A Light, Shining in Darkness

Lenin and Stalin

A Light, Shining in Darkness

Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019, pp. ix-xi + pp. 1-326 + notes, photos, bibliography, index, ISBN 978-0-300-22278-4, reviewed by Frank Ellis

I begin with the Soviet century. In 1917, a gang of ideological fanatics seized power in Russia. They then proceeded to conduct an experiment affecting millions of people not just in Russia but throughout the world. The apparent aim of this experiment was to create something akin to paradise on earth. To this end, the owners of factories, banks and other private assets were dispossessed and their property now managed by the state in the name of the people and for the good of the people. All manifestations of inequality – racial, economic and political – were abolished (just like that), and henceforth, all forms of racial and ethnic prejudice, especially Great Russian chauvinism, were declared to be anti-Soviet and punishable. In the new classless society, one free of any racial and class antagonisms, wars would cease and a new age of unimaginable peace and prosperity would ensue. The very existence and success of this society would inspire the workers of the world to take up arms against their capitalist oppressors.

Inequalities in wealth, intellectual achievement and status are natural, arising when people are left to their own lawful devices. In order to eradicate these naturally occurring inequalities, the terror apparatus of the Soviet state had constantly to intervene in people’s lives. The results of this experiment were not class solidarity, liberty, prosperity and equality but terror, genocide and economic collapse. By 1939, Stalin, Lenin’s successor, had created the world’s first totalitarian state: liberty enslaved; equality in squalor; and loneliness in grief and suffering. In 2020, many academics and politicians in the West and in the Russian Federation, do not wish to be reminded that contrary to Hollywood and our universities, the period from 1917 to 1991, more accurately, the Communist Century, was a catastrophe for the planet (and since 1991, the ideological fallout has mutated into something worse).

In 1917, Grossman was 12 years old. He belonged to an ethnic group that in Tsarist Russia had been marginalised and persecuted, experiencing intermittent and bloody pogroms. 1917 benefitted Jews in two obvious ways. Firstly, restrictions imposed since the time of Catherine the Great were abolished, making it possible for Jews, Grossman among them, to gain access to higher education. Secondly, Jews went on to form an important part of the new state apparatus, so giving rise to the erroneous belief that the Great October Revolution was essentially a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Russia.

1929 is characterized as the great turning point – god velikogo pereloma – the year in the history of the Soviet state in which the various ideological concessions and retreats associated with NEP (the New Economic Policy) finally ended and the Soviet Union attempted to become a major industrialised state. Stalin justified this as an absolute necessity if Russia and the Soviet state were not to succumb to foreign aggression. Working as a chemist in the mines of the Donbass – he had studied chemistry at university – Grossman observed this frenzied industrialization first hand. These experiences formed the basis of his first novel, Gliukauf  (Glück auf, 1934), though an essay, Berdichev in all Seriousness, had been published in 1928. In the same year, and a portent of what was to befall Life and Fate, the unfinished manuscript of Glück auf  was seized by the Soviet secret police, then known as the OGPU (from 1934 the NKVD). Collections of Grossman’s short stories were published in 1935 and 1936 and by 1940 the first part of an epic novel dealing with the period leading up to 1917, Stepan Kol’chugin, had been published. So, by the time of the German invasion in June 1941, Grossman was seemingly ensconced as a member of the Soviet literary establishment.

The strong point of Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century is the aggregation and collation of a wealth of biographical and related detail and gossip that has come to light over the last 30 years. For example, one of Grossman’s early stories, ‘Chetyre dnia’ (‘Four Days’, 1935) features a fanatical commissar called Faktorovich who advocates the extermination of class enemies. This character was based on Solomon Bronevoi, a savage Cheka interrogator in Kiev. Solomon Bronevoi, it turns out, was the father of the actor Leonid Bronevoi, famous for his role in the Soviet television series 17 Moments in Spring. He did not share his father’s views on the Soviet state. Interviewed about Stalin and the Nazis, he maintained that the Communist Part was worse than the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).

