Vasilli Grossman, Pilgrim and Prophet

Vasilii Grossman, 1945

Vasilii Grossman, Pilgrim and Prophet

Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations (Jeremiah: 1:5)

Editorial note: over the weekend of the 30th November – 1st December 2019, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a two-part adaptation of Vasilii Grossman’s novel For a Just Cause based on a translated version which was published earlier this year under the title of Stalingrad. Historian Frank Ellis, a regular contributor to the Quarterly Review, author of the first English-language and pioneering study of Grossman (Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic, 1994), will be reviewing both the translation and radio adaptation of For a Just Cause in due course. Meanwhile, as a tribute to one of Russia’s greatest writers, we publish Dr Frank Ellis’s review of the BBC’s earlier adaption of Grossman’s Life and Fate which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 over the period of the 18th September 2011 – 25th September 2011. 


Having completed Life and Fate (1980 & 1988) in 1960, Vasilii Grossman naively believed that a novel in which he had freely drawn parallels between National-Socialist Germany and the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Soviet Union could actually be published in the post-Stalin state. Whereas Grossman and his earlier novel, For a Just Cause (1952) had been subjected to a well organised campaign of public vilification in the state-controlled media, ten years later, Soviet functionaries moved against Grossman with stealth and secrecy.  Three KGB officers were dispatched to arrest the novel and to seize all copies of the manuscript. Grossman tried everything to secure its release from the clutches of the KGB.   He wrote a personal appeal to Khrushchev and in a meeting with Mikhail Suslov, the Communist Party’s chief ideologue, Grossman was informed that publication of Life and Fate was out of the question; that it was a far more dangerous book than Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957). Publication, Grossman was told, might be possible in another two hundred years or so. At least one copy of the manuscript did escape the clutches of the KGB. Smuggled out of the Soviet Union, this Russian text was published in Switzerland in 1980. Eight years later, marking the high point of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost campaign, the first Soviet edition of Life and Fate was published. A year later, Grossman’s freedom essay, Everything Flows (1970 & 1989), the demolition of the Lenin cult, was also published in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately Grossman did not live to experience his rehabilitation. Three years after the arrest of Life and Fate, with no obvious hope that the novel would be returned to him or ever published, Grossman, a Soviet unperson, died.

The difficulties in adapting Life and Fate for an English-speaking radio audience are daunting. They arise not merely from the length of the novel and the number of characters but from identifying the core themes and moments in the novel which can provide the basis for the medium of radio. Fortunately for the BBC’s producers identifying the crucial theme of Life and Fate is straightforward: it is the war waged by ideology on the individual and its consequences; that sufficient numbers of people made a gift of their intellectual and moral freedom to the party state; that they allowed themselves to be deceived; and that they were willing to administer genocide, among other abominations.

In all, the BBC radio serialisation of Life and Fate comprises thirteen episodes and with the exception of one chapter, the programme makers have managed to identify the key scenes in the novel. The manner in which these scenes have been scripted, presented, edited and adapted so that they are consistent with the novel is another matter. Here, the BBC Radio 4’s production team has been far less successful.

Take the theme of free speech. From its very beginnings the Soviet state was hostile to free speech and a free press. Lenin and his successors dismissed both as tools by means of which the capitalist class maintained power. Some part of this hostility to the institutions of free speech and a free press was derived from what Lenin claimed to be the scientific basis of socialism. According to Lenin, a socialist – Marxist-Leninist – analysis of the world was precise and rigorous and excluded the gross errors which characterised the Western bourgeois democracies. This led naturally to the position that since the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of the world’s social and economic ills was scientifically based, all opposition was incorrect and thus could be disregarded. Suppression of politically incorrect ideas was therefore not censorship, nor was the banning of a free press. Not at all: rather it was the simple expedient of not permitting politically incorrect and harmful ideas to be placed in the public domain so that people were not misled: the Soviet state was ever solicitous of the ideological well being of its citizens, and eager to prevent the spread of fake news.

