BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Vassily Aksyonov, what does the Soviet Union look like to you from America these days?
VASSILY AKSYONOV, AUTHOR, "SAY CHEESE": Well, it, it still um, um, excuse me, but I would use this rather common saying, it is still a... regal, or at destiny inside enigma as Sir Winston Churchill said. And for me too. Now I am going for the first time since my dispatch from the Soviet Union. I am going to visit there and I am, I should confess that I am a little bit nervous, you know, because the country, my own homeland, motherland, now, after the almost ten years, ah...turned into a sort of certain abstract notion and it is , it is a sort of literary material rather than
the living, living society, so I am really, although that is, we have a blanket of information nowadays. A great deal of information every day, but I, I feel like I am, I, I have lost some touch, with, with my homeland. This country is much closer to me these days, now, than my ah motherland, so I hope to restore some, some, well, at least with, with my ah first with my, ah , with my native soil.
LAMB: Why were you expelled and when were you expelled?
AKSYONOV: Ah, it happened, ah in July of 1980. That is 9-1/2 years ago, ah and I was expelled as an undesired writer, undesired author. I have never been a politician in that respect. I, ah, but they didn't like, ah the, the novel idea, though this was only a recent ...... problem.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
AKSYONOV: Ah, um, it, it is hard to say right now, but at least 16 novels and some collections of folk stories, essay, ah, etc.
LAMB: What is this book all about?
AKSYONOV: That is my, that is my, that is my American journal, as a matter of fact, I would say that the journal of a writer, who found himself, unexpectedly left with the, ah, ah unknown, unknown, um, um land, and so that how, finally I have adjusted to this new life, you know. My perception of, of this, my new homeland, as a matter of fact, and I, and I was desperately looking, when I started writing that, I was desperately looking for some, at least some bits of the mutual nostalgia, you know. Until I, found, and it in the deep of my memory, this old American song, "Come to Me My Melancholy Baby," which I have heard in the very old classic American movie, the Roaring Twenties, and I remembered how we were all fascinated as kids, in the Soviet Union, right after World War II, we have been fascinated with some, American Jews and some signs which were (?)...... signs, which were (?) , were (?) from this, this (?).
LAMB: Where do you live now, are you married, do you have children?
AKSYONOV: Ah, yes I have a son. He is now 28, he lives in Moscow. That is from my first marriage. He is working, in the movie business there as an art director. And here I live with my wife (?).
LAMB: Where are you from originally in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: I was born in Kazon(?). That is 800 kilometers east of Moscow, but I lived all my, most of my life in, in Moscow.
LAMB: Where did you get an interest in writing?
AKSYONOV: Well, I graduated from a medical institute and I worked as a doctor for four years, and then I, I wrote a novel, my very first novel, and all of a sudden it was published in an extremely popular magazine with subscriptions of 3-1/2 million and that was a smashing success absolutely and it (?) took place. And so after that, I was already poisoned by literature, so I quit medicine and started writing more and more.
LAMB: Could you be a medical doctor in this country, if you wanted to today?
AKSYONOV: Theoretically, yes. But that would require the confirmation of my diploma. In other words, I will, will have to be examined at length.
LAMB: Go to school again.
AKSYONOV: Yes, probably.
LAMB: Why, when, when was the first time you came to the United States?
AKSYONOV: The first time I have been here, still as a Soviet writer in 1975. That is five years before my emigration, ah, as a guest, a guest professor at UCLA in Los Angeles.
LAMB: How did you get here?
AKSYONOV: Well, that was the, that was a special glory, you know? I, I fought for the permission to come, for at least a year, you know, to get this permission from the Soviet bureaucracy, and finally I succeeded, but that is really the, it deserves to be, ah described in a special novel.
LAMB: And, at the time were you a member of the Communist party?
AKSYONOV: Oh no, I never have been, I have never been a member of the party.
LAMB: Why did they let you come then, weren't they afraid you'd want to stay?
AKSYONOV: Well, I, I traveled, by that time I have been traveling already, around the, around the world. Because they...I was quite popular writer at that time,... So they, ah maybe they used us, as some group of popular, more or less independent writers. They used us to show, a certain degree of liberalization.
LAMB: Were you allowed, at that time, when you came to the United States, to write anything you wanted to?
