of communism, Aksyonov returned to Moscow, at least on occasion, for extended periods. His now-Russian citizenship was returned to him and, as I understood it, he acquired an apartment in Moscow that he could call home. My friend The Moscow Times photographer Igor Tabakov reminds me that this was in the high rise on the Kotelnicheskaya Embankment. Aksyonov occasionally figured in cultural news. I saw him from time to time on talk shows, in new documentary films, or as the subject of interviews in newscasts. Wikipedia tells me that he left the U.S. in 2004 for Biarritz, France, and that he split his time from then on between Russia and France. But he was a regular visitor and extended resident in Moscow throughout most of the 1990s. I ran into him at the Vakhtangov Theater one night; this would have been in the mid-1990s. He hadn’t changed a bit since the last time I saw him in 1981, he still had that wonderful swagger and that pleasant crooked smile with a twinkle in his eye. He responded warmly when I reminded him where we had crossed paths. Standing under portraits of Mikhail Ulyanov and Pyotr Fomenko, we chatted for a few minutes like old acquaintances before the bell rang that brings intermission to an end. The last time I saw him before his death was at the Sovremennik Theater. I have forgotten what the premiere was that night, but Aksyonov, as usual, was surrounded by a small swarm of friends and well-wishers. I didn’t attempt to approach him this time. I was perfectly satisfied to have had the opportunity to see him there in the hall of the first theater that ever produced one of his plays, Always on Sale (1965). It was a nice little closing of a historical circle for me. I suspect it was also around the time of this visit to the Sovremennik that, as co-editor of the Russian Theater Archive series of books, I had a small hand in publishing Aksyonov’s play Your Murderer in a translation by Daniel Gerould and Jadwiga Kosicka. That, for me was also a meaningful event. Aksyonov had helped me publish my first ever article in Russian way back in the 1980s, and 15 to 20 years later I was able to help him publish one of his neglected plays in English.
I trust you understand that I do not mention these insignificant incidents in order to worm my way into some kind of proximity to Vasily Aksyonov. But it is true that Aksyonov made a deep impression on me as a man of talent, wit, generosity and humanity, and that forever after I continued to harbor for him a genuine affection in my heart. No, what compels me to write today is what Bruce Springsteen called the “ties that bind” – that feeling of warmth and connection that ties to me Russian literature, culture and art. Aksyonov epitomized the best of what I know about Russian literature and Russian literary figures. He is one of those who make me feel at home in this culture, no matter what it chooses to throw at me and mine.




Yury Kazakov plaque, Moscow


I mean nothing evil whatsoever in saying I fear Yury Kazakov (1927-1982) is on the verge of being forgotten. Maybe I’m actually saying something almost good. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, who was once one of the most respected Soviet writers (reviled, naturally, by “official critics”), and who remains a standard of excellence for those in the know today, is one of those inconstant beacons that remind us excellence is its own reward, everybody else be damned. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, in some odd way, grows in stature all the more as subsequent harried generations lose themselves in the vanity of their affairs.
I was introduced to Kazakov’s work while studying Russian and Russian literature at the University of California at Irvine. He was presented to us with great trepidation, I would say, with great respect, with words of sincere admiration for a writer who based everything he did on quiet subtlety. I remember Bulat Okudzhava talking about him with great respect when he lectured at Irvine in the early 1980s. I also remember Vasily Aksyonov applying the same respect to his work when he conducted seminars I attended during my time at George Washington University a year or two later. Those opinions had a powerful effect on me and they have lasted. Even though I haven’t read a single thing of Kazakov’s since the early 1980s. And, indeed, I never hear anyone talk about him today. Let’s say I just move in the wrong circles. I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s certainly possible. Life is too big for any one of us to embrace fully. We do it badly, incompletely, lacking the proper understanding and perspective. What we’re left with is our own personal perspective, not unimportant by any means, but significantly flawed.
This, perhaps, is why I always have such a warm feeling when I pass by building No. 30 on the Arbat where a plaque was erected in Kazakov’s memory. The future writer moved into one of the communal apartments here with his mother when he was three years old, and he spent the next 34 years here. There’s a nice anonymous text called “The Hidden Light of the Word” in the internet that sheds light in snippets on Kazakov’s life here. It talks about the young boy going to music school holding his sheet music in a folder while standing outside the apartments of Svyatoslav Richter and Nina Dorliak, spellbound by the sounds of them playing the piano (Richter) or singing (Dorliak). During WW2 a bomb fell on the roof of this building and, our anonymous author tells us, Kazakov was one of those who ran up to help put out the fire. He would have been 15ish.
“Yury Pavlovich Kazakov’s literary fate,” this text continues, “seems enigmatic, even improbable. How did it happen that this urban boy, a student, a musician and a four-eyes, suddenly turned into the writer who gave rise to the famous ‘country prose’? Kazakov wrote about the city, too, but it was his stories “At the Way Station” (1954), “Ugly” and “The Traveler” (1956) that put out the new branch of Russian literature in the 20th century. The term ‘country prose’ did not exist yet at the time, but Party critics were already coming down on it hard. These critics saw in the honest description of the Russian countryside – its beauties and its deprivations – a threat to ‘Socialist achievements.'”

