Unlike older Soviet writers such as Pasternak who spent their formative years before Soviet power was established, with all its deadly erasings of historical memory, and unlike his younger contemporaries, who were cured of Leninist delusions by the bitter pill of the Gulag, Vasily Grossman was the product of a purely Soviet milieu. For most of his life, he remained an establishment writer—or so it seemed, even though he was one of the most talented of Soviet war reporters. He died in 1964, not long after writing Life and Fate, which gives one of the most deeply subversive accounts of the Soviet establishment yet published.
Born in 1905, in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, into a family of assimilated Jews, Grossman was launched into a literary career by the guru of socialist realism Maxim Gorky himself, and for years scribbled the correct stuff. He had talent, and talent occasionally glitters even through the optimistic gloom of the formulas of socialist realism he followed in his early plays and stories: an imaginative passage here and there comes alive, a stereotype now and then does something untypical.
The inward struggle of the artist against the caterer of pedagogical examples may have come to the surface in Grossman’s work more often than in the work of other socialist realists. But basically the concoction was the same: the pseudodrama of the “positive” characters engaged in a scramble with “negative” ones, played against an industrial, agricultural, and later intellectual back-ground, and leading inevitably to the victory and ideological ripening of the hero. The message is one of class consciousness and Party mindedness (English, fortunately, has as yet no natural word for this concept), militantly rejecting wavering intellectualism, the “philosophical garbage” which is not “worth a good worker’s boot,” as the heroine of Grossman’s play If You Believe the Pythagoreans puts it.
He wrote such lines at the time of the man-induced famine in his native Ukraine; he wrote at least one story set in that country precisely at the time when hunger-crazed peasant women resorted to cannibalism—yet his characters perceive only the rosy horizons of a happy future. His is a Ukraine viewed through the frosted glass window of a Writers’ Club. He peddled his government-issue goods when people were being denounced right and left for crimes no one could commit, and trembled—himself very likely not excluded—in fear of the 4:00 AM knock at the door. He was one of an army of more or less skillful hacks who produced fiction less dependent on reality than the most orthodox of the roman nouveau novelists with their ideal of literature as absolute artifice.
Or was he? Did he really see nothing? Was he devoid of doubt? Hardly. He seems rather to have belonged to that category of youthful enthusiasts who need a punch on the nose to rid themselves of the effects of ideological inebriation. The suffering, even mass suffering, of others, as long as their own skin remains intact, is not enough to shake them into awakening. They need not just personal but private and intimate experience. Even then many, instead of drawing honest conclusions, change from young enthusiasts into middle-aged cynics. It is to Grossman’s credit that he was not one of those.
His private experience began with the death of his mother, who had been left behind in the Ukraine when, in 1941, the victorious German army pushed eastward, deep into Russia. She was Jewish, and under the Nazis shared the fate of her race. It seems that, for the first time in his life, Grossman became aware of his Jewishness. That was the beginning of a long philosophical development. At the end of it stands Life and Fate and the horrifying realization that makes one no longer wonder how Dr. Goebbels could have written his eulogy of Lenin in “Lenin oder Hitler?” and why he recommended to Nazi film makers the study of The Battleship Potemkin: the realization that Leninism and Nazism are two peas in a pod.
That is the underlying theme of Grossman’s huge epic: a comparison of the two systems that is at times subtle, at times so open that one asks oneself whether he was in his right mind when, in 1960, he decided to offer the manuscript to the journal Znamya for publication. But perhaps his decision attests to the strength of the hopes or illusions of the last years under Khrushchev. By that time Grossman had been taught bitter lessons: in 1946, in spite of all his orthodoxy, he was attacked by A.A. Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural executioner, for advocating idealist notions hostile to Marxism-Leninism; in 1953—a case of bad timing indeed—he published a novel, For a Just Cause, whose only ideological fault seems to have been that it was written by a Jew. It came out just as Stalin was moving to launch his own variation of the Final Solution. The viciousness of the attacks on the man who had dared to besmirch the memory of the heroes of Stalingrad by praising them with a Jewish voice seemed to suggest that Grossman—and not only Grossman—would soon be making a final trip north.
