Vasily Grossman: How ordinary kindness defeats the devilish tyrant

Vasily Grossman: How ordinary kindness defeats the devilish tyrant

It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is the reader’s civic duty to learn this truth. To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished. - Vasily  Grossman  (1905–1964), Russian War correspondent/Novelist.

There is a triangulation of truth, the evil of the mundane and kindness of the ordinary in a totalitarian regime where power is concentrated into one person with abstract idea of benevolent (malevolent) state. The evil flourishes and the ordinary is suppressed perpetually. At least the last years of the Russian writer Vasily Grossman said so because he died a lonely man with his book arrested by the Soviet regime.

But why does a powerful totalitarian regime fear a writer? Because the writer says those words which the totalitarian regime doesn’t want to hear. The very words which puncture the aura of that regime. Once the idea is out, this can’t be put back in the bottle. It can’t be reversed.

And what if the regime had the literary roots? 

There is a famous saying that the Soviet Regime was established by freelance writers and editors. So, the autocracy in Russia made the relation between the regime and literature very interesting. Out of this relationship, bloomed the writing of Vasily Grossman which is relevant in case of Russia even after more than 50 years.

The persecution of Jews has been a blue book for the totalitarian regimes all over the world. The persecutors see it as a ‘101 ideas to persecute a community’ whereas any victim community can surmise what would happen to them if there is a political upheaval. Often this relation between regime and communities is hidden under big words such as liberation, utopia, nationalism, socialism etc thus changing the color of the truth with definitive words. The memory of the public gets colored with these colorful words and the truth is hidden beneath layers of colored emotions. Vasily Grossman was talking about this truth. The truth which he could see during his time of World War II and which is still relevant during ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.The truth for which his novel Life and Fate was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet regime.The truth which was hidden in his novel Stalingrad which was published during Soviet regime. The truth which is not the historical milestones set up by a war but which lies in the ordinariness of human lives.

Reading of history seems to obliterate the daily mundane lives of ordinary people which is almost 99% of civilization and it appears that the whole civilization is being taken care of by 1% which is politics. During the Stalin’s regime, the idea of Soviet was carrying a special meaning which came to a halt with the disintegration of Soviet in early 90’s and yet again it has risen from ashes during Putin’s regime albeit with a different meaning. Reading Grossman unearths the horrors beyond the simplistic headlines which we read about the war between two nations- Russia and Ukraine. The fact that Grossman was not an outsider of the Soviet system but he was a quintessential Soviet makes his dissident novel Life and Fate more interesting. Being a privileged insider and attacking the system is far more complex than that of a dissident outsider. One doesn’t have the glory of a martyr also apart from the freedom to speak.

The real danger we see through the novels of Grossman that anybody can be turned into a perpetrator with right amount of ideology and convincing. Initially, the Russians are bearing the wrath of Hitler. Later, a few Russians in the novel are happy that Jews are being massacred by the Nazis. And post that mayhem, the Russian army starts annihilating Jews.

And then, a few years later, in our own world, we see that the Jews of Israel are persecuting the Muslims of Palestine. And then we see that Muslims of Pakistan are persecuting the minority Ahmadiya Muslims.

In these complex times, the writings of Grossman have found a glory in the 21st century.

The Life of Grossman

Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in a Jewish Ukraininan family, received his education under Soviet regime, was a chemical scientist, worked in mines and saw working class life, became a writer and he had seen the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the Stalinist purges, first world war, second world war, Nazi Holocaust, the famine in Ukraine and the Russian occupation of Ukraine and thus worst of both worlds- Nazism and Stalinism.

After working as a chemical scientist in a coal mine, Grossman became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Red Star starting from 1939 to 1945, almost during the period of Hitler’s wave all over the world and Second World War. Before that he had written a few short stories and novels and was a published writer. He became famous during his war reporting in 1942 in the Battle of Stalingrad which was fought between Nazi forces and the Stalin’s Russia. The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the most famous battles of the world and much revered in Russia. He wrote over a thousand articles about Nazi occupation, Stalin’s Gulag and Concentration camps. He was one the early reporters who wrote about Nazi concentration camps and extermination of Jews.

More than that, Grossman’s mother was also killed in this war along with other Jews. The war which was imposed on Ukraine by Nazi and Soviet armies. Ukraine was the playground and Ukrainians were footballs for both the armies, specially the Jews. This is where all the conflict arose in Grossman’s writings.

