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Vassily Aksyonov: Поколение зимы (Generations of Winter)

Russia is like some other European countries – England is an obvious example – in that its literary heyday was in the nineteenth century and not the twentieth. The great novels it produced in the twentieth century – Dr Zhivago, Petersburg, The Master and the Margarita – invariably had publishing difficulties as the Soviet government did not like the book or the author or both. This book, while not at the same level as the above three, may well qualify as the first great post-Soviet Russian novel. It is instrumental to compare it with a book that some misguided critics have considered a great Russian twentieth century novel – Solzhenitsyn’s appalling First Circle – and, frankly, Solzhenitsyn does not get a look in. Aksynov’s novel is superior in almost every way – ideas, structure, characters, humour, style. It is interesting to compare their respective treatment of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn gives us a typical heavy handed but stunningly conventional portrait of the dictator. I think we could all figure out that Stalin felt alone, isolated, afraid of death, afraid of conspiracy. In short, Solzhenitsyn adds nothing new to our view of the man with the moustache. Aksynov, however, uses his skilful wit (one of the many, many literary skills Solzhenitsyn lacks) to give us not a portrait of a stereotype but of a man, a troubled man for sure, but albeit a man. He also plunges into satire in a clever and imaginative way that Solzhenitsyn could never have done, particularly the episode when Stalin, after days of constipation, shits himself in a splendid scene that tells us far more about Stalin than all of Solzhensitsyn’s books.

This novel follows the Gradov family from about 1925 to end of the Second World War. Trotsky is still active but clearly his days are numbered as the Stalinists are driving him and his supporters out. The Gradov family is on both sides. Boris Gradov, the patriarch, is a surgeon (it is he who helps Stalin to shit). His elder son, Nikita, is a military man. Nina, the daughter, is a poet, a rebel and pro-Trotsky. Finally, Kirill, the youngest son, is a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist. All of them get involved in the Stalinist conspiracies, even though the only one that may be actually guilty – Nina – escapes punishment because one of Beria‘s henchmen is in love with her. Nikita and Kirill are arrested (as is Nikita’s wife) and tortured and sent to the camps, though all survive and get out.

The vicissitudes of a well-to-do Russian family during this period are brilliantly portrayed by Aksynov. One minute they are on top and next they are down and, of course, they never know when something unpleasant or, indeed, something pleasant will happen. All of this is cleverly interwoven with the events and characters of the period. Stalin and Beria are two of the characters that appear but well-known people such as Khrushchev and Ilya Ehrenburg and less well-known people such as Lado Gudiashvili and Mikhail Frunze also play a role. There is no room to give any more than a glimpse of the complex picture Aksyonov gives us of Stalin’s Soviet Union but if you want to read a big Russian novel (in every sense of the word) you could do a lot worse than start here.

Publishing history

First published 1994
First published 1994 in English by Random House