Tragedies of War | The Enduring Relevance of Vasily Grossman

Tragedies of War | The Enduring Relevance of Vasily Grossman

Professor Brad Evans writes on our witnessing of war and violence in the digital age, and why Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate continues to provide a powerful analysis on the tragedies and complexities of war.

“Suddenly the sun rose – like a burst of hope. The dark autumn water mirrored the sky; it began to breathe and the sun seemed to cry out in the waves. The steep banks had been salted by the night’s frost and the red-brown trees looked very gay. The wind rose, the mist vanished and the world grew cool and glass-like, piercingly transparent. There was no warmth in the sun, nor in the blue sky and water. The earth was vast: even the vast forest had both a beginning and an end, but the earth just stretched on for ever . . . And grief was something equally vast, equally eternal.” – Vasily Grossman – Life & Fate

Every war is a tragedy. Its cast often fated to live out on worldly stages the destructive dreams conjured by the powerful. To write of the theatre of war, then, is to write of those who are recruited into a spectacle of horror. Like theatre, it is to attend to the triangulation between perpetrators, victims, and witnesses, all set within a crucible that wages its own battle between the forces of certainty and humanistic doubt. But while attention rightly tends to focus on the two main lead roles, we can often overlook the active role witnesses play in the forsaken act of slaughter. Witnesses are never impartial bystanders. They too are openly recruited into the spectacle, sometimes desiring the violence, other times turning away from what is understandably seen as intolerable. 

A defining characteristic of this age is how we are all forced witness to violent events. The current war raging in Ukraine, reminds us of this more than ever, as “real-time” images and narratives of the horror are being instantaneously beamed into the palm of our hands. The world has never felt so divided, yet incredibly small in the very same moment. Neither has it been so filled with unequivocal claims to know the “truths of war”, despite the fact that we are meant to live in times of complexity. 

Now more than a month into this horrendous war, much has been revealed by witnessing the distanced yet digitally connected witnesses. Or should I say, what has been revealed is just how predictable so much of contemporary politics has become. While those who self-identify with a right-winged conservativism have taken such joy at the prospect of total war, they have pushed the unspeakable idea of nuclear violence onto the broadcast agendas of terrestrial platforms, those who self-identify with the far left have been equally predictable in their stating of the “obvious” Twitter founded truths. The lengths some on the left have gone to avoid simply acknowledging that young white men can also be victims of war (and have been in the millions) is quite an extraordinary site to behold.   

But are we really surprised? Both positions are marked by characteristically performed readings, which appear all too predictable and present nothing more than a rehearsed orthodox. Which is to say, not very radical or original at all! 

Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945

As a critic of violence, I still believe in the idea of radicalism. And I still hold true to Walter Benjamin’s insistence that the most formidable challenge we face is to develop a critique of violence adequate to our times. But I certainly don’t believe such a critique to be obvious, let alone an opportunity to reaffirm what was felt all along to be correct about the one true cause of injustice in the world. Nor do I believe it can any longer be located (as if it ever could) on superficial surfaced levelled distinctions between right and left, which invoke highly subjective progressive vs reactive distinctions. 

A viable critique of violence must tilt this axis, to ask deeper questions about war, violence, and the human condition. It needs to ask more searching questions of us all, especially our roles in the witnessing of violence. 

Having delivered a lecture a few weeks ago about the need rethink our witnessing to violence, I was asked which book I would recommend in terms of making sense of the current predicament. I had no hesitation in my response: “Vasily Grossman’s Life & Fate”. Grossman’s epic tome is to my mind the most complete and compelling book every written on the tragedy of war and its lasting effects. A literary classic perhaps only matched in recent times by Mathias Enard’s devastatingly brilliant Zone, it is precisely a book that tilts the axis to have us all falling into the depths of humanity.  

Grossman was born in Eastern Ukraine in 1905, which was then part of the Russian Empire. His very first job was to work as a safety inspector in a pit in the Donbass region, before writing his first novel that focused on the miners. Titled Gluck Auf, which translated into “look up” was the phrase the workers said to each other when arriving back at the light of day. Having subsequently lived in Moscow, he began working as a reporter during World War II spending over 1000 days on the front line. While his reporting on Stalingrad was widely acclaimed in their depictions of the lived realities of the devastation (and would in the process inform another extraordinary book), Grossman was also the very first to report on the horrors of the concentration camp (at Treblinka), with his writings used as part of the official prosecuting evidence in the trials held at Nuremberg.   

Grossman has since been rightfully recognised as one of the compelling authors from the region, sitting alongside Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekov. His Life & Fate also has the unwanted accolade of being one of two books literally “arrested” by the KGB. The other was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. Had Joseph