Fortunately, Stalin died before he could complete Hitler’s work. The euphoria after the Twentieth Party Congress elevated Grossman from being a “thought criminal” to being a recipient of the “Banner of Labor,” and gave him the daredevil courage, five years later, to offer Life and Fate to Znamya. He submitted it two years before Solzhenitsyn was able to publish One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in Novy Mir, thanks to the editor Alexander Tvardovsky’s presence of mind and to Khrushchev’s fit of distraction.
The provocation had an amazingly happy ending. The frightened editors of Znamya sent the hot manuscript to the Cultural Department of the Central Committee. There it changed hands many times until it finally landed on the desk of Mikhail Suslov. Its explosive main theme—the equation of Leninism and Hitlerism—could not have escaped the sharp eyes of the Party’s top ideological watchdog but, surprisingly, he did not condemn the novel to eternal damnation and instant annihilation. Instead he told Grossman that the work could not be published for another two hundred years. This I see as more than just a form of high praise for a work of art, as some critics have said. Didn’t it also amount to a confession that Grossman was right?
Some critics take academician Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, the Jewish physicist, to be the novel’s main character for he, in many ways, is Grossman’s alter ego. True, Shtrum’s troubles bear a strong resemblance to Grossman’s own case: he is accused of propounding a theory that “contradicts the Leninist view of the nature of matter” (this was an early attack) and that “stinks of Judaism”; he contemplates “self-criticism”; his last-minute rescue depends on Stalin. But for me the pivotal figure in the book is Mostovskoy, a non-Jew, an old Bolshevik captured by the Germans who goes through unspeakable mental anguish when it dawns upon him that Liss, an SS Obersturmbannführer and his interrogator, is actually suggesting that rather than being enemies at opposite ideological poles, the Nazis and the Leninists are really blood brothers. “Do you think the world looks on us with horror and on you with hope and love? No, the world looks on both of us with the same horror.”
The theme is then worked out in a sequence of powerful scenes. At first, the voice of the tempter leads to only a brief shock of recognition, and Mostovskoy immediately repudiates it—but for a fraction of a second he actually doubts “the justice of a great cause.” This split second of doubt unleashes frantic thoughts that are unique in a piece of writing that was intended for publication in the Soviet Union:
What if his doubts were not just a sign of weakness, tiredness, impotence, lack of faith, contemptible shilly-shallying? What if these doubts represented what was most pure and honourable in him?…. What if they contained the seed of revolutionary truth? The dynamite of freedom!
he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that…! He would have to hate Stalin…. More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin…! This was the edge of the abyss.
Indeed it was: especially for Grossman. So he backs away from it and lets Mostovskoy resist the Devil’s temptation. But again: not for long. The next day Mostovskoy reads the confiscated manuscript of a fellow prisoner, the Tolstoyan “holy fool” Ikonnikov, that Liss has found reprehensible and given to Mostovskoy to study. It is a naive but sincere treatise opposing human kindness to hatred and power. “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.” A terrifying thing happens to the old Bolshevik: he finds that “the scribblings of the holy fool arouse the same contempt in himself as they did in the Obersturmbannführer,” and the “confusion and depression that [grip] him [seem] heavier than any physical suffering.”
So far the temptation of Mostovskoy is a dialogus de veritate between himself and Liss (Mostovskoy answers only in his mind, otherwise he mostly remains silent) and, of course, not even the euphoria of the Khrushchev era could numb the author’s instinct for self-preservation to the extent of giving the dialogus a proper, fully stated—and fully incriminating—philosophical conclusion. Instead, Grossman changes tactics. He shifts from reflections and philosophical disputation to other and better resources for fiction. In the POW camp a Major Yershov, together with Mostovskoy and others, is organizing an underground network that aims to start an uprising of the POWs. But Yershov is not a Party member, his class origins are obscure, he is too much of an individualist and too popular with the inmates. So the Communists in the camp decide to liquidate him, as a security risk, but instead of simply killing him they fall back—in true Stalinist fashion—on an intrigue that reads like a no doubt unwitting reminder of the contribution of Communist women to the death of Kafka’s friend, the Trotskyite Milena in Ravensbrück. “A Czech comrade,” explains Osipov, one of the camp’s most astute Stalinists, “who [works] in the office, slipped Yershov’s card into the pile of Buchenwald. He was put on the list automatically.”
