Is there a finer prize for any writer of fiction than the ability to predict the future? Jules Verne might have got the delivery mechanism all wrong in From the Earth to the Moon, which came out in 1865, but he was remarkably prescient about the launch site of man’s first voyage to the lunar surface: Florida. Rudyard Kipling imagined airmail in a short story in 1905, well before FedEx was overnighting subpoenas and divorce agreements cross-country. Often and wondrously has it been said of George Orwell that he had got the style and tone of totalitarianism so right that it was if as that awful Kim family in Pyongyang had read 1984 as some kind of instruction manual. At their luckiest, some writers skewer the present while accidentally anticipating events to come. “Vee in Poland,” Kingsley Amis once recounted to an interviewer about the reaction one anti-Communist had to his masterpiece, “admire greatly zee Lucky Jim because for us it represents zee struggle of our young men against Stalin.” The emphasis here was all the King’s, but thus do academic satires about stultifying postwar England unwittingly become samizdat manifestos for political rumblings in Eastern Europe.
If he weren’t dead, I think it’s safe to say, Vasily Aksyonov would be laughing his ass off. It’s not just that the great Russian novelist anticipated and preemptively mocked in in book form the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by one month, a symmetry of which he was so fearful that he very nearly chose not to submit his manuscript for publication. It’s that he also predicted the Russian Anschluss of Crimea by a good 35 years and turned out to be uncannily accurate down to the finest details. And his instinct proved correct: the book was too controversial to be published in the Soviet Union.
The Island of Crimea, Akysonov’s 1979 counterfactual novel, inhabits a world in which the “flimsy isthmus” that connects the Black Sea peninsula to mainland Ukraine does not exist and Crimea is therefore an island unmoored from totalitarian Europe in geography and mind. Or at least it starts out that way. A redoubt of Whites during the Russian Civil War which manages to withstands the Red Army’s invasion, owing to a funny accident (or fortuity) of history, Crimea proceeds to develop along a divergent historical path from the the Soviet Union. Akysonov’s tantalizing “what-if” proposition gives way to a portrait of sublimely rendered instead-ofs.
Instead of “democratic centralism,” Crimea gets the type of representative democracy that might have emerged in Russia herself in 1917 had the Bolsheviks not seized power, or had Petrograd’s Constituent Assembly in 1918 been real legislative body—not dissolved in a matter of hours afters it first meeting. Instead of autarkic scarcity and bad jokes about toilet paper queues, the Island gets a booming market economy which transforms it into an international filmmaking designation and tropical playground for tourists interested in sampling Russian materialism absent the historical qualifier: Hong Kong by way of General Denikin. Instead of the gulag and Lefortovo, it gets a free press, a snaking network of Autobahn-crazy freeways which annually become racetracks for the national elite, glass-and-steel skyscrapers, and a commercial district designed as a trompe l’oeil which creates “a pseudoworld” of natural scenery interspliced with “elegant bistros, boutiques, even whole department stores”—or what the shopping quarter at the bottom of the Venetian hotel in Vegas is to Venice. Instead of Lenin and Stalin, Crimea has conservative and liberal descendants of czardom known collectively as “provacuees,” short for “provisional evacuees.” (Aksyonov has great fun inventing a culturally pureed lexicon for his might-have-been cosmopolitan Russians.) The provacuees represent a class of wise old Spartans, or founding fathers, who are either revered or loathed by latter-day Islanders for separating a territory the size of Wales from the Third Rome. And instead of apparatchiks, Crimea has fellow travelers and useful idiots, foremost of which is novel’s protagonist, Andrei Arsenievich Luchnikov, though his friends call him Looch.
Looch is the editor-publisher of an internationally respected lefty newspaper called the Russian Courier. Its unmissable landmark headquarters in “downtown Simfi” also doubles as his enormous all-windows bachelor pad in the sky from which he surveys the nation he’s about to wreck. Andrei Arsenievich is the antithesis of Homo Sovieticus: a “forty-six-year-old playboy, a Marlboro man, a lover of fast cars, all-night binges, and beautiful women … And a miserable loner soon to be mowed down by a single round of machine-gun fire,” as he says of himself, not exactly foreshadowing so much as fretting. He’s just been informed by his father that someone is planning to kill him. This is because the Courier takes being soft on the Red menace next door a step further: its Charles Foster Kane is the formulator of a controversial Island philosophy that would hand Crimea back to the Motherland.
