Military history

The Lies of Victory

Vasily Grossman’s belief in a ‘ruthless truth of war’ was cruelly scorned by the Soviet authorities, especially when they attempted to suppress information about the Holocaust. At first, he refused to believe that anti-Semitism could exist within the Soviet system. He had assumed that the jibes of Sholokhov which had outraged both Ehrenburg and him were an isolated example of reactionary sentiments, leftovers from the pre-revolutionary past. But he was to find soon after the war that the Stalinist system itself could be deeply anti-Semitic. Much later, when writing Life and Fate, he made it appear to be overt during the war, but this was premature. There were warnings, but the anti-Semitism within the regime did not emerge fully until 1948. It then became virulent in 1952, with Stalin’s ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign and the conspiracy theory that Jewish doctors were attempting to kill Soviet leaders. Yet Stalin’s anti-Semitism was not quite the same as that of the Nazis. It was based more on xenophobic suspicion than on race hatred.

The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, formed in April 1942 following the appeal the year before to ‘brother Jews’ throughout the world to aid the struggle, was bound to be an object of distrust to Stalin. The slightest hint of contact with foreigners had been enough to condemn countless victims of the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. Only during the early months of the war, when the country was faced with a mortal threat, could Stalin contemplate the idea of Jews in the Soviet Union making direct contact with American and British Jews. But the suggestion that a sort of International Brigade of foreign, especially American, Jews could be recruited to fight as a separate unit within the Red Army was firmly vetoed. It is perhaps significant that almost immediately after Moscow was saved in December 1941, two of the original proponents of the scheme, the Polish Jews Henryk Erlich and Viktor Alter, were arrested. Erlich later committed suicide in prison and Alter was executed.

The Soviet authorities tolerated the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee as a propaganda front at a time when American Lend-Lease aid was so vital to the country’s survival. But the committee’s energy and determination to expand its remit to cover the Holocaust was bound to put it on a collision course with Stalinist policy. The fact that the idea had partly originated in the United States with Albert Einstein and prominent American Jews later made The Black Book even more unacceptable to the Stalinist mind, even though the Soviet Information Bureau had given its consent to the project in the summer of 1943. Grossman, the Russian patriot, and the Francophile Ehrenburg were both assimilated Jews who had never cared for Orthodox ritual. They now identified with the fate of all the Jews of Europe. Also during the summer of 1943, once the tide of war had turned decisively against the Nazis, both Ehrenburg and Grossman found that major publications rejected most of their articles on the subject. Only small Jewish journals could be counted on to accept them, so they concentrated their efforts on the project of The Black Book, involving over twenty writers in the Soviet Union alone.1 Later, Grossman pointedly asked Konstantin Simonov to contribute a section on Majdanek, but he excused himself on the grounds that he was too busy. Simonov was evidently not prepared to risk antagonising the authorities.

It was towards the end of 1944 that Ehrenburg quarrelled with the other members of the JAC’s literary committee and Grossman took over editorial responsibility. But in February 1945, the Sovinformburo criticised the emphasis on the activity of traitors in the occupied territory collaborating with the German annihilation of the Jews. It was a point on which Grossman had passionately disagreed with the far cannier Ehrenburg. For the authorities, the only useful purpose of The Black Book was as testimony for the prosecution case against fascist Germany.

After the war, the JAC found it impossible to obtain a decision on The Black Book from the authorities. In November 1946, Ehrenburg, Grossman and Solomon Mikhoels, the chairman of the JAC, addressed a petition to Andrei Zhdanov, the secretary of the Central Committee.2

With Ilya Ehrenburg, during the war

Again there was no reply. Finally, eleven months later, in October 1947, the committee was informed that the book contained ‘grave political errors’ and was banned. The Cold War had begun in earnest that September, and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee became even more suspect after its contacts with the United States. It was closed down two months later. The type of The Black Book was broken up. In January 1948, Solomon Mikhoels was crushed to death by a truck in Minsk. This later proved to be a KGB operation to eliminate him. Grossman, who had accompanied Mikhoels to the station on this fatal excursion, may have suspected something when he received the shocking news, but the method of assassination used was almost too crude to be believable.

In 1945 and 1946, Grossman’s career had continued to prosper, despite his work on The Black Book. Some of his Krasnaya Zvezda articles were reprinted in a small volume called Gody Voiny, or The Years of War, which was then circulated in several foreign translations. A new edition of The People Immortal was issued and even adapted as a play. But this success did not last much longer than a year. In August 1946, a period of ideological and cultural repression was launched by Andrei Zhdanov, which was to be dubbed the zhdanovschina, an echo of the great terror known as the yezhovschina. Even without his work on The Black Book, a writer as honest as Grossman was bound to face a difficult time in this post-war ‘lesser terror’. In September, his play If We are to Believe the Pythagoreans was viciously attacked in Pravda. Then an oblique attack was made on his wartime writing, but the main target of official displeasure remained The Black Book.

