Vasily Grossman left at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Courtesy Fedor Guber. T he Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors. In other words, a nightmare. If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time.
They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company. When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over.
Stalin was a consummate editor. He seemed to understand that the role was to sublimate ego in order to shape the world quietly in the background. Good editors know how to render themselves invisible. Have pity!
Not on me, on the work! Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent.
T oday Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in , only appearing in Russia during the glasnost. His tragic life story has since become a familiar parable: the brave arch-humanist defying seemingly limitless power.
But two new books reveal Grossman as a more ambiguous figure. Where Life and Fate presents a disillusioned moral hellscape, Stalingrad is a work of hope and true belief in the long march of the Soviet project. Above all, it is a paean to the strength of the Soviet people as they mobilized to confront fascism. Though it is far from perfect, Stalingrad is an accomplished historical war novel, focusing, like Life and Fate, on the Shaposhnikov family, and is similarly remarkable for its scope.
In Mein Kampf Hitler stated that equality benefits only the weak, that progress in the world of nature is achieved solely through the destructive force of natural selection, and that the only possible basis for human progress is racial selection, the dictatorship of race. He confused the concepts of violence and strength. He saw the vicious despair of impotence as a strength and failed to recognize the strength of free human labour. He saw the man sowing a vast wheat field as inferior to the thug who smashes him over the back of the head with a crowbar.
This is the philosophy of a loser who has fallen into despair, who is unable to achieve anything through labour but who is endowed with a strong mind, ferocious energy and a burning ambition. His anger and frustration, his desire to tell the truth of what he had seen grew slowly only from long participation within that system. At the height of the Great Terror, he could still write to the head of the N.
And second, why? Why am I writing?
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Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph? The writer Isaac Babel praised it, as did the Donbass miners depicted within. Grossman abandoned engineering in favor of literary work, which, in the Soviet Union, was the more lucrative career track. Doors opened for him. Meanwhile, the state that had made his writing career possible was also persecuting his friends and family. After Babel was shot for his association with the ousted N. Why did he celebrate New Year with the Yezhovs?
Why do such unusual people—him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky—feel so drawn to the [N. A fter the German invasion in , Grossman was recruited as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the official paper of the Red Army. He had none of the makings of a macho war reporter—he was overweight, depressed, nearsighted, and walked with a cane.
He also suffered from agoraphobia, avoided crowds and public transport, and had never been on an airplane or shot a firearm. But his sensitivity, his insatiable curiosity about other people, and his fearlessness at the front distinguished him and resulted in some of the best war reporting ever written. His dispatches were full of portraits and histories of people and places he encountered, as well as philosophical musings, the raw material for Stalingrad and Life and Fate. Grossman wrote Stalingrad from his voluminous wartime notebooks.
He then joined the Red Army and it swept through the occupied territories of Ukraine and Belarus, including his largely Jewish hometown of Berdichev, where his disabled mother had been trapped with others unable to flee. I travelled and walked this land from the northern Donets to the Dnieper, from Voroshilovgrad in the Donbass to Chernigov on the Desna; I have walked along the Dnieper and looked out at Kiev. And during all this time, I met one single Jew. War and Peace was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he designed Stalingrad according to its schematic.
Stalingrad is a nineteenth-century novel updated for the twentieth century, and at times feels like a diorama. It is a reminder that there were classes in Stalinist society. It was a complex world—a recognizable world, which has largely been painted over by the gray, totalitarian vision of the Cold War. In the murk Krymov was unable to make out his face. But his words were entirely clear. Generals and soldiers are poisoned by an attitude of retreatism. Those who retreated brought the war with them, close on their heels. The vast spaces to the east were a dangerous lure.
The limitlessness of the Russian steppes was treacherous; it seemed to offer the possibility of escape, but this was an illusion. The troops were bound to the war by a heavy chain, and no retreat could snap this chain; the further they retreated, the heavier the chain grew and the more tightly it bound them. The city of Stalingrad itself is also an important character, wedged up against the Kazakh steppes, a straight shot up to Moscow. From Stalingrad, there is nowhere else to run.
One by one, all the characters realize this. This was bureaucratic anti-Semitism at work.
The text was finally denounced to the Central Committee by a competing writer, and printing was halted. In modern parlance, landscape, like space, has the potential to mean almost anything. In the eighteenth century the understanding of landscape was closely tied to the visual arts, particularly to painting.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this heritage from the visual arts was the coexistence of two quite distinct traditions of European landscape painting, which we might associate with the Netherlands in the north and Italy in the south. There are more complicated stories to tell here, but for an English audience in the eighteenth century, Dutch landscape suggested a concern with the detailed and the specific, while Italian landscape emphasized the general and the abstract.
Neither of those associations does justice to northern or southern traditions, but that mode of thinking that imagines landscape either in terms of specifics, detail, and localization, or in terms of the general, the ideal, and the mythic, is helpful when we try to understand literary representation of landscape in the eighteenth century. What is important here is that both traditions emphasize ways of seeing: a painted landscape is not merely a record of what can be seen, but also an invitation to think about the act of seeing and—more important—the acts of judgement that this implies.
If this suggests some kind of passive recording of physical features, it is as well to recognize that this was never the case. With this emphasis on viewpoint comes a powerful insistence on the movement of the eye, certainly, but as important is the location of the eye. In particular, both writers are acutely aware of high and low viewpoints: Denham champions the view from on high, the prospect, while Gilpin values the occluded view, the view from beneath. Both, however, insist that such viewpoints create landscapes that invite the viewer to see the moral and the metaphysical quite as much as the physical world.
While pastoral may conjure up images of shepherds and shepherdesses leaning on their crooks of which more in a moment , its association with leisure, pleasure, and the absence of care marks out its more serious concerns. Like georgic—with its rather different stress on labour, toil, and productivity—it has a history stretching back to classical Greece and Rome, and for eighteenth-century readers and writers it was perhaps most strongly associated with Virgil and Horace. For both authors, the pleasures of pastoral are to be found in otium , the absence of business and worry associated with the city and the court.
While pastoral associates that moral regeneration with ease, georgic associates it with labour, with the need to struggle against an unrelenting and hostile natural world. But while georgic certainly became more popular in literary writing during the eighteenth century, it would be wrong to think that pastoral visions of landscape disappeared.
For all that Johnson might damn pastoral, it continued to be read, and quoted, not only by other poets, but also by eighteenth-century consumers of literature and landscape.