Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

<em>Life and Fate</em>: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’

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. Continue reading Life and Fate: ‘If what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer’”

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar

Shostakovich’s 13th at the Phil: a monument for Babi Yar
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko
Shostakovich and Yevtushenko

On Thursday evening we went to the Phil to see Petrenko conduct an all-Russian programme that culminated with Shostakovich’s monumental and impassioned Thirteenth Symphony, a choral work – effectively a song-cycle – consisting of settings of five poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and opening with his poem written in protest at Soviet policy on the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in 1941.

When I was at university in the sixties, Yevtushenko was one of the poets of the moment, to be read alongside other student radical favourites of the time like Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell and Alan Ginsberg.  I remember I had a dual-language edition of Yevtushenko’s poems – the Russian on one side and the English translation on the facing page.

Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941
Einsatzkommando victims before execution at Babi Yar outside Kiev, September 1941

Yevtushenko wrote ‘Babi Yar’ in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941.  After the war, Soviet policy reflected both Stalin’s instinctive suspicion of Jews, and a rhetoric both of Russian nationalism and communist internationalism: the anti-fascist war had been fought bravely by Russians defending a communist state founded on the belief that all political divisions reflected class struggle.  The result was, as Tony Judt wrote in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945:

For various reasons it had always suited the Soviet purpose to downplay the distinctively racist character of Nazi brutality: the massacre of Ukrainian Jews at Babi Yar was officially commemorated as the ‘murder of peaceful Soviet citizens’, just as the post-war memorial at Auschwitz confined itself to general references to ‘victims of fascism’. racism had no part in the Marxist lexicon; dead Jews were posthumously assimilated into the same local communities that had so disliked them when they were alive.

Reading Yevtushenko’s poem again for the first time in decades, I am less impressed than I was fifty-odd years ago.  Although I recognise the significance of the poet’s somewhat coded attack on Soviet policy, the poetry – however laudable its intent – now seems rather clunky, and the final invocation of the Internationale and the ‘true Russian’ grates.

Babi Yar

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
a Jew.

Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be
Dreyfus.
The Philistine

is both informer and judge.
I am behind bars.

Beset on every side.
Hounded,
spat on,
slandered.
Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace

stick their parasols into my face.

I seem to be then
a young boy in Byelostok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The barroom rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
A boot kicks me aside, helpless.
In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies.
While they jeer and shout,
“Beat the Yids. Save Russia!”
some grain-marketeer beats up my mother.

0 my Russian people!
I know
you
are international to the core.

But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.

I know the goodness of my land.
How vile these anti-Semites-
without a qualm
they pompously called themselves
the Union of the Russian People!

I seem to be
Anne Frank
transparent
as a branch in April.

And I love.
And have no need of phrases.
My need
is that we gaze into each other.
How little we can see
or smell!
We are denied the leaves,
we are denied the sky.
Yet we can do so much –
tenderly
embrace each other in a darkened room.

They’re coming here?
Be not afraid. Those are the booming
sounds of spring:
spring is coming here.
Come then to me.
Quick, give me your lips.
Are they smashing down the door?
No, it’s the ice breaking …

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.
The trees look ominous,
like judges.

Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
turning gray.

And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am
each old man
here shot dead.

I am
every child
here shot dead.

Nothing in me
shall ever forget!

The “Internationale,” let it
thunder
when the last anti-Semite on earth
is buried forever.

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason
I am a true Russian!

In the 1950s, Shostakovich had composed works that had drawn on the intonations of Jewish folk music, and had privately expressed to friends his loathing of anti-Semitism. In the conversations with Solomon Volkov, published in Testimony, hemade these comments on the Babi Yar massacre and anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union:

It would be good if Jews could live peacefully and happily in Russia, where they were born. But we must never forget about the dangers of anti-Semitism and keep reminding others of it, because the infection is still alive and who knows if it will ever disappear.

That’s why I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.

Babi Yar appeared in the Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961 and, along with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, marked a brief opening for anti-Stalinist literature during the  Khrushchev period as Soviet leader.  By July 1962, Shostakovich had completed work on his ‘vocal-symphonic poem’, supplementing the opening ‘Babi Yar’ movement with four more, based on other poems by Yevtushenko that were critical of aspects of life in Soviet Russia.

In The Rest is Noise, Alex Ross writes that:

The first movement, ‘Babi Yar’, is ostensibly a lament for Jewish suffering under the Nazis, but it also remembers life under Stalin. Yevtushenko devotes one section to a depiction of Anne Frank cowering with her family in the attic:  ‘Someone’s coming!’ ‘They’re breaking down the door!’ ‘No, it’s the ice breaking!’  Shostakovich responds with a series of dissonant, hammering chords, which, in their peculiar, hollowed-out voicing, suggest not only a murderous hand hammering at a door but also the terrified reactions of those waiting behind it.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko recites ‘Babi Yar’ with music from Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony

Shostakovich Symphony No. 13, ‘Babi Yar’: BBC Prom, Albert Hall, August 2006 (first movement)

The Phil was packed on Thursday evening: Vasily Petrenko has a dedicated and enthusiastic and this was the last event of his long-term project to conduct all Shostakovich’s symphonies, a labour that has extended over several seasons. The stage was packed with the large array of orchestral musicians, male voice choir and bass soloist that this piece requires.  Reviewing the performance by the RLPO for The Guardian, Tim Ashley wrote:

The Thirteenth is among the least ambiguous of Shostakovich’s symphonies. Setting poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko for male voice choir, bass soloist and a colossal orchestra, it rages overtly against Stalinism and demands we learn from history by refusing to revert to its extremes. The opening movement, drawing parallels between Nazi and Soviet antisemitism, is one of music’s great anti-racist statements, a thing of fury and terror, which Petrenko unleashed with tremendous force. Later he brought irony and sadness to bear on Shostakovich’s contemplation of the attempted suppression of satire, the dreariness of bread queues, and the nature of scientific and artistic responsibility.

Alexander Vinogradov was the aggressive yet sorrowing soloist. The men of the Liverpool Philharmonic Choir and Huddersfield Choral Society sang with great fervour and intensity.

There were two additional pieces in the programme: Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments, written in 1920 for an ensemble composed entirely of woodwind and brass instruments.The angular chordal blocks of that piece were in stark contrast to the second short work that made up the first half of the programme, Tchaikovsky’s romantic Serenade for Strings, composed entirely for strings.

Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments performed by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble