(Courtesy: The New Yorker))
by Keith Gess
Vassilly Grossman, a beloved Soviet writer’s path to dissent
In the terrible winter of 1938, just before the last of the Moscow show trials, the Soviet secret police arrested a woman named Olga Guber for having failed to denounce her anti-Soviet husband. It was an error. The husband she was to have denounced-the poet Boris Guber, arrested a year earlier-was no longer her husband. The novelist Vasily Grossman was her husband. Desperate, Grossman sent a carefully composed letter to Nikolai Yezhov, the head of the N.K.V.D. He wrote that Olga had severed all ties with Guber long before.
This was not really true. Then he wrote, “I obtained a diploma from a Soviet high school, received my degree in chemistry from Moscow State University in 1929, and worked as a senior research scientist . . . in the Donbass. I have been a full-time writer since 1934. . . . All that I possess-my education, my success as a writer, the high privilege of sharing my thoughts and feelings with Soviet readers-I owe to the Soviet government.” That part was true; or, at least, Grossman meant it. He basically meant it.
Grossman went on to write “Life and Fate” and “Forever Flowing,” novels that in their warmth of feeling and their historical sweep stand alongside “The Gulag Archipelago” as the most anti-Soviet books of all time. Yet here is this letter, which the American scholars John and Carol Garrard dug up and published in their 1996 biography of Grossman. Was it pro-Soviet? Consider that Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, a large town in the Pale of Settlement. When he was twelve years old, the Revolution wiped out residence restrictions for Jews, allowed them equal entry into élite universities, and even took a great many of them into the secret police. Furthermore, by the time he wrote to the N.K.V.D. Grossman had gone from being a penniless chemistry student to being an established writer, with two published novels and, courtesy of the Soviet Writers’ Union, an apartment in the center of Moscow. He had cause to be grateful.
He also had nowhere else to go. He knew French, but he wasn’t of the Russian generation that corresponded with Rilke and sat for Picasso. He had no reason to be nostalgic for the Tsar’s Russia, obviously. So he was making the best of things. His literary career began, as he told Yezhov, in 1934, with the publication of the story “In the Town of Berdichev.” It was about a hard-as-nails Bolshevik commissar who, having become pregnant during the civil war, is bivouacked with the Magazaniks, a poor Jewish family in Berdichev, while she gives birth. As Polish forces approach Berdichev, she decides that she will stay with her little Alyosha rather than retreat with her regiment. But at the last minute she sees a group of workers marching, suicidally, in the Poles’ direction, and she remembers Red Square a few years earlier, and hearing Lenin speak, and being indescribably moved. She runs out of the house and follows the workers to their deaths; the Jewish family will raise her child. Watching her, the old worker Magazanik says to his wife, “There used to be people like that in the Bund. Those are real people, Beyla. Whereas us? We’re not people. We’re shit.” His wife tells him to be quiet and heat some milk for the child.
The details of the story save it from sentimentality; or, rather, the sentimentality is distributed evenly, between the touching Jewish family and the dream of world revolution, so that there’s an honesty to the setup. The commissar really thinks she’s going to stay with her child, and maybe she should. And maybe she shouldn’t.
“In the Town of Berdichev” was greeted with genuine enthusiasm. The fashionable novelist Ilya Ehrenburg, then in Paris, thought Grossman’s work reminiscent of Babel, and Babel himself was charmed by the story. Even Mikhail Bulgakov, unflappably haughty toward all things Soviet, seemed to like it. “Excuse me,” he said, “do you mean to say that something worthwhile can still be published?” That year, Russian literature entered the darkest period in its history. It must have looked as if Grossman had found a solution to the problem of socialist realism-by combining a realist method with an unintrusive sympathy for the revolutionary movement-and he continued to pursue this in stories and, most notably, in his novel “Stepan Kolchugin,” about a coal miner turned revolutionary. It wasn’t that he was a believer-a cousin had been arrested in 1933, and Grossman never joined the Party-but he understood and respected the faith of the believers. Later on, as a famous war correspondent, Grossman asked his editor to “give refuge” to his friend Andrei Platonov, the strange, great novelist. “He is defenseless and unsettled,” Grossman wrote. Grossman, by contrast, was not unsettled: he understood the rules and he was going to play by them.
