Grossman’s Stalingrad

Issue: 172

Gareth Jenkins

The year 2019 saw the long overdue publication in English of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, its Russian original having been published in the Soviet Union in 1952 (albeit in censored form).1 Its appearance is particularly welcome to the English-speaking reader because it provides the missing first half (in a sense that will need qualifying) to the novel for which Grossman is most famous in the West, Life and Fate.2 This latter novel first appeared in English as far back as 1985, with reprints in 2006 and 2011, when a BBC radio adaptation brought it to a wider audience. The novel suffered a very different fate in the Soviet Union. The manuscript, on which Grossman had been working for seven years, was “arrested” by the KGB in 1961 when he attempted to get authorisation for its publication. It was only in 1988, some 24 years after Grossman’s death, that the novel finally appeared in the Soviet Union—and even then, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalising Glasnost (“openness”) agenda, in partially censored form.3

The two novels capture one of the great turning points of 20th century history: the moment when the apparently invincible Nazi war machine was brought to a halt on the banks of the River Volga and then forced into a retreat that ended in total defeat. In their epic sweep and sprawling range of characters, some of whom were real figures, the novels invite comparison with Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. That late 19th century Russian masterpiece depicted an earlier turning point of European history, when Napoleon Bonaparte’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 also spelt the end of a mighty empire.

Grossman was fully conscious of the parallel—there are many references in the text to Tolstoy’s classic. Nevertheless, Tolstoy did not, of course, experience the events he described.4 Grossman, on the other hand, was in the thick of it, reporting as a correspondent from war-torn Stalingrad itself, working in dangerous conditions alongside the mass of people doing the fighting. This journalistic immediacy makes the descriptions of, for instance, the city’s destruction particularly vivid.

Grossman’s two novels, a “dilogy”, as his modern translators call it (by analogy with “trilogy”), lack, however, the kind of unity possessed by War and Peace. Despite the chronological continuity between Stalingrad and Life and Fate, and shared major characters, the thematic material undergoes a shift of perspective, incorporating Grossman’s critical evaluation of the meaning of Stalingrad. The first novel was publishable (with some adjustments) even when Stalin was still alive; its depiction of reality, though implicitly and tentatively questioning aspects of Soviet life, did not, as the second novel was to do, raise critical questions about the regime. What the second novel brings out is the degree to which, alongside its resistance to the existential threat posed by invasion, the regime turned on the “internal enemy”. The war against fascism, which had mobilised millions, including many persecuted in the great purges of the 1930s, was supplemented by a “war” against those whose loyalty was viewed as suspect. As Grossman put it at the key moment in Life and Fate, when Germany is about to lose the battle of Stalingrad: “Freedom was the apparent aim of the war. But the sly fingers of history changed this: freedom became a way of waging the war, a means to an end”.5

War and Peace may provide the “epic” frame of reference, one suited to the unfolding historical drama. However, there is a complementary framework that looks to the work of another literary figure—the writer Anton Chekhov. His name is counterposed to Tolstoy’s in one crucial discussion between characters in Life and Fate:

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.6

The meaning and relevance of this humanism is something we shall examine later, particularly as far as the form of the novel is concerned.7

The fate of Jewry in the Second World War is central to the two novels. Grossman himself had been traumatised by what had happened to his mother. She, along with thousands of other Jews, had been rounded up by the advancing Nazi troops and massacred. He was haunted by guilt over the fact that, had he acted in time, he might have saved her, and undoubtedly some of the most searing and moving scenes of the novels stem from intense personal feeling. Furthermore, it is impossible to avoid seeing elements of autobiography in the central character, Viktor Shtrum, a theoretical physicist working for the Soviet war effort. Shtrum’s Jewishness, initially of no consequence, becomes an identity that marks him out, as it did other Soviet Jews, for persecution by the authorities.

As important is the fate of what we might call the “generation of 1937”, typified in the character of Nikolay Krymov, a Communist Party member, who also belongs to the same extended family as Shtrum, the Shaposhnikovs. The year 1937, the date of the arrest of two other, shadowy members of the family (also party members), was when the Stalin’s Great Terror was reaching its height. Former Right and Left Oppositionists were disappearing, as well as many who saw themselves as loyal to the regime but still claimed some independence of thought. This is the importance of Krymov in the structure of the novel, as a character who is in effect broken in the war for liberation that involved a different end.

Krymov barely features in the dominant pro-Western interpretation of the dilogy—perhaps because the fate of his generation is not one that can be viewed empathetically by those who see in Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution evil incarnate.8 Yet, to fail to understand Krymov and Shtrum as in some sense complementary (they both belong, by marriage, to the Shaposhnikov family—they are both outsiders and insiders) is to fail to recognise the complex unity of the dilogy. This, as I hope to show, does great violence to an all-round evaluation of Grossman’s work and fails to grasp his own identification with the Krymov generation, even while distancing himself from its politics. This downplaying of Krymov, and corresponding highlighting of Shtrum, suits those who wish to appropriate Grossman to the cause of anti-Marxism. Forever Flowing—Grossman’s last, incomplete novel—with its explicit rejection of not just Stalinism, but Bolshevism and Leninism, then becomes his true testament. One aspect of this interpretation (in line, fortuitously no doubt, with the contemporary assault on the radical left) is that Grossman’s fiction becomes proof that antisemitism is not the preserve of the radical right: the totalitarian identity of Stalinism and fascism has its genocidal roots in Lenin and Leninism.9

The relationship between politics and art, ideology and aesthetic value, is a complex one. Marxists are often criticised for judging works of art in terms of the ideology at work in them and for ignoring how they work aesthetically. Yet, the same criticism can be levelled at the anti-Marxists who have championed Grossman. The purpose of this article is to argue for a more nuanced assessment that allows us to grasp Grossman’s achievement as one of the great writers of the 20th century.

Grossman was already a well-received and popular writer by the early 1940s. The works he wrote up to that point are largely unavailable in the West and are considered inferior—not surprisingly, perhaps, as tight control meant cultural production had to reflect the party line about “socialist achievement”. If, the argument goes, Grossman was able to publish in this period, he could do so only by producing fiction that was conformist in style and content.

There is an element of truth in this—but it comes up against the problem of how to assess Stalingrad. The book has, so to speak, a foot in both his early career as an “approved” writer and his later career as a “suspect” on the margins of the Soviet literary establishment. The assumption that it must thus be inferior may be one reason why its first proper publication in English was so long delayed. As one of its translators, Robert Chandler, ruefully admits:

We are still in thrall to Cold War thinking; people have been unable to conceive that a novel published during Stalin’s last years, when the dictatorship was at its most rigid, might deserve attention. Eminent figures have been dismissive of Stalingrad and it has been easy to assume that there must be some good reason for this. I too made this lazy assumption for many years and I am grateful to the historian Jochen Hellbeck for persuading me—albeit belatedly—to read this novel and judge for myself.10

This points to the difficulty in trying to pigeonhole Grossman. We need therefore to understand the factors that came to shape Grossman’s life and career as a writer in the Soviet Union.

Grossman was born in 1905 to a relatively affluent Jewish family in Western Ukraine. This region was one of the most Jewish parts of the Tsarist Empire, and his home town, Berdichev, was about 80 percent Jewish. Antisemitism and oppression drove many Jews towards the revolutionary socialist movement; indeed, Grossman’s own father was a Menshevik, active in the 1905 revolution.11 Grossman was 17 years old at the end of the Russian Civil War in 1920, when the Red Army prevailed over the armies led by former Tsarist generals. These “White Armies” had been murderous and antisemitic.12 Their defeat meant Grossman could grow up in a society which, for all its bureaucratic deformations, represented a break with the oppression of the past.13 We have no direct evidence about Grossman’s feelings in this respect—but there is a hint in the early pages of Stalingrad. The younger generation of Shaposhnikovs are joking about how unlike one another they are. The authorial voice comments:

Such a lack of external resemblance between members of a single family was especially common in the generation born just after the revolution, a time when marriages were entered into simply for love, regardless of differences of blood, nationality, language and social class. The inner, psychological differences between family members were equally great; the products of those unions were endowed with rich and complex characters.14

We also know that his circle of friends and acquaintances included people who had fought in the Civil War, held minor positions in the regime and had connections with leaders such as Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky.15 Grossman was close to his cousin Nadya Almaz, personal secretary to Solomon Lozovsky, the General Secretary of the Red International of Trade Unions. She gave him one of his first major journalistic assignments, covering the organisation’s 1928 congress. The gathering’s internationalism, with delegates “all clamouring in different tongues”, must have impressed him. At her flat, he would rub shoulders, in Alexandra Popoff’s words, “with the Soviet elite and zealous Communists who reminisced about the civil war and dreamed of world revolution”.16 All this suggests a young man who was not alienated from the new Soviet society—quite the contrary, in fact.