AKSYONOV: Absolutely. Well, when, I arrived here, I had a seminar at UCLA and when I came back, I even had written my first American travelogue, which was called, "24 Hours Nonstop," and it was published in a Soviet magazine. A very popular magazine. That was the time of the time a relatively, relatively mild relationship between the two countries, who let me remind you of this, ah space link-up, Souez, Apollo, and some things like that, so that was the detente, the time of detente, and the relationship between, between the two countries was relatively mild.
LAMB: And, what was the story behind your expulsion?
AKSYONOV: The story, first of all, I had written a novel called "The Burn", Burn.
AKSYONOV: B-U-R-N. It was published here, by the same publisher, ah, ah in 1985, by Random House. Ah, yes. And then it was stuck waiting in the narrow circles of my literary friends, because I was afraid of even, submitting it to the publisher. I..., it was quite sincere, well, overboard, I would say. A novel from the Soviet point of view, you know. So that I, I, I... realized by the time that if I would go ahead and publish that abroad, there was no question of publishing that inside, you know. That would change my life, because they wouldn't tolerate this. And then, all of a sudden, I was approached by KGB, a formal approach by them, two agents arrived to my place, to my home. One of them, as I found out later on, was either a colonel or a general, and the other one was a younger one. That is an interesting point, that the one who was a colonel recently repent, repented in the Soviet magazine about this.
LAMB: About, about his association with you?
AKSYONOV: About, about the pressure they, they put, ah on me, you know, about their efforts to kick me out of the country. So they, they ah came over to my place and they just said flatly that "if you would ever dare to publish this, this novel, this is a novel, not a documentary, ah we would have to say good bye to you". So, right after that, I decided to go ahead and publish it, because I realized that they are already behind me, you know, that you would never be, a free, independent person.
LAMB: Did you publish it in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: Oh no, no. I published it and smuggled it with the help of friends, foreign, foreign friends in the United States to France, and finally it was published first in Russian, in the United States, and then translated, I am sorry, first it was published in Italy, in Italy, in Montendoro(?).
LAMB: Why Italy?
AKSYONOV: I don't know why that happened, but Italian publishers were very much interested.
LAMB: And all of your books are, I've got another book here I will show the audience, are written in, in Russian?
AKSYONOV: All of my books are written in Russian except for the latest one. I just finished my first book set completely in Washington, D.C. and written in English, but that is just, I am not quite serious about my English, but that is a sort of the literary game I hope for to my readers.
LAMB: And, and is it easier for you to write in Russian that it is in English, or is it, I mean is it really hard to write in English?
AKSYONOV: It is really hard, but that is a sort of a game for me, you know. I enjoy myself trying to write, to write in English. It is a sort of a, like a crossword, you know. I use a lot of dictionaries. I even dedicated this book to the, ah Russian/English Dictionary.
LAMB: When you came over here and you wrote your first book in Russian, where do you ship it, where do you send it to get it translated?
AKSYONOV: Well, ah, Random House actually made the first contract with me for "The Burn," when I was still there, in the Soviet Union, through my agent, so that when I arrived, they already were my publishers. So that I didn't have problems in finding American publisher.
LAMB: We have another book that is, how long, has this been in the book stores, for already a couple months?
AKSYONOV: Ah, it was issued in July.
LAMB: What is, this is a novel?
AKSYONOV: Yes it is.
LAMB: What is the basic story?
AKSYONOV: Ah, this is the story of a bunch of photographers, Russian Soviet photographers, who decide that the first time in their lives, publish the independent collection of pictures, free of, from censorship, you know? It is actually based on the story of the writers, the bunch of writers to which I belonged to, a collection called "Metropol"(?), and that was the additional trouble I, I created for the Soviet authorities, you know? So I was singled out as a ring leader of that bunch of writers, of this Metropol(?) collection, you know, and accused of, ah subversive activities, you know? And so they, expelled me from the writer's union and denounced me as the agent of international imperialism and etc.
LAMB: And where are, are, how many writers were in your group in, in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: 26 people.
LAMB: 26. Where are they now?
AKSYONOV: Ah, some of them, most of them are there, in the Soviet Union. Some of them emigrated, had to emigrate. Ah, some of them just, just joined the majority of Soviet people, passed away, (?)(?).., three people.
LAMB: And when you go back home, in another few days, will you see these writers?
AKSYONOV: Oh yes, I will, I will.
LAMB: Have you talked to them?
