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In Search of an Honest Man

Stalingrad

by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, edited by Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan
New York Review Books, 1,053 pp., $27.95 (paper)
Stalingrad, 1942
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Stalingrad, 1942

Since Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate was first published, posthumously, in 1980, it has earned praise as one of the most significant books of our time. Leon Aron called it “the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.” Linda Grant wrote in The Guardian that it was the only book that ever changed her worldview: “It took me three weeks to read it and three weeks to recover from the experience, during which time I could barely breathe.”

What makes this book so remarkable? Modeled on Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, Life and Fate recounts the adventures of soldiers and civilians during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.1 Focusing on the Battle of Stalingrad, it also depicts Russian POWs in a Nazi death camp, a group of Jews on their way to the gas chamber, Nazi officers defending their ideology, and Soviet commissars defending theirs. Like War and Peace, Life and Fate centers on a single family, in this case the Shaposhnikovs. The family matriarch, Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova, sets the moral tone for her numerous children and grandchildren. For her, basic decency and family loyalty matter more than ideology. A Jewish physicist, Viktor Shtrum, married to Alexandra Vladimirovna’s daughter Lyudmila, struggles to solve the mysteries of the atomic nucleus without violating Marxist-Leninist metaphysics and while attempting to justify his compromises with the regime. His brother-in-law Nikolai Krymov, formerly married to Lyudmila’s sister Yevgenia, exemplifies the dedicated Bolshevik. Unflinchingly devoted to an ideology demanding mass killing, he himself is eventually arrested, interrogated under torture, and forced to weigh his conscience against his political beliefs.

The conflict between ideology and human decency shapes the novel from start to finish. As Krymov’s faith in Bolshevik cruelty totters, the German officer Bach’s attachment to Nazi cruelty strengthens. The two ideologies confront each other directly when the Bolshevik Mostovskoy, imprisoned in a Nazi camp, argues with the Russian-speaking SS officer Liss, who points out the uncanny parallels between Nazi and Soviet philosophy, ethics, and political practice. Mostovskoy also argues with an old-fashioned humanist, Ikonnikov, who has transcended his former faith in Christianity and Tolstoyanism to arrive at an ethical stance opposed to ideological thinking. If we regard the twentieth century as an age of ideology, we grasp why Life and Fate has struck many readers as so important.

Although it can be read on its own, Life and Fate is actually the second part of a “dilogy.” It continues the story of Grossman’s earlier novel, Stalingrad, which he was forced to publish under the title For a Just Cause, a phrase that Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had used to describe the Soviet war effort when he announced the German invasion. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s new translation of Stalingrad allows us to trace the earlier trajectory of Life and Fate’s many real and fictional characters. First published when Stalin was still alive, Stalingrad is considerably less explicit than Life and Fate about its ethical and political themes. Even so, it was, by Soviet standards, remarkably bold.

As Alexandra Popoff explains in her new biography of Grossman, by the time he wrote Life and Fate in the late 1950s, he had already published competent, ideologically correct novels and had achieved fame, both in Russia and abroad, as the first serious writer to describe the Holocaust, which he witnessed firsthand as it was unfolding on Soviet territory. Grossman’s reportage included his powerful essay “The Hell of Treblinka,” which was entered into evidence at the Nuremberg trials.

John and Carol Garrard emphasized in an earlier biography of Grossman that Nazi genocide claimed the most important person in his life, his mother, and Shtrum’s agonies over not having saved his mother are closely based on Grossman’s own experience.2 Researchers have discovered among Grossman’s papers two letters he wrote to her long after her death at times when he was especially troubled. She remained his moral touchstone, the one to whom he had to be truthful even when he deceived himself. Shtrum thinks of his mother in just this way.

Beginning in the fall of 1941, Grossman collaborated with the novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, and other prominent Jewish figures in establishing the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which raised money and support in North America for the Soviet war effort. The JAC’s most important project was The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a collection of documents, memoirs, and commentaries on the destruction of Soviet Jews. The book never appeared in the Soviet Union because, ironically enough, of anti-Semitism, which became Stalin’s policy after the war. To suggest that Jews suffered disproportionately under the Nazis was to “divide the dead,” and one had to refer not to Jewish victims but to “Soviet civilians.” Technically, anti-Semitism was still taboo, and so the press attacked “Zionists” and “rootless cosmopolitans,” a category that also included anyone who kowtowed to the West. Scientists had to pretend that all great discoveries had been made by Russians, and they cited Western work at their peril.