Because he carried multiple identities- Jew, Ukrainian origin, steeped in Russian culture, working class, privileged position as a novelist in Soviet Russia, son, husband, ex-husband, war correspondent and a dissident writer of war fiction at last which derived his writings from first hand accounts, his own.

The shared history of Russia and Ukraine

A war is fought on specific places i.e. borders and towns. This is why often the wars are named after places such as Battle of Stalingrad. It is the ramifications of these wars which spread to the other places and people who are not directly connected with it but they have to lay their lives at the bugle of war which makes it complex. Otherwise, the issue between two nations could have been solved by a football match.

There is a shared history between Ukraine and Russia. Ukraine used to be a part of the great Russian Empire but there was a feeling of independence in Ukrainian hearts. The feeling was present in other identities also which were part of the Empire. However, there was a Jew population also in Ukraine which was one of the largest Jew population in the world. That population used to bear the brunt of the anger of Ukrainian and Russian forces since a long time, mere on the suspicion of being a traitor. Because out of frustration, it is the easiest to label a community as a traitor to hide one’s own insecurities. The Jews were persecuted in any political upheaval which occurred in Soviet Russia. Be it the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, first Russian Revolution in 1905, the Stalinist purges, the Famine. It reached its peak during the World War II when Nazi and Russian armies wrecked the Jew identity. Still it can’t be said that it was a constant phenomena because the fact that Jews are still there in Ukraine states that there is cohabitation of multiple identities in daily lives. People want that and are comfortable with that.

The world is made up of such identities. There is no clear identity of a nation, it is not possible. There is no RussifiedUkranian or UkranianisedRussian, they are simply people, human beings. It is almost like a Punjabi family of pre independence India, the family which used to speak Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi. After the division, where would they belong to if one were to judge by language and culture?

After Nazis created mayhem in Ukraine, the Ukrainians were eagerly waiting for Stalin’s forces to enter there and liberate them, which actually happened. But what followed was a repetition of Nazi cruelty. So, the actual war in Russia-Ukraine was against multiple identities. Many people used to die at many fronts, not chosen by them. This was a war imposed on civilians by a Totalitarian regime.

Totalitarian means that Stalin was the state and he worked for the needs of the state i.e. for himself. The citizens of Russia were working for the state i.e. for Stalin. So, Stalin was not working for the needs of the people but his own needs. The state and the citizens were not complementary to each other rather it was working on the whims of Stalin.

Sadly, Ukraine is under war at present that too at the hands of a Russian leader- Putin. Stalin had given almost the same reasons of occupying Ukraine which Putin is giving at present. Putin has made impassioned speeches about the necessity of war, listening which the uninitiated might surmise that Putin is liberating Ukraine from the clutches of Nazis yet again after Stalin’s adventure. Both the totalitarian leaders used the bugle of Nationalism to occupy Ukraine. In early phases of the war this year, Putin used the ‘NATOfication’ of Ukraine as a provocation tool.

It is ironical that Putin has now taken ‘vow’ to deNazify Ukraine but the Ukrainian President Zelensky himself is a Jew. Who is being a Nazi here? The attack of Russia on Ukraine is similar to the hypothetical attack of Uttar Pradesh on Bihar to liberate people who speak Hindi.

It’s like Pakistan was liberating East Pakistan from Bengali speaking people and the Pakistani army carried out extreme tragedies. It may not be entirely the same but the parallels may be drawn out. Or moreover, the way USA liberated Iraq from the ‘clutches’ of Saddam Hussain.

The successive attacks on identities is like Tsunami followed the earthquake which is inevitable by geographical rules. This is what war is about. The liberator brings its own set of chaos which is different from the earlier ones only in the announcement before the war. Post announcement both follow the same pattern. It speaks the age old dictum- Never trust the man who has a gun. 

This is what the Jew President of Ukraine VolodymyrZelensky says about the soldiers of Russian army who are fighting the war for more than a year- They do not know anything about our history but they have orders to erase our history, our country and us all.

In another speech he had said that the brotherhood between Russians and Urkrainins resembles that between Cain and Abel, the Biblical brothers. This is what the shared identity is about in terms of violence.

The Literature of Grossman

As a war correspondent, Vasily Grossman wrote searing reports depicting the horror carried out by Nazi forces. His report The Hell of Treblinka was quoted at the Nuremberg trail of Nazis. But the main contribution of Grossman, the novelist, is that he finds a chain among all tragedies staring from the famine, Nazi occupation to Stalin’s purges. He explains through his novels that the Soviet people have been pitted against each other despite shared history and identity.

