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[Review] The Trials of Vasily Grossman, by Aaron Lake Smith | Harper's Magazine
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Unlimited One-Day Delivery and more. Not on me, on the work! Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent. T oday Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in , only appearing in Russia during the glasnost.
His tragic life story has since become a familiar parable: the brave arch-humanist defying seemingly limitless power. But two new books reveal Grossman as a more ambiguous figure. Where Life and Fate presents a disillusioned moral hellscape, Stalingrad is a work of hope and true belief in the long march of the Soviet project. Above all, it is a paean to the strength of the Soviet people as they mobilized to confront fascism. Though it is far from perfect, Stalingrad is an accomplished historical war novel, focusing, like Life and Fate, on the Shaposhnikov family, and is similarly remarkable for its scope.
In Mein Kampf Hitler stated that equality benefits only the weak, that progress in the world of nature is achieved solely through the destructive force of natural selection, and that the only possible basis for human progress is racial selection, the dictatorship of race. He confused the concepts of violence and strength. He saw the vicious despair of impotence as a strength and failed to recognize the strength of free human labour. He saw the man sowing a vast wheat field as inferior to the thug who smashes him over the back of the head with a crowbar. This is the philosophy of a loser who has fallen into despair, who is unable to achieve anything through labour but who is endowed with a strong mind, ferocious energy and a burning ambition.
His anger and frustration, his desire to tell the truth of what he had seen grew slowly only from long participation within that system. At the height of the Great Terror, he could still write to the head of the N.
And second, why? Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph? The writer Isaac Babel praised it, as did the Donbass miners depicted within. Grossman abandoned engineering in favor of literary work, which, in the Soviet Union, was the more lucrative career track. Doors opened for him. Meanwhile, the state that had made his writing career possible was also persecuting his friends and family. After Babel was shot for his association with the ousted N.
Why did he celebrate New Year with the Yezhovs? Why do such unusual people—him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky—feel so drawn to the [N. A fter the German invasion in , Grossman was recruited as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the official paper of the Red Army. He had none of the makings of a macho war reporter—he was overweight, depressed, nearsighted, and walked with a cane.
He also suffered from agoraphobia, avoided crowds and public transport, and had never been on an airplane or shot a firearm. But his sensitivity, his insatiable curiosity about other people, and his fearlessness at the front distinguished him and resulted in some of the best war reporting ever written. His dispatches were full of portraits and histories of people and places he encountered, as well as philosophical musings, the raw material for Stalingrad and Life and Fate. Grossman wrote Stalingrad from his voluminous wartime notebooks. He then joined the Red Army and it swept through the occupied territories of Ukraine and Belarus, including his largely Jewish hometown of Berdichev, where his disabled mother had been trapped with others unable to flee.
I travelled and walked this land from the northern Donets to the Dnieper, from Voroshilovgrad in the Donbass to Chernigov on the Desna; I have walked along the Dnieper and looked out at Kiev. And during all this time, I met one single Jew. War and Peace was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he designed Stalingrad according to its schematic. Stalingrad is a nineteenth-century novel updated for the twentieth century, and at times feels like a diorama. It is a reminder that there were classes in Stalinist society.
It was a complex world—a recognizable world, which has largely been painted over by the gray, totalitarian vision of the Cold War.
In the murk Krymov was unable to make out his face. But his words were entirely clear. Generals and soldiers are poisoned by an attitude of retreatism. Those who retreated brought the war with them, close on their heels. The vast spaces to the east were a dangerous lure. The limitlessness of the Russian steppes was treacherous; it seemed to offer the possibility of escape, but this was an illusion. The troops were bound to the war by a heavy chain, and no retreat could snap this chain; the further they retreated, the heavier the chain grew and the more tightly it bound them.
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The city of Stalingrad itself is also an important character, wedged up against the Kazakh steppes, a straight shot up to Moscow. From Stalingrad, there is nowhere else to run. One by one, all the characters realize this. This was bureaucratic anti-Semitism at work.
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The text was finally denounced to the Central Committee by a competing writer, and printing was halted. Grossman, in turn, wrote directly to Stalin that his book was trapped in editorial purgatory, but got no response.
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He was told to remove Shtrum, but stood his ground. In this suffocating atmosphere, Grossman was asked to sign an open letter from prominent Jews calling for the execution of the killer doctors. He did so, perhaps thinking it might save his book, and immediately regretted it, drinking vodka in the street on his way home. Signing the symbolic letter did nothing to stop the slander campaign against him and his work.
Former friends and editors kept their distance, and the phone stopped ringing. In Life and Fate, Shtrum is haunted by his decision to sign a similar letter, in order to save his career and social position. I n spite of all evidence to the contrary, Grossman still believed he could slip Life and Fate through the system. He declined to attend, but the message was loud and clear—the novel could be published, maybe, in years. The author had watched the crucifixion of Boris Pasternak with great interest.
The CIA promoted that book heavily as part of their Cold War cultural front, and there were fears that Grossman would send his own novel abroad. Instead, Grossman appealed directly to Khrushchev, begging him to release his novel. In his notes from the meeting, Suslov seems vexed:.
Your novel will serve only to benefit our enemies. Why should we add your book to the nuclear bombs that our enemies are getting ready for us? Why should we publish your book and launch a public discussion with you on whether people need Soviet power? I urge you to return to your former outlook, which you held at the time when you wrote these books. A fter Life and Fate was suppressed, the Soviet regime tried to keep Grossman busy and quiet by offering him a gig translating a long Armenian novel. Having written his own masterpiece, he was understandably insulted, but the trip to Armenia seems to have done him good.