Thursday, August 23, 2012

Life And Fate

Big topic for a blog post, isn't it?  We'll start with the anniversary of a battle but this is really a story about a novel and its author, a man of courage.

Seventy years ago today, the Battle of Stalingrad began and remorselessly ground on until February 2, 1943.   It was the turning point of the Nazi-Soviet war of 1941-5*.  At its start the German army was in the midst of a large-scale offensive that took it to the banks of the Volga River and to the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.  In November, the Soviets counterattacked and from then till the end of the war in May 1945 the offensive momentum remained with them (with the brief exception of the July 1943 Kursk offensive by the Nazis).

When the German offensive began in June 1942, the Soviet oil fields and not Stalingrad had been the major objective.  The city eventually became an obsession for both Hitler and Stalin because it bore Stalin's name, having been renamed from Volgograd after the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.

The scale and carnage of the battle are overwhelming.  During the 139 days of fighting an estimated two million soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded (during all of WWII, approximately one million Americans were killed or wounded).   There was little mercy on either side; the Germans took very few Soviet prisoners and of the 91,000 Germans who surrendered at the end only 5,000 lived to return to their homeland, most of whom were not released until eight to ten years after the end of the war.  (German prisoners)

The Battle of Stalingrad is the centerpiece of Life And Fate by Vasily Grossman (1905-64), one of the greatest novels of the 20th century    and a book that the Soviet regime thought as dangerous to its existence as The Gulag Archipelago. The story of its writing and publication is as stirring as the novel itself.

Vasily Grossman was born in the Ukraine.  In the 1930s he began a writing career and came to the notice of higher Soviet authorities, particularly Stalin, who took a direct interest in all aspiring writers, none of whom could be published without his personal permission (and some of whom were sent to slave labor camps or murdered on his orders).

At the start of WWII, Grossman was a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Red Star, and became the most famous Soviet war correspondent.  He was at the frontlines.  He was with the army during the disastrous early days of the German encirclements in the summer of 1941.  He was present during the Battle of Moscow in the winter of 1941, when the Nazi assault was finally halted for the winter.  He was at the Battle of Stalingrad for four months, longer than any other writer.  He was present at the Kursk offensive in 1943 and then remained with the Red Army the rest of the way to Berlin in April 1945.(Grossman in Germany)  Along the way, he returned to his hometown of Berdichev in the Ukraine where he found that his Jewish mother had been killed in one of the early mass murders of the war.  He was the first correspondent into the Nazi extermination camps**, accompanying the Soviet troops who entered Majdanek and Treblinka.  His essay "The Hell Called Treblinka", based on interviews with many of the forty survivors (of the 800,000 people - mostly Jews - sent to the camp) was the first published account of these centers of death.

Along with his published writing, Grossman also kept personal notebooks containing frank descriptions and commentary on what he saw during the war.  There is no doubt he would have been in personal danger if these had been discovered.  After all, this was a regime in which Stalin reviewed and had to approve every edition of Red Star before it was published and he had seen what had happened to some of his fellow writers during the Great Terror of the late 1930s.  And you were never certain where you stood with Stalin.  Even while Grossman was reporting on the war, his novel The People Immortal was unanimously recommended for the Stalin prize by the award committee, yet Stalin vetoed the recommendation for unknown reasons.  Much of the notebook material was finally published in 2005 as A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman With The Red Army.

Like many Soviet soldiers and civilians, Grossman believed that the winning of the war would trigger great changes in the Soviet Union; a new era marking an end to internal repression.  They felt a new bond had been forged between the citizens and the State.  Now that they had proved they could be trusted, the State could stop being suspicious of their loyalty and dismantle its mechanisms of repression.   In this, they were bitterly disappointed as Stalin's repression resumed with the war over.  Many felt betrayed that their immense sacrifice and suffering during the war was not to be recognized.  This sentiment is perfectly captured in Al Stewart's Roads To Moscow, which in a prior post I proposed as the best pop "history" song.   In some respects, life became even grimmer after the war.  Just before his death in 1953, Stalin unleashed a final round of purges and executions and was apparently also planning (details remain murky) some type of removal action and internal exile for Soviet Jews.    

It was during these post-war years that Grossman began secretly writing Life And Fate.  It was secret because the book is an indictment of Stalinism and implicitly draws an equivalency between it and Hitlerism.  Since the Soviet line was that Communism was the antithesis of Nazism, nothing could have been more shocking and destabilizing to the regime and its image than Grossman's thesis.