Good on Grossman’s private life, his relationships with colleagues and the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy, Popoff is less convincing on the major landmark events of the war. Her tenuous grasp of military matters is something of a problem when writing about Vasilii Grossman. For example, on the subject of Stalingrad, she makes the bizarre assertion that German troops were not trained for close-quarter battle. While it is the case that the high-speed, all-arms warfare pioneered by the Germans reduced the likelihood of close-quarter encounters and being tied down in costly urban engagements, preparing for such operations remained a core element in German infantry and combat engineer training. Like their Red Army counterparts in the buildings and rubble of Stalingrad, the soldiers of 6th Army readily adapted to this phase of infantry war. Indeed, the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik, which stressed the need for junior leaders to show initiative, rendered the German infantry highly adaptive to the demands and peculiarities of the urban encounter, as was repeatedly demonstrated throughout the war, at Monte Cassino, Arnhem, Aachen, Berlin, Stettin, Königsberg, Warsaw, Rostov-on-Don, Stalingrad and especially Breslau. Breslau was the sole fortress city in the German east that withstood a Red Army siege, holding out from mid-February 1945 until the final German surrender in May 1945. It provides a master class in urban warfare, improvisation and small-unit leadership.

Special Unit Dirlewanger, Warsaw Uprising

On the matter of desertion at Stalingrad, Popoff writes that ‘Both dictators introduced brutal repressive measures to fight desertion’.[1] This is somewhat misleading. Desertion was a far bigger problem for the Red Army than for 6th Army. Reliable figures for the number of German deserters at Stalingrad are unavailable. Undoubtedly there were some but I suspect that relative to the Red Army, the numbers were low. On the other hand, German 6th Army ration returns pertaining to October and November 1942 show, respectively, that there were 28,594 and 30,765 Hilfswillige attached to the German divisions. Hilfswillige, often referred to as Hiwis in German memoir literature, were Red Army prisoners, who, for a whole host of reasons, agreed to work for the Germans. One incentive was better food, though that lost any value as the Kessel was squeezed and starved. Popoff’s claims on desertion also require to be analysed in the light of Orders № 270 and № 227: did these orders encourage desertion? Grossman was hostile to Stalin’s orders. When the editor of the Red Army paper, Krasnaia zvezda, David Ortenberg, summoned three writers, Grossman among them, and asked one of them to write an article about a Stalin decree on deserters, Grossman refused point blank.

Another conspicuous analytical lacuna is the sniper duel that is supposed to have taken place between Vasilii Zaitsev and Major Konings. Given that this encounter has become part of the Soviet legend of Stalingrad, being retold by Grossman in Life and Fate as well, Popoff’s bypassing of it is perplexing. Evidence suggests that the duel was concocted for propaganda purposes. So Grossman was either a willing party to the deception or merely accepted it at face value and did not ask too many questions. Nor was it the case that Red Army snipers dominated the urban battlefield: German snipers were just as adept.

German sniper in Russia

On the Kursk battle – reported on by Grossman – Popoff perpetuates the Soviet claim that a Soviet pre-emptive artillery strike on 5th July 1943 disrupted German planning and demoralised troops. German records provide no support for this claim. Another myth deals with a pre-emptive Soviet air strike against German fighters and bombers. However, as the Soviet planes headed towards the German airfields, intent on destroying German planes on the ground, the approaching enemy planes were identified on German radar and fighters were immediately deployed to intercept them, shooting down about 120. The upshot was that on the first day of the battle the Luftwaffe enjoyed total air superiority over the battlefield.

The most famous tank engagement of Operation Citadel, possibly of the entire war, took place at Prokhorovka, on 12th July 1943. To quote Popoff:

On July 12 [1943], at the end of the first week of fighting, the Soviet Army (sic) launched a counterattack near the village of Prokhorovka, where over a thousand Soviet and German tanks fought a ferocious eighteen-hour battle. Losses on both sides were enormous. When the German Army retreated, Grossman saw a field covered with burned-out tanks from the Waffen SS panzer divisions with ominous names such as SS Death’s Head, SS Adolf Hitler, and SS Das Reich. The Wehrmacht never recovered from this decisive defeat.[2]

Here, once again, is the thermo-nuclear-resistant myth of the Red Army victory at Prokhorovka, disseminated by the Soviet propaganda apparatus immediately after the battle and subsequently reinforced by Western historians. Alexander Werth, Geoffrey Jukes, John Erickson, Richard Overy, Catherine Merridale and Antony Beevor have all perpetuated the myth of a great Soviet victory over the “fascists”. On 12th July 1943, the Red Army deployed 672 tanks against the two SS divisions, enjoying a clear numerical superiority, the norm on the Eastern front. In the first phase of the attack, more than 400 Red Army tanks attacked Leibstandarte, which disposed of 56 tanks, 10 assault guns and 20 Panzerjäger, in all 86 armoured vehicles. Thus, the attacking Soviet side enjoyed a five-fold superiority. Simultaneously, Das Reich – with 61 tanks, 27 assault guns and 12 Panzerjäger (100 in all) – was attacked by 200 tanks of the Soviet II Guards Tank Corps, a margin of two to one in favour of the Red Army. The outcome of the battle was, in fact, a catastrophe for the Red Army (not the Soviet Army).

German Panzer formation, deploying

On the day of the battle, Pavel Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army lost 235 tanks. German tank losses were a mere 3 (!). When German and Soviet losses were reported to Paul Hausser, commander of II SS Panzer Corps, he was so astounded that he endeavoured to verify the combat returns. The Germans lost a total of 522 men (killed, wounded and missing), the Red Army lost 3,563 men (killed, wounded and missing).[3] A Russian source, cited by the German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser, gives a figure of 500 Red Army tanks and assault guns destroyed. Follow-up reports (16th July 1943) put the figure of Red Army manpower losses at 7,107, with killed and missing rising to 3,597.[4] Grossman – one can assume that by 1943 he knew what a T 34 looked like – could not therefore have seen ‘a field covered with burned-out tanks from the Waffen SS’: he would have seen the shattered remains of Soviet tanks. Popoff’s claim that the Wehrmacht never recovered from this ‘decisive defeat’ is wrong on two counts. To begin with, it was 5th Guards Tank Army that had been torn apart, not the Germans. Additionally, such was the efficiency of German field workshops and recovery teams that on 13th July 1943, one day after the battle in which the two SS divisions were supposedly wiped out, the total number of armoured vehicles now available rose to 190, four more than was available on 12th July 1943.

One factor that led to the massacre of Red Army tanks and men was the presence of a 4.5 metre deep triangular anti-tank ditch, dug on Zhukov’s orders, which formed part of the Soviet defensive preparations. On 11th July 1943, the day before the battle, SS units had captured the ditch and incorporated it into their own defensive system. Attacking Soviet tanks would now have to cross their own ditch in order to close with the German positions. Evidence suggests that the commander of 5th Guards Tank Army was unaware of this anti-tank obstacle (or he ignored its significance). As the first wave of his tanks collapsed in the ditch in front of the SS positions, the tanks following on behind veered off to the left and right to avoid the same fate, so exposing their weaker side armour to German anti-tank fire at close range. In the ensuing confusion, Soviet command and control broke down, and the tanks and the men of 5th Guards Tank Army were massacred. Yet these brutal, verifiable facts of Prokhorovka have not prevented Antony Beevor from making the bizarre claim that Prokhorovka demonstrated that ‘The Red Army had proved once again the dramatic improvement in the professionalism of its commanders, the morale of its soldiers and the effective application of force’.[5] The outcome of this battle flatly reject this assessment. Rotmistrov’s planning and conduct were criminally negligent and incompetent. If ever there was a case for putting a Soviet senior commander up against a wall, this was it. For the German forces, Prokhorovka represented an outstanding victory, confirming the superiority of German doctrine, tanks and the crews that manned them. Ivan was still not as good as his Meister.

In his essay on the Kursk battle, ‘Iiul’ 1943’ (‘July 1943’), referred to by Popoff, Grossman highlights the role of the national minorities in the battle and their supposedly successful integration into the Red Army:

In a quiet period, well before the battle, the commanders carried out major work, going to great lengths to ensure the selection of people for translating combat commands given in Russian into the national languages, and paid the greatest respect and attention to the requirements of Red Army soldiers of non-Russian nationality, religiously observing the magnificent and proud principle of national equality. This work brought its own rewards.[6]

The reality was somewhat different. In a letter home to his family, intercepted by SMERSH (the Soviet counter-intelligence agency formed in April 1943), a Russian soldier complained that the natsmeny – Uzbeks, Kirghiz and Kazakhs – were unreliable.[7] In any case, even if Grossman imagined that he had witnessed ‘the magnificent and proud principle of national equality’, by the end of 1943, Beria’s NKVD, assisted by Red Army units, had resumed the mass deportation of national minorities with a vengeance. Multiethnic solidarity was another Soviet myth, as Jews would discover after 1945.

