Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, The

Captive Soul: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, The

Lewis, Tess

The Captive Soul: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

THE WESTERN WORLD WAS GIVEN ITS FIRST GLIMPSE into the Soviet Union’s vast and infernal system of penal camps in 1962 with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Without First secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s express permission, of course, Solzhenitsyn’s book would never have appeared in the main literary journal Novy Mir. Devastating as it was, the work fit Khrushchev’s political agenda of controlled thaw, which he had set in motion six years earlier by denouncing Stalin’s crimes and personality cult in his “secret speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress. One Day is relatively positive compared to the Gulag literature and memoirs that followed it, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Gustaw Herling’s A World Apart, or Evgenia Ginsburg’s Within the Whirlwind. The day in question is a lucky one for political prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov: he not only survives, but a few fortunate breaks greatly increase his chances of lasting through his ten-year sentence. He narrowly misses solitary confinement several times, avoids the almost certain death sentence of being assigned to work in an external setdement, steals an extra portion of watery gruel, and earns several hundred grams of bread. The novella was acceptable because it did not condemn the Soviet system in general but specifically targeted the labor camps. It drew attention away from Khrushchev’s complicity in sending men like Denisovich to their deaths. He had, for example, presided over purges of the Ukrainian nomenklatura and the liquidation of thousands of kulaks in 1937. The fate of Vasily Grossman’s more threatening novel about the battle of Stalingrad, the masterpiece Life and Fate,1 however, was far different than that of Solzhenitsyn’s book. Life and Fate is one of the most significant novels of the twentieth century. And yet, suppressed during the three decades it would have been most influential, it remains largely overlooked.

In 1961, the KGB not only confiscated every manuscript copy and rough draft of Life and Fate they could find, they even took the ribbons from the copyists’ typewriters. Grossman appealed the Party’s decision to any audiorities who would listen and to some who wouldn’t. He did not give up when a director of the Writers’ Union declared that the novel would not be published for 250 years but wrote to Khrushchev himself. For a man so attuned to subde gradations in complex psychological mechanisms, Grossman occasionally betrayed astounding political naïveté. At the height of World War II, Khrushchev had served in Stalingrad as leading political commissar, the Party official in charge of monitoring the troops to report any defeatism, subversion, or political wavering. And, while Khrushchev is mentioned by name several times in the novel, resemblances of the cunning, hypocritical political commissar Getmanov to himself would hardly have escaped his notice. Khrushchev also still begrudged Grossman’s failure to interview him when, as an immensely popular war correspondent, he had reported on the Russian victory in Stalingrad. Most damning, however, were Grossman’s condemnation of the Soviet Union’s ideological foundation and the parallels he draws between Nazism and Stalinism. Had Khrushchev been less committed to his thaw, Grossman would certainly have been arrested and probably summarily executed.

Publishing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich released just enough pressure for the Party to maintain its control over the lives and thoughts of its subjects. Publishing Life and Fate would surely have unleashed more anger and resistance than the Party could have reined in. Khrushchev answered Grossman’s plea through Mikhail Suslov, head of the Party’s external affairs department (the chief of ideology) who demanded of the audior: “why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?”

Life and Fate opens in 1942, with the Germans advancing rapidly towards the Volga and the Caucasus oil fields, and ends in the spring of 1943, as various divisions of the Red Army vie with each other to be the first to “liberate” the Ukraine. For Grossman, the batde of Stalingrad represented not only the turning point of World War II, when the courage, determination, and simple virtues of the Red Army soldiers defeated the Germans’ superior military might, but also Russia’s last gasp of freedom before the noose of Stalinism tightened again around her throat. Faced with all but certain defeat, soldiers and citizens were finally able to complain, criticize, and express themselves without fear of reprisal. “Whatever happens, I shall never ever regret this conversation of ours,” runs like a refrain through the novel. But as soon as the German army falters, well before the end of the war, the Soviet secret police return in force, turning such conversations into capital crimes.