After the war the JAC was dissolved, and almost all its members were killed or sent to the Gulag. The Yiddish theater, Yiddish newspapers, and other Jewish cultural institutions were closed, while countless Jews were fired from their jobs or faced arrest for “bourgeois nationalism.” Shortly before his death, Stalin cooked up the Doctors’ Plot: it was claimed that several prominent physicians, mostly Jews, had conspired to murder top Kremlin officials at the behest of American intelligence.3 In December 1952 Stalin declared to the Communist Party Presidium that “every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence,” which meant that they all deserved execution or, at least, a long sentence of hard labor. Khrushchev later recalled Stalin suggesting that “some healthy elements among the workers” should be organized to “take clubs and…give these Jews a beating.” At best, the Jews were to suffer the fate of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, or other despised groups, deported en masse to remote eastern or northern regions where those who survived the journey would be left with little or no means of survival. Only Stalin’s sudden death on March 5, 1953, saved the Jews. A month later, the new leadership admitted that “impermissible means of interrogation”—that is, torture—had been used to extract the doctors’ confessions. Although torture had been a standard interrogation technique since 1937, this was, so far as I know, the first public admission of the practice.

One can therefore imagine the difficulties Grossman faced in 1949 when he tried to publish Stalingrad, with its Jewish hero, many Jewish characters, and discussions of the Holocaust. As Popoff notes, Shtrum’s Jewish name “alone could frighten editors out of their skin.” Grossman’s diary of his three-year campaign to get Stalingrad published shows how one editor after another, at times consulting with high party officials, demanded extensive omissions and additions. Grossman was willing to correct the ideological error of making ordinary soldiers responsible for the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. The correct view was that they succeeded because of the wise directives of the party and Stalin himself. To convey this official truth, Grossman resorted to a socialist-realist device I like to call Stalin ex machina: just when all seems lost, Stalin saves the day. He does not appear in person, but, as in Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned, the heroes read or hear one of his inspiring and instructive speeches.

When Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of the prestigious journal Novy mir, which eventually serialized Stalingrad, suggested that Grossman “make your Shtrum the head of a military retail shop” rather than a great physicist, Grossman asked, “What position would you assign to Einstein?” Grossman records an exchange with another Novy mir editor, Boris Agapov:

Agapov: “I want to make your novel safe…from an ideological standpoint.”

Grossman: “Boris Nikolaevich, I don’t want to make my novel safe.”

Suitably mangled, Stalingrad at last appeared in Novy Mir in 1952. The novel begins on April 29, 1942, with Hitler’s meeting with Mussolini at Salzburg. Hitler boasts of German advances since the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and proclaims that “violence is the…source of all true greatness. I have restored to violence its true meaning.” Mussolini regards Hitler as a buffoon and a “Bohemian psychopath,” and considers his success “a bizarre freak.” With occasional flashbacks to earlier events, we learn how Grossman’s Russians react to their army’s constant retreating and at last make a stand at Stalingrad, a decision they contrast with General Kutuzov’s decision to abandon Moscow to Napoleon (which is described in War and Peace). The novel concludes in the summer of 1942 with the Battle of Stalingrad underway and with Russians having found the resolve to resist successfully. That achievement forms the central plot of the novel.

When Pravda attacked Stalingrad for having too many Jews, the Novy mir editorial board apologized for publishing a work based on “a profoundly erroneous ideological conception.” Grossman’s life was in great danger, but after Stalin’s death the immensely popular novel was reprinted as a book in 1954 and again in 1956, though with appropriate changes as official ideology evolved.

No version, published or unpublished, fully accords with Grossman’s conception, and some manuscripts include splendid passages that have never been published. The editors of this English translation therefore chose to include as much fascinating material as possible, carefully indicating in an afterword the versions to which particular passages belong. The result is the most complete, most interesting, and artistically finest version of Stalingrad in any language.