Among other things, it is the Soviet censorship apparatus which provides the basis for the later administrative and ideological assault on Shtrum’s theoretical breakthrough in episode 13 (Viktor and the Academy, Moscow, winter 1942). The first episode of the BBC serialization (Viktor and Liuda, autumn 1942, Kazan’) does indeed note the question of free speech – its complete absence – as a quintessential feature of the Soviet state. Shtrum’s institute has been evacuated to Kazan’ (on the Volga) and Shtrum and his colleagues are now more willing to tackle subjects that would have been off limits in Moscow. Shtrum craves the freedom to talk openly and honestly about the war, Soviet history and literature. These all too brief moments of intellectual freedom in Kazan’ make it possible for him to achieve his theoretical breakthrough. One of the participants in these discussions, Mad’iarov, makes what may well be the most powerful and eloquent defence of free speech ever made in Russian literature, and one that clearly rejects Lenin’s ravings against free speech as some capitalist plot to control and to befuddle the masses:

Ah, dear comrades, said Mad’iarov suddenly, can you imagine what it would be like to have a free press? Well, one fine morning after the war you open a newspaper and instead of some frenzied leading article, instead of a workers’ letter to the great Stalin, […] and instead of reports about workers in the United States who in the New Year find themselves in a state of despair, rising unemployment and poverty, you find in the newspaper, do you know what?  Information! Can you imagine such a newspaper?  A newspaper which provides information!

And you read: there’s been a poor harvest in the Kursk district, there’s an inspectors report about conditions in the Butyrskii prison, an argument about whether the White-Sea-Baltic canal is really necessary, you read that a certain worker, Golopuzov, has spoken out against the issue of a new loan.

In general you read everything that is happening in the country: good and bad harvests, enthusiasm, thefts and burglaries, the opening of a mine and a disaster in another, a disagreement between Molotov and Malenkov, you read accounts of the course of a strike caused by a factory head who insulted a seventy-year old chemist, you read the speeches of Churchill and Blum, and not what they “allegedly said”, you read through an account of debates in the House of Commons, you find out how many people committed suicide in Moscow yesterday, […]  You know why there is no buckwheat, and not only that the first batch of strawberries has been flown in from Tashkent to Moscow. […] Yes, yes and through all this you remain a Soviet citizen.

You go into a book shop and buy a book while remaining a Soviet citizen, you read American, English, French philosophers, historians, economists, political observers. You yourself work out where they are not right. You yourself walk the streets without any nanny.[1]

It is probably asking too much to expect all this inspiring advocacy of press freedom to be cited in the play but it certainly deserved far longer citation than it received in the first episode. There are other opportunities for the production team to ram home the importance of the free speech theme in Life and Fate – opportunities which are not taken  – in episode 9 (Novikov’s Story, en route to Stalingrad, November 1942). Episode 9 draws heavily on Part 1, chapter 21 of Life and Fate and introduces Getmanov, one of the many odious party bureaucrats, the person who does so much to destroy one of Grossman’s soldier heroes, colonel Novikov. Among Getmanov’s entourage we encounter Sagaidak, the editor of a regional newspaper. His comments on the function of the Soviet press stand in complete contrast to those of Mad’iarov:

He considered the main task of a paper to be the education of the reader and not the indiscriminate presentation of all kinds of chaotic information about the most diverse, frequently fortuitous events. If, as an editor, Sagaidak considered it expedient to ignore some event, to pass over in silence a harvest failure, a poem that could not withstand ideological scrutiny, a formalist painting, cattle plague, an earthquake, the sinking of a ship, not to notice the force of an ocean wave, which suddenly swept away thousands of people, or a massive fire in a mine shaft, then these events had no significance for him. To him it seemed that these events ought not to occupy the minds of readers, journalists and writers.[2]

Episode 1 is introduced with an extract from Grossman’s letter to Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, in which Grossman argues for the return of the manuscript seized by the KGB. This is a good idea on the part of the BBC producers but one that fails to deliver what it should. The critical part of the letter, the part that deals with censorship and the way the Soviet state deals with the truth was not used. Here is the relevant extract from Grossman’s letter:

Now, you see, a whole year has already passed and I have no idea whether my book still exists whether it is secure or whether perhaps it has been destroyed or incinerated. If my book is a lie, then let the people who want to read it be told about that. If my book is slanderous well let that be known. Let Soviet people, let Soviet readers for whom I have been writing for 30 years judge what is true and what is falsehood in my book.

But the reader has been deprived of the opportunity of judging me and my work by that court which is far more terrible than any other court – here I mean the court of one’s heart and conscience. I wanted and I still want this court.

Moreover, concerning the fact that my novel was rejected by the editorial board of Znamia [Soviet literary journal FE] it was recommended to me that I answer any questions from readers by saying that I had still not finished work on the manuscript; that the work would drag on for some time. In other words, I was being invited to lie.

