Near the end of her memoirs of Stalin's gulag, the writer Eugenia Ginzburg describes an extraordinary scene. She had just finished many years' imprisonment in Ko lyma--the harshest, coldest, most feared region of the vast labor camp system, in the far northeast corner of Siberia, not far from Alaska. Like most newly-released prisoners, Ginzburg had to remain in internal exile for some years more. Her husband had also vanished into the gulag, and, while she was in prison, one of her two sons had died in the siege of Leningrad. But the authorities permitted her surviving son to join her in exile. In 1948, he made the long trip to Kolyma, a 16-year-old with a knapsack on his back. She had not seen him for 11 years, and greatly feared they would have nothing in common. But "I found myself catching my breath with joyful astonishment when that very first night he started to recite from memory the very poems that had been my constant companions during my fight for survival in the camps."
To Russian readers the scene is even more moving, because they know that this tall, thin teen-ager with his knapsack grew up to become Vassily Aksyonov, one of the best-loved dissident writers of the 1960s and '70s.
Aksyonov stayed on in Kolyma with his mother for several years. There has been surprisingly little about the world of the gulag in his books so far, even though he left the reach of Soviet censors when he moved to the United States 14 years ago. He used a little of his Kolyma experience in his surreal 1980 novel "The Burn," but there and in other books, his characteristic voice has been one of satire, fantasy and the grotesque, bold stylistic experimentation and comic use of slang. Some call Aksyonov a Russian J.D. Salinger.
"Generations of Winter" is a startling departure from all this. Except for occasional flourishes, its form is that of classic late 19th-Century realism, something as unexpected from Aksyonov as it would be from Salinger or Pynchon. As in what is clearly its model, "War and Peace," the narrator is omniscient, and historical characters--Stalin, Molotov, Beria and others--stroll through the pages along with home-grown ones. Although Aksyonov's characters are not as memorable as Tolstoy's (whose are?), this is as absorbing as any novel I have come across in the last few years. I read it past bedtime at night and before getting to work in the morning, and found my mind wandering off to it during the day.
One reason people write fewer traditional realist novels these days is that modern readers are jaded. Film, radio, first-person journalism, prying biographers and, above all, TV, have saturated us with reality. And so who are you, impudent novelist, to make up details about a prisoner's interrogation, or about what food was served at a Kremlin reception, or about what passed through Stalin's mind as he greeted his guests?
Aksyonov, however, has the authority to tell all this, and much more. His father was a high party official and member of the Central Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. Both his parents spent many years in the gulag. Aksyonov himself grew up among exiles, the bereaved and survivors. Yet even if we did not know all this about him, we would hear no false notes in this novel. Everything rings true. Take this passing description of well-to-do players on a Moscow tennis court in 1930: "All three were representatives of the 'famous lawyer' type, a class that had survived the Revolution, returned fully to life, and now would take any case except one involving the defense of an accused man."
"Generations of Winter" pans across a quarter century of Soviet history, from 1921 to 1945. At center stage is the Gradov family, and their children, friends and relatives, all members of that caste which in Russia has always thought of itself as a race apart, the intelligentsia. Boris Gradov is a distinguished surgeon; his wife Mary is a pianist. Under the steadily darkening sky of those years, their dacha on the outskirts of Moscow is an oasis of music, books, poetry, good food and spirited talk.
The times sweep several of the Gradovs into prison, or into World War II, or, in one case, both. Army general Nikita Gradov, the eldest son, is arrested in Stalin's Great Purge of the late 1930s. After four years as a slave laborer in the gold mines of Kolyma, emaciated and barely alive, he is plucked from the gulag and given a high army command. A story most improbable--except that such things happened. Some of the officers who led the Red Army to victory, such as Gen. (later Marshal) Konstantin Rokossovsky and Gen. Alexander Gorbatov, had been half-starved prisoners a few months before. Russian history has always been stranger than fiction.