By Pat Yarker
On Sunday 18 September BBC Radio 4 begins a week-long dramatisation of Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s epic novel ‘Life and Fate’, set during the battle of Stalingrad. Grossman wrote his panoramic text in the 1950s and presented it for publication during Khrushchev’s cultural thaw in 1960. He was told by the Politburo his novel was so dangerous it could not be published for at least two centuries. All copies, drafts, notes and materials were taken from him.
Grossman was born in the Ukraine in 1905 to a family of well-off assimilated Jews. He studied chemistry at Moscow State University and worked as a mining safety inspector and as a chemistry teacher in the industrial region of the Donbass. His first novel was set here. Twice Grossman’s writing would be nominated for the Stalin Prize, to be vetoed both times. Grossman, the Soviet leader suggested, had Menshevik sympathies.
Neither Party member nor out-and-out dissident, Grossman’s early novels and short-stories are said to be conventional Socialist Realism. I think his experience of total war re-made Grossman into a writer capable of penetrating the life of his times and presenting in words what he found.
Seventy years ago this month, Leningrad was besieged by Hitler’s forces. Kiev had fallen, and the Ukrainian Jews were being massacred, Grossman’s mother among them. Turned down for active service, Grossman had become a correspondent for Red Star, the Red Army newspaper. He spent over a thousand days at the front-line, moving as it moved from Leningrad to Moscow to Stalingrad. Physically courageous, and lucky, Grossman talked with everyone he could. He noted the sights and sounds of battle, its texture, taste and smell. The usual smell of the front-line, he wrote, is a cross between a morgue and a blacksmith’s. He noted incompetence, desertion and collaboration, as well as extraordinary valour and tenacity. He wrote about the eradication of the Jews in his homeland. His account of entering Treblinka, the first in any language, was spiked by Red Star, but published in Yiddish and quoted at the Nuremberg Trials. On the day Berlin capitulated, Grossman stood among the detritus in Hitler’s office in the Reich Chancellery.
‘Life and Fate’ follows the fortunes of an extended family, the Shaposhnikovs, and their linked and widening circles of friends, acquaintances, colleagues and lovers. Soldiers and scientists, peasants and workers, apparatchiks, torturers and Stalin himself figure among almost two hundred characters. The novel ranges from prison-queue to Kalmyk steppe, from a Moscow tenement to the encircled ruins of a house in Stalingrad, from a labour-camp in the gulag to a Nazi concentration-camp, from the newly-built gas-chamber within which Eichmann and his entourage sit down to eat, to a cell in the Lubyanka where an Old Bolshevik has his ‘confession’ beaten out of him. Grossman tries to imagine it all, and face what he called the ruthless truth of war. His unshowy prose does not flinch from the journey to the gas-chamber, or from an act of resistance in its shadow. He finds words even for what it was to cross that threshold.
All this should make stark compelling radio. But how will that medium translate the novel-form’s ironies, which are the ironies of life and history? It is partly through these that Grossman engages with vital questions of his day. ‘Life and Fate’ asks what has become of October 1917. Are not Nazism and Stalinism two sides of the same coin? First and most eloquent to argue this view is the repellent Liss, an SS interrogator confronting Mostovskoy, good comrade and friend of Lenin and Bukharin. Yet what is it to be ‘good’ in times like these? The Tolstoyan, Ikonnikov, regarded by Mostovskoy as a deranged reactionary, is shot for withholding his labour. He will not work to build a death-camp. He leaves behind some scribble about ‘stupid kindness… a kindness outside any system… the private kindness of one individual towards another… senseless, incidental…’ Grossman studs his novel with examples of such kindness.
When the Stalinist state ‘arrested’ Grossman’s book he wrote to Khrushchev: I have written in my book what I believed, and continue to believe, to be the truth. I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through. I have not repudiated it… I ask for freedom for my book. To no avail.
Grossman died in obscurity in 1964. Yet his novel came to see the light of day. A copy was microfilmed, smuggled to the West, and published in 1980. And in 1988, under Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost, ‘Life and Fate’ was published in the USSR. The English translation is by Robert Chandler. I hope you’ll read it.