Politics & Policy

Vasily Grossman’s Forgotten Legacy

He first saw that Nazism was evil, then realized that Communism was the other side of the coin.

On September 14, 1964, Vasily Grossman — one of the pivotal journalists and novelists of the 20th century, although he was little known in the West — passed out of this world. An eyewitness to the brutality and suffering of the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman would, as the Red Army pushed westward, eventually step through the gates of Treblinka and record what is perhaps the first, and is considered by many to be the most vivid, description of the atrocities that were the Nazi extermination camps. He set down his observations and thoughts in The Hell of Treblinka, an essay that would be disseminated at the Nuremberg Trials as prosecutorial evidence. The service that Grossman provided to humanity in documenting accurately the Soviet war effort on the eastern front (no small achievement for a journalist writing for the Red Army’s Krasnaya Zvezda), and later the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust, would itself merit a tribute on the 50th anniversary of his death. Beyond these monumental historical contributions, however, lies an equally significant moral proclamation on the nature of politics and the state.

Grossman’s masterpiece is his epic on the Battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate. This novel, along with the much shorter but nonetheless poignant and politically devastating Everything Flows, was not published in the Soviet Union until a year before the regime collapsed. Upon starting to read it, one will have no problem ascertaining why. The novel’s geographical and character-laden breadth is in the tradition of the Russian grand epics. Grossman, in fact, intended Life and Fate to echo one of the best-known titles in the annals of Russian literature, War and Peace. Both novels, in graphic and realistic portrayals of their respective periods of warfare, justifiably praise and establish, with no room for doubt, the bravery and dedication of the Russian soldier engaged in an existential conflict. But whereas the result of Tolstoy’s tour de force, through the depiction of a young Alexander I stoically leading his armies against the Napoleonic advance, was to glorify and elevate the state, the result of Grossman’s was to emasculate it. And the unorthodox way in which he does this continues, even to this day, to be a feat of enormous philosophical and political honesty.

Soviet dissident literature leaned toward one of two tendencies. The first was to target the various mechanisms employed by the State to establish and maintain control. Censorship, suppression of the opposition, and human-rights abuses were most commonly singled out for criticism. However, in this first tendency, judgment of the overall Communist project was reserved; the problem was seen to be not Communism, but those who were implementing it. The second tendency was to attack the whole project itself. Critics in this school start with Marx, then move to Lenin, and, in a distinct break with the first group, link Lenin to Stalin. At this point in their analysis, since Stalin is universally recognized as one of the worst tyrants of the last hundred years, Communism is discredited as inevitably leading to mass murder and starvation.

Grossman, as it turns out, is difficult to place in either tendency. His disillusionment with the Soviet regime developed gradually as he witnessed first-hand the mechanisms of totalitarianism destroy the lives of his friends and family. But his wholesale renunciation of the Soviet regime, its ideology, and the means by which it was maintained originated from a different source, one that did not derive from a critical analysis of dialectical materialism, nor from the violent Kremlin-backed insurgencies sweeping the postwar world. Instead, his eventual condemnation of the regime came from the emergence on a very large scale of anti-Semitism at the state level. For Grossman, who was Jewish, to see this racial hatred emerge in his home country must have been truly horrifying. If his only experience had been of the Soviet government at that time, Grossman might have attributed this trend to Stalin himself. But as one who had witnessed and recorded in depth the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps just a few years earlier, Grossman arrived at a much more penetrating conclusion. Already losing faith in the Soviet regime as a result of its political oppression, Grossman found that the parallels between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany had become too clear for him to ignore. He came to believe that anti-Semitism was organic to both regimes, and that the political systems were, therefore, essentially two sides of the same coin.

