Socialism and Barbarism
According to Aaron Lake Smith, who discusses the works of Vasily Grossman alongside my biography of the writer [“The Trials of Vasily Grossman,” Reviews, July], my book “charts Grossman’s life as a journey from moral compromise to the truth of Life and Fate,” and demonstrates “the extent to which Grossman was a product of the Soviet literary system.” In fact, I argue against this dated interpretation.
Grossman was not a pro-Soviet writer. He established his intellectual independence in this respect early on with his famous story “In the Town of Berdichev.” In his novel Stepan Kol’chugin, Grossman was even more explicit, writing that Russia needs a school of democracy, of “introducing glasnost,” and “all those freedoms inherent in a democratic society.” It was impossible to publish literature without compromise in the U.S.S.R., and Grossman, who chose to write for a readership rather than his desk drawer, consistently battled with censors. All of his major works had difficult paths to publication, and a number of them have appeared only posthumously.
Smith blunders, too, when discussing the Red Army’s rout following the German invasion in June 1941. He writes: “Rather than defending the territory, the Red Army has learned that it can continually fall back into the Soviet Union’s interior without real consequences.” My book describes the tragic consequences of the Red Army’s retreat. Millions of civilians left behind in the occupied Soviet territories were exterminated by the Nazis; among them were 2.5 million Jews.
Lastly, I am bewildered by Smith’s careless phrasing in noting that Grossman “had watched the crucifixion of Boris Pasternak with great interest.” Grossman was sympathetic to Pasternak during the controversy surrounding Doctor Zhivago’s publication and wrote him a letter to this effect.
Aaron Lake Smith responds:
Alexandra Popoff’s letter reiterates the main conclusions of my piece while presenting itself as a corrective. Grossman was neither pro- nor anti-Soviet but a heretical and nonconformist writer who was forced to make compromises throughout his career. As I wrote in my essay, “the dilemma that would define Grossman’s life—the struggle between telling the truth and seeing his work published—was there from the very beginning.”
Popoff claims that I offer a “dated interpretation,” but attempts to shoehorn Grossman into the role of anti-Soviet dissident seem to me far more dated. As Robert Chandler, Grossman’s longtime translator, has written, Grossman
retained at least some degree of revolutionary romanticism until his last days. . . . He may have continued, throughout the 1930s, to hope that the Soviet system might, in time, fulfill its revolutionary promise.
Popoff goes on to suggest that I don’t understand the terrible consequences of the Soviet retreat. As I try to make clear in my piece, it is the disorganized Red Army in the novel Stalingrad that believes it can retreat without real consequences—consequences that Nikolay Krymov tries in vain to bring to their attention.
Popoff also seems to suggest that, in writing that Grossman followed Boris Pasternak’s persecution with “great interest,” I am indicating that he watched it with “great enthusiasm.” Grossman was interested in Pasternak’s plight because he had recently undergone a similar experience himself, one detailed at length in my essay. It is perfectly possible to watch something with “great interest” without supporting it in the least.
Grossman’s body of work is a kind of mirror, in which different people will see different things. In his lifetime, he was a celebrated and widely published Soviet author; his posthumous work reveals profoundly anti-Soviet sentiment. His keen sense of nuance is one of his most admirable qualities as a writer—it is a shame that his biographer does not appear to share it.
I appreciate William T. Vollmann’s attempt to put a human face on the border crisis [“ ‘Just Keep Going North,’ ” Folio, July]. We have become inundated with statistics on this issue, but statistics alone can lend themselves to any number of interpretations depending on the ideological bent of the interpreter. Data can become a substitute for thinking.
To allow these migrants into the United States would threaten its fantasies of power and insularity; Americans would have to face the unsettling reality that we are all more interrelated than we’d like to believe. That realization, of course, is a vital one. If we fail to adjust to this reality, fascism is always waiting in the wings.
Ted L. Cox
William T. Vollmann’s article seems to drip with contempt for voters he disagrees with, going so far as to imply they are “fascist.” This sort of thing only contributes to the animus on both sides; it is part of the problem. When a writer’s disdain is so powerful that it overwhelms any consideration of alternative perspectives, his account can hardly be useful.
Vollmann seems uninterested, for instance, in those principles of economics regarding sudden increases in the labor pool in a given skill sector. These concerns have nothing to do with fascism. The idea that what Marx called an “industrial reserve army” can cause stagnation in both wages and employment among less fortunate workers was until recently understood as a leftist one. Vollmann, however, refuses to give any credence to the interests of those at whom he directs his contempt.
James S. Benton