The Idea of the Common Fate envisages reunification with Russia in the naive assumption that this will somehow liberalize the Soviet Union rather than annihilate all that is open, good and free in Crimea. As Fred Baxter, a boorish American financier who tours the Island for its fleshpots, puts it, relying on what he’s heard at meetings of the Trilateral Commission: “And when it comes, it will come without the least strategic finesse. It will consist of a simple, unconscious, physiological act: the big swallowing the small.” The acronym of the embodying League of the Common Fate is SOS.
But Looch is up against competitive political movements bubbling up on the Island, including a youth-driven one known as Yaki nationalism, which is espoused by his rebellious son Anton. Yaki, another clever Crimean portmanteau, combines the Russian initials for the Island—Ostrov Krym, or OK—with the Turkish word yahsi, meaning “good.” And the nationalism is the elevation of Crimea’s macedoine of peoples—Tatars, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Russians, Bulgarians, and Brits all coexisting comfortably—to a level of third-way self-determination. “Our goal is to make our own history, our own future,” poor Anton explains. “What do we care for Marxism or monarchism, the resurrection of Holy Russia or the Idea of the Common Fate?”
It’s not exactly an open question as to which ism ultimately triumphs, or what entails not long after it does. A minor character, a provacuee ex-general living in a state of double exile in Paris, tells us all we need to know, and enough to make Looch know better, fairly early on: “Here is what Stalin told me, word for word. ‘The Soviet people despise your White Guard enclave in the Black Sea, but for the time being they do not object to its existence. You must wait fifty years or so.’” It’s been fifty years or so.
When the Bolsheviks do come again, it’s at the invitation of the Crimeans, who vote to become the 16th republic of the USSR after Looch and his SOS comrades sell them on the bad Idea. Putin would have us believe that the real Crimeans did much the same in March’s “referendum,” the official near-unanimous result of which—97 percent for reunification—was belatedly acknowledged by the Kremlin to have been an invention. Akysonov’s Anschluss is tricked out as a “series of war games” celebrating the fraternity of two peoples who must now become one with the in-gathering of Russian lands. Sound familiar? Even when plausible deniability crumbles, the brainwashed paste it back together again. The hacks of RT have their Aksyonov counterparts in a local Crimean newscaster on the Island’s tabloid TVMig station who, as his live coverage of Soviet tanks and soldiers encircling Simferopol is being violently interrupted, still thinks everything is just a military exercise gone too far: “A full-scale imitation attack on the mass media. As you can see on your screens, this young soldier is trying to strangle me with the barrel of his carbine. I must say he’s taking the game a bit too seriously…”
A so-called Important Personage in the Presidium of the Central Committee forecasts the resistance a possible Soviet invasion of Crimea would face from the collective forces of democracy: “The West, by the way, does not particularly care about Crimea. NATO pays it little attention in its strategic plans, and the various intelligence agencies keep track of it only because it is historically a potential hot spot… If a referendum were to take place tomorrow, no less than seventy percent of the population would vote for merging with the USSR.” With the swapping of one word, this could be the actual minutes from Putin’s war cabinet meeting two months ago.
Another Central Committee member addresses the prospect of a domestic insurgency: “I can state without a shadow of a doubt that never, never will a Crimean soldier open fire on a Soviet soldier… A number of influential Crimean officers regard their armed forces as part of the Soviet army. In principle our Ministry of Defense could be sending them its daily memos.” In the event, the Island’s intelligence service, OSVAG, is a nest of KGB spies and pro-Moscow simps. Ukraine’s SBU is much the same, at least according to its past and present leadership. When Putin seized Crimea, the head of Ukraine’s Navy there defected in what was probably a pre-orchestrated maskirovka.
Other details are creepy in their verisimilitude. Akysonov has a gang of fascistic ultras known as the Lupine Hordes, which are intent on invading Moscow and restoring Holy Russia. A prominent member of the Hordes is a would-be assassin, the leather-wearing homosexual, Yury Ignatyev-Ignatyev. Now the Hordes work for the Kremlin: Putin underwrites a fascistic biker gang known as the Night Wolves, which he seconded as a paramilitary force to occupy Simferopol last March. They are led by the leather-wearing, homosexual-hating Alexander Zaldostanov, also known as “the Surgeon”, who praised Putin for “restor[ing] Russia’s greatness.” Another leading member of this Slavic Hell’s Angels has said: “We only have a few years to rescue the soul of holy Russia.”