In 1938, the henchmen of the Lubyanka were not unresponsive to Grossman’s request; this was part of their charm. If they accused you of being a British spy, and you told them you weren’t, they would beat and torture you until you changed your mind. Otherwise, they shot you, as they shot Guber. But if you caught them on a technicality-the husband you were supposed to have denounced was no longer your husband-they might just let you go, with their apologies. Olga was released. She had spent six months in prison.
T hen, in 1941, the war came. Like many others, Grossman rushed to volunteer for the front as the Germans overran Belarus and Ukraine (including Berdichev, where his mother still resided). He did not at first volunteer as a writer: he wanted to kill Nazis. Being overweight, nearsighted, and in poor health, he was rejected. He spent the next several weeks trying to think of something to do, and ended up at the editorial offices of Krasnaya Zvezda, the Army newspaper.
A new book of Grossman’s war writings-a collection taken from his notebooks and his published pieces-has just appeared in English as “A Writer at War” (Pantheon; $27.50), translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Beevor, whose book “Stalingrad” is the definitive account of the fighting in that city and relies heavily for color on Grossman’s reportage, is very fond of Grossman, and this collection weaves together his texts alongside lucid historical commentary to tell the story of the war through Grossman’s eyes. But what about Grossman himself? One wants to read the notebooks as a novel of education, recording a growing consciousness of the brutality and the corruption of the Soviet regime. In fact, a bit disappointingly, the Grossman we meet at the beginning of the book is already skeptical and wary of the regime. He notes the propaganda in the papers. “The bedraggled enemy continues his cowardly advance,” goes the headline, as the Germans take town after town. Interrogations of occasional German prisoners (at this point it was mostly Red Army soldiers who were being taken prisoner, in the hundreds of thousands) are absurd and demoralizing, a pathetic kind of Soviet tourism. Grossman writes of a Wehrmacht motorcyclist being questioned at night:
He is Austrian, tall, good-looking. Everyone admires his long, soft, steel-colored leather coat. Everyone is touching it, shaking their heads. This means: how on earth can one fight people who wear such a coat? . . . The interpreter is a Jew, barely literate. He is speaking in Yiddish.
Stalin was a magician, in his way, but one could not simply announce that the German armies weren’t there or order them shot in the basement of Lubyanka. Or, rather, one could order them shot, that was just the thing to order, but they kept shooting back. When Grossman returned to Moscow from his trip to the front, his car dented by shrapnel after he had barely escaped the German capture of Orel, his editor immediately demanded to know why he hadn’t described the “heroic defense of Orel.” Grossman answered that there had been no defense of Orel, heroic or otherwise. He was ordered back to the front.
Halted outside Moscow in December, the Germans resumed their offensive in the south as soon as the snow melted. The Red Army reeled again until it reached the very edge of European Russia, at a large industrial city on the Volga that in 1925 had been renamed Stalingrad.
When Grossman arrived, the city had already been laid waste by the same Luftwaffe commander who, during the Spanish Civil War, had bombed Guernica. “Stalingrad is burned down,” Grossman wrote, and he went on:
I would have to write too much if I wanted to describe it. Stalingrad is burned down. Stalingrad is in ashes. It is dead. People are in basements. Everything is burned out. The hot walls of the buildings are like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and haven’t gone cold yet. . . . There are children wandering about, there are many laughing faces. Many people are half insane.
Grossman spent the next five months in the city, crossing between the east and west banks, and earning the trust of the soldiers who were fending off the Germans in brutal house-to-house fighting. He formed a deep attachment to the men; Beevor (who knows so much about Stalingrad that when Grossman mentions some fish we get a footnote giving the species) describes Grossman as experiencing a period of “spiritual idealization,” believing that the defenders of Stalingrad were saints. The men, in turn, seeing themselves described in Grossman’s articles in Krasnaya Zvezda, became attached to him. “Your parental heart would have rejoiced if you could see how I was welcomed by the Red Army,” Grossman wrote to his father. Only Ehrenburg, whose Krasnaya Zvezda articles were floridly bloodthirsty, and earned him the particular ire of Goebbels, was more famous in Russia as a war correspondent than the understated, hard-nosed Grossman.