Indeed, closeness to such revolutionaries put him in danger as Stalinist reaction mounted. Nadya was arrested in 1933 at the flat they shared, simply for possessing letters she had received as part of her Communist International work from Victor Serge, the expelled and internally exiled Left Oppositionist.17 Grossman may himself have had contact with Serge.18

At the age of 22 and dissatisfied with studying chemical engineering at university, Grossman told his father that his interests had “become transferred to social issues”.19 In 1930, he went to work for two years as an industrial chemist at a mine in the Donbass region of Ukraine, which happened to be one of the most polluted and dangerous mines in the Soviet Union.20 Much later, he thanked his father for making his years in the Donbass “central to my life, determining my interests and literary work for a long time”.21 His intimate knowledge of the reality behind the idealised picture of “socialist construction” painted by Stalinist ideologues formed the basis of the novels he produced in the 1930s.

He was a close friend of the writer Boris Guber, who had been a member of Pereval, a varied group of writers that had emerged in 1923. Their inspiration was a leading literary critic and Left Oppositionist, Alexander Voronsky. Like Trotsky, Voronsky had been opposed to the idea that a Soviet culture could be produced to order, reacting in particular to the “Proletkultist” idea that the proletariat had to dispense with any inherited ruling class culture. Instead, the “Perevalists” argued that the freedom of the artist was “bound only by a devotion to realism and stylistic excellence.” Pereval stated its desire to “give as full and creative reflection of our reality as possible, expressing the logic of old human attitudes and the building of new ones, and the growth of new social mind…and of a new man.’”.22 The group disbanded in the early 1930s and Guber himself—with whose wife Grossman started an affair and later married—was arrested and executed in 1937 in the Great Purge.

This socially committed realism might seem akin to socialist realism.23 This was the dogma endorsed by the First Congress of Writers of the Soviet Union in 1934, which argued that “writers and artists should be urged to cultivate a sense of ‘socialist realism’—seeing life as it was becoming, rather than life as it was—rather than a literal or ‘naturalistic’ realism”.24 What this entailed, of course, was an acceptance that Soviet society under Stalin represented the glorious socialist future. In practice, then, socialist realism tended to be both propagandistic in content and conformist in style. Literary judgements were political judgements, with the writer being punished for “naturalistic” errors (failing to reflect the new “reality”) or for “formalistic” errors (using experimental modes of expression that also “ignored” this “reality”). In effect, then, socialist (un)realism was the complete opposite to the realism that Trotsky, Voronsky and the Perevalists had wanted for the artist committed to the revolution to be free to pursue.

Grossman and socialist realism: which truth and why?

By 1932, Grossman was back in Moscow after recuperating in a sanitorium in Georgia from a serious illness that had been misdiagnosed as tuberculosis, a common disease in the mines. He had already drafted his first novel, Glückauf, which was refused publication on the grounds of its “counter-revolutionary tendencies”.25 Fortunately for Grossman, Maxim Gorky, who had presided over the First Congress of Writers, and to whom Grossman turned for support, rejected the accusation.26 However, Gorky did criticise him for writing the “wrong” kind of truth, saying “naturalism is inappropriate for Soviet reality and merely distorts”.27 He continued by chastising Grossman for failing to ask himself the questions: “Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?28 When he had first appealed to Gorky, Grossman had written:

I wrote what I saw while working for three years in the mine Smolyanka-11. I wrote the truth. Perhaps, this is a bitter truth. However, truth cannot be counter-revolutionary. In our day, truth and revolution cannot be separated.29

Gorky’s support guaranteed that Grossman’s first novel would be published, albeit only on condition of much rewriting to make it conform to socialist realist notions of “truth”. Nevertheless, Grossman never renounced the idea of the inseparability of truth and revolution that is central to Perevalism. It is surely this that explains why the works he wrote in this period, for all their concessions to the stifling orthodoxy of the period, possess an originality recognised by writers such as Isaac Babel and Mikhail Bulgakov. These were writers who could never be accused of conformism.30

Nevertheless, whatever his private reservations, Grossman toed the line and in 1937 was admitted to membership of the Union of Soviet Writers, which brought him considerable material benefits. The price of that conformity was signing, that same year, at the time of the show trials, a letter demanding the death penalty for the “Trotsky-Bukharin conspirators”.31 Yet, the following year, Grossman showed almost foolhardy bravery in writing to Nikolai Yezhov, the brutal head of the Soviet secret services, to release his wife, the former wife of his arrested Perevalist friend, Boris Guber.32 This was a move for which he himself might have been arrested.

We cannot, therefore, neatly pigeonhole Grossman in this period as either conformist or non-conformist. He seems in some sense to have been both. On the one hand, he accepted that socialism was being built by Stalin, and he played his role in this as a writer. On the other hand, he evaded, in some sense, this acceptance because it was contrary to the truth of his experience. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the few critics to grapple with this question of what he calls this duplicity, or double life, of Grossman:

For much of the time he lives, thinks and acts as if a wholly convinced Stalinist, not someone on whom Stalinism has been imposed. Yet, for some of the time he thinks, acts and writes as if Voronsky’s teaching were true, as if his own perceptive vision of how things are enabled him to recognise aspects of social reality that were deeply incompatible with Stalinism’s claims. Something turns on how that “as if” is to be understood. Was Grossman, even while apparently an undoubting Stalinist, troubled by aesthetically grounded doubts? Or did he move easily between the two standpoints: for most of the time an undoubting Stalinist, for some of the time something very different, yet able to fend off awareness of his duplicity?33

This “duplicity” is very much in evidence in Grossman’s early career. After the success of Glückauf and his 1934 short story, In the Town of Berdichev, Grossman published two short story collections and wrote film scripts. Between 1937 and 1940, he brought out the four volumes of Stepan Kolchugin, a novel set in Donbass from 1905 to 1917, in which the young scientist hero eventually finds his place in the revolutionary movement. It is difficult for a non-Russian speaker such as myself to judge how good these works, produced at the high tide of “socialist realism”, are; Glückauf is unobtainable in English, and only one section of Stepan Kolchugin has been translated.34 Nonetheless, the praise he got from writers and readers suggests they had real merit. One Leningrad engineer, for example, was reported as saying that Stepan Kolchugin was populated with “real people, not the stereotyped characters that, sadly, have become common in contemporary literature”.35

Something of the dilemma this duplicity poses for critics is captured in the mixed judgement of Simon Markish, who was responsible for transcribing the microfilm of Life and Fate smuggled out of the Soviet Union. On the one hand, he characterised Stalingrad as “a completely orthodox Soviet epic narrative,” which, despite “some fine passages”, is “plagued by a wooden rhetoric indistinguishable from Soviet officialese”.36 On the other, he admitted:

Rereading the pre-war Grossman today, I am persuaded that given the literary context of the 1930s, he deserved not only the praise of his critics but also the love of his readers. The early Grossman is a precise and alert observer; his voice rings true, and his characters are convincing and at times even original. Not just a painter from life, he is also a thinker, and his thought can attain a striking precision. He is at his best in stories about the Civil War, but he was also successful at what was then called “industrial” prose. Even the novel Stepan Kolchugin, a typical 1930s story of a working-class lad who grows into a professional revolutionary (the Soviet variant of the Bildungsroman), stands out from most pre-war and even post-war novels, containing some fine pages and some masterfully realised characters.37

What does this mean for an assessment of Stalingrad in relation to Life and Fate? Using MacIntyre’s characterisation of the author as duplicitous, we could say that the novel marks an end point and a transition. Up to Stalingrad, Grossman had been “both a conformist and a rebel, oscillating and compromising”.38 However, as he began to write Life and Fate, he “disambiguated both his work and himself.” Macintyre means that Grossman did not deliberately set himself at odds with the regime, instead deferring to the limitations imposed by the regime, except in one crucial respect: “He had now committed himself unconditionally to writing a novel about the war that would be truthful from beginning to end”.39 We might rephrase this by saying that the compromise with socialist realism ended as a Perevalian realism began to prevail.

Indeed, the duplicitous socialist realist notion of two truths acts as a leitmotif in both novels. Early in Stalingrad, it is at the centre of an argument about culture between two of the Shaposhnikova sisters and their friend, Sofya Levinton, who perishes in a Nazi extermination camp in Life and Fate. One of the sisters claims:

There’s the truth of the reality forced on us by the accursed past. And there’s the truth of the reality that will defeat that past. It’s the second truth, the truth of the future, that I want to live by.

To this, Sofya replies:

You’re wrong. I can tell you as a surgeon that there is one truth, not two. When I cut someone’s leg off, I don’t know two truths. If we start pretending there are two truths, we’re in trouble. And in war too—above all, when things are as bad as they are today—there is only one truth. It’s a bitter truth but it’s a truth that can save us. If the Germans enter Stalingrad, you’ll learn that if you chase two truths, you won’t catch either. It’ll be the end of you.40

A similar set of reflection take place in Life and Fate, when the realisation dawns on officers of the Soviet 62nd Army that the Stalingrad front has gone onto the offensive. Thus, it is then only a matter of time before the Germans are surrounded. At this moment, the authorial voice comments:

There is only one truth. There cannot be two truths. It’s hard to live with no truth, with scraps of truth, with a half-truth. A partial truth is no truth at all. Let the wonderful silence of this night be the truth, the whole truth… Let us remember the good in these men; let us remember their great achievements.41

Grossman at war

The outbreak of war transformed Grossman. Unable to enlist for health reasons, he nonetheless managed to get appointed as a war correspondent, despite having no obvious physical or military competence for the job. He proved to be a brilliant journalist, demonstrating extraordinary bravery at the front, an ability to master military knowledge, and a remarkable capacity to win the admiration and trust of the ordinary soldiers. Antony Beevor and Lyuba Vinogradova argue that, “unlike most Soviet journalists, who were eager to quote politically correct clichés, Grossman was exceptionally patient in his interviewing technique…and honest to a fault, often too honest for his own good.” Moreover, he was no “dispassionate observer”; his reaction to the war was rooted in the trauma of seeing the rapid and genocidal advance of the Nazi behemoth through Ukraine:

The power of his writing came from his own emotional responses to the disasters of 1941. He later wrote of the “penetrating, sharp foreboding of imminent losses, and the tragical realisation that the destiny of a mother, a wife and a child had become inseparable from the destiny of the encircled regiments and retreating armies”.42

It is obvious that the descriptive brilliance of his war reporting, his ability to empathise with those he was interviewing (he made no notes, recalling everything from memory) contributed enormously to the realism of his war fiction.

War shook Soviet society from top to bottom. The invading German armies seized vast swathes of Soviet territory and threatened Moscow itself. With the Soviet Union apparently on the verge of collapse, the regime was unsure, given the brutality of the terror, whether it could count on the population to fight to support it against the enemy.43 Yet, as Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman’s friend and fellow journalist and novelist, wrote: “Some knew that they were defending the October Revolution from ruthless, brutal fascism. Others thought only of their own cosy little nest. But the people as a whole stood firm and fought, and the Soviet intelligentsia went into battle with the rest of the people”.44 This suggests that the dominant sentiment was that of national unity, combining elements of self-preservation with loftier socialist ideals. Grossman’s runaway success, The People Immortal, published in 1942, appears to have chimed with this mood.45

The war also raised hopes that life in the Soviet Union would change as a result. Ehrenburg recalled in his memoirs how struck he was by the way in which Stalin addressed the nation two weeks after the invasion, “calling us ‘brothers and sisters, friends’”.46 He also remembers that, in the latter half of 1941, the newspapers barely mentioned Stalin’s name: “For the first time in many years, there were neither portraits of him nor rapturous epithets.” For Ehrenburg, this could only mean that Stalin had woken up to the fact that he had to make room for others—the need for national unity demanded this.

Beevor and Vinogradova assert:

Grossman, like many fellow idealists, believed passionately that the heroism of the Red Army at Stalingrad would not just win the war, but also change Soviet society for ever. Once victory over the Nazis had been won by a strongly unified people, they believed that the NKVD secret police, the purges, the show trials and the gulag prison camps could be consigned to history. Officers and soldiers at the front had the freedom of a condemned man to say whatever they wanted. They openly criticised the disastrous collectivisation of farms, the arrogance of the nomenklatura and the flagrant dishonesty of Soviet propaganda.47

Grossman, antisemitism and Bolshevism

In 1941, Grossman had been shocked when Ehrenburg claimed that the celebrated, regime-approved author Mikhail Sholokov had repeated an antisemitic slur that Jews were making money while others were in the thick of battle: “You are fighting,” Sholokov had told Ehrenburg, who was a Jew, “but Abram is doing business in Tashkent.” Just how widespread this sentiment was we cannot be certain. Grossman had originally assumed that Sholokhov’s jibes were a hangover from the pre-revolutionary past but soon realised that antisemitism ran deep in the regime.48 By 1943, Ehrenburg was warning the Jewish Antifascist Committee that antisemitism was on the rise in the country. One review of the English translation of Life and Fate claimed: “By the eve of victory, antisemitism in the Soviet Union had taken a firm if unofficial root as a factor of social life and of state policy”.49

How do we explain the regime’s antisemitism? For Grossman’s anti-Marxist commentators, as we have already seen, it is inherent in the supposedly totalitarian nature of Bolshevism itself. This is, however, a gross distortion. The Bolsheviks implacably fought every manifestation of antisemitism wherever it appeared, even in their own ranks as, for example, in units of the Red Army. They recognised that it would take a long revolutionary struggle to root out the cultural backwardness inherited from Tsarism. Unfortunately, the international isolation of the revolution strengthened this backwardness. This allowed the growth and eventual triumph of the bureaucracy and its transformation into a ruling class at the end of the 1920s. One crucial step on this road was the abandonment of Bolshevik internationalism and the embrace of nationalism in the form of “socialism in one country”. As Isaac Deutscher pointed out:

Antisemitism invariably worms its way to the surface in times of reaction and grows on nationalist emotions and hatreds. Stalin, never fastidious in his choice of means, did not shrink from exploiting anti-Jewish tendencies in his struggles with the Opposition.50

Mostly, this involved hints and allusions, but the target was unmistakeable. At the time of the first show trial in late 1936, when social tension was particularly acute, those accused, Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinoviev, were referred to by their virtually unknown Jewish birth names (as were Trotsky and his son).51 Deutscher comments that “Stalin’s faithful servants portrayed them as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’—people who, not being native sons of Mother Russia, naturally did not care for socialism in one country, in their own fatherland”.52 Although it was true that Jews were prominent in the leadership of the Opposition, so too were they in the upper reaches of the state machine, including the repressive apparatus.53 This points to a contradiction about the status of Jews under Stalinism. On the one hand, it was useful to divert criticism from the system at points of high social tension by blaming “non-Russian” elements. On the other hand, Jews played a vital role in the development and modernisation of the Soviet Union, and the bureaucracy’s power rested on the success of this. This, and the fact that the bureaucracy claimed to be the legitimate heir to the revolution and to be “building socialism”, may explain why antisemitism in Stalin’s Russia operated in a more veiled, shamefaced way than it did in Nazi Germany. Under Hitler, antisemitism was instead the ideological glue that held the whole system together.54

However, Stalin’s Russia was not always so reticent. In May 1939, the Jewish Maxim Litvinov was replaced as Commissar for Foreign Affairs with a non-Jew, Vyacheslav Molotov. Stalin’s aim was to facilitate the negotiating of a Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, and Molotov was specifically instructed by Stalin to “get rid of the Jews” in the Commissariat of Foreign Affairs.55 Molotov and Stalin sent Hitler a message about the Soviet-German friendship being “cemented by blood”, and Stalin talked about liberating his Ukrainian “blood brothers” from Polish oppression.56 However, with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Germany reverted to being the enemy again. Stalin dropped the language of blood as quickly and cynically as he had adopted it. The rhetoric now had to be that of the common fight for freedom. Largely as a gesture to the Soviet Union’s new ally, the United States, Jewish intellectuals were encouraged to seek international cooperation in order to highlight the plight of Jewry. This resulted in the formation of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, which developed links with prominent American Jews such as Albert Einstein. Ehrenburg and Grossman were central to its work.

Nonetheless, this was a mere gesture. The Great Patriotic War, as it was called with blithe disregard for a Leninist understanding of imperialism, saw the last, purely decorative vestiges of internationalism discarded. The Communist International was formally disbanded in 1943 and the Internationale was replaced by a national anthem celebrating the glorious fatherland. There was an emphasis on great Russian figures of the past, with the resurrection of Tsarist military heroes and the revival of the title of “officer” in the Red Army.57

What did this mean for Grossman, whose hopes, as we have seen, were that the unity needed for victory would bring about real change in Soviet society? He must have seen in the officially sanctioned Jewish Antifascist Committee that its work would be fully in line with the war aims of the Soviet Union. As a war correspondent attached to the advancing Soviet armies, he was one of the first to reveal the full horrors of the Nazi genocide. In 1944, he first entered Majdanek, an extermination camp just outside Lublin in eastern Poland, which was liberated before the SS had had time to destroy the evidence. Then he got to the much bigger extermination camp of Treblinka. Working at great speed, Grossman wrote one of the most searing accounts of the Holocaust ever produced, “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was published in November that year. It was later quoted as part of the evidence against the Nazis at the Nuremburg tribunals.58

Yet, Grossman’s account of the fate of the Jews under Nazi occupation in 1943, “Ukraine without the Jews”, in which he wrote that a “whole people has been brutally murdered”, had not been welcomed by the Soviet authorities. Nevertheless, what he reported on was just as much part of the Nazi Holocaust as anything he was to come across in liberated Poland. The official reason was the imperative that no section of the Soviet population should be singled out for particular attention. All had suffered; “Do Not Divide the Dead”, ran the slogan.59 Indeed, the domestic audience was told very little. Deutscher comments on this “very curious phenomenon”: “Throughout the war, the Soviet press hardly ever reported on the fate of the Jews under the Nazis and hardly ever mentioned Auschwitz and Majdanek”.60

In 1947, The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, which Grossman and Ehrenburg had been preparing, was banned on the grounds that it created the impression that “the Germans fought against the Soviet Union for the sole purpose of destroying the Jews”.61 Earlier, in 1947, the Jewish Antifascist Committee had been criticised by the Soviet Information Bureau (“Sovinformburo”) for “emphasing the activity of traitors in the occupied territory collaborating with the German annihilation of the Jews”.62 This points to the real reason behind the silence. To draw attention to the fate of Ukrainian Jews was to raise uncomfortable questions about collaboration in antisemitic atrocities by those who had welcomed the Nazis as liberators. Such questions would have shone an unwelcome spotlight on the regime’s responsibility for the famine caused by the forced collectivisation of peasant land in the early 1930s. The Jewish Antifascist Committee was disbanded in 1948, and Solomon Mikhoels, a celebrated actor and one of its leaders, was murdered in mysterious circumstances.

National unity, which Grossman had hoped would lead to a better Soviet Union, had another dark consequence. The regime’s banging of the patriotic drum fused hatred of Nazism with hatred of Germans as a nation. No distinction was to be drawn along class lines: the enemy was the Fritz. In his memoirs, Ehrenburg justified writing “Kill the Germans!” by arguing a specious superiority of Russian over German national hatred (theirs comes from belief in German blood, ours “because we love our country, the people, humanity”).63 Grossman resisted this chauvinism. The issue of whether Nazism was or was not the product of German national character, and therefore whether Germans as a whole could be held responsible for Nazi crimes, is an important theme in the dilogy.

There is one telling instance towards the end of Life and Fate relating to a discussion about what to do with captured German soldiers. The colonel charged with leading the advance into occupied territory is concerned about these prisoners’ welfare. The political commissar repeats advice that “we shouldn’t be wasting trucks and precious petrol on wounded Germans.” Then he adds: “After all, we’re not a section of the Communist International. We’re a fighting unit.” The authorial voice suggests that this single-minded determination to advance might represent a continuity with what made victory at Stalingrad possible, but then goes on to comment:

New passions were ripening; the spirit of the war was changing. What had been crucial in Stalingrad and during 1941 was coming to be of merely secondary importance. The first person to understand this change was the man who, on 3 June 1941, had said: “My brothers and sisters, my friends”.64

Stalin is not named here. Nonetheless, the reference to the speech that had raised such hopes in Grossman and Ehrenburg that a better life might emerge out of a war against Nazism, gives a different force to the throwaway remark by the commissar as to the regime’s real intentions.

There was one last major exploitation of antisemitism in the years immediately following the war, and it was intimately connected with the domestic and international crises faced by the regime. Some 20 million had died in the fighting, and a catastrophic harvest led to widespread famine in 1946. The regime desperately needed peace to rebuild its shattered economy, but this was denied to it by the growing hostility from its former allies as the Cold War began. The response was to blame “disloyal” elements in the population who were supposedly acting as a “fifth column” and undermining efforts at recovery. Jews were the obvious candidate. A new wave of repression culminated in the infamous “doctors’ plot”, which led to a group of mainly Jewish doctors being accused of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders between 1951 and 1953. The regime singled out “terrorists” belonging to a international charitable “Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organisation…guided by American intelligence”.65 With Stalin’s death in 1953, the “plot” was abandoned as a fabrication and the accused were exonerated.

Grossman in the post-Stalin years

With the death of the dictator, sections of the bureaucracy began to realise that relying purely on repression was counterproductive. It responded to mass revolt in the gulags with a mass release of prisoners. Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in early 1956 was a sign of a “thaw”. However, this cautious liberalisation was limited by the regime’s unwillingness to contemplate a radical change that would undermine its position. The screw on the intelligentsia was loosened and tightened in sometimes unpredictable ways. Stalin’s death spared Grossman, who, like other writers, hoped that he would have greater freedom to write according to his conscience. A new, less censored edition of For a Just Cause came out in 1956.66 However, any expectations he might have entertained for Life and Fate, the “sequel” he had been working on for seven years, were dashed when the manuscript was confiscated in 1961 by the KGB. The top party member responsible for ideology, Mikhail Suslov, told Grossman that the novel could not be published for “two or three hundred years”.67

Grossman was to die of cancer in 1964 at the comparatively young age of 58. In his remaining years, he wrote, in addition to short stories, two more works: An Armenian Sketchbook, published only a year after his death, and an unfinished novel, Everything Flows, the English translation of which appeared in 2009.68 In its closing chapters, the main character, Ivan Grigoryevich, who has spent 30 years in the gulag but finds himself unrecognised and shunned by the society he returns to, tries “to understand the truth of Russian life, what it was that linked past and present”.69 If we wanted to summarise the conclusion he reaches it would be that Stalinism was the inevitable consequence of Leninism.70 But the restless nature of Grigoryevitch’s reasoning suggests a reluctance to form simplistic readings of Soviet history. Lenin turns out to be both an instigator and a victim of the historical process he initiated—his fanatical, dogmatic and intolerant obsession with revolution “led him to advance hugely the development of the Russia he hated”.71 Lenin is not here the stereotypical figure of Cold War politics. Instead, he comes across as a personality whose revolutionary will is constrained and perverted by the very historical forces he is seeking to push against. This ambivalence about what led to the creation of Stalinist society fits other themes of the novel—the equivocal feelings that the post-terror society had towards Grigoryevitch as a survivor of the gulag, and the intertwinement of guilt and victimhood in its history.72

