[(essay date Winter 1986) In the following review, Meyer discusses the influences that Bulgakov's Master and Margarita and Journey Into the Whirlwind, the prison camp memoirs of Aksyonov's mother, had on The Burn.]
Stalinism has necessarily been a central subject of serious Russian literature since the 1930s. The grotesque nature of Stalinist society has generated memoirs more fantastic than fiction and novels especially rooted in history. Survivors of the experience are unavoidably concerned with the moral problems of resisting and responding to evil, torn between a desire for revenge and the ideal of forgiveness. Aksenov's The Burn (Ozog) must be read in the context of this history and the texts it produced. The burn of the title refers both to Stalinism and to the burn of creativity. By recapitulating his own biography, Aksenov writes a literary-historical confession that traces the effects of Stalinism on the author's generation from the 1940s to the mid-1970s. In attempting to reconcile his love of Russian culture with his hatred of Russian barbarity, Aksenov sets the novel in dialogue with two authoritative texts: his mother's memoir of her years in Stalin's camps provides the focus of the moral dimension of The Burn, while Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, probably the single greatest work of art produced in response to Stalinism, is The Burn's stylistic parent. An analysis of that dialogue is the focus of this paper.
In defining his personal relationship to the history and literature of his time, Aksenov also incorporates his own development as a writer. In The Burn he refers explicitly to A Ticket to the Stars (Zvezdnyj bilet),Surplussed Barrelware(Zatovarennaja bockotara), "The Steel Bird" ("Stal'naja ptica"), and "The Heron" ("Caplja"), and indirectly to at least "Wish You Were Here" ("Zal', cto vas ne bylo s nami"), "The Victory" ("Pobeda"), and "Rendezvous" ("Randevu"). A brief review of Aksenov's biography and of the themes, motifs, and structures that recur in The Burn will therefore be useful.
1. History: Aksenov's Biography. Aksenov was born 20 August 1932 in Kazań. His mother, Evgenija Ginzburg, taught history at Kazań University; his father, Pavel Aksenov, was an important Communist Party official. His parents were arrested in 1937, when he was four years old. His mother served a ten-year sentence and then settled in exile in Magadan, Siberia, with her second husband, Anton Val'ter, a prisoner who worked as a doctor. There Aksenov rejoined his mother when he was seventeen, finished high school in 1950, and, because his parents said "it's easier for doctors in the camps" . . . , enrolled in the First Leningrad Medical Institute, from which he graduated in 1956. He worked briefly as a quarantine doctor in the port of Leningrad, and then was sent as a general practitioner to a village on Lake Onega. There he began to write, publishing two stories in 1959. With the success of his first novella, Colleagues(Kollegi, 1960), Aksenov and his first wife moved to...