Made in the USSR: The Western Woman in Aksenov’s The Burn

Ann Komaromi, University of Toronto

Aksenov’s novel The Burn (Ozhog, written 1969-1974) is a synthetic work poised somewhere between prose and poetry, literature and music, the romanticism of the 1960s and the cynicism of the 1970s. The work also straddles the gap between East and West. In particular, the Soviet hero’s desire for the Western woman embodies central tensions of the novel. Aksenov’s heroine Alisa, who might be described as a mixed Western-Russian incarnation of the sought-after Jungian “anima,” represents a feminized ideal in The Burn. The spiritual and feminine nature of the ideal in Aksenov’s work generally has been widely recognized: Aksenov’s ideal has been described in terms of a latter-day Chekhovian Seagull and in light of Berdiaev’s philosophy (Johnson, Efimova). However, this ideal is more or less shockingly “embodied” in The Burn by sexually active women: Alisa Fokusova, Marina Vlady, Arina Beliakova, Masha Kulago, etc. Complaints about this difficult novel have been directed at the taboo-breaking “physiological” character of sex and rape depicted in the text (Rassadin). Such deliberately unsettling scenes dramatize the violent conflict of the hero contemplating his desire to protect and possess the Western woman in imitation of or competition with the paternal Soviet State.

In this paper I will focus on the problematic of Aksenov’s feminine ideal from another perspective. The ideal Western femme in Aksenov’s novel appears on closer inspection to be a construction composed of elements including Westernized Russian speech, filmic images, popular culture, and consumer goods fetishized in the Soviet consciousness. I will comment on the provenance of specific realia based on Soviet press, memoirs and interviews with Aksenov. I will explain further why, on this basis, the feminine ideal becomes for Aksenov’s hero both frustratingly elusive and degradingly compromised. As a projection of the Soviet hero’s own consciousness, the Western woman reflects his inability to escape his Soviet identity. In this way Aksenov shows the Soviet author’s struggle to come to terms with the Western Other to reflect, instead of an external conflict with the State or the desired object, an internal battle for a viable artistic and human identity.

Selected Bibliography:

Efimova, N.A. Intertekst v religioznykh i demonicheskikh motivakh V.P. Aksenova. Moscow: Izdatel'stvo MGU, 1993.

Johnson, D. Barton “Vasilij Aksionov’s Aviary The Heron and The Steel Bird,” Scando-Slavica (1987) 33: 45-61.

Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 17, ed. Sir Herbert Read et al., trans. R.F.C. Hull, Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1954.

Rassadin, St. “Budem chitat’ Plutarkha?” Oktiabr' (1991) 1: 196-208.