Fyodor Abramov was awarded the State Prize of the U.S.S.R. in 1975 for his trilogy of life on a rural commune, The Pryaslins, of which Two Winters and Three Summers is the second volume. “Begin at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop,” was the King’s advice to Alice, but Harcourt Brace Jovanovich prefers to start in the middle, perhaps because Deming Brown wrote in his Soviet Russian Literature Since Stalin: “If Two Winters and Three Summers had been written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it would have immediately been translated in the West and proclaimed a masterpiece.” Not all readers may agree.

The narrative centers on life on a rural commune in the years after World War II, when it begins to sink in that the good life Stalin promised is still not on the horizon. The protagonist, Mikhail, tries to keep his family and commune together but sees both dissolving under the pressures of grinding poverty and an equally grinding central bureaucracy. At the end of the book, one of the few good workers is hauled away forever because he is a Christian; Mikhail’s beloved sister, Liza, decides to marry a loutish jerk with good Party connections; and the family’s cow dies. I know. You are smiling. But all three are tragedies of the first magnitude, although Liza’s marriage does at least get them a new cow. The narrative is slow-paced and depressing, but interesting as a clear, if simple, vision of Russian life and as an example of the Russian genre of “village prose.”

The translation is a disaster. The original is permeated with authentic regional peasant dialect. The translators decided to reproduce this with the corniest 1930’s slang. The diction is loaded with “Kicking the bucket,” “Bold as brass,” “Quit blubbering,” etc. This twenty-three skadoo English—false to any feeling of rural concreteness—gives the reader the irritating impression of reading the script for a Hollywood B movie—The Dead End Kids in Russia, with Huntz Hall as Mikhail. Authenticity is sought through the preservation of a few transliterated Russian words, e.g., kolkhoz and kolkhozniki for “commune” and “communard.” The translators give us the transliteration of the Russian measure that equals two thirds of a mile, with results “You could smell . . . verst away.” There are a few notes, one of which tells us what “Stakhanovite” means.

Mercifully, Abramov died in 1983, before he had to endure the sight of his masterpiece sporting the bizarre zoot suit it now wears in the United States of America. 

Two Winters and Three Summers by Fyodor Abramov; Translated by Jac queline Edwards and Mitchell Schneider; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; San Diego.