Moreover, when my manuscript was confiscated I was requested to sign an undertaking that in the event of my making an announcement concerning the fact of the manuscript’s confiscation I would be liable for prosecution.

The methods being used to keep secret everything that has happened to my book are not the methods used to combat lies and slander. This is not how one fights falsehood: this is how one fights truth.[3]

Why was just a small part of this extract not used, since it is so obviously, so powerfully germane to the way the Soviet state behaved towards dissenting writers and intellectuals. Furthermore, Grossman identifies a perennial problem: from Tiberius to Stalin and beyond (and in the West today), the agents of the state, the police, and university administrators lie and persecute Truth Tellers.

The Holocaust is covered in some detail in two episodes: episode 2 (Anna’s Letter, Ukraine, September 1941); and episode 5 (Journey, Poland, autumn 1942). Episode 2 is based on chapter 18, Part 1 of Life and Fate and refers to the letter that Viktor Shtrum’s mother wrote in the Berdichev ghetto and which was smuggled across the front line. It is a miracle that the letter reaches her son but then God – or fate – sometimes smiles on wayward sons and daughters. The radio adaptation of this letter is a great success and faithful to the same in Life and Fate. In ideological terms it highlights that Soviet claims to have solved the nationalities or ethnic question were false. Once the threat of force has been removed because of the German invasion, anti-Semitism becomes a default position for those who hated Soviet power. This letter is also about belonging and place and even self-deception. Anna says that she never felt herself to be Jewish; that she has always considered herself to be a Russian. Now, a love of Jews has been awakened by what is happening to her fellow Jews. In the existential stresses caused by the German invasion people – Russians, Ukrainians and Jews – are seeking refuge in their racial/ethnic identities. Here is a grim paradox for Grossman. A sense of national greatness and uniqueness is not something peculiar to the National-Socialist invader. As 1942 moves towards its close, Russian national awareness, suppressed for so long, now comes to Stalin’s rescue.

Anna reports that pits are being dug and yet people continue to hope that nothing terrible will happen. Anna is not fooled. She knows that they will be killed. She ponders the future, to borrow the title of one of Grossman’s wartime essays, of Ukraine without the Jews:

They say that children are our future, but what will be said about these children? They will not become musicians, cobblers, clothes-designers. And during the night I clearly imagined that this whole noisy world of busy, preoccupied fathers, querulous grandmothers, the makers of honey cakes, of roasted goose necks, the world of wedding customs and sayings of Sabbath holidays will disappear into the ground forever; and that after the war there will once again be the hustle and bustle of life. But we’ll not be there. We will have disappeared, as the Aztecs have disappeared.[4]

Episode 5 is the most ambitious episode of the thirteen. The producers interweave a number of scenes all directly related to the Holocaust: the victims and the perpetrators. The victims are the Jewish men and women, the little boys and girls all destined to be cruelly deceived and slaughtered. Among them is Sof’ia Levinton. In the figure of Sof’ia Levinton, Grossman returns to the theme of maternal love, which we have already encountered in Liudmila Shtrum’s loss of her son Tolia (there are many such examples in the novel and in Grossman’s other work). In the cattle truck heading to the gas chambers, Sof’ia befriends a little lost boy, David, and he becomes her adopted son. Together, as mother and son – David’s birthday is 12th December – they meet their end.

The perpetrators are not just the guards and those who do the killing but the bureaucrats and administrators and those at the very pinnacle of the Nazi party who have justified, planned, and are now implementing, the Holocaust. There are two meetings on these themes: one involving Sturmbannführer Liss,  an SS officer and Mostovskoi, a veteran Bolshevik; the other meeting is between Liss and Eichmann in which the planned mass murder of Jews is discussed in jargon and euphemisms. The episode ends with Levinton’s thoughts on death and on her being ‘ashes in a cold wind’.