Fiction has a strange capability to draw parallels, to connect the deranged souls of people through emotions. Grossman does the same by drawing parallels between Nazism and Stalinism.

Grossman himself was troubled because he wasn’t a Ukrainian nationalist or a Russian nationalist- he was a humanist, a man of multiple identities. He loved Ukraine, he loved Russia and he loved people. He felt pain for Russia during the Russian army. He used the phrase ‘slavish Russian soul’ out of this pain. He understood Ukraine, Russia, the identity crisis of Ukrainians, the imposed crisis on Jews, the conflicted loyalties of people living in Ukraine and Russia and the deep rooted Biblical hatred of people for each other which can be seen only in the private moments and the kindness of ordinary people which can be seen with empathic eyes.

He was at warfront and he was with ordinary people also. From the borders Grossman wrote- ‘’There is power, which can resurrect huge cities from the ashes, but no power in the world is capable of lifting the light eyelashes over the eyes of a dead child.’’ He wrote this after seeing a 6 year old child dead under an iron beam.

He further wrote from the front of ordinary lives- There has been no time crueler than ours yet we did not allow what is human in man to perish.

But his writings raised the question on the nationalistic surge of Stalin. One couldn’t question the Stalin and the liberator army at Stalingrad. There shouldn’t be an iota of surprise in saying that Grossman is not valued in Russia today. Because Putin has declared Stalin as some sort of epic hero. Tolstoy is still valued in some corners but not Grossman because he threatens the false gods created by images. But today he is castigated as a Ukrainian agent. At many places, Jews also castigate him as a coward because he wrote a novel Stalingrad which is full of nationalistic surge during Stalin’s regime at the Battle of Stalingrad.


It is a page turner novel- thrilling, riveting and full of bravado- collective over individual. The earlier name of this novel was For a Just Cause. It was published in 1952 one year before Stalin’s death whereas his most famous novel Life and Fate was published around 1985, two decades after the death of Grossman.

Interestingly, the novel Stalingrad represents the writing of a writer under supervision of authority. The Shaposhnikov family of Life and Fate is enjoying lavish life in Stalingrad. It’s not a bad book but it lacks the complex juxtaposition of multiple identities which have been described in Life and Fate. Stalingrad celebrates one of the greatest wars ever fought in human history- the battle of Stalingrad. 

The novel is full of poetic emotions- the rich people staying in Stalingrad despite attacks, officers eating meals alone while war is going on, soldiers in melancholy but fighting with national consciousness.

Grossman has eulogized the famous call for war of Stalin- Not a step back. Grossman wrote that soldiers fought with their highest moral power. In reality, many left the battleground only to be killed as deserters. This is what has been seen during Putin’s attack on Ukraine- desertion by soldiers. The ordinary life rejects war.

This is why the novel Stalingrad was slated for a big literary prize of Russia. But in his next novel, Life and Fate, Grossman changed everything. The manuscript of the novel was arrested and one communist officer threatened Grossman that this novel won’t be published for another 200 years. However, the copy of manuscript was smuggled from Russia and two decades after the death of Grossman it was published and celebrated worldwide.

Life and Fate

The Life and Fate carries many of the characters of Stalingrad but this time Grossman has described the complexities of lives. He has drawn parallels between Nazism and Stalinism. He unearths the ugly side of ideologies and the Utopian state which becomes Totalitarian eventually.

The pretty and rich Shaposhnikov family of Stalingrad suffers in this novel from both the ideologies. At one place, a Nazi officer interrogates a Bolshevik Russian. The officer says that both of them are working for a dictator, there is no difference between the two ideologies.

The novel describes the totalitarian horror at every place. It shows how the human vulnerabilities of officers were replaced by bravado, the common sense was replaced by cliches and false pride. But the real philosophy of the novel appears through a marginal character- Ikonnikov. He is a mentally disturbed character who keeps writing on scraps of paper. 

At one place he says-

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good.

Amidst all the mayhem, the cruelty, the horror, Grossman puts forward his own philosophy through Ikonnikov. He says at another place-

The private kindness of one individual towards another, a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind.

One important thing to notice is that powerlessness of people seems to have brought kindness. It is not the powerful but the powerless talk about the importance of kindness. It raises a question as to whether the powerful protect the world or the powerless people do so. This is where, we realize that Life and Fate has acquired the magnanimity of War and Peace.

