“Generations of Winter” by Vassily Aksyonov

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Throughout the novel Generations of Winter, the character of Nikita Gradov represents the transformation of Russian soldiers and the sense of duty deemed necessary to be considered the perfect Soviet citizen driving Joseph Stalin’s regime. Through Nikita’s perspective Russia’s militaristic actions and the resulting consequences are portrayed. The NKVD plays a crucial role in shaping Nikita from a soldier in the Red Peasant Army into an almost empty automaton in service to the Stalin regime. A perfect soviet citizen was supposed to be educated and enlightened while being void of psychological struggles.1 While Nikita is both enlightened and educated, he is far from being psychologically sound and stable near the end of his life. Many events shaped his character and they each left emotionally traumatic scars that he would carry with him until the end. His character demonstrates the ideal Stalin-era soldier and citizen, but also provides an understanding that the transformation into this model was neither easy nor effective in all aspects.

In the beginning of his story, Nikita’s brother Kirill describes him as a “simple, old-regime Russian officer.”2 He served as a staff officer for Mikhail Tukhachevsky and in the opening of the book, Nikita has just returned from Kronstadt in 1925. This foreshadows events to come, as history reveals that Stalin eventually placed Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky on trial as a traitor. A purge of military leadership would lead to the regime discharging over 35,000 and executing approximately 8,000 Red Army soldiers.3 The actions in Kronstadt, and his confliction on suppressing those who revolted against the Bolshevik government, weigh heavy on Nikita. Otherwise, he is displayed as happy and content. His wife Veronika gives birth and he is overwhelmed in his emotions of love and joy. The emotions that Nikita expresses in these opening chapters set the stage for the decline in his mental state as the Stalin regime bears down upon all of Russia.

When NKVD officers arrest Nikita, it is because of his relationship to Marshal Blücher, who is commander-in-chief. The entire affair of his arrest gives a brief glimpse into the paranoia spreading throughout the Stalin regime. When Nikita is arrested and assigned to the gulags, it is no doubt a reference to NKVD Order 00447 given during July of 1937. Order 00447 was directed at repressing “former kulaks, criminals, and anti-Soviet elements,” and Nikita is suspected of being the latter of these. Nikita begins to believe that fear and helplessness is devouring everyone in the Red Army, but he maintains a sense of honor-bound duty to Russia.4 Life in the gulag soon eats away at Nikita, but he does not lose hope. His thoughts during this period show the inner resilience that was necessary to survive the hardships of Stalin’s “Era of Terror”. Even through the lens of prison, Nikita remains prideful of his service to the Russian people and to those around him. At one point he notes that even though “police were purging the country of its best people…you were sharing the fate of good men, and not those in the gutter.”5

Nikita’s unrelenting sense of duty and his representation of self-discipline under Stalinism only intensifies as his story, and the history of Russia, progresses. After the implementation of NKVD Order 00486 “On the Arrest of Members of the Families of Traitors to the Motherland” in August of 1937, NKVD officers target Veronika.6 The effects of her arrest and the way her character changes also have a profound impact on Nikita. In the beginning of his imprisonment, his thoughts often move to Veronika and life outside. As time wears on though, he increasingly internalizes his mind to self-preservation. He develops a mantra of “If I still…then I still”, which is a survival technique he uses that expresses if he can still do a certain task, he is still alive.7 His struggle to survive life inside the gulag shows how awful and desperate life under Stalin could be while simultaneously alluding to the resiliency of the Russian people. At one-point Nikita even results to drinking his own urine to treat ulcers on his legs.8 Yet, once again showing that no element or event in history is one sided, his eventual release from the gulag teaches another important lesson about Stalinism.

When World War II breaks out in Europe, Stalin’s release of former soldiers illustrated that the gulags served as a revolving door with the purpose of reeducating and reintegrating citizens back into Soviet society. Nikita Gradov and other soldiers are released to increase troop strength in the Russian Army. Nikita’s release demonstrates that the gulags were not always intended to exterminate opposition in Stalinist Russia. When Nikita is conscripted back into the Red Army under Stalin, he proudly serves his country and does so with little hesitation. Once he is reunited with his wife Veronika though, it is apparent that something has drastically changed in his character. While trying to reintegrate into his personal life, he struggles and fails at rekindling his love with Veronika. The gulags were successful at reprogramming citizens into Stalin’s desired model, but with grave errors in psychological stability. When discussing his life in the gulag with Veronika, Nikita states that he has been turned into a command machine stripped of his human element, only thinking of soldier’s lives in retrospect.9 The psychological damage of the gulags is unmistakable and borders on Stockholm-like tendencies.

Even with his emotional damages, Nikita embodied Stalin’s goal of a well-rounded educated officer in the Russian Army. Lieutenant General Strolio, the chief political officer, noted that Nikita’s “bourgeois, pseudohumanist morality was a strange atavism in a Soviet military leader, but it was based on ‘our interests’ and displayed a clear-eyed vision aimed at the future—and Stalin loved that.”10 However, Nikita’s resolve to Stalinist Russia was not an unchecked emotion. When Russia began their final assault on Poland, Nikita rejected the idea of suppressing the Pols who remain in Poland. With the German retreat and the Russian advance, those who remained in the country defended themselves from both sides. For Nikita, it was reminiscent of Kronstadt all over again. The gulag did not completely erase his sense of humanity and he has mixed feelings about what military action to take. Nikita noted, “Once again I have a terrible choice to make, and this time I can’t find the single-minded resolve I had in 1921…”11

In 1944, Nikita is killed by a German detachment armed with Faust rockets, but his death was inevitable. General Strolio had already contacted SMERSH forces to see to the end of Nikita for his hesitation to eliminate Polish resistance fighters. Nikita Gradov dies as a hero in service to Stalinist Russia, buried with full military honors. His estranged wife is present at his funeral and there is an unsettling aspect of how life had changed for them. Their familial ties and sense of belonging had been stripped away, but Nikita never ceased to represent a strong Russian soldier who personified a sense of duty to his country, even under the repression of Stalin.

 The arc of Nikita’s character from Red Peasant Army officer, to traitor, to Marshal General in the Stalinist army shows the fluidity of Stalinism and how soldiers were viewed as merely pawns on a chess board. Stalin and the NKVD officers cared nothing for the psychological and familial destruction they brought upon Nikita’s life and family. When he was conscripted out of the gulag into Stalin’s Army, it was expected that he would merely follow orders blindly without question. To some extent, the gulag reeducation system accomplished this task, but Nikita’s emotional trauma and sense of righteousness were never extinguished. The path his life took expresses the importance of reeducation in the gulags and the desired outcome for Soviet citizens, especially soldiers, under the oppressive Stalin regime. Although fictional, Nikita Gradov represents the psychological trauma endured by those in Russia under Joseph Stalin.

  1. Steven Barnes, “The Soviet Union under Stalin—Building Socialism and World War II” (lecture, Modern Russia and the Soviet Union, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA, October 10, 2017).
  2. Vassily Aksyonov, Generations of Winter (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 122.
  3. Barnes, “The Soviet Union under Stalin.”
  4. Aksyonov, Generations of Winter, 194.
  5. Ibid., 216.
  6. Barnes, “The Soviet Union Under Stalin.”
  7. Aksyonov, Generations of Winter, 337.
  8. Ibid., 337.
  9. Ibid., 482.
  10. Ibid., 524.
  11. Ibid., 530.

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