The scenes in this episode are very well done and the relationship between Levinton and David, even in their dreadful circumstances, is somehow spiritually uplifting. It is here, in this episode, that we encounter the philosophical core of Life and Fate: the meeting between Liss and Mostovskoi. While some of the essential parallels between National-Socialist Germany and the Lenin-Stalin state are laid out by Liss, the element in the scene which is missing, and so weakens the power of the meeting, is the intellectual and moral cowardice of Mostovskoi. In the radio adaptation Mostovskoi comes across as a tough, old Bolshevik, a stalwart of the party, thoroughly decent by comparison with Liss. In the novel, the relentless flood of parallels that Liss draws between National-Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union start to shake Mostovskoi’s faith. Worse still, Mostovskoi, despite his outward pose of remaining true to the cause in Liss’s presence, senses the terrible truth of Liss’s words: he knows the truth yet is frightened of it. Consider the following in Life and Fate:

And Mostovskoi was struck by a new thought.  He even narrowed his eyes – whether from a sudden bout of colic or from the fact that he wanted to rid himself of this tormenting thought. The trouble is these doubts were perhaps not signs of weakness, lack of strength, some filthy factionalism, exhaustion or lack of faith. Perhaps these doubts now and then seizing him, sometimes hesitantly then suddenly with malice, were in fact the most honest thoughts; the most pure that lived in him. But he crushed them, pushed them away, he hated them. Was there in these thoughts perhaps a grain of revolutionary truth? The explosive power of freedom was in them!

In order to brush Liss aside and his slippery, sticky fingers it would be merely necessary to cease hating Chernetsov, to cease despising the holy fool Ikonnikov! But no, no he would have to go even further! It would be necessary to renounce what he had lived by, to condemn that which he had defended and had always justified…

But no, not even that would be enough! It would not be enough to condemn but with the entire strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, to hate the camps, the Lubianka, the murderous Ezhov, Iagoda and Beria! But that would not be enough; Stalin and his dictatorship as well.

But no, no, that would still not be enough!  One would have to condemn Lenin! This would be the edge of a chasm!  There it is: Liss’s victory, not the victory in the war being waged on the battlefield but in that war full of snake venom being waged without a shot being fired, which the Gestapo officer was waging against him now.[5]

One of Mostovskoi’s responses to being in Liss’s presence is especially damning: ‘Mostovskoi kept his glance on Liss’s face and it occurred to him that this pale face with its high forehead ought to be placed at the very bottom of some anthropological table and evolution would progress upwards from there and would move towards a Neanderthal man covered in hairy wool’.[6]  In other words, his Nazi host is a sub-human, an Untermensch (nedochelovek). Mostovskoi’s recourse to such language, language we would expect to be used by Liss, undermines all the talk and party lies about the Brotherhood of Man and serves to confirm the link between Mostovskoi, the red Nazi, and Liss which he is desperate not to see. As far as Mostovskoi is concerned, the peasants exterminated in the Holodomor (the Ukrainian genocide) are sub-human class enemies who deserve their fate.  Mostovskoi’s fear of the truth is explicit in the novel but absent from the radio adaptation.  This failure on the part of the producers to present this aspect of Mostovskoi’s character severely undermines what should have been the most powerful episode in the novel’s serialisation.

Signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

Mostovskoi’s denial of the truth concerning the Soviet regime, a regime to which he has devoted (and wasted) his life and his willingness to do the party’s bidding takes us directly to the centre of ideological behaviour and a critical part of Grossman’s novel. Under all sets of circumstances, no matter what the party claims, no matter how brazen and repulsive the lies spewed out by the party’s propaganda machine, no matter how many millions of Soviet peasants are slaughtered in the Holodomor, no matter how many senior party members are now suddenly discovered to be ‘enemies of the people’ (vragi naroda), Mostovskoi, Abarchuk and Krymov have demonstrated a terrifying submission to the will of the party. There is another incident in the camp which underlines Mostovskoi’s cowardice after his meeting with Liss. When Osipov, a party official, tells Mostovskoi that it has been decided to get rid of Major Ershov (another one of Grossman’s fiercely independent soldier heroes, and a true son of Mother Russia) Mostovskoi slavishly follows the party line: ‘I submit to this decision, I accept it as a member of the party’.[7]

Abarchuk and Krymov are also guilty of appalling intellectual and moral cowardice. Take, for example, Abarchuk who features in episode 6 (Abarchuk, Gulag, November 1942). Despite the fact that he has been thrown into a camp, Abarchuk nurtures a slavish loyalty to the party. He undergoes a similar ideological and moral challenge to that experienced by Mostovskoi when he, Abarchuk, meets an old party comrade in the camp’s sick bay.  Shatteringly for Abarchuk, this old comrade, Magar, tells Abarchuk that the revolution has failed because the revolutionaries did not understand that what matters is not loyalty to Marx but freedom. This episode is based on chapters 40-41, Part 1 of Life and Fate and it is here that Grossman provides the clue to the power of the party over the individual and thus why party members went along with genocide in Ukraine and why, a decade later, their National-Socialist counterparts implemented the Holocaust.

