I saw the unflinching force of the idea of public good, born in my country. I saw it first in the universal collectivization. I saw it in [the purges of] 1937. I saw how, in the name of an ideal as beautiful and humane as that of Christianity, people were annihilated. I have seen villages dying of starvation; I have seen peasant children dying in Siberian snow; I have seen trains carrying to Siberia hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow and Leningrad, from all the cities of Russia — men and women declared enemies of the great and bright idea of public good. This idea was beautiful and great, and it has mercilessly killed some, disfigured the lives of others; it has torn wives from husbands and children from fathers.
Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.
- Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, translation by Robert Chandler (New York Review Books), pages 406-7, 410.
While the Soviet characters fight against Fascist enemies, Grossman juxtaposes both governments’ ability to restrict or take away an individual’s freedom. Grossman’s indictment wasn’t limited to direct restrictions imposed on man but included the perversion of man’s spirit. Ideologies or movements will always meet resistance, according to Grossman, when they attempt to crush “what is human in human beings” and he provides many moving examples of those struggles. He also shows people losing some of those struggles—after all, weakness is part of what makes us human, too.
Grossman celebrates the Soviet victory in Stalingrad unironically as a triumph of freedom over oppression. Yet he foreshadows later Soviet crackdowns on freedom in his appraisal of communism's similarities with fascism. The bottom line for Grossman lies in our humanity and our ability to flourish under freedom, without which we experience spiritual entropy.
Highest recommendation—as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it is a difficult book and not just for its length or number of characters. The subject matter can be dark, but Grossman’s constant emphasis on hope buoys the book and the reader.
Links for Grossman and Life and Fate
More on fate and life
How was this possible?
“Good day, comrade Shtrum”
BBC4 Radio dramatization
Pictures of St. Petersburg: Now and Then