From tomorrow, 18 September, BBC's Radio 4 starts broadcasting Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate. For schedule, clips and additional information visit the programme page.
Why were the Soviet authorities so afraid of Vassily Grossman’s great novel ‘Life and Fate’?
As the BBC is about to broadcast a week-long radio adaptation of the novel, the dramatic story of the book, confiscated by the KGB, smuggled out to the West and only now slowly getting the recognition it deserves, is being repeated again and again. And the same question is being asked – what was it that was so frightening about the book? The question is asked rhetorically, but seldom gets a seriouis answer.
Here are a few points:
First of all, because it showed that there was hardly any difference, if at all, between the Soviet-style communism and the nazi system in Germany. Both are presented as totalitarian oppressive inhuman regimes. In one scene an 'intellectual' nazi officer talks to a veteran communist, captured at the front and put in a concentration camp. 'When we look each other in the face, he says, we are looking in the mirror. Our victory is your victory'.
Grossman's history of the Great Patriotic War (WWII) is the history of ordinary people fighting for their freedom – not just freedom from the foreign invader, but from their oppressors at home too.
The writer portrayed the commissars – party functionaries at the front and behind the lines as dishonourable, treacherous and cynical lot who were such by the nature of them belonging to the communist party elite. They undermine and betray the best, the honest, the professional, the loyal everywhere they go. Even in a German concentration camp they arrange for a resistance activist to be sent to the gas chamber.
The party censors wouldn’t have liked the portrayal of people of the two main ethnic groups of the USSR, Ukrainians and Russians, collaborating with Germans en masse, taking part in executions and fighting at the front line.
The people who are systematically exterminated by the nazis in occupied territories are Jews, not the supra-ethnic ‘Soviet people’ – another fact which the USSR leadership didn’t like to admit.
Grossman tells of German concentration camps in the same vein as the camps of Gulag, of the KGB/NKVD as the Gestapo.
And of course what frightened them most was how powerful and convincing the book was. It wasn’t slander, it was the truth.
It is scary to see yourself for what you are, not what you tell yourself and others.