A Tale of Two Countries


The Island of Crimea, by Vassily Aksyonov, translated by Michael Henry Heim, New York: Random House, 369 pp., $16.95

What if the peninsular Crimea had been an island, successfully defended by the White Army in 1920, and subsequently developed as a Russian-style Western democracy practically within spitting distance of the totalitarian mainland of the Soviet Union? This geographical and political fantasy is the starting point of a satirical and, at times, surrealistic novel of political ideas by Vassily Aksyonov.

Such an intriguing plot premise, explored by a man whose previous writing led to his forced emigration from the Soviet Union in 1980, might lead one to anticipate a dramatization of the vividly contrasting elements of freedom versus slavery along the lines, say, of West and East Berlin. Not so. At first blush, The Island of Crimea appears to be politically and morally ambiguous: more opposed to capitalism than it is to communism in its patronizing contempt for the commercialism of the former, as opposed to its frustration over the dogmatic inefficiency of the latter.

The novel's middle-aged, high-living bachelor hero (or anti-hero—here, too, the author is ambiguous) is Andrei Luchnikov—"Looch" to his pleasure-loving friends on both sides of the Iron Curtain. As publisher-editor of the Crimea's most popular and influential, albeit leftist, newspaper, The Courier, Andrei is both opinion-maker and subtle interpreter of the public pulse on his democratic island. Both roles serve him well in his quest-turned-obsession to bring about what he calls the Idea of the Common Fate: voluntary reunification of the Crimea with the Soviet Union. What's his motive? As Andrei ruminates in undisciplined stream-of-consciousness fashion—while tooling around town in his exotic Peter Turbo (a leftover from his semi-professional racing days); while flitting off to Paris for business and light entertainment; while shaking off his friendly KGB guides as he roams the Russian countryside in a nostalgic search for his roots—one is served up not so much motivation as fuzzy thinking. To wit, Andrei muses: "Yet one way or another, Russia—decayed, demoralized Russia—continued to give the world its headlines." A like-minded friend speaks of "love, love for the glorious, the pitiful, the powerful, the vulnerable, the one-and-only motherland and what a—you'll excuse the expression—mother she is, our Mother Russia." "Love, past, and future," reflects Andrei, "all blended together into a vague feeling of expectation and hope. The Island and the continent. Russia. The center of life, the place where all roads converged."

A Crimean official, while sharing Andrei's view of a population "demoralized by the turbulence of democracy," nonetheless accuses him of feeding the guilt most Crimeans feel at not having shared Russia's sufferings and "achievements." He deplores Andrei's "preaching capitulation to the Reds" and shudders "to think of the regional committees, the district committees, the propaganda machine." To which an oh-so-bored Andrei replies, "I fail to see your point"—a line that perhaps best sums up the fundamental implausibility of the hero's point of view. For despite his awareness of Soviet repression, censorship, closed borders, and all the rest (none of which are given any reality in the novel); despite his knowledge that a Sovietization of the Crimea can only mean, not just elimination of the opulence he so obviously and hypocritically deplores, but also destruction of that constitutional democracy's hard-won freedoms (which, likewise, go undramatized in the novel); and despite the fact that he will almost certainly be sacrificing to the cause all the people he loves (White Army hero father, independent-minded son, a couple of mistresses, privileged-class friends and fellow causemakers, and, most of all, himself), he forges ahead with not much more to guide him than a vague sense of historical mission. When he succeeds, when the Crimea's Duma formally petitions for admission into the Soviet Union, followed by an unnecessary but inevitable Soviet invasion, complete with troops, tanks, arrests, and executions, he succumbs not to horror or remorse but to mildly bewildered passivity and the ministrations of a priest.

Is Island of Crimea, then, a le Carré-style drama in which, like the CIA and the KGB, capitalist and communist worlds are depicted as but two halves of the same rotten apple? Only at first blush. By the end, one realizes that what dominates the novel thematically is a pseudoromantic notion of Russian nationalism and its handmaiden, mysticism. The author seems to be saying that ideology of whatever kind be damned, it's blood that counts! "If we're going to have any influence on Russia's bloodstream, we've got to inject ourselves into it," Andrei argues.

