FEARLESS WRITER FORM THE FRONT WHO FELL FOUL OF STALIN

 

 

Vasily Grossman, the great Ukraine-born journalist and writer, made his name as a war correspondent for the Soviet army newspaper Red Star. His dispatches from the Russian front line between 1941 and 1945 radiate a fierce moral candour. A deep-dyed anti-totalitarian, Grossman set out always to document truthfully what he had seen and heard. His 1944 report on the vile workings of Hitler’s extermination camp, ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, is a masterpiece of controlled rage and unsparing lucidity. The industrialized annihilation of European Jewry was a unique instance of human infamy, Grossman believed, and different in kind from the horrors of the Stalinist Gulag.

 

 

Grossman was aghast when the man who had prevented Hitler’s wholesale destruction of the Jewish people – Joseph Stalin – was himself suddenly set on their extinction. In early 1953 the Soviet dictator publicly announced that a plot to murder Kremlin officials had been unmasked among Jewish doctors and Jewish intellectuals. Jews like Grossman were condemned as a self-regarding, supra-national sect inimical to the interests of the socialist state. To Stalin it made no difference that Grossman had endured 100 days in Stalingrad during the most intense fighting against Hitler; he was now a “cosmopolitan traitor” to Mother Russia and a vaporized non-person. Fortunately Stalin died before Grossman could be “purged” (Soviet speak for judicially murdered), but his worries were not ended.

 

 

In 1960, Grossman’s now classic novel of the Soviet Union during the Hitler war, Life and Fate, was confiscated in typescript by the KGB and placed under embargo. This was done at the height of the so-called Khrushchev ‘thaw’, when a new political tolerance was supposedly in the air. Grossman’s crime had been to draw parallels in the novel between National Socialism and Soviet Communism. The Hitler and Stalin regimes (as Trotsky had pointed out as long ago as 1936) were totalitarian twins that bore a deadly similarity. Life and Fate was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, by which time Grossman had been dead for a quarter of a century. It is now acknowledged as one of great novels of the last century. Yet, as Alexandra Popoff’s excellent biography reminds us, Grossman was unaware that his novel would ever “see light” when he died of cancer in a Moscow hospital in 1964, aged 58.

 

Life and Fate is the sequel to Stalingrad, which is now published for the first time in English. Grossman had begun his earlier novel in late 1943, when Stalin was looking for a “Red Tolstoy” to memorialize Russia’s Great Patriotic War against Germany. Grossman, apart from the fact that he was Jewish, seemed the ideal man. Out-numbered by three to one, the Red Army had held back heroically at Stalingrad and in February 1943 defeated the mighty Wehrmacht. Had it not been for the five-month battle on the banks of the Volga, Hitler might have won World War II and all Europe been transformed into a vast German colony.

 

 

One needs time and patience to read Stalingrad, but it is worth it. Moving majestically from Berlin to Moscow to the boundless Kazakh steppe, the novel attempts to replicate for the USSR what War and Peace had done for 19th century Russian society and Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812. A multitude of lives and fates are played out against a vast panoramic history. Grossman wanted a “conspicuously Jewish” theme for his novel, says Popoff: his mother had been murdered in Ukraine by the Nazis. The central character is Viktor Shtrum, a Jewish physicist whose family are fatally caught in the Nazi dragnets. Round Shtrum orbit the three Shaposhnikov sisters, their husbands and children.

 

In grand Tolstoyan fashion, the novel opens with the Hitler-Mussolini reunion in Salzburg in April 1942. Unappealingly rat-like and furtive beside the grandly uniformed Duce, the Führer has by now advanced rapidly across the Stalin Line. Will Stalingrad hold out? Grossman accords a proper humanity to his subsidiary cast of steelworkers, factory chemists and Red Army soldiers who battle against the odds from their ice-bound dugouts and foxholes.

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