The individual party member considers himself to be a member of an élite group, one chosen by History to carry out the grand design of building the classless society. In order that this vision (nightmare) be realised all necessary means are justified by History (Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism). The party leadership insists that only total submission to the will of the party will ensure that the party’s goals are achieved. The hallmark of a good party member is that he recognises the superiority of the party leadership and its right to make decisions on behalf of all party members. The party is an omniscient, all-powerful god. The obstacle to the party member’s embracing the party is his own personality, his mind and ability to decide for himself. These manifestations of intellectual independence must be crushed, jettisoned if the party member is to become one with the party. This has terrible consequences for the party member that Grossman clearly identifies in Abarchuk: ‘Losing the right to judge, he lost himself’.[8]  The very essence of moral and intellectual freedom is making judgements. This is now denied to the party member who must accept the party’s judgements in all matters. In the process of losing the right to judge, the individual loses ‘himself’. He is no longer a free man: he is a slave. Omitting this all important line from the Abarchuk episode is a serious shortcoming since its omission fails to illuminate the morally and intellectually debased nature of party members and why they accepted the need for terror and genocide.

In terms of revolutionary pedigree and commitment Nikolai Krymov has much in common with Mostovskoi. Krymov’s problem is that he is unable to recognise that the revolution has failed and that the prerogatives of power for its own sake are what drive the new party members (In 1984 (1949) O’Brien has no qualms about telling Winston what motivates the party: it is power pure and simple). Getmanov and Osipov, for example, have no interest in Lenin or Marx. Krymov appears in four episodes: episode 3 (Krymov and Zhenia: Lovers Once); episode 7 (Building 6/1, Those who were still alive, October 1942); episode 10 (A Hero of the Soviet Union, Stalingrad, November 1942); and episode 11 (Krymov in Moscow, November 1942).

The episodes that show Krymov at the front reveal the gulf between him and the soldiers. Krymov fails to see or will not see that the soldiers are not fighting for collective farms and the other oppressive features of the regime but for the freedom to live their lives as they wish. This rejection of the Soviet regime emerges in the clash between Krymov, now a military commissar, and captain Grekov, the commander of house 6/1. As far as Krymov is concerned, Grekov’s thoughts on freedom are the stuff of utter heresy. Like Abarchuk and Mostovskoi, Krymov cannot bring himself to acknowledge that the revolution has failed. His only answer to dissent is persecution, the firing squad, and still more firing squads.  The two episodes which portray Krymov at the front are thematically consistent with the novel, though the presentation is flawed (see below).

Episode 11 which is based on chapters 2-6, 22-24, 40, 43, 44, 56 & 57, Part 3 of Life and Fate has something in common with the Liss/Mostovskoi meeting. Confronted with his NKVD interrogator and accusations of  participating in Trotskyite conspiracies and spying, Krymov is looking at his own reflection. We recall that in episode 3 his ex-wife, Zhenia, said that Krymov stated that ‘Innocent people don’t get arrested’. Now the duality of the novel’s title is brought to bear on Krymov: he has lived his life according to the class idea that ‘innocent people don’t get arrested’; now the judgement of fate is visited upon him in accordance with his revolutionary creed or rather the party’s creed to which he has always bowed down. I should loathe and despise Krymov for the way he treated Grekov and his men, yet some part of me wants to stand alongside him in the interrogator’s cell urging him to see the ghastly truth about the system he has served and so find salvation first in Zhenia’s love and then in God’s Truth. Krymov teeters on the brink of redemption.