Subsequent attacks on Grossman were also part of the Stalinist ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ campaign, which began in November 1948 with the disbandment of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. (With the bizarre logic of Stalinism, this more or less coincided with the Soviet Union’s instant recognition of the State of Israel, a démarche purely intended to discomfit Britain.) Three months later, in January 1949, the Soviet press began a full ‘anti-cosmopolitan’ assault on the orders of the Kremlin. Fifteen members of the committee were arrested, interrogated, tortured and eventually put on trial in May 1952. The proceedings were all in closed session. Thirteen of the defendants were executed in August. In January 1953, a group of doctors, most of whom were Jewish, were accused in the press of plotting to kill Soviet leaders. This nakedly anti-Semitic campaign halted only because of the death of Stalin in March.

Viktor Komarev, the deputy chief of the investigative unit of the MGB interrogating the members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, bragged in a letter to Stalin ‘how much I hate our enemies’. He boasted of his cruelty and of the terror he inspired in his victims.

‘I especially hated and was pitiless towards Jewish nationalists, whom I saw as the most dangerous and evil of enemies. Because of my hatred of them I was considered an anti-Semite not only by the defendants but by former employees of the MGB who were of Jewish nationality.’ One of the defendants, Boris Shimeliovich, was tortured so badly that he had to be carried back for further sessions on a stretcher.

Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg were extremely fortunate not to have been among those associated with the JAC who were arrested in the first wave. They were lined up for investigation in March 1952 as preparations for the trial progressed, but in the event they were left alone. Grossman’s first novel about Stalingrad, For a Just Cause, was published in instalments that year after he was forced to make many changes to render the text politically acceptable. The novel was nominated for the Stalin Prize, but soon afterwards Grossman was furiously denounced. Party hacks were appalled that he could write about the battle of Stalingrad without mentioning Stalin. The list of criticisms extended much further. He had deliberately reduced the achievements and role of the Communist Party in the victory. Grossman, forced to write a letter of repentance, was saved from the Gulag only by Stalin’s death in March 1953.

Yet however much Grossman had come to loathe Stalinism, with its constant lies and forced betrayals, he never lost his faith in the simple Russian soldier and the huge sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War. His daughter described in a memoir how, at his urging, the family would sing songs from the war in private.

A large empty room. Twilight – because evening is coming, or perhaps rain. There are three of us in the room, Papa, my stepbrother Fedya and I . . . We are singing some songs from the war. Father would start in a stern, thundering voice. His unmusical ear did not prove too great a problem. The simple melody was so familiar to us:

The aircraft is spinning around,

It is roaring, it’s flying down towards the Earth’s breast . . .3

But now my father stands up. Fedka and I stand up too. Father is standing there stooping, his hands at his side as if he were on parade. His face is solemn and stern.

Arise, the huge country.

Arise for the mortal battle.

With the dark fascist force,

With the accursed horde.

My father considered this song a work of genius: he said so often and with much conviction . . . He always stood up when he sang it.

Grossman also remained interested in the whole question of courage and cowardice. His daughter noted a conversation at home with some visitors which turned to the subject of behaviour in battle. One of them said that when a person is experiencing strong emotions, such as patriotism and anger, then fear disappears. ‘Grossman replied that this was not true. “Just as there are two kinds of courage, I think you should distinguish between different kinds of fear – a physical fear which is a fear of death, and moral fear which is the fear of disgracing yourself in front of others. Tvardovsky, for example, possessed moral courage to a high degree. Other people, Simonov for example, did not possess courage in their behaviour in civilian life although Kostya Simonov was extraordinarily brave during the war.”’

Grossman was not entirely a political outcast, and even during the most difficult times he received support from some Stalingrad generals. Rodimtsev, whom he had always revered, had come to his defence when For a Just Cause had been attacked. It was an act of considerable bravery. And in 1955, following Stalin’s death, when things did not look so bad for Grossman, he had a meeting with Stalin’s old crony, Marshal Voroshilov, who tried to persuade him to join the Party at last. Grossman persisted in his refusal. ‘Well, it’s clear to me,’ Voroshilov replied in a kindly fashion, ‘that you are a non-Party Bolshevik.’

