Sweep of modern Russian history comes alive in a novel of family

September 11, 1994|By Stephen Margulies

For some people, to be the object of murderous attention is better than getting no attention at all. It is no wonder that neglected American writers have envied their Russian colleagues! As the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam noted, the Russian government cannot be said to neglect the country's writers, since it has murdered so many of them.

Even in the more "vegetarian" period that came after the death of Joseph Stalin, a major novelist like Vassily Aksyonov could find himself hauled before Nikita Khruschev on stage in the Kremlin in front of the assembled Politburo. The angry bear-like premier waved his heavy paws threateningly and roared his displeasure at Mr. Aksyonov's whole generation. It is hard to imagine even Lyndon Johnson doing that to, say, Norman Mailer.

Mr. Aksyonov, born in 1932, belongs to the talented generation of Russian writers associated with "The Thaw," a brief summer of relative leniency that warmed the arts and private life in the late '50s and early '60s. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andrei Sinyavsky and Joseph Brodsky all had a chance to bud and even bloom a bit then, before the bitter ice of tyranny came back.

Starting off as a doctor, Mr. Aksyonov became an exuberantly prolific writer of essays, novels, and plays that were hopefully, charmingly obsessed with youth. In love with travel, women and American jazz, Mr. Aksyonov, who has taught at Goucher College, has been compared to J. D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac. He became more and more experimental, combining the traditional magic of folklore with the more modern magic of Vladimir Nabokov and John Dos Passos -- but he never abandoned the Tolstoyan lust for the texture and heft of reality. He wore some of the gaudiest plumage of any of the Russian phoenixes of his generation and was considered the head of the Russian avant-garde.

Like many of the beneficiaries of The Thaw, he was eventually forced to leave the Soviet Union -- in his case, in 1980. Renowned for his novels "The Republic of Crimea" and "The Burn," he is now an amiable, all-curious denizen of Washington's Adams-Morgan district, whose multi-ethnic vitality he has praised in his American memoir, "In Search of Melancholy Baby."

Humor and wild grace

Mr. Aksyonov's work, despite its modernist irony, gives off an energetic decency, a rainbow lilt of steady sanity, the dependable light of humane humor and wild grace. But unlike Kerouac and Salinger, Mr. Aksyonov was born in the depths of the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. His parents were victims of that terror, and both spent time in prison camps.

His mother, the historian Rugenia Ginsburg, shared her Siberian exile with her young son. In her memoir "Journey Into the Whirlwind," she insists that the ability to recall and recite poetry may have preserved both her soul and her body. Poetry may not, after all, be impractical -- especially when the "law of the jungle" stupidly prevails.

And yet, in a way, Vassily Aksyonov has never been more ruthlessly realistic than in his new, ambitious historical novel "Generations of Winter." Supposedly in the tradition of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina," "Generations of Winter" gives us a richly appalling vision of the years of the most intense Stalinist terror, between 1925 and 1945. Vladimir Lenin had died, and the even more bloodthirsty Stalin was starving any hope that the vitality of early Soviet art and life could survive.

Family life

The novel covers the period of Mr. Aksyonov's early childhood, and there may be a bittersweet picture of his own family in the image of the warmly bourgeois Gradov family, though details differ considerably. The family is headed by a distinguished doctor and his Chopin-playing wife, and their kindly stability is in tragicomic contrast with the roller-coaster romanticism of their poet-daughter Nina, as well as the revolutionary ideals of their sons. And then there is the naive Marxism of Cecilia

Rosenbloom, who marries into the Gradov family.

This period may parallel Mr. Aksyonov's own adult experience of The Thaw and its disillusioning aftermath -- though without the earlier period's genocide.

It may be that "Generations of Winter" is really a diabolic parody of Tolstoy. After all, how could Mr. Aksyonov, the vibrant modernist, write a traditional generational novel, one of many written by Soviet writers in the 20th century -- novels that are often ersatz versions of the more authentically inspired 19th-century tomes? Is Mr. Aksyonov competing with the more bearded, more Tolstoyan, far more conservative Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Is he driven by moral and artistic desperation to thoroughly botanize upon his family roots?

Assuredly, the novel's narrator strides like a sad but fairly cool conqueror over vast geographical, historical and moral territory. We get almost jokey descriptions of the struggle between grim Stalinists and the more flamboyant Trotskyites.

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