Against all odds, I managed to read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate over the past several weeks. By now I think I’ve satisfied the requirements of the Russian Reading Challenge from last December, and await my gold star.
Finishing the novel around the repose of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was particularly fascinating, since Life and Fate was completed — and submitted for publication — years before “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” and The Gulag Archipelago broke on the scene and exposed the barbarity of Soviet socialism. Had Grossman succeeded in publishing Life and Fate in 1960, he would have stolen a march on Solzhenitsyn, even though the fictional form lacks the journalistic rigor of The Gulag Archipelago, and as a Jew, Grossman might have been easier for the authorities to marginalize than Solzhenitsyn. The moral accusations of his novel, given the context, are utterly explosive. He equates Stalinism with Nazism, juxtaposes German and Soviet anti-Semitism, and fills his story with meddling commissars who do nothing but feed the state’s apparatus of denunciation, interrogation, and punishment.
The introductory essays address the question of why Grossman, no stranger to the hazards of Soviet political culture, would have dared to publish such a subversive work so soon after Stalin’s death, and speculate whether naiveté drove him to publish it in such hostile times. To me, though, it seems clear that the book was Grossman’s nearly suicidal act of atonement and expiation: through the novel, he hoped to atone for all the petty compromises that the Soviet system had imposed upon him over his years in and out of political favor.
The book’s most autobiographical character is nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum, whose work earns him Stalin’s particular favor in spite of his political improprieties. Shtrum speaks more candidly than he should among potential informants, and out of stubbornness he refuses to repent of his “Talmudic, idealist” approach to theoretical physics. But the potential military application of Viktor’s research eventually ensures him scientific freedom and all the perks and blandishments available to the State’s favorite son. Amid all this privilege, Viktor shamefacedly signs a calumnious letter and immediately regrets it:
Why had he committed this terrible sin? Everything in the world was insignificant compared to what he had lost. Everything in the world is insignificant compared to the truth and purity of one small man — even the empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, even science itself.
Then he realized that it still wasn’t too late. He still had the strength to lift up his head, to remain his mother’s son.
And he wasn’t going to try to console himself or justify what he had done. He wanted this mean, cowardly act to stand all his life as a reproach; day and night it would be something to bring him back to himself. No, no, no! He didn’t want to strive to be a hero — and then preen himself over his courage.
Every hour, every day, year in, year out, he must struggle to be a man, struggle for his right to be pure and kind. He must do this with humility. And if it came to it, he mustn’t be afraid even of death; even then he must remain a man.
‘Well then, we’ll see,’ he said to himself. ‘Maybe I do have enough strength. Your strength, Mother…’
With this, the curtain falls on Viktor Shtrum, and his fictional act of atonement goes untold. But if you know just how much of himself Grossman projected onto Viktor, you realize right away that the book itself is the very real payment of Viktor’s fictional debt. Grossman’s stubborn attempts at having the book published were what occupied him in his last years, “every hour, every day, year in, year out,” even after the KGB confiscated the manuscripts and the typewriter ribbons it was written on.
I don’t know what compromises Grossman might have made, and how many people he might have hurt or condemned: all this is known but to him and his Creator. But when I heft my tattered copy of his book, stained as it is with baby formula, coffee, and trail mud, I think, “this is my share of the weight of one man’s conscience.” To read Life and Fate is to participate in the redemption of Vassily Grossman’s soul, which is an honest day’s work for any reader.