Vasily Grossman always sided with the oppressed

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Vasily Grossman during the Second World War

Some have tried to claim Russian author Vasily Grossman, whose novels Life and Fate and the newly translated Stalingrad are considered masterpieces, as a supporter of the West and proponent of rugged individualism. Bob Light reclaims him for a radical tradition that rejects all rulers.

When he died in September 1964 just one English-language publication considered the Russian writer Vasily Grossman worthy of a memorial, with only the New York Times carrying a perfunctory hundred-word unsigned obituary. None of his writing was available outside Russia, and next-to-none was available inside Russia. In the sub-zero atmosphere of the Cold War in the “West” Grossman was just another Stalin-period hack; in the Russian empire he was an unreliable has-been who could not find a publisher.

Fifty-five years later Grossman is revered as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, with all of his major works translated into multiple languages, two heavyweight biographies and literary conferences dedicated to his work. His two epic novels about the Second World War — Life and Fate and the recently-published companion novel Stalingrad — are widely, and in my opinion rightly, regarded as masterpieces.

And because Grossman now enjoys such an elevated reputation and because his work centres on some of the tectonic events of the 20th century there is inevitably an intellectual squabble over Grossman’s reputation and more importantly over the political implications of his work.

Ideologues like Anne Applebaum and Robert Conquest have long claimed Grossman for their right wing politics, but the publication of Stalingrad this year has prompted a new outbreak of reviews and articles claiming Grossman for the right. For these right wingers Grossman’s novels represent what John and Carol Garrard call “a warning against radical change”.

Right wing ideologues trying to claim Grossman for the politics of Ayn Rand all revert to more or less the same three tired arguments.

The first is a clapped-out argument left over from the Cold War: Grossman hated Stalin and therefore he by definition sided with Stalin’s enemies in the West. Sadly for them, this kind of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” logic breaks down the minute any form of historical context is added to the equation.

Ruthlessness and stupidity

Grossman had every reason to hate Stalin and Stalinism — he had seen what Stalin’s ruthlessness and stupidity had done to his country, to his friends, to his life. During his time as an industrial chemist in the mines of the Donblass he had seen the horrendous exploitation that the Five Year Plan imposed on workers; during his visits back to his native Ukraine he had witnessed the famine that killed perhaps five million peasants; even when established as a member of the Writers Union in Moscow Grossman saw his cousin, his friends and fellow writers arrested, exiled and executed. During the pernicious Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1938–41 Stalin enforced an early version of Holocaust denial and suppressed all information about his friend Hitler’s violence against Jews. So, when the Nazis invaded on 22 June 1941 the Jewish population of the Ukraine had no forewarning of what the advancing Nazis would do to them. Grossman’s hometown of Berdichev was overrun in mid-July; on 14 September his mother and 12,000 other Jews were marched out of town and executed in a ditch.

It is also true that in long passages of his final, unfinished novel Everything Flows Grossman blames Lenin for enabling the rise of Stalin. But it is possible to oppose Stalinism from the left as well as the right — “Neither Washington nor Moscow” was one of the founding slogans of Socialist Review after all.

Interestingly translator Robert Chandler (himself no leftist) nonetheless talks of Grossman’s lifelong “revolutionary romanticism”. Throughout his novels there is a recurring affection (that really is the best word) for the Russian Revolution and for the “Old Bolsheviks” who led it and who were systematically eradicated by Stalin. Grossman grew up in a non-Bolshevik but nonetheless left wing household — his parents were both members of the Jewish Socialist Bund, his father was active in the 1905 Revolution. Grossman would never forget (as those who try to whitewash Tsarism today do) that it was the Bolshevik Revolution that uprooted antisemitism in Russia.

Many of Grossman’s closest friends, including his cousin Nadya Almaz, were idealistic socialists, often sympathetic to the Left Opposition. Some followed their self-preservation instincts to become Stalinist apparatchiks, others stayed true to their socialist idealism and were wiped out by Stalin. In the early 1930s Grossman was an enthusiastic member of the leftist Pereval literary circle, founded by Voronsky, who would be liquidated in 1937 as a “Trotskyist”. It is indicative that even in Everything Flows in the bizarre “mock trial” sequence of the “Four Judases” the traitor that Grossman especially scorns is the one who betrayed the “Old Bolsheviks”.

