Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
– Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
It is difficult to know where to begin when responding to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, such is the sweeping, panoramic vision contained within its covers. What I can say at the outset is that Life and Fate has to be the first place to go in order to understand the horrors of the 20th century. Here is a novel which ranges from the Stalinist purges and the Ukraine Famine during collectivisation in the 1930s to the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-3 and the lost souls of the Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag; a novel whose characters debate good and evil, totalitarianism and individual freedom, and in which the author dares to take the reader beyond the sealed doors of the gas chamber. Written by a journalist who was witness to many of the events which form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, Life and Fate is utterly essential.
Earlier this year, having nearly reached the age of 70, I finally read War and Peace; afterwards it was always my intention to read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, the novel to which it is often compared in the sense of evoking the life of an entire country through a series of subplots involving members of a single family. According to Robert Chandler, the translator of the Vintage edition that I read, Grossman once wrote that War and Peace was the only novel he could read while reporting on the defence of Stalingrad. There’s a whole debate around how Grossman’s work compares to Tolstoy that I won’t go into here. Suffice it to note that when John Lanchester reviewed the Vintage translation of Life and Fate for the LRB he observed:
War and Peace hangs over Grossman’s book as a template and a lodestar, and the measure of Grossman’s achievement is that a comparison between the two books is not grotesque.
Robert Chandler, in his introduction to the Vintage edition, writes that there is only one respect in which Grossman is overshadowed by Tolstoy: ‘the ability to evoke the richness, the fullness of life’. Nothing, he states, matches Tolstoy’s portrayal of Natasha. But, he adds, Grossman is writing about one of the darkest periods in European history, making the overall tone of his novel correspondingly sombre.
I have written only what I have thought through, felt through and suffered through.
– Vasily Grossman
Grossman saw more of the war than any other writer. As special correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, he witnessed the appalling defeats and desperate retreats of 1941, the defence of Moscow and fighting in the Ukraine. In August 1942 he was posted to Stalingrad where he remained during four months of brutal street-fighting. He marched with the Red Army as they advanced through ‘the bloodlands’ of Russia and Ukraine, before finally entering Berlin. The westward advance brought him to the Nazi camps in Poland and his 1944 report ‘The Hell Called Treblinka’ was the first article about a death camp ever published.
He immediately set about gathering information about the organisation of death in the Nazi extermination camps. From 1943 to 1946 he worked for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee on The Black Book, a documentary account of the massacres of Jews in Ukraine and Poland which would be used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. It was never published in the USSR and, as Stalin began the purging of Jews from Soviet public life, leading members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested or murdered. The official line was that all nationalities had suffered equally under Hitler, and that during occupation no Soviet citizen had been complicit in the genocide. Grossman’s description of the Treblinka death camp as a ‘Jewish camp’ meant, states Chandler, that Grossman would almost certainly have been arrested himself but for Stalin’s death in March 1953.
In his LRB review, John Lanchester drew attention to the way in which Grossman’s experiences as a war correspondent helped to make Life and Fate a great novel:
That greatness is to do with scale. This is one of the hardest qualities to demonstrate, and it is made harder by the unpyrotechnic flatness of Grossman’s writing; although it has its virtuosities and set pieces, these are at the level of the character sketch rather than the brilliant sentence or flashy paragraph. Once you get used to this, it comes to seem a virtue; there’s no writerly showing-off. What there is is an immense depth of feeling and experience.
In addition to his wartime adventures, Grossman knew the Ukraine; the world of factories, where he had worked; the world of science, from his training as a chemist; the world of the Party ideologues, and the world of those they cajoled, arrested and interrogated. He knew prisoners, snipers, starving old ladies, Slavophile bigots, commissars, collaborators, every flavour of ordinary soldier, tankman, fighter pilot, nurse, power-station worker, Tolstoyan, drunk, and cross teenage daughter. His experiences of Soviet society had an immense range, and he tried to get all of it into Life and Fate. The novel gives an extraordinary sense of intimacy with an entire culture.
As the Red Army advanced through Ukraine Grossman came to realise that the Nazis had been systematically exterminating Jews, and that some Ukrainians had collaborated with the Germans in doing so. When he stopped at Berdichev, the town where he had been born, he learned about the murder of between twenty and thirty thousand Jews, among them his mother. He never recovered from her death, and felt guilty for not bringing her to Moscow in time to save her.
