The Europe of Vasily Grossman, the founder of a second tradition of comparison, was one in which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were at war. Grossman, a fiction writer who became a Soviet war correspondent, saw many of the important battles on the eastern front, and evidence of all of the major German (and Soviet) crimes. Like Arendt, he tried to understand the German mass murder of the Jews in the east in universal terms. For him this meant, at first, not a critique of modernity as such but a condemnation of fascism and Germany. Just as Arendt published her Origins of Totalitarianism, Grossman was liberated from this political framework by the personal experience of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. He then broke the taboos of a century, placing the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes on the same pages, in the same scenes, in two novels whose reputations only grow with time. Grossman meant not to unify the two systems analytically within a single sociological scheme (such as Arendt’s totalitarianism) but rather to relieve them of their own ideological accounts of themselves, and thereby lift the veil on their common inhumanity. …
As one of Grossman’s characters exclaims, the key to both National Socialism and Stalinism was their ability to deprive groups of human beings of their right to be regarded as human. … From Arendt and Grossman together, then, come two simple ideas. First, a legitimate comparison of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union must not only explain the crimes but also embrace the humanity of all concerned by them, including the victims, perpetrators, bystanders, and leaders. Second, a legitimate comparison must begin with life rather than death. Death is not a solution, but only a subject. It must be a source of sidquiest, never of satisfaction. It must not, above all, supply the rounding rhetorical flourish that brings a story to a defined end. Since life gives meaning to death, rather than the other way around, the important question is not: what political, intellectual, literary, or psychological closure can be drawn from the fact of mass killing? Closure is a false harmony, a siren song masquerading as a swan song.
The important question is: how could (how can) so many human lives be brought to a violent end?
- from Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, (Basic Books, 2010), pages 386-7.
While I had heard of Vasily Grossman's books, I really wanted to delve into his work after reading Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands. The BBC's radio dramatization of Life and Fate determined which book I wanted to read first. Despite the book's size, I plan only a few post about Life and Fate, so I'll start with some links about Grossman and the book.
There are plenty of posts and links regarding Grossman and Life and Fate but I want to highlight a few that look interesting. I'll include links specific to the BBC adaptation in a post on their podcasts.
First up is Sarah J. Young's post dedicated to Grossman. Judging by what I see in the post, I'm sure some of our links will overlap.
Leon Aron's extended article in Foreign Policy looks at Grossman and Life and Fate. For an overview of Aron's essay, Soctt Horton has a summary article at Harper's Magazine.
Robert Chandler's introduction (“Speaking for Those Who Lie in the Earth”, The Life and Work of Vasily Grossman) in the New York Review of Books edition. A good introduction to Grossman and this book. (Note: in the table of contents there is a "List of Chief Characters" which is extremely helpful in understanding characters straight.)
For another article on Grossman by Chandler, see After Life and Fate: Vasily Grossman’s last stories.
Translator Robert Chandler reflects on translating Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate
Sam Sacks' essay at The Quarterly Conversation: "Life is Freedom: The Art of Vasily Grossman".
John Lanchester at the London Review of Books
Martin Kettle at The Guardian
The transcript of Fate, Life, and Freedom in Vasily Grossman, a tribute to the author held at Columbia University last year. (Link isn't working for some reason--copy and paste http://www.crossroadsculturalcenter.org/storage/transcripts/2010-04-19-Life%20and%20Fate.pdf)
Update (10 October 2011):
Study Center for Vasily Grossman
The summary for A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, translated and edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova.