Four-eyed, commie Jews from the USSR

January 20, 2011

  Vassily Grossman

Two writers, two Jews, two intellectuals with glasses thrown into the midst of unspeakable horror and violence – but such different writers!

I have heard of Isaac Babel for years, but never knew anything about him.  He was always associated in my mind with Jewish literature – but then why is he also linked with the Soviet political elite and its destruction in the Great Purges of the 1930s? 

Nadezhda Mandelshtam talks about him in her overwhelming memoir, Hope Against Hope.  Her husband, Osip, considered to be one of the great poets of Russian in the 20th century, despite his small output (he died in the Gulag) regarded people with power as dangerous individuals to be avoided as you would a live power line.  He asked Babel why was he so fascinated by violence; why did he socialize with high-level members of the security organs, the ‘distributors of death?’  Did he want to rub his fingers in their bloody mayhem?  “No,” Babel replied, “I just want to sniff it, to see how it smells.”   He got his wish.  He was arrested on ridiculous charges of counter-revolution and shot in the usual prison basement.

I have been reading Babel’s stories, Red Cavalry.  They tell of the fighting in the Russian-Polish War of 1920, when both the new Republic and the USSR were fighting to extend their borders.  He is the narrator, or is spoken for by one, who travels with a Cossack fighting unit.  They make fun of his education, deriding his eyeglasses.   Like a teenage boy desperately wanting to fit in with some tough guys, he tries to win their approval even if it means acting brutally to an old peasant woman and scaring her into making him a fine dinner.  The stories are short, filled with cruelty, and quite starkly beautiful at times – clearly the work of a serious artist.  The cossacks are portrayed with an intensity that seems to me almost homoerotic, though Lionel Trilling, in a 1955 essay from the appendix, is quick to dismiss that notion.   When Babel describes the gigantic figure of a Cossack with knee-high boots that caress his legs like clinging young girls, what is one to think?  A four-eyed Jew riding with Cossacks [often the agent of Tsarist or popular violent repression of Jews] – how ironic can you get?

The stories are fascinating and disturbing.  Babel seems to worship the Cossacks the way some weak-minded intellectuals worship “men of action,” the type of intellectual who got misty-eyed about generalissimo Stalin or Adolf Hitler.  But…he’s clever, not simple, so he pulls back from that brink:  but it makes for queasy reading.   

Vassily Grossman, on the other hand, also an enthusiastic revolutionary, at least to begin with, is an enormous contrast.  His works are filled with a profound sense of the tragedy of violence.  He shows it, but he is never intrigued, seduced, or mesmerized by it.  Puzzled by the mystery of human evil and cruelty, but not drawn to it.  He writes of small instances of love that seem to redeem the world in the midst of misery.  (I am reading the new publication by NYRB of stories and nonfiction in The Road.)  He writes of the Sistine Madonna by Raphael, and how it evokes in his mind the story of Christ, the love of mothers for their doomed sons,  and the suffering of the Russian peasant.  And he writes, an historical first, an analysis of the Nazi death camps that he visited.

Grossman was known by many as lucky Grossman.  A grenade landed at his feet, but failed to explode.  As a front-line war correspondent, he had many such lucky escapes.  Perhaps his greatest was evading Stalin’s purge of Jews after WWII:  he was on the list most likely, but Stalin died before the thugs brought him in. 

I was reminded of another four-eyed Jew, no artist, no intellectual, while reading Babel’s stories:  David Brooks.  Specifically, I thought of this column (discussed in this earlier post of mine) in which he goes to mush over the declarations of ‘muscular Christianity’ by a bigoted evangelical. 

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I’ve heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. . .

Stott is so embracing it’s always a bit of a shock – especially if you’re a Jew like me – when you come across something on which he will not compromise. [Such as, that Jews are damned to hell, I wonder?] It’s like being in “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” except he has a backbone of steel. He does not accept homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle, and of course he believes in evangelizing among non believers. He is pro-life and pro-death penalty, even though he is not a political conservative on most issues.

Brooks loves that “spine of steel,” that unwillingness, or is it inability? to compromise.  He loves the black and white nature of the view.  And he even loves the tribalism, the with us or against us attitude.  I guess Isaac Babel found it shocking how Cossacks looked at Jews like him too, and then fell in love with them when he got close enough to sniff…

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Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.


Telephone, for Comarade Shtrum…

May 25, 2008

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.


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…


Life and Fate

May 18, 2008

I feel comfortable calling this novel, Life and Fate, one of the greatest ever – certainly of all I’ve read.  For years, I had heard of this book, and finally I am reading it.  All 850 pages of it.  It is a monument to the disaster of the twentieth century, the century of mass murder, totalitarian rule, and ideological dementia.

That’s Vassily Grossman up there, the loyal communist who served as a war correspondent on the front lines with the Soviet Army and who wrote the first journalistic accounts – he was an eyewitness – of the liberation of the Nazi death camps.  He must have seen too much, learned too much.  His novel was written in secret, published outside of the USSR – he was hounded, his typwriter and its RIBBONS confiscated.  He died not knowing if his work would see the light of day.  When he wrote this book, he had come to believe that Nazism and Stalin’s Communism were different only in name – not an idea that you could hold comfortably if you were living in Russia.

He wrote of Stalingrad – the mind boggling six month battle that broke the German war machine and sent them reeling back to Berlin.  (Here in the USA, we think of D-Day as the “mother of all battles,” but on the eastern front, they had a D-Day practically every week.)  He wrote of the civilians on their way to the gas chambers.  He wrote of decent men and women trying to serve their country and rid it of the Nazi murderers, but having to always look over their shoulder in case the NKVD was listening in on them.  That joke you told…that song you were singing..was it in the Bolshevik spirit?  You say you held off thirty German attacks here?  Then why haven’t you filed your reports?  Are you taking care to inculcate the proper class-spirit with your men?… He wrote of intellectuals trying to deal with the horror of the purges of the 1930s and of the Ukranian famine – all directed by the Supremo, Comarade Stalin.  He wrote of the Gulag.  And he wrote of the disease of anti-semitism, in Germany and in the USSR.

The title of the book echoes Tolstoy’s War and Peace for obvious reasons.  Recently, I gave up reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I read twice many years ago.  That book, similarly ambitious in scope, seems like a trivial joke next to Grossman’s work.  The same for Vollman’s Europe Central.  Grossman uses no clever tricks, no post-modern jive, no meta-ironies…none of that.  He has a style though.  He knows exactly what he is doing:  hitting you over the head with a gigantic brick so you will know a little bit of what he saw.