World War II in Vasilij Aksenov’s Moskovskaja saga

During the long decades of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union downplayed the role of the other power in the defeat of Nazi Germany. To be sure, the victorious wartime alliance became a convenient reference point in the rhetoric accompanying the policies of peaceful coexistence and detente in the 1960s and 1970s. But each side’s school curricula, press, and popular culture cannot be said to have given historical life to the military successes of the other ally, victories which, at the time, occasioned celebration and congratulations on the home fronts. The reasons for this amnesia need no elaboration in an abstract. The alliance was a marriage forced by necessity; in Gleb Struve’s striking formula, it “was no more than a co-belligerency” directed against the Third Reich, after which the victors pursued their own geopolitical agendas. However, as the United States and post-Soviet Russia now engage in a partnership beset by thorny misunderstandings and unreal expectations, we should look anew at the two European fronts in that epic struggle between 1941 and 1945, and artistic representation can be of significant help in the task. This paper will analyze the depiction of World War II in Vasilij Aksenov’s Moskovskaja saga (1993–94) and will try to show that depiction to be many-layered, all-embracing, and faithful to the huge dimensions of the war on Soviet territory, a dense chronicle which tells of a criminal Soviet leadership saved by legions of valorous men and women, many of whom were turned into beasts and traitors by the cruelty of the war.

Aksenov focuses powerfully on the unique savagery of the fighting on the Eastern Front, due largely to the enemy’s doctrine of Aryan supremacy over Slavs and the Jews living in the Soviet Union. At the same time, though, the author gives us the tragic story of how the Russians then victimized their Slavic neighbors to the West. Notwithstanding Aksenov’s understandable preoccupation with the Eastern Front, the novel throbs with the sense that the world is at war, and it sympathetically—and, often, ironically—attends to the important military operations in North Africa, Italy, Normandy, and the Pacific.

Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan (1998) can serve as an instructive contrast to Aksenov’s achievement in Moskovskaja saga. The famous director may have wished to use his considerable cinematic and narrative gifts only to make a fine film about an American squadron in action on D-Day and in the days following the Allied invasion of Normandy. Accordingly, the film almost entirely lacks the sense of a continent in the throes of an immense war. It is not Spielberg’s fault that the American media then hailed the film as the definitive teaching device for younger generations of Americans whose knowledge of World War II is minimal or non-existent. Those demographic cohorts would benefit much from a reading of the fine translation into English—Generations of Winter (1994)—of the first two volumes of Aksenov’s Moskovskaja saga. My paper will try to demonstrate the ecumenical, global dividends which such readers will receive—dividends much multiplied by a reading of Aksenov’s work in its original, inimitable Russian.