29 January 2012


War and PeaceLife and Fate.  It takes a certain faith to give your novel a name echoing Tolstoy's hallowed cadences, but Vasily Grossman knew the importance of his subject.  His book is set in the Soviet Union during the Battle of Stalingrad, the pivotal battle of the war which took over the name first used for Napoleon's incursion: the Great Patriotic War.  In grandeur of conception and performance, this novel certainly belongs in the same company as War and Peace and the works of Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and if it had ever made it to a publisher's editor, it might have ended up even richer than it is.  Instead, when Grossman submitted the manuscript for publication in 1961, during the "Thaw" which followed the death of Stalin, it was seized by the KGB and all available copies and typewriter ribbons were confiscated.  Its laudatory references to Krushchev's important role at Stalingrad were not enough to rescue it.  Miraculously, a microfilmed copy was smuggled to the West, and was published here in 1985--just to show us what 1984 could have been like.

Life and Fate differs from War and Peace in many ways, but perhaps the most obvious is in the difference between their wars.  Natasha, Pierre, and Andrei are trying to live their lives in and around a war which unites them, their families, and their neighbors into one great national repudiation of the French invaders.  Grossman's characters are united against their invaders too, but while they think they face one enemy, they actually face Hitler and Stalin both.  The greatness of his book lies partly in his handling of these two different threats at once, and in the subtlety with which he delineates a broad range of accommodations to the fearsome ubiquity of the State, from opportunism, to the repression of memory, to faith silenced and deferred, to the illusion of protection by the strength of one's ideological belief or military accomplishments or lack of personal importance.

Like Chekhov, Grossman is a moralist by demonstration.  The episodes in Life and Fate are brilliant on the mechanisms of self-delusion, on the thousands of moments in which the fear of being mistaken for a traitor is felt without being noticed, moments in which freedom of thought is pre-empted by the slavery of belief.  He has the same warm understanding of human frailty and human courage as Tolstoy, which makes his condemnation of the system his people keep on trying to be human in even more powerful.  Fitzgerald once wrote, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  For the ordinary Soviet citizen of conscience in 1940, as for the children of beloved but frightening parents, such opportunities for Doublethink were an ordinary condition of life.

The gulags were crammed full of believers, people innocent of the charges they were imprisoned for.  Grossman shows how innocent prisoners were convinced their fellow political prisoners had to be guilty, at least in thought, of betraying the Party and the people, and he also shows that those not in prison struggled to persuade themselves, sometimes successfully, that their imprisoned but beloved relatives, friends, teachers, must have been guilty as charged.  One of the zeks, a young student, bore the unique distinction of having actually done something worth being imprisoned for: he had written and posted leaflets critical of the government.  Even when his cellmates condemned him as an enemy of the Revolution, they gave him a strange sort of respect.  Some prisoners even came to believe that their individual innocence was irrelevant, and that their imprisonment or execution was necessary to the well-being of the cause they loved and believed in, as Arthur Koestler depicts so convincingly in Darkness at Noon.

In Life and Fate, Katsenelenbogen, a former interrogator--"a poet, the laureate of the State security organs"--who is now himself undergoing interrogation in the Lubyanka, spells out this creed to his cellmate Krymov, a commissar arrested upon returning from Stalingrad: "The concept of personal innocence is a hangover from the Middle Ages.  Pure superstition!  Tolstoy declared that no one in the world is guilty.  We Chekists have put forward a more advanced thesis: 'No one in the world is innocent.'  Everyone is subject to our jurisdiction.  If a warrant has been issued for your arrest, you are guilty--and a warrant can be issued for everyone.  Yes, everyone has the right to a warrant.  Even if he has spent his whole life issuing warrants for others.  The Moor has ta'en his pay and may depart."  This devil, in jail or out, is even more horrifying for being a collector of rare books, a man of culture and irony.