AKSYONOV: Oh certainly. You know that now, this collection, the Metropol(?) collection, is considered the great adventure, sort of courageous attempt to break through, you know? It is now, everything has changed. This, this guy, this KGB guy who blackmailed me and intimidated me, now he is trying to, ah, well, not to, not just to say that "I was doing the wrong things, you know, please forgive me", you know. He is seeking forgiveness from the society, you know.
LAMB: And you'll see him when you go home?
AKSYONOV: Maybe I will, ha, ha, that would be interesting, you know? Certainly if you said only one, one, maybe third, maybe even the less, the lesser part than he knew, but anyway he confessed that "We, we had been doing the nasty things to the creative people, to the, to the artists, to the writers", especially he has mentioned my name many times, "especially to writers like Vassily Aksyonov. He had to leave his homeland under our pressure."
LAMB: Now, are your friends, who are in the Metropol(?), writers group over there, have they been able to publish anything they want to, since perestoika(?) and glastnost(?) came in?
AKSYONOV: Oh, oh yeah. They are now very well respected.
LAMB: But they can write anything they want to?
VASSILY AKSYONOV; Absolutely, absolutely. It is amazing. Now in literature, there were drastic changes, you know? The writers union, which I belonged to and which is, actually is just a bureaucratic institution, the real child of Stalinism, you know? Fear of Stalinism is not over. It still exists, but nobody pay attention, pays attention to, to the writers union and they are creating their own, ah groups. They are publishing whatever they want to publish and you and your magazines sort of sprang up and some call up publishing houses, even call publishing houses.
LAMB: Do you have any, any hope that when you go back you, you might want to stay?
AKSYONOV: No, I am not going to stay for good because it is really hard to, to, I am already linked to this country, you know?
LAMB: Are you, are you a citizen here?
AKSYONOV: I am a citizen, I have my job here. I am teaching at George Mason University, I am a, a distinguished professor, the, well, Robinson professor at George Mason University. I have my students. I like them. I want to teach here. I want to be a part of the American literary process, too. It, it is hard to just to brush away all these ten years, but maybe in the future I will be able to come more frequently than before, you know, to my motherland.
LAMB: What is, what is the first thing you are going to do when you get back to your homeland?
AKSYONOV: Ha, ha ha, it is hard to say, maybe I will, I would ah, look around, and for the places where to joke, ha ha, ha ha.
LAMB: What are some other things you want to do when you go back to Moscow?
AKSYONOV: Excuse me?
LAMB: What are some other things you want to do?
AKSYONOV: Well, first of all, I am invited to Moscow by American Ambassador. I will be a guest of Jack Motlett(?), American Ambassador to Russia, so I will be his personal guest, and I am going to, ah hold a seminar at the residence, ambassador's residence, for some Russian intellectuals and artists. Ah, seminar on this, on the topic ah, ah, "The Russian Writer in the United States", that will be my topic. Then I will see some,... audience of the, my readers, my Soviet Russian regional readers, so to speak, you know. Just once. I have very short period for this visit because I just, I cut it from my schedule, university schedule. Also, I will have to go to my native town, Kazon(?), to see my father, who is still alive and he, he just turned 91, you know. Ah, so that will be my course.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw your father?
AKSYONOV: Ten years ago.
LAMB: When was the last time you talked to him?
AKSYONOV: Well, I talked to him a couple years ago over the phone, ah, but it is now hard to talk with him because his hearing already was bad, so I just, I hope just to see him.
LAMB: Whose idea was it that you go to the Soviet Union, was it your idea or was it the American Ambassador's?
AKSYONOV: Ah, ah, I would say...both. First I was offered by the U.S.I.A., the United States Information Agency, to come with lectures, you know. But then I said that definitely the situation will be rather ticklish, you know. If I would come as a Soviet, Russian writer, I would come as the, as the representative of American official agency, you know. But we know each other with Jack Motlett(?) for long, and we, we have a very good friendly relationship, so he offered me to come as his personal guest, and I gratefully accepted that.
LAMB: The paperback here came out "In Search of Melancholy Baby, a Russian, Russian in America. a Russian in America". It came out in what, 1987?
AKSYONOV: Yes, this paperback came out in 1987, right.
LAMB: And it is also in hardback?
AKSYONOV: In the year before, 86.
LAMB: Right now, if somebody wanted to get it, they would get it in paperback from Vintage Press?
AKSYONOV: Yes, that is the branch of the Random House.