In 1954, For a Just Cause had been republished, this time in book form, and again it was praised. During the rest of the 1950s, Grossman worked on a sequel which was to be his masterpiece, Life and Fate. This deliberate tribute to Tolstoy’s War and Peace has the same epic quality, but with the battle of Stalingrad at its core. One of the great differences between the two novels, however, is the way Grossman bases his story and characters on himself and those close to him. The fact that so much of the book is taken from real life does not in any way lessen its effect as a novel. On the contrary, it forms the basis of its extraordinary power.

Grossman was convinced that under Nikita Khrushchev, the chief commissar at Stalingrad and the denouncer of Stalin at the XX Party Congress in February 1956, the way was open at last for the truth to be told. But Grossman’s lack of political judgement served him badly. He failed to see that the implicit parallels between Nazism and Stalinism in his novel constituted far too harsh a reality. The heroic myths of the Great Patriotic War had taken too deep a hold. He should also have realised the full significance of the fate of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, crushed brutally by General Babadzhanyan, his hero in The People Immortal.

Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960 and submitted the manuscript. It seemed as if his novel was being sat on due to incompetence or idleness, but in fact his editors were in a state of fear and consternation. The decision was passed upwards. On 14 February 1961, three senior KGB officers arrived to seize every copy of the manuscript. They ransacked the apartments of both Grossman and his typist, taking papers and even the carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. The manuscript was passed to the Communist Party’s chief ideologue, Mikhail Suslov, the immensely powerful chief of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee.4 Suslov’s verdict was that it could not be published for over two hundred years. This remark was a striking recognition of the novel’s importance.

The devastation appeared complete. Grossman’s previous books were withdrawn from circulation. Reduced to penury and with only a few friends prepared to risk association with him, he soon suffered from cancer of the stomach. He died in the summer of 1964, assuming that his great work had been suppressed for ever. Ehrenburg offered to chair a committee on Grossman’s work, but the Writers’ Union refused. In the eyes of the Soviet authorities, Vasily Grossman was virtually a non-person in political terms.

Grossman had, however, deposited a copy of the manuscript with a friend. And this friend, who had put it in a canvas satchel, had left it hanging on a hook under some coats at his dacha. Eventually the manuscript was discovered and copied on to microfilm it is said by Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and dissident. Vladimir Voinovich, the satirical novelist and creator of Private Chonkin (a Red Army equivalent of The Good Soldier Schwejk), then smuggled the microfilm out of the Soviet Union to Switzerland.5Life and Fate was published there and in many other countries across the world. It appeared in Russia only as communism itself collapsed. Grossman’s unspoken promise to his mother was finally fulfilled. She lived again through the novel as Anna Shtrum. Grossman himself may have been dragged down by the wolfhound century, but his humanity and his courage have survived in his writing.

1 For details on the troubled progress of The Black Book, see Garrard & Garrard, pp. 199–221, Rubenstein, pp. 212–17 and, in greatest depth, Rubenstein & Naumov. An English edition of The Black Book was published by Vad Yashem in 1981.

2 Zhdanov, Andrei Aleksandrovich (1896–1948), born Mariupol, joined the Bolsheviks in 1915 and became Stalin’s loyal henchman. After the assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934, Zhdanov was made governor of Leningrad. He played a major role in the purges and was put in charge of the city’s defence in 1941. He then reverted to his role of Stalin’s cultural policeman overseeing the Sovinformburo and then the Cominform in 1947. His doctrine, known as ‘Zhdanovism’, was based on the notion of partiynost, or ‘party-spirit’, as the guiding principle for artists and writers. It was later alleged by the Stalinist authorities that his death in 1948 was part of the ‘Doctors’ Plot’, but Stalin, afraid of the growing power of Zhdanov’s Leningrad fiefdom, might have had a hand in Zhdanov’s death, if it were from unnatural causes.

3 Grossman wrote down this song about a heroic Soviet pilot when visiting the aviation regiment of Vasily Stalin, the dictator’s son, near Stalingrad in the early autumn of 1942.

4 Suslov, Mikhail (1902–1982), Soviet Central Committee ideologue who had supervised the 1937–8 purges in the Ukraine and the Urals, and then in 1944–5 directed a brutal campaign of execution and deportation against national minorities who had been under German occupation.

5 Voinovich, Vladimir Nikolayevich (1932– ), began to write poetry when in the Soviet Army between 1950 and 1955. He turned to prose and later became a dissident. His most famous book, The Life and Amazing Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin, contributed to his ejection from the Writers’ Union in 1974. He emigrated in 1980 and was stripped of his citizenship by Brezhnev.

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