Life and Fate teems with more than two dozen main characters (some of them historical figures) and scores of secondary ones. The narrative spans almost the entire Eurasian continent: from Nazi concentration camps in Poland and Germany to the Gulag camps in eastern Siberia; from the Lubyanka prison and the Kremlin in Moscow to the German and Russian soldiers fighting street by street in the ruins of Stalingrad.
At the centre of the novel’s web of characters is Viktor Shtrum, a leading physicist whose work on quantum theory is at the cutting edge of his discipline. But his boundary-breaking theoretical work brings him into conflict with Communist ideology which demands that science toe the party line. One of the distinctive features of Life and Fate is Grossman’s placing of science at the forefront of his narrative as a metaphor for the necessity of pursuing truth free from any shackles on the freedom of individual thought or imagination. There’s an early chapter in which Viktor is seized by feelings of happiness and ecstasy as he thinks about the way in which ‘science was progressing with ever increasing impetuousness in a world liberated by Einstein from the fetters of absolute time and space.’
Many commentators have seen Grossman in the figure of Shtrum, the writer in the guise of the scientist. The chapter to which I have referred ends with this sentence:
But immediately behind Viktor, right at his heels, followed doubt, suffering, lack of belief.
Which might also be a commentary on Grossman’s own experience – and that of many others – as writers in the Soviet Union of Stalin. The trials and tribulations experienced by Shtrum, brought about by the machinations of party apparatchiks and the falling into line of conformist colleagues and the Institute where he works, cause him to doubt his loyalty to the regime – just as Grossman began to question his own loyal support of the Soviet regime as Stalin’s post-war antisemitic campaign intensified.
Robert Chandler writes that Life and Fate is ‘almost an encyclopedia of the complexities of life under totalitarianism. No-one has articulated better than Grossman how hard it is for an individual to withstand its pressures:
An invisible force was crushing him. He could feel its weight, its hypnotic power; it was forcing him to think as it wanted, to write as it dictated. This force was inside him; it could dissolve his will and cause his heart to stop beating; it came between him and his family; it insinuated itself into his past, into his childhood memories. He began to feel that he really was untalented and boring, someone who wore out the people around him with dull chatter. Even his work seemed to have grown dull, to be covered with a layer of dust; the thought of it no longer filled him with light and joy.
Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment—with one sudden word of anger, one timid gesture of protest.
Grossman wrote of what he knew: in 1952, even as Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign was gathering momentum, he agreed to sign an official letter calling for the harshest punishment of Jewish doctors allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate top Soviet leaders, including Stalin. Grossman’s self-knowledge of his own ‘doubt, suffering, lack of belief’ informs the whole episode later in the novel in which Shtrum struggles mentally over whether he should write a grovelling statement of repentance. Remarkably, he is let off the hook when he is phoned by none other than an unexpectedly affable Stalin himself (an episode that seems to refer back to Pasternak’s famous midnight phone call from Stalin in April 1934 over Mandelstam’s satirical poem (‘his thick fingers fatty like worms’), which ended with Stalin saying scornfully, ‘I see, you just aren’t able to stick up for a comrade.’
Viktor Shtrum is one of an extended family whose members inhabit the novel. They include Alexandra Shaposhnikova, her three daughters – Lyudmila (Shtrum’s wife), Yevgenia, and Marusya – and her son Dmitry, a political prisoner in a camp in the Gulag. Viktor and Lyudmila have a free-spirited daughter Nadya, but this is Lyudmila’s second marriage: her first husband, Abarchuk, once devoted to the Party and the revolutionary cause, was arrested during the purges of 1937. Now he languishes in a Russian labour camp.
Viktor’s sister-in-law Yevgenia struggles with wartime life on the home front, trying to obtain a residence permit and a ration card. She has fallen in love with a swashbuckling Army officer who leads a one of the tank divisions in the assault on Stalingrad, and puts herself at risk by sending a parcel to her ex-husband, once a Party commissar, now under interrogation in the Lyubyanka.
The third sister-in-law, Marusya, drowns in the Volga during the evacuation of Stalingrad. Her husband, director of the city’s power station, stays at his post throughout the German siege. Meanwhile Dmitry’s son Seryozha is part of a small group of soldiers isolated and holding out in house 6/1 in the ruins of Stalingrad.
I’m only skating the surface here – and only of one group of characters, those who belong to the Shaposhnikov family. Through them, and a host of others, Life and Fate traces the grim struggles of the Soviet people in wartime: citizens’ lives in communal apartments and workplaces and professional and personal rivalries, as well as the battles, generals and soldiers.
Remarkably, one of the key characters in the Shaposhnikov family is dead. Tolya, Lyudmila’s son by her first marriage, has been serving at the front – but for a long time she has heard nothing of his fate. Early chapters contain lengthy internal monologues in which Lyudmila struggles to come to terms with the likelihood that her son is dead, and with her feelings towards Viktor, her first husband, and other members of her family:
In the morning Lyudmila would be left alone in the house. She looked forward to that; her family only got in her way. Everything in the world, the war, the fate of her sisters, Viktor’s work, Nadya’s unhappiness, her mother’s health, her own compassion for the wounded, her grief over the men who had died in German camps – everything sprang from the pain and anxiety she felt for her son.
The feelings of her mother, the feelings of Viktor and Nadya, seemed to her to have been smelted from a quite different ore. Their devotion to Tolya, their love for him, seemed shallow. For her, the whole world was contained in Tolya; for them, Tolya was just a part of the world.
The weeks passed and still there was no letter from Tolya.
Every day Soviet Information Bureau bulletins were broadcast over the radio; every day the newspapers were full of the war. The Soviet forces were in retreat. The artillery was often mentioned in these bulletins and reports. Tolya served in the artillery. There was still no letter from Tolya.
Undoubtedly, the most moving of these stories is that of Anna Semyonova, Viktor’s mother, who (like Grossman’s own mother) is rounded up in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev with thousands of other Jews when the Germans invade, and that of Sofya Osipovna Levinton and a young boy known only as David who she befriends as they are transported to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. These passages must surely rank among the finest in Holocaust literature.
Herded behind barbed wire in the ghetto, Anna is able to write one last letter to her son Viktor, knowing she will never see him again:
They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren’t going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goose-necks–this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished–just as the Aztecs once vanished.
The American documentary filmmaker Frederic Wiseman was so affected by this chapter that he adapted it into a play, Last Letter, which he filmed in 2003.
Vasily Grossman’s mother was shot by a Nazi death squad outside the village of Romanovka (now in Moldova) on 15 September 1941, together with other Jews. Critically ill with bone tuberculosis, she walked to the mass grave on crutches. Before she died, she too had written a last letter her son. Her letter is Anna’s letter: the words written by Grossman’s mother can be read here.
In Life and Fate, the following chapter begins: ‘Never, before the war, had Viktor thought about the fact that he was a Jew, that his mother was a Jew.’ Viktor struggles to come to terms with the fact that ‘the century of Einstein and Planck was also the century of Hitler’, before the chapter ends: ‘And once more he felt a cold blade against his throat.’
Later, we follow Sofya Levinton on the long journey to Auschwitz, unable to move or rest, crammed next to David, the young boy she has befriended, with others in cattle wagon heading for the gas chambers. In these chapters – spread through the central portion of the novel – Sofya’s observations of the people around her and David’s childhood memories are interspersed with Sofya’s reflections on what is happening:
Early one evening, while their train stood in a siding somewhere near Kiev, she was searching her collar for lice. … She suddenly realised with absolute clarity that all this was really happening to her – to Sonechka, Sonka, Sofya, Major Sofya Osipovna Levinton of the Medical Service.
The most fundamental change in people at this time was a weakening of their sense of individual identity; their sense of fate grew correspondingly stronger.
‘Who am I? In the end, who am I?’ Sofya Osipovna wondered. ‘The short, snotty little girl afraid of her father and grandmother? The stout hot-tempered woman with tabs of rank on her collar? Or this mangy, lice-ridden creature?
She had lost any hope of happiness, but many different dreams had appeared in its place: of killing lice … of reaching the chink in the wall and being able to breathe … of being able to urinate … of washing just one leg … And then there was the thirst, a thirst that filled her whole body.
In this sequence there are two remarkable chapters in which Grossman’s authorial voice intervenes directly. In the first, he considers how people were brought to accept the barbarity of the Holocaust. Interestingly, he makes a direct comparison between the German extermination of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews and Stalin’s mobilisation of the fury of the masses during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks as a class, both of which, Grossman writes, rested upon the ability of totalitarian systems to obtain obedience and ‘paralyse the human spirit’:
Before slaughtering infected cattle, various preparatory measures have to be carried out: pits and trenches must be dug; the cattle must be transported to where they are to be slaughtered; instructions must be issued to qualified workers.
