Dispatches from Russia: Yuz Aleshkovsky

Marcia DeSanctis

This is the third installment of Marcia DeSanctis’s series on three of Russia’s most influental 20th-century writers—Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Voinovich, and Yuz Aleshkovsky. 

Joseph Brodsky admired Yuz Aleshkovsky greatly and made an introduction for me. His book Kangaroo, which had just been published by Ardis in the US, was by far my favorite book of 1987 and I had never read anything like it and haven’t since—bold, caustic, clairvoyant and utterly unique, qualities that—at least from what I could glean in our brief correspondence —could also pertain to the writer. I was too rusty to conduct the interview entirely in Russian, so he asked that I send questions to his office at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. He responded in a four-page, single-spaced letter that I translated for the The Christian Science Monitor article.

I am leaving it as Aleshkovsky sent it, as I no longer have my questions. Earlier today, I had the pleasure of speaking with his wife, Irina, who is an esteemed professor of Russian Language and Literature at Wesleyan. It’s been 26 years since our interview and Aleshkovsky is still living and writing in Connecticut.


Dear Marcia,

I’m happy about our correspondence acquaintance.  Here are answers to your questions.  If this had been an interview, I might have thought of these problems in a more refined and stylish manner.  But in the article my sweet, poor and unique – by definition – author’s voice will flow into the mishmash of other authors’ voices; therefore, I will make your task of the premeditated “murder” of my voice easier.  That’s why I will attempt to answer your questions in a simple, businesslike, without usual Russian fucking around, style.  If something doesn’t make sense, call me in Middletown on August 14, in the morning.

The changes in the approach of the absolutely tyrannical power in the USSR to the problem, which should be called not glasnost but information, are fully evident.  The tightening since 1917 and the deterioration of not only all kinds of information and related communications, but also of elementary human rights to different types of criticism, led, in reality, to the total paralysis of the entire—not natural for human nature and the society—state system of the USSR.  I’m not a specialist on state systems theory, but its remarkable theses on the instability of the system as a consequence of the tightening of it’s own structure can better and more precisely describe this crisis of the Evil Empire.

Original letter from Yuz Aleshkovsky to Marcia DeSanctis, 1987.

It is not by accident that I use a language that is repulsive to the Soviet leaders ears, as well as to pink liberals in the West.  The Godly gift of freedom, realized relatively successfully by the taken-for-granted democracies of the West and, unfortunately, somewhat oversaturated by that life creating gift, provokes all potentials of mankind and therefore of society to the development and regulation of industrial power, self-control, in-depth approach to the essence of technological progress, problems of ecology, etc.  And, of course, sharpens the critical outlook towards the negative, ugly and suicidal tribulations of the free world.

Here, dear Marcia, I have to diverge for a moment.  Thinking of history, and, especially, of contemporary history as of the fruit of all previous human initiative and the battles between the Creator and the devil, it’s impossible, in my view, not to become a metaphysician, that is, to become a realist in all senses of this word.

So, the Empire of Evil, whose many year’s hostages and slaves are not only hundreds of millions of Soviet people, but the very political leaders of the USSR, has reached, in these times, a stagnated condition in absolutely all areas of social life. Here I‘m excluding nuclear-missile power, created specially for the final triumph of Evil, which is the demolition of not only the man-created world, but of creation itself…It has reached, I repeat, such a disgusting agony and miserable bankruptcy of the dead ideology of communism, that, without a doubt, was ripening for many years and in many minds, a sense of surprise faced with the absurdity of this social change that couldn’t – thank God – not  alarm, in the first place, the human and civilian conscience of the present generation of Soviet party leaders.  They, the party leaders, not without help of professional advisers, comprehended that they’re standing on the threshold of chaos and disintegration of the life of the nation.  Not finding an answer in war, they decided on the gradual reconstruction of all fundamentals of existence if the USSR.  I can’t be an optimist or a pessimist in regards to the current happenings in the USSR – these in many ways unheard things and so-to-say entirely “anti-soviet” changes and reforms.  I simply believe in the self correcting power of life, directed by the Higher Authority in deadly crucial times – in other words, in times of complete powerlessness of man, who proudly relied on his own abilities.

Is there not a pitiless smirk of the Heavens about the fact that the Powers in the USSR began these glasnost changes?  Let us return to the beginning of our conversation and we will see, they began in 1917 with the murder and perversion of the essence of the word, in other words, with total demagoguery.  For 70 years they were building in their brains and the brains of fooled philistines the idealized model of reality.  They annihilated millions of those who refused to accept the Emperors New Clothes for being dressed in a deserving manner.  They devalued the function of literature as the art of the word.  Literature, whose objective throughout the ages was striving towards to the secrets of Heaven while firmly standing with its own feet in Reality, was forced  – and this is a metaphysic of social realism – to describe a reality that doesn’t exist, or an idealized copy of reality…  Now the authority and people have awakened from the schizophrenic darkness of the mind and soul and found themselves eye to eye in front of what cannot be expressed by the same old, totally beaten down and conquered word.  This is the gist of what they, with their usual craving for euphemism, call glasnost.

