Generations of Winter," by Vassily Aksyonov. Specifically, it will discuss literary themes and approaches used by the author and how the work reflects the political and social environment of the time.
GENERATIONS OF WINTER
Aksyonov's book opens in 1925, the "eighth year of the revolution." While it sometimes reads like a history of the Russian people, it is really a novel, written in the sweeping style of "War and Peace" by Tolstoy. The novel follows the Gradov family through twenty years of modern Russian history, with which they always manage to become involved. Mixed in with the family are real historical characters, so it sometimes becomes muddy between what is fact and what is fiction in this novel.
Aksyonov was expelled from his home country of Russia in 1980. His mother and father lived through much of the Stalin regime, and spent time in prison, and in the Crimea. "Aksyonov was born in Kazan in 1932, when Stalinism had really begun to take hold. Both of his parents eventually became victims of the terror. Although they both survived the camps, their marriage did not. Aksyonov was brought up by various relatives and lived with his mother in Magadan for two years while he was finishing school. He first appeared in print in 1959. Although his career as a writer and editor met with many political and bureaucratic obstacles, he still managed to publish a great deal in the Soviet Union and had considerable opportunity to travel abroad" (Reid).
Aksyonov writes in "Generations of Winter" of some of the excesses and terror of the Stalin regime, and does so with humor and candor. "In 1951, [after this first book in a trilogy takes place] Mr. Aksyonov points out, the slave-labor force within the Soviet Union exceeded 14 million. 'To the camps were sent even the bumblers who showed up late for work - in other words, who committed a crime that amounted to sabotage of reconstruction'" (Jacoby 35).
His book is a perfect example of the political and social environment of the times. There was extreme unrest in Russia, people were revolting against the government, and then war struck. Lives were uncertain, and changed forever because of the war, and because of the brutality of the Stalin regime. By following the lives of this family and their friends and lovers, Aksyonov shows first hand the lack of political and personal freedoms, how the people were always afraid, and how they realized their lives would never return to the good times of pre-communist Russia.
The author introduces the Gradov family with Nikita and Veronika, husband and wife. Nikita is beginning to doubt his own usefulness in the Red Army, where he is an officer. "Because so many Soviet officers died during that period, Nikita is released and promoted to general after the outbreak of war. Although he remains a Russian patriot, Nikita no longer has any illusions about the glory of war or about the government whose uniform he wears" (Jacoby 35).
The well-to-do family's home is in the country in Silver Forest, an idyllic community on the outskirts of Moscow. They gather together in the house whenever they find the need for closeness, or the family is in crisis. "the first thing the Gradovs tried to do when any turning point of history or fate occurred was to race home and gather together. It was only later, in the thirties, that the house began to seem no longer a fortress but a trap" (Aksyonov 45). The house is their haven throughout the story, and not only it is a home and a refuge, and later becomes a house of "gloom and numbness."
Like his father and grandfather, the family patriarch, Boris, is a distinguished physician. (In one of the book's most hilarious - take my word for it - scenes, he successfully treats Stalin for acute constipation.) His wife, Mary, is an accomplished pianist of Georgian descent who treats her husband for depression with a 'Chopin cure.' Their three children are Nikita, an officer in the Red Army who is already having second thoughts about his role in the suppression of the 1921 Kronstadt uprising; Nina, a poet, and Kirill, a Communist Party activist. The novel also features a delightful dog named Pythagorus, who thinks he is really a human named Prince Andrei and regards the younger Gradovs as his siblings. The canine presence generates a continuous sense of anxiety and tenderness, without a trace of sentimentality, reminiscent of the dog Karenin in Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being'" (Jacoby 35).
Each time the dog appears, his presence lightens the action, and shows us the family from another set of eyes. He feels he is part of the family, and the family love him just as much as if he were a brother or sister. They confide in him, talk to him as if he were human and the author attempts to make him as human as possible in his manners and thoughts. He is an important member of the family, and perhaps the only one who is truly untouched by the events that happen around him. He also believes he is a prince who lived a previous life, and his reminiscences show us how Russia was before the revolution, when people were free, and life was happier. He serves as a look back in time, so the reader will understand just what it is the Russian people have lost.
Aksyonov has a very interesting style of adding asides to the novel, as if he were adding stage direction or movement for a stage play. "From the general hubbub, we will pick out for the time being only a few phrases and ask the reader to imagine what a resounding echo they were producing in the student assemblies of the time" (Aksyonov 42). It is an unusual style, and can sometimes jar the reader away from the story. Sometimes however, these small asides help to clear up something a character has said, or is doing, and so they serve as clarification that would not usually be available to the reader of a novel.
The author also uses another interesting technique he calls "Intermissions," which occur ten times, sprinkled throughout the novel. They are breaks in the story, which also add additional information for the reader regarding the action, or historical aspect of the novel. The first concerns the death of party member Comrade Frunze. The Intermission takes newspaper accounts, speeches, and the Comrade's funeral, and places them together in context so the reader understands the importance of his death, and how it will affect the Gradov family.
The father, Boris, did not believe Frunze needed surgery, and was passed over by the other doctors. He has gained favor with the party, but does not care about the titles he receives. He believes Frunze was murdered, and suffers from bouts of deep depression. During times of stress like these, his wife, Mary, tries to cheer him with the "Chopin Cure." She plays some of his favorite Chopin pieces on the piano, and tries to bring him out of his misery.
This first Intermission is followed by a second, which tells the story of a four-hundred-year-old owl named Tokhtamysh, who does not eat, and despairs over bad poetry uttered by a local poet in his backyard. This small section is amusing, but also serves as a reminder that the party is always there, and always listening, even when people think they are alone with their thoughts.
Nina, the daughter and poet, is a dreamy romantic, who really does not understand the undercurrents of tension that swirl through the house. Her brother Kirill, works for the Party, and is aghast at Nina's opposite beliefs and stand. At one point, she calls him a "Stalinist toady." "The party apparatchik Kirill, of no military use, remains in camp and is drawn to the religious and spiritual values he once rejected. Nina marries a doctor and survives the '30s, though she and her husband live in fear of a knock on the door from the secret police" (Jacoby 35). Her husband is killed during the war, and Kirill is sent to a prison camp for ten years without "correspondence," but he survives.
As the novel progresses, it is clear the family will suffer through some of Russia's most desperate history. The revolution has set in motion many counter groups, who fight communism, bourgeoisies, and Trotskyism. It is often difficult to tell which group is which, and what they are fighting for, which seems very close to how history actually happened during this time. People change their minds, change sides, and are punished by one group while being praised by another Kirill is caught in the middle of this confusion, and finds that his beliefs change as the Stalin regime gains more power, and becomes more corrupt. This corruption is a central theme of the novel, and one of the reasons the author says he…