Guest Post by idbkiwi
At just four dollars for close-to nine-hundred pages, I admit, it was my innate thrift that sealed the purchase. The blurb on the back cover described my purchase as the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century; it is the best book I have ever read. Ever.
Vasily Grossman died thinking his masterpiece had been written in vain. His book had been arrested; both manuscripts had been seized, all copies and drafts, even the ribbons from his typewriter were confiscated to prevent his subversive words reaching any contemporary audience; so dangerous was it.
What startled the KGB, what led to his book, “Life and Fate“, being arrested and to its author being declared a ‘non-person’, was not the beautifully written and brutally honest character studies, nor the harrowing, intricate descriptions of life and death during the siege of Stalingrad, the attention to factual and obviously lived-through historical detail, the noting of revealing nuances and idiosyncrasies that give his scenes unique character both in charm and in revulsion; No! It was his depiction of how a totalitarian state works on an individual level, how it massages thought while suffocating it, how it reduces people to slaves of common ‘Good (with a capital G)’, how millions can become indifferent to the sufferings of others given sufficient codified moral imperative, and of how it erodes, subtly and irresistibly, three paramount human qualities; those of freedom, uniqueness, and kindness.
Where Grossman sees beauty in uniqueness, socialism and its twin; fascism, see mortal threat. “Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.” We have a right to our peculiarities? No wonder he was vilified.
On fighting the ‘Good’ fight, Grossman reminds us: “At the same time there was the good of the poor and the good of the rich. And the good of the whites, the blacks and the yellow races… More and more goods came into being, corresponding to each sect, race and class… People began to realise how much blood had been spilt in the name of a petty, doubtful good, in the name of the struggle of this petty good against what is belied to be evil. Sometimes the very concept of good became a scourge, a greater evil than the evil itself.”
On the sanctity of freedom: “The State became the master. The national element moved from the realm of form to the realm of content; it became what was most central and essential, turning the socialist element into a mere wrapping, a verbal husk, an empty shell. Thus was made manifest, with tragic clarity, a sacred law of life: Human freedom stands above everything. There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom.”
Constant surveillance, effected not by the machinery of state; but by Grossman’s characters own peers, neighbours, even strangers is a huge part of the stifling oppression of freedom, individuality and free expression under ‘benevolent’ authority in his writing, his living eye-witness accounts. Be wary of all others, and of all conversation, is a constant theme. Only have Good, correct, thoughts. Excellent fighting men, even the best Generals are subject to thought-watch, their decisions analysed, observed and secretly reported back by the ever attendant military-Commissar to be inspected, digested and microscopically re-interpreted by party and state officials; often resulting in corrective necessities—sometimes such as the firing squad.
The self-censorship is all pervasive and the end-effect chilling in the never-diminished slur following an individual’s accusation; factual or fanciful, born whether of envy, malice, or of ‘patriotism’. Should we report him or her? We are not doing our good duty if we don’t. He or she was arrested; they must have done something; surely? Grossman takes us into brutal camps where countless thousands of innocents were interred following accusation, describing the disgusting conditions, the men and their crimes and the paranoid psychological environment that reduced them all to attributing, to guessing, what crimes each other may have been guilty of; If I am innocent, but deemed guilty; how can so-and-so be innocent? So bizarre, so bewildering the atmosphere amongst the thought-criminals that when an actual criminal, an adolescent offender is interred on real charges of subversion, supported by eye-witness evidence, he is considered an oddity; a curiosity, both by other prisoners and officials. The boy was caught spreading a despicable lie; he had “accused the state of persecuting innocent people”.
Encapsulated by Grossman in another work the scene is expanded: “In a hard-labour camp for political prisoners, Ivan Grigoryevich had met an adolescent student named Borya Romashkin, who had been sentenced to ten years in prison because he had actually written leaflets accusing the state of persecuting innocent people, and he had really typed them out on a typewriter, and he himself had actually posted them at night on the walls of apartment buildings in Moscow. Borya had told Ivan Grigoryevich that during the course of his interrogation dozens of officials of the Ministry of State Security, among them several generals, had come to take a look at him. All were interested in this boy who had been arrested for due cause. In the camps Borya was even famous.”
Earlier this month in Wellington, New Zealand some teenage boys were exercising their own proclivities and peculiarities, personally and in private. Comments were exchanged about subjects of which many stupid teenage boys boast, but which very few of the creatures have any proper knowledge of; women and liquor, and the taking advantage of both, much more imagined than real. This thought-crime was recorded by a ‘good’ citizen, publicised outside the context of their privy and relayed to authorities in order to shame the boys, to hold their thought-crime to account. These were just boys, for heaven’s sake, adolescents, talking utter, inglorious, absolutely despicable rubbish. Unfortunately for them their crime fitted a narrative, being boys (one assumes and hopes) they will soon be men; and ‘all men are rapists’.
All men are rapists though very few can be accused using the laws, actual evidence of the thinking process in men’s heads is not easy to come by, if any evidence of men’s thinking exists at all, so, like the huge diamond found in Sierra-Leone, this actual evidence was shown, indeed promoted, to the wider world for all the ‘good’ people, the right-thinkers and Commissars to look into, microscopically examine, interpret and sally forth with comment in self-sanctifying bile. Ridiculed, humiliated, protested against, shouted forth from rooftops; both the boy’s, their school and wider manhood, were castigated and pilloried; in the end the young fellows were declared non-persons and debarred temporarily from associating with the college.
I’m not pretending this farcical soap-opera and the boys’ banishment is the equivalent of the gulag, or the Battle for Stalingrad; that would be ridiculous and grotesque hyperbole. I’m simply stating what Vasily Grossman tried to tell us when he wrote his amazing novel that so frightened the KGB; we have a right to our peculiarity, and to express it, vile as it may be to others, in the context of a private conversation and that while those who brought this subject to attention did so ostensibly for public ‘Good’: “Sometimes the very concept of good became a scourge, a greater evil than the evil itself.”