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How the Soviet Literary Establishment Censored Vasily Grossman

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The Soviet Jewish writer Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate,” completed in 1960, is an epic story centered on the Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany that marked the turning point in the Second World War. The novel includes many subplots—some civilian, some military, some set in German or Soviet concentration camps. A central and powerfully argued theme is the equivalence of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. This made “Life and Fate” anathema to the Soviet authorities, and the K.G.B. confiscated most copies of the typescript. Eventually, however, a microfilm was smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and, in 1980, the text was finally published, in Switzerland, in the original Russian. In 1986, I translated and published a version in English.

Since that time, “Life and Fate” has been hailed as a major work of art and has been translated into most European languages, and also into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Vietnamese. However, many readers do not realize that Grossman did not intend “Life and Fate” to be a self-contained novel. It is, rather, the second of two closely related novels, originally conceived as two halves of a single work. The story line of “Life and Fate” begins where the previous novel ends, and the characters in the two novels are largely identical. The first novel was published in several different editions in the nineteen-fifties, under the title “For a Just Cause.” Those editions were heavily censored. My wife Elizabeth and I have published a translation of the novel, using Grossman’s original and preferred title, “Stalingrad,” and restored many of the lost passages.

The original publication process of the novel is a case study of Soviet editorial practices and censorship. Grossman worked on the manuscript from 1943 until 1949 and then spent three years battling with his editors. Anticipating difficulties from the beginning, he recorded all relevant official conversations, letters, and meetings in a document titled “Diary of the Journey of the Novel For a Just Cause through Publishing Houses.” In 1949, Grossman was allowed to publish “By the Volga,” a selection of extracts from the military chapters of “Stalingrad.” He had been an acclaimed war correspondent, and it was relatively easy for him to publish material on themes that he had already covered. His difficulties with his editors were over the civilian chapters—and, above all, passages relating to the novel’s central figure, the Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum.

In early 1951, Alexander Fadeyev, the chairman of the Union of Soviet Writers, sent Grossman a number of demands. He was to add new chapters about the heroic work of miners and factory workers in Siberia and the Urals. He was to insert the current official view on the wartime alliance, one that criticized England and America for their reluctance to open a second front against Nazi Germany and for the apparent willingness of Churchill and Roosevelt to leave the Soviet Union to do most of the fighting. And he was to remove the figure of Viktor Shtrum—a demand clearly motivated by official anti-Semitism. Grossman replied, “I agree with everything, except Shtrum.” Alexander Tvardovsky, the chief editor of the literary journal Novy Mir, in which “Stalingrad” was to be serialized, proposed a compromise: Grossman should make Shtrum the student of a world-famous and purely Russian physicist. Grossman agreed to this suggestion and promptly wrote a new character into the novel, Dmitry Chepyzhin.

Fadeyev and Tvardovsky wanted to remove Shtrum because it was a time of extreme Russian chauvinism, and it was unacceptable for the hero of a novel about the Battle of Stalingrad to be anything but a purebred Russian. Grossman, by maneuvering to keep Shtrum, was being far bolder than either of his literary bosses realized. The scholar Tatiana Dettmer has discovered that Shtrum was modelled on a real-life figure: Lev Yakovlevich Shtrum, one of the founders of Soviet nuclear physics. Lev Shtrum was born in 1890 and executed in 1936; like many of the victims of Stalin’s purges, he was accused of Trotskyism. After his death, his books and papers were removed from libraries and he was deleted—with great thoroughness—from the historical record. Grossman bestowed on the central figure of his books the name, the profession, the family, the interests, and even the friends of an “enemy of the people.” Grossman was anything but naïve; he would have known the danger to which he was exposing himself and his novel.

With these changes, “Stalingrad” was serialized in Novy Mir, in 1952, and then republished as a book—first in 1954, and then in 1956. The three editions differ a great deal from one another, and they differ even more from Grossman’s early drafts. There are instances where the omissions (mostly in 1952, before Stalin’s death) and reinsertions (mainly in 1954 or 1956—after Stalin’s death, in 1953) relate to matters of obvious political sensitivity. These involved criticisms of collective farms and mentions of military defeats or of labor camps. More often, however, the differences in the text are less a matter of substance than of tone. Many of the passages omitted in the heavily censored edition, from 1952, are not in any way anti-Soviet. They must simply have been considered too silly or frivolous for a novel about something as important as the Battle of Stalingrad. During the last years of the Stalin regime, only the most dignified of literary styles was acceptable. Soviet soldiers and officials could not be portrayed as behaving childishly or selfishly at a moment of critical military importance.

There were also many other taboos. One of the strongest seems to have been any overt mention of petty crime. In the third edition, from 1956, a young lieutenant’s mess tin is “stolen” (ukrali) when he graduates from military school; in the more heavily edited editions, from 1952 and 1954, it “disappears” (propal). Another surprisingly strong taboo was the mention of insects. There are a great many references to lice, fleas, bedbugs, and cockroaches in the first draft, almost none in the 1952 edition, and only a few in the 1956. One example concerns a particularly slovenly soldier. The first draft reads, “If the company was being examined for lice, no one turned out to have more lice on him.” In the published editions, however, that part of the sentence reads, he “would be the only man on whom lice were discovered.”

A particularly telling instance of censorship occurs in a passage about one of the most appealing characters in the series, the modest but heroic Major Berozkin. Here, the first draft and the 1956 edition are identical. Both read:

He had fought in the summer of 1941 in the forests of western
Belorussia and Ukraine. He had survived the black horror of the war’s
first days; he knew everything and had seen everything. When other men
told stories about the war, this modest major listened with a polite
smile. “Oh, my brothers,” he would think. “I’ve seen things that
cannot be spoken about, that no one will ever write down.”

Now and again, though, he would meet another quiet, shy major like
himself. Recognizing him [ . . . ] as a kindred spirit, he would talk more
freely. “Remember General N.?” he might say. “When his unit was
surrounded, he plodded through a bog in full uniform, wearing all his
medals, and with a goat on a lead. A couple of lieutenants he met
asked, ‘Comrade General, are you following a compass bearing?’ And
what did he answer? ‘A compass? This goat is my compass!’ ”

The general acts courageously. He does not take off his uniform and medals, even though these may attract the attention of German soldiers. And he is resourceful: a sure-footed goat is more likely than a compass to lead him safely out of the bog. Nevertheless, it is undignified for a Soviet general to entrust his life to a goat. And so, in the 1952 and 1954 editions, the final paragraph was omitted. Grossman was able to reinstate this paragraph, in 1956, but there were many passages that he wasn’t able to restore, some of which include examples of his best writing—moments of delicate irony, of slapstick comedy, of subtle psychological understanding, of shockingly vivid observation. And so, in 2019, the battered text of “Stalingrad” finds a home in a new edition. Our hope is that it will reveal the full breadth and emotional generosity of Grossman’s original vision.

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Thanks !

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