The only example we have of Grossman speaking in his own name is to be found in his non-fictional travel work, An Armenian Notebook, published the year after his death. In 1961, Grossman had arrived in Yerevan in time to witness the destruction of the monstrous bronze statue of Stalin towering over the city. He attempted to talk objectively about Stalin’s role in the creation of the Soviet state with those involved in the removal of the statue—only to be met with vehement denial. This moved Grossman to comment that “their lack of objectivity was so glaring that I felt an involuntary urge to stand up for Stalin.” He added that, during the lifetime of the dictator, these same people had been “supremely worshipful of his mind and strength of will, of his foresight and genius. Their hysterical worship of Stalin and their total and unconditional rejection of him sprang from the same soil”.73 This ironic paradox should warn us against schematic assumptions about what an author (or a character) really stands for.

Grossman’s artistic achievement

This brings us to the role of form—the specific way in which art “cognises reality”, as Voronsky would have put it. If the dilogy (and Life and Fate particularly) is Grossman’s greatest achievement, it cannot simply be because of its social, political and historical content, important though that is. Rather, it is also because of his ability to give the content expressive form. Fredric Jameson, the Marxist literary critic, quotes Theodor Adorno’s maxim that “the ideas in a work are its raw material and not its meaning” to argue that it would be desirable, if possible, “to dissolve the inevitable Cold War accretions by taking a more formalistic approach.” In particular, Jameson focuses on the relationship between “metaphor” and “narrative”, which he sees as a contradictory one:74

These heightened perceptions are not mere aesthetic decoration or adornment; they are there to remind us that the entire narrative is not a matter of action and the notation of facts and “realistic” events, but rather the organisation of so many perceptual and thereby potentially poetic unities.75

Here, Jameson seems to mean that “metaphor” does not merely work to impress us by making striking comparisons between things that at first glance have no common element. Instead, their role is also to enhance and deepen our understanding of what the story is telling us. An example might help here—Grossman’s description of the bombing of Stalingrad:

The bombs reached the ground and plunged into the city. Buildings began to die, just as people die. Tall thin houses toppled to one side, killed on the spot; stockier, sturdier houses trembled and swayed, their chests and bellies gashed open and exposing what had always been hidden from view: portraits on walls, cupboards, double beds, bedside tables, jars of millet, a half-peeled potato on a table covered with an ink-stained oilcloth.

Bent water pipes and bundles of cables and iron girders between the floors were laid bare. Water was flowing everywhere, like tears and blood, making puddles on the streets and pavements. Heaps of red brick appeared; the thick dust coming off them made them look like heaps of steaming meat. Thousands of buildings went blind, leaving the pavements covered with broken glass like a shining carpet of tiny fish flakes. Huge tram cables fell to the ground with a grinding clatter, and plate glass windows flowed out of their frames as if turned to liquid… Everything most immovable—everything made of stone and iron—had become fluid; everything into which people had instilled the power and idea of movement—trams, cars, buses, locomotives—had come to a stop.76

This is extraordinarily vivid description, which can be admired for its almost cinematic properties. The montage effect is worthy of Eisenstein. However, the extended metaphor of the city as the human body points to a deeper theme. Buildings are ripped apart as if they were living beings, the guts of the city spill out, its inner life is violently exposed to outside force. Even more elementally, solid matter is reduced to liquid and things that flow are rendered motionless.

Here solidity and liquidity are yoked violently together, but the image of flowing, which recurs in different contexts, has a broader significance, particularly in connection with the mighty Volga River. The Volga, unchanging but always renewing itself, acts in interconnected but opposed ways. Its fixity brings the apparently unstoppable flow of the invading Nazi armies to a halt. At the same time, its perpetual current is the means whereby the defending armies can bring material and human goods to turn the tide of German soldiers back on itself. What appears “fated” to happen, the destruction of the Soviet Union, proves not to be—“the Germans’ inner strength disguises a deeper weakness”, and human beings can take advantage of this to reverse what history has willed. Life continues to flow despite attempts to annihilate it, even in circumstances where resistance to “fate” is hopeless, as in the death camps. Even here, where human beings are reduced to ash, humanity is not extinguished, as we see in the moving scene where the childless Sonya Levinton dies in the Nazi gas chamber, embracing the orphan boy to whom she has become a mother.

This sounds dialectical and even echoes Marx’s “all that is solid melts into air” and “people make their own history but not under circumstances of their own choosing”. However, it is a dialectics inspired by Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher. The image of “flow”—and the paradoxes associated with it—clearly fascinated Grossman, and he used it as one of the organising metaphors in the dilogy in order to make sense of the narrative.77

The image of flow is only one organising metaphor at work. Another crucial one, which we can see in the passage above about the destruction of Stalingrad, is related to the image of an inner (in this instance, private and domestic) world being violently broken into by outside forces. There are no “safe” spaces from the impact of total war. Nor is there any (and this goes to the heart of the novel) from the intrusive presence of the Stalinist state—a presence that is also internalised in the characters’ mental universe.

We can relate this to the novel’s intricate structure: the way in which the epic historical narrative, with its omniscient authorial voice, is “interrupted” by a host of much more self-contained narratives focused on individual characters. In these sections, there is no omniscient authorial voice to guide us as to the meaning—only the interplay of characters’ viewpoints, through which broader social pressures are played out. Jameson comments:

Hosts of short chapters are organised into larger sequences. Each is a kind of small world in its own right with its own tonalities and rhythms, its own temporality and affective logic, distinct and different from all the others.

These small worlds are often set in spaces apparently sealed off from the larger world: a stuffy, crowded apartment, where the Shaposhnikovs meet with friends, for example. Nevertheless, the outside world breaks in, threatening to turn private conversations into a source of persecution. So each narrative unit appears to have its own separate identity from the others, but the dilogy is, as Jameson argues about Life and Fate, “composed of just such pieces bound together inextricably by the war and by a network of characters themselves bound together by life and fate”.78

We noted earlier, in respect of the many conversations about Russian writers, that Chekhov is praised because his writing does not start with a controlling idea but with the individual person, no matter what their social position. A democratic-Chekhovian mode of narration does not just allow Grossman to insert individual consciousness into the overarching epic-Tolstoyan mode of narration; it also enables him to explore the social psychology even of characters for whom there is no political sympathy whatsoever, such as a Nazi officer. This “negative capability”—to borrow the term from the Romantic poet, John Keats—is not a disengagement from broader historical judgement (the epic element), but an enrichment of it. Among politically committed novelists, only Victor Serge, particularly in The Case of Comrade Tulayev, can be compared to Grossman in this respect.

