In the current issue of Foreign Policy, Leon Aron has a moving essay on one of the Russian literary masterworks of the last century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (????? ? ??????, 1959). During his lifetime, Grossman had a reputation as the nation’s premier war correspondent, but his novel, which portrays with brutal candor the violence and repression of the Stalin era, was deemed unpublishable and even dangerous by Soviet authorities. It became one of the mainstays of the samizdat literature. Vladimir Voinovich and Andrei Sakharov helped smuggle the work out of the country so it could finally be published in the seventies.
Aron places the work at the heart of the Russian literary canon:
Consciously Tolstoy-like in its sweep, Life and Fate was also inspired by that great Russian observer of everyday life and “ordinary people,” Anton Chekhov, who was Grossman’s favorite writer. In a passionate soliloquy delivered by one of his characters, Grossman extols Chekhov as the “first democrat” among Russian writers for his “millions of characters” and his attention to each of them. They were unique human beings (lyudi) to Chekhov, Grossman continues, every one of them: lyudi first — and only then “priests, Russians, shopkeepers, Tatars, workers.” Chekhov was the “standard-bearer … of a real Russian democracy, Russian freedom, and Russian human dignity.” To recover and maintain this Chekhovian freedom, “to be different, unique, to live, feel, and think in one’s own, separate way,” was the sole objective of and justification for “human associations,” Grossman writes in Life and Fate. Sometimes, he continues, instead of a means for strengthening a human community, “race, party, and state” become the end. “Nyet, nyet, nyet! The sole, true, and eternal objective of the struggle for life is a human being, his humble particularity, his right to this particularity.”
The truth at the center of this work is the deforming power of ideology, its power to cause misery in the lives of ordinary people it claims to raise up.
I saw the unflinching force of the idea of public good, born in my country. I saw it first in the universal collectivization. I saw it in [the Great Purge of] 1937. I saw how, in the name of an ideal as beautiful and humane as that of Christianity, people were annihilated. I have seen villages dying of starvation; I have seen peasant children dying in Siberian snow; I have seen trains carrying to Siberia hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow and Leningrad, from all the cities of Russia — men and women declared enemies of the great and bright idea of public good. This idea was beautiful and great, and it has mercilessly killed some, disfigured the lives of others; it has torn wives from husbands and children from fathers.
Life and Fate should be on anyone’s shortlist of twentieth-century literature, but it’s imperative reading for anyone who refers to “communism” in the context of any current political developments in the United States. Grossman is an excellent guide to the genuine article.