The brutality of the interrogation is covered in this episode – and Zhenia’s loyalty to her former husband – yet the ideological turmoil experienced by Krymov is not dealt with in anything like the necessary detail (even if one allows for the time limitations). Crucial details about Krymov’s growing awareness that his loyalty to the party and the cause have been, to put it mildly, misguided are missing. For example, soon after Krymov arrives in his Lubianka cell, one of the prisoners, Drehling, asks him whether he, Krymov, ever encountered any signs of dissatisfaction with collectivization among the soldiers. Krymov replies: ‘Never, not once did I ever come across even a hint of such attitudes’.[9] Thus, Krymov is still lying to himself. As with Abarchuk, the critical detail is that Krymov realises that: ‘He had lost his very self’.[10] At one stage during the beatings Krymov feels a sense of closeness to the interrogator and then recalls the story of the wounded soldier – the execution bungled – who returns to his executioners. Is this a metaphor of Krymov’s attitude towards the Soviet state and party? No matter how badly they treat him, he will always return to the fold like a lost sheep, a grovelling dog. What saves Krymov is the food parcel from Zhenia. The Lenin cult, class war and internationalism are morally contaminated wastelands compared with her love. Doomed to die with a bullet in the neck in some filthy cellar in the Lubianka, Krymov most certainly is but his soul has been saved by those simple, all-conquering words ‘Your Zhenia’ (Grossman uses the personal form of ‘your’ (tvoia) which Russian and other European languages still retain but which we English, showing contempt for our Mother tongue, have abandoned). Beyond the walls of the prison a woman loves him. In his hour of need she has defied the gangster state and stood by her man: she has made her contribution of goodness and kindness; total evil shall not triumph. David Tennant who plays the part of Krymov is not entirely convincing in house 6/1 but here in the Lubianka episode he manages to convey Krymov’s agony and temptation with real intensity and conviction: an acting triumph.

In opposition to ideology stands freedom, specifically the freedom of the individual to think, to write, to speak, to live and to ply his trade unmolested by the agencies of the state. In opposition to this individual striving for freedom is the ideologically-inspired and ideologically-driven power of the state, two states in fact: the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist Soviet Union and National-Socialist Germany. Both are waging war against the individual. This war is waged on any number of levels – ideological, political, physical, economic, moral and psychological. The aim of both states, especially the Soviet state, is to destroy the very idea of individual freedom, so that the state becomes the final arbiter of human behaviour; that indeed the very mechanism of individual decision-making is totally appropriated by the state and its agencies. All the publicly declared hostility to Russian Orthodoxy, and atheistic propaganda notwithstanding, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism wages a struggle to possess and to control man’s mind and soul. This battle takes place in the satanic conditions defined by Dostoevsky in, for example, The Devils (1871-1872) and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880).

Dostoyevsky, Valsily Perov

Grossman’s portrayal of the manner in which party members are willing to betray their minds and souls in order to become accessaries to, and implementers of, genocide (Holodomor and Holocaust) encounters a remarkable riposte in the testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh. That this testament does not receive a place in the radio script is possibly the most serious omission of the BBC serialization of Life and Fate and one that weakens the listener’s understanding of the totalitarian state’s determination to own the individual, to possess his will. It is, as Grossman intends it to be, the logical or rather the spiritual response to the Liss/Mostovskoi meeting. I suggest that a whole episode should have been devoted to the Liss/Mostovskoi meeting and the testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh.   Both scenes are as pivotal to Life and Fate as the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor is to The Brothers Karamazov. The testament has something of an epistolary, sermon format and would be well suited to the medium of radio.

The testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh features in the Liss/Mostovskoi encounter. Liss gives the testament to Mostovskoi during the meeting and the full text comes in the next chapter. Without some citing of the Ikonnikov-Morzh testament, the challenge to the ideological programmes of National-Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union is incomplete. The fact that Ikonnikov-Morzh’s bundle of notes is in the meeting, like a witness, symbolically affirms the testament’s critical importance for the two advocates of genocide. The essential thrust of the testament is that ideology, of which the purest exemplar would be Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, by arrogating to itself the claim to have uncovered all the mysteries of being, especially the manner in which the End of History is to be resolved, seeks to justify anything, all necessary means, in order to realise its plans (the party programme). In the case of the Soviet Union this meant, among other things, the extermination of some six million Ukrainian peasants in the Holodomor with possibly another five million victims dying of exposure, deportations, shootings and disease in other parts of the Soviet Union. In the Nazi occupation zones 6,000,000 Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. In addition to their various mass extermination policies of class and race enemies both regimes pursued prophylactic terror against internal, so-called ‘enemies of the people’, be they Feinde des Volks or vragi naroda. In opposition to ideological claims of Universal Good, Ikonnikov-Morzh offers us goodness (dobrota). Life and Fate abounds in many examples of individual kindness. Every act of kindness, of spontaneous dobrotaprevents the triumph of evil. True, goodness will not create paradise but it will not play the role of accomplice for those want to build hell on Earth and reduce men to perpetual slavery.

