In Other Words
The Russian Masterpiece You’ve Never Heard of
Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate has more to say about human freedom than any other Russian novel of the century. That's probably why it was locked up for so long.
Fifty years ago this past October, Vasily Grossman submitted for publication the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century. The KGB immediately destroyed all copies of what Grossman called Life and Fate (Zhizn’ i sud’ba in Russian) except for two hidden by his friends, and he died in 1964 without ever seeing his work published. For more than a quarter-century, the book was unavailable in Russia. Finally, in 1988, it was embraced by the cultural revolutionaries of glasnost as they slashed and burned their way through the official narrative of Soviet history, encrusted with 70 years of lies. In their search for a usable past, something not to be rejected in disgust, not to shudder over, but to cherish and be inspired by, they were awed by the brave and nearly lost attempts of their fathers and mothers to imagine a just and moral political order.
This being Russia, literature was the first and the main resource of the glasnost warriors. They trafficked in great books, some that had waited decades to be read: Andrei Platonov’s Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem. Yet even in such august company, Grossman’s Life and Fate, serialized in the popular literary magazine Oktyabr, was instantly recognized for its brilliance.
The commentary included with the book’s first complete Russian edition in 1989 was titled "The Spirit of Freedom" ("Dukh svobody"). This was a remarkable insight. For Life and Fate continues to overwhelm and wound through its characters’ heroic insistence on their freedom to exercise moral choice, even in the hells of Stalingrad, Treblinka, and the Gulag, and among the daily perils and humiliations of life under Stalinism. Most of all, the book is matchless in the artistic power of its affirmation of freedom as the essence of our humanity — freedom that today, in a Russia run by reincarnated KGB officers, seems far more elusive than when the book was first rediscovered.
Grossman lived the freedom of which he wrote. One is immediately struck by a complete absence of internal censorship in Life and Fate, written by an author in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, some of it when Joseph Stalin was still alive. What one Soviet critic called a "concentration of truth, fearlessness, and inner freedom" was likely without parallel in Soviet Russian literature at the time. In a still totalitarian Soviet Union barely thawed from the paralysis of Stalinist terror, Grossman’s book, as another glasnost-era commentator put it, was "the novel of a free man."
Grossman, who had been one of Russia’s most popular World War II front-line reporters, as well as the author of a fine war novel to which Life and Fate is a sequel, continued to behave like a free man even after a member of the magazine Znamya‘s editorial board told him that his "harmful," "hostile" work would not be published in less than 250 years. So terrified were Znamya‘s editors that they forwarded the manuscript, post-haste, to the authorities. The KGB searched Grossman’s apartment and took all copies of the novel, along with every page of the drafts and every used sheet of carbon paper. None of the seized materials would ever be seen again. The 1988 magazine publication was based on the only two surviving texts: a final copy and a draft, each kept hidden by a different friend.
Grossman protested to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and that letter, too, was unprecedented in its tone of address. "The current situation is senseless," Grossman wrote. "I am physically free, but the book to which I have dedicated my life is in jail — but it is I who wrote it, and I have not repudiated and am not repudiating it.… I continue to believe that I have written the truth and that I wrote it loving, empathizing with, and believing in the people. I ask for freedom for my book."
In 1962 Grossman was granted an interview with the Soviet Union’s final authority on such matters, chief party ideologist Mikhail Suslov. Suslov upheld Znamya‘s verdict. Grossman never recanted. He died in poverty and obscurity two years later, on Sept. 14, 1964. A few of his stories were published in newspapers and magazines over the following three years, but after 1967, when the last vestiges of Khrushchev’s "thaw" were completely extinguished by the reigning Brezhnevism, even his name was forbidden from being mentioned in print, and it remained so for the next 20 years.
IN ONE OF THE FIRST REVIEWS that followed the 1988 Oktyabr publication, leading Soviet literary critic Vladimir Lakshin compared reading Life and Fate to standing in a dense crowd inside an immense, airy temple, listening to the echoes of hundreds of conversations. Twenty years later, Harvard University’s Stephen Greenblatt would call the book a "stupendous twentieth-century heir" to War and Peace. Indeed, the novel is teeming with at least two dozen main characters and scores of secondary ones. Although centered on the Battle of Stalingrad between fall 1942 and winter 1943, which Grossman covered as a reporter for the main military newspaper, Red Star, the narrative spans almost the entire Eurasian continent, from the prisoner-of-war camps in Poland and Germany to the Gulag camps in eastern Siberia, from Moscow in the north to the ghettos and the ravines with the remains of the Ukrainian Jews in the south, from the soldiers in the trenches to Hitler’s "field headquarters" somewhere "on the border of East Prussia and Lithuania" and Stalin in the Kremlin. (In the chilling Stalin pages, Grossman has the desperate "Supreme Commander" imagine that the Red Army’s catastrophic defeats in 1941 and 1942 were retribution for all those he had killed or starved to death, and then exult in the Stalingrad triumph as his ultimate and eternal vindication.)
