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Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman on German territory, Schwerin, 2 Feb 1945.
Courtesy of the Grossman family collection

Defying the
general coercion

Review by Peter Arkell

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is one of the great novels of the last century, and much of the raw material for it was gathered during World War II when he wrote for the Red Army newspaper, Red Star.  He achieved great popularity with the soldiers for his honesty and for writing the truth when it was easier to stick to the party line. He became so popular that it was difficult for the censors and bureaucrats behind the lines to interfere with his copy.

He was at Stalingrad during the great siege and battle, he followed the Red Army all the way to Berlin and he was among the first reporters to witness and write about the Nazi death camps.

Life and Fate (reviewed below), an extraordinary portrait of Stalinist Russia from within, was his last great work but he never lived to see it published. When he died in 1964 he was uncertain whether any copies of his manuscripts had survived. The KGB had seized every copy they could find, as well as typewriter ribbons and used carbon paper, after Grossman had been told by the party that there was no question of the book being published for another 200 years. Fortunately, a dissident author, Vladimir Voinovich, had copied one of the manuscripts and brought the microfilm to the West, where it was published in 1980. It was not published in the Soviet Union until 1989, at the peak of Gorbachev’s glasnost period.

Vasily Grossman: A Writer at WarA Writer at War, edited and translated by Antony Beevor, the military historian, and Luba Vinogradova, is based on Grossman's notebooks. He jotted down what he saw and heard at the front, from the details of exchanges between soldiers to summaries of interviews with top generals (he never made notes during the actual interviews, preferring the confidentiality of a person-to-person conversation, and recalling the details for the notebook afterwards).

The notes are revealing and moving. The pitiless street fighting at Stalingrad produced many heroes, most of them un-sung, but some of them, thanks to Grossman, have had their bravery recorded: snipers, “tankists”, pilots, ordinary soldiers, typists and telephonists, many of whom were women surviving somehow in the cellars and ruins of the city, and civilians.

The supply line to the heart of the action at Stalingrad went across the Volga, a 1300-metre killing zone, across water in the autumn and ice in the terrible winter of 1942/3. The Germans shelled and bombed the transports crossing the river from the strategic heights above the city which constantly changed hands.

“Approaching this place”, Grossman noted, “soldiers used to say: We are entering Hell, and after spending one or two days there, they said: No, this isn't Hell, this is ten times worse than Hell. It produced a wild anger, an inhuman anger towards the Germans….”

Grossman was fascinated by the lives of the snipers, whose deeds contributed greatly to the morale of whole armies, and he got to know several of them, including Vasily Zaitsev, whose exploits were celebrated in the film Enemy at the Gates starring Jude Law.

Grossman bravely accompanied another famous sniper, Anatoly Chekhov, on a mission and interviewed him:

“When I first got the rifle, I couldn't bring myself to kill another being. One German was standing there for about four minutes talking and I let him go. When I killed my first one, he fell at once. Another one ran out and stooped over the killed one, and I knocked him down too…..When I first killed, I was shaking all over; the man was only walking to get some water! I felt scared: I’d killed a person. Then I remembered our people and started killing them without mercy.”

The victory at Stalingrad and the encirclement and destruction of the German 6th Army was the turning point of World War II. Grossman lived through this incredible battle, then followed the slow but remorseless advance of the victorious Soviet armies to Berlin. He witnessed the largest tank battle ever fought, at Kursk, and he was present when Berdichev was liberated. The Germans during their advance in 1941 had massacred half of the 60,000 Jews in the town, including his mother.

He interviewed some of the very few survivors at the Treblinka death camp (8oo,ooo died there), who were found in the forests around the camp after the Nazis had tried to eliminate all the evidence before fleeing. He pieced together what had happened at this terrible place and wrote one of his most powerful articles, The Hell of Treblinka, which was later quoted at the Nuremburg trials. The whole piece is reproduced in this book.

Grossman's notes are extensively reproduced in the book, but the editors also provide a commentary, providing the context in which the observations are made. They highlight many times not only his bravery in front of the enemy but his bravery before the censors and the NKVD, the secret police.

He wrote quite enough in his notes, including descriptions of the violent behaviour of some generals and of denunciations by soldiers at the front of the forced collectivisation of the peasantry and the war on the Kulaks, which resulted in mass starvation, for them to arrest  him and cart him off to one of their gulags. As the editors point out, freedom of speech was tolerated more or less at the front, but nowhere else. Both Grossman and the soldiers believed they were fighting for a changed society after the war.

According to Beevor, the Soviet authorities (the NKVD, later to become the KGB)  executed about 13,500 of their own soldiers during the Battle of Stalingrad for “extraordinary events” such as desertion, cowardice, self-inflicted wounds, anti-Soviet agitation and drunkenness. And an almost unbelievable number, 50,000, former Red Army soldiers actually fought for the German 6th Army at Stalingrad after deserting.