Another devastating blow to Grossman’s view of Soviet multiethnic solidarity was the Holocaust, especially in Ukraine. That Soviet Jews were in great danger from the German occupation forces and the Einsatzgruppen was clear enough, at least to the Soviet bureaucracy. But when Grossman returned to Ukraine with the Red Amy, there was evidently no shortage of Ukrainians who had willingly collaborated with the Germans in persecuting and killing Jews. Grossman wrote a two-part essay about the disappearance of Jews from Ukraine (‘Ukraine without the Jews’). Part one was published in the Yiddish-language journal, Einigkeit and implicitly raised the theme of collaboration. The second part of the essay was not published.

Babi Yar

‘The Holocaust’, writes Popoff, ‘opened Grossman’s eyes to the violence of totalitarian systems and their murderous ideologies; it became the prism through which he looked at the twentieth century’s calamities’.[8] The fate of Berdichev’s Jews, Babii Iar, the assiduously systematic cleansing of Ukraine and the horrors of Treblinka, certainly prompted Grossman to consider the nature of the National-Socialist state’s genocidal anti-Semitism. But an intellectually honest examination of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism – and Grossman was invariably honest and fearless – also raised questions about the behaviour of the Soviet state, most obviously whether the state-orchestrated demonization and dehumanization of Jews, which ended in genocide, were unique to the NS-regime or whether these processes were fundamental to all totalitarian systems, Soviet, National-Socialist and Maoist.

There are clear signs in For a Just Cause, even in the journal version published in 1952, with additions to the subsequent novel editions, that Grossman was laying the foundations of a detailed examination and comparison of the Soviet and National-Socialist states. In Life and Fate and Everything Flows, the comparison is explicit and the two regimes are both shown to be guilty of genocide. In Everything Flows, Grossman argues that Lenin was the founder of twentieth-century totalitarianism and that the rise of Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany were reactions to the threat posed to the nation state by the Soviet project and its global ambitions. [Editorial note; as also argued by François Furet, in Le passé d’une illusion, 1995]. This challenges not just Soviet historiography and its role in resisting “fascism” (all opposition to the Soviet state was deemed to be a version of fascism) but the contemporary view in both the Russian Federation and in the West that National Socialism was uniquely evil.

In places, Popoff’s reading of Grossman on the Soviet and National-Socialist states is inconsistent. She acknowledges, correctly, that the Soviet regime was guilty of genocide, referring to ‘peasant genocide, and man-made famine’; accuses Stalin of ‘genocides’; states that ‘The Bolsheviks had committed a great crime – peasant genocide’; notes the eye-witness account of ‘peasant genocide during collectivization and Stalin’s Terror Famine’; Stalin’s ‘policy of genocide’; and ‘Stalin’s famine and peasant genocide’.[9] She then claims that in Life and Fate Grossman ‘conflates the Gulag and the Holocaust’.[10] This is misleading. Soviet use of slave labour was certainly on a bigger scale, lasted longer and killed more people but it is not the critical component of Soviet totalitarianism. The essential common denominator was not that both regimes exploited slave labour, which can be a constituent of genocide, but that both regimes sought to exterminate specific groups for ideological reasons; so-called kulaks in the case of the Soviet state (the Holodomor) and Jews in the case of National-Socialist Germany (the Holocaust). In her commentary on Grossman’s war time essay, ‘Dobro sil’nee zla’ (‘Good is stronger than Evil’, 1944), Popoff claims that Nazism was ‘the world’s greatest evil’[11]. Grossman’s analysis of the totalitarian state, in Life and Fate and Everything Flows, suggests that it was not.

Not all Russians consider Stalin a monster. According to Popoff, ‘His [Grossman’s] main argument that both the Nazi and the Soviet totalitarian regimes had committed genocide, war crime (sic), and crimes against humanity is officially denied in Russia’.[12] In 2017, the Russian state celebrated the founding of the Cheka in 1917. What are the chances that the centenary of the publication of Mein Kampf will be celebrated in Germany in 2025? Note, too, the following titles cited by Popoff, that speak for themselves: Stalin the Great, Stalin: Father of a NationThe Great Slandered Leader: Lies and Truth about Stalin, “Stalin’s Repressions” and The XX-Century’s Great Lie. This is just a sample of what is on offer in Moscow’s bookshops.