But not at the cost of spilled blood—for it is on this point that the unrealistic Andrei and his creator part company. What clearly emerges from the novel's events is the view that, yes, capitalism is decadent. "Let's get out of this hellhole of a fun house!" this "pseudoworld" of elegant bistros and overstocked stores, Andrei urges his Russian mistress—he, offended by his "immorally rich country"; she, preferring "a world where you can't get anything you need and everybody's afraid of everything" over a "sickening" place where "they've got everything they could possibly want and then some, but it's never enough, so they prostitute themselves for new delights." And yes, communism is impossible to live with, or under. Sham elections, "rigid" Soviet leadership, the "breakdown of human economy," and "mass terror" and slave labor—which are stressed, not as per se horrors, but merely as the high points of Stalin's "mind-boggling incompetence." But still, a gradual return to socialism under communist rule would be better for the soul—that ineffable Russian soul—than life under capitalism, if only those foolish and short-sighted Soviet officials would listen to reason, let in the creative people, be open to reform. The message is clear, however: since we are dealing with "liars and dunces" (not monsters?), no such arrangement is practical in the foreseeable future.

The content of message and theme aside, how effectively are they conveyed? Critics have praised the novel's literary quality, comparing the author to Dostoyevsky. Dostoyevsky, who mastered the art of integrating complex themes into suspenseful, logically structured plots, whose in-depth psychological portraits made the motivation of his characters crystal clear—that Dostoyevsky? Island of Crimea, like a car behaving unpredictably on unfamiliar roads, runs on rambling, loosely strung-together episodes: some dull, some weighted by heavy-handed symbolism, some evoking fascinating glimpses into Soviet life unfamiliar to the Westerner. And if the protagonist's motivation is muddied, the lesser characters suffer a worse fate: they are props, erected to deliver a telling speech or sacrificed to make a political point or sacrificed literally—killed off—to satisfy, not the demands of plot or character, but symbolism that is all too often murky.

Some characters begin to endear themselves: Andrei's bewilderingly fatalistic father, a man of potentially heroic proportions that are never filled in; a dedicated communist official who, instead of presiding over the demise of the island he secretly loves, bemoans its fate and seals his own, thus giving the novel a fine ironic twist. But don't look for a hero with whom to identify. Andrei is too crudely brash, too macho (he drives a mean racing car and prefers "whores to their respectable sisters"), too woollyheaded to be trusted with a laundry list, let alone an opinion-molding newspaper. As for heroines, his mistress Tanya, popular Soviet sportscaster and one-time undefeated hurdler, has surface qualifications: beauty, fame, sex appeal. Being sporadically promiscuous, irresponsible, petulant, and annoyingly out of focus, however, she does not wear well. Nor does her American replacement, a hippie-turned-intellectual with a born-again flavor of fanatical "idealism."

Too often, both dialogue and introspection are awkward or ring false. Says Tanya: "What's the matter, you bitch? Are your eyes stuck out on their stalks?" Reflects Andrei: "I've freaked out on politics, that's my trouble; I've let this damn reunification thing go to my head…I've turned into a real rat fink." The book is strongest on descriptive passages, scenes that are startlingly vivid in their imagery (including an arresting chapter on a climactic racing competition), with one surpassing the rest—the touching surrender of the aging White Guards, survivors of a legacy: "several hundred old men…in military formation and dress: decrepit overcoats falling apart…weapons of sorts.…The television cameras…zoomed in on individual faces…on cobwebs of sclerotic veins, on watery or glassy eyes…hunched backs, vast paunches, extremities racked with arthritis, on the wheelchairs some…had reported in."

Island of Crimea, with all its flaws, is a novel that demands to be taken seriously—both by its author and by the ideas it dramatizes. One hopes the true nature of those ideas will not be lost in the glow of the critical acclaim it has been receiving elsewhere.

Erika Holzer is a lawyer-turned-novelist whose human rights espionage novel Double Crossing was published in 1983 by G.P. Putnam's Sons.