Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

by vasily grossman
translated by robert chandler and elizabeth chandler
nyrb classics, 1088 pages, $27.95

Until surprisingly recently, most left-wing and liberal people were hesitant and equivocal about acknowledging the wickedness of the Soviet regime. The mere collapse of the Soviet Empire did not immediately change their minds. ­Robert Conquest, who told the truth about Stalin’s Great Terror in 1968 and was widely disliked by his fellow academics for doing so, observed as late as 2002, “In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’”

This attitude is fading. Now you may be in the intelligentsia, and be rude about Stalin, as well as rude about the U.S.A. and the British Empire. Anti-Stalinism has become not just respectable on the left but almost obligatory. Mainstream publishing houses that once would have regarded anti-­Soviet books as close to fascism fall over themselves to publish volumes about how evil Stalin was. The Gulag is admitted to have been really quite bad. Even Western novelists, such as the modish Martin Amis (Koba the Dread and The House of Meetings) and the intelligent thriller-writer Robert ­Harris (Archangel), have joined in. This sort of thing will never rival the vast literary and historical industry devoted to Nazi Germany, but beyond doubt something has changed. One man who deserves a great deal of the credit for this transformation is Vasily ­Grossman (1905–1964). He has become the left-wing Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a bridge across which former sympathizers of Soviet power have travelled to a renewed and cleansed version of their utopian faith. Leftists hated the conservatism and Christianity of the author of The Gulag Archipelago. They did not want to have their dreams trodden on by such a person. So, they hated what he said, even though it was true, because he was the one saying it. But now, almost all thinking radicals have finally rejected the Soviet experiment, or think they have. The generation of 1968 is convinced that its version of utopianism has no risks.

Grossman never shed his utopian faith, even though he documented its failures more accurately than any other true believer. In his most famous novel, Life and Fate, he even made (through the words of his characters) the sacrilegious suggestion that Stalinism and National Socialism were mirror images of each other. Despite what he saw and loathed, Grossman still believed that Bolshevism would eventually work. Much of his writing reflects this reluctant optimism.

Grossman also committed a terrible act, which must have left him altered and ashamed for the rest of his life. In 1953, Grossman signed a letter calling for the execution of Jewish doctors who had been madly and falsely accused by Stalin of plotting the murder of the Soviet leadership. Most of us, unaware of the true face of terror thanks to being brought up in our soft world, do not realize that we would have done this too. If you don’t accept this, you do not understand terror.

It is astonishing to recall that Life and Fate, which has been discovered by more and more readers in the past fifteen years, was first published in the West in 1980 and first translated into English in 1985, twenty-one years after its author’s death. Grossman had struggled, absurdly, to have it published in communist Moscow. Unwanted books in that stifled city were not simply rejected and left to die. They had to be killed. The secret police seized the manuscript. The Communist Party’s so-called cultural hierarchy, headed by the grotesque commissar Mikhail ­Suslov, told Grossman his book must be buried for at least two hundred years, but left him at liberty.

Now comes the rather ­curious publication of a wholly new English edition of ­Grossman’s Stalingrad, a book that, unlike Life and Fate, was officially published in the U.S.S.R., but in several different formats. One of the most fascinating things about it—and this is not meant to denigrate the book itself—is the explanation at the end of the text of how it changed from edition to edition, reflecting the several different eras of repression, thaw, and renewed freeze in the Kremlin. As a novel, it is a great mess. It has even less structure than Life and Fate. It often seems to be a collection of distantly related short stories, dodging about from character to character in a way that often left me in need of an index. It is also quite obviously an incomplete version of the events of Life and Fate, viewed from another direction.

Nonetheless, the book is very much worth reading. Grossman was a brave and—where possible—honest reporter of a terrible war about which we in the English-speaking countries know far too little. Take these words of his about Stalingrad that (­without attribution to him, because he was a Jew and his talent could not be admitted) are incised on the furious, ugly memorial to that terrible battle. They say of the soldiers of the Red Army:

An iron wind lashed their faces but still they marched forward. And once more a feeling of superstitious terror gripped their foe. “They are attacking us again. Can they be mortal?” Yes, we were mortal indeed and few of us survived. But we all carried out our patriotic duty before Holy Mother Russia.

If you have any feeling for this sort of thing, you cannot fail to be moved by these words. And they are a good sample of Grossman’s emotive description of war. We have our version of the vast 1939–45 conflict that convulsed Europe and later the world. The Russians have theirs, and it is astonishingly, disturbingly different. American readers might need to imagine a huge and victorious German Army pouring eastward from California, thrusting the snouts of its tanks right up to the western bank of the Mississippi—and then being broken at the last possible moment by a berserk American stand at Minneapolis, at enormous cost. British readers have no such possibility. For if the Germans had got ashore in our small island, that would have been that, whatever we might like to boast.

In fact, if the Germans had won at Stalingrad, Britain would almost certainly have had to make terms with Hitler, a prospect so dismal most of us cannot even contemplate it. No wonder the British reader holds his breath and hopes for a Soviet triumph as he reads Grossman’s account of the Stalingrad battle. We cannot begin to conceive of having had the people and riches of a great part of our homeland under a bigoted and merciless foreign conqueror, while we still fought on in the land that was left to us, retreating and retreating and retreating until we had to stand or die. This was the case for the Russians.

