Telephone, for Comarade Shtrum…

One reviewer feels that the phone call in Life and Fate that I described in my previous post is one of “the most electrifying moments in 20th century literature.” I agree!

After Stalin calls and turns his world upside down, he learns what it is like to be stroked by a hand with unlimited power, as Grossman puts it. Life is good…for a while. Then the piper must be paid.

Victor is asked to sign a letter about a former teacher of his, an innocent man who has been arrested. The British and Americans are making a fuss, saying it is unjust, trying to form a committee to save him. He must, as a loyal Soviet citizen, sign this letter telling them to bugger off – it’s all nonsense! Those westerners are playing right into the hands of the Fascists!

Victor knows his teacher is innocent, but if he doesn’t sign, then what? His security, his job, the approbation of his peers – all will disappear soon enough. This request won’t be the last, it’s only the first, and it alone is enough to make him feel utterly worthless as a human being…because he does sign it.

He tried to wiggle out of it: “What do I know of such matters?” “Please – I’m just a physicist, can I just do my work?” “Surely there are details of which I am not aware, but he was a wonderful teacher…” No – just sign. You wouldn’t want to help the Fascist Fifth Columns, would you?

This roller coaster ride of Victor’s – from despair and fear, to the giddy good fortune of being the pet scientist of the State, to the utter self-abasement of signing this letter – does have a positive conclusion. Victor resolves not to do such a thing again, and not to congratulate himself on not doing so either. He knows too well now how easily one can slide into cooperation. He wants to keep that humiliating knowledge close to his heart, to remind him, to keep himself human.

2 Responses to Telephone, for Comarade Shtrum…

  1. The one fact about Grossman’s point of view is that it is totally Soviet. It is not informed at all about one of the main factual sources for development of the Soviet nuclear program. Scientists and technicians working on the American Manhattan Project provided considerable documents and drawings about the US bomb program that were invaluable in speeding up the Soviet scientific and industrial programs to build their own nuclear weaponry.

  2. lichanos says:

    Well, maybe… He was writing a novel, not a documentary work. I don’t know the details of how important the espionage was for the USSR’s bomb efforts, and perhaps Grossman didn’t either, but it doesn’t detract from his book.

    He changes facts too, sometimes. Most significantly, the anti-semitic movement that is an important factor in Victor’s circle and that culminated in the Doctors’ Plot affair, actually didn’t begin until some years after the war. Grossman has his own reasons for collapsing the chronology.

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