LAMB: What was the reaction to people around this country, to people that read this book, what kind of, what kind of, ah, what did the critics say about it?
AKSYONOV: It, it was received rather well. It was acclaimed by the critics. I, I remember Jonathan Yardley(?) wrote a very, well, well-review on this and some other critics. They, they liked it. They liked it.
LAMB: Let me pick some things out of it that you wrote. "St. Petersburg, Florida is probably the strangest city we have visited in America".
AKSYONOV: That is correct.
LAMB: Why was it strange?
AKSYONOV: Well, you know that was, first of all it was strangely, it looked abandoned, you know. It looked like a terrible backwater, and then all of a sudden we, ah came across the great museum of Salvador Dali paintings on some shabby street, ah, and people there, there were a lot of old people trudging slowly along these empty streets, and I knew that is was established by one Russian merchant, to the end of the last century, a certain Demmentiov(?), Peter, Peter Demmentiov(?), he Americanized his name and he was called Peter Demmons(?), and when we asked the, we knew that there is the monument of Demmons Landing. It was called the Demmons(?) Landing and when we tried to find out where it is located, and asked some local people, we finally realized that they, they thought that we were looking for some demons landing, ha ha, ha ha.
LAMB: Have you traveled a lot around the country?
AKSYONOV: I crossed the country twice, coast to coast by car, driving, you know, so, ah ah, I saw a lot of the country.
LAMB: What is you favorite part of the United States?
AKSYONOV: Ah, it used to be California, ah ah, the bay area, as a matter of fact. Ah, now I, ah I really like Washington, D.C., except for this humidity, but I really like the proportions of this city.
LAMB: What do you think of the way we do, we run our government, not Washington, but the national government?
AKSYONOV: The national government?
AKSYONOV: I don't have any objections against it.
LAMB: Are you very political here?
AKSYONOV: Oh no, not at all, not at all.
LAMB: Do you pick sides?
AKSYONOV: Ah I, I, I know some, I know some people who work for the government, and some certain congressmen and that is quite natural, if you live in Washington, but I am not involved at all. Mostly I am involved in the academic community, the university crowd.
LAMB: What do you think of your students, not, not from a personal standpoint, but, what do you think of the American college student, by the time they get to your classroom, are they very smart?
AKSYONOV: They are, well, they, they have the, ah, a really, really, they,they are coming to me almost blank, you know, without any knowledge of, ah Russian culture. I am teaching them the Russian modern culture, you know, so they don't have any knowledge of that at all, you know. So, I believe my first, first goal is to get them fascinated with the subject, and they are easily fascinated, you know. That is why I love them, you know. They are very quick in getting through material, you know. So, I feel that my job is a rather gratifying job, you know. When they finish my seminar, I know for sure that they now know something about my motherland, about the culture, the Russian culture, about some great heritage, great tradition of the avant garde, of modern writing, writing in Russia and they are enriched themselves.
LAMB: What is it, from what, your knowledge is of your own people, what is, what is the difference between a Soviet citizen or a Russian, are you a Russian?
AKSYONOV: Yes, I am.
LAMB: Ah, and what is the difference, I mean there are 15 different republics, how many of the 290,000,000 Soviet citizens are Russians, do you know?
AKSYONOV: I, I believe that now that is about 100,000,000, ah 100,000,000 who are Russian. So that if you would put together the, all other nationalities, the Russians will be in a minority, you know. They are the biggest nationality, but the numbers of the non Russians are growing. The number of Russians, Russians, well from Ukraine, in Ukraine.
LAMB: Can you compare the Russian with the, the average American, is there any way to compare the kind of people they are?
AKSYONOV: It is hard to say. First of all, I don't know what the average American is, ha ha, ha ha. It is a country of so many ethnic groups, that is I love this country. I don't feel here like a white elephant, you know, so many newcomers, so many people of a, of different, ah backgrounds, different descent.
LAMB: Is there a way to describe the average Russian?
AKSYONOV: Yes there is, there is...it is more homogeneous, ah society, indeed. Because all national groups, they have their territories, they live in their territory and that is the greatest problem for the Soviet, that is the greatest headache for the Soviet leadership. If all ethnic groups in this country would have their own territories, you know, they would finally, would finally fight each other. Fortunately we don't have our territories, ah, in this country. Back there, all of the them have their historical homelands, you know, Georgians and Azerbijani(?), Armenians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and others, and they want to be, ah, and they have all rights to be independent, ah, from big brother, you know, finally. And it is a crime to give them, their, their rights to be independent, you know, I believe. This may be the only, ah, ah choice for the Soviet leadership, to convert this monolith of empire, totalitarian empire, to some flexible commonwealth of nations.