Meanwhile, the only Akysonov being quoted or cited in today’s Russia’s state-controlled media is Sergey, not Vasily. The former is a mobbed-up cigarette smuggler, nicknamed “the Goblin,” who is now the self-declared “prime minister” of what the Russian Federation considers its newest oblast. It was the Goblin who first wrote to Putin inviting him to annex Crimea, possibly after having read his namesake’s dystopian novel, but more likely because the cosmos has a wicked sense of humor.
It’d be enough to read The Island of Crimea as a postcard from the future from some sci-fi absurdistan, but the novel was much more than than when it first appeared at a paradoxical moment in 20th-century geopolitics, just before the Red Army rolled into Kabul and Gorbachev rolled out glasnost. There was an Idea of the Common Fate at the time; it was called anti-anti-Communism, and it rejected Cold War categories and had become so intellectually and morally disingenuous that Susan Sontag would let slip her heretical remark that the average subscriber of Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970 knew more about the barbarities of the Eastern bloc than the average reader of The Nation or The New Statesman did. Like Looch, the New Left intelligentsia immersed itself in Soviet life and often mistook a heady underground culture, which argued about jazz and abstract art and how blue jeans and long hair would change the world, for what the regime itself was thinking—a romanticism that has lately given way to nostalgia among unreconstructed Marxists and revisionist historians. Anyone old enough to remember the term Eurocommunism will understand that it was once possible for fellow travelers to admire dissidents but not what they fought for. Tom Stoppard’s play Rock ‘n’ Roll, which is about the head-on collision between the Prague Spring and an Oxford Red don with a personal stake in it, nicely captures this contradiction.
So it was no surprise that many critics assumed Aksyonov was being just as scathing about, say, Western consumerism as he was about Communism. Here, after all, was dissident nobility: the son of Yevgenia Ginzburg, one of the few women to survive Stalin’s labor camps and write a classic memoir, Into the Whirlwind, not to mention the dedicatee of Island. It was unthinkable that a Soviet writer “discovered” in 1956, the year of Khrushchev’s secret speech exposing the high crimes of Stalinism, wouldn’t dabble in the intellectual’s pastime of moral equivalence.
And yet, Aksyonov was openly pro-American in his politics; it’s the reason why he left the Soviet Union in 1980and why the Supreme Soviet stripped him of his citizenship shortly thereafter. (It was only restored during perestroika).He taught at George Mason University and lived in Washington and Virginia for most of the remainder of his life before dying in 2009. The critics miss an important trick in 1979: Aksyonov gave Americans in his book, even the least attractive ones, the keenest understanding of what awaited Crimea if Looch’s Idea reached escape velocity. Reader’s Digest beat The Nation.
Indeed, if Island indicts the free world, then its quarry is undoubtedly those who resent living in it, or who believe life isn’t much worse on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The book is a giant spoof on the “gullibility of the Western left when it comes to Russia,” as GQ Russia editor Michael Idov wrote in a fine essay for the New Yorker published just as Putin was putting the finishing touches on his own work of art in the Black Sea. Looch is the type of foreign observer of Russia quite easy to recognize because a version of him is still with us today. He can, for instance, happily denounce in the pages of his Courier “society’s greatest nonentity” Stalin on the occasion of the dictator’s 100th birthday at a time when it takes no great courage to do so, and when Soviet officialdom are seeing more and more to like in those same pages. But the anti-Stalinism competes with half-baked fantasies about a better tomorrow. The “concrete blocks of Communism are beginning to soften,” Looch claims, and “[p]eople in high places have begun to think for themselves. Surely we are moving in the right direction.” This arrives a little under a hundred pages before Russian paratroopers land on Looch’s native soil and are greeted with signs reading “CRIMEA + KREMLIN = TRUE LOVE.” Aksyonov’s protagonist is Stephen Cohen with what I’m guessing is a more turbulent sex life.