Consciously Tolstoy-like in its sweep, Life and Fate was also inspired by that great Russian observer of everyday life and "ordinary people," Anton Chekhov, who was Grossman’s favorite writer. In a passionate soliloquy delivered by one of his characters, Grossman extols Chekhov as the "first democrat" among Russian writers for his "millions of characters" and his attention to each of them. They were unique human beings (lyudi) to Chekhov, Grossman continues, every one of them: lyudi first — and only then "priests, Russians, shopkeepers, Tatars, workers." Chekhov was the "standard-bearer … of a real Russian democracy, Russian freedom, and Russian human dignity." To recover and maintain this Chekhovian freedom, "to be different, unique, to live, feel, and think in one’s own, separate way," was the sole objective of and justification for &qu
ot;human associations," Grossman writes in Life and Fate. Sometimes, he continues, instead of a means for strengthening a human community, "race, party, and state" become the end. "Nyet, nyet, nyet! The sole, true, and eternal objective of the struggle for life is a human being, his humble particularity, his right to this particularity."
There was no doctrine, Grossman believed, to which this freedom and dignity could be sacrificed:
I saw the unflinching force of the idea of public good, born in my country. I saw it first in the universal collectivization. I saw it in [the Great Purge of] 1937. I saw how, in the name of an ideal as beautiful and humane as that of Christianity, people were annihilated. I have seen villages dying of starvation; I have seen peasant children dying in Siberian snow; I have seen trains carrying to Siberia hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow and Leningrad, from all the cities of Russia — men and women declared enemies of the great and bright idea of public good. This idea was beautiful and great, and it has mercilessly killed some, disfigured the lives of others; it has torn wives from husbands and children from fathers.
It was in the ruthless casualness with which individual freedom was sacrificed to the state’s ideology that Grossman found the key parallel between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, which he juxtaposes throughout the book. Even at the height of Khrushchev’s thaw, a Russian commentator recalled a quarter-century later, this comparison was "beyond the pale," "mortally dangerous," and, to the censors, among the most terrifying of the novel’s many heresies. (Grossman was also almost certainly the first Soviet writer to apply the adjective "totalitarian" to Stalin’s Soviet Union — in a manuscript submitted for publication in the Soviet Union!) For Grossman, the betrayal of the nascent Russian freedom in 1917 by the Bolshevik Revolution was Soviet Russia’s original and inexpiable sin. Dying in a Gulag camp somewhere above the Arctic Circle, an Old Bolshevik confesses to a comrade and a fellow prisoner: "I don’t want to say it; it is like a torture to say it.… But this is my last revolutionary duty, and I will do it.… We have made a mistake.… We did not understand liberty. We crushed it.… Without liberty, there is no proletarian revolution."
Yet to Grossman the spirit of freedom was inextinguishable. A Red Star correspondent from the first to the last day of the Stalingrad battle, Grossman witnessed the "miracle of Stalingrad" during which the Red Army, its regiments sometimes reduced to "dozens of soldiers," its positions incessantly bombed and shelled, beat back Nazi troops and tanks. "Stalingrad had a soul," Grossman concludes. "Its soul was freedom."
For many, perhaps most, Soviet soldiers, from whom Grossman drew his characters, the freedom for which they fought and died was not freedom only from Nazi slavery, but also from Stalinism. Major Yershov, whose entire family was exiled and died somewhere in the northern swamps, fights "for a free Russian life." For Yershov, Grossman wrote, the victory over Hitler would be also the "victory over those camps where his mother, sisters, and father perished."
Away from the battlefields, the spirit of freedom moved men and women to brave informers seemingly behind every wall and around every corner, to defy the executioners of SMERSH (the "Death to the Spies" counterintelligence service), to risk arrest and the torments of the Gulag for a word of truth, thrown in the face of the "fear that prevented humans from being human." Grossman writes, "What a horrible price people paid for a few brave words uttered without looking over one’s shoulder." And yet, here’s one of the book’s characters, one Madyarov, dreaming recklessly in front of several friends:
Ah, dear comrades, can you imagine what this is, freedom of the press? When instead of the letters of laborers to the great Stalin, or the information about the workers of the United States entering a new year in an atmosphere of despondence and poverty — when instead of all of this, you know what you find? Information! Can you imagine such a newspaper? A newspaper that brings information?
"Swept up in this crazily unusual talk," all in the room know what they risk by not denouncing their friend immediately, that very night. "Oh, what the hell," thinks the main character of Life and Fate, the brilliant nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum, as he walks home. "At least we have spoken like human beings, without fear, without hypocrisy."
"It seems to me that life could be defined as freedom," Shtrum’s mentor, Academician Chepyzhin, later says to the book’s hero. "Freedom is the main principle of life. It is here that the borderline runs: between freedom and slavery, between dead matter and life. The entire evolution of live matter is the movement from a lower degree of freedom to a higher."
