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Giving Life Back Its Meaning


Vasily Aksyonov's life and works together constitute a victory, a triumph over cliches, stagnation, fear, the herd instinct. A victory over time, a triumph of the spirit. This is what the Kazan Aksyonov Fest hopes to convey.

Vasily Aksyonov's life and works together constitute a victory, a triumph over cliches, stagnation, fear, the herd instinct. A victory over time, a triumph of the spirit. This is what the Kazan Aksyonov Fest hopes to convey.

The cultural life of Tatarstan's capital is extraordinarily dynamic and multifaceted, as reflected by the Third International Literary and Music Aksyonov Festival that took place last month.

Vasily Pavlovich Aksyonov, one of the most prominent Soviet writers of the 1960s "thaw," was born and grew up in Kazan. He personally launched the first festival in his honor, in 2007.

Following his death on July 6 this year, the city wanted the annual festival to keep alive the memory of the author of such sensational works as "Colleagues," "A Moscow Saga," "The Island of Crimea," "The Burn," "Oranges From Morocco," and "Voltairean Men And Women."

One of the highpoints of this year's festival was the opening of a "living" Aksyonov Museum in the house, now restored, where the writer was born on August 20, 1932. Aksyonov had wanted the house to have a life of its own, as a place where young writers and musicians could gather and listen to his beloved jazz, which for Aksyonov and his entire generation was the forbidden music of freedom.

All his life, Aksyonov aspired to live and to write free of all constraints, improvising, like dancing swing. Neither the arrest of his parents, nor his difficult childhood and adolescence, nor the equally difficult years he spent in exile abroad could destroy that passion for freedom and joie de vivre. To quote his friend and contemporary, the poetess Bella Akhmadulina, those emotions permeated every breath Aksyonov took.

In past years, a second traditional highpoint of the festival program has been the presentation of the "Ticket to the Stars" literary prize for the most successful literary debut. The prize takes its name from one of Aksyonov's novels.

This year, however, the prize was not awarded. Instead, a commemorative medal was presented to Aksyonov's son Aleksei, and Aksyonov's last novel was launched. Titled "Hidden Passion," it is a retrospective attempt to make sense of the astounding era that has become synonymous with the "writers of the '60s." The festival also featured "The Lion's Den. Forgotten Tales," the last book Aksyonov published in his lifetime.

Festivals Of Celebration

Vasily Aksyonov's life and works together constitute a victory, a triumph over cliches, stagnation, fear, the herd instinct. A victory over time, a triumph of the spirit. This is what the Kazan Aksyonov Fest hopes to convey.

An arts festival is a way of preserving the spirit and culture of a people, of handing on to the next generation the fragile thread of true art in all its uniqueness and the influences that have molded it, its power over time.

But Aksyonov is by no means the only cultural giant whom Kazan honors with a special festival. Others include ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, the avant-garde composer Sofia Gubaydulina, and Fyodor Chalyapin, who was born in Kazan and lived there until the age of 17. In a letter he wrote in 1928 to the writer Maksim Gorky, Chalyapin confessed to feeling nostalgia for Kazan, "for me the most beautiful city in the world," and the one where he first fell under the spell of opera.

The 28th Chalyapin festival opens in Kazan in February 2010, followed in May by the 23rd international Nureyev ballet festival. Gubaydulina too was born in Kazan, and the international Gubaydulina piano competition has been held annually since 2006.

Gubaydulina herself has argued that "the most important thing for humanity is to preserve culture in these terribly difficult conditions. It is culture that gives form to the human spirit. Living only at the material level destroys the meaning of life; that is why the essence of art is to give life back its meaning."

Galina Mazitova is a Kazan-based journalist who writes on cultural issues. The views expressed in this commentary are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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