This, like the welcome that many Ukrainians at first gave to the invading Germans in 1941, can only be explained by the utter ruthlessness of Stalinism as the force for the destruction of the 1917 revolution and all its aims. In this context, Grossman's honesty was dangerous and he was not even a member of the Communist Party.

Grossman collapsed from nervous exhaustion, stress and nausea after returning briefly from Treblinka to Moscow in 1944. But he soon joined the march of the victorious Soviet armies through the rest of Poland into Germany and Berlin, not failing, in his honesty, to record in his notebooks the brutality of the red Army soldiers towards the German population, particularly the women.

And it was around this time that Grossman first seriously came up against the Stalinist censors and against the growing anti-Jewish sentiments of the state. These were battles that he would get seriously drawn into after the war, and but for Stalin's death in 1953, he would most probably have been arrested and put on trial on fabricated charges. In 1952,  13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (an international organisation which automatically rendered it suspicious in the eyes of Stalin), of which Grossman was a prominent member, were executed after a show trial.

Antony Beevor, in his classic works of military history, Stalingrad and Berlin: the downfall 1945, which both read more like novels than histories, drew heavily on Grossman's writings and observations at the front line.

And this latest work, A Writer at War, is doubly important, both for the eye-witness accounts of the fighting on the Eastern front and for revealing the material that found its way, directly and indirectly, into Life and Fate, his masterpiece and one of the great novels of all time (and one of the longest).

Vasily Grossman: Life and FateSurprisingly little known in this country, the novel follows the stories of a large cast of characters at the time of the Battle of Stalingrad. It is the war and particularly the long desperate siege on the Volga that provides the backdrop against which the characters try to find a meaning to their lives.

But there is another driving force in this book and that is the unpredictable, inhuman, suffocating, grotesque force of Stalinism, of the victory of selfishness over selflessness, of bureaucracy and privilege over freedom and kindness, and of incompetence and meanness over inspiration and love, in a world where everyone is presumed guilty until proved innocent. It is Grossman’s evocation of this force that really makes the novel so extraordinary.

Suffering is one thing and the descriptions of suffering in the novel are brilliant and very moving, particularly the forced journey to a death camp of a cattle train full of Jews which we experience from the point of view of a 10-year-old boy, on holiday when the Nazis arrived, and a woman doctor, his carer.  The boy has kept a chrysalis in a matchbox throughout the whole terrifying journey, and his last action before crossing the threshold of the gas chamber is to take it out of the matchbox and toss it away, to give it life, while he goes to his death with everyone else.

And there is the heart-breaking description of Lyudmila Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova's panic-stricken visit to her son Tolya, who has been wounded at the front in the battle of Stalingrad. He dies before she arrives, but she is received by the director of the hospital, his surgeon and nurses, all sympathetic and keen to explain the details of how he died. But the rational explanations of the surgeon merely reinforce her tragedy, and in desperation, she finds his grave and spends the whole of a freezing night there alone.

But there is more to this novel than suffering. In the minds of nearly all the characters, there is a doubt and a questioning of the past and there is fear too, of the future, of disgrace, of injustice, of speaking out and of not speaking out.

The year 1937, when the best Soviet generals and tens of thousands of others, old Bolsheviks and all, were purged, tried on trumped-up charges and forced somehow to sign ludicrous confessions and then executed, is mentioned time and again by the characters. It is rarely developed for fear of an informer, just the year is referred to - constantly.

But there is one group of characters in the novel, centred round the Jewish scientist, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, who do meet up and discuss things openly. A historian Madyarov raises all kinds of issues, Stalin himself, the bureaucracy, the Moscow trials, freedom of the press, Trotsky, Bukharin, and everything else besides. A heated discussion ensues, before they get back to the relatively safe topic of literature.  But then one of their number voices concern the next day that Madyarov may be an informer and fear stalks again. And Madyarov then confides to Viktor that he thinks Karimov is an informer.

“At least we've talked like human beings for once”, is Viktor's reaction. “Without fear and hypocrisy. Saying whatever we felt about whatever we liked”. But the conversation haunts them all and distorts their natural friendship. A single discussion where, in the heat of the moment dangerous truths were uttered, in the absence of trust, turns all of them towards pettiness, meanness and worse.

The soldiers at the front do not have the same fears. The strong, desperate, men, workers and heroes all, in House 6/1, an isolated ruin, still standing in the wilderness of Stalingrad,  speak with the freedom of condemned men. A political commissar, Nikolay Grigorovitch Krymov, is sent through the connecting tunnels to House 6/1, with orders to take command.

The ensuing dialogue between the “house manager” Captain Grekov with his small group of hardened fighters and the bureaucrat Krymov is brilliant, and goes on for several pages.

Just to make him feel at home, one of the fighters asks Krymov: “There's one thing I have been wanting to ask someone from the Party for ages. I've heard people say that under Communism everyone will receive according to his needs. But won't everyone just end up getting drunk? Especially if they receive according to their needs from the moment they get up”. Krymov tries to ignore this insult.