If the local population helps the authorities to convey the infected cattle to the slaughtering points and to catch beasts that have run away, they do this not out of hatred of cows and calves, but out of an instinct for self-preservation.
Similarly, when people are to be slaughtered en masse, the local population is not immediately gripped by a bloodthirsty hatred of the old men, women and children who are to be destroyed. It is necessary to prepare the population by means of a special campaign. And in this case it is not enough to rely merely on the instinct for self-preservation; it is necessary to stir up feelings of real hatred and revulsion. […]
Experience showed that such campaigns make the majority of the population obey every order of the authorities as though hypnotized. There is a particular minority which actively helps to create the atmosphere of these campaigns: ideological fanatics; people who take a bloodthirsty delight in the misfortunes of others; and people who want to settle personal scores, to steal a man’s belongings or take over his flat or job. Most people, however, are horrified at mass murder, but they hide this not only from their families, but even from themselves. […] Still fewer, of course, rather than turning away from the beseeching gaze of a dog suspected of rabies, dared to take the dog in and allow it to live in their houses. Nevertheless, this did happen.
Then follows a very short chapter which begins with Grossman reflecting on the multitude of things which an electronic machine can do. It is not impossible, he writes, to imagine a machine of the future able to do most things a human can do. But can it be compared to a man? Will it surpass him?
Childhood memories … tears of happiness … the bitterness of parting … love of freedom … feelings of pity for a sick puppy … nervousness … a mother’s tenderness … thoughts of death … sadness … friendship … love of the weak … sudden hope … a fortunate guess … melancholy … unreasoning joy … sudden embarrassment …
That is Grossman’s paragraph, exactly as written, a stream-of-consciousness outpouring of all things which make for ‘an average, inconspicuous human being.’ He ends the chapter with seven words:
Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.
At last, the long, agonising transport ends with the arrival of the cattle wagons at Auschwitz. In the chapter describing the selection on the ramp it is as if Grossman for a moment puts down his pen to ask himself:
How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face? Yes, and how can a man live with the merciless memory of how, during the silence of parting, he blinked for a moment to hide the crude joy he felt at having managed to save his life? How can he ever bury the memory of his wife handing him a packet containing her wedding ring, a rusk and some sugar lumps? How can he continue to exist, seeing the glow in the sky flaring up with renewed strength?
Even set alongside the accounts of witnesses such as Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, these chapters, in which Grossman follows Sofya and David to their deaths in the gas chamber, must rank among the most crucial in the literature of the Holocaust. In the words of one reviewer, it is ‘a requiem that rises in rhapsodic detail and intimacy until it becomes virtually impossible to read without weeping’:
The shuffling quietened down; all you could hear were occasional screams, groans and barely audible words. Speech was no longer of any use to people, nor was action; action is directed towards the future and there no longer was any future. When David moved his head and neck, it didn’t make Sofya Levinton want to turn to see what he was looking at.
Her eyes -which had read Homer, Izvestia, Huckleberry Finn, and Mayne Reid, that had looked at good people and bad people, that had seen the geese in the green meadows of Kursk, the stars above the observatory at Pulkovo, the glitter of surgical steel, the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, tomatoes and turnips in the bins at market, the blue water of Issyl-Kul – her eyes were no longer of any use to her. If someone had blinded her, she would have felt no sense of loss. . . .
The boy’s movements filled her with pity. Her feelings towards him were so simple that she no longer needed words and eyes. The half-dead boy was still breathing, but the air he took in only drove life away. His head was turning from side to side; he still wanted to see. He could see people settling onto the ground; he could see mouths that were toothless and mouths with white teeth and gold teeth; he could see a thin stream of blood flowing from a nostril. … He still needed his voice … He still even needed thought. He had taken only a few steps in the world. He had seen the prints of children’s bare heels on hot, dusty earth, his mother lived in Moscow, the moon looked down and people’s eyes looked up at it from below, a tea-pot was boiling on the gas-ring. . . . This world, where a chicken could run without its head, where there was milk in the morning and frogs he could get to dance by holding their front feet – this world still preoccupied him.