In Stalingrad, Grossman spent time with Vasily Zaitsev, the sniper whose duel with a German counterpart was inflated into a multi-day affair by Soviet propaganda (and then inflated once more by Hollywood, which, in “Enemy at the Gates,” stretched the contest to weeks and added a sex scene with Rachel Weisz), but one of his longest articles was an interview with another sniper, named Chekhov. The name must have appealed to Grossman. To lie in wait, patiently observing, watching, breathing, and then, as soon as the man reveals his position, shooting him in the head: it’s not exactly what a writer does, but it’s not so dissimilar. Stalingrad was about life and death, for Grossman, but it was also, necessarily, about writing. It seems to have altered his idea about truth. “It is only here that people know what a kilometre is,” he declared. “A kilometre is one thousand metres. It is one hundred thousand centimetres.” Maxim Gorky had defined socialist realism as “the ability to see the present in terms of the future.” But what did a centimetre look like from the future?
After the Germans were encircled at Stalingrad, in the winter of 1943, Grossman and the Red Army began to move west, and as they saw what the Germans had done the mood of this book noticeably darkens. “Death of ninety-three Jewish families,” Grossman notes in the city of Elista. “They’d smeared the children’s lips with poison.” He hears about the murder of the Jews of Odessa, Babel’s home town. “Yesterday I was in Kiev,” he writes to Olga. He had attended high school there. “I visited the addresses of relatives and acquaintances. There are only graves and death.” That fall, he summed up what he had seen in an article that Krasnaya Zvezda refused to run. “There are no Jews in the Ukraine,” he wrote. “All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people has been brutally murdered.” Then he reached Berdichev, where his mother had taught French, and where she and Grossman had lived with his uncle David, a doctor, after she and Vasily’s father separated. Now he learned what had happened after the Germans took the town, two and a half years earlier: in the course of two September days, Berdichev’s entire Jewish population-thirty thousand people-was murdered in a clearing outside the town. Grossman’s mother was among the victims. And there was more. In the summer of 1944, Grossman and the Red Army entered Poland. In July, just outside of Lublin, they discovered Majdanek and, northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka.
The Soviets have often been reproached for suppressing what they knew about the Holocaust. It’s true that the widely publicized report on Majdanek was assigned not to Grossman but, instead, to the Party-line Konstantin Simonov, who ignored the special status of the Jews in the Nazi organization of death. It’s also true that the Soviets kept quiet about Auschwitz when they discovered the camp (and painstakingly documented everything they found), the following January. And when, after the war, Grossman and Ehrenburg gathered an enormous collection of materials and testimonies about the murder of the Soviet Jews into a massive “Black Book,” the result of their labors was suppressed. But Grossman was allowed to publish a twelve-thousand-word article on Treblinka in the major monthly journal Znamya, in November of 1944, when nothing of comparable scope and authority had appeared anywhere, in any language. The article, which was subsequently read at Nuremberg, is a masterly work of reconstruction. Grossman gathered the information from some of the local farmers and a handful of survivors who had fled to the woods. Other than that, Treblinka was gone: it had been razed months before. As in Ukraine, there was nothing left for Grossman to find-“only graves and death,” as he had written. The Jews had all been killed.
Early in the notebooks, you sense the extent to which Grossman had imbibed the spirit of Soviet internationalism. Babel, travelling through the same areas during the civil war, had been deeply moved by the traces he saw of Jewish culture; Grossman barely seems to notice. But after he returned through Ukraine, and especially after Warsaw, it was as if he had been seized with the need to list all the Jews he saw. “A cellar with Jews,” he writes. “Jews who have emerged from under the ground.” “Story about the encounter of two Jews from Lodz, in the darkness of a boiler room.” Finally, they reach Berlin: “Thousands of encounters. Thousands of Berliners in the streets. . . . An old man, a Jew, who burst into tears when he learned about the fate of those who went to Lublin.”