Later on, the devil Katsenelenbogen speaks "not like a poet, not like a philosopher, but like a prophet.
      If one were to develop the system of camps boldly and systematically, eliminating all hindrances and shortcomings, the boundaries would finally be erased.  The camp would merge with the world outside.  And this fusion would signal the maturity and triumph of great principles.  For all its inadequacies, the system of camps had one decisive point in its favor: only there was the principle of personal freedom subordinated, clearly and absolutely, to the higher principle of reason.  This principle would raise the camp to such a degree of perfection that finally it would be able to do away with itself and merge with the life of the surrounding towns and villages...
      'When we can place an equals sign between life on either side of the wire, repression will become unnecessary and we shall cease to issue arrest warrants.  Prisons and solitary-confinement blocks will be razed to the ground.  Any anomalies will be handled by the Culture and Education Section...
      'The abolition of the camps will be a triumph of humanitarianism, but this will in no way mean the resurgence of the chaotic, primeval, cave-man principle of personal freedom.  On the contrary, that will have become completely redundant.' "  The English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham conceived his idea of the Panopticon, a prison whose inmates would be under the constant threat of secret surveillance, while visiting his brother in Russia in the late 1780's.  Apparently this was not a mere coincidence of geography. And, as we remember, in the end Winston Smith truly loved Big Brother.

It's difficult to believe that Grossman really imagined Life and Fate acceptable for publication.  His description of the USSR during the war makes it seem obvious that Stalin's death would not change the new Soviet Union in any structural way.  The whole cadre of Old Bolshevik revolutionaries (the 'Old Believers' of Leninism) had been exterminated over the years through the purges of 1937, and was replaced with a new cadre of luxury-loving dictators, believers in the State rather than the people.  For Grossman, "the thousand year history of Russian slavery," which the Revolution was to have ended, was instead reaffirmed and exploited by the State.

Like most Russians, Grossman went through the war as a believer.  His 1941 novel The People Immortal (to my cursory glance) has all the melodramatic excesses of Socialist Realist propaganda, with a heroic cast full of exaggerated nobility, except for those craven opportunists who collaborate with the Nazi invaders.  His frontline reports, which vividly show Soviet soldiers as individuals rather than types, are nevertheless innocent of doubt about the State.  Indeed, a precursor to Life and Fate was published under the title In a Just Cause.  And then--everything changed.  Vasily Grossman--keeping faith with the Soviet people--lost his faith in the State Stalin had saved from Hitler; he developed instead into a great writer, never to be published again in his lifetime.  His novel Forever Flowing (also translated as Everything Flows), which he never even submitted for publication, is an appalling portrayal of the post-war USSR of the gulags as well as an examination of the specifically Leninist roots of Stalinism.  And Life and Fate demonstrates the tragic effects of the victory at Stalingrad.  Why tragic?  Because the popular strength reawakened by the German invasion and magnified by the successful defense of Stalingrad was co-opted by the State.  "Freedom engendered the Russian victory.  Freedom was the apparent aim of the war.  But the sly fingers of History changed this: freedom became simply a way of waging the war, a means to an end."

The prestige of Stalingrad gave Stalin the impetus for a new consolidation of State power.  As Grossman puts it in one of his Tolstoyan expository chapters:  "The war accelerated a previously unconscious process, allowing the birth of an overtly national consciousness.  The word 'Russian' once again had meaning... During the retreat, the connotations of this word were mostly negative:... Russian backwardness, Russian confusion, Russian fatalism... But a national self-consciousness had been born; it was waiting only for a military victory.
     "National consciousness is a powerful and splendid force at a time of disaster.  It is splendid not because it is nationalist, but because it is human.  It is a manifestation of human dignity, human love of freedom, human faith in what is good."  This is the nationalism of Russia against Napoleon, the nationalism Tolstoy lays out so movingly in War and Peace.  But Grossman's is a different and darker era, and in the end even the heroes of Stalingrad are not safe from the State's appetite and paranoia.