“I haven't come here, as I heard someone suggest, for a bowl of soup. I'm here to give you a taste of Bolshevism,” says Krymov.
“Good”, says Grekov, “let's have a taste of it”.

But Krymov is unable to pin his man down, and feels alienated, angry in the presence of this equality among people, and unsure of himself. He wonders if he is is facing a mutiny.

“At present, you are under of the command of the CO of the 176th Infantry Regiment”, said Krymov.
“Correct, comrade Battalion Commissar,” replied Grekov mockingly. “But when the Germans cut off this entire sector, when I gathered weapons and men together in this building, when I repelled 30 enemy attacks, and set eight tanks on fire, then I was not under anyone's command”.

And still later Krymov asks:

“So you think you can change the course of history, do you?”
“And you think you can put everything back just as it was before?” asks Grekov.
“What do you mean—everything?”
“Just that. Everything. The general coercion”.

The "general coercion" - what a phrase!

The characters, and there are a lot of them, drawn from all parts of Soviet society, in one way or another come up against the distorting destructive influence of Stalinism, and have to deal with it. That defines their character really, how they deal with it, and of course it never is a simple question of: Shall I confront this problem and speak out, or shall I say nothing. The hidden conflict between the natural generosity and kindness of most ordinary people and the stifling, dangerous reality of surviving in a society that appears to be mad, does not present simple answers.

“How strange it all is”, Viktor Shtrum, keeps on saying, as he tries to grapple with the problems and contradictions of his life. At one point, in an agony of doubt and courage, he refuses to apologise for his work in advanced physics theory and is facing isolation,  the sack and worse. A colleague addresses him:

“…I entreat you, we all of us entreat you: write a letter, say you repent. I assure you that will help. Just think: you're throwing away everything - and at a time when an important - no a truly great work lies before you, at a time when all that is genuine in our science looks to you with hope. Write a letter, admit your errors”.

“What errors? What do you want me to repent of?”

“Who cares? It's what everyone does - writers, scientists, political leaders, even your beloved Shostakovich. He admits his errors, writes letters of repentance - and then returns to work… . ”

Viktor does not repent, he is frozen out of the research group and isolated.  Contemplating the wreck of his career and waiting for the steps on the stairs and a knock at the door, the phone rings:

“A voice unbelievably similar to the voice that has addressed the nation, the army, the entire world on 3 July 1941, now addresses a solitary individual holding a telephone receiver.

“Good day, Comrade Shtrum.”

“At that moment everything came together in a jumble of half-formed thoughts and feelings—triumph, a sense of weakness, fear that all this might just be some maniac playing a trick on him, pages of closely written manuscript, that endless questionnaire, the Lubyanka…”

“Good day, Iosif Vissarionovich”, he said astonished to hear himself pronouncing such unimaginable words on the telephone.”

It was Stalin, and there follows a short conversation, memorable for its understated menace.

All the characters are measured not only by their loves and hopes and thoughts, but also how they deal with “the general coercion”. Col. Pyotr Novikov, commander of a tank corps is one of the first to break through the German lines, and a hero, but even he falls foul of the political commissar by his side, Dementiy Getmanov, who on the one hand seems to be supportive of Novikov's military leadership, but then reports him to higher authorities behind his back for disobeying an order. Novikov delayed his attack by four minutes in order to save lives. Getmanov represents one of the new men in Russia, ambitious, apparently cheerful and friendly, but - an informer.

Krymov himself falls foul of higher authorities, is arrested, humiliated and tortured in the Lubyanka, and ruined, for no good reason at all that either he or the reader can understand, except perhaps that he mentioned Trotsky once in a conversation many years before. And his ex-wife, Zhenya, in an agony of self-doubt, decides to ruin her career by taking a food parcel to him in the Lubyanka, an act of courage and kindness, when she could so easily have done nothing.

Other characters include an old Bolshevik in a German prisoner-of war camp, who conducts his own war against the German interrogator and against some of the other inmates, his fellow citizens: the director of the Stalingrad Power Station, who though standing at his post right through the worst of the fighting, makes the fatal error of leaving Stalingrad two days before the start of the successful Soviet offensive, in order to see his grand-daughter. And there are many, many others.

The structure of Life and Fate is obviously modelled on War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and Grossman uses the same device of lots of characters, many of them related, and sub-plots to paint a portrait of a whole society, but a society distorted by fear and uncertainty, the origin of which lies in the Stalinist counter-revolution and its absurd concept of “building socialism in one country”. Many commentators have tried to make out that Grossman’s novel attempts to point up the similarity of Nazism and Stalinism, but that is wishful thinking on their part. The question really asked in the book is: Why, how on earth could such “general coercion” come out of Bolshevism?

The form of the novel may be old-fashioned, but the content is dynamite.

21 January 2007

link Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler. Vintage paperback £9.99

link A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Pimlico paperback £8.99. Harvill Press hardback £20

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