He’s also the butt of the joke. Island is at its most satirically trenchant when depicting squishy theoreticians and their prejudices, ever immune to the reality of the oncoming Panzer. Aksyonov gives the Russian underground the best expression of his critique. “Take our band,” Dim Shebeko, a popular jazz musician in Moscow, tells Looch while also describing him. “The music we play is anti-Soviet, and the foreigners flock to hear it, so in a sense, we’re, like, pulling the wool over their eyes, making them think how groovy and free everything is here. Or, like, in Kovrov, the place we’re going to, we get these motorcycle guys all hepped up, they start shouting their mouths off about something, and the next thing you know they’re in deep trouble. Yes, there’s no two ways about it: every man, woman, and child in Russia today is a direct or indirect informer!” Vaclav Havel made the same observation a decade earlier in Czechoslovakia.
As for a more humane socialism emerging, Aksyonov kebabs that ewe-lamb too. In Moscow, the cynics are the ones opposing the regime while the idealists are the ones still working for it: another bad portent. At a Finnish bath “run by fat-assed sluts” in a state-owned dacha, the Soviet elite boozily and gluttonously gather to offer their versions of Russia’s future, many of which look an awful lot like the Putinist present. Examining at a slight remove the nomenklatura emerging from this hothouse pool, Looch is reminded of not of the Roman senate but of the Chicago mafia, a “Hollywood B-movie, the nouveau riche combination of ferocity and flab, the sense of power usurped,” which I almost mistook for a Wikileaked State Department cable circa 2008.
One of the attendees of this saturnalia is the Slavophile KGB agent named Oleg Stepanov who makes a point of tracing everyone’s Russian surname back to the Holy Rus and qualifies his chauvinism as not of the “primitive” variety. He offers a defense of ethnic Russian identity (“All we want is to set a limit on Jewish influence in this country”) and theorizes as to how the famous triad of Nicholas I—Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality—can be restored with Communism in place of Orthodoxy. He probably harpoons whales or guides cranes in his spare time, too, but it really doesn’t get more embarrassed than this: “In his first flush of inspiration Stepanov himself had not noticed his penis rising, and now with a gasp he tried to cover it with his hands. But the erection was so powerful that the little red head on the end kept peeping out triumphantly through his fingers.” He literally has a hard-on for Russian empire.
Looch may represent Island’s foil, but its soul belongs to a different, better Russian man of letters: Vladimir Nabokov, for whom the coolest jazz cafe in Crimea is named. Or better say, it’s named for Nabokov’s father, Vladimir Dmitrievich, who, after the Revolution (and a few years before he was assassinated in Berlin by a Lupine Horde type) took part in a short-lived White government based in Crimea, serving as the Minister of Justice in the Regional Government in Simferopol.
The Nabokov family had fled their native St. Petersburg in 1917 for a village near Yalta where Pushkin’s documented exile and Chekhov’s “Lady with the Lap Dog” were never far from the young Vladimir’s imagination. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov remembers the sixteen months he spent on the peninsula like this:
“A brash, hectic gaiety associated with the White-held towns brought back, in a vulgarized version, the amenities of peaceful years. Cafés did a wonderful business. All kinds of theatres thrived. One morning, on a mountain trail, I suddenly met a strange cavalier, clad in a Circassian costume, with a tense, perspiring face painted a fantastic yellow. He kept furiously tugging at his horse, which, without heeding him, proceeded down the steep path at a curiously purposeful walk, like that of an offended person leaving a party. I had seen runaway horses, but I had never seen a walkaway one before, and my astonishment was given a still more pleasurable edge when I recognized the unfortunate rider as Mozzhuhin, whom Tamara and I had so often admired on the screen. The film Haji Murad (after Tolstoy’s tale of that gallant, rough-riding mountain chief) was being rehearsed on the mountain pastures of the range. ‘Stop that brute [Derzhite proklyatoe zhivotnoe],’ he said through his teeth as he saw me, but at the same moment, with a mighty sound of crunching and crashing stones, two authentic Tatars came running down to the rescue, and I trudged on, with my butterfly net, toward the upper crags where the Euxine race of the Hippolyte Grayling was expecting me.”
This is more or less the DNA of Aksyonov’s invented country extracted from an amberized fossil. Luchnikov’s father, Arseniy Nikolaevich, is the elder-statesman of the provacuees, a suggested presidential candidate for the Island and, like Nabokov père, a Cadet, a member of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Russia, which never stood a chance. Arseniy is the novel’s true hero: patriotic, liberal, and unbowed when the conquering tyrants turn up after their 50-year furlough, even if it is to RSVP to his idiot son’s invitation. He and other White veterans dress in their martial regalia and formally “capitulate” to the overpowering Red Army in a ceremony that strikes the one poignant chord in an otherwise tragicomic set piece. Aksyonov’s has created a Russia that might have been had the Nabokovs been victorious instead of vanquished. Island is a pean to this greatest what-if of all.
In fact, I’d hazard that the foregoing reminiscence about Nabokov’s wandering onto the set of the Haji Murad was running through the author’s mind when he dreamt up the leitmotif of Yalta’s bustling film industry. There are two separate episodes of Aksyonov’s characters mistaking a Crimean movie shoot for real life, or vice versa; the cruelest one comes, appropriately, when the Russian attack does.
Jack Holloway, a Robert Evans-style Hollywood mogul, also known as “Octopus” had wanted to adapt Looch’s book, Are We Really Russian?, which first outlined the Idea of the Common Fate, into a “good old-fashioned sweeping epic about the reunification of Crimea and Russia. Tragic, lyric, ironic, dramatic, realistic, surrealistic—a sure winner. The totalitarian colossus devours the carefree bunny rabbit at the latter’s request.” Octopus is one of those sleazy and boorish Americans whose instincts prove correct. Later, an addled and manic Looch witnesses the devouring of the carefree bunny rabbit and rues what a mess he’s made. So he goes into denial and convinces himself that the Soviet helicopters and tanks moving in are merely Holloway’s production value: “It’s brilliant, brilliant!” he shouts. “Everything about it. Those ships, those planes—it must have cost a fortune!.. Maybe it’s a new school—cinema-happening.”
This is postmodern warfare avant la lettre and better even than Vladislav Surkov—Putin’s court jester ideologist whose paw-prints were all over the seizure of Crimea—could ever have contrived.
If the ending of the Island’s independence is blockbuster, then it makes sense that its beginning is anticlimactic, the product of the kind of historical whoopsy-daisy which Marxism-Leninism abhorred.
Free Crimea, we ultimately discover, is the work of a drunken Brit on a lark. It was only ever able to withstand the first Bolshevik onslaught because Lt. Richard Bailey-Land, a 22-year-old turret captain in the Royal Navy ordered his gunners to shoot at the ice of the 40-mile Chongar Straits, across which the Red Army was advancing to hand the Whites their imminent defeat. The ice breaks, the Reds drown, the Whites rally to take the Island. What’s worse, the “mangy little snot-nose changing the course of history, the mighty, symphonic course of history” wasn’t even a Russian and wasn’t even trying to change anything. “‘I simply wondered what would happen,’” Bailey-Land told reporters at the time. “‘Believe me, gentlemen, I had no intention whatsoever to defend Crimea or the Russian Empire or anyone’s constitution or democracy or what have you. I was simply curious about the ice, the attack, the guns, the mutiny—I thought it would be jolly good show to mix them all together.” The foreigner’s caprice enters posterity as David-and-Goliath providence, except of course in the Soviet Union, where the history of the Ice Campaign is still suppressed.
“A toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection,” Nabokov wrote in The Eye, his fourth novel about Russian emigre life, and the confusion of Russian émigré identity. “Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance, and all in vain were the efforts of that crabbed bourgeois in Victorian checkered trousers, author of Das Kapital, the fruit of insomnia and migraine.”
The individual’s outsize role in history is what transforms Marlen Mikhailovich Kuzenkov, Luchnikov’s helpmeet in the Soviet Central Committee and the Committee’s point-man on all things Crimean into a stalwart opponent of reunification after he’s sent by Moscow to reconnoitre the Island and ensure the smooth realization of Idea of the Common Fate into a political program. Kuzenkov is the only humane Communist Party member in the book, which is another way of saying he must renounce the Party. He is also the father of Dim Shebeko, the jazz musician who makes everyone in the USSR—even its enemies—complicit in the regime’s atrocities. Kuzenkov has access to the secret history of the Ice Campaign, Lt. Bailey-Land’s derring-do, and the giggling nonchalance with which the young British sailor registers it—a mistake, a Hegelian rounding error, that created a democratic Russia for half a century. But what a mistake! The full appreciation of this fact drives Kuznekov first into ideological apostasy, then into opposing the grand plan he’s overseeing. He commits suicide just as the nation he loves does, too.
The totalitarian colossus wins, and history is righted. The tragedy in the 21st century is that Aksonyov’s 20th century parting joke is now a geopolitical reality, and an actual rallying cry in Moscow.
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