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.
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.