Another aspect of Grossman’s dilogy is the way in which, in so many of these narrative units, the focus is on the way in which individual consciousness is modified in dialogical interaction with other consciousnesses. The reader is thus forced to read past “content” to questions of motivation. When, for example, two Shaposhnikova sisters are discussing sacrifices made for the war effort, Marusya praises the collective spirit of the workers, while Zhenya criticises her for presenting a false idealised image of them. Marusya, in turn, criticises Zhenya for painting incomprehensible daubs, invoking the argument about two truths and saying that “the truth of the future” is the one she wants to live by.79 It is the flow of their interchange that complicates any easy judgement. The wish for a better life that is based on a false (Stalinist) premise is something we are invited to sympathise with. Zhenya, though “right”, is seen as uncaring—both here and later. This dialectical method is central to Grossman’s artistry at its best.80

This is very clear when we consider the character of Viktor Shtrum. In the many conversations Shtrum has with family, friends and colleagues, there is a tension between the scientific convictions he knows to be true and his entirely understandable fear of the consequences of being out of line. It is a tension that invites paranoid fears about who, in his circle of friends and colleagues, might be betraying him to the authorities. The persecution he suffers combines antisemitism and a rejection of his theoretical physics as idealist and non-materialist.81 Shtrum’s fate is sealed in a double irony. Stalin’s personal telephone call to Shtrum ends his isolation, making him and his work acceptable, and is recognition that the Soviet state cannot win the war without Shtrum’s “idealist” science: practice cynically trumps “theory”. However, his newly found freedom from persecution only binds him more tightly to the state; signing the letter denouncing people he knows to be innocent of anti-Soviet crimes is the condition of his rehabilitation. This is the trap that connects Shtrum’s individual narrative to the broader historical contradiction of a war for freedom that reinforces the unfreedom of life in Stalinist society.

Nikolay Krymov’s fate takes us back to Stalingrad and another kind of “small world in its own right”. House 6/1 is a cellar occupied by a handful of Soviet soldiers operating in virtual isolation from their commanders: a little pocket of resistance to the superior German forces that will eventually kill them. But just as Shtrum’s “small world” is a microcosm of the larger tensions in Soviet society, so too is House 6/1. The heroism of these soldiers is not in doubt, but their leader, Grekov, is undisciplined, refusing to send in reports and leading his men in a way that exasperates the political instructor. “It’s more like some Paris Commune than a military unit”, he concludes.82

Into this fighting mini-commune in the buried heart of Stalingrad (with its tender love affair between the young Seryozha Shaposhnikov and the equally young radio operator, Katya) comes Krymov. His orders are to take over as political commissar from Grekov and restore Bolshevik order—a task he accepts as a revolutionary duty. Yet, as he confronts Grekov, his past political doubts, crystallised in his concern about nationalism replacing internationalism, surface. This leads to a crisis; perhaps, he thinks confusedly, he is “breathing the air of Lenin’s revolution”, with the mood of jocular defiance springing “from the general sense of equality that was such a feature of Stalingrad”.83 Grekov acts less as an opponent than as a mirror, as if Krymov’s confrontation is with himself. He demands to know what Grekov wants; “freedom”, replies Grekov. In the tense interchange that follows, the whole thematic of the dilogy is compressed. Everyone wants freedom but what kind? Just to beat the Germans (Grekov’s accusation against Krymov)? Or is it—in response to a soldier’s discontent about collectivisation, which goes unchallenged by Grekov—a more fundamental freedom?

“So you think you can change the course of history, do you?”

“And you think you can put everything back just as it was before?”

“Just that. Everything. The general coercion.”

Grekov spoke very slowly, almost reluctantly, and with heavy irony. He suddenly sat up straight and said: “Enough of all this, comrade Commissar! I was only teasing you. I’m as loyal a Soviet citizen as you are. I resent your mistrust”.84

This sharp exchange and its sudden defusion in a confession of loyalty is a brilliant example of Grossman’s artistry. It is the beginning of Krymov’s downfall. He leaves House 6/1 after being shot by a stray bullet, which could have been fired by Grekov: a foretaste of his eventual execution in another enclosed space, the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. Although he writes a report denouncing Grekov’s “terrorism”, it is he who becomes the accused. In a thoroughly cynical move by the party authorities, it is Grekov, now safely dead with House 6/1 destroyed, who is converted into a hero of the Soviet Union. Krymov’s “failure” to deal with Grekov is an expression of an inner failure to unthink his Leninist thoughts, which led him—in an image as striking as those used to depict the evisceration of Stalingrad—to conclude not long before execution:

The hide was being flayed off the still living body of the revolution so that a new body could slip into it; as for the red, bloody meat, the steaming innards—they were being thrown on the scrapheap. The new age needed only the hide of the revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who had then slipped into it spoke the language of the revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.85

Shtrum survives where Krymov does not. However, these two characters—who are simultaneously insiders and outsiders to the Shaposhnikov family and to the institutions of society—share another common feature that defines their fate: they are both victims of, and complicit in, Stalinism. It is this that also defines their tragic status as flawed protagonists in the historical drama that engulfs them. The “doubleness”, that is, duplicity, that MacIntyre sees as central to Grossman’s work is what comes to haunt Krymov as he meditates on what Grekov has forced him to confront about his own past. Recalling the anniversary of the revolution in the fateful year of 1937 and the “confessions” of Lenin’s companions, who had been part of his funeral cortege in 1924, Krymov asks himself:

Why did they all confess? And why do I keep silent? Why have I never found the strength to say: “I really don’t believe that Bukharin was a saboteur, provocateur and assassin.” I even raised my hand to vote. I signed. I gave a speech and wrote an article. And I still believe that my zeal was genuine. But where were my doubts then? Where was all my confusion? What is that I am trying to say? That I am a man of two consciences? Or that I am two men, each with his own conscience? But then, that’s how it’s always been—for all kinds of people, and not just for me.86

This is a deeply moving passage. It is testimony not only to Grossman’s ability to get inside the skin of his major protagonists, but to the kind of democratic humanism we noted in the earlier discussion of the importance of Chekhov.

Let us return, then, by way of conclusion, to the image of flow. In the dilogy, this metaphor is one used to undermine notions of fixity or predetermination in history. In particular, it challenges the illusions that Hitler incarnates the will of history and that Stalin has realised the end point of historical development in a classless, socialist society. But the image can suggest an indeterminancy in history. Grossman’s selection of a dialectics rooted in Heraclitus is understandable; it would have appeared infinitely preferable to the “dialectical materialism” that passed for Marxism under Stalin. That was dialectics that rigged history to produce the outcome justifying Stalin’s dominance.87 Humanism, even if it falls short of explaining the collective action that has shaped history, is a powerful counter to this. The dilogy is full of examples of how, despite historical circumstances exerting a terrible dehumanising power, human tenderness, kindness and respect break through, even in the unlikeliest of circumstance. One example is the bomb crater sheltering two soldiers, where one comforts the other by holding his hand, neither realising that they are enemies. Another is the story of an old Ukrainian peasant woman who feeds and cares for a Red Army driver captured by the Germans but released close to death—an unexpected act of humanity given the terrible consequences of collectivisation.

Grossman’s allegiance to common humanity is evident in the distinctly anti-epic and unheroic ending to Life and Fate. The last individuals we see are a nameless couple, possibly characters we have encountered before, and, if not, certainly very like them. They are picking up the pieces of an ordinary life. The last sentence, in which they stop for a moment in silence on a beautiful spring morning, shows them suspended between the past we, as readers, have been taken through and a future yet to be determined.

Back in 1987, Tamara Deutscher tried to explain Life and Fate, which had just appeared in the West, in the following terms:

Like most of the writings of the Soviet Union’s so-called dissidents, Life and Fate is deeply depressing, at times unbearably so. The question it still leaves unanswered is this: where did the Soviet Union draw its supreme strength in the long years of the supreme crisis? Grossman recalls that once upon a time “the magic of the revolution” made people face prison, forced labour, homelessness and even the scaffold for the sake of a better future. Maybe the sparks of this magic have not yet been extinguished.88

The question she asks is a good one. As if in answer, we have Jameson’s contention: “As paradoxical as it may sound, what holds Life and Fate together is also what held the Soviet Union together in this period: the unfreedom that allowed it, improbably, to defeat Hitler’s Wehrmacht and win the Second World War”.89 This unfreedom is given artistic expression (what Jameson calls the “war into form”) in the poetic “unities” we have been looking at. These unities characterise the totality of social relations under Stalinism: “There is no privacy, let alone solitude, and everyone is bound by the ligatures of unspoken gossip, betrayal and ‘the cause’ itself, not excluding its joyous energies and the pride of its achievements”.90 Finally, however, with the war ended, “There is nothing to do but survive. The immense historical social totality of the war itself begins to falter and to dissolve. It is appropriate that the novel should dissolve with it”.91