2.  The publication of Trifonov, Ribakov, Dudintsev, etc, of course has some meaning for the cleansing of philistine minds from the ugly and false imaginings of their own lives and the life of their “most leading social system in the world.”  However, and I’m convinced of this, these authors’ works can not contain any truth, or even maximum closeness to it.  On the one hand, they did not fully separate themselves from what they call, with comic romanticism, the “beautiful idea.”  On the other hand, the Authority is not such a repentant fool to allow themselves to lose control – one way or another – of the destructive freethinking of liberal memoirists.  The publication of all Nabokov’s works, in my view, is more remarkable and more important, because of the wonderful aesthetic of his prose, that awakens awareness and brings the taste of Soviet man to the primordial integrity of the art of the word.  Because of this, he bypasses all stunning piles of all soviet daily life and attaches himself to a longing for dignity and poetry of life.

3.  The Authority, it seems to me, turned to works of emigrant writers and geniuses killed in the motherland for very pragmatic reasons.  You can’t go too far with only two or three serious and half-truthful writers and a bunch of cynical degenerates.

4.  I’m sure that soon Soviet writer-workers will flood the reader and still ruling party of bankrupts with their inspired themes of perestroika of economics and social life.  But we won’t hear soon or see any words about the bankruptcy of the ideology of communism, words about suicide of culture, rights, etc., of this tragic, but the instructive – we should hope for the whole world – historical experiment.  Inside the State and the ruling party, there are still many influential forces for which numbness and death is still the usual and superior sphere of existence.  The party itself, I assure you dear Marcia, is far from having this cleansing act of repentance and exposure.  Besides that, to reach the height of power was relatively easy, but to descend from that height is psychologically and socially difficult.  And I don’t think that Gorbachev, along with his friends, has any lucid dreams of being removed from the mausoleum for incompetence and disparity with his official position by a brigade of opposing writers.

5.  Zaligin is a serious and talented writer, but he has never used his works and his high measure of truthfulness to damage what is being attacked now by high authority.

6.  Ask yourself, Marcia, a simple question: was there ever a time when comrades Yevtushenko and Voznesensky ended up losing?  Was there ever a time, when they seriously risked their positions, social privileges, or ability to go carouse abroad in the West?  No.  The reality of their behavior is loss-free.  They are, if we say so not to offend these people disrespected by me personally, but for precision, typical high-placed shitheads.  They remind me of overworked and experienced prostitutes, who retired and are nowadays reading, in the Motherland and at the footlights of western auditoriums, lectures on unblemished goodness and chastity.  Talking about the degeneration of  “poetry” Especially Voznesensky’ – it turns my stomach.


Original letter from Yuz Aleshkovsky to Marcia DeSanctis, 1987.

7.  I read with pleasure and growing, according to my age, interest any works of Dostoevsky and Pushkin.  Brodsky’s poetry, with the genius novelty of its world and wonderful sparkling eternal youth of its language gives me, personally, power and hope that “beauty” – this is an expression of Dostoevsky – “will save the world.”  I wish to add that beauty is also a noble and singularly deserving retribution to evil for its talentless passion for destroying the world.

8.  To live with pleasure and faith in happiness as well as in suffering.  To write with inspiration and thankfulness to God for His gift.

9.  Speaking seriously, Marcia, roots are located not outside but inside of a man.  That is why it’s important not to lose yourself, no matter where you are, remembering that creativity is not is in accordance with a reader, but with the Muse and up until this time, inexpressible missions of art.  As for my life in the US, I’ve always thought of it as of a life in freedom, and not in emigration.  That is all.  The most interesting thing was to talk about glasnost.  That’s why I would want you to quote my thoughts on this, but not chitchat on broad and boring topics.  I apologize if I left something unclear.  All the best.  If the article comes out, I’d like to see it.  Always at your service, your kind humble servant…

I’m rushing, by the way,

Yuz Aleshkovsky


**Translation help from Dennis Nalitov.


Marcia DeSanctis is a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in Vogue, Town & Country, O the Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Best Women’s Travel Writing 2011 & 2012, and Best Travel Writing 2011 and 2012. Her Lost & Found on Graham Greene’s The Comedians was in Tin House Issue #54. In 2012, she was the recipient of 3 Lowell Thomas Awards for Excellence in Travel Journalism, including the SIlver award for Travel Writer of the Year. Previously, she was a producer for ABC, NBC, and CBS News.