The "degree of freedom" diminishes catastrophically for Shtrum, a Jew, when he is denounced for preferring the "bourgeois" physics of Albert Einstein to the "national Soviet science." Although warned that refusing to recant is "akin to suicide," he does not attend the meeting at his institute at which he is expected to confess his "deviations" and beg forgiveness.
Shtrum’s phone goes silent. His colleagues and friends cross the street to avoid greeting him. He expects, any second, the proverbial knock at the door heralding his arrest. Yet, along with fear, Shtrum is also filled with an unknown thrill: the freedom to resist. The terror that permeated the lives of every Soviet citizen, the awareness of his own "pitiful powerlessness" before the boundless and "lethal" power of the state and its "all-annihilating wrath," all seem to have receded. In his exhilarating liberation, Shtrum is no longer afraid to say what he thinks. Instead, he speaks to his wife and daughter about the "unbearable" mendacity of the newspapers and of the insult of seeing "ignoramuses with party membership cards" direct science and culture.
Then Stalin calls. Keenly "interested in the division of atoms’ nuclei," the tyrant is enthusiastic about Shtrum’s work in nuclear theory. The two-minute phone conversation vaults the ostracized physicist to the very top of the Soviet state’s science conglomerate. His laboratory is returned to him; his every request for equipment or personnel is granted immediately. His "beloved science," that is, his life, is given back to him.
Yet after a few weeks of triumph, Shtrum starts to feel empty and, stranger still, nostalgic for the "lightness" that was his when the phone did not ring and colleagues and acquaintances pretended not to see him. Those days now seem so happy — "his head brimming with thoughts of truth, freedom, God." There is a "piercing" sense of loss. Something "precious" is forever gone.
NAZISM AND SOVIET totalitarianism left Grossman little room for maneuver. For those wishing to affirm their freedom, Grossman offered stark choices — narrow, sharp, and often lethal, like a dagger. Would he rethink them today, first and foremost for his own country, where, as in the aftermaths of all great modern revolutions, the moral fervor that Life and Fate so powerfully stoked two decades ago seems to have been replaced by ubiquitous cynicism?
In his classic study "Two Concepts of Liberty," Isaiah Berlin outlined two closely related and mutually reinforcing but distinct kinds of freedom: "Negative" freedom is the freedom not to be force
d to do what one does not want to do; "positive" freedom is the ability to act as one pleases. Coming to Russia today, Grossman would have found immense progress in negative freedom, even under Putinism. The heroes of Life and Fate would have been delirious with joy not to mouth inane propaganda clichés, not to be forced to swear public allegiance, again and again, to the rulers they despised. Fulfilling Madyarov’s dream, they would have read "real news" in newspapers and magazines, and the Shtrums of Russia (if they weren’t at MIT or Berkeley) could have conducted their research without fear of ideological inquisition. One can travel abroad, even to the West. One can read (and watch) whatever one wants! One can even start one’s own business!
But after a day or two, Grossman would have sensed that something was still very much amiss. The power of the state has receded, but it is still outside society’s control. Abetted by corrupt or intimidated judges, bureaucrats blackmail and shake down entrepreneurs; traffic police terrorize and extort motorists. Having granted a great deal of negative freedom, the Kremlin still severely curtails the ability to act positively as one wishes in one’s own affairs and, especially, in the affairs of one’s country — to lay pipelines, to sell one’s oil company to whomever one wants, to give millions to opposition parties or charities of your own choosing and not the government’s, to run for office.
It is not just the elite of Russia, the oil barons like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov, who cannot do as they wish. Perhaps most of all, Grossman would have been disheartened to see virtually everyone not in the government’s employ forced to make compromises with their consciences. To pay bribes to tax police and fire inspectors; to kowtow to rapacious mayors and governors. Not to cross the line, if you are an investigative journalist or newspaper owner — or be fined, bankrupted, maimed, or even killed. Not to start an opposition party, run for office, run for the Duma. Not to elect the governors of one’s province and, increasingly, the mayors of one’s own city. It is these positive freedoms, the freedom to do what you want in your life, your business, your town, and your country, that the new middle-class protesters have been demanding. Grossman would have understood and embraced that struggle.
Toward the end of Life and Fate, Shtrum pledges to the memory of his mother, killed by the Nazis in a Ukrainian town, like Grossman’s own mother, who was shot with thousands of the Berdichev Jews on Sept. 15, 1941:
Everything in the world is nothing compared to the truth and purity of one little man — not the empire, spread from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, not science.… Every day, every hour, year after year, one must fight for one’s right to be human, kind and pure.… And if black times bring an hour without hope, man should not be afraid of death if he wants to remain human.
So long as the world struggles daily to save its humanity by resisting the temptations of the absolving certitudes of sectarian or secular "isms," the "holy wars," the "verticals of power," or "national security," Life and Fate will continue to dazzle and inspire — as unerring a moral guide today as it was 50 years ago.