In more practical terms Grossman showed no interest in fleeing to the West and almost no interest in smuggling out his work to be published abroad. Boris Pasternak — a significantly inferior writer to Grossman in every way — had sneaked out Dr Zhivago and been rewarded with vast wealth, a Nobel Prize and an unwatchable David Lean movie. Grossman appears to have had no interest in any such windfall. Indeed, he explicitly told his daughter Katya that what mattered to him was that Life and Fate should be read by the people he wrote it for: “I wrote the book out of love and pity for ordinary people and I still believe in them.”

As an addendum, despite his increasing sense of his Jewish identity there is no evidence whatsoever that Grossman had the slightest sympathy for Israel — a fact that annoys Zionist critics to this day.

There is a typical Grossman anecdote in his Armenian travelogue that captures his sometimes-ambiguous feelings about Stalin. He witnesses a firework display in Yerevan which takes place against the background of the colossal statue of Stalin that still dominated the town: “With each salvo long tongues of flame lit up the surrounding mountains and the titanic figure of Stalin would emerge from the darkness…the terrible bronze god in a greatcoat would step out of the mountain darkness. No, no…it was impossible not to give this figure his due — this instigator of countless inhuman crimes was also the leader, the merciless leader of a great and terrible state.”

One of their own

The second point that right wing critics invariably make to claim Grossman as one of their own is that his novels describe an “equivalence” between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany — and both are a warning from history of what happens when the centre (read the US) loses control.

To the extent that they were both merciless monsters who had no compunction in wiping out millions there is a clear twin-like quality to Stalin and Hitler. However, once any type of historical context enters the argument the inanity of the “equivalence” argument becomes clearer, and Grossman for one saw this.

While Stalin and his bagmen had no compunction in ordering the deaths and immiseration of anyone, including erstwhile comrades, the Stalinist system was driven by the needs of primitive accumulation. Stalin’s declared mission in the first Five Year Plan, which consolidated his rule in 1927, was to emulate the successful capitalist economies. As he said, “We are fifty to a hundred years behind the advanced countries, we must make good this lag in ten years. Either we do it or they crush us.”

In those “advanced countries” capitalism had been born out of barbarism — especially the barbarity of the Atlantic slave trade. In Russia the barbarity was the forced collectivisation of the land and those who worked it and the ruthless exploitation of the Russian working class with the creation of a vicious police state — things that Grossman witnessed during his time in the Donbass, his trips through his native Ukraine and his life in Moscow.

Almost amazingly even though the German Einsatzgruppen murdered his mother, even though he had witnessed “the Hell of Treblinka”, Grossman never succumbed to the anti-German rhetoric of the Stalinists. Ilya Ehrenberg who was with Grossman at Stalingrad remembered him saying, “One shouldn’t ascribe the epidemic of plague to a national character. Karl Liebknecht was also a German.” There is also a strangely sympathetic portrayal in Life and Fate of the recuperating German soldier and former Social Democrat Peter Becht who refuses to conform to Nazi antisemitism.

But Grossman never displayed any mercy for Hitler or the Nazis. He wrote in The Hell of Treblinka: “The Germans execute Jews solely because they are Jews. In their eyes there are no Jews who have the right to live. Being a Jew is the greatest crime and it is punishable with death. Humankind throughout its existence has not seen a slaughter of defenceless and innocent people that was so well organised, so extensive and so brutal. This is the biggest crime in history and human history has known many crimes written in blood…but here we are talking about the execution of an entire people.” Grossman was in Berlin on 2 May 1945 when the Nazis finally surrendered. His friend Alexander Bek remembered that his only words were “Evil is overthrown.”

Like the other great memorialist of the Holocaust Primo Levi, Grossman at no point in his life accepted an equivalence between Stalinism and Nazism — he hated both but with different degrees of intensity. In his short story In Kislovodsk a Jewish doctor (clearly based on his much-loved uncle Dr David Sherentsis) is ordered to collaborate with the Nazi invaders and instead he and his wife commit suicide. Not so much equivalence there.