Individual freedom – the freedom to think and to judge, to be free of the external pressures of the party ideologues – is the core of Viktor Shtrum’s ordeal by ideology in episode 13 (Viktor and the Academy, Moscow, Winter 1942). The ideological threat to Shtrum is the Marxist-Leninist concept of partiinost’, which can be translated as party membership or party spirit (it is also the basis of political correctness). In this final episode it refers to party spirit. The assault on Shtrum is driven by two factors: a campaign to target Jewish influences in Soviet science; and an apparent clash between Marxist-Leninist ideology, specifically Lenin’s ideas on matter, and the nature of Shtrum’s discovery, which, heaven forbid, rejects Lenin. Grossman telescopes the action in the novel since the campaign against Western science and ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ was initiated after 1945, part of Zhdanov’s campaign to eradicate Western influences in the Soviet Union.  Shtrum comes to the defence of Einstein: ‘Modern physics without Einstein – is the physics of apes.  We have no right to joke about the names of Einstein, Galileo, Newton.’[11] Einstein was by no means the sole Western scientist to be targeted in this way. Biology, mathematics, genetics (Mendel) and information theory (Wiener and Shannon) were all attacked. Biology and genetics were hit very badly.  The biologist Nikolai Vavilov was persecuted to death, and ideological considerations ensured that charlatans such as Trofim Lysenko rose to prominence and were able to inflict enormous damage on the study of genetics in the Soviet Union until long after Stalin’s death.

Related to the philosophical and ideological themes of the BBC adaptation of Life and Fate are technical and presentational considerations.  For example, actors with all kinds of regional British accents do not enhance the Russianness of the novel on radio.  In some of the episodes, those with Shtrum (Kenneth Branagh), in episode 2 (Anna’s Letter) and the final moments of Krymov in the Lubianka these accents tend not to be a distraction, possibly because the subject matter is so overwhelmingly powerful.  Elsewhere,  the various British accents pose a significant problem for authenticity. The Scottish accent of the soldier in the burial detail (episode 1) takes away from what should be a Russian novel.  Likewise episode 9 (Novikov’s Story, en route to Stalingrad, November 1942) begins with the biography of the odious Getmanov. His wife is referred to as his “missus”.  This sort of colloquial English usage fails since it does not enhance the play’s verisimilitude and undermines the listener’s acceptance of the play. A more serious criticism is that such English usage, usage which might be appropriate in some soap opera, demeans the characters, rendering them somewhat comical when in fact they are part of the Soviet totalitarian system.  By turning Getmanov into some kind of Arthur Daley figure (a shifty, comical character in the British television series Minder) the nature of the Soviet system – the Holodomor and the Great Terror – are rendered less serious. The effect is to play down the nature of the Soviet state and the enormity of its crimes.  Yet, the BBC ensures that this does not happen with the actors playing Liss and Eichmann. The same attention to presentation should have been made with regard to the Soviet roles. The other part of Getmanov’s portrayal is that he is shown as a loving father rather than the ruthless, scheming party bureaucrat with blood on his hands. The two sides are not mutually exclusive but too much emphasis on his children and ‘her indoors’ (a favourite line from Arthur Daley) weakens the depraved and vicious side of this party apparatchik.  In Life and Fate we see Getmanov and his close colleague, Neudobnov, for what they are: debased, opportunistic, dead souls.

The scene in episode 3 in which Limonov makes Zhenia an omelette bears little resemblance to that in the novel. With Limonov’s slightly camp accent and raving on about suffering from spiritual vitamin deficiency (not enough sex) the radio scene could have been straight out of a Carry on film. The scene was very funny but wholly out of place.  While on the subject of voices the Soviet loudspeaker propaganda aimed at German soldiers in episode 12 (Fortress Stalingrad, November 1942 – April (sic!) 1943) sounded like Daleks, and not even Russian Daleks.   In these circumstances I suggest that the way to deal with the accents is to use British actors who have been coached to reproduce plausible Russian accents. Jessica Raine who plays the part of Zina, Bach’s Russian woman, makes a very good job of Russian-accented English. The other approach would be to use Russian actors who speak some English so that their accents come across on the radio.