All this time David was being clasped by strong warm hands. He didn’t feel his eyes go dark, his heart become empty, his mind grow dull and blind. He had been killed; he no longer existed.
Sofya Levington felt the boy’s body subside in her arms. Once again she had fallen behind him. In mine-shafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the birds and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.
‘I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.
That was her last thought.
Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.
I had to put the book down for a long time after that. When I returned to it, I discovered the very next chapter to be a poetic gem in which Grossman pulls together the themes of quantum physics and individual freedom in what I consider to be one of the finest passages in literature that I have read:
When a person dies, they cross over from the realm of freedom to the realm of slavery. Life is freedom, and dying is a gradual denial of freedom. Consciousness first weakens and then disappears. The life-processes – respiration, the metabolism, the circulation – continue for some time, but an irrevocable move has been made towards slavery; consciousness, the flame of freedom, has died out.
The stars have disappeared from the night sky; the Milky Way has vanished; the sun has gone out; Venus, Mars and Jupiter have been extinguished; millions of leaves have died; the wind and the oceans have faded away; flowers have lost their colour and fragrance; bread has vanished; water has vanished; even the air itself, the sometimes cool, sometimes sultry air, has vanished. The universe inside a person has ceased to exist. This universe is astonishingly similar to the universe that exists outside people. It is astonishingly similar to the universes still reflected within the skulls of millions of living people. But still more astonishing is the fact that this universe had something in it that distinguished the sound of its ocean, the smell of its flowers, the rustle of its leaves, the hues of its granite and the sadness of its autumn fields both from those of every other universe that exists and ever has existed within people, and from those of the universe that exists eternally outside people. What constitutes the freedom, the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness. The reflection of the universe in someone’s consciousness is the foundation of his or her power, but life only becomes happiness, is only endowed with freedom and meaning when someone exists as a whole world that has never been repeated in all eternity. Only then can they experience the joy of freedom and kindness, finding in others what they have already found in themselves.
For most writers, following the journey to the gas chambers of Auschwitz would suffice for one novel, but these scenes are interwoven with episodes in the siege of Stalingrad, in the camps of the Gulag, with Soviet prisoners of war in German concentration camps, and in many locations across the Soviet Union. It is all of this which makes Life and Fate a really indispensable novel of the twentieth century.
In the Stalingrad scenes, Grossman draws upon the five months he spent as a war correspondent, courting severe danger by crossing the river Volga to enter the ruined and besieged city. There he listened to everyone, gathering material for his Red Star reports. They were stories of those most likely die in a pitiless war in which every cellar and every building became a front line, fought over ferociously. The Stalingrad scenes in Life and Fate, particularly those in House 6/1, isolated behind German lines and subject to incessant artillery bombardment, are as a consequence extremely vivid.
Yet even here, Grossman is concerned with ideas as much as action. At the centre of the Stalingrad episodes is a commissar called Krymov, a former husband of Shtrum’s sister-in-law, Yevgenia. He is a Party hack, though portrayed with some sympathy by Grossman as a true believer who keeps ending up on the wrong side of the party line. After being encircled by the Germans in the catastrophic early stages of the war, and fighting his way out, he was subject to interrogation by the NKVD – a consequence of Stalin’s clinically paranoid reaction to anyone who had been cut off behind German lines. Then, in Stalingrad he is ordered to House 6/1 to restore party discipline on soldiers who are fighting for their lives holding off intense German attacks. Krymov makes a wrong move, denouncing the leadership of the unit, with the result that, dumbfounded, he is stripped of his weapon and his personal documents to share the experiences of many thousands of others:
Krymov’s reply was confused and meaningless. ‘But what right … ? Show me your own documents first … !’
There could be no doubt about what had happened – absurd and senseless though it might be. Krymov came out with the words that had been muttered before by many thousands of people in similar circumstances:
‘It’s crazy. I don’t understand. It must be a misunderstanding.’
These words were no longer those of a free man.
I don’t believe in your ‘Good’. I believe in human kindness.
Ideas and actions. At the heart of the novel are debates about the nature of good and evil, and about freedom and the individual. In a Nazi prisoner of war camp, a Gestapo officer several times hauls from his bunk a Russian prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, an old and loyal Bolshevik. The Nazi tries to convince the Communist that their two systems, now battling each other, are in fact identical:
When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate – no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age.
