I stood in the back parking lot of a Fairfax bar awaiting my professor, Vassily Aksyonov. He was a famous guy, but I hardly knew him, hardly knew that generations of Russians had made of him something of a hero. All I knew was that he was an affable guy and an enthusiastic teacher. When I told him that my grandfather had come to the United States from Russia, he invited me to grab a beer and talk about the “land of our ancestors,” as he phrased it.
I was early, so I leaned against my car and inhaled the late December chill. Suddenly, the back door opened. It was framed with a spotlight, throwing a strange shadow across the entire parking lot. I couldn’t make out the face. What I could see was an odd blackness stretching far beyond the edge of the lot.
When the figure emerged from the shadows, I saw it was Dr. Aksyonov, wearing his tall Russian sable hat; it was all he needed against the cold. The man had once lived in the Russian far north, after all, joining his dissident mother during her time in a labor camp. He smiled and waved me in. “Come, Evan,” he said. “Come in from the cold.”
Over pints of stout (he introduced me to Russian Imperial Stout, which has the relative viscosity of motor oil), he told me about the end of his time in the Soviet Union. Invited one evening to what was advertised as a celebration of Soviet artists, it soon became clear that the celebration was instead an admonition, with Leonid Brezhnev himself decrying dissidents and liberals and shaking his fist at Aksyonov. He felt lucky, he told me, to escape with his life. Stripped of his citizenship, he was off to America soon after.
My grandfather had been forced out of Russia, too, under different circumstances. But I felt a kinship with my teacher; forces well beyond our control—tides of history, politics, and fear—had cast us both on the same shores, separated by a few generations, of course.
Dr. Aksyonov’s tutelage extended long after we no longer had contact in classrooms at Mason or bars in Fairfax. I spent the next few years devouring Russian literature. Aksyonov had turned me on to Yevgeny Zamyatin, Mikhail Bulgakov, and his favorite, Nikolai Gogol. I soon came to realize that if I wanted a thorough survey of 20th-century Russian literature, my education would have a gaping hole if I didn’t read Aksyonov. His modesty never allowed us to know that during class, but he was perhaps the central figure between the post-Stalin thaw and the slowly emerging strictures of the Khrushchev era.
Dr. Aksyonov died this past summer in Moscow. I imagined him happy, able in the waning years of his life to return to the “land of his ancestors.” He had been welcomed as a hero. After his death, Russia’s president Dmitri Medvedev called him “a shining example of the 1960s literary generation—he, like no other, succeeded not only in passing from one era to the next, but also in making sense of our times.” For what it’s worth, he also succeeded in giving students such as me a world of information and the honor of being in his easygoing presence.
In my three years studying literature at Mason, my time with Professor Aksyonov was a highlight. Now, a decade removed, it’s clear to me, as I had gleaned that night in the parking lot outside the bar, that some people cast very long shadows.
Evan Balkan, MA English ’97, teaches writing at the Community College of Baltimore County. He is the author of 60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Baltimore; The Best in Tent Camping: Maryland; Shipwrecked! Deadly Adventures and Disasters at Sea; and Vanished! Explorers Forever Lost.