After the war, Grossman began work on an epic novel about Stalingrad. “For a Just Cause,” the result, was a superior sort of socialist realism. There are a lot of “historical” scenes (Stalin, Hitler, meetings of the local Communist Party) and descriptions of battles, but the characters at least seem like human beings; we don’t get colonels who resemble “a young Gorky.” Not everyone liked the novel when it was published, in 1952; Pasternak was so disappointed that when he had a heart attack not long after reading it he blamed Grossman. But it was hailed in the press as a Tolstoyan achievement.
Then it was unhailed-in part because it underestimated the work of the Party in the victory, in part because Stalin, as he accelerated his campaign against “cosmopolitanism,” had other plans for the Jews than that they become Soviet Tolstoys. Grossman was viciously attacked in Pravda, and Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, had to apologize publicly for serializing the novel. As the attacks continued, and Stalin made public his fantastic Kremlin Doctors’ Plot, Grossman was asked to attend an urgent meeting of leading Jewish cultural figures. On the way there, he dropped in on Tvardovsky to tell him what he thought of him. “Go to your meeting,” Tvardovsky finally exploded. “You still don’t understand how it is. They’ll explain it for you.” At the meeting, Grossman was cajoled into lending his name to a dismal letter condemning the Jewish doctors supposedly involved in the plot, and begging for Stalin’s mercy. Eventually, although it was wintertime, Grossman and his friend the poet and translator Semyon Lipkin retreated to a dacha outside Moscow. Then Stalin died, and, as Grossman later wrote, “the ice of the Arctic Ocean was broken, and the ocean howled.”
But Stalin’s death alone cannot account for the artistic leap from “For a Just Cause” to its sequel, “Life and Fate.” The two books share many of the same characters, and they both center on Stalingrad, and probably a computer analysis would prove that the same author wrote both books-but the computer would be wrong. “Life and Fate,” which will be reissued this spring by N.Y.R.B. Classics, in Robert Chandler’s fine translation, is a work of an entirely different order. Like “War and Peace,” it is structured around a single extended family, in this case the Shaposhnikovs. There is the same large canvas, the same method of depicting the life of the entire country through the lives of some intertwined, interrelated, but far-flung characters, the same occasional philosophical digressions. The heavy breathing of the generals who saved Stalingrad and their melancholy feelings (“Neither of the two men quite understood why their meeting had been so unsatisfactory; that the main thing about it was not the practical part, but what they had both been unable to say”) resemble the heavy breathing and quiet philosophizing of Kutuzov, the savior of Borodino. There is the same powerful human warmth that notices everything about the characters, knows everything about them, so that you feel them living on in the world of the book even while you’re not watching.
The novel begins with a description of the fighting at Stalingrad, still in the martial, residually Soviet tone of Grossman’s newspaper days. But then gradually the author seems to lose interest in the battles and the generals. There is a remarkable chapter about a woman who cannot get a residence permit in the city to which she has been evacuated. There is a chapter about a woman named Lyudmila Shtrum (née Shaposhnikova), who is jostled on the tram on her way to visit her wounded son in the hospital. That is all; and her son dies. The depiction of the Shtrum family itself, always quarrelling, then suddenly making up-strangers, yet living in the same house and bound by deep blood ties-doesn’t feel Soviet at all. It feels like Chekhov, or even Bellow. All the characters experience their dilemmas physically-their lives are filled by them, or emptied. Years of life under Communism have eroded people’s personalities; where the commissar in Grossman’s first short story was equally convincing as a mother and as a commissar, the people in “Life and Fate” waver between false positions. This is how a totalitarian system can get its subjects to police themselves. “There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution,” Grossman writes in “Life and Fate,” of the German concentration camps, “and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues.” One simply no longer knows who one is. The brilliant physicist Viktor Shtrum, Grossman’s alter ego, is asked by his institute’s personnel department to fill out an epic questionnaire. Question No. 29 is “Have you or your closest relatives ever been the subject of a judicial inquiry or trial?” At home, unthreatened, Shtrum still breaks down:
He was seized by a feeling of irreparable guilt and impurity. He remembered a meeting at which a Party member, confessing his faults, had said: “Comrades, I’m not one of us.”
