Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Vasily Grossman

In his Writer's Choice series, Norman Geras has a feature by John Lloyd on the Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, whose great novel Zhizn' i Sud'ba (Life and Fate) caused mortal offence to Communist Party ideologist Mikhail Suslov:
Suslov, the Politburo member in charge of ideology, is reported as having said it could not be published for 200 years. However, it was smuggled out on microfilm to the west by Vladimir Voinovich, and published, first in France in 1980, then in English in 1985 - just as Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and another thaw began.

Why the 200 year ban? Because Life and Fate commits what was still, in a 'liberal' environment, the unthinkable sin of arguing for the moral equivalence of Nazism and Soviet communism. In a central chapter, a senior SS officer, Obersturmbahnführer Liss, and an old Bolshevik officer, Mikhail Moskovskoy, speak in the former's office in the prison camp in which Moskovskoy is held. Liss treats him kindly, and calls him 'teacher'. And he tells him that they serve the same - philosophic - master. 'Lenin', says Liss, 'considered himself a builder of internationalism while in actual fact he was creating the great nationalism of the 20th century... and we learned many things from Stalin. To build socialism in one country, one must destroy the peasants' freedom to sow what they like and sell what they like. Stalin didn't shilly-shally - he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews. But Hitler's no mere student: he's a genius in his own right... you must believe me. You've kept silent while I've been talking, but I know that I'm like a mirror for you - a surgical mirror.'
For a little more about Grossman and the political context in which he lived and worked, see this post.

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