Everything rises up in Mostovskoy, he is no longer the man of steel he was before his encounter with the Obersturmbannführer. But once again he controls himself. “I submit to this decision; I accept it as a member of the Party.” Then he remembers the disquieting manuscript of the old Tolstoyan. “I wanted to ask about Ikonnikov,” he continues. “Did the Czech slip his card in too?” “The holy fool?” says Osipov. “He was executed. He refused to work on the construction of an extermination camp. Keyze [a guard] was ordered to shoot him.” Poor Mostovskoy. He suddenly glimpses in the position of Ikonnikov, an ideological “enemy, what he had once found important himself,” and discovers “something strangely alien [in the] action of his friends.”
The damaging comparison of the two ideological worlds is carried mainly through such juxtapositions. At the beginning of Chapter 50, Semyonov, a Red Army soldier, after eleven days on a train to a POW camp, is handed over, almost starved to death, to the Nazi commandant of a railway station. The commandant, a middle-aged German, glances at the dying soldier and turns to his interpreter. “Let him crawl to the village,” he decides. “He’ll be dead by tomorrow. There’s no need to shoot him.” But the soldier survives; a kulak woman takes him into her house. He recovers, they talk about collectivization. The old peasant recalls scenes from the terrible year of the famine:
The young men from the city went from house to house, hardly glancing at the dead and dying, searching cellars, digging holes in barns, prodding the ground with iron bars…. They were searching for the grain hidden away by the kulaks. One sultry day Vasily Chunyak had breathed his last breath. Just then the young men from the city had come back to the hut. One of them, a man with blue eyes and an accent just like Semyonov’s, had walked up to the corpse and said: “They’re an obstinate lot, these kulaks. They’d rather die than give in.”
Other young activists reappear toward the end of the novel. The year is 1937, the beginning of the great purge, the setting is Moscow. Yet the central image of the scene clearly evokes another, equally sinister place:
They had executed people…every night. The chimneys of the Moscow crematoria had sent up clouds of smoke into the night, and the members of the Communist youth organization enlisted to help with the executions and subsequent disposal of the bodies had gone mad.
If the Mostovskoy sequence is a remarkable exercise in making indirect equations between Communists and Nazis, the story of Shtrum is an impressive psychological study. Not of a fully conceived person named Shtrum, but of a human situation that—though to some extent it may occur also in societies where repression is limited to conditions in particular work places—can arise with all its implications and in its all-encompassing character only in modern totalitarian states.
Shtrum lives in a world of lurking fear: not some floating Angst but, as Yevgenya, Shtrum’s sister-in-law, puts it, a very concrete terror “of official institutions.” Once, when still a student, Shtrum
had thrown a copy of Pravda on to the floor and said to a fellow student: “It’s so deadly boring. How can anyone ever read it?” Immediately afterwards he had felt terrified. He had picked up the newspaper, smoothed its pages and smiled weakly…. A few days later [he] had held out another issue of Pravda to that same friend and said animatedly: “Grishka, have a look at the leading article. It’s good stuff.”
He oscillates between the urge to rebel and the instinct for self-preservation, something intimately known to every citizen of a hellish paradise. What makes these people succumb to the dangerous urge?
The answer—and remember the method is juxtaposition—is to be found in another scene that captures a similar situation, this time in a German field hospital. To the overenthusiastic pronouncement of an orderly that the battle of Stalingrad will soon be won, the wounded Lieutenant Bach reacts with dangerous sincerity: “Down there no one thinks it will be over soon,” and after a brief pause he adds: “Just how it will turn out is anyone’s guess.” Then he remembers that hospital personnel are under orders to report on the morale of the wounded, and he practically reverses himself: “It’s more than likely that this is the most important concentration of forces since the beginning of the war, believe me!” What made him make such a dangerous observation in the first place? “No one can understand,” muses the lieutenant,
unless he himself lives in a totalitarian empire. He had repeated these words because he was annoyed with himself for feeling frightened after saying them…. And also out of self-defence—to deceive a possible informer by a show of nonchalance.
Shtrum is a constant victim of this struggle between the compulsion to speak one’s mind and the instinct for self-preservation. Since the military crisis at the time forced the state to tone down its insistence on ideological purity and supplant Party loyalty with old-fashioned Russian patriotism, people say things they would never have had the courage to say “before the war.” But even so, when the most daring speaker in Shtrum’s circle of scientists, Madyarov, goes too far, his fear plays another trick on Shtrum: Isn’t this intellectual daredevil really an informer? An agent provocateur? The suspicion never leaves the academician, and through half the book the name of Madyarov evokes nerve-racking uncertainty. Shtrum’s fright culminates when the new scientific theory he’s worked out—apparently something concerning atomic energy—comes in for increasingly savage criticism. Friends advise him to recant publicly at a session of the academy. This, however, is too much and Shtrum refuses. He then lives through night-marish days alternating between moral euphoria and animal fear, but he holds out; he is mentally preparing himself for a life in some very subordinate position, perhaps—very likely—even for a life (and death) in the ominous regions of the north. He has conquered fear.
But he has not conquered the system. If fear could not morally break him in the end, the cruel kindness of the dictator finally does. He receives a phone call from Stalin—occasionally the great killer did that. Josip Vissarionovich wishes him success in his work. The word immediately spreads all over Moscow. Shtrum expects that people who only yesterday tried to destroy him will now be too ashamed even to look at him. He is mistaken. On his return to the institute they greet him joyfully, look him straight in the eyes as they express their good will. “The most extraordinary thing of all” for Shtrum was “that these people were quite sincere; now, they really did wish him well.”
They really did. No real personal feelings were ever involved in this macabre Grand Guignol of perverted relationships. And Shtrum is trapped. Suddenly he finds himself well-disposed toward even the worst of his recent detractors. “Yes, he would much sooner spend a free evening chatting with Markov than be arguing with Madyarov at one of their [old] gatherings.”
He has finally become one of them—or has he? Not yet, for he still has to morally disgrace himself. And so a new trap is set, as devilish as it is typical: another experience shared by thousands of men and women, indeed, of entire nations—for example, all Czechs and Slovaks after the Soviet invasion of 1968 had to sign a statement of thanks for “brotherly help.” Shtrum’s new, sincere friends ask him to sign an open letter written by them protesting an article by British physicists concerning the case of a Soviet scientist sent to the Gulag for no crime at all. The letter is written in crass Stalinist language and calls the story of the man’s arrest a vicious bourgeois slander. Shtrum knows that it is nothing of the sort, but, hesitating only briefly, he signs. As he does so, he sees a look of amazement on the face of his new friend, the director, which seems to be saying: “How docile this rebel [has] now become!”
Shtrum has at last turned into a true homo sovieticus.
Shtrum’s and Mostovskoy’s stories are the two central plots of Life and Fate. But the novel is not a tightly knit drama of two emblematic characters. Shtrum’s and Mostovskoy’s fates are just chords in what was clearly intended to be a polyphonic dirge for the sufferings of the Russian people, patterned on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. And indeed, everything that we know about the various forms of the Soviet tragedy is in this book. It stretches from bits of tragicomedy and absurdity, like the tale of the military bureaucrat who refuses to issue food to airmen who are to parachute food parcels to an encircled army unit unless the besieged men “sign for what had been dropped by parachute,” to the full tragedies (there is not one cheerful story in the book) of an entire crowd of characters.
At least one more deserves mention because he is important for the book’s underlying theme of equations. He is Nikolay Grigorevich Krymov, a commissar in the Red Army, a Bolshevik so orthodox that he sends a report on the ideological waywardness of Captain Grekov, the excellent commander of the soldiers in a besieged house in Stalingrad—one of those whose valor saved not only the city but eventually, and paradoxically, Stalin’s entire system. Krymov’s ideological purity and steadfastness, like those of many others, are rewarded by arrest, by imprisonment in the Lubyanka and in the end, no doubt, in the Gulag. It is unimaginable what must have gone on in the tortured minds of all the old Bolsheviks whom Pablo Neruda’s “dear friend” Andrei Yanuarevich Vishinski (see Neruda’s memoirs) was accusing of unimaginable high treason.
