Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360
The young people in Vassily Aksyonov’s novel are all deciding what should be the appropriate next steps after finishing high school. Growing up in the 1950s Soviet Union, they face extreme pressure to fulfill social expectations, which means following both their families’s wishes and obeying Communist Party directives. Commitment to the larger national cause has been the dominant influence their entire lives, as they are reminded of the sacrifices the older generation made for them during World War II. While they can be reasonably confident their future lives will be relatively free of deprivation, they are not entering a market-driven, consumer society. Their limited choices are always shaped by placing the needs of the collectivity first.
One close-knit group of four friends decides to postpone higher education or a professional career path. Instead, they want to get to know their country and their inner selves. Despite facing stern parental opposition, they stick with their plan, opting to travel together to the Baltic provinces. In an Estonian fishing village, they find employment and limited satisfaction. For the three young men, working as commercial fishing hands gives them respect for the working class, as they realize the heavy toll that manual labor takes. At the same time, they are concerned with their social lives; two of the four, Dimka and Galya, begin a romantic relationship. She is the only girl in the group, which stimulates some jealousy among the boys. This is exacerbated when an older man they meet takes an interest in her.
The novel is an interesting portrait of a segment of Soviet society at a particular point in time. Each of the characters fits a particular slot: the characters are an athlete, a writer, an actor, and one apparently well-rounded type whom we suspect will become a scientist, like his brother. It is interesting to consider the novel in contrast to coming-of-age novels about the United States in this era, notably The Catcher in the Rye, in regard to nationally-based societal expectations. In this novel as well, it is a brother’s death that stimulates a change of direction in the protagonist, whose individuality cannot be quashed.