In fact, there are suggestions (perhaps no more) that Grossman took a position closer to Trotsky’s classic formulation that Stalin’s Russia was a degenerated workers’ state, but that it could be reformed. Certainly, Grossman had almost naïve illusions in the change represented by Khrushchev, especially after his speech denouncing Stalin in 1956. When Life and Fate was “arrested” by the KGB in 1961 Grossman wrote a long personal letter to Khrushchev pleading with him to allow his book to be published. Anthony Beevor argues that, “Grossman like many fellow idealists believed passionately that the heroism of the Red Army at Stalingrad would not just win the war, it would change Soviet society for ever. Once victory over the Nazis had been won by a strongly unified people, they believed that the NKVD, the purges, the show trials and the Gulag would be consigned to history.”

Idealism personified

And that idealism is personified in the wonderful character of Krymov, the Old Bolshevik revolutionary fighting in Stalingrad: “Ever since he arrived in Stalingrad Krymov had had a strange feeling — sometimes it was as though he were in a kingdom where the Party no longer existed, sometimes he felt he was breathing the air of the first days of the Revolution.”

The final claim that right-wingers repeatedly make about Grossman is that his work is a sustained argument for individualism, that touchstone of selfishness that inspires the politics of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher and, er, Priti Patel.

Sadly, the people who make this argument seem to have read very little literature or to have ever visited a cinema. From its inception the novel and the movie have always focused on the stories of individuals: it is what they do. Grossman uses a massive repertory of characters and many of their stories intersect but in any given passage Grossman will tell an individual storyline. But this, of course, is not remotely the same as Grossman basing his politics on the theories of “individualism” where self-interest is the driving force of the capitalist system. In so many respects Grossman’s novels are a testament to individualism’s great enemy — the human solidarity of the Red Army or as the title of one of his famous stories has it, “The People are Immortal.” In his final report from Stalingrad Grossman wrote, “faith in one another knit together the entire front from Commander-in-Chief to the soldiers in the rank and file.”

It is at this point that those who want to enlist Grossman for neoliberalism employ their dirtiest trick. In the official Stalinist version of The Great Patriotic War victory was achieved by “the Russian people” led by the sublime military genius of Joseph Stalin. In this lie even the victorious generals like Rokossovsky and Zhukov were downgraded, and there was no room to acknowledge either individual heroism or the full horror of the NKVD disciplinary squads — who at Stalingrad executed 16,000 of their own soldiers. Moreover, Stalinist mythology refused to acknowledge that some Russian citizens in the Ukraine had joined the Nazi death machine, or that Ukraine’s Jews had been the targeted victims of a campaign of extermination. To concede these points would undermine Stalinist orthodoxy and so “divide the Soviet dead”.

Like Primo Levi, Grossman felt that his most important contribution to history was to remember. To remember Stalin’s stupidity and ineptitude that cost millions of lives, to remember the savagery of the Nazi butchers, to remember the heroism of the Red Army soldiers who fought tanks with petrol-filled bottles. In his famous article “The Axis of the Main Offensive” Grossman lists by name all the participants in a Stalingrad firefight as an act of homage and remembrance. Of the 18 young women involved only three survived the day. In the context of Stalin’s Great Patriotic Lies, to remember individuals, to name the nameless, to celebrate moments of forgotten heroism, was an act of rebellion and defiance, a symbol of hope. It is typical of the neoliberals’ dishonesty that this has been twisted into claiming Grossman’s support for their me-first economic philosophy of individualism.

The wolfhound century

Rosa Luxemburg once predicted that the choices posed by the 20th century were socialism or barbarism; it was Grossman’s fate to live through both during what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam called the “wolfhound century”. But Grossman lived his adult life in a country where socialism and barbarism were conflated: where the most appalling barbarity was committed in the name of “really existing socialism”. Even a mind as brilliant as Trotsky was wrong-footed by that historical conundrum. During his life Grossman made all kinds of compromises, committed acts of which he was rightfully ashamed. But he was also a man capable of bravery and possessed an iron honesty. All of his books were written under strict state censorship and some are close to hack works while others are among the great literary works of the century.

Yet what really matters is that in Stalingrad and Life and Fate what Raymond Williams called “the structure of feeling” is always on the side of the oppressed, the victims, the poor, the foot soldiers; it is never on the side of the oppressors, the powerful, the ruling classes. So, the critics from the right can fuck right off right now. Add all the caveats that you like, but Vasily Grossman is part of our tradition not theirs.

Further reading:
Stalingrad, Vasily Grossman, Harvill Secker, £25
Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, Vintage, £10.99
A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941–45, edited and translated by Anthony Beevor, Pimlico, £10.99