Even if many Russians dispute the crimes of the Soviet state, Grossman’s message retains profound relevance for the West. In the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist state, the pressure to conform to state ideology was a matter of life and death, certainly before 5th March 1953. Free speech in the West is now under attack like never before. The problem is especially acute in our universities. Administrators in British universities now see free speech as obstacle, not as an institution to be celebrated and defended. Worse still, the hostility to free speech and the pursuit of truth in British universities is overwhelmingly shared by cowardly, docile and corrupt university faculties. These people police and censor the thoughts and utterances of other faculty members and students. This commissar caste will ensure that potential dissenters, if identified, will never be hired, and if they do get past the ideological filtration stage undetected and are subsequently “exposed”, they will be penalised – all hopes of career progression are at an end – and ideally removed (purged).

The way that certain individuals are treated by the police bears a resemblance to the modus operandi of former communist agencies and their National-Socialist counterparts. In a legal decision delivered on 14th February 2020 – by a curious coincidence it was the 14th February 1961 when the KGB seized and arrested the manuscript of Life and Fate in Grossman’s Moscow flat – Mr Justice Julian Knowles referred to how communist regimes dealt with dissenters:

Mr Auburn and Mr Ustych both sought to play down the police’s actions. They said that there had been no interference with the Claimant’s free expression rights or, if there had, it was at a trivial level. In my judgment these submissions impermissibly minimise what occurred and do not properly reflect the value of free speech in a democracy. There was not a shred of evidence that the Claimant was at risk of committing a criminal offence. The effect of the police turning up at his place of work because of his political opinions must not be underestimated. To do so would be to undervalue a cardinal democratic freedom. In this country we have never had a Cheka, a Gestapo or a Stasi. We have never lived in an Orwellian society.[13]

As yet, in England, the Orwellian/Stasi project has not been fully completed; it remains a work in progress. Hopefully, it will eventually be defeated. But meanwhile the dangers to individual freedom (s), set out in horrifying detail by Orwell and Grossman, are obvious.

In Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, we behold a man driven to pursue the truth, a man with a strong sense of inner freedom. I was struck by Popoff’s observation that ‘Although Grossman lived all of his adult life in a totalitarian Soviet state, he had the mentality of a man from the free world’.[14] This conclusion is both inspiring and depressing: inspiring, since in even the darkest and coldest night, a ray of light and warmth is to be found; depressing, since many people in the West have the minds and habits of slaves. In Soviet terms, even though he was a member of the Union of Writers, a very privileged caste – Grossman was an outsider. His outsider status was demonstrably emerging before the war, is evident in For a Just Cause after the war, is fully confirmed in Life and Fate, and achieves its magnificent acme in the freedom essay, Everything Flows.

It may well be that Grossman, in writing For a Just Cause and Life and Fate, was inspired by Tolstoy. But the idea that Grossman was a Soviet Tolstoy – the title of Popoff’s tenth chapter – is grotesque. The author of Life and Fate rebels against everything represented by the word ‘Soviet’. There can be no union here, no truce, no reconciliation. Grossman had to consider political systems that would have been inexplicable to Tolstoy (but not to Dostoevsky). Could the author of War and Peace have ever imagined that in 1915, five years after his death, 1.5 million Armenians would be exterminated on the order of the Turkish authorities; that in 1917, an organisation would be formed, the Cheka, with the express aim of using terror against the population; that in 1930, the new rulers of Russia, unlike the Tsars, would create famine in order to exterminate 6 million Ukrainians deemed to be “enemies of the people”; that the nation of Goethe, now in the hands of a revolutionary nationalist ideology, would exterminate 6 million Jews? This, however, is the nature of the Soviet century, Lenin’s century, and the monstrosities that it spawned.

Anna Politkovskaya, RIP


[1]  Popoff, p.136
[2] Popoff, p.159
[3] Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 8, Zweite Auflage, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, München, 2011, p.133
[4] Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg, Band 8, p. 132 & note 149, p.132
[5] Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, edited and translated, A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, The Harvill Press, London, 2005, p.231
[6] Vasilii Grossman, ‘Iiul’ 1943 goda’, Gody voiny, OGIZ, Moscow, 1946, pp.322-323
[7] Zhadobin, A. T., et al, eds., Ognennaia duga: Kurskaia bitva glazami Lubianki, Moskovskie uchebniki i Kartolitografiia, Moscow, 2003, p.90
[8] Popoff, p.239
[9] Popoff, p.4, p.23, p.242, p.289, p.295 & p.315
[10] Popoff, p. 238
[11] Popoff, p.16
[12] Popoff, p.32
[13]  Harry Miller v. (1) The College of Policing and (2) The Chief Constable of Humberside, [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin).
[14] Popoff, p.5

© Frank Ellis 2020

Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian

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