Grossman continues:  "But this [national] consciousness can develop in a variety of ways.
     No one can deny that the head of a personnel department protecting his Institute from 'cosmopolitans' and 'bourgeois nationalists' is expressing his national consciousness in a different manner to a Red Army soldier defending Stalingrad...
     This awakening of national consciousness can be related to the tasks facing the State during the war and the years after the war: the struggle for national sovereignty and the affirmation of what is truly Russian, truly Soviet, in every area of life... the complete change in the ruling cadres marked the triumph of a social order defined by Stalin as 'Socialism in One Country.'
     The birthmarks of Russian social democracy were finally erased.
     And this process finally became manifest at a time when Stalingrad was the only beacon of freedom in the kingdom of darkness.
    A people's war reached its greatest pathos at the time of the defence of Stalingrad; the logic of events was such that Stalin chose this moment to proclaim openly his ideology of State nationalism."

The terms 'cosmopolitans' and 'bourgeois nationalists' in this passage are code-words for 'Jews.'  I had always wrongly thought 'rootless cosmopolitan' a Nazi epithet, but it was invented by Stalin's theologians.  Grossman's mother was one of the hundreds of thousands of Jews shot by the Einsatzgruppen in the territory of the Soviet Union, and his "Report on Treblinka"-- one of the earliest and most graphic journalistic reports on how the death camps actually functioned--was important to the prosecution's case at the Nuremberg Trials.  With Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman compiled what has come to be known as The Black Book [of Soviet Jewry], made up of eyewitness descriptions of the Nazi genocide, from which a selection was published in the U.S. in 1946.  Stalin's refusal to permit its publication in the USSR, and his suppression of the specifically Jewish nature of Hitler's massacre victims and of Ukrainian collaboration in the crime preceded a steadily broadening official effort to purge Jews from positions of importance in the USSR.  An important subplot of Life and Fate deals with this aspect of the era.

In 1953, the USSR was shaken by news of the so-called 'Doctors' Plot,' after several prominent Jewish physicians were tried and executed, confessing that they had plotted the assassination of Soviet leaders.  During that all-too-brief "Thaw" of the mid-1950's, the Soviet leadership declared the case against the doctors to be a fabrication, and acknowledged that their confessions had been extracted under torture.  It is widely if not universally understood that Stalin meant the doctors' trial to be followed by a purge of Jews from the Party and their forced resettlement in camps, on the same pattern as his treatment of 'class enemies' such as the kulaks, and indigenous minorities like the Cossacks, Chechens, Kalmyks, and Tatars.  Perhaps it's not completely bizarre that this kind of Russian chauvinism should have been promoted by Stalin, who imprisoned and probably executed Osip Mandelstam (the death sentence, as Grossman tells us, was called "ten years' imprisonment without the right of correspondence") for calling him a 'Georgian mountaineer.'  Only Stalin's death, it seems, averted a second Jewish Holocaust.   Grossman once said, in effect, that he had thought he was Russian until the State told him he was merely Jewish.  Since the Russian State refused to think of him as Russian, how could he go on believing in the Russian State?  He wrote his two great forbidden books after Stalin's death and the ideological revisions and revelations which followed.

As the Russian emigré poet Joseph Brodsky once suggested, living under a repressive regime adds a special refinement to the development of a writer, a formulation Grossman demonstrates better than most.  Let me end with this, from Forever Flowing: "Freedom is not, as Engels thought, 'the recognition of necessity.'  Freedom is the opposite of necessity.  Freedom is necessity overcome.  Progress is, in essence, the progress of human freedom."  There is Vasily Grossman's profession of faith in a nutshell.  And yet: Isn't it pretty to think so.

1 comment:

  1. "The Moor has ta'en his pay and may depart," is a rather mysterious quotation found in an obscure seventeenth-century English play. However, what I think is meant to be the same phrase in Russian also turns out to be quoted contemptuously by Dr. Zhivago, as a catchphrase used by those with liberal or revolutionary sensibilities, perhaps the same people whom Stalin (or was it Lenin) called 'useful idiots of the left.' In "Zhivago," though, it's found in the form, "The Moor has done his work; the Moor may go." This is a quote from one of Schiller's dramas in verse, one with a revolutionary theme, in which the "Moor" is an instrument of covert provocation, a mischief-maker turned by those he's aimed at. I'm no closer to understanding what the quote itself is meant to convey, whether in "Zhivago" or in "Life and Fate," though I can imagine that it refers to the moment when the preparatory work of the revolution has been completed, and its secret instigators are no longer needed.