Soviet 'traitor' wins Russian Booker

Dissident Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov has made a triumphant return to the literary scene in his homeland after 20 years in exile, winning the 2004 Russian Booker Prize.

    Aksyonov said the Soviet past stops him from living in Russia

    But despite acclaim for his latest work, The Voltairians: Ladies and Gentlemen, the 72-year-old said he had no intention of making peace with the authorities in Moscow - no matter how much they have changed from the dark days of Stalinist rule during the Soviet era.
    "I shouted 'Freedom for Khodorkovsky!' when I received the prize in early December," he said, referring to jailed businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky - an oil tycoon who many believe has fallen victim to a political vendetta by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
    And Aksyonov said he still claimed the title of dissident despite the fall of communism in Russia.

    "The consequences of 65 years of a totalitarian rule are too powerful - Russians can understand neither their present nor their past," he said.
    Russia was "an empire in disintegration", he said, and Putin's "nervous attempts to create a hierarchy of power come from the fear of the state's disintegration", he said.

    Literary career
    Aksyonov burst onto the literary scene in 1960 when he published his first novel, Colleagues, at the age of 28.
    But he shunned the limelight and acceptance that could have been his if he had towed the communist party line. Instead, he chose "a bohemian life in the Moscow underground". 

    "The consequences of 65 years of a totalitarian rule are too powerful - Russians can understand neither their present nor their past"

    Vasily Aksyonov,
    dissident Russian writer

    Eventually he was forced into exile, initially to the US, when the KGB secret police found a manuscript of his anti-Soviet novel, The Burn, in 1980.
    Aksyonov was stripped of his Soviet citizenship for a decade and his books - which now top the bestseller lists in Moscow - were not formally approved for publication there until the late 1980s as Soviet power crumbled.
    During his years of exile, Aksyonov taught Russian literature at various universities and continued to write uncompromising novels about life in the Soviet Union.

    He eventually settled in France.


    His best known book abroad is the The Moscow Saga, published in the US as Generation of Winter.
    Much of his hatred for the evils of totalitarianism stems from his childhood. When he was only four years old his mother, writer Evgeniya Ginsburg, was deported to one of many labour camps in the extreme eastern region of Kolyma.
    In 1948, at the age of 16, he went to Magadan, the capital of Gulag labour camps in the region, to find her.
    Ginsburg described the meeting in her book, Sky of Kolyma, recalling the "thin adolescent dressed in a tattered coat" who appeared at the camp later that year.
    He still recalls the "monstrous life amid the barbed wire and watchtowers; the convoys of detainees on the street who no one cared about any anymore, like it was normal".
    The future writer's imagination was struck by "the fantastic vision of prisoners - men in elegant caps, women in boa and high heels, who went under convoy to rehearsals" in a theatre set up by the prison chief's wife.
    "It is strange to think that this may make it appear that, despite the horror, we lived an interesting life. For me the discovery of Kolyma was more powerful than the discovery of America." 



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