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So it was while Kazakov lived in this building that his literary reputation was established. His first book was published in 1959 in Arkhangelsk. In April 1959 Kazakov, in a letter to a friend, quoted one of the phrases from the first review: “In our opinion the appearance of Yu. Kazakov’s book, which crudely distorts our reality and the image of our contemporaries, the builders of Communism, is a mistake of the Arkhangelsk publishers…” Jesus. It sounds like the crap hack critics are writing about Russian playwrights in 2014!
Valery Bondarenko, in a piece written in May of this year, had this to say about Kazakov: “I think the main thing for Kazakov and the people of his generation was a striving for extremes, and, beyond that, a certain enchantment with the possibility, the nearness, of death. ‘Having missed the war,’ it was as though in peace time they wallowed in childish, silly complexes pushed to absurd lengths: ‘A man must know the sweat and salt of labor, he must cut, or at least plant, a tree or catch a fish in order to show people the fruits of his labor – much more real and indispensable than my stories!’ (‘Northern Diary, 1960).”
In my ignorance, having read just a few of Kazakov’s stories (30 years ago!) but remembering well a few well-chosen words of praise, every time I pass by this building on the Arbat I do it with an especial feeling of deference and appreciation.



Novella Matveeva home, Moscow


The first time I heard of Novella Matveeva would have been around 1982 in one of Vasily Aksyonov’s lectures at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where I was doing a Master’s degree. I’d heard about the poets and bards of the 1950s and 1960s – Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Galich, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Bella Akhmadulina and such – but the name of Novella Matveeva had not reached my American ears. Aksyonov spoke of her with great affection and thanks to that I have held her in special esteem ever since. In Moscow I run across her work, and references to it, far more often. She was extremely popular at her peak in the 1960s and remains a highly respected poet to this day. YouTube has numerous videos of her performing her songs. You can listen to “There Lived a Little Boat” for starters if you wish and then search from there. The pictures you see here are not much to speak of, but they show the building at 31 Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, in which Matveeva lived at least in 1976. I photographed the home one day when out on a photo excursion with a copy of the 1976 USSR Writers Union phone and address book in hand. For the record, she no longer lives here, and there is no plaque or other information indicating that this was once her home.


Aside from her importance as a writer, Matveeva, born in 1934, is fascinating for the fact that she has lived most or all of her life in a wheelchair. She completed studies at the Gorky Literary Institute as a correspondent student because she could not attend classes. A tremendous amount of confusion and misunderstanding has arisen around her as a result. You can read that “she never left home,” and that she was “introverted and retiring.” What you cannot find (at least I have not done so even with a fair amount of internet research) is what, exactly, Matveeva’s condition is. This would appear to be a holdover from an age when any kind of physical challenge was not considered a topic for polite conversation or public consumption. What has largely been lost, as a result, is the extraordinary story of a woman who has lived a full, rich, creative life despite the enormous obstacles her society erected for people with physical challenges. Matveeva in her long career has written over 20 books of prose and poetry. She has recorded over a dozen albums of her songs. She wrote music to lyrics by her poet husband Ivan Kiuru (1934-1992). She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious State Prize in Literature (2002) and, according to Russian Wikipedia, she is currently working on Russian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets.