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Generations of Winter by Vasily Aksyonov
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Generations of Winter

by Vasily Aksyonov

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261768,485 (3.99)30
The story of a Moscow family during the terrible thirties. They are a surgeon, his wife and their three children: a bohemian daughter who is a poet, a son in the Red Army and a second son who is a Marxist. The novel traces their fortunes during the years of Stalin's rise to power. By the author of The Burn.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 7 (next | show all)
An uneven trilogy of historical fiction that covers lots of Soviet history through one family. I disliked a lot of Aksyonov's techniques -- particularly his invocations of "War and Peace," which he clearly wants readers to compare his books with -- but I finished all three books. A friend had the same reaction.

The subplots weaken in the second half of the trilogy, but the books and, oddly, the rather cardboardy characters, are still very memorable, particularly in their ability to show how the Soviet regime perverted its message and its people. "Moscow Saga" isn't literature that will last, but it can be quite absorbing. ( )
  LizoksBooks | Dec 15, 2018 |
In the fall of 1925, eight years after the Revolution, Moscow appeared to be returning to a certain sense of normality, at least the veneer was there. The NEP had allowed a partial reversion to private ownership and there were those who believed there would be a return to capitalism. However, beneath the surface, change was coming. The difficulty was that everything was secret, so no one knew which direction to choose. As Karl Radek had said, "The Party can't seem to get out of the habit of working underground."

The Gradov family was one that had survived intact and thought themselves well suited to continue to flourish. The head of the family was one of the best surgeons in Moscow. His wife was a talented pianist from Georgia. His elder son Nikita was a Brigade Commander and his second son Kirill was a theoretical revolutionary. Daughter Nina was a university student who fancied herself a proletarian. The family home was a dacha straight out of nineteenth century Russian literature. However, readers know what the family cannot and so the reader wonders "How could such a family survive unscathed through the whirlwind to come?"

Aksyonov leads the reader slowly into the wreck, perhaps sensing some resistance. Dr Gradov was summoned to a consultation on the health of Mikhail Frunze, the Commissar for Defense. Frunze had devised a plan for military reform. Unfortunately for him, it involved reducing the Army by over half a million men and getting rid of political commissars; not a plan likely to be approved by the new regime. The Party decided on an operation to treat Frunze's ulcer, against the advice of doctors such as Gradov. Frunze died on the operating table. Gradov's dossier grew larger.

So the cataclysm began for the Gradov family and for the country. Collectivization, purges, army reorganization, more purges, show trials and still more purges. On and on it went, a revolving door of favour:

In the textbooks of Soviet history schoolchildren, under the supervision of their teachers, smeared ink thickly over the names and pictures of the old heroes, now become enemies. The next year the textbooks were handed down to younger students, and no one remembered the names that had vanished into the inky night. No shortage of heroes was felt, though. Life went on giving birth to a new hero almost every week.

Nikita and Kirill wound up in different camps for different reasons. The doctor and his wife struggled on. Her Georgian connections proved both useful and problematic.

Aksyonov relieves the oppression with a device he calls Intermissions. In these, plants and animals are revealed as reincarnations of characters from the Russian past. The family dog emerges as Prince Andrei. A ficus and geranium argue heatedly. Other Intermissions quote snippets from the western press, suggesting that all is not transparent in its reporting either.

From Time magazine July 7, 1941
The Finns are unhappy that Russian phosphorus rounds incinerated the forest around Khanko Lake, in which they loved to relax in the summer...

The reality is never far off though, as Aksyonov details his characters' lives in the camps and prisons, including a chilling description of the latest in execution chambers, circa 1938. Characters from history such as Frunze appear often.

Years of horror take the reader to October 1941, when desperate times called for truly desperate measures. General Zhukov went before Molotov, Kaganovich, Beria, Voroshilov, Krushchev and others to convince them that in order to stop the German advance, the army would need among other things, to ...sharply and immediately increase the complement of upper- and middle-level officer cadres. I request that this be reported to Comrade Stalin immediately.

The higher-ups immediately understood what Zhukov had in mind and suddenly found themselves engrossed in their folders and documents...


For what Zhukov had in mind was the release of such officers from their scattered camps, those at least for whom there were still records.

War and Jail make up Volume II of this novel. Aksyonov has used a quote from War and Peace, The human mind cannot grasp the absolute continuity of motion, as an epigraph for this second half of the novel, in which there is no rest until the book ends with the end of WWII. The novel's ending leaves scope for a sequel, but that did not happen.

Blurbs on this edition almost all referenced War and Peace as a comparator for this novel, but I think Dr Zhivago seems more apt. There is a sense of futility and beaten down acceptance here which is absent in Tolstoy. Aksyonov's mother was Yevgenia Ginzburg. She and his father Pavel Akysonov were both sent to camps for Trotskyite connections when Vassily was only five. He eventually wound up in an orphanage as a child of "enemies of the people" before eventually being reunited with his parents. This gave his writing an experience and desperation Tolstoy could not have known.

Aksyonov himself was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 after he left for the US. He regained it in the Gorbachev era. He seems to have official sanction for now, with a Russian literary award in 1994, and the production of a Russian TV miniseries of Generations of Winter in 2004. Aksyonov died in Moscow in 2009.
3 vote SassyLassy | Oct 28, 2016 |
I really wanted to like this book and expected that I would – fat histories of generations of the same family usually appeal to me and I’m very interested in the Soviet period. It went by quickly and the writing was fairly smooth, but a bunch of little issues continued and became bigger and more annoying until they almost overwhelmed the positive qualities of the book, and by page 400 of 600 or so, I was a bit reluctant to pick it up. In a “Such bad food, and the portions were so small!” comment, my copy, by Vintage, had only the first two books of the trilogy and I’m pretty torn about whether I want to read the third – would like it to find out what happens, but there were so many irritations.

The story follows the liberal, well-off Gradov family from the 1920’s, when the NEP (a limited return to capitalism after the war communism of the Revolution) was taking effect through the brutal collectivization of the peasants and the Great Terror in the 30’s and ending after World War II. Generous and talented father Boris is one of the best doctors in the Soviet Union and Mary is a cultured wife and mother, loving and supportive if somewhat nagging. Eldest son Nikita is married to the beautiful Veronika and rising fast as an officer in the military, having participated in several decisive battles in the revolution. Kirill, the second son, is a dour true believer Bolshevik, and Nina, the baby and only daughter, is a free-spirited Trotskyite poet. The story is fairly engrossing, but some issues appeared early on and never stopped.

1.) There’s a serious Forrest Gump feel in the way the characters interact with history. Bulgakov and Mandelstam pop up at parties. Boris treats Stalin when no one else can do it, and he is involved in the shady death and cover up of a (real-life) military officer - an affair that splits Nikita and his friend Vuinovich apart. (As competent military officers, they regularly scorn the amateur Klim Voroshilov, a Stalin crony.) Mary is Georgian so there are scenes in Tblisi where their duplicitous cousin hangs out with Lavrenty Beria and later comes with him to Moscow (where he would eventually become the hated and feared head of the NKVD). Later, Nikita seems to singlehandedly save Moscow and he’s almost portrayed as the most important and competent general (he’s willing to argue with Stalin when even Zhukov is suggesting he go along with the program, his fate is similar to that of Rokossovsky and Nikita is regularly mentioned in connection with him, but he has more to do than Rokossovksy {Konstantin Rokossovsky was a marshal arrested during the purges – he was badly beaten during interrogation, losing multiple teeth, and is sort of the go-to example for “military officer later released who had to work with his oppressors”}). Kirill sees the brutal communal farm collectivization up close. I kept thinking that maybe someone would be at the Katyn massacre for the WWII sections – didn’t happen, but then it gets a mention and there’s a Polish section that goes in a predictable way (it’s Nikita vs. everyone else).

2.) It almost felt like the book was written by an American or British author, as opposed to Aksyonov, who was Russian, born in 1932, and the son of one of the best-known Gulag memoirists, Evgenia Ginzburg. Many of the references feel obvious, not quite correct, or something that makes sense with the hindsight of the present. (For example – the characters don’t like the current Soviet literature, but are excited by translations of Hemingway, Joyce and Proust – rather obvious “good” Western authors; a physicist refers to exciting work being done by Einstein, Bohr…..and Oppenheimer {I’m not sure if he’d even know Oppenheimer at that period, and it felt too foreshadow-y}; some characters go to see WWII-era German movies, noting stars such as….Leni Riefenstahl???? I didn’t even know she’d been an actress, but looked it up – she hadn’t been in anything for several years before the war and was directing. It really seemed like a case of Nazi movies = Riefenstahl). It’s clear that the good characters are associated with Western liberalism and culture. There’s even an American reporter as a POV character at the opening of the book. Some of the slang feels very American, although that could be the translation.

3.) I was very sick of reading about how beautiful Nina and Veronika were and how many men were lining up to be in love with them. As it kept happening, it got more ridiculous and laughable. At the beginning, Nina has a group of men orbiting around her who are all in love with her. Veronika, though married, also has many admirers. Even as the years pass, the author is careful to note multiple times that they were both still very beautiful. There are some men who remain in love with the women for years, even after marrying other people, and there are other men who fall in love with them at first sight. There’s even this – Kirill marries a very unattractive woman (whose unattractiveness and bad hygiene is mentioned as much as Nina and Veronika’s beauty) and when he is away from her, while masturbating, “Kirill never had visions of his wife but rather of a slim, dark-complexioned girl who resembled his sister, if she wasn’t actually her.”

4.) In general, the characters were rather one note with a lot of Mary Sue-ism for the Gradov family members and a slightly squicky stereotyping for other characters. The Gradovs are generally all intelligent and sympathetic, and even the bad things they do are cases of them having no good choices, plus they feel really bad about it. Mary doesn’t have that much to do – she is a stereotypical housewife/stay at home mom, who is loving and caring, but usually nagging and worrying. (Like the other “good” characters, she has Western tastes – her Chopin playing is a family touchstone.) However, Boris, Nina, and Nikita seem to be the best at whatever they do. Boris is the best doctor in the Soviet Union. Nikita may as well be the best military officer, for all that is shown. Nina, besides having binders full of men after her, frequently gets her poems published (I didn’t really like any of the ones that were shown, but very likely could be the translation) and ends up writing a much-loved and popular song on a lark. Kirill, at first, is rather unsympathetic – he’s the family killjoy and also a bit of a poser, but then he has an epiphany and realizes the other Gradovs are right. (In fact, there are several character epiphanies, where they realize the Soviet system is all wrong.)

There are a few characters who are just bad – rather predictably, they are all spies and NKVD members (besides Stalin and co, but that goes without saying). Besides the Gradovs, there are a few other perfect characters, and they are all in the same mode – liberal, Western-influenced men who are the best ever at their thing. Then there are some characters who are…well, good when it comes down to it, and they do care about the Gradovs, but they just aren’t as sympathetic as them. Veronika’s looks are part of her stereotypical character as a shallow, materialistic woman. She’s really concerned with clothes, things, and men being in love with her. She does love Nikita, and is mostly depicted as not at fault for all the bad things that happen to her, but her character stays the same for the whole book. Cecilia, Kirill’s wife, is the opposite – a true believer Communist intellectual, who – since she is an intellectual – is also described as unfeminine, ugly, with poor hygiene, who makes an embarrassing mother. Also, whenever she was there, there were usually references to her being Jewish. This happened with the few other Jewish characters as well. It was part of a slightly uncomfortable, two-faced attitude that seemed to be from the author – “Anti-Semitism is bad, but these Jewish characters are really Jewish, with all these Jewish characteristics!” A lot of the other female characters are pretty stereotypical as well – one who is a passive sex object, a femme fatale, throwaway rape victims. The few characters who have peasant backgrounds are also less sympathetic than the Gradovs – one is one of the evil characters, another is rather anti-Semitic and does considerably worse things (although he gets an epiphany scene as well).

5.)Weird chapters about animals and plants. Although there are occasional references to War and Peace, the author seems to want to distinguish the book from the 19th century format, so adds some modernism in the form of quick quotes from newspapers. Okay, that’s fine. But then there are chapters from animal and plant POVs, sometimes they are reincarnated characters – Lenin is reincarnated as a squirrel. At best, this doesn’t add anything, but at worst, it comes off as ridiculous and puzzling.

I didn't hate the book, but was torn about whether it was more good than bad or more bad than good. The period it is set is interesting, and for the most part the writing flowed well, but I'd have a hard time recommending it. ( )
3 vote DieFledermaus | Mar 26, 2015 |
One of my all-time favorites
  FKarr | May 25, 2013 |
The back cover boasts that this is the best Russian novel since 'War and Peace'. I must dispute this simply because the Russians have produced so many other good novels since then. Nevertheless, this is a grand work.

This is a big sweeping novel, with generations of a Russian family interposed on a backdrop of the turbulent years of the early Russian Revolution all the way up to the mass slaughter of WW2 and fall of 1945, in triumph and fear and exhausted victory. It is something of a cross between 'Doctor Zhivago', 'August 1914', and 'Life and Fate'.

My book seemed almost incomplete at the end. I learned this was because only two volumes of a trilogy were translated for this edition. A bitter disappointment. I yearn for more.

An exemplary book, and a vastly underrated one. 4.5 stars. ( )
1 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Aksyonov, Vasilyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Denis, LilyTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glad, JohnTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hinrichs, Jan PaulTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morris, ChristopherTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rebón, Marta-IngridTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
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Лели-лили - снег черемух,

Заслоняющих винтовку.

Чичечача - шашки блеск,

Биээнзай - аль знамен,

Зиээгзой - почерк клятвы.

Бобо-биба - аль околыша,

Мипиопи - блеск очей серых войск.

Чучу биза - блеск божбы.

Мивеаа - небеса.

Мипиопи - блеск очей,

Вээава - зелень толп!

Мимомая - синь гусаров,

Зизо зея - почерк солнц,

Солнцеоких шашек рожь.

Лели-лили - снег черемух,

Сосесао - зданий горы...

Велимир Хлебников
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Ну, подумать только - транспортная пробка в Москве на восьмом году революции!
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This book encompasses the first two parts of the Moscow Saga trilogy ("Generations of Winter" and "War and Jail"). Please do not combine with "Moscow Saga" or "Winter's Hero".
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