Everything Flows

Grossman wrote a third novel Everything Flows after Live and Fate was banned from publishing. This novel remained unfinished and was published in 1972 after his death. In this novel, he described the famine which was inflicted on Ukraine after Stalin’s policies in 1932-33. Almost 4 million Ukrainians died after this Stalin’s experiment.

The novel Everything Flows depicts the horrors of the collective agrarian policy of Stalin which inflicted the disaster of the disasters on the Ukrainians. Ivan Grigoryevich is released after 30 years in Soviet camps and tries to find a place in the world for himself. He is one of the thousands such people. During that famine period, the officers used to raid the homes of the rich (kulaks) if they found smoke coming out of the food chimneys of the kitchens. It was a war against ‘rich’, rich as understood by simplistic understanding of petty bureaucrats.

Later one character of Grossman says-

I’m no longer under a spell, I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings. They're not human beings, they’re kulak trash”—that's what I heard again and again, that’s what everyone kept repeating.

When we read all the three novels, we come to realize the deep connection between all of them and the life of Grossman himself. The author, his writing, the people, their lives are all intertwined. Grossman’s mother is alive in his novels, his family friend- a nuclear scientist executed by Stalin’s regime is alive in his novels, the Jews, the ordinary Russians are alive in his novels.

The death of his mother has reflected in his writings. He himself was there, around the area where his mother was killed by Nazis. There was a longing, a guilt in his writing. Initially, he was playing safe, pouring all his literary skills to have a cosy comfortable life- but later he couldn’t stop the force of creative writing- it forced him to write the truth. It shows what writing could do. He was not a rebel, he was not an open dissenter- but writing made him so. When one values words, values literature- it becomes more powerful than your creed, belief or your religion or any political ideology. You realize that what you are writing is the ultimate truth which you will not bargain for anything in life.

The life Grossman lived as a young man, as an engineer, as a correspondent, as a son, as a husband, as an ex husband- it all came in his three novels and it still remains relevant to understand the complexity of Russia and Ukraine. What a writer can do, is evident from the writings of Grossman. What novels can do, is evident from these novels. It puts forth the truth in front of us through the stories of emotions. It is up to the reader to choose.

At the end of the novel Life and Fate, the hero Schtrum pledges in the memory of his mother, a jew, killed by Nazis: 

Everything in the world is nothing compared to the truth and purity of one little man — not the empire, spread from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, not science.… Every day, every hour, year after year, one must fight for one’s right to be human, kind and pure.… And if black times bring an hour without hope, man should not be afraid of death if he wants to remain human.

The fate of the tyrant state through the novels of Grossman

Grossman clarifies through his characters that the tyrant state is incongruous with the citizens. A tyrant builds what the state needs- the warcraft, tanks, missiles. The public doesn’t need this. When the war is over, the public is made to feel obliged for this- in the name of defense of the state.

When the state starts behaving like a separate living being, it becomes devilish. It starts emoting and it can get happy, elated, sad, offended, angry and most importantly vengeful. Though the public will never be able to identify it because it’s still an abstract concept. But in operation, it is a system- a living being, omnipresent, omniscient yet unidentifiable. To act as a living being without having a body, the tyrant state has to manufacture lies because only then people will believe it.

In that case, it fears the most- truth. Because Hence, it fears the writers and books because only a writer spreads the truth by his own writing. And once the truth has been spoken, it can’t be undone, it can’t be unseen, it can’t be unfriended, it can’t be unfollowed, it can’t be blocked. 

What will happen after the tyrant state wins the war? It will again perpetuate the pattern by fabricating more lies. Because it is pursuing a mirage, a narcissistic image of itself through the peddlers of nationalism.

The real tragedy comes after the demise of the tyrant. He leaves behind himself a well oiled system of repression which can be used by anyone desirous of power. Thus there is a dynasty of tyrants which are connected at operating level thought not connected genetically.

But Grossman believed that ordinary kindness of ordinary people is the basis of humanity. And, interestingly, out of this kindness, internet has born and so has a global community which is connected through ideas on internet. And more than 50 years later, Grossman’s books are widely read all over the world, through physical copies and also through multiple free pdfs on internet. Thus, ordinary kindness has defeated the devil. And the Grossman has won. So will win the other writers in different spaces and times. Truth can’t be suppressed.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author. The Mooknayak is not responsible for the accuracy, integrity, practicability, and completeness of any information contained in this article. All the information in this article has been presented as it is. None of the information or facts or views expressed in this article are those of The Mooknayak, and The Mooknayak is not responsible for them in any way.

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