Vasilij Aksenov’s The Burn: An Integral Approach

Tom Dolack, University of Oregon

My paper explores how three of the novel’s main themes – religion, Stalinism, and art – interweave to express Aksenov’s interpretation of and relation to Soviet history during the “Thaw.” The Burn (Ozhog), published in 1980, is certainly an example of what James would call a “loose, baggy monster.” The various threads of this sprawling novel can be difficult to follow in the mass of characters, plots, leitmotifs and sheer linguistic chaos. Because of this, scholarship on the book tends to focus, not unproductively, on specific aspects – the influence of Evgenija Ginzburg (Aksenov’s mother) or religious motifs, for instance. But much, in this case, is lost under the jeweler’s loop; the novel is more than the sum of its parts. It is only through an examination of all the threads of the story that the impact of the work can be appreciated. 

My analysis begins with the crossroads of these three main themes: the jazz concert called “The Revolt of the Giants against the Gods” given by the musician Samsik Sabler. Cronus represents repressive regimes, and thus the concert is a metaphoric revolt. The concert is viewed as a threat and is shut down right before show time by a družina. We are meant to connect this event with the curtailing of the “Thaw” and the quashing of the Prague Spring (the concert takes place at the Institute of Refrigeration Research). The audience’s reaction is silence, much like the country’s reaction to Soviet tanks in Prague in 1968. The destructiveness of this silence is manifested in the rampage of a vivified stone dinosaur called “Humility.”

On the one hand, the title alludes to the Pergamum Frieze, a bas-relief depicting the mythological revolt of the Giants. On the other, it recalls a scene 35 years earlier where much younger Sabler has a chifir-induced hallucination involving the Giants. This takes place in a small enclave in Magadan where a group of local residents and released prisoners are planning on staging a revolt of their own. One of these is Sanja Gurčenko, who will tell Sabler of his “Third Model” which speaks of the transcendent properties of art. Art attempts to do what only Christ truly can – that is achieve immortality and with the “fight against Cronus.” Since the connection between Cronus and Power has been established, both art and religion become a form of dissidence and the disparate threads come together, suggesting both a religious and political goal for art under a totalitarian state.

It is my contention that these three themes constitute the core of the novel, and represents the most artistically complete expression of Aksenov’s stance on art and Soviet history. The novel represents not simply a great artistic achievement, but is an important commentary on the events of the “Thaw” by one of its major figures, a commentary that has to a great extent been ignored.