The Maximalist: On Vasily Grossman
In 1961 Vasily Grossman was summoned by Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union's ideological commissar, to discuss the fate of a manuscript that the KGB had confiscated from his flat. Suslov told Grossman the manuscript was so incendiary that publication was unthinkable "for another two to three hundred years." The work in question was Life and Fate, Grossman's epic novel about the entangled lives of two Soviet families during World War II. In structure and spirit the novel is reminiscent of War and Peace, and it proved anathema to Soviet authorities because it portrays Stalinist Russia as a totalitarian state, likening it to the fascist Nazi regime.
How do we know this? Before KGB agents searched his home, Grossman had entrusted two copies of the manuscript to close friends. One copy was smuggled to the West after the writer's untimely death from cancer in 1964. Translated and published by a Russian émigré press in 1980 and reissued in the NYRB Classics series in 2006, Life and Fate has earned Grossman a worldwide audience. NYRB has followed suit with translations of two more Grossman titles: The Road, a compilation of fiction and nonfiction from the 1930s to the early '60s, and Everything Flows, a short novel brimming with historical reflections that Grossman worked on from 1955 until his death. Masterfully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, the two volumes reveal a crucial dimension of Grossman's oeuvre to English readers for the first time.
Grossman is often described as a writer who led antithetical lives. There is the celebrated young author of the 1930s and '40s who was repeatedly nominated for a Stalin Prize, and there is the embittered, postwar writer whose manuscripts rarely left the drawer. Some Western critics extol the late Grossman as an anti-Soviet "individual freedom fighter" while regarding many of his prewar works as little more than conventional Soviet set pieces, or puzzles laden with subversive meanings. The Road and Everything Flows, which assemble stories early and late, published and unpublished, suggest a different view: the work is all of a piece, and its author kept exploring the same moral questions while progressively expanding his critical frame of vision. "We [are]," Grossman wrote, "people of the epoch of Fascism." This was in 1955, ten years after the end of the war. The Nazi onslaught opened his eyes to a number of fundamental oppositions: between freedom and oppression, "life" and "fate," the individual and state power. Over time he concluded that these oppositions did not vanish with the defeat of Hitler's Germany but instead could emerge in different forms in different political systems. How might ordinary people meet the challenges of an extraordinary era of violence and the political oppression of the twentieth century? What can—and must—we do as individuals, not just to survive but to preserve our humanity? During the postwar years, Grossman argued that even the Soviet state was a foe of humanity. This made him a heretic in Suslov's eyes. Yet it was Grossman's moral seriousness, anchored by his admiration of the Soviet revolution and its universal ideals of humanity and freedom, that spurred him on.
Grossman died in a Moscow hospital, bitter and alone. He was buried in the Troyekurovskoye cemetery on the city's outskirts after state officials denied his wife's request that he be laid to rest in Novodevichye, the most famous Russian cemetery. If he could have chosen his burial place it might have been, following the story "Eternal Rest," alongside other believers in a world commune. The Soviet century, his life experience suggests, accounted not only for human tragedies, large and small, at the hand of callous state leaders and their willing henchmen; it also produced a luminous writer whose abiding moral concerns derived from Russian literary traditions and the Communist age, and whose questions remain vital after the passing of the Communist state.
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Grossman's first two novels are about the lives of coal miners and revolutionaries. They are socialist realist in style, in harmony with the party line of the 1930s, but as works of fiction they are firmly rooted in fact and imbued with a searching moral voice that would grow more pronounced in his writing over the years, including the pieces he filed during the war as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the Soviet Army newspaper. Grossman was with the soldiers who retreated through Belorussia and western Russia from the advancing Germans in 1941, and he passed over some of the same terrain when he accompanied the Red Army on its victorious march west, all the way to Berlin. He was embedded with the First Ukrainian Front when, in January 1944, it liberated the city of Berdichev, where he was born in 1905 into a family of secular Jews. His mother was living in Berdichev before the war; the last he had heard from her was a letter of July 1941, written days before the Germans overran the city. Nearly three years later Grossman, drawing on interviews with local residents, pieced together the horrendous details of how most of Berdichev's 30,000 Jews were massacred in September 1941. Grossman learned of a massacre on a much larger scale in the summer of 1944, when the Red Army liberated Treblinka. He interviewed the few surviving victims and other witnesses, and in "The Hell of Treblinka," included in The Road, he wrote with palpable shock of how the Nazis had set up "an executioner's block such as the human race has never seen."