The extraordinary circumstances of the Second World War provided Grossman with a unique opportunity to become not just a good writer, but a great one. Nothing before, or after, rivals the achievement of the dilogy. Grossman’s subject was the “heroic” moment of Stalinism—its ability to destroy fascism despite its counter-revolutionary nature—a moment in which he played his part as both loyal citizen and not so loyal thinker. Through commitment to a realism inherited from the pre-Stalinist period—a Chekhovian realism suffused with revolutionary hopes—he was able to find an artistic form capable of expressing the deep contradictions of this “heroic” moment. In so doing, he produced a masterpiece, despite the occasional lapses in Stalingrad. Both Tamara Deutscher and Jameson recognise, in their different ways, that Life and Fate cannot be appropriated for Western propaganda purposes, despite its message about Leninism leading to Stalinism. Nevertheless, the implicit pessimism—only “sparks” are left from the magic of revolution or mere “survival” is the only way forward—makes it difficult to avoid the impression that they see Grossman’s masterpiece as a monument to a tradition that history has buried. It is true that Grossman lived, as did Serge, in the midnight of the 20th century. Their politics differed. However, their artistry pointed to the creative capacity of human beings to refuse the finality that says, “As things are, so shall they be.” They managed this even as they described the horrors of fascism and of a betrayed revolution. Fate, yes, dreadful and overwhelming; but life, too, and a grounded hope that tomorrow can be different—that is what Grossman’s art brings us.

Gareth Jenkins is a retired lecturer. His translation of Pierre Broué’s Histoire de l’Internationale communiste, 1919-1943 is awaiting publication.


1 The original title in English was For a Just Cause, and alternatively, For the Right Cause. Stalingrad was the title Grossman originally wanted, but he was pressured into abandoning it. In Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, which also appeared in 2019, though before the translation of Stalingrad, she claims that For the Right Cause was translated and published in England during Grossman’s lifetime—Popoff, 2019, p250. However, she is not specific and gives no publishing dates. So if Elizabeth and Robert Chandler’s 2019 translation is not the first, it is fair to say that it is the first translation of the novel in as complete and uncensored a version as possible.

2 My thanks to Joseph Choonara, Jane Hardy, Tom Hickey and Iain Ferguson, in particular, for their very helpful comments on the first draft of this article. I also benefited from long conversations with Rob Ferguson. Responsibility for the final outcome is, of course, mine.

3 An imperfect edition in Russian had already appeared in Switzerland in 1980.

4 Grossman makes a joke out of this at one point, when one of his characters, a general, refuses to accept that Tolstoy did not take part in the war against Napoleon—Grossman, 2011a, pp223-224.

5 Grossman, 2011a, p472.

6 Grossman, 2011a, p267.

7 We should not assume, as the translator does, that this is simply an expression of Grossman’s “own hopes and fears”—Grossman, 2011a, pxxxiii. This is not the utterance of an omniscient narrator but of a character in a contested discussion. Such god-like omniscience is quite foreign not only to the humanism the character praises in Chekhov but equally to his (non-Tolstoyan) mode of writing.

8 For example, Krymov gets one cursory mention in Linda Grant’s introduction to the 2011 reprint of Life and Fate. He fares slightly better in Robert Chandler’s introduction to his translation.

9 The following, from Alexandra Popoff’s 2019 biography of Grossman, gives the flavour: “The Holocaust opened Grossman’s eyes to the violence of totalitarian systems and their murderous ideologies… Life and Fate is structured to reveal similarities between Hitlerism and Stalinism. Both regimes have rejected the notion of humanity. Under Hitler and Stalin, individual lives have been discounted; people are divided into categories—to be kept and to be destroyed… Intolerance towards political opponents, typical of the Bolsheviks, was demonstrated by Lenin and Stalin in the course of their virulent campaigns. This same intolerance was also exhibited by the Nazis, who had incarcerated and destroyed their opponents in concentration camps”—Popoff, 2019, pp239-240.

10 Grossman, 2019, pxi.

11 The Mensheviks were a faction in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the revolutionary Marxist party. It differed from the Bolshevik faction over the question of the definition of party membership, which developed into a divergence over revolutionary strategy and tactics. The Mensheviks believed that, given the historical backwardness of Russia, the democratic revolution to overthrow Tsarism had to be led by the bourgeoisie, with the working class playing only a supporting role. At the time of the 1905 Revolution, both factions belonged to the same party.

12 Antisemitic outrages were a particularly marked feature of the Civil War. This was particularly so in the Ukraine, where even some Red Army units perpetrated pogroms, in flat contradiction to Bolshevik principle—see McGeever’s Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution and John Rose’s critique of McGeever in International Socialism 168. Understanding the reason for and the extent of antisemitism in this period is particularly important given, as already mentioned, the attempt by Grossman’s anti-Marxist intepretators to paint Bolshevism as being as genocidal as fascism.

13 Antony Polonsky argues, “The Soviets sought to foster the integration of Jews in the new society by abolishing all restrictions on where they could live or what occupations they could pursue.” Most of the Jews who migrated from the Ukraine (and Belarus) to the expanding cities “were attracted by the broader cultural and social horizons of the city.” With the new educational opportunities opened up for them by the regime, Jews became “a significant presence on the editorial boards of leading newspapers and magazines, at universities, and among hospital staffs and the Soviet officer corps.” Polonsky adds: “Those Jews who emerged from the Soviet universities in the late 1920s and 1930s constituted a generation devoted both to the ideals of the revolution and to Russian culture as embodied in the traditions of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.”—Polonsky, 2017, pp149-152. This picture of the assimilated, integrated Jew very much fits what we know about Grossman in the period. We shall return later to the question of the degree to which antisemitism persisted (or revived) in the 1920s and became a significant feature of Stalinism.

14 Grossman, 2019, p31.

15 Popoff, 2019, p34.

16 Popoff, 2019, p42.

17 Popoff, 2019, pp68-69.

18 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, pix. It is an intriguing thought that these two great Soviet writers may have known each other.

19 Popoff, 2019, p38.

20 Popoff, 2019, p50.

21 Letter quoted in Popoff, 2019, p48.

22 Quoted in Maguire, 1987, p399. John and Carol Garrard’s biography of Grossman shows some grasp of the Perevalists’s relevance—Garrard and Garrard, 2012, pp118-19. However, Popoff’s displays virtually none. Both biographies are hazy, if not mistaken, about the precise relationship between Voronsky and the Perevalists, assuming either that Voronsky was its head (Garrard and Garrard, 2012, p118) or that he founded it (Popoff, 2019, p78). If Maguire is to be believed, this is incorrect, and Voronsky’s relationship to the group was more indirect—see Maguire, 1968, pp396-408. Frederick Choate says only that he was the “de facto leader”—Choate, 1998, pxvi.

23 Popoff states that the Perevalist “aesthetics precede socialist realism”, which seems to suggest that she believes—the phrase is ambiguous—that they anticipated socialist realism—Popoff, 2019, p79. Nothing could be further from the truth, as a passing acquaintance with Frederick Choate’s book on Voronsky would have shown her.

24 Fitzpatrick, 1999, p9.

25 This novel about coal mining drew on Grossman’s experience of the Donbass—see Garrard and Garrard, 2012, p103. He owed the title to his father, who had visited coalfields in Belgium and Germany: “Coming up to the surface after a day’s work, German miners are greeted with the word ‘Glückauf’, which translates as ‘happy lifting’ or literally ‘happy up’.”—Popoff, 2019, pp62-63.

26 Gorky had left the Soviet Union in 1921 over disagreements with Lenin’s Civil War policies, having been a pre-war supporter of the Bolsheviks. Stalin persuaded him to return to the Soviet Union from self-exile in Italy in 1932. He was to die in 1936.