Mostovskoy remains silent through most of these confrontations, in the end rejecting the SS officer’s words as ‘filthy, stinking provocative blatherings’, but he is clearly disturbed.
At the same time Mostovskoy has been having debates with other prisoners of war in the camp, with the old Menshevik Chernetsov and, most significantly, with ‘the holy fool’ Ikonnikov-Morzh, a preacher who was once a follower of Tolstoy. When a testament written by Ikonnikov comes into Mostovskoy’s possession, he is both repelled and disturbed by it. Many commentators regard the old Tolstoyan’s testament as central to the novel – perhaps a reflection of Grossman’s own beliefs.
The testament represents the thoughts of a strange man from the margins of society, part simple-minded, part holy; a character halfway between madness and wisdom, a preacher who doesn’t believe in God anymore – or in goodness. Ikonnikov does not advocate or believe in systems, ideologies or theories of any kind. All he believes in are individual acts of kindness, acts of goodness which are absolutely gratuitous and unforeseen:
Few people ever attempt to define ‘good’. What is ‘good’? ‘Good’ for whom? Is there a common good – the same for all people, all tribes, all conditions of life? Or is my good your evil? Is what is good for my people evil for your people? Is good eternal and constant? Or is yesterday’s good today’s vice, yesterday’s evil today’s good? […]
But what is good? It used to be said that it is a thought and a related action which lead to the greater strength or triumph of humanity – or of a family, nation, State, class, or faith. People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. And so the good of a sect, class, nation or State assumes a specious universality in order to justify its struggle against an apparent evil. […]
I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivisation and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia – men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble – yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers. […]
Good is to be found neither in the sermons of religious teachers and prophets, nor in the teachings of sociologists and popular leaders, nor in the ethical systems of philosophers… And yet ordinary people bear love in their hearts, are naturally full of love and pity for any living thing. At the end of the day’s work they prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.
Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is every day human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.
The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.
But if we think about it, we realize that this private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal. It is extended to everything living, even to a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by.
Even at the most terrible times, through all the mad acts carried out in the name of Universal Good and the glory of States, times when people were tossed about like branches in the wind, filling ditches and gullies like stones in an avalanche – even then this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium. […]
This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! […]
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
Mostovskoy, the old Bolshevik, finishes reading this testament. His first reaction is that the man is unhinged: ‘tinkling the same old bells, praising the kindness of old women and hoping to extinguish a world-wide conflagration with an enema syringe. What trash!’ But then he recalls the hatred and contempt with which the Gestapo officer had talked about people like Ikonnikov:
The confusion and depression that gripped him seemed heavier than any physical suffering.
I came across an interesting reading of this passage – and of Life and Fate in its entirety – in a text about the ideas of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas who saw Grossman as a true, accurate and compelling witness to the crisis of the modern world in the twentieth century, of which Auschwitz is the principal paradigm. Interviewed in 1985, Levinas stated:
[Grossman] is witness to the end of a certain Europe, the definitive end of instituting charity in the guise of a regime, the end of socialist hope. The end of the hope of instituting charity in the guise of a regime, the end of the socialist hope. The end of socialism, in the horror of Stalinism, is the greatest spiritual crisis in modern Europe. Marxism represented a generosity, whatever the way in which one understands the materialist doctrine which is its basis. There is in Marxism the recognition of the other. … But the noble hope consists in healing everything, in installing, beyond the chance of individual charity, a regime without evil. And the regime of charity becomes Stalinism and Hitlerian horror. That’s what Grossman shows. … An absolutely overwhelming testimony and a complete despair.
Yet, in the same interview, Levinas added this qualification:
Grossman’s eight hundred pages offer a complete spectacle of desolation and dehumanisation. … Yet within that decomposition of human relations, within that sociology of misery, goodness persists. In the relation of one man to another, goodness is possible. … It is a goodness outside of every system, every religion, every social organisation.
There is another passage to set alongside Ikonnikov’s testament. It takes us back to the selection at Auschwitz when Sofya, who is a doctor and could therefore save herself for at least a little time, chooses instead to accompany the little boy David to the gas chamber. Assisting them on their way is Kaltluft, commander of the Sonderkommando. Grossman takes this opportunity to explore his choices -and the meaning of fate.
