Friday, February 2, 2007

Generations of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov

I have yet to see the series 'Moskovskaya Saga' (which is based on this book) but I heard both good and bad about the book itself. A few of my family members read the 3 volumes in Russian and as of today I am almost done with the second volume, which more or less is what this book in English is (the first two volumes up until 1945). I agree with other reviews that having trees, horses, dogs, etc do some of the thinking and talking gets distracting and takes away from the story. I am also giving the book 4 stars because of the immense amount of inaccuracies that abound this book when it comes to WWII.

Now, before you call or label me a perfectionist I'd like to first ask you to consider the following: is it important for you to know every label and piece of clothing in a character's closet? Or every piece of food on the table that Stalin and Beria are sitting at? Then it should be just as important to name the correct tank and its atributes, the correct number of men in an army (or at least a good estimate from the time you are discussing) and a correct description of the people you are talking about (this goes in hand with the idea that if Stalin is a tyrant he is at least a smart one, give credit where it is due if you are going to follow history).

Some might already be lost but let me explain the failings of the description of WWII in the book. First we are presented with the 'fact' or 'idea' that no Red Army tank can stand up to German Mrk III and Mrk IV (Pz III & IV) tanks. That is absurd, the T-34 and KV tanks were better than anything the Germans had during the beginning year of WWII. Later on you will notice that the author gives credit to the T-34 being in fact better than German Mrk IV (Pz IV) tanks. I was absolutely amazed to see a reference to an "IS Stalin" tank in 1941, especially one that said it was the worst thing ever created and could only travel 8mph. In fact the IS tank (Stalin is already implied in the name since IS stands for Ioseph Stalin, sometimes also refered to as the JS) was one of the best tanks to come out of the Red Army and WWII and didn't make an appearance until around 1944, they weren't even present during the famous Kursk battle in the summer of 1943.

The wonderful Nikita Gradov is given credit for standing up to Stalin during one of the planning sessions for operation 'Kutuzov'. In fact the real man who stood up to Stalin was K.K. Rokossovsky (in fact much of what is written about Nikita reminds me of Rokossovsky). The problem here isn't only that Rokossovsky's actions are attributed to Gradov but the fact that the author names this operation "Kutuzov" when in reality it was operation "Bagration" that this episode happened over, yet at the same time the time reference, 1943, is correct for Kutuzov since Bagration took place in the summer of 1944 (perhaps the author simply needed the time and actions to match up with the story timeline, I hope this doesn't confuse you too much).

One of the newspaper reports he presents in the book announces that Vlasov's Army (which was under German Command) went over to the Red Army and helped take Narva. This is of course fiction, I would think he made it up as the history of Vlasov's movement goes until the end of the war when a division of the Russian Liberation Army did in fact turn on the Germans and helped liberate Prague. This did not save them, in the end Vlasov was caught, tried as a traitor, and executed (all of which is described in the book later on). The author presented the reader with Zhukov's 'thoughts' about Voroshilov and Zhukov calling him a coward, well at least in his head he calls him one. This takes away from the fact that while Voroshilov was an 'old horse' in the Red Army and perhaps one of Stalin's 'favorites' he was not a coward at all. During the defense of Leningrad he was out on the front lines encouraging men to attack and counter-attack, in the midst of bullets, artillery, and mortars. While he might have blood on his hands from the purges, there is no reason to make a man out to be worse than he is or a coward when he isn't one.

The truth is better than fiction. In general I think the author has something against Zhukov, as if the man doesn't deserve the credit that is given to him even today by some who consider him the best commander to come out of the Red Army and WWII in general. Lastly (at least from what I can recall off the top of my head) no army in 1941 had 300,000 men in it, and there was no 'SSF' "Special Strike Force". I can overlook "SSF" but I can't overlook that such a huge number would be assigned to it or that it miraculously encircled an entire German Army during the winter of 1941/42. At least stick to history if you're going to be writing about it.

While the first half of the book was interesting, and yet again I am tired of reading about those bad bad NKVD men who do nothing but torture and execute (when in fact during the war they were in divisions that fought right alongside the Red Army) the stories were touching and interesting and definitely kept me in suspense as I tried to read just a few more pages before turning in for the night. Worth the read to get aquainted with the time period, but take it with a pound of salt. Ideologies are a touchy thing, the authors mother was Evegnia Ginzburg who suffered in the Gulag camp system so there is evidence enough to understand that the author isn't writing an unbiased work I just can't understand why he needs to rewrite WWII to present his viewpoint.

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