Vasily Grossman
Ryumin/V.I. Dahl State Museum of the History of Russian Literature
Vasily Grossman, Armenia, 1961

Grossman believed that writers must, above all, tell the truth as they see it, which was, of course, impossible under Soviet conditions. Early in his career, Popoff relates, he appealed to the influential Maxim Gorky for help in getting his first novel published. “I wrote the truth,” Grossman pleaded. Gorky replied with the standard Soviet distinction between empirical truth and the higher truth of communism. “It is not enough to say, ‘I wrote the truth,’” Gorky instructed. “We know that there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates. But this truth is being replaced by another truth that has been born and continues to grow.”

Grossman could not answer Gorky, but in Stalingrad he includes a conversation in which one member of the Shaposhnikov family, Marusya, tells her artistic sister Yevgenia to paint something resembling ideologically clear posters. “I know…you’ll start going on about truth to life,” Marusya says.

How many times do I have to tell you that there are two truths? There’s the truth of the reality forced on us by the accursed past. And there’s the truth of the reality that will defeat that past. It’s this second truth, the truth of the future, that I want to live by.

Another character, Sofya Osipovna, responds to Marusya: “I can tell you as a surgeon that there is one truth, not two. When I cut someone’s leg off, I don’t know two truths…. If you chase after two truths, you won’t catch either.”

In Stalingrad, Grossman relies on the technique Russians call “Aesopian language,” which hints at (or allegorizes, like Aesop’s fables) the unsayable. Life and Fate and Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, insist explicitly that Communism and Nazism are mirror images of each other, but Stalingrad could not. Instead it criticizes the Nazis for faults that readers would recognize as equally characteristic of the Soviets. One Nazi officer complains that “free scientific thought has been trashed….We have renounced universal truth, morality and humanity…. There is no place in Germany for bold minds and free spirits.” Then he cautions, “Only please forget all this…. You probably can’t begin to imagine the vast, invisible net that envelops us all. It catches…the most casual words, thoughts, moods, dreams and looks.”

When a Russian chemist who has just visited Nazi-controlled Austria reports that everyone fears everyone else, even their own families, Grossman’s readers may have recalled that Soviet children were taught to inform on their parents and that wives were arrested for “non-denunciation” of their husbands. His readers may also have appreciated the chemist’s complaint that the fascists condemn the morality of humanism and compassion, since the Soviets also rejected such universalist, rather than class-based, values. When Shtrum suggests the chemist publish his observations, he is reminded that since the Nazi–Soviet pact of 1939, the Germans have been Soviet allies who must not be criticized. “It’s in our interest to reinforce the politics of peace, not to undermine them.”

For Grossman, the most important similarity between the two systems lies in their views of entire groups of people based not on what they do but on who they are. Class had the same place in Soviet ideology that race had in that of the Nazis. At the worst of times, descendants of aristocrats, merchants, or moderately prosperous peasants (“kulaks”) lost their lives by the millions. When times were better, they would merely have difficulty getting an education or finding a job. Class, like ethnic origin, did not depend on anything one could control: if your parents were kulaks, you were a class enemy. In one memorable scene in Life and Fate, Shtrum considers the monstrosity of killing people just because their parents were Jews and then, for the first time, reflects:

But then we have the same principle…. And we’re not talking about the merchants, priests and aristocrats themselves—but about their children and grandchildren. Does noble blood run in one’s veins like Jewishness? Is one a priest or a merchant by heredity?

One wonders how, even after Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, Grossman could ever have hoped to publish Life and Fate, which takes aim not just at Stalinism but at Marxism-Leninism itself. The journal to which he submitted it in 1960 promptly notified the Central Committee, which not only rejected the book but also ordered the KGB to raid Grossman’s house. In this relatively liberal period it chose to leave the author alone but instead “arrest the book.” In meetings with representatives of the writer’s union and the party’s chief ideologist, Mikhail Suslov, Grossman was told that his book, which was deemed far more dangerous than Doctor Zhivago, could not be published for two hundred years, a judgment that the novelist Vladimir Voinovich called a testimony to its lasting significance. “You think we have violated the principle of freedom in your case,” Suslov forthrightly explained. “Yes, that is so, if one interprets freedom in the bourgeois sense.”

Like the great classics of Russian realist fiction, both Stalingrad and Life and Fate pose questions about the nature of history, moral responsibility, good and evil—as well as the proper role of literature itself. In Life and Fate, the character Madyarov speaks for the author when he rejects not only socialist realism but also anything “decadent”—an expansive category that would have included modernist experimentalism or any self-conscious play with form—as betraying Russian literature’s high purpose.

Starting with Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, the first prison-camp novel, Russian writers have often tested worldviews by placing their proponents in extreme conditions. In both parts of his epic, Grossman uses the bloody Battle of Stalingrad and the Nazi death camps in this way, while Life and Fate adds the torture chambers of Soviet interrogators. In addition, some characters in the second book have witnessed the deliberate mass starvation of millions of peasants during the collectivization of agriculture. When they bring to mind the image of children dying of hunger, whom they were forbidden to help, even dedicated Bolsheviks question their convictions. They recognize that to do extreme evil people must believe they are doing good. Some ideologues are disillusioned, but others accept Bolshevik cruelty even after they discover its full horror. Grossman asks: What inspires intelligent, decent people to endorse, let alone practice, totalitarian cruelty? For many Russian novelists and memoirists, this is the most important moral question of our time.

When the dedicated Bolshevik Mostovskoy is summoned by the SS officer Liss, he expects to be tortured but endures something that for him is even worse: doubt. With unsettling accuracy, Liss describes all the ways Nazis and Bolsheviks resemble each other. Both base their one-party states on terror and reject humanist morality; and, as Hitler boldly liquidated millions of Jews, “Stalin didn’t shilly-shally—he liquidated millions of peasants.” In fact, Liss explains, Hitler learned his totalitarianism directly from Lenin and Stalin. This Nazi even seems to foresee the Doctors’ Plot: “Today you’re appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves.” Mostovskoy is shaken.

Krymov, Shtrum’s brother-in-law, also readily justifies the mass starvation of class enemies and arranges for the arrest of anyone expressing the slightest doubt about Soviet policies, but when he is arrested and tortured, he cannot help wondering whether torture caused other Communists to confess to absurd counterrevolutionary conspiracies. “Why does my Party need to destroy me?” he asks himself. “We were merciless towards the enemies of the Revolution. Why has the Revolution been so merciless towards us? Perhaps for that very reason.”

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

Krymov realizes that when he delivered speeches demanding the death sentence for Bukharin and other leaders, he did not really believe in their guilt. Or, rather, he both believed and disbelieved in it. Can it be, Krymov asks himself, “that I am a man with two consciences? Or that I am two men, each with his own conscience? But then that’s how it’s always been—for all kinds of people, not just for me.” Totalitarianism entails extreme forms of such doubling, either out of fear of arrest or a desire to maintain faith in official ideology even when experience contradicts it.

When innocent friends were arrested, Krymov asks himself, why did he refuse to help their families? By contrast, superstitious, politically undeveloped old women “would even take in children whose mothers and fathers had been arrested…. Were these old women braver and more honourable than Old Bolsheviks like Mostovskoy and Krymov?” Krymov knows that fear cannot excuse his morally repugnant behavior. “No, no! Fear alone cannot achieve all this. It was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality.”

By the time he is imprisoned in a Nazi camp, Ikonnikov, who evidently speaks for the author, has come to reject not just Marxism but any ideology claiming to teach the whole moral truth. However idealistic, “the ethical systems of philosophers” lead to greater evil than any individual crimes. Even the Sermon on the Mount led to evil when Christians turned it into a philosophical system:

Sometimes the very concept of good becomes a scourge, a greater evil than evil itself…. I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country…. I saw whole villages dying of hunger…. This idea was something fine and noble—yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others.

