“Who wouldn’t recognize, amid the crazed architectural flourishes of Downtown Simferopol, the assertive skyscraping simplicity of the pencil-like home of the Russian Courier.” Thus begins one of my favorite novels of the twentieth century. The same novel ends with Russia annexing Crimea after its citizens are snookered into requesting the invasion themselves: in other words, it eerily anticipates this week’s news.
Written in 1979, Vassily Aksyonov’s “The Island of Crimea” imagines an alternative history (abetted by alternative geography—Crimea is a peninsula) wherein the Russian civil war ends with the tsarist forces able to hold onto this southern scrap of the old empire. Skip forward sixty years, and Crimea is a booming Hong Kong to the U.S.S.R.’s China. To the contemporary Soviet reader, almost every word in that opening sentence invited giggles of dizzy disorientation. A skyscraper—in Simferopol! The idea that a newspaper can be called a “Russian” (as opposed to “Soviet”) anything, let alone an ultra-bourgeois “Courier”! Where in the world are we?
Where we are, in fact, is not in an earnest counter-historical what-if but instead inside the eternal fever dream of the Russian intellectual: what Russia could have been if not for the path it chose. While Aksyonov paints the neighboring U.S.S.R. as an inferno of scarcity, cruelty, and idiocy—somehow managing to sound like an outside observer (he wrote the book just before emigrating to the United States)—he can’t help gleefully stuffing his imaginary Crimea with every cool thing that a Soviet hipster could think of: high-speed freeways, a hopping jazz scene, swinger clubs, an auto industry producing Peter-Turbo roadsters and luxurious Russo-Balt cars (an actual brand whose production ceased with the revolution), Novy Svet champagne, posh villas, Burgessian Russo-Anglo-Tatar youth slang, and a tony night club named after Nabokov. And then he proceeds to throw it all under the Russian tank tracks.
In the U.S., where “The Island of Crimea” came out in 1983 (in Michael Henry Heim’s translation; I’m using my own for the quoted bits), it was rather expectedly read as a dissident tract. “Most of Mr. Aksyonov’s shafts are directed at Communism, but capitalism comes in for a few,” Walter Goodman wrote in a Times review, citing a fleeting jab at the supermarket culture. In fact, the novel is far more sophisticated and provocative than that. The Anschluss central to its plot is, of course, a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—which was portrayed as “requested,” just as Putin is justifying Russia’s current military incursion into Crimea as addressing the plight of the ethnic Russians there. But it’s the slow run-up to the disaster that shows the real target of Aksyonov’s satire, which is relevant to this day: the gullibility of the Western left when it comes to Russia.
Aksyonov had travelled in the U.S. before, and, like most Soviet dissidents abroad, he was dumbstruck to find many of his Stateside counterparts in literary and academic circles leaning toward Marxism. As the son of a victim of the Stalinist purges (Yevgenia Ginzburg, whose memoir is required reading alongside Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” and to whose memory “The Island of Crimea” is dedicated), Aksyonov must have been appalled by the Western idealization of the Soviet state. This distaste bubbles up through the portrayal of the novel’s central character—Andrei (Looch) Luchnikov, the Russian Courier’s denim-clad, red-mustached publisher and editor. A Bond-like hero on the surface (he even carries a Beretta, like 007), Luchnikov is, in fact, a softie pinko whose naïveté undoes the nation. His, and theCourier’s, pet cause is the so-called Idea of Common Fate: a faddish dream of reunification with Russia. In Crimean liberals’ self-sacrificial fantasies, their own worldliness will serve as an acculturating shot to the rest of the U.S.S.R., making the monstrous motherland more modern and humane. Even Luchnikov’s Moscovite friend Marlen Kuzenkov, a cynical Soviet functionary tasked with monitoring Crimea, looks on in horror as the Common Fate doctrine spreads through Crimea’s chattering classes. Before committing suicide, Kuzenkov poetically slurs Luchnikov, calling him “a pathetic pilot fish for a giant senseless shimmering shark.” The Common Faters win local elections and, blindly trusting the Soviet Constitution—which did specify the republics’ right to self-determination and even to their own armed forces—they request inclusion into the U.S.S.R. The Soviet tanks rumble in at once, under the guise of a bilateral “military-athletic festival.” The passages describing the invasion from the Crimeans’ point of view—clueless to the last—rank among the most excruciatingly precise, funny, and hopeless in Russian letters. An example:
The higher the sun rose, the thicker the crowds got along Simfy’s vast main drag. All cafes and espresso bars had opened hours before their usual time. Joyful excitement coursed through the air. Youngsters climbed plane trees hanging up slogans like ‘Hello Moscow!,’ ‘The Soviet Island Greets the Soviet Mainland, Crimea + Kremlin = Love,’ and, the most original of all, ‘Let Bloom the Inviolable Friendship of the Peoples of the U.S.S.R.’ … Every television, from giant sports-bar screens to tiny handhelds, showed TVMig’s reporting from various spots along the coast. Oddly, the network wasn’t doing its best job that day. The live shots were confusing and kept suddenly breaking off, though even the snippets that got through were enough to appreciate the military-athletic festival’s grandiose scope. Seemed like the tactless TVMig hacks annoyed the modest Soviet lads after all; as soon as a news van neared, the soldiers’ faces darkened and each feed, for some reason, went dead.
What makes “The Island of Crimea” more than good satire, however, is its miraculous restoration to relevance every time Russia takes a hard turn. When my friends and I got our hands on it for the first time, in 1990, in a serialized and slightly censored form, we skimmed it mainly for the lusty descriptions of the capitalist Crimea’s wild wealth—not to mention its frank and plentiful sex scenes. It was, in every sense, aspirational.
By the time the book came out in Russia again, in 1997, the world had flipped upside down. In the preface, the author himself marvelled at the happy irony of this novel selling in Simferopol. “What Aksyonov described, has happened. Russia has become the ‘Island of Crimea,’” the critic Ksenia Zorina wrote, in a tepid review. “It’s not about a nonexistent island. It’s about today’s Moscow.” Indeed, Aksyonov had nailed detail after detail, down to the unsuccessful attempt, in 2002, to resurrect the Russo-Balt automobile brand. “As for all the psychological portraits of party apparatchiks and scenes from the already half-forgotten Soviet reality,” Zorina continued, “they’re worth skimming without any second thought. This was a parody, and twenty years later, it has gone stale.” Like many Russians, Zorina believed (in 1997!) that the Soviet past was so far behind that Aksyonov’s satire would never be relevant again.
Needless to say, it is—and, once again, Aksyonov has proved spookily prescient. For instance, the political landscape of his fictional Crimea includes a vicious ultraright formation called the Wolf Hundred, run by a leather-clad maniac with friends in high places; this week an ultraright Russian biker gang called the Night Wolves, whose leather-clad leader is pals with Putin, took up positions guarding government offices in Simferopol. After this, it’s hard to see the newly minted Crimean prime minister’s last name as anything other than life completely curdling into metafiction. It’s Aksyonov.
Yet the real reason that “The Island of Crimea” applies so easily to any Russian development, positive or catastrophic, is that amid all the jazz and sex and fast cars, Aksyonov had captured the innate, eternal duality of Russia: at any given moment, it is both the Island and the Mainland, a reef of free thought and a colossus poised to stomp it out of existence. The only thing that the author, who died in 2009, couldn’t predict was how dizzyingly fast it might cycle through both extremes. Then again, neither could we.