Throughout Life and Fate, Grossman exposes the Soviet military’s lack of preparedness, its callous willingness to treat its soldiers as cannon fodder, and the commanding officers’ kowtowing to meddling and incompetent political commissars. Getmanov, for example, is repeatedly shown interfering with the officers he is monitoring. Colonel Novikov, the commander of one of two tank corps converging on Stalingrad to encircle the Germans in a pincer movement, stalls his advance for a mere eight minutes longer than his orders allowed. Novikov insisted this slight delay would ensure that the artillery regiments could completely destroy the enemy’s batteries and so prevent unnecessary casualties. Getmanov first cajoles Novikov, then, after Stalin himself calls from Moscow, threatens him. Getmanov is the personification of the spirit of the Party: idealism pursued with utter ruthlessness. “To him, the necessity of sacrificing men to the cause had always seemed natural and incontestable-in peace as well as in war.” He even accuses his four-yearold son of “malicious hooliganism” when the boy draws on a picture of Stalin. Novikov defies Getmanov and his superiors despite his fear of them. He holds back his soldiers and encircles the German troops with no losses. Getmanov kisses Novikov and praises him effusively, but Novikov pays for his insolence later. During the Russian army’s race toward the Ukraine, Getmanov not only countermands Novikov’s orders to give his troops several hours of desperately needed rest, but he also reroutes their air cover to other battalions, leaving Novikov’s men vulnerable to enemy attack. ‘You say I kissed you for that? . . . You must be mad!” Getmanov exclaims when Novikov reminds him of his earlier military ingenuity. Finally, Getmanov threatens to report him to the Military Soviet, throwing in some standard Party innuendo about “alien elements.” Such portrayals of “our people and the communists” had particularly provoked Suslov and his cronies. He had hectored Grossman, “How could we have triumphed in the war with the kinds of people you describe?”

Suslov’s indignation is all the more understandable in light of the profound empathy with which Grossman enters into his most despicable characters’ inner lives. In a very short chapter, Grossman describes two Russian prisoners of war, Khmelkov and Zhuchenko, in charge of herding columns of Jews from the railway station into the camp’s gas chambers. In a mere page and a half, Grossman perfectly illustrates the dehumanizing effect a totalitarian system has on its perpetrators as well as its victims and the convoluted rationalizations and self-delusion perpetrators resort to in order to salve their consciences. Zhuchenko takes obvious pleasure in his work, becoming incensed when the pace slows, at which point he “would twitch his jaws and make a thin, complaining sound in his throat-like a cat watching sparrows behind a pane of glass.” Khmelkov, on the other hand, has little stomach for the work he has agreed to do only in order to survive, but he is even more disgusted by Zhuchenko. Like Zhuchenko, Khmelkov is not above selecting women prisoners lined up waiting to enter the gas chambers for “a bit of fun,” then returning them to the queue. “A man’s a man, after all,” he reasons. But their similarities don’t end there. “What Khmelkov didn’t understand,” the narrative voice dispassionately explains,

was that it wasn’t Zhuchenko’s greater guilt that made him so disturbing. What was disturbing was that Zhuchenko’s behaviour could be explained by some terrible, innate depravity-whereas he himself was still a human being. And he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under Fascism, there is an easier option than survival-death.

Grossman does not present characters like Khmelkov or Getmanov as monsters, though they are monstrous, but simply as men whose flaws and weaknesses have been exploited in the name of ideology.

Grossman portrays the warping of faith by ideology in more detail through the inner turmoil of an old Bolshevik, Mostovskoy, imprisoned in a German prisoner of war camp. Mostovskoy’s belief in the righteousness of Lenin’s cause had remained unbroken throughout the collectivization, the famine, and waves of purges. It is only when the German camp commander Liss calls him for an ideological chess game that his belief falters. Instead of interrogating Mostovskoy, the German officer explains how Nazism and Stalinism are “two poles of one magnet,” concluding ruefully, “What tortures me, though, is the thought that your terror killed millions-and we Germans were the only ones who could understand, the only men in the world who thought: ‘Yes, that’s absolutely right, that’s how it has to be!'” The shock of recognition is almost too much for Mostovskoy. The only way for him to defeat Liss would be “to renounce everything he had stood for.”

No, no, he had to do more than that! With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that…! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship! More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin …! This was the edge of the abyss.

Mostovskoy steps back from this abyss but will never again be free from the doubts that now weigh more heavily on him “than any physical suffering.” Liss’s disquisitions are more unbearable for Mostovskoy than the beatings and torture he has endured. Again, Grossman delineates the shifting dynamic of self-awareness and rationalization that cannot be stilled by even a grievously misaligned moral compass.

Consciously modeled on War and Peace, Life and Fate follows the destinies of one family, the Shaposhnikovs, along with their friends and acquaintances, against the backdrop of the battle of Stalingrad. Punctuated by digressions on history, fate, and politics, Life and Fate is Grossman’s attempt to illuminate the entire panorama of twentiethcentury Russian life through the characters’ experiences. Yet the novel is most remarkable as a finely detailed drama of conscience.

The central character, Viktor Shtrum, a theoretical physicist married to one of the Shaposhnikov daughters, undergoes a trial much like Mostovskoy’s, although the abyss he tries to avoid is submission to the system he has so long resisted. Shtrum shares many of Grossman’s traits, and his inner struggle is one that Grossman fought. In 1933, Grossman’s cousin Nadya, who had first encouraged him to write, was arrested because of her contacts with foreigners and Russians in exile. In 1937, the darkest year of Stalin’s Terror, Ivan Kataev and Nikola Zarudin, two writers who had helped Grossman early in his career, were sent to the camps. Grossman did not speak out for any of the three until 1956, when he wrote letters supporting the rehabilitation of Kataev and Zarudin, who had died in the camps. But sins of commission as well as omission haunted Grossman. Pressured by his editors and colleagues to sign a joint letter demanding the death penalty for several old Bolshevik leaders facing a show trial, Grossman acquiesced. Such a move may have prolonged his life but certainly poisoned it.

Viktor Shtrum’s brilliant work on the “mathematics of the disintegration of atomic nuclei” has spared him-for a time. The campaign against him begins with an article stating that his science “contradicts the Leninist view of the nature of matter”; then his colleagues avoid his eye or cross the street so as not to have to greet him. His ration cards are cut-the reduction by a single egg is an ominous sign. The pressure on him to recant, to write a letter of contrition, intensifies. For all his wavering and bouts of despair, Viktor stands firm, and in his stronger moments his resistance fills him with lightness, purity, and greater happiness than he had ever known. Then, a late night phone call from Stalin instantaneously rehabilitates him. To Viktor’s great surprise, all resentment and hatred of the colleagues and friends who had just tried to destroy him has vanished, but even more confounding is his own eagerness for their renewed friendship. When they ask him to sign a letter condemning two doctors who had “confessed” to murdering Gorky, Viktor signs despite his revulsion. Had he been forced, he would have found the strength to resist, but “how can one push off an omnipotent hand when it strokes your hair and pats you on the back?” Grossman tracks Viktor’s emotional struggle from the finest shadings of apprehension and guilt to the wild swings between euphoria and terror. But in the end, he is swayed by an “obscure, almost nauseous, feeling of submissiveness.”

Although Shtrum did slide, unprotesting, into the abyss, each moment of delay was a moral victory. The only possible resistance to the crushing forces of fate, history, or the State is the assertion, however tenuous, of that fragile inner freedom, so dearly bought and so easily squandered. “Every step that a man takes under the threat of poverty, hunger, labour camps and death is at the same time an expression of his own will… A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow.” The other moral force in Grossman’s world view, paradoxically as strong as it is weak, is simple human kindness, “senseless kindness … outside of any system of social or religious good.” It is the “kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of an old peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft.” There is little but the good to oppose that more terrible Good of the Utopias whose ends justify all means.

One of the characters in Life and Fate, a holy fool shot by the Nazis because he refused to work on the construction of an extermination camp, explains that “[h]uman 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.” The battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest in history, epitomized that struggle for Grossman and he witnessed it firsthand.

Whereas Tolstoy, born a decade and a half after Napoleon’s invasion, re-created battle scenes from history books and Stendhal’s fiction, Grossman spent four years on the front lines, writing dispatches for the Red Army’s official newspaper, The Red Star. He tracked Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa across the Ukraine to Stalingrad and back, entering Berlin with the Red Army in April of 1945. (During the war, he told a friend, he had time for only one book, War and Peace, but he read it twice.) Grossman had tried to enlist as a soldier early in the war but was turned down due to his bad eyesight and poor physical condition. On the strength of his first novel and some stories, he was hired as a correspondent. Despite Grossman’s frequent complaints of the censors’ alterations, the “ruthless truth of war” he pursued in his articles survived their meddling. His honesty was almost self-destructive but soon made him one of Russia’s most respected war correspondents. At home he had been sedentary and overweight, but on the battlefield he was fearless, if not reckless. He narrowly escaped death and capture many times. Living among the soldiers and taking the same risks, he earned their trust and candor as none of his colleagues did.

Grossman’s gripping wartime notebooks and articles have been excerpted and translated in A Writer at War: Vastly Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945? Instead of the usual propaganda such as “the muchbattered enemy continued his cowardly advance,” Grossman combined vivid detail, anecdotes, and reflections. Because he wrote constantly, under the most extreme conditions, his notebooks are dominated by a telegraphic style. Yet he was intensely attuned to sensory and visual impressions, describing “the usual smell of the front line-a cross between a morgue and a blacksmith’s” or carnage on the battlefield as “a strongpoint destroyed by a tank: there is a flattened Romanian. A tank has driven over him. His face has become a bas-relief.” The harsh Russian winter was as deadly to the German army as it had been to Napoleon’s. Grossman noted the corpses of German soldiers, dead from the cold, along the roads of the Russians’ advance.