LAMB: Do the Russians, the Russian people basically run the country?
AKSYONOV: Most, yes mostly, the, all the governmental bodies, mostly are, contain Russians. There are some representatives, for instance the Minister of the Foreign Affairs, Sheverdnaze(?), is a Georgian, but most of members of politbureau(?) are Russian.
LAMB: What is it about Mikhail(?) Gorbachev that makes him different than the other leaders, where do you think he got this interest in.?
AKSYONOV: You know that from my point of view, Gorbachev is just a miracle, you know. Ah, before he started his campaign, all of us already almost lost any hopes for the future development ... Everything looked like dead bodies, you know, especially the communist party. Communist party was just a dead body and we, ah didn't believe that they are able to, promote any person, with some aspirations to do something actively.
LAMB: How did it happen?
AKSYONOV: That, that, that is a miracle, from my point of view. That is just a miracle. He belongs to my generation, Gorbachev.
LAMB: How old are you?
AKSYONOV: I am 57, he is 58, so that is the same. We are the students of the 50s, and I knew before, during the first ah, perestroika(?), so to speak, first peristroika(?), during the Kruschev(?) time. I knew a lot of the, the people of my generation who were in the party, who were trying to, to produce some reforms, some ideas at least, ideas of reform. They were relentlessly purged from the party. They just got rid of them without words, you know, and were ah, they were extremely disappointed, all of those young politicians, and they said they decided to skip our generation, because they believed that we are pampered and tolerated by Kruschev's ideas, Kruschev's goal.
LAMB: Let me ask you about the Kruschev generation at the time, in the first perestroika(?). Was there a kind of freedom for writers then that there is now?
AKSYONOV: Oh no, it is now much more, you know. It was just the, ah liberalization has now gone much farther than, than at that time.
LAMB: Does it have farther to go now?
AKSYONOV: Oh, yeah, oh yeah, no doubt about that.
LAMB: How much farther can it go and what would, what would you, what do you hear from your friends that they want beyond what they've got?
AKSYONOV: Ah, ah I believe that they, they could be, if the things would be going on like this, in this pace, you know, they soon could be enjoying the, ah talking freedom in publishing, absence of censorship.
LAMB: Is there any censorship now?
AKSYONOV: There is still censorship. There are, they are censoring, they don't allow to publish some things, ah, especially some, they are imposing some moralistic approach, puritan approach to the, to the literature. So they are very reluctant to (?).... the literature, the modern literature. We (?)........... in some explicit sayings, of a, a sexual relationship.
LAMB: Is writing easy for you?
AKSYONOV: I love it. I love writing.
LAMB: Is it easy?
AKSYONOV: It is easy, yes. I really love it. That is my, my favorite pastime.
LAMB: How much do you write every day?
AKSYONOV: Well, when I am, not disturbed by anyone, I write, well, well, on average six pages.
LAMB: Do you use a, a typewriter with Russian caricatures?
AKSYONOV: Well, first I am still writing by my hand, first, first version of that. Second, second step uses a computer with, a computer which can write English and Russian.
LAMB: So do you, if you type it in Russian, will it come out in English?
AKSYONOV: Oh no, no. I can just switch from English to Russian and back.
LAMB: And then, what do you do, once you put it in the computer?
AKSYONOV: Yeah, on the computer, well I, I make an editing, I am looking for some better, ah, ah synonyms and some (?).....
LAMB: And, and once you have written it, do you write, here, let me show the audience if they have just joined us. We are talking about a number of books here that our guest, Vassily Aksyonov has written, and this is a novel, it is in the book stores, called "Say Cheese". And, and you are saying that this book is primarily about photographers?
LAMB: But they really are writers in your, I mean they're...
AKSYONOV: Yes, this, rather metaphorical photographers, but there are some of my, well thoughts about photography.
LAMB: Are you a photographer too?
AKSYONOV: Well, I am not a professional photographer, but I just try to realize what the modern photography is all about in the modern world, what is this. Actually the metaphysical, what is this. It, it seems to me that photography is most metaphysical, ah, ah art, of any other.
LAMB: Did you ever want to be a photographer?
