Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Island of Crimea By Vasiliy Aksenov

Language, myths, legends and fairy tales are good sources of information for those who study collective unconscious archetypes. There is a very Russian word “тоска” [taskAh] that means a melancholy and longing for something incomprehensible at the same time. And there is an old myth about the Buyan island, where there are a lot of magic things, eternal glory and, what is most important, absolute justice for all. This island was the exact opposite to the misery that is life actually is. So for centuries, Russian people have planted in their hearts a longing for this ideal place. The Soviet Union was separated from the rest of the world by the iron curtain, so many Soviet people imagined their Buyan island is abroad, in the inaccessible capitalistic countries. My grandfather dreamed about visiting Paris one day, knowing pretty well that he would never cross the boarders of the Soviet Union. My parents, like many other Soviet people, used to think about the “Western world” as about the land where everything is much better than in Russia, where even the poorest guy has good clothes and tasty food, where houses are large and people are friendly and honest. The “Western world” was their Buyan island. My generation has to find a new place to project our image of a dream land on, because what is accessible, is no longer ideal.

The Russian novelist Vasily Aksenov (Василий Павлович Аксёнов) wrote the Island of Crimea in 1979. It was a time when Russian society lived in the world of double standards. The difference between the official propaganda and the real situation was schizoid-like. On the one hand, Soviet people condemned the capitalistic world for racism, exploitation and wrong moral principles, but on the other hand, many people dreamed about traveling abroad and buying all those symbols of the bright life like jeans and tape recorders. Nowadays, we have everything available in our supermarkets, so my niece would hardly understand what it means — to dream about a pair of jeans.

Aksyonov built his "Island of Crimea" on an interesting premise. What if Crimea were an island, instead of a peninsula. Further more, what if Crimea were the only area of Greater Russia to hold out against the Reds, and become a multi-ethnic "free" zone? It is not a novel of the alternative history, but a novel of alternative geography instead. The mythical Buyan Island became the Island of Crimea. So some limited number of people got an opportunity to live in the conditions that they were dreaming about. Are they happy finally? Not at all. The Island enjoys capitalism (like Hong Kong), but many want to rejoin Russia. The brightest and the smartest Crimean people share the idea of the so called “Common Fate”. Their hearts are longing for “the Big Motherland”, they regard their wealth and happiness as false values and want to suffer as much as the people behind the iron curtain. Also, there is a group of youngsters who want to have their own identity, a Russian-Tatar mix called Yaki. The society is splitting into conflicting groups, so instead of the Eden, they get Hell one day.

The Island of Crimea is a perfect guideline to the deceitful and seducing ideology of the Soviet Union. The book also contains a bitter and merciless portrait of a cast of almighty bureaucrats. Though the novel is more than thirty years old, a reader can find shocking similarities with modern Russia, which is no longer under the iron curtain and no longer governed by communists, but is still playing with dangerous ideas and making the same crucial mistakes time after time.

I should add that the novel is very well written, its style is rich and its plot is intriguing. It is impossible to close the book once you start reading it. I would suggest this book to everybody who wants to learn more about Russia and its mysterious soul, but also I would suggest this book to my Russian friends, because history forgotten is history repeated.