Grossman's war stories describe the racial hubris of the invaders, the callous blows and insults the Germans visited upon the helpless Soviet population and the vile instincts aroused in those citizens who began to collaborate with the occupation forces. But the writer's real interest was in determining how the Nazi onslaught could be countered and overcome. He found answers in Stalingrad, the city on the Volga where he was sent in August 1942 to cover the unfolding battle that, as many at the time believed, would decide the fate of Russia. Grossman was one of few observers who repeatedly crossed the Volga in September and October, passing from Soviet army command on the left bank into the demolished city, where a few thousand exhausted and poorly equipped Soviet troops clung to a strip of urban rubble in the face of nine attacking German divisions. Grossman's dispatches from Stalingrad adopt the perspective of these defenders, whom he interviewed at great length before sitting down to write. He portrays them as decidedly simple people with commonplace thoughts, yet in Stalingrad they met their historical challenge as they confronted fascism, the "antithesis to humanity." They rose above themselves, releasing their most precious human essence. Grossman had their example in mind when he wrote in Life and Fate of the birth of freedom in the ruins of Stalingrad. The Stalingraders were freedom fighters in an additional sense. As Grossman confided to a friend at the time, in words he did not dare record in his diary, let alone publish, their selfless actions would set an example and inspire others, cleansing away the guilt incurred by Soviet society at large during the 1930s, when people aided Stalin's campaign of terror or looked the other way.
Grossman believed that the spirit of liberation he witnessed in Stalingrad would be sweeping and far-reaching. He noted in his account of Treblinka that Himmler visited the death camp just weeks after the German rout at Stalingrad and ordered the bodies of the dead to be exhumed and burned. By defeating the Germans far away on the Volga, Grossman suggested, the Red Army soldiers of Stalingrad had "stopped Himmler from keeping the secret of Treblinka." Grossman underscores this connection in "The Hell of Treblinka" by pointedly referring to the green ribbon of the Defense of Stalingrad medal pinned to the chest of a Soviet officer in the liberated camp, whom he watched recording page upon page of testimony from the murderers. There was more than a trace of Soviet Marxism in Grossman's view of history as coming to fruition in a dialectical struggle between humanity and its antithesis, between good and evil.
Grossman's hopes for liberation were dashed as soon as the war ended. As he wrote in Life and Fate, the moment human freedom overcame Nazi inhumanity a new force ascended and claimed the spoils of victory for itself. A feeling of liberation had sprung up spontaneously among Soviet soldiers, imparting self-reliance and a sense of community and purpose, and the Soviet state made quick work of subduing it. In Life and Fate, some of the soldiers and scientists who valiantly fought the Germans are sent to labor camps; many others suffer moral deaths working as petty bureaucrats or ambitious nuclear scientists who fabricate new technologies of mass killing. The state did not just suppress people by force: it also exerted its power by "comfort[ing] them in their weakness," storing away the "chimera of their conscience." In Grossman's wartime stories it is the fascist state alone that exploits people's moral failings; after the war the writer widened his lens to indict the Soviet totalitarian regime, and beyond it the other nations battling for global supremacy in the cold war, violating the interests of humanity. In "Abel (August 6)," a story inexplicably left out of the present collection, Grossman shows the corrosive impact of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the crew of the Enola Gay.
The universe of Grossman's late stories is composed of various shades of darkness. Even if, in the twentieth century, humans couldn't escape their fate, by which Grossman meant their fatedness, to live and often die at the hands of state violence, they could honor a moral obligation to cultivate their humanity. Grossman illustrates this poignantly in a story from the early '60s that revisits the years of the war. "In Kislovodsk" tells of a doctor who is the head physician of a government sanitarium in a Caucasian spa town. A worldly and elegant man, drawn to a life of comfort and content with himself, the doctor sees no point in being evacuated from the advancing Germans, opting instead to wait them out. Nothing happens during the initial weeks of the occupation, but then a German officer visits the doctor and orders him to surrender to the Gestapo the Red Army wounded convalescing in the sanitarium. The German's visit interferes with the doctor's social calendar—he and his wife have made plans to attend the theater. That night, they dress in their best evening clothes. After a sumptuous supper at home, with wine, caviar and dancing, they proceed to kiss their porcelain cups and stroke their mahogany furniture. "Then, in a harsh voice, she said, 'And now poison me, like a mad dog—and yourself too!'" The couple's action overrides and redeems the petty corruptions of the soul that had accumulated over a lifetime.