AKSYONOV: Oh yeah, well I would love to. I would, ha ha, if I would start my life again, I would love to be a photographer and a saxophone player.
LAMB: Do you, do you play an instrument?
AKSYONOV: No no, but I would love to be.
LAMB: Like to be a saxophone player? Do you like American jazz?
AKSYONOV: Well, I used, I used to be a great fan of American jazz. Now it's, ah, I am a little bit less favoring it. Just because I can get it whenever I want it nearby.
LAMB: American jazz used to be very popular in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: It's still very popular, although it is now, well, a little bit elbowed out by the Soviet rock. The young generation obsessed with the Soviet version of rock.
LAMB: What do you, what do you think, that, that your, your former fellow citizens in the Soviet Union would want most of what you have here in the United States? What are the things they don't have that you've got?
AKSYONOV: Ah, so what, what I ah ...
LAMB: I mean if they, if, if you were able to take everything that you've gotten since you have been in the United States, that you have bought or where you live, what do you think that your friends over there would want that you have that they don't have?
AKSYONOV: Well, first of all, they would love to, ah, to get, ah, my, my freedom to travel, for instance. I, I am not traveling much now, but, the, the thought that I can travel anywhere and wherever I want anytime, you know, that, that is, that is a great ah idea for anybody in the Soviet Union, although it is now that a lot of the travel restrictions have been lifted, now people are traveling much easier than before.
LAMB: Can they afford it?
AKSYONOV: They cannot afford it, you know, because the Soviet money is not convertible, you know, so they would love to get some part of my salary, ha ha, to, to convertible currency. That is another, obstacle for traveling, for, for not being a member of the, of the modern, ah family of nations, you know. That is what they want, the Russians, to be, to be again the members of the family of nations.
LAMB: Okay, you said freedom to write whatever they want to write, no censorship, ...
AKSYONOV: Yes, no censorship now, ah, yes ...
LAMB: Freedom to travel, ...
AKSYONOV: Freedom to travel, yeah...
LAMB: What is the third thing you, you think that they would want that you have?
AKSYONOV: Well, ah, it, it is hard to say, but anyway they, they live very scarcely now, it, it, it really, they ...
AKSYONOV: Food, food, clothing, everything is problem for then. Everything, although it is not that important for creative people, you know. They would, if, if they would give me the choice ten years back, what would you choose, the, the material wealth or the freedom of writing, I, I would, I would choose freedom of writing, and, you know.
LAMB: Is there too much emphasis in this country on material wealth?
AKSYONOV: I don't, I don't think that it is too much. This, this is understandable, it, it gives the United States the energy, you know. So, because people understand that they are working and they can spend the money for some real things, you know. Back there, in the Soviet Union, they are working and they don't know what for. They, they can not buy anything for their rubles, you know. They are standing in the lines for the very basis goods. They, ah, don't have enough food, they don't have quality clothing, nothing.
LAMB: What about education? If you lived in the Soviet Union today, would you have the books that you want to read, the, the teachers that you need, the stimulation of thought in the classroom that you have here?
AKSYONOV: Well, I, I would say that education, it is still on the, well, more or less, ah, tolerable level, you know. They, they, they give this, not bad education to the people, you know. There is a lot of the well-educated people in the Soviet Union. There, there is a lot of the very inspired people in the Soviet Union. They really, they, lack of the consumer, consumer goods, but they do have the excess of the creative ideas and the spiritual, ah inspiration, you know. They, it is really the, I, I would say that it is rather exciting time to live in, in the Soviet Union. That's, that's a, a revolution situation. A revolution situation.
LAMB: What is your.., you, you write a lot about your wife, in a, "In Search of Melancholy Baby", what does she think of America at this point, and is she a citizen?
AKSYONOV: She is not. She is still Soviet, Soviet citizen, but she is permanent resident of the United States, do in out family we have, ha ha, ha ha, ...
LAMB: What, is...is, why did she choose not to become a citizen?
AKSYONOV: Because she, she had not been ah, deprived of Soviet citizenship first of all. I was deprived of Soviet citizenship, by Bresznev(?) himself, officially deprived by the decree of the Supreme Soviet, signed by Bresznev(?), so I was considered officially, a felon. That is why I decided to apply for the American citizenship. My wife has never been deprived officially of Soviet citizenship. She maintained the Soviet citizenship for quite a long time, and then, she traveled already a couple of times back there and so that now, it is still, up in the air. She didn't yet decide what, what to do, either to apply for the American citizenship or just maintain the ...