“A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow.” P520
He tells us that Kaltluft had grown up in his parents’ old home in the country. He wasn’t afraid of hard work and all he dreamed of was increasing the size of the holding. His life, however, had followed a different course:
At the end of the First World War he had been sent to the front. It seemed as though nothing less than fate itself had decreed his progression from the village to the army, from the trenches to HQ company, from clerk to adjutant, from the central apparatus of the RSHA to the administration of the camps – and finally to his appointment as commander of a Sonderkommando in an extermination camp.
Grossman sets out Kaltluft’s defence for having become the executioner of 590,000 people, one that had become very familiar in the post-war period:
If, on the day of judgment, Kaltluft had been called upon to justify himself, he could have explained quite truthfully how fate had led him to become the executioner of 590,000 people. What else could he have done in the face of such powerful forces – the war, fervent nationalism, the adamancy of the Party, the will of the State? How could he have swum against the current? He was a man like any other; all he had wanted was to live peacefully in his father’s house. He hadn’t walked – he had been pushed. Fate had led him by the hand . . . And if they had been called upon, Kaltluft’s superiors and subordinates would have justified themselves in almost the same words.
But Grossman advances his case relentlessly: ‘A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow.’ Kaltluft was not asked to justify himself before a heavenly court. Nor was God asked to reassure him that no one in the world is guilty:
There is divine judgement, there is the judgement of a State and the judgment of society, but there is one supreme judgement: the judgement of one sinner over another. A sinner can measure the power of the totalitarian State and find it limitless: through propaganda, hunger, loneliness, infamy, obscurity, labour camps and the threat of death, this terrible power can fetter a man’s will. But every step that a man takes under the threat of poverty, hunger, labour camps and death is at the same time an expression of his own will. Every step Kaltluft had taken – from the village to the trenches, from being a man-in-the-street to being a member of the National Socialist Party – bore the imprint of his will. A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow. He may be a mere tool in the hands of destructive powers, but he knows it is in his interest to assent to this. Fate and the individual may have different ends, but they share the same path.
The man who pronounces judgment will be neither a pure and merciful heavenly being, nor a wise justice who watches over the interests of society and the State, neither a saint nor a righteous man – but a miserable, dirty sinner who has been crushed by Fascism, who has himself experienced the terrible power of the State, who has himself bowed down, fallen, shrunk into timidity and submissiveness. And this judge will say:
‘Guilty! Yes, there are men in this terrible world who are guilty.’
Levinas accepts that Ikonnikov’s ‘stupid kindness ‘is as beautiful and powerless as dew’. But Grossman adds something more in this novel: a celebration of individual freedom. In another pivotal chapter, Viktor Shtrum and colleagues from the Science Institute are gathered one evening in a friend’s home. The talk turns to literature, poetry and Chekhov, and soon enters dangerous waters as certain friends begin to dream recklessly.
‘It seems to me that life could be defined as freedom, asserts one colleague:
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.
This leads another to celebrate Chekhov as ‘the standard-bearer of … a real Russian democracy, Russian freedom, and Russian human dignity’.
Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, ever age…More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people—as a Russian democrat. He said—and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy—that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings—and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers. Do you understand? Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings. At one time people blinded by Part dogma saw Chekhov as a witness to the fin de siècle. No, Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history—the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man.
Chekhov said: Let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere. That’s democracy, the still unrealised democracy of the Russian people.
This outburst creates consternation in the host, and the session soon breaks up. As he walks home, we become privy to the thoughts of Shtrum, who has played no part in the discussion. He recalls past occasions when he has come out with some unguarded comment. Subsequently he has taken a vow to remain silent and not express dangerous thoughts. But, as he will soon discover, you place yourself at risk simply by being in the same room as someone making dangerous remarks, and not denouncing them. ‘Oh, what the hell,’ thinks Shtrum, as he on. ‘At least we have spoken like human beings, without fear, without hypocrisy.’
In an essay for Foreign Policy journal, Leon Aron adds this gloss to that passage, placing Life and Fate at the heart of the Russian literary canon:
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 favourite 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 ‘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.’
In his introduction to his Vintage translation, Robert Chandler reinforces the point about Grossman’s love for, and debt to, Chekhov. ‘Many individual chapters in Life and Fate, he writes, are surprisingly like Chekhov short stories. Indeed they are, underlining the point that there is so much more in this panoramic novel which I have not mentioned here. But then you would have to read it yourself!
In Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, the book by the historian Timothy Snyder which covers the same ground traversed by Grossman as war correspondent, Snyder observes that Grossman, like Hannah Arendt, came to understand the German mass murder of the Jews in the east in universal terms. At first, though, he saw it in official Soviet terms as a condemnation of fascism and Germany. But, at about the same time as Arendt published her Origins of Totalitarianism, Grossman was liberated from this narrow political framework by the personal experience of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.
He then broke the taboos of a century, placing the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes on the same pages, in the same scenes. … Grossman meant not to unify the two systems analytically within a single sociological scheme (such as Arendt’s totalitarianism) but rather to relieve them of their own ideological accounts of themselves, and thereby lift the veil on their common inhumanity. […]
As one of Grossman’s characters exclaims, the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human. … From Arendt and Grossman together, then, come two simple ideas. First, a legitimate comparison of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union must not only explain the crimes but also embrace the humanity of all concerned by them, including the victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and leaders. Second, a legitimate comparison must begin with life rather than death. … Since life gives meaning to death, rather than the other way around, the important question is not: what political, intellectual, literary, or psychological closure can be drawn from the fact of mass killing? Closure is a false harmony, a siren song masquerading as a swan song. The important question is: how could (how can) so many human lives be brought to a violent end?
Towards 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, shot with thousands of the Berdichev Jews on 15 September 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.
When Grossman submitted his manuscript in 1960 – hopeful of a thaw after the death of Stalin – he was told it could not be published for 200 years. Two years later he was dead of stomach cancer, his novel confiscated -‘ arrested’ in his words. He had written personally to the new Soviet leader, Khrushchev, to plead for its release:
I ask you to return freedom for my book, I ask that my book be discussed with editors, not the agents of the KGB. What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested… I am not renouncing it… I am requesting freedom for my book.
But Grossman had made two further copies of his novel. In 1974, one of the surviving copies was put onto microfilm and smuggled out of the country with the help of the nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. Grossman died in 1964, never having seen his book published, which did not happen in the West until 1980, or in Russia until 1988 during the period of glasnost initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev.
Here’s how Linda Grant summed up the novel when asked to contribute to the series’The book that changed me‘ in the Guardian:
‘Human groupings have one main purpose,’ he wrote, ‘to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way … The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and his right to these peculiarities.’ The tolerance of difference is his message, not an assault on society or the state.
By the end of the novel, what you are left with out of the debris of Soviet Communism is something so banal it could be written on a greetings card: the individual, often random act of kindness – an old woman who picks up a stone to hurl at a captured German soldier and, for reasons she will never understand, replaces it with a piece of bread. People are placed in invidious situations, like Shtrum, cornered by Stalin. Few are heroes. But these acts of kindness recur throughout the novel, not in any context other than the spur of the moment. Kindness alleviates some of the horrors of war. In one brief moment a soldier thoughtfully removes a louse from his girl’s army jacket before kissing her.
Or consider this from Andrew Marr, writing in 2011 at the time of BBC Radio 4’s massive dramatisation of the book:
This is the opposite of a propaganda or ‘political’ novel. It is a book written in a spirit of love and pity for human weaknesses, as much as one which celebrates courage. It is a book of foolish regrets, greed, a sparkling love of nature, passionate arguments and tiny details – as well as fighting and killing and courage. Peace, and war.
It is also a book of ideas, up-to-date even today. Grossman was a highly educated scientist, fascinated by the latest thinking. Einstein and the curvature of space-time haunt the imagination of his physicist hero, Viktor Shtrum. He reflects that ‘The Day of Judgement had come… Truth had been sleeping for centuries… no one in the world could be happier than the scientist.’
And for me? It is, quite simply, one of the greatest novels I have read.
- Vasily Grossman: article by translator Robert Chandler (Prospect)
- Fate, Life, and Freedom in Vasily Grossman: transcript of a symposium at Columbia University, New York in 2010 (pdf)
- Under Seige: A beloved Soviet writer’s path to dissent (New Yorker)
- The Russian Masterpiece You’ve Never Heard of (Foreign Policy Journal)
- The Life & Fate of Vasily Grossman: Creative Witness to War & Dictatorship by Zelda Gamson, Jewish Currents, May 2015
- Life Is Freedom: The Art of Vassily Grossman (The Quarterly Conversation)
- Good Day, Comrade Shtrum: review by John Lanchester (London Review of Books, paywall)