Suddenly Viktor rebelled. No, I’m not one of the obedient and submissive. I’m all on my own, my wife is no longer interested in me, but so what? I won’t renounce these unfortunates who died for no reason.
You should be ashamed of yourselves, comrades! How can you bring up such things? These people are innocent-what can their wives and children be guilty of? It’s you who should repent, you who should be begging for forgiveness. And you want to prove my inferiority, to destroy my credibility-simply because I’m related to these innocent victims? All I’m guilty of is failing to help them.
At the same time, another, quite opposite train of thought was running through Viktor’s mind
. . . I didn’t keep in touch with them, I never corresponded with enemies of the Party, I never received letters from camps, I never gave them material help, I met them only infrequently and by chance . . .
A critic once complained that Grossman’s characters are poorly drawn, just “names with problems.” In fact, they seem to be problems with bodies, their sufferings never merely verbal and never quite possible to explain. The heroes of this novel are weak, confused, misled people-and, whether they are old revolutionaries who commit crimes in the name of the Party or non-Party men who momentarily bow to its tremendous pressure, Grossman examines them with a remarkable lack of rancor. Solzhenitsyn thought the old revolutionaries were despicable criminals; Grossman prefers to say that, for the most part, they were terribly, tragically mistaken, and most of them paid for it with their lives.
Grossman often gets carried away. One subversive conversation after another is reproduced, insights are had, and facts are noticed; and little of this serves the development of the plot. It is as if he had found a truth machine and needed to put everything in the Soviet Union through it. This will take a while. But to watch Grossman as he does this-as he discovers how deep he can go into a person’s character, his psychology, merely by looking at him in his most immediate social relations, among his family and his friends-is to watch a man become free.
“Life and Fate” was finished in 1960.Two years later, Grossman was forced to compose another letter, this one to Nikita Khrushchev:
In October 1960 I submitted the manuscript of my novel “Life and Fate” to the editors of the journal Znamya. At approximately the same time A. T. Tvardovsky, chief editor of the journal Novy Mir, also received a copy.
In the middle of February 1961 officers of the KGB presented me with a search warrant and seized from my home various copies and rough drafts of the manuscript of “Life and Fate.” Simultaneously, copies of the manuscript were seized at Znamya and Novy Mir.
The K.G.B. officers were careful people; when they asked Grossman who else had the manuscript, and he told them the typist did, they asked him to go along with them to the typist’s, in case they got lost. Then they took him home.
What Grossman didn’t mention was that he had shown the manuscript to his friend Semyon Lipkin, wondering what Lipkin would cut to make it publishable. Lipkin read the thousand-page manuscript in awe. He thought the book was a revelation-and that, no matter what Grossman did, it could never be published. As Lipkin recalled the scene in his memoir, Grossman became angry and denounced him as a coward. They argued. Then Lipkin told Grossman that his punctuation was inconsistent, and Grossman almost threw him out. But Lipkin kept a copy of the manuscript.
Grossman’s letter to Khrushchev lacks the concision and conviction of the letter to Yezhov. It appeals, cleverly, to Khrushchev’s speeches about Leninist democracy, but the writer has lost the thread of things: he no longer follows the logic of the leadership, he meanders, and he seems distraught. “There is no sense, no truth, in the present situation, whereby I am physically free, but my book, to which I have given my life, remains in jail,” he wrote. “I ask you to release my book.” The sensible thing, Khrushchev no doubt thought as he read this, would be to arrest both man and book.
But these were different times. Although Grossman’s request was not granted, he was given an audience with Mikhail Suslov, Khrushchev’s powerful cultural-affairs minister. Grossman recorded Suslov’s comments as soon as he got home, and they make for curious reading. Suslov told him that he hadn’t read the book but had carefully attended to the internal appraisals that the manuscript had received. And Suslov, sharper on this point than Grossman, considered it a dangerous book: “Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us? . . . Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?” Suslov said how much he liked Grossman’s old novels; why couldn’t he write more of those?
