The Meaning of Generations of Winter
By Bryan Caplan
Vassily Aksyonov was a Soviet dissident writer and GMU professor. His most famous work was probably Generations of Winter, a sprawling historical novel about three generations of a Soviet family. GMU history professor Steven Barnes, a great admirer of the book, doesn’t just assign the book in his class on modern Russian and Soviet history; an original essay on the book is the course’s most important assignment. While I rarely quote undergraduate work, Tristan Caplan’s piece on Generations of Winter is brilliant. All paternal bias aside.
The essay begins by highlighting the seemingly minor character of Western journalist Townsend Reston.
The character of Townsend Reston carries Aksyonov’s message that socialism was an inherently oppressive system of governance which both led to and supplied an ideological justification for the Stalinist regime. His accounts attest to the enormous fear of criticizing the Stalinist regime and the success of propaganda efforts in deceiving the world during Stalin’s dictatorship. Further, Reston plays a unique role as a foreigner and the only vocal anti-Soviet character in the novel, never falling prey to the propaganda and remaining stalwart in his opposition to the Stalinist regime. By acting as an outside observer, largely immune to not only reprisals but propaganda, he alone appears capable of seeing things for what they really are. He despises not only Stalin but the Soviet Union as a whole. He clearly believes, unlike any other character disillusioned with the Soviet Union, that Stalin did not betray socialism but exemplified what it entailed in practice.
Why was Stalinism so successful? Because even most of his critics still broadly accepted socialist ideals:
Reston’s experiences also confirm the belief that Stalin’s propaganda machine worked remarkably well. Aksyonov draws a stark contrast between Reston’s decidedly anti-Soviet stance, despite the fact that he nevers suffers personally at Stalin’s hands, and the Gradov family’s generally pro or at least not anti-Soviet political views. It is in this contrast that one can see the success of Stalinist propaganda. No member of the Gradov family, even in their thoughts, expresses vehement hatred of the system which has so ruined their lives. Influenced by socialist thought, personal tragedy is not enough to unite the Gradovs in opposition to Stalin. When, for example, Nikita Gradov is sent to the gulag his own brother Kirill wonders whether he deserved such a punishment: “… hadn’t he always noticed a certain, say, insufficiency of ideological conviction on the part of his brother?” (200) Much of the West proves easily fooled as well, failing to recognize the similarities between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union: “Alas, this simple idea [that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had many parallels] was given no consideration by the liberals. Even Feuchtwanger, who had fled the Nazis, applauded the Soviets.” (270) Aksyonov thus portrays socialist propaganda as so effective that it could turn a family against itself and convince the west of the Soviet Union’s benignity. He suggests that Stalin’s propaganda efforts worked because Soviet-style socialism had immense appeal to both native Russians and the Western intelligentsia, which in turn painted the USSR in a favorable light.
Reston, in contrast, embraces the moral equivalence of the USSR and Nazi Germany:
Most notable, however, is Reston’s loathing of not just Stalin but socialism in general. He does not consider Stalin to be the root cause of the tyranny and repression he witnesses. It is the ideology of the Soviet Union, socialism, which he most fundamentally detests… He remains dubious of the government’s good intentions, hinting at his distrust of not just Stalin, but the entire socialist system he controlled. Likewise, when his translator asks him if he is sympathetic toward “our country,” his response is shockingly blunt: “‘No, I’m not,’ growled Reston under his breath.” (101) Aksyonov’s word choice is striking. The translator could just as well have asked Reston whether he was sympathetic towards Stalin, but instead reveals that Reston’s hatred of the Soviet Union evidently goes far beyond its leadership; he abhors the socialist principles it is based on. Other characters, such as Nina Gradov, despise Stalin but support the Soviet Union as a whole, merely wanting a different man to lead the nation. For Reston, the problem is far more fundamental. He holds socialist doctrine, the ideological core of the Soviet Union, chiefly responsible for the nation’s tragedies.
Reston even goes so far as to compare the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany, arguing that they are both tyrannical socialist regimes: “The Western intelligentsia rejected the racist variety of socialism but had easily taken the bait based on class.” (270) The wording here is key. Through Reston’s internal monologue, Aksyonov implies that the evil of both oppressive governments stemmed from their adherence to socialism, and he does not mention the far more commonly used word “totalitarianism” to describe Stalin and Hitler’s dictatorships.
But why write a whole essay about Reston? Because he’s the novel’s sole superforecaster.
While Reston’s experiences and stated political beliefs all paint the Soviet Union and Stalin in a negative light, he is a relatively minor character, especially when compared to pro-Soviet ones such as Cecilia Rosenbloom or Nina Gradov. So why think he embodies the moral that Aksyonov is trying to teach his readers? Simple: unlike any other character, he predicts the Soviet Union’s grim future almost perfectly and exhibits next to no naivety. In his first appearance with Ustryalov, who argues that the Bolsheviks will soon sacrifice their ideals and the USSR will be westernized, Reston remains doubtful. He is subsequently vindicated when, years later, Ustryalov is so afraid to speak with a Westerner he does not dare to let Reston interview him: “Does this mean your theory has collapsed, Ustryalov?” (114) Likewise, Reston foresees the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact at a time when the Soviet Union was an avowed enemy of Nazi Germany: “Despite the fact that the two regimes now anathematized each other, there would be a rapprochement between them in the very near future.” (270) He even forecasts the upcoming anti-Semitism which would break out following World War II, culminating with the Doctors’ plot (1952-1953): “Of course, for the time being Stalin was not crushing the Jews, but he’d get around to it eventually.” (270) Reston correctly takes official Party doctrine with a grain of salt and realizes what is in store for the Soviet people while the native Soviet characters remain naively optimistic and unsuspecting of the true horrors they will soon suffer through. That Reston was right about concrete historical events implies he was also right to abhor socialism and see it as the root cause of Stalinist tyranny.
How, though, does Reston’s critique of socialism remain relevant today? Because while few young socialists want Stalinism, they’re also too intellectually negligent to not want Stalinism. They’re too eager for radical change to spend much time studying the radical changes that have already been tried.