Nina is brutally beaten during a student demonstration against the brutality of Stalin and Trotskyism. These scenes all serve to show the brutality of the Stalin regime, and how it affected the freedoms of the people of Russia. They had no freedoms; they could not even speak out about their beliefs or abuses.
The Third Intermission brings this lack of personal freedoms home dramatically, by reprinting some of the "laws" governing the people. They tell the people what plays they will watch, what books they will read, and what they will believe. "Religious believers are subject to examination by a special commission set up to handle evasion of service" (Aksyonov 114). It is a dark part of the novel, and sets the pace for the remainder of the First Volume, which leads up to World War II. It shows us there are dark days ahead for Russia, and of course for the Gradov family, too.
As the Stalin regime becomes more ruthless, Nikita is charged with being "anti-Stalin," and he is beaten unmercifully and arrested, then sent to a gulag. "Then again, they didn't even feel like blows to him. It seemed like some sort of glittering battle taking place on a red-hot surface. Flashes and shellbursts all over the sky" (Aksyonov 195). He is not shot, as he supposes, but eventually he is sent to fight with the Russian front, and is killed during this war.
Veronika, his wife, is also sent to a camp, and survives by participating in the camp drama club, and having an affair with Major Koltsov, the camp commandant. "Koltsov made her sick to her stomach: a damp red mouth, a nose like a bird's beak, raven black bangs, greedy and sluggish extremities" (Aksyonov 385). She gains her freedom by "selling" herself to Koltsov, who sets her up in a large flat on Gorky Street with her two children.
Nikita is seeing a nurse when he regains his high position and command, and says that his love for his wife ended long before the war. "It seemed as though the three of them in the large flat on Gorky Street - Veronika, Bobka IV, and Verulka - had nothing to do with his present life, belonging rather to the past in which a phantom named Nikita Gradov moved, though not the real Nikita, the commander of the Special Strike Force" (Aksyonov 424). Special forces, who feel he has gained too much power, kill Nikita in a raid.
Boris, his son, runs away from home, and joins the Home Army, trying to defend Poland from the Nazis, but Poland does not like the Russians, and does not trust them. Boris is "lost" to the family, working in a special unit, even after the war, they have no communication with him. Veronika decides to leave Russia, and follow her lover to America.
Another interesting device the author uses throughout the book is the narration. Sometimes, the story takes place in the present, and the characters speak to each other as the action occurs. At other times, the narration looks back in an overview of what happened, and almost seems as if it is a newspaper report, or was written by someone else, who does not appear in the story, but watches the action from the outside. This tactic gives these scenes a dreamlike quality, as if they are not really happening, but are simply scenes that help move the plot and the story along.
Winter is also an important theme throughout the book. The title represents this - the many winters of the Gradov family throughout the novel, and the dark winters they face as they try to survive during this pivotal time in Russian history. "But why winter? Climate, even in any extended sense, plays little more than an incidental role in the narrative, yet surely the author must have felt strongly about such an attribution. The answer most likely lies on the other central plane of the novel, namely Aksyonov's evocation of the power and wonder that is Russia's culture, especially its literature" (Reid).
This book, rather than becoming a dry rendition of Russian history with fictional characters thrown in, becomes a saga of a family trying to survive during the worst of times. Their lives are not the same at the end of the book as they were at the beginning. Some of them are older and wiser. Some of them are gone forever. All of them have served the purpose of the author well. They have shown the reader how the Russian people lived in the first half of the 20th century. They have shown the struggles, the fighting, and the brutality that followed the Russians every day. These people are strong, courageous, and have hopes and dreams just like anyone else. Their story is one of persistence, great sacrifice, and finally continuation of the family that is left.
Aksyonov, Vassily. Generations of Winter. Trans. John Glad and Christopher Morris. New York: Random House, 1994.…