Tuesday, 16 February 2010
I’m reading Life and Fate at present, a remarkable book by a remarkable man, Vasily Grossman, best know as a journalist of genius, who reported from the Russian side during the Second World War. I’m only half way through the novel, his magnum opus, so I’m not offering this as a review. Rather I want to draw attention to one particular chapter, half way through the book, a chapter that I have not long just finished reading. I’m just so full of excitement that I simply have to say something.
First, a word or two about the novel and its own fate. During the Battle of Stalingrad Grossman was reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. After the war he wrote Life and Fate, whose title invites a comparison with that great Russian novel. For once the comparison is fully justified, as Grossman, in a huge panorama, creates War and Peace for the twentieth century.
As a novel it is also intensely honest, making no allowances for the ideological shibboleths of his day, so honest that the book was ‘arrested’, yes, arrested by the KGB in the early 1960s. Grossman was subsequently summoned to the office of Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, who told him that the book could not be published for another two or three hundred years, an act of extreme censorship coupled with a paradoxical recognition of its lasting importance. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript was smuggled out to the West, where it was published and hailed as a work of genius.
Now let me give you a taste of why it could never have been published in the old Soviet Union. You will find it in Chapter Fourteen of Book Two, a passage that I now think of as the ‘Grand Inquisitor Chapter’, drawing from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In this Mikhail Mostovsky, an old Bolshevik, incarcerated in a German concentration camp, is taken to be interrogated by a senior Gestapo officer named Liss. Mostovsky is ready to be tortured; has prepared himself mentally for torture. Yes, he is tortured alright, just not in the way he imagined. Liss, you see, greets him, greets the Bolsheviks as pathfinders and teachers, as the first National Socialists of the twentieth century;
‘Do you understand me?’ Liss repeated, already too excited even to see Mostovsky. ‘When we strike a blow against your army, it’s ourselves that we hit. Our tanks didn’t only break through your defences- they broke through our own defences at the same time. The tracks of our tanks are crushing German National Socialism. It’s terrible- it’s like committing suicide in one’s sleep…We’re your deadly enemies. Yes, yes…But our victory will be your victory. Do you understand? And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory. It’s paradoxical: through losing the war we shall win the war- and continue our development in a different form.
Mostovsky is in hell, but not the hell he expected. This devil does not torture; he chips away at long cherished illusions. At once he recognises a terrible truth: the practice of communism in Russia, a system built on lies and terror, is in no essential different from the practice of Nazism. To defeat Liss in this game of mental chess he would have to renounce everything: the camps, the Lubyanka the whole apparatus of the secret police, an organisation that spawned a monster like Nikolai Yezhov. More than that he would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship, have to condemn Lenin himself, the very edge of the abyss. For Lenin, as Liss asserts, while considering himself to be the builder of internationalism while in fact he was creating the great nationalism of the twentieth century.
It’s true, it’s all true; without Lenin there would have been no Mussolini and no Hitler. They are his bastard children, and fascism as much his creature as communism. If one does not grasp this simple truth one simply cannot understand the history of the last century, from the October Revolution to the collapse of the Berlin Wall.