Essay by Lara Vapnyar
(Courtesy of NEXTBOOK – a gateway to Jewish lterature, culture & ideas)
Midway through Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel set during World War II, nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum makes an important breakthrough but feels uneasy about the moral implications of his work. “Just like Tolstoy,” the prominent scientist describes himself to his wife. “He plagued himself, he was consumed with doubts, whether people needed literature, whether they needed the books that he wrote.” Shtrum’s wife cuts the comparison short. “Write the War and Peace of physics first,” she snaps.
Shtrum is not only the protagonist of Grossman’s magnum opus, but also his alter ego. And with Life and Fate Grossman managed to write the War and Peace of Soviet literature. Being weighed against Tolstoy isn’t fair to any writer, but beyond the deliberate structural and narrative similarities, Grossman’s historical novel explores ethical and psychological quandaries with a scope and acuity as awe-inspiring as Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Life and Fate has more than 100 fully realized characters, from a 6-year-old Jewish boy who finds himself alone on a journey to an extermination camp, to a ruthless general preparing to send his troops to certain death, to a young girl experiencing first love under the bombs of the battle of Stalingrad. It is hard to think of any theme or idea important to the 20th century not covered in Life and Fate. Stalin’s and Hitler’s terror regimes, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the psychology of fear, the question of individual freedom—Life and Fate was the first Soviet work to explore those themes, and did so with tremendous honesty and courage. Too much honesty and courage, as it turned out, even for the comparatively open times of Khrushchev’s Thaw. Not only did Soviet censors forbid publication, but the novel was proclaimed so dangerous they ordered the manuscript destroyed. KGB agents searched Grossman’s apartment and confiscated all copies of the novel, along with the author’s notebooks and even his typewriter ribbons. A single copy, preserved by Grossman’s friends, was eventually smuggled to Switzerland, where it was published in 1980, 15 years after Grossman’s death.
Born in 1905 in the largely Jewish town of Berdichev, in Ukraine, as a young man Grossman staunchly supported the new Soviet state and its socialist ideals. Many Jewish families eagerly welcomed the revolution of 1917, which was expected to bring freedom and equality to the repressed Jewish population of Russia. Grossman’s early works are perfect examples of Socialist Realism. Even through the years of Stalin’s terror—the period leading up to World War II—Grossman managed to keep his faith in the fairness and humanity of socialism. By the late 1940s, however, Grossman had given up on the Soviet experiment, most likely due to its blatant anti-Semitism, which he experienced firsthand as a frontline correspondent for the newspaper Red Star.
A Writer at War—Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova’s new compilation of Grossman’s wartime notebooks and newspaper articles—sheds light on Grossman’s ideological reversal. Here and there on the pages of his notebooks, there are subtle indications that the Soviet government wasn’t always making the right decisions, that army morale wasn’t so strong, that the civilians didn’t reject collaboration with the Germans as fiercely as is commonly believed, and that the Russian soldiers advancing on Berlin in 1945 weren’t above looting and rape.
There’s nothing explicitly critical here. Grossman might have been a bit naive about socialism, but he was well aware that even private notebooks were routinely checked by the secret police, and that people were persecuted for lesser crimes than criticizing the authorities or doubting the wholesomeness of the Soviet spirit.
But there are plenty of hints (confirmed and explained by Beevor’s commentary), and stunning, ruthless revelations of war shine through the narrative. In one of the most memorable passages, Grossman meets a pair of famous snipers named Zaitsev (decades later, his story would inspire the Jude Law vehicle Enemy at the Gates) and Chekhov. “I knocked down nine on the first day,” says Chekhov. “I knocked down seventeen in two days. They sent women, and I killed two out of five.” Grossman offers no commentary on Chekhov’s actions, but in a footnote Beevor explains that no German servicewomen were sent to the area. In other words, the women must have been Russians, forced to collaborate with the Germans at gunpoint—a fact which Chekhov would have known as he fired.
Such passages are riveting—and valuable to our understanding of the nature of war—but the notebooks also offer a peculiar and particularly Soviet bit of literary insight. The dashed-off observations of the journals—presumably not intended for publication—show what Grossman’s fictional style might have been like had it been liberated from the confines of Socialist Realism. In his private writing, he exchanges the neat, straightforward manner of his novels and stories for a loosely arranged narrative, almost postmodern in feel, and studded with detached, understated descriptions. Grossman finds rare moments of beauty on the grim background of the war scenes:
Dust. White, yellow, red dust. It is stirred up by the feet of sheep, pigs, horses, cows, and by the carts of the refugees, Red Army soldiers, trucks, staff cars, tanks, guns and artillery tractors. Dust is hanging, swirling, whirling over the Ukraine…. A terrifying crossing. Fear. The ferry is full of vehicles, carts, hundreds of people crowded together, and it gets stuck. A Ju-88 drops a bomb from high above. A huge spout of water, upright, bluish-white in colour. The quiet, clear Volga is terrifying like a scaffold…. Moon over the snow-covered battlefield.
Two chapters toward the end of A Writer at War are devoted to the Holocaust. Grossman’s mother perished during the massacre of Berdichev, and for the rest of his life he was plagued by guilt: had he pressed his mother to join him in Moscow, she might have lived. (He didn’t invite her because of his wife’s objections.) His feelings eventually surfaced in his work. One of the most compelling chapters of Life and Fate is written as a farewell letter from a mother about to be murdered in Berdichev’s Jewish ghetto to her grown son. The seeds of that scene can be found in his mother’s murder, of course, but also in his visit to the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, chronicled in the notebooks in typically terse fashion. “A heap of ashes in the corner of the yard—Jewish ashes. Jars, scraps of dresses, a woman’s shoe, a torn Talmud book.”
In the summer of 1944, Grossman accompanied the first Soviet troops to enter the extermination camps at Majdanek and Treblinka. But his notebooks do not contain his initial impressions. Beevor offers no explanation for this omission, leaving one to wonder whether Soviet authorities destroyed Grossman’s notes or he was simply too shocked to write anything down. Instead, the editors include “The Hell Called Treblinka,” which he published in the Red Star a few months afterward. Grossman’s article was one of the very first accounts of the concentration camps, and his main purpose was to introduce the tragedy at its most horrifying. The emotionally charged dispatch stands in stark contrast to the careful detachment of later narratives such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz or Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah:
Women and children were separated from the crowd and taken to the places where corpses were burned instead of to the gas chambers. Mothers who went mad with terror were forced to lead their children between the glowing furnace bars on which thousands of dead bodies were writhing in flames and smoke, where corpses were squirming and jerking in the heat as if they had became alive again, where stomachs of dead pregnant women cracked from the heat, and unborn babies burned on the open wombs of the mothers. This sight could render even the strongest person insane.
Grossman’s discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust was followed by another terrible discovery, that of all-encompassing Soviet anti-Semitism. In the last chapter of A Writer at War Beevor and Vinogradova recount how the state suppressed information about Nazi crimes against the Jewish population, manipulated accounts of the tragedy as if it affected Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews equally, and destroyed the Soviet branch of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Stalin’s massive anti-Jewish campaign of 1953 came as no surprise to Grossman.
The years on the frontlines, the disillusionment and guilt, that old Russian feeling of an intellectual’s ethical responsibility, the enormous moral courage—by the late 1950s, Grossman was able to use his literary talent for a worthy cause and, in doing so, to write his own War and Peace. In the conclusion to his Treblinka piece Grossman muses about the role of a writer:
Someone might ask: “Why write about this, why remember all that?” It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it. Everyone who would turn away, who would shut his eyes and walk past, would insult the memory of the dead.