The Winter’s Hero

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

Imagine a writer who combines the epic sweep of Leo Tolstoy and the absurdist satirical genius of Nikolai Gogol while tackling the horrors of three decades of Stalinism and readers will begin to understand the art of the Russian emigre novelist Vassily Aksyonov. Then imagine that same writer eschewing the romanticism of films such as DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965) and the lyrical intensity of BURNT BY THE SUN (1993) in favor of levity of a blackly humorous kind that proves just as effective as (and more artful than) the heavy-handed moralizing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and readers will have an even better idea of THE WINTER’S HERO, the concluding volume of a trilogy which retells history with a human (often smiling, at times leering) face.

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The first two parts of the trilogy appeared together in 1994 under the title GENERATIONS OF WINTER and focused on the purges of the late 1930’s and the war for which the Soviet Union was so ill-prepared in part because its best military commanders had been either imprisoned or executed. Aksyonov tells his tale from a variety of viewpoints: history as seen and experienced chiefly by the Gradovs, a family that represents a cross-section of the Russian intelligentsia of the time (a doctor, a poet, a general, a Marxist ideologue, etc.). They are well educated, reasonably well off, and committed to the country’s future. Not even their advantages, connections, and good looks and deeds, and even better intentions, can entirely protect them from the whims of Marxist farce, Stalin-style.

THE WINTER’S HERO takes the tale farther along, up to the deaths of Stalin and of Aksyonov’s titular hero, Dr. Gradov, and pretends to be a somewhat lighter work. The comedy proves deliberately deceptive, however, lulling the reader into a false sense of security the better to underscore the horrors of a world both vast and claustrophobic in which power can be exercised so whimsically and so ruthlessly and a Beria (head of the secret police) be both clown and monster. Modeled to some degree on Aksyonov’s own family, the Gradovs are people who make the best of a bad, indeed perverse, situation and who survive less because of heroic acts than of chance events and absurd interventions. Theirs is a qualified heroism in any case, invariably inspiring but rarely effective and always measured against past failings. The result is a novel that doubles as history and family saga in which an often funny and fast-paced surface is played off against a deeply moving undercurrent of, if not anger and despair, then sadness and skepticism.

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