Vassily Aksyonov
Vassily Aksyonov; drawing by David Levine

In Generations of Winter Vassily Aksyonov has set out bravely, one might even say brazenly, to write a twentieth-century War and Peace, mingling fictional and historical characters in a great sprawling saga tracing the history of the Soviet Union. This first volume runs from 1925 to 1945; a second volume brings the story into the post-war era. The surprise is that he has succeeded to a remarkable degree. To predict at this point that his novel will prove as enduring as Tolstoy’s classic is, of course, impossible. There is a certain coarseness in Aksyonov’s literary manner which can be apt, certainly, for the task at hand—has there ever been a coarser place than Stalin’s Russia?—but the book’s sturdy, carpentered quality at times seems too clumsy to bear comparison with Tolstoy’s exquisitely balanced artistic effects. All the same, Aksyonov’s energy, inventiveness, and insouciance have resulted in what is surely a major document of our times, and one with lasting power.

Obviously any Russian author attempting to write a work on such a scale would find himself stumbling in Tolstoy’s shadow. Aksyonov’s solution to the problem is to turn on his heel and grin defiantly in his great predecessor’s face. He has not so much struck the father dead as given him a playful pat on the cheek. The text abounds in references to War and Peace whether in an epigraph, in offhand allusions to Tolstoy’s characters, or in passages such as this, from the preface to the second part of the book, which is called “War and Jail”:

Not long ago, we were reading War and Peace—for the first time since childhood, we must admit, and not at all in connection with the beginning of War and Jail but for pure reading pleasure—and came upon a number of Tolstoy’s thoughts on the riddles of history, which sometimes touch us joyfully by their similarities with our own thoughts but which at other times lead into a blind alley.

The plural pronoun suggests arch humor rather than even a small degree of modesty. Elsewhere Aksyonov plays a game with old-fashioned styles of narration, as in this passage from early in the book where we are first introduced to the heroine—or one of the heroines—of the book, Nina Gradov, who is destined to become a renowned poet, a sort of cross between Akhmatova and Tsvetayeva:

The front doors banged then, quick steps sounded, and Nina burst into the dining room. Her dark chestnut hair was disheveled, her bright blue eyes were shining, the collar of her overcoat was turned up, and she was carrying a briefcase under her arm, as well as a knapsack full of books.

“Hello, family!” she yelped. She rushed over to Veronika, kissed her on the lips and once on the stomach [Veronika is pregnant], then flopped down for a moment onto Nikita’s lap, shook the hand of Kirill the Party worker, and said with tragic seriousness: “All that we have is yours, comrades tough as stone!” Like an English lady, she extended her hand to be kissed by Leonid Valentinovich Pulkovo and then bestowed a kiss on everyone else.

Passages such as this, which could have come from any second-rate nineteenth-century Russian novel—or novelette—make the reader’s heart sink, but Aksyonov is fully conscious of the effect he is creating, and this portrait of the typical Russian heroine—the chestnut hair, the bright blue eyes—is weighted heavily with irony, as the reader will presently discover. The vicissitudes that await Nina, as well as her brothers Nikita and Kirill and sister-in-law Veronika, will very soon wipe off entirely any trace of an indulgent smile that the early pages of the novel may appear to wear. The horrors of Stalinism were far greater than those of the Napoleonic invasion.

Vassily Aksyonov was born in Kazan in 1933. His mother was the historian Eugenia Ginzburg (the book is dedicated to her memory and to that of his father, Pavel Aksyonov), and he spent much of his childhood with her in exile in Siberia. Memories of those years no doubt helped him to write the gulag sections of Generations of Winter with such immediacy. In the 1960s he was an energetic and, insofar as the times and the censors would allow, successful writer of novels, literary criticism, and screenplays. In 1980 he traveled to the United States, and settled in Washington to work on a novel at the Wilson Center. In January of the following year the Soviet government stripped him of his citizenship. Throughout the 1980s he lived in the US and produced novels, the best known of which is The Burn, and a cheerful and charming memoir, In Search of Melancholy Baby, of the splendors and miseries (very few of the latter) of the first years of his life in America.


In his work up to now Aksyonov has been exuberant, cocksure, and faintly “experimental,” in a relaxed, late-Modernist way. With Generations of Winter, however, he has put together something more formidable, and what a tank of a book it is. It grinds its way with unstoppable force across the vast territory of the former Soviet Union, from Moscow to Siberia, from Georgia to the Western front during the Hitler war. So vast is the scale of the work, so palpable the passing of the years, that at the end of the book the reader feels he has completed an immense journey through space and time; looking back to the opening pages is like flicking through the earliest photographs in a family album.

The family in question is the Gradovs, headed by Boris Gradov, an eminent surgeon, and therefore a person of consequence, since the Party hierarchy likes to look after its own health. When the book opens it is 1925, the Revolution is still young, and the country, and especially its capital city, is feverish with a sense of the possibilities of the future. Already, of course, the forces of totalitarianism and repression are at work, as Stalin and his henchmen position themselves to destroy or neutralize their opponents. Aksyonov very cunningly implicates the Gradovs in the destiny of the country by making Boris a leading member of the medical team assigned to treat Stalin’s opponent, the Commissar for Defense Mikhail Frunze, for stomach ulcers; Boris is an excellent doctor, and knows that Frunze does not need the operation that others in the medical team, and the political puppeteers controlling them, insist is necessary. During a crucial Polit-buro meeting Frunze suffers a hemorrhage and collapses. Stalin seizes his chance.

“We must bring in the best doctors,” announced Stalin. “Burdenko, Rozanov, Gradov…the Party cannot allow such a son to be lost.”

Trotsky was right, thought Zinoviev. This man will say whatever raises him higher than anyone else, even if only an inch.

Stalin walked over to the table and sat down. His seat, though one of many, suddenly appeared to be the center of the oval. Perhaps, in accordance with the rules of drama, attention was fixed on him because he had appeared at a decisive moment, or perhaps it was something else; whatever the reason, it was indeed Stalin whom the dazed members of the Polit-buro and the government were looking at. It was obvious that, all the different interpretations of the meaning of Frunze’s illness notwithstanding, a motif of fate and gloom had been introduced beneath the arches of the Kremlin, as though a flight of Valkyries had winged past.

Stalin looked out the window for a minute or two at the indifferent clouds passing in the October sky, then intoned: “…but eternally green is the tree of life…”

The Party men, who had long experiences in emigration behind them, remembered that the great man himself, Lenin, had loved to repeat this line from Faust.

“Let’s continue.” With a benign gesture, Stalin proposed that they return to the order of business.

This passage illustrates very well Aksyonov’s method. He is undaunted by the usual problem faced by the historical novelist, that of finding ways to neutralize the chilling effect of famous names (“I say, Mozart, isn’t that young Beethoven over there?”). He mingles historical and fictional characters with such skill that only a reader with a detailed knowledge of Soviet history will be able to distinguish all of the real from all of the invented. He is not afraid to write of the top Soviet leaders and feels no need to introduce them with tiresome physical descriptions (“Trotsky was right, thought Zinoviev”). Also characteristic are the brief nod in the direction of postmodernism (“in accordance with the rules of drama”) and the Wagnerian swish of those Valkyries’ wings. What is most impressive in this scene, however, is the subtlety and economy of the portrait of Stalin, the self-serving monster posing as devoted Party man yet at the same time demonstrating that he is the true successor to Lenin. With that “benign gesture” Frunze’s fate is sealed.

The document directing that the Commissar be operated upon is drawn up, and Boris, after an icy interview with a pair of Kafkaesque NKVD men, puts his name to it. Although he is allowed to remain outside the operating theater while the murder is being committed by the rest of the medical team, he knows very well that he has done something that will haunt him for the rest of his days. He retreats at once to the family dacha in Silver Forest, where his wife, Mary Vakhtangovna, will try to soothe his conscience with the Chopin études she plays at times of family crisis. Mary, a Georgian, is a figure straight out of Thomas Mann: passionate, artistic, loving, and a little silly; Aksyonov uses her to introduce the theme of the warm south, the land of blue skies and “ripe pears that resembled the breasts of young Greek girls,” which is also, ironically, the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich himself, the Man of Steel who will wreak terrible damage upon the Gradov family and the millions of other families over whom he comes to exercise absolute power.


Aksyonov leaves no doubt whatever that the tragedy of the Soviet Union from the 1930s onward was largely the work of one man. The portrait of Stalin here seems broadly drawn but it also has many subtle touches. It catches his intelligence as well as his vulgarity, his genius for manipulating people as well as his stupidity as a commander, his slippery charm as well as his absolute wickedness. Generations of Winter is genuinely frightening in showing the tragedy of a vast country when put into the hands of the worst possible people. In this version of Animal Farm it is the stoats and the weasels who are in charge.

The narrative is a long descent from light into darkness. The early sections give a vivid sense of what it must have been like to live in a time of genuine social transformation, when considerable numbers of people, especially among the intelligentsia, felt the discomforts and privations of the post-revolutionary period could be cheerfully borne since sacrifices would be justified with the imminent arrival of the Future. Here is the book’s opening paragraph:

Just think—in 1925, the eighth year of the Revolution, a traffic jam in Moscow! All Nikolskaya Street, which runs from the Lubyanka prison through the heart of Kitai-gorod down to Red Square, is filled with streetcars, wagons, and automobiles. Next to the open-air market, they’re unloading crates of fresh fish from heavy carts. Beneath the arch on Tretyakovsky Street one can hear the neighing of horses, the tooting of truck drivers’ horns, and the swearing of a cart driver. The police will hurry to the scene, blowing their whistles ingenuously, as if not yet entirely convinced of the reality of their exclusively local, nonpolitical—that is, perfectly normal—role. Everything has the appearance of an amateur production, even the people’s fury seems put on. The most important thing, though, is that everyone’s happy to play along. The traffic jam on Nikolskaya Street is, in fact, a cause for rejoicing, like a glass of hot milk for someone who has been shivering with fever: life is coming back, along with dreams of prosperity.

For many people Russia probably did look this way at a time of hope. Everything had been turned on its head and the new prospects opened up seemed dizzying. Aksyonov is good at finding the telling detail, such as the arrival in the Twenties of the Charleston: “the dernier cri of the season delighted the ‘old fogeys’ of the bourgeoisie but outraged the ‘progressive’ young people.” Amid all the bustle many ignored the lowering shadow cast by the Lubyanka.

Very soon, by the beginning of the 1930s, the prison shadow reaches as far as the Gradov sanctuary at Silver Forest. Despite Boris’s eminence, first his son Nikita, a brilliant military strategist, is arrested by the secret police, then Nikita’s brother Kirill, a fiercely dogmatic member of the Party, is also seized. Both disappear into the wastes of the Siberian labor camps, although Nikita returns at the most desperate stage of the war to lead Stalin’s armies in the campaign against the Nazi invasion. The descriptions of Nikita’s time in the Kolyma camp are perhaps the finest and certainly the most terrifying passages in the book. Here again Aksyonov picks out details with accuracy and wit:

On the one hand, it was a horrifying thought that the police were purging the country of its best people, but on the other, it was the basis for a certain pride—you were sharing the fate of good men, not those from the gutter.

Despite the book’s humor and narrative verve, I confess there were passages in it so painful that it was difficult for me to go on reading them, whether the descriptions of Gradov’s parents’ grief as their sons are taken from them, or the scenes of violence and misery during the collectivization period, or the account of the Nazi massacres of Jews, or of the “22 methods of active investigation,” i.e., torture, used in KGB interrogations. Perhaps the most convincing villain in a book rich in villains—from Stalin himself through his fellow Georgian Lavrenti Beria down to the countless Party fixers and military opportunists—is the fictitious Semyon Stroilo, whom we first meet as the youthful lover of Nina Gradov. Stroilo is the archetypal cog in the totalitarian machine. A secret police spy, he plays the part of the Trotskyite proletarian for Nina’s benefit and then, during a security police raid on a Trotskyite demonstration, points her out among others as an opponent of the increasingly powerful Stalinist faction in the regime. Later in the book he turns up as an NKVD colonel in charge of interrogations. Here he is seen losing control during the torture of an elderly Jewess:

Something suddenly snapped in Colonel Stroilo…his ardent heart was acting up, and his hands at that point were relatively unstained. He rushed forward, pushed aside his comrades surrounding the criminal, threw the old woman onto the couch, yanked her skirt off, bared the bitch’s rear end, took off his solid, heavy belt with a star on the buckle, and went to work with it on her flaccid, decrepit buttocks. He kept at it until the bitch stopped howling and until he went into convulsions, convulsions of fountain-like ejaculations, as had sometimes happened in the days of his youth, many years before, with the professor’s daughter [Nina]; he felt very awkward then in front of his comrades.

The word “ardent” in that passage is a masterful touch, as is the torturer’s awkwardness before his bestial fellows.

Aksyonov admirably stays in control of his authorial emotions. He never allows his indignation or his compassion to gain the upper hand. There are none of the “big scenes” that a lesser novelist might have permitted himself in the course of an immense historical narrative. He keeps a skeptic’s eye both on his characters and on himself as a narrator. Veronika, Nikita’s beautiful and dissatisfied wife, is, in the old phrase, no better than she should be: she wants money and men and the world’s admiration, and is determined to have them, whether as Marshal Gradov’s wife in the upper strata of Moscow society, or in the wastes of the labor camp where she survives by prostituting herself to the camp commander.

The terrible vicissitudes of life, all the ups and downs and ups again have changed Veronika a great deal, thought Mary. Her entire life right now is a sort of challenge—to everyone around her, to impoverished Moscow, to the past. She goes around in chic outfits, wearing furs, earrings, all of which are daring, if not to say impudent.

These thoughts occur to the aging Mary Gradov, Veronika’s mother-in-law, as she walks through the streets of wartime Moscow meditating on the fate of her family. Where we might have expected a misty-eyed version of the Eternal Mother, Aksyonov’s sharp glance sees through a decent, self-deluding, snobbish woman:

Mary pretended not to notice the curious, delighted stares, not to hear the murmurs: “Marshal Gradov’s mother in a streetcar, just think! Marshal Gradov’s mother, what a lady, what modesty—no, can that really be Marshal Gradov’s mother here in a trolley with us?” The news passed endlessly from people getting off the car to those getting on, while Mary Vakhtangovna sat bursting with pride, but not giving any indication that these discussions had anything to do with her, an upright, stern, humble Russian intellectual, the mother of Marshal Gradov, defender of the Motherland. “Look out there citizens, don’t push like that—the marshal’s mother is on board!”

The broader political argument that underlies the narrative—that the Revolution was started by bad men and hijacked by worse, who proceeded virtually to destroy Russia and its satellites—seems all too accurate and familiar, especially when considered from the perspective of the 1990s. Recently in these pages David Remnick provided an apposite quotation from Solzhenitsyn: “It is thanks to ideology that it fell to the twentieth century to experience villainy on a scale of millions.”* What allows Stalin, Beria, and Stroilo—no less than Hitler, Himmler, and Eichmann—to act as they do is the knowledge that the worst of crimes, enormities beyond the world’s imaginings, could be justified in the name of an idea. Yet at the heart of the book also there is the sense that somehow Russia is a country cursed by fate and doomed to suffer endlessly. One of the more sympathetic characters in the book, the doctor Savva Kitaigorodsky, Nina’s husband, puts this view as follows:

All of modern Russian history looks like a series of breakers—waves of retribution. The February Revolution was retribution for our ruling aristocracy’s arrogance and narrow-minded immovability in relation to the people. The October Revolution and the Civil War were retribution against the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia for their obsessive summons to revolution, for the stirring up of the masses. Collectivization and the campaign against the kulaks were retribution against the peasants for their cruelty in the Civil War, for beating up the clergymen, for the bloodthirsty anarchism. The current purges are retribution against the revolutionaries for the violence they wreaked upon the peasants….As for the future, it’s impossible to predict, but logically we can suppose that there will be even more waves, until this whole cycle of false aspirations comes to an end…

One should not presume to suggest that one character’s words express the author’s own opinions, but this bleak yet exalted view of destiny is consistent with the unexpectedly inspirational ending of the book, when Kirill Gradov, still a prisoner in the icy wastes of Kolyma labor camp, discovers religion in a scene of great intensity. The reigning spirit in these pages is not Tolstoy but Dostoyevsky.

As I earlier remarked, one can only give a preliminary report on a work of such vastness, intricacy, and ambition which is still only half-published; yet I am prepared to believe that Generations of Winter will live for a very long time, and be seen as one of the more significant historical and literary achievements of a terrible century.

This Issue

November 3, 1994