In Life and Fate, the reader is given early clues as to the philosophical direction in which the novel will steer. At the outset, we see one of the main characters, Viktor Shtrum (based on Grossman himself), mourning the fact that, in the face of a German onslaught, he was unable to evacuate his mother from her small village in western Ukraine. Shtrum’s mother, like Grossman’s in real life, became a victim of the ensuing genocide. Later in Part I, we see Sofya Levinton, a Jewish Red Army doctor and prisoner of war, being shoved into a train car destined for Auschwitz. Though Levinton makes only two appearances in Life and Fate, they are among the most memorable of the book. Through her, Grossman is able to meditate on the plight of one who is headed to certain death. A range of emotions and thoughts are probed until we witness Levinton discover her destiny, that of becoming a surrogate mother to a boy on the train who has already lost his parents. In this, her fate, she finds courage in purpose and is able to comfort the boy throughout their ordeal of being huddled into a gas chamber and put to death.

#page#But to concentrate solely on the fate of the various Jewish characters in Life and Fate would be to only partially grasp the full meaning of Grossman’s work. Indeed, as a result of the novel’s early accounts of Nazi war crimes and the extent to which Grossman sets out to describe them, one might be tempted to say that perhaps Life and Fate climaxes early. But in the book’s first half Grossman is not just providing personal and graphic insights into one of history’s greatest crimes. He is also providing a lead-in to a more complex moral and political warning, one that, if not heeded, could have existential consequences for all who breathe.

The transition from Jewish tragedy to all-encompassing human tragedy is abruptly made in Part II, Chapter 14. Here, Grossman has an old Bolshevik, who is now a political prisoner in a German POW camp, engage in a conversation with the camp’s SS representative. The Bolshevik expects to be interrogated by a mechanical SS officer, but instead faces an intelligent, unapologetic man who has, as a result of extensive contemplation, come to believe that National Socialism and Communism are indeed one and the same. Although the Bolshevik is loath to admit it, as the SS officer speaks — intermittently weaving in, not coincidentally, references to both Hegel and Spengler — the Bolshevik eventually comes to recognize himself in the Nazi sitting across the table as the latter concludes: “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. . . . Do you really not recognize yourselves in us — yourselves and the strength of your will? Isn’t it true that for you too the world is your will?”

Grossman has now let the cat out of the bag as to what he is really up to. The crimes against the novel’s Jews end up being, in the grand scheme of the plot, merely a logical beginning and entry point for other great atrocities to inevitably follow. And by the time Life and Fate is wrapping up the Battle of Stalingrad in Part III, these new crimes against humanity, crucially, are committed not by the now-defeated German army, but by the newly empowered Soviet state. Thus, near the novel’s end, we see Shtrum fighting for the continued employment of his Jewish colleagues, only to find out that he himself has been targeted as an enemy of the state, while the non-Jewish characters, including decorated military officers and commissars, discover that they too have somehow inexplicably fallen afoul of their political superiors and now face interrogation and eventual exile to labor camps. In shifting the crimes from the Nazis to the Soviets in the wake of the formers’ defeat, Grossman has drawn a direct parallel between the two ideologies and systems; systems held together by fear, oppression, ideological enforcement, and, in the words of the SS officer, the “strength of will.”

The Hungarian Nobel laureate Imre Kertész, himself a survivor of the concentration camps, once said: “I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life and the very possibility of the Holocaust.” In Life and Fate, Grossman achieved this difficult task. His masterpiece is not, to use Kertész’s word, a “kitsch” depiction of the Holocaust. It is a philosophical, political, and personal exploration of the mechanisms and conditions under which man has the potential to kill millions. There is no record of Grossman writing conversely about an ideal society or government, and no record of him attempting to flee the Soviet Union for the West. To claim Grossman politically as anything other than an opponent of totalitarianism, or as a man brave enough to publicly recognize the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as being essentially one and the same, is to stretch the bounds of honest deduction. But Grossman clearly recognized that, under totalitarian regimes, holocausts of any variety are possible, while in regimes that would, for instance, welcome the publishing of a book such as Life and Fate, they are not. It is not dishonest to claim he yearned for the latter.

 — Reggie Gibbs analyzes and underwrites political risk for Starr Companies in New York City. He is a Marine combat veteran and holds an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University. He lives in Connecticut with his wife. 

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