Practical jokers put the frozen Germans on their feet, or on their hands and knees, making intricate, fanciful sculpture groups. Frozen Germans stand with their fists raised, or with their fingers spread wide. Some of them look as if they are running, their heads pulled into their shoulders.

In Grossman’s journals, accounts of incredible heroism alternate with situations of equally incredible cruelty and stupidity. Stalin’s order number 227 “Not One Step Back” decreed that detachments of several hundred men follow the advancing troops to “combat cowardice” by shooting defectors. Over 13,500 soldiers were executed during the fivemonth defense of Stalingrad for desertion, self-inflicted wounds, or other forms of “betrayal of the Motherland.” For one soldier, a single execution was not enough. Grossman relates an “extraordinary event. Sentence. Execution. They undressed him and buried him. At night, he came back to his unit, in his bloodstained underwear. They shot him again.” None of this would make it into his articles. In fact, if the NKVD had bothered to read his journals, Grossman would not have survived the war. Yet scenes from his journals do recur, expanded and dramatized, in his fiction.

His admiration for the men in battle was boundless. “At war, a Russian man puts on a white shirt. He may live in sin, but he dies like a saint. At the front [there is] a purity of thought and soul, a kind of monastic austerity.” But his idealization of the common soldiers did not last the Red Army’s entry onto German soil. Grossman frequently noted their widespread raping and pillaging of German civilians and the commanders’ tacit approval. “We’ve stopped feeding our men. Our food isn’t tasty enough for them any longer.” The Germans were not the Russian soldiers’ only victims. By the end of the war, their rage was indiscriminate: they also raped liberated Soviet women with impunity. Some former women prisoners tried hiding in the journalists’ room in Berlin but were not even safe there. “During the night we are woken by screams: one of the correspondents couldn’t resist the temptation. A noisy discussion ensues, then order is re-established.”

Yet all of these horrors were overshadowed by the Holocaust. As he advanced westward with the army in early 1944, Grossman returned to his hometown of Berdichev, where his mother and aunt were two of the town’s more than 30,000 Jews massacred by the Nazis three years earlier. Then, in July of 1944, he and his detachment came upon the ruins of the extermination camp Treblinka. His report “The Hell of Treblinka” was the first journalistic account published in any language of the Nazi concentration camps and was quoted during the Nuremberg trials. In this inquiry into how twenty-five SS officers and a few hundred Ukrainian collaborators managed to kill 800,000 Jews, Grossman punctuates a meticulous reconstruction of the camp’s internal workings with witnesses’ reminiscences of particular guards. “The Hell of Treblinka” still makes for harrowing reading even after much more information about the Lager system has come to light.

With his friend and fellow war correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman began compiling a “Black Book” of hundreds of eyewitness accounts of Nazi atrocities against Jews on Soviet soil and of interviews with Holocaust survivors. However, the Party suppressed the book, refusing to allow any distinction to be made between the killing of Jews and other Soviet citizens. They were also wary of “dividing the dead,” in other words, of acknowledging the extent of the Ukrainian population’s collaboration with the Nazis. The politically savvy Ehrenburg dropped the project, but Grossman continued on alone. It was eventually published in Russian in Israel by Yad Vashem in 1980, then translated into English in 1981.

Little in Grossman’s early life or background indicated that he would become such a relentless critic of the Soviet regime. He was born in 1905 in Berdichev, the largest Jewish community in the Ukraine. His parents were assimilated middle-class Jews who had met in Switzerland, likely while working with the revolutionary Jewish Bund. They separated shortly after Grossman’s birth, and he stayed with his mother in Berdichev. Though she earned a small salary as a French teacher, they lived in a large house with her brother, an esteemed doctor. Grossman had very little contact with the town’s larger, mostly impoverished Jewish community. He spoke no Yiddish, attended Russian schools and studied chemistry at Moscow State University.

While working as a mining engineer, Grossman began to write stories. He was committed to the Marxist-Leninist cause, and his first works of fiction were firmly in the vein of socialist realism with hardworking proletarian characters and inspiring endings. They earned him praise from Maxim Gorky and a coveted spot in the Writers’ Union. It was the dishonesty, incompetence and cruelty he witnessed during the War and chronicled at great personal risk in his journals that cured the myopic patriotism of his youth. Grossman was convinced the Russian soldiers were able to beat insurmountable odds and win the war because they believed they were fighting for the kind of freedom they briefly experienced in battle. It was the Soviet regime’s exploitation and betrayal of that freedom that finally turned Grossman irrevocably against it.