LAMB: When, when was the last time she went home?
AKSYONOV: Last June, last June.
LAMB: And what did she see there, when she traveled?
AKSYONOV: She, ah, she is getting really exhausted, ah, after any trip to the, to the Soviet Union. She says that it is getting worse, and the hardships of Soviet, ah, population are getting worse and worse.
LAMB: So there is more freedom, but more hardships?
AKSYONOV: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. People are tired, really people are, people are tired from constant search for, the ache for any basic, ah.....
LAMB: You're teaching school at George Mason University, right here in the suburbs of Washington?
AKSYONOV: Yeah, yeah.
LAMB: You're writing books?
LAMB: Are you going to write any more, you've just written a novel, are you going to write any more nonfiction?
AKSYONOV: Ah, yes I now, you know I work for, ah, ah, 8 years, I had a, a weekly program on the VOA, in Russian service, you know. Now I decided to, to, make some selection of my scripts for VOA, and create a book of the last, ah decade, you know, of the 80s.
LAMB: During those 8 years you worked for the Voice of America, did you, did you program your remarks to the Soviet citizens?
AKSYONOV: To the Soviet citizens, on American life, on American literature, on American sports, on American, ah, on anything, on any problems, or, or on Soviet problems.
LAMB: Do you have any idea how many people you got to?
AKSYONOV: A lot, a lot.
AKSYONOV: Millions, millions.
LAMB: Do they write you letters?
AKSYONOV: Ah, they now started writing letters. Ah, the other day I had a call from (?) That is the city beyond the Ural(?) mountains in Siberia. He managed to get through and that was my fan from (?), who was listening to my Voice of America program.
LAMB: Do you think the Voice of America was effective at all in helping stimulate the interest in freedom?
AKSYONOV: Extremely. It cannot be overestimated, you know. The broadcasting in Russian from the west, really created the new atmosphere, they created alternative voice to the totalitarian, ah propaganda.
LAMB: How, how did the broadcasts get through when they were jamming them?
AKSYONOV: It still was possible to find some signals. I know that from my own experience, you know. If you would take your, ah, radio and ah, would, well, would find some better position, in the, in the room, it was possible, it was possible.
LAMB: Okay, let me read from your, your book "In Search of Melancholy Baby". "So Americans still cling to a 30 year old cliche, a vision of their country as the richest and most powerful, their science the most advanced, and their movies the most entertaining, their athletes the strongest, and so on... No proof required. In fact, it might all, might be all this and more, but proof is required."
AKSYONOV: It is, it is required.
LAMB: What do you think, I mean, are Americans on target, or are they no longer the richest and most interesting and exciting country in the world?
AKSYONOV: Ah, ah, I'm, I was not going to say that. Maybe the United States is still more, the richest country in the world and the most powerful country indeed, but I, I tried to say that what I noticed, this, amazing lack of interest to, to anything outside the United States, you know. I, I always try not to make generalization, you know. I know that there are everybody in the, in this, in the United States. There are groups of who knows everything outside the United States. They are, well the great expert on anything, you know, certainly. But the general, approach to some things outside, ah, the United States, are rather, well, ah, rather tepid, to, to put it mildly, you know. Say, "Oh, oh that was very interesting indeed", in fact I see that it is not quite interesting for, for them. I am trying not to make the generalization, but, for instance, when I, I see the, ah, the coverage of the sport events, sport is the very mass entertainment, you know, so it's, it's, it's easier to make generalization in the sport, you know, and I notice that the Americans simply are not interested in any sport events outside the United States.
LAMB: You write...
AKSYONOV: Even, even the, the sports where American teams are taking part, and the winning or losing, nothing at all.
LAMB: You wrote in your book that you early on searched in the newspaper for something, anything......
LAMB: ...from a foreign sporting event and ....
AKSYONOV: Nothing, nothing at all. Nothing at all.
LAMB: Why do you think that is?
AKSYONOV: I don't know. I still don't understand that. Well, they, sometimes the, the television people explained that we don't have enough time for covering this, we have very active sport life here. Ah, they do have time to talk a minute and minutes and 5 minutes about some, ah, well, trouble for the quarterback, how he, ah, sprained his ankle, or, or something, where he is going to go next season. They don't have time to, ah, just to say that, that, well this, team from NBA just came back from the European tournament, first time in sport history they played with the best, European basketball team, they won, etc. Nothing like that. No track and field events, no, nothing. Just, it's really strange, really strange.
LAMB: What don't you like about this country, what would you like to see changed?
AKSYONOV: Well, actually I, I like this country, and it seems to be that the United States is certainly the model for the future of humankind maybe. That is the unique ah, country, ah, created relatively recently by many different ethnic, groups, you know, so, ah, ah, what I, I really don't like, that is the certain lack of, ah, what, you know that I remember, ah, once (?) said, during the pen congress in, and I completely share his view, he said.....
LAMB: The pen congress?
AKSYONOV: The pen congress in New York in 1980.
LAMB: The writers?
AKSYONOV: Yeah, yeah. He said "America actually fulfilled any of it's promises to the people, but culture." and I, I'm, I, I, ah, would say that I agree with him in a way.
AKSYONOV: Because this, there is a certain, tendency to create the so called mass culture, mass culture, to, ah, certain tendency to, to create the commodity from the piece of art, you know. Marketable thing out of book, out of play, out of the movie, looking for the average taste, average, ah, consumer, you know, that would get more profit.
LAMB: So, out of profit comes some negative?
AKSYONOV: Yeah, indeed. In the cultural film, film, once, it is not bad to get profit, you know, but that is not the first priority for creating, some, piece of art or literature, you know.
LAMB: How about a book that you have, have written that sold here in the United States and also in the Soviet Union, do they sell a lot more books in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: Oh yes, certainly. If they would publish this one, that would be sold in millions. Here it is ah, just mild, if they would, ah, sell here some 30,000 copies that are printed here.
LAMB: Why would they sell millions in the Soviet Union and only 30,000 copies here?
AKSYONOV: First of all, the, the Soviet, readers are still hungry, you know. There is a certain, still lack of, ah, reading. Then they are now the eagerly looking for the, some answers to their, to their questions, you know. American, American public, reading public, are, are, looks a little bit, ah, well, glutton with the titles.
LAMB: Something like 3,000 books are published every month.
AKSYONOV: That is, that is right, that....
LAMB: How many......
AKSYONOV: That is, that is the problem......
LAMB: How many would you guess are published in the Soviet Union?
AKSYONOV: I, I have no idea, but there are some trash which nobody reads, you know. They know how to choose some, ah, ah, how to tell the gem out of, from the trash, you know. Still it is really hard to tell that, you know. So many bright jackets, and the captivating titles, it's, it's really, and, and there is a lot of good written thrillers, ah, and that, it is good, but it's, it's, too, too much, and it is too much, and the book is becoming, the, the sort of commodity, you know, and the, this aggressive, promotion of the book, you know, it, it creates the not quite healthy atmosphere, and, it, it, it's now discussed, ah, not only by outsiders like myself, you know, by, written, by the American intellectuals too. Many people, many intellectuals are concerned.
LAMB: How about your students, are they readers?
AKSYONOV: They are readers, certainly, they are readers. One group of my students are actually the young writers, you know, so they want to, to, to know, to learn more about Russian literature and they are writing, they are making their first attempts in writing, and they, we discuss some programs like this, and they do agree with me.
LAMB: When you go and visit your, your former country, where you were born, your native land, in the next couple of days, what is the first thing you are going to tell your best friends over there, about this country, and are you going to recommend to them that they follow you back?
AKSYONOV: Ah, ha ha, ha ha, well, you know that I, I am afraid that I won't tell anything, before they would just, overwhelm me with questions, you know, about the United States. There is the great interest in this country and it seems to be that now it is even the hard to say anything critical about the United States in the Soviet Union. People wouldn't believe it.
LAMB: Our guest for the last hour has been Vassily Aksyonov, and we have two books that we have been talking about, this one which is a novel and has been in the book stores since this summer, and this paperback, although it came out in hardback originally, which is a non-fiction, Travelogue Around the United States, In Search of Melancholy Baby and Vassily Aksyonov......
AKSYONOV: Myself, by the way .....
LAMB: Which question?
AKSYONOV: Here, in, in this
LAMB: Okay, let me, we, we will get a picture here. That is a picture of you or an artist's drawing of you, right there?
AKSYONOV: Ha, ha, yeah, ha ha ha.
LAMB: And that is a Studebaker, no longer made in the United States?
LAMB: Thank you very much for joining us.
AKSYONOV: Thank you very much.
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