Judicious and timely use of Russian words throughout the serialization would also enormously enhance the Russian feel and texture. For example, when Zhenia is denied her residence permit and she loses her temper she could have responded with Russian words such as merzavets (bastard) or svoloch’ (scum). The context would have been more than enough for the listener to get the meaning.  The battle scenes in Stalingrad would also have been hugely improved by the selective and timely use of Russian military jargon.  Just before a machine gun opens fire or an artillery barrage ogon’ (fire!) could be heard.  The same use of German could also have been made in the relevant German scenes. The actors that play Eichmann and Liss should also be speaking with German-accented English, not overdone but just enough to make them stand out.  In episode 5 when the cattle trucks arrive with the Jews even a few basic commands in German – Juden raus!and schneller – would have made an enormous difference. Grossman himself uses German in order to create this level of verisimilitude and shock. So David recalls the Germans searching for Jews and the commands given to the German dogs: ‘Asta! Asta! Wo sind die Juden[12]

Various inaccuracies can also be noted. In the BBC internet summary of episode 3 we are told that Krymov ‘misses his estranged partner’. For the benefit of the BBC Krymov and Zhenia were once married: husband and wife, which is a lot more than being lovers. ‘Estranged partner’ is politically correct jargon.  It might appeal to feminists but should not be permitted to contaminate an adaptation of a Russian novel, especially one whose whole ethos rebels against novoiaz(Newspeak) and dissembling and whose author insists on writing clearly, openly, truthfully and fearlessly.  In the same episode considerations of politically-correct English almost certainly determined that Krymov sees himself as a stepchild. Grossman uses stepson (pasynok).  Another error is to refer to house 6/1 as house 6.1. In episode 8 (Lieutenant Peter Bach, German Field Hospital, November 1942), the scene begins with a female nurse washing Bach whereas in the novel it is a male orderly. Moreover, the female nurse is portrayed as some dedicated Nazi which bears no resemblance to the novel. Why did the BBC make these changes?  In episode 12 we are presented with a scene in which Major Berezkin comes to the aid of a German prisoner who is being beaten by a Soviet officer. In actual fact the Soviet officer who intervenes to stop the beating is lieutenant-colonel Darenskii.[13] In episode 11 we learn that Grekov has been awarded ‘The Hero of the Motherland’. This should be Hero of the Soviet Union. Whether these inaccuracies massively detract from the serialisation is perhaps another point but they are all avoidable and should have been avoided.

Reading Life and Fate and other works of comparable moral and intellectual grandeur, one is endlessly confronted with the miracle of language and its power to take us out of our own time and place. It is fitting therefore that in a novel in which the ideas of Einstein are so central to the ideological and psychological pressures applied to Viktor Shtrum that the written word can flout the rules of space and time. Thucydides grasped this perfectly when he told his readers that the History of the Peloponnesian War (c.440-404 BC) was a work that was intended to last forever; that it would survive the tastes and mores of a contemporary reading public. Even when the agencies of the state seek to destroy the writer and his work – and history shows that they are sometimes successful – some great art survives and endures to be found by obsessed and lone prospectors and brought before a public that can understand and, in the case of Life and Fate, read one of the main chroniclers of the totalitarian century.

I count myself blessed that early in my academic career I was called upon by fate to be one of these lone prospectors. During the Soviet period, publication of nineteenth-century Russian writers deemed to be ideologically dubious by the Soviet state were always accompanied by an introductory article which was intended to warn the reader that he would be confronted with ideologically-incorrect ideas that might damage his mental well-being. By playing down and excluding key scenes and themes in its serialization of Life and Fate the BBC has tried to do the same thing. However, in spite of the BBC’s censorship – which the BBC will justify on the grounds of essential editing – the power and profundity of Life and Fate emerges. Grossman stands alongside Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nikolai Kliuev, Lev Tolstoy and Fedor Dostoevsky; he is another Russian literary giant and a very wise man (mudrets). And having read Life and Fate, having listened to the BBC radio adaptation, and having seen, one day, Spielberg’s film, you will not be able to rid yourself of a crushing sadness, an ache, a desire to comfort Grossman’s wounded spirit. Looking back on his life, you ask yourself: why do some of Russia’s best and decent always have to be broken and tormented in this way?  May Grossman’s memory be a blessing.

© Frank Ellis, 2019


[1] Vasilii Grossman, Zhizn’ i sud’ba (Life and Fate), Sovetskii pisatel’, Moscow, 1990, p.209.
[2] Life and Fate, p.82
[3] Semen Lipkin, Stalingrad Vasiliia Grossmana (The Stalingrad of Vasilii Grossman), Ardis, Michigan, 1986, p.83, emphasis added
[4] Life and Fate, p.70
[5] Ibid., p.303
[6] Ibid., p.299
[7] Ibid., p.402
[8] Ibid., p.13
[9] Ibid., p.478
[10] Ibid., p.463
[11] Ibid., p.343
[12] Ibid., p.152
[13] Ibid., p.537

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