In 1960, during the "thaw" under Nikita Khrushchev when books such as Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denosovich (the account of a prisoner in one of Stalin's gulag labor camps) were allowed to be published, Grossman submitted Life And Fate for publication approval.  Not only was it rejected, but the Soviet Security Police (the KGB) came to his flat to confiscate the manuscript, the carbon paper and the typing ribbons on which the book had been written.

Amazingly, Grossman had the courage to make continued appeals to Soviet authorities to publish the book.  He wrote Premier Khrushchev:

"What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested... I am not renouncing it... I am requesting freedom for my book."

He was finally told by Mikael Suslov, the chief ideologue for Khruschev and later Brezhnev, that the book could not be published for another 200 to 300 years adding:

"Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?"

Grossman, upset that the most important work of his life would never be published, fell into a deep depression and was diagnosed with cancer, dying in 1964.

However, what the Soviet authorities did not know was that Grossman had left two copies of the manuscript with friends that he hoped could be trusted.  His faith was rewarded.  It took years, but eventually through a network of Soviet dissidents, including nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, the manuscript found its way to the West where it was first published in Switzerland in 1980.  The book was finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988.

Life And Fate is a sprawling novel.  It takes you from Moscow to the intimacy of a Red Army squad holding out in wrecked building in Stalingrad.  From Soviet scientists working on top-secret research to the members of a Soviet air force squadron.  From a labor camp in the Gulag to inside a Nazi death camp.  It is a compelling but challenging book to read, nearly 900 pages in my edition (the cover is shown in the picture above) which features a fine translation by Robert Chandler (who also contributes an illuminating introduction) and an essential ingredient - a listing of the main characters and their roles and relationship to each other.  It can get difficult to keep the names straight (to this non-Russian reader many of them look remarkably alike) and it would be impossible without the listing in the appendix.

The story and the characters grip the reader but Grossman also brings something else to this book.  Unlike many other Soviet-era writers, he had access to the regime as an insider to a certain degree.  He met Stalin and knew many of the top ranking officials and senior Red Army officers.  Even twenty years later he felt confident enough to write to Khruschev and could get an audience with Suslov.  He also knew what it meant to be compromised by the regime.  During the 1930s and the war he was a supporter of the Communist regime.  But even after he began to secretly have doubts he still felt obligated in 1952 to sign a collective public letter calling for tough punishment of the Jewish doctors falsely accused of involvement in a plot against Stalin (the culmination of the "Jewish doctors' plot" was to be the internal exile of Jews).  That experience allows Grossman to convey, in an understandable way, how decent people can be manipulated and driven to act in ways that we, in the comfort of our daily lives, find incomprehensible and reprehensible.  He brings us inside their minds to understand how the logic of self-preservation works in a totalitarian regime and how the regime can use that to its advantage to bring incredible pressure on the individual.  It reminds me of how the movie, The Lives Of Others (see prior post) provided us a window into the workings of the East German communist regime and its corrosive impact on its people.   In a total state, the space for private lives becomes unbearably small.

* Turning points are a concept hotly debated by military historians.  In the case of the Nazi-Soviet war the usual argument is between the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Moscow from November 1941 to February 1942.  The Battle of Moscow saw the failure of the Nazi plan to capture the city and the success of the Russian counteroffensive which pushed the Germans back 100-200 miles.  The losses incurred by the Nazis meant they could no longer undertake offensive action across the entire battlefront in Russia.  Instead, in the summer of 1942 they could launch only one major offensive which was on the southern part of the front and led to the Battle of Stalingrad.

**  The Nazi extermination camps, all of which were discovered by the Soviets, differed from the concentration camps (such as Dachau and Buchenwald) liberated by the Americans and British.  The six extermination camps were designed as murder factories in which most of those transported there spent little time (usually less than a few hours) between their arrival and death. The concentration camps were smaller and their inmates (at least till the last phase of the war) were primarily Germans designated as internal enemies by the Nazis. Prisoner treatment was barbarous, death as a punishment was meted out on a whim and death rates from starvation, exposure and disease were very high but the camps were designed for longer prisoner residence and not immediate mass killing.


  1. Thanks Mark. I will have to read this book. Mike p

  2. Very intriquing review, but all 900 pages may have to be a winter read. dm