We often call the greatest Russian novels philosophical, but they might better be described as antiphilosophical, because they caution against placing one’s faith in any abstract system. “If we concede that human life can be governed by reason,” Tolstoy writes in War and Peace, “then the possibility of life is destroyed.” Nevertheless, Tolstoy himself later succumbed to the temptation of an all-encompassing moral theory when he formulated what he considered the real, pristine Christian truth. And Dostoevsky, for all his skepticism of abstractions, briefly thought he had discovered the key to history and had even discerned the exact date of the apocalypse. Only Grossman’s favorite writer, Chekhov, remained immune to the temptations of systems. The Soviets praise Chekhov, Madyarov remarks, only because they do not understand him. He stands apart from Russian political thinkers, who have “always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian…. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing—even murder—to achieve this.” With his deep appreciation of moral complexity, Chekhov suggested, as Madyarov puts it, “Let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side…. Let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man…. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual.”

Ikonnikov, too, calls on us to reject “this terrible Good with a capital G”; instead, he explains, “there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner,” or, presumably, the good of those ignorant old ladies who behave better than Bolsheviks. We need, he says, “the private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.”

However difficult it is to make good moral choices, it is all the more so when one fears death, torture, and the Gulag. And yet Ikonnikov insists that even then there is no excuse for participating in evil. “I don’t want to be told that it’s the people with power over us who are guilty, that we’re innocent slaves, that we’re not guilty because we’re not free. I am free!… I can say ‘No’!” “A man may be led by fate,” Grossman explains in another passage, “but he can refuse to follow.” Ikonnikov is shot by the Nazis for refusing to work on the construction of an extermination camp.

Grossman knew that he himself had not lived up to his ideals. To the end of his life, he remained ashamed that he, like his hero Shtrum, had once signed a statement condemning the allegedly murderous doctors. “Why had he committed this terrible sin?” Shtrum asks himself. “Everything in the world is insignificant compared to the truth and purity of one small man.” Some of the book’s best chapters describe the complex inner processes, not reducible to any single cause, that lead Shtrum to commit what he knows is a disgraceful act.

The lesson of Shtrum’s moral fall lies in his reaction to it. All the obvious excuses occur to him, but he rejects them. “Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness,” he concludes. “The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.” Shtrum realizes that “it still wasn’t too late. He still had the strength to…remain his mother’s son…. He wanted this mean, cowardly act to stand all his life as a reproach; day and night it would be something to bring him back to himself.”

Grossman’s achievement lies in the profundity of his thought and his unflinching presentation of moral questions. For this reason, Life and Fate is indeed one of the great books of our time—despite its shortcomings as a novel. Grossman was fundamentally not a novelist but a journalist who had reflected on the totalitarian experience more deeply than his contemporaries. As a result, few of his characters are convincing as real people. Apart from Shtrum, they all seem like ideological mouthpieces. None is truly memorable—and that, perhaps, is the real test of a great novelist.

In this respect, Life and Fate brings to mind what Vissarion Belinsky, Russia’s greatest nineteenth-century critic, wrote about Alexander Herzen’s novel Who Is to Blame? That novel, Belinsky shrewdly remarked, reads as if the author first had some interesting ideas and then concocted a story in which characters could voice them. Belinsky was right: Herzen’s great literary achievement turned out to be not his fiction but his memoirs, My Life and Thought, in which he could directly voice his ideas as a thinker among thinkers. If only Grossman had arrived at something so suitable to his genius!

But does that really matter? Belinsky himself concluded that there are some talents whose “activities form a special sphere of art, in which imagination stands in the background and mind in the foreground. Little notice is taken of this distinction, whence great confusion ensues in the theory of art.” Tolstoy explained that War and Peace, with all its idiosyncrasies, is not a novel but simply “a book.” Russian writers and critics ever since have appreciated “books” whose profundity transcends the aesthetics of any particular genre. “A book,” wrote Boris Pasternak, “is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!” Grossman demonstrates what a great book can do.

  1. 1

    Life and Fate was translated into English by Robert Chandler and first published by Collins Herville in 1985. New York Review Books reissued this translation in 2006. 

  2. 2

    John Garrard and Carol Garrard, The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman (Free Press, 1996). 

  3. 3

    When Soviet archives were opened, it turned out the events surrounding the Doctors’ Plot were much more complex than they had seemed. Some conspiracies actually did exist—because Stalin himself set them in motion. They are best discussed in Jonathan Brent and Vladimir P. Naumov, Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot Against the Jewish Doctors, 1948–1953 (Harper, 2004).