Tuesday 16 February 2010

Grand Inquisitor

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office of Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, who told him that the book could not be published for another two or three hundred years, an act of extreme censorship coupled with a paradoxical recognition of its lasting importance.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.


  1. liss sounded pretty freaking insane. im pretty sure that he was tripping on something smokey and wild. but then, it could be that i can't grasp it. i think the main difference between hitler and the Soviet Union at that point was the head of germany's socialist front had lost his rockers. so though you could try to compare them. the main difference would tell you that the soviets weren't as crazy as the germans at that point. they were dumping people into the trucks to take em to concentration camps. they were not conduction genocide operations in the name of eugenics and pure race and all that crap. they belived every one was equal and followed that thread of idea in a violent manner. though as terrifying as stalin's revolution may have been. we can not deny the fact that hitler and stalin did it for entirely different reasons. in that case you can compare hitler to mao or any other present day communist country's founder, or even democratic country's founder. cause almost in every single case. a sense of governance has always been installed after a great deal of mindless violence .

  2. You must look into Soviet history, into the Great Purges, that phase known as the Yezhovchina. It was crazy as it gets. Before that there was the forced collectivization in which millions died or were transported.

    I don't like making these comparisons but the Stalin regime killed even more people than that of Hitler, and most of those people were Soviet citizens. Did you know that Stalin's last purge, the one he was contemplating just before his death, took a specific anti-Jewish focus? Indeed it did.

  3. Must confess, I don't get it. I thought Hitler hated communism. He even believed that communism was a Jewish ploy, possibly because a lot of the leaders and media support for communism came from Jews. It is true both used similar brutal tactics, and in the end both Stalin and Hitler become power hungry dictators- but they had or at least started with different ideologies: completely at odds with each other.
    When you say he was the bastard child of Lenin, I am confused. Do you mean to say that he became who he was because of communism, i.e. as as an opposition to communism. There are people today, well I saw a youtube video, that claim Hitler saved the world from communism, as if it weren't for his National Socialism Germany would have become communist as well, and the German military strength combined with the Russians would have been unstoppable.

  4. As children often hate their parents, especially bastard children.

    There is a lot of confusion over this issue, OC, but Communism, Fascism and Nazism are all essentially from the same stable, all collectivists and statist ideologies, ideologies of the left, not of the right. Hitler may have condemned communism, but he followed its practice in point of political detail. Whatever their starting points were Hitler and Stalin, who could happily do deals together, ended up in almost the same terminus. At the end of his life Stalin was planning a purge, one with strong anti-Semitic overtones.

    Please also read Remembering Stalin, posted here on 21 February. Ironically Hitler was the one man that Stalin trusted. By bastard child of Lenin I mean that Fascism and National Socialism would have been inconceivable in his absence. As Grossman says, it was he who created the first state nationalism of the twentieth century. Mussolini and Hitler merely followed in his steps.

    I would not pay too much attention to You tubers, OC- too many weirdoes! Hitler did not save the world from communism; he brought communism right into the heart of Europe. If it had not been for America and NATO, communism would have spread into Western Europe also, all thanks to Hitler.