Grossman said of his work as a war correspondent that he spoke “on behalf of those that lie in the earth,” and there is no doubt that he performs that duty. I have seen many powerful and majestic stone memorials to the Soviet dead of the war between Hitler and Stalin. I have also seen its survivors. When I lived in Moscow thirty years ago, I used to see the stocky old veterans of the Great Fatherland War boozing on Victory Day afternoons, ancient, humorous, and grizzled. But Grossman’s living descriptions of Russian soldiers, sunburned, often fatalistic young men in bleached and faded uniforms, and of the homes they came from, add enormously to the power of such things. The reader almost ceases to care about the politics, about the fact that they fought to defend a communist state that had recently murdered or enslaved millions of its own citizens. The sour truth, that the Soviet Army was poorly prepared and poorly led thanks to Stalin’s insane purges, sinks into insignificance. Even the dark fact that Stalin and Hitler had been in ­alliance from August 1939 to June 1941 starts to fade when you consider the naked human effort and loss that broke the German armies.

At times, propaganda overwhelms the narrative. In a Cossack village on the steppe, Grossman describes people who plainly loathe the Soviet regime (then in power for only twenty-f­ive years) and make little secret of their hopes that it will soon be overthrown. He counters this description with a brief and seemingly genuine hymn to the benefits of Soviet power, which these incorrigible kulaks (a scornful communist term for supposedly “rich” peasants) are rejecting. Later, he puts into the mouth of an elderly Bolshevik an actual apology for the Gulag:

Former kulaks built libraries and institutes under armed guard. In bare feet or bast shoes they ­created monuments to the ­working class. . . . We raised Russia . . . to a new height. Compared with us Bolsheviks, Peter the Great was a mere child.

Yet alongside this full-strength propaganda, which shows every sign of being genuine, Grossman also drops strong hints of dissent. ­Grossman (who believed that there had been a genuine revival of patriotism in 1941) does not and cannot mention the gaunt NKVD units that shot any soldier who was deemed to have run from battle. But he hints that reluctance to fight was common. More than once he mentions men wounded in their left hands, a frequent way of avoiding the front line, so frequent that it was met with instant suspicion in field hospitals. He makes it plain that a good and effective Red Army officer has been denied command in the field because of politics. He gives one of his main characters the name “Vavilov”—without doubt a rather brave reference to the great geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who was arrested, imprisoned, and starved to death in 1943 by Stalin’s goons after falling foul of the Soviet leader’s favorite scientist, the charlatan ­Trofim ­Lysenko. ­Grossman also makes marked reference to anti-­Semitism among Russians. In a crowded bomb shelter during the disastrous air raid on Stalingrad that precedes the siege, there are several different kinds of fear, anger, and resentment, rather than the romantic stoical patriotism the censors would have preferred.

Stalingrad, originally published as For a Just Cause, also contains an extraordinary mystery, to which none of its original Soviet readers ever knew the solution. At the heart of it is a letter written to the Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum by his mother. She writes knowing that she is trapped and doomed to die, in a ghetto under German occupation in Ukraine. This is what happened to Grossman’s own mother. His belief that he was partly responsible for her terrible death, by failing to bring her to live with him in Moscow, darkened his whole life thereafter. (Two letters to her, written long after he knew she must be dead, were found in his papers after he died.)

By an extraordinary series of small miracles and accidents, the letter from his mother makes its way to Shtrum. But the reader of Stalingrad never finds out what it says. In fact, the whole letter, much of it a desperately dispiriting description of anti-­Semitism, casual cruelty, and ­indifference to cruelty, among educated people who had seemed civilized and kind only days before, now appears in full in Life and Fate. Yet Stalingrad somehow has no room for it, digressing instead into weary propaganda about steel production. Hatred of Jews was an awkward subject in the U.S.S.R. to the very end. Stalin had endorsed it, and discrimination against Jews persisted until the end of communist rule. So, such a bitter account of former Soviet citizens turning into wolves in human form, as they do in the letter, presumably could not pass the censor. Instead we get Shtrum, a nuclear physicist, expressing love for the Soviet motherland. He has “a momentary vision of a mankind that was happy and free—master of both earth and sky, disposing wisely of the most powerful energy in the world.”

This vision, as we now know, ended in the poisoned furnace of Chernobyl, a metaphor for every failed hope of the Soviet idealists. The sunlit modern cities turned out to be concrete slums. The promised prosperity ended in meat queues, corruption, and squalor. The equality of man was mocked by a secretive and corrupt privileged class living sequestered lives behind high, green fences. The armies that broke Hitler and smashed down the gates of the death camps went on to crush human liberty in Berlin, Budapest, and Prague. And yet in millions of minds the fantasy still persists that we can begin the world over again, and that after all the broken eggs there will in fact be an omelette rather than a useless mess. In truth, the story of Vasily Grossman, far from reviving hope in idealism, only bears out Solzhenitsyn’s pessimism. A good, brave, talented man was dragged down, and his work defiled or destroyed. But satanic optimism survives every such setback. I sense that they are taking bookings to Utopia yet again. Nobody will mention that the route takes you across a sea of blood, and you never get there.

Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.

Photo by Zelma via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.