27 Quoted in Garrard and Garrard, 2012, p106.

28 Garrard and Garrard, 2012, p106.

29 Quoted in Popoff, 2109, p63.

30 Babel, known for the brilliant Red Cavalry short stories he wrote in the 1920s about the Civil War, decided in the 1930s to practice the new “genre of silence”. His refusal to compromise by writing in the approved mode cost him his life—he was executed in 1940. Bulgakov managed to die a natural death, in the same year, despite writing work that satirised Soviet society; his most famous novel, not at all in the “socialist realist” mode, was his posthumously published, fantastical The Master and Margarita.

31 John and Carol Garrard say that not to have done so would have been suicidal—Garrard and Garrard, 2012, p128. Nonetheless, the Soviet novelist Boris Pasternak refused and survived.

32 Yezhov was in charge of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD; Народный комиссариат внутренних дел) from 1936 to 1938, the height of the Great Purge.

33 MacIntyre, 2016, p250.

34 This section was published as Kolchugin’s Youth (Hutchinson International Authors, 1946).

35 Quoted by Popoff, 2019, p109.

36 Markish, 1968.

37 Markish, 1986. The Bildungsroman is a literary genre that charts the psychological and moral development of the protagonist from youth to adulthood.

38 MacIntyre, 2016, pp254-255.

39 MacIntyre, 2016, p255.

40 Grossman, 2019, p88.

41 Grossman, 2011a, p645.

42 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, pxiii. The selection from Grossman’s war notebooks that Beevor and Vinogradova quote provides a real insight.

43 Shortly after the war, Stalin said, “our government made not a few errors”: “a different people could have said… ‘You have failed to justify our expectations. Go away. We shall install another government that will conclude peace with Germany.’” As Tamara Deutscher points out, he was here obliquely admitting his fears that popular hatred of the regime could have blocked the development of resistance to the Nazi invasion—Deutscher, 1987, p97.

44 Ehrenburg, 1964, p15. Ehrenburg exaggerated the degree of unity. In some areas, such as parts of the Ukraine, the Nazi troops were welcomed as liberators. “Such was the hatred Stalin generated that perhaps 1 million Soviet citizens fought against the regime”—Haynes, 2002, p98. Experience soon taught most that, as an “inferior” race, they could expect nothing from their “liberators”.

45 See Garrard and Garrard, 1996, pp156-58. See also Popoff 2019, pp133-34. The People Immortal was based on a real event—the heroic resistance of a unit that fought its way to freedom after being encircled by the advancing German army. Well written and drawing on the same brilliant language that marks out Grossman’s war journalism, its admiration for the common soldier “lifts it above the familiar propaganda level of Soviet fiction”—Garrard and Garrard, 1996, p157. Its contemporaneous English translation is not readily accessible.

46 Ehrenburg, 1964, p10.

47 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, pxv.

48 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, p344.

49 Markish, 1986. Chandler, however, claims that Life and Fate is inaccurate in suggesting that the regime had started its vilification of Jews as early as 1942, the date in the novel when Shtrum is forced to sign the letter that Grossman himself did ten years later. Chandler concludes that “official Soviet antisemitism gathers strength more quickly in the world of Life and Fate than it did in reality.”—Grossman, 2011a, pxxxviii. His claim may be based on Beevor and Vinogradova’s contention that Grossman was being “premature” by making antisemitism appear overt during the war—Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, p344.

50 Deutscher, 2017, p74.

51 Trotsky mentions this in “Thermidor and Anti-Semitism”, the article he wrote in early 1937 to explain the phenomenon—see Trotsky, 1941.

52 Deutscher, 2017, p75.

53 NKVD chief Yezhov, who was the chief instigator of the purges, was a Jew. He was himself purged in 1938. Polonsky speculates that “the prominence of Jews in the security apparatus may have reflected a deliberate decision by Stalin to use them in unpopular roles in order to deflect hostility from him and the Soviet state”—Polonsky, 2017, p155.

54 Beevor and Vinogradova argue that Soviet antisemitism was based “more on xenophobic suspicion than on race hatred”. They also argue that Life and Fate is mistaken in prematurely describing overt antisemitism during the war—Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, p344.

55 See Polonsky, 2017, p159.

56 Deutscher, 2017, p76.

57 See Hill, 2016, pp237-238.

58 See Grossman, 2011b, pp126-179, for the full text and translators’ commentary.

59 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, p251.

60 Deutscher, 2017, p77.

61 Quoted in Popoff, 2019, p191.

62 Beevor and Vinogradova, 2006, p345.

63 Ehrenburg, 1964, pp28-29.

64 Grossman, 2011a, p792; p793.

65 Quoted in Popoff, 2019, p208.

66 Robert Chandler has written a fascinating afterword to his translation of Stalingrad (For a Just Cause), detailing the history of the novel’s publication—see Grossman, 2019, pp897-907.

67 Davies, 1989, p102.

68 An earlier English translation came out in 1972 under the title Forever Flowing. The first publication in Russian dates from 1970, and first publication in the Soviet Union from 1989.

69 Grossman, 2011c, p157.

70 There is no holding back some of the enthusiam of Grossman’s anti-Marxist champions for the book. According to John and Carol Garrard, Grossman “leapfrogged Stalinism and the gulag to dissect the corpse of Marxism-Leninism. He fired the first broadside in the Soviet Union against Lenin, the party’s patron saint and martyr. He went even further, claiming that Lenin had inherited and manipulated a thousand year tradition of ‘Russian slavery’ by establishing Soviet totalitarianism.” Apparently, Grossman outdid Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “the committed Solzhenitsyn Russian nationalist and Orthodox Christian who prefers to believe that Lenin and Stalin are really foreign imports imposed upon an innocent Russian community.”—Garrard and Garrard, 1996, p291. Popoff is much more restrained, contenting herself with stating, “Everything Flows became his most radical anti-totalitarian work.”—Popoff, 2019, p297.

71 Grossman, 2011c, p195.

72 For example, the woman with whom Ivan Grigoryevich falls in love is like himself another survivor and outsider. She is also both a victim of and a (minor) participant in the state-induced famine in the Ukraine in the early thirties.

73 Grossman, 2014, pp28-29.

74 Jameson, 2015, p81. Jameson’s analysis is of Life and Fate only, since Stalingrad did not exist in English translation at that time, but his remarks can be applied to the dilogy as a whole.

75 Jameson, 2015, p82.

76 Grossman, 2019, p526.

77 There is a very interesting discussion of the many examples of this metaphor in Stalingrad by Alexander McConnell in his review of its first publication in English—McConnell, 2019.

78 Jameson, 2015, p82.

79 Grossman, 2019, pp87-88.

80 This is why it is crude to say, as Yuri Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler do, that “Zhenya is Grossman; Marusya is a committee of editors and censors. This passage is the closest thing to Grossman saying, ‘Forgive my pen, but these are the people who are in charge.’”—Bit-Yunan and Chandler, 2019.

81 Fused into this character is the figure of Albert Einstein, a Jew who challenged traditional “materialist” physics with his theories of relativity and was long a target of Stalinist “science”.

82 Grossman, 2011a, p225.

83 Grossman, 2011a, p410.

84 Grossman, 2011a, p412.

85 Grossman, 2011a, p825. What is striking here, too, though it seems to have escaped Grossman’s anti-Marxist champions, is how much this characterisation of Stalinism emphasises its discontinuity with Bolshevism, unlike how Everything Flows frames the issue.

86 Grossman, 2011a, p510.

87 Mostovsky, the Old Bolshevik in the German prisoner of war camp, explains the dizzying speed of change over the previous 25 years in Heraclitean terms: “Even before the revolution, it had been impossible for one man to step into the same river twice; but in those days the river had flowed very slowly, its banks had never looked any different, and Heraclitus’s revelation had seemed strange and obscure.”—Grossman, 2019, p59.

88 Deutscher, 1987, p100.

89 Jameson, 2015, p84.

90 Jameson, 2015, p92. Regrettably, Jameson talks about “socialist economic relationships” in this context. If the relationships had pertained at this time, the Soviet Union’s victory would have seemed much less “improbable”.

91 Jameson, 2015, p93.


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