Vasily Aksyonov predicted Crimea crises 35 years ago

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The second installment in my series “Myths About Marxism” will be out soon, but a specific myth just published nationally deserves a quick response.

Russia’s invasion of Crimea amidst the violence in Ukraine has reminded many of a remarkably prescient book by a relatively underrated author: Russia’s own Vasily Aksyonov. The Island of Crimea, written 35 years ago, tells the story of a Crimea that managed to avoid Soviet control and evolved into a bastion of prosperity.

That much is agreed upon. But predictably – as happens with almost every nuanced and actually-informed discussion of Marxism – Aksyonov and his work has been radically simplified and misrepresented by Marx’s critics.

This is the route Michael Idov seems to take in his Monday review of Crimea for the New Yorker.

A standard reading of Aksyonov’s novel understands it as a criticism of communism and capitalism, but Idov is dismissive. The only evidence of the latter worth mentioning in Idov’s review is “a fleeting jab at the supermarket culture” – but “the novel is far more sophisticated and provocative than that.”

A Crimean self-defense militia stands guard with riot shields painted in the Crimean tricolor flag in Simferopol, March 2, 2014. (Wikipedia)
A Crimean self-defense militia stands guard with riot shields painted in the Crimean tricolor flag in Simferopol, March 2, 2014. (Wikipedia)

Idov mentions in particular a New York Times review of Crimea by Walter Goodman – a man who understood red baiting in the U.S. as well as anyone. The “fleeting reference” Goodman quotes appears in the mouth of one of Aksyonov’s characters: “what makes capitalism so sickening and offensive,” she explains, is that capitalists “have everything they could possibly want and then some, but it’s never enough.”

The line itself may be fleeting; its critique, however, is quite clear, and is indeed one of the novel’s major themes. As distinguished Russian literature scholar Arnold McMillin writes, Crimea may have avoided Soviet Communism:

“it is not, however, a model society, but reflects the west as a place of permanent half-crazy, decadent carnival…an image no doubt partly formed during Aksenov’s year as a visiting professor in southern California.”

So it’s a little odd that Idov finds these “lusty descriptions of capitalist Crimea’s wild wealth…in every sense, aspirational.”

Idov has a similar understanding of the author. Aksyonov “was dumbstruck to find many of his Stateside counterparts…leaning toward Marxism,” he writes, in part because he was “the son of a victim of the Stalinist purges”.

You don’t have to be a Marxist – or even particularly knowledgeable about Aksyonov – to wonder why Idov only mentions one parent. Just be forewarned: if you look into it, you might find out that Aksyonov’s father was himself a relatively high-ranking party official, and that both of his parents were committed Communists.

This is probably impossible to understand if you fail to make any distinction between Marxism, the many varieties of Communism, and the ruthless tyranny Soviet dictators enacted in its name. But Aksyonov’s parents did just that, and it turns out they thought it plenty “sophisticated and provocative” to be skeptical of both Stalinism and capitalism.

Aksyonov, too, was skeptical of both. He was without question an open and outspoken critic of the Soviet Union, and naturally mobilized the fore of his literary powers against the regime that had attacked so many of his loved ones. But The Island of Crimea is far too sophisticated and provocative a work to paint all of Marxist thought with such a broad brush, or to so easily let Capitalism off the hook.

I know this first and foremost simply because I read Crimea – but also because I studied under Aksyonov. And considered him a friend. One of the most common myths about Marxism is that the catastrophe of Stalinism compels us to embrace Capitalism as the only alternative. It brings to mind an old Russian joke Vasya recounted during a lecture on dissident humor:

“Everything the Communists told us about Communism was a complete and utter lie. Unfortunately, everything the Communists told us about Capitalism turned out to be true.”