Krymov’s ordeal is made even more bitter by his cell mate, a sinister man with a sinister name—just a surname, like Frankenstein—Katsenelenbogen. This deranged man is not an SS Obersturmbannführer but a former Chekist. He is beaten by his interrogators “scientifically,” that is with utmost and systematic cruelty, which he enjoys because of its efficiency. He torments Krymov with a grotesque vision of the fusing of the Leninist state with the gulag system into a utopian chimera of what I am inclined to call “really existing communism” (Realkommunismus). Katsenelenbogen speaks “not like a poet, not like a philosopher, but like a prophet,” and envisions an age when
the boundaries [between the gulag and the rest of the state] would finally be erased. The camp would merge with the world outside. And this fusion would signal the maturity and triumph of great principles. For all its inadequacies, the system of camps had one decisive point in its favour: only there was the principle of personal freedom subordinated, clearly and absolutely, to the higher principle of reason…. All that was necessary was to provide intelligent supervision and decent living conditions…. When we can place an equals sign between life on either side of the wire, repression will become unnecessary…. The abolition of the camps will be a triumph of humanitarianism, but this will in no way mean the resurgence of the chaotic, primeval, cave-man principle of personal freedom…. After hundreds of years this system might do away with itself too, and, in doing so, give birth to democracy and personal freedom. There is nothing eternal under the moon… but I’d rather not be alive then myself.
The passage, in all its seeming absurdity, is not so absurd. It describes well the most dangerous, most seductive stage of postrevolutionary development when the butchers have done their killing and instilled fright in everybody, so that all that is needed is “intelligent supervision and decent living conditions.” It is certainly applicable to my old country, now thirty years after the massacres of the Fifties, where uniformed outsiders search in vain for bloody terror because the human soul is invisible, and so is the soul’s blood. It is, of course, also a wild extrapolation of Lenin’s more mystical ravings.
Juxtaposed to Katsenelenbogen’s not unrealistic prophecies is Grossman’s own recalcitrant belief in freedom, which “we didn’t understand…. We crushed it. Even Marx didn’t value it [and yet] it’s the foundation that underlies all foundations.” Recalcitrant but not absolute belief. He has a touch of Orwell’s doubts whether freedom is really human nature; for if biology can produce a race of hornless cows why couldn’t the totalitarians rear a race of freedomless manikins? Is it possible that the Leninist “new man” could really be born? Why not? “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence?” Grossman asks, remembering the Communist youth volunteers who in the suffering of the dying kulaks saw nothing but stubbornness.
Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State is doomed.
Grossman must have been mad indeed to try to have this subversive stuff published in the country where one of the minor characters of Life and Fate sits in the Lubyanka awaiting trial, unable to make out whether he is “being charged with an attempt on Stalin’s life or a dislike of socialist-realist literature.”
Life and Fate is immensely suggestive and provocative, as I have tried to suggest. Grossman, however, was a war correspondent, a first-class journalist, not a novelist in the sense that his idol Tolstoy was. He created memorable images, absorbing essays on political philosophy incorporated into the body of his book, devastating situations for his characters—all the earmarks of a master journalist. The characters themselves, rather than fully realized human beings, are names with problems, ideas, attitudes, and feelings attached to them. Since there are so many in this mountainous book, usually referred to by their confusing first names and patronymics, the reader has trouble remembering whether Ivan Petrovich is a political prisoner or a tank commander. The faces are blurred, the voices in dialogue have no definitive flavor, the characters display hardly any of the “trivialities” that are “precisely what matters,” as Grossman very correctly says about the thoughts of soldiers. For the first two hundred pages or so, the reader has to search for clues in the background in his confusion over so many similar-sounding names. In this respect—and in this respect only—the book is unsatisfactory. Otherwise it is an encyclopedic and evocative commemoration of the situation humaine under the two main ideological dictatorships of our disgusting century.
Grossman was the first journalist in the world to write about a Nazi death camp in “The Hell of Treblinka.” In Life and Fate, David, a small boy walking with a group of other Jews to the “showers” of Auschwitz, carries in his pocket a cherished possession: a chrysalis which has “no wings, no paws, no antennae, no eyes; it just lies there in its little box, stupidly trustful, waiting.” As the Jews approach the open door of the death chamber, David takes “the little box out of his pocket and, without saying good-bye to the chrysalis, [flings] it away. Let it live!” The chrysalis may have lived to become a butterfly. The boy died half an hour later of zyclon-B poisoning.
Grossman’s animals come to life more than his people do, and it is often through them that his message is clearest. In the basement of a Stalingrad house, besieged by the Germans, an unplayful kitten listens to the strange sounds of war, and a group of soldiers offer last-ditch resistance. They will eventually die, and so will the kitten, “believing that life was always just a matter of noise, fire and hunger.”
How else, I wonder, did life appear to the millions of victims of “those who most wish for the good of humanity [but are] unable to diminish evil by one jot?”
July 17, 1986