Grossman’s last years were unhappy, lonely, and bitter. He didn’t even know how to go about sending a manuscript abroad. Pasternak, who would have known, had died in 1960, after a nasty campaign against him in the Soviet press. Grossman read Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in manuscript and was ecstatic-at the achievement of the novella, and perhaps because this might mean that his own work would stand a better chance. But “Ivan Denisovich” described only the camps, whereas Grossman’s novel encompassed all of Soviet society. Touchingly, Grossman expected Solzhenitsyn to come and see him. The younger man had heard of Grossman’s book, and he had reached the same place as Grossman intellectually, but he had done so through the camps; by the time he began writing, he was implacably opposed to the Soviet regime. And perhaps there was some contempt for the accommodations that the older writer had made. Solzhenitsyn did not come by.
Life at home was miserable: Grossman was now debilitated by cancer, and got on poorly with his wife and his grown stepson, Fyodor. Olga thought that he should write screenplays, and when he was in the hospital she got rid of his dog. (Grossman, admittedly, had been conducting an affair.) Meanwhile, the people who watched such things continued to watch Grossman. On October 25, 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the Central Committee heard a report from one of its stooges at the Writers’ Union: not only was Grossman unrepentant; he would, when prodded, become “very angry and express hostile views on Soviet society.” The next day, the committee learned that Grossman was at work on another “anti-Soviet” novel. Grossman’s American biographers, the Garrards, suggest that it was Fyodor who betrayed the contents of the book.
“Forever Flowing,” much shorter than “Life and Fate,” serves as its coda. Everything inessential has been stripped away. The novella tells the story of a man, Ivan Grigoryevich, who returns from decades in the camps and cannot find a place for himself in the new U.S.S.R. Some of his friends have died, others have got married, and his cousin has become a wealthy Soviet man. While he suffered, life went on. Ivan Grigoryevich cannot understand this. He visits the Hermitage and looks at the paintings, but they leave him “cold and indifferent”:
It was unbearable to think that those paintings had remained as beautiful as ever during the years in camp which had transformed him into a prematurely old man. Why hadn’t the faces of the madonnas grown old too, and why hadn’t their eyes been blinded with tears?
As Grossman, sick and despairing, was writing this, a new generation gathered at the Polytechnic Institute, listening to poetry and sighing over the dreamy young Yevtushenko. They wore the convictions that had cost Grossman his friends and his career the way they wore the latest Polish jackets. And when the time came for them to sign their letters and join the great Soviet bourgeoisie, they mostly did.
An evil regime can make its opponents ridiculous by making them shrill. After being excluded from the university in “Life and Fate,” Viktor Shtrum briefly turns into a Soviet Noam Chomsky: “One day Viktor counted eighty-six mentions of Stalin’s name in one issue of Pravda; the following day he counted eighteen mentions in one editorial.” Grossman himself seems to have become like this socially; those who weren’t close friends recalled, toward the end of his life, a very irritable man. But his writing became only more lucid and more direct. In this last book, Grossman, like a man making up for lost time, described with a clear mind and heart the horrors that, for twenty years as a writer, he had not quite mentioned: collectivization, the famine, the camps. The freedom to say whatever he pleased, unconcerned with the censor, apparently liberated him, too, from his fealty to conventional narrative: two-thirds of the way through the book, we are treated to a very intelligent forty-page essay explaining why Stalin was the heir to Lenin. The last thread of loyalty-the romantic cult of Lenin-is snapped.
In the end, Grossman, who during and after the war had been so popular, so in touch with his readers, was as isolated and discouraged as any writer in Russian history. “Forever Flowing” was published in Germany in 1970; the manuscript of “Life and Fate” sat at Lipkin’s dacha for years before Lipkin finally got up the courage to send it abroad, and it wasn’t published in Russia until 1988. Before that, it was just a rumor. Grossman, who died in 1964, never saw any of this. All he knew was that he had lost his Soviet home, and had not found another.