John Lloyd has been Labour Editor, Industrial Editor, East European Editor and Moscow Bureau Chief for The Financial Times, and he is currently editor of the FT Magazine. He is author of The Miners' Strike, 1984-85: Loss Without Limit, Rebirth of a Nation: Anatomy of Russia, and What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. John is on the editorial board of Prospect and the advisory board of the Moscow School of Political Studies. Here he writes about Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate.
John Lloyd on Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman
Vassily Grossman was a soviet citizen, a Ukrainian Jew born in the largely Jewish town of Berdichev in 1905. A Communist, he became a war correspondent, working for the army paper Red Star - a job which took him to the front lines of Stalingrad and ultimately to Berlin. He was among the first to see the results of the Holocaust, and published the first account of a death camp - Treblinka - in any language.
After the war, he seems to have lost his faith. He wrote his immense novel, Life and Fate (Zhizn i Sudba) in the 1950s and - in the period of the Krushchev thaw, which had seen Alexander Solzhenitsyn allowed to publish A Day on the Life of Ivan Denisovich - he submitted the manuscript to a literary journal in 1960 for publication. But Solzhenitsyn was one thing, Grossman another: his manuscript was confiscated, as were the sheets of carbon paper and typewriter ribbons he had used to write it. Suslov, the Politbureau member in charge of ideology, is reported as having said it could not be published for 200 years. However, it was smuggled out on microfilm to the west by Vladimir Voinovich, and published, first in France in 1980, then in English in 1985 - just as Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and another thaw began.
Why the 200 year ban? Because Life and Fate commits what was still, in a 'liberal' environment, the unthinkable sin of arguing for the moral equivalence of Nazism and Soviet communism. In a central chapter, a senior SS officer, Obersturmbannfuhrer Liss, and an old Bolshevik officer, Mikhail Moskovskoy, speak in the former's office in the prison camp in which Moskovskoy is held. Liss treats him kindly, and calls him 'teacher'. And he tells him that they serve the same - philosophic - master. 'Lenin', says Liss, 'considered himself a builder of internationalism while in actual fact he was creating the great nationalism of the 20th century... and we learned many things from Stalin. To build socialism in one country, one must destroy the peasants' freedom to sow what they like and sell what they like. Stalin didn't shilly-shally - he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews. But Hitler's no mere student: he's a genius in his own right... you must believe me. You've kept silent while I've been talking, but I know that I'm like a mirror for you - a surgical mirror.'
Moskovskoy does not openly accept this equation. But the authorial voice reveals his inner doubt, and the thought which ran wild in his head - 'he had to renounce everything he had stood for; he had to condemn what he had always lived by... with all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, blood-stained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship! More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin! This was the edge of the abyss'.
This is Grossman re-routing his thoughts through Moskovskoy. Having seen the results of the Holocaust, having been initially rewarded for his descriptions of it, he found himself during Stalin's last decade increasingly under suspicion as a Jew and an active anti-fascist: he might have died had not Stalin gone first.
The finest writing in what is a vast essay in the socialist realist style (though not content!) is when the former war correspondent describes the fury of Stalingrad - especially in House 6/1, a forward post held in desperate conditions by a platoon of exhausted Red Army soldiers, men and women. But the most hideous and transfixing moment in the book is when groups of Ukrainian Jews, led by Sofya Levinton, are herded into the gas chamber: Grossman takes the reader to the moment when the gas comes out of the nozzles in the ceiling.
Grossman died in 1964, after finishing a second, much shorter book, Everything Flows (Vsyo Techot) - which is a reflection on the nature of the Soviet Union, including a brief study of the labour camps. He died in poverty and great pain, certain none of his work would ever be published. Even today, he's not much read (after a brief period of fame in the glasnost period, when he was published in Russian). The length and often clumsy narrative of Life and Fate may be one reason: its hundreds of characters, its sprawling stories and its constant excursions into 'philosophizing' make it hard going at times - were it not for the driving energy and the moral imperative of a man for whom his earlier beliefs had become anathema and whose writing was the only salvation he had.
Life and Fate is still available in the Harvill edition, first published in 1995 – in a superb version by a great Russian translator, Robert Chandler.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]