Vasily Aksyonov, RIP:

Prominent Russian writer and political dissident Vasily Aksyonov has passed away. Aksyonov was one of the leaders of the 1960s generation of Russian intellectuals who began to question the communist regime in various ways. His parents both spent time in Gulags during the Stalin era, and Aksyonov himself was shipped off to a government orphanage as the son of "enemies of the people" - an experience that probably influenced his later opposition to communism. Aksyonov wrote numerous well-known novels that criticized aspects of Soviet society. As he began to dissent from the party line more openly, his works were no longer published in the USSR and eventually he was expelled from the country in 1980. Aksyonov then lived in the US for over twenty years, teaching Russian literature at George Mason University (unfortunately, he left soon after I arrived, so I wasn't able to meet him).

Unlike such Russian nationalist dissidents as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov advocated liberal democracy, opposed anti-Semitism, and deplored the recent revival of authoritarian Russian nationalism under Vladimir Putin.

English translations of many of his novels are available, including the epic Generations of Winter, which tells the story of a Russian family in the brutal Stalin era. In Search of a Melancholy Baby (the title is awkwardly translated and really should be something like "In Search of a Sad Bady"), is a fascinating account of Aksyonov's impressions of life in the United States. An interesting lesser-known work is his 1980 alternate history novel, Island of Crimea, which imagines what might have happened if the Crimean peninsula had been an island, allowing the "White" losers of the Russian Civil War to set up a noncommunist state there in 1920 - a kind of Russian counterpart to Taiwan (White forces did in fact hold out in Crimea for many months after being driven out of the mainland, but communist troops eventually pushed them out).

Aksyonov will be remembered for his literary achievements and also for helping to inspire an entire generation of dissident intellectuals. Russia certainly could use more people like him today.

Thilly Commenter:

an experience that probably influenced his later opposition to communism.

Deadpan understatement at its finest.
7.7.2009 9:48pm
John Tillinghast (mail):
I read In Search of Melancholy Baby years ago, first in my native English, then many sections in Russian. It was indeed fascinating to see how someone adjusts to American life as an adult with a totally different reference frame. It helped my Russian too.

I am pretty sure that he wanted the title to be "Melancholy Baby" in English because of the musical reference. (Unless the phrase grustniy bebi has some particular meaning in Russian...)

We'll miss him.
7.7.2009 10:32pm
Ilya Somin:
I am pretty sure that he wanted the title to be "Melancholy Baby" in English because of the musical reference. (Unless the phrase grustniy bebi has some particular meaning in Russian...)

"Grustny bebi" simply means "sad baby" or a close equivalent thereof. "Melancholy baby" means much the same thing, but is much more awkward. I wasn't aware of the musical reference.
7.7.2009 11:05pm
TGGP (mail) (www):
I'd never heard of Aksyonov. Russia has been given an unfair number of great writers. Does anyone have a good explanation why that is?

Beyond merely displaying tribal cues that activate our political antibodies, Solzhenitsyn was just plain wrong about some matters of policy. Daniel Larison has written about how similar he was to another intellectual that he singled out for criticism on such mistaken grounds: George Kennan.
7.8.2009 12:23am
RiccardoS (mail) (www):
Typo: "In Search of a Sad Bady"
7.8.2009 12:50am

I am pretty sure that he wanted the title to be "Melancholy Baby" in English because of the musical reference. (Unless the phrase grustniy bebi has some particular meaning in Russian...)

Yes, he did. As all the Russian "60's people" Aksyonov was a great fan of jazz, which to him was the foremost symbol of America and its freedom. His book on his discovery of America is the search for an ideal of his youth and refers to the famous jazz standard. It is true that the translation into Russian is not exactly "melancholy" so that the literal back translation should be "sad". However, the specific cultural context trumps that consideration.

RIP, Vasily Aksyonov. He was a great man.
7.8.2009 2:19am
Tugh (mail):
RIP. What a great man. It's very sad that he's gone.
7.8.2009 2:49am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Bela Kiraly died today as well
7.8.2009 8:22am
Not a native Russian speaker, but my first adjective for "sad" would be pechalniy (apologies, but I don't know how to do cyrillic here), not grustniy. Grustniy would not even be my first choice for melancholic/melancholy; that would be melanxolichslii or yniliy, though the noun for melancholy would be grust.

Agreeing with commenter YS, and being a fan of jazz, I would bet that an author that much in love with both America and jazz would choose the term precisely for its resonance with many older readers. That it doesn't ring the same way for younger readers is ochen pechalniy, toze.
7.8.2009 9:37am
Ah, looked it up in the Oxford New Russian dictionary (2007), they're synonymous.
7.8.2009 9:41am
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
I remember reading his short story "The Light Blue and the Green," a story of a young man's first love and first rejection, in my Russian class at UCLA a few eons ago. It's funny, the stuff that stays with you ... The whole class laughed at one bit of dialog, "Come and keep your comrade warm," that was by chance also a well-known line from a certain Beatles' tune.
7.8.2009 5:56pm
Mike G in Corvallis (mail):
(There shouldn't be an apostrophe in "Beatles," of course.)
7.8.2009 5:57pm
Robert E (mail):
"The Burn" is also terrific. I just turned to a random spot:

"How can you drink that stuff?" I asked. "It makes normal people go blind."
"We go blind too," Jan said, smiling meekly. "But if you piss in it, you can drink it. Of course you go a little bit blind, but not completely and not forever. Right now, for instance, I can see you."
"OK, let's have it"


Is that great Russian literature or what??
7.8.2009 10:56pm

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