After the War, Grossman took several months to recover from nervous exhaustion, then began writing For a Just Cause, his first novel about Stalingrad and a prequel of sorts to Life and Fate. With some difficulty, he managed to get it serialized in Novy Mir. It was initially met with rapturous praise, but the critics turned as soon as word of Stalin’s disapproval spread. Stalin’s main objection, in addition to the fact that the main character, also Victor Shtrum, was a Jew, was that the novel did not give Stalin enough credit for winning the war. Stalin had just begun a new anti-Semitic campaign before his death in 1953, and there is little doubt that Grossman would have been arrested had not God-or, as has been rumored, Khrushchev-intervened.

Grossman worked on Life and Fate for a decade. Although he was hopeful or foolhardy enough to send it to editors who were firmly under the Party’s thumb, he was astute enough to hide two copies with friends outside of literary circles and unlikely to be questioned about Grossman or his work.

The reactionary neo-Stalinist Leonid Brezhnev succeeded Khrushchev in 1964 and reversed the thaw. Times were precarious once again for dissident writers, and Grossman had no ties in the West to publish abroad, as Pasternak had for Dr. Zhivago. Although partially protected by his wartime reputation, Grossman was silenced. He died of cancer that same year, without hope that either Life and Fate or his final novel, Forever Flowing, would be published.

This last novel, an even more deeply embittered condemnation of the Soviet Union, appeared first, published in Russian in Frankfurt in 1970. It is the story of political prisoner Ivan Grigoryevich’s return, after thirty years in the camps, to find the world he had left behind at once strange and intimately familiar. As many thousands of prisoners liberated by Khrushchev had done, Ivan encounters friends and relatives who had accommodated themselves to the system and either refused to help unfortunates like him or even denounced them outright.

Peering into the windows of Leningrad militia stations, listening across the lavishly spread table to his cousin’s speeches, looking at the sign indicating the passport section at police headquarters, Ivan Grigoryevich thought to himself that barbed wire was no longer necessary, that life outside the barbed wire had been assimilated in its inner essence into life in camp.

Grossman describes the brutalization of the kulaks in the Ukraine and the famine caused by collectivization in Forever Flowing. The memories of starving peasants begging in Moscow or along train tracks, often collapsing where they stood, had haunted him since the early 1930s, but he had not dared write about them. Only once he had abandoned the hope of ever publishing his writing could he express his conviction that Stalinism was a logical extension of Lenin’s system. Lenin himself had been the perfect choice of leader for a nation unable to move beyond its history of enslavement.

In Stalin, in the Asian despot and the European Marxist combined in his personality and character, the nature of the Soviet state system was expressed precisely and uniquely . . . With Stalin’s help, such revolutionary categories as dictatorship, terror, the rejection of bourgeois liberties-all those things which Lenin had considered temporary, transitory expedients-were transformed into the permanent basis of Soviet life, became its essence, and were absorbed into Russia’s historical, thousand-year continuum of nonfreedom.

Life and Fate would languish for another decade. The dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich did smuggle out to the West microfilm copies of the manuscript-made by Andreï Sakharov who, as a scientist, was one of the few who had access to the restricted machines. However, fearing possible retribution, Voinovich did not publish the novel until 1980 in Lausanne. Even then, he did not admit his role in the book’s survival for another four years.

Neither novel was published in Russia until after glasnost: Life and Fate in 1988 and Forever Flowing in 1989. Even now, Grossman’s reputation has not fully recovered from the years of oblivion. The truths he told about the War and Stalin’s Terror, and especially his analysis of the totalitarian mind, are still uncomfortable subjects. In his 1978 study The Russian Mind, Ronald Hingley asked, “Must one then conclude that it was the Russian mind which moulded the authoritarian state? Or is the Russian mind rather the outcome of that authoritarian state? All one can assert with confidence is that the two phenomena have interacted for at least half a millennium.” Grossman would wager their interaction has a history at least twice as long and is far from over. Life and Fate is a searching and comprehensive analysis of that dynamic and of the seductions of totalitarian Utopias as potent today as in the last century.

1 LIFE AND FATE, by Vastly Gmssman. Tram, with introduction by Robert Chandler. New York Review Books. $22.95p. Chandler has slightly revised his original translation of Life and Fate, published by Collins Harvill in 1985.

2 A WRITER AT WAR: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, ed. and trans. by Antony Beevorand Luba Vinogradava. Pantheon. $27.50.

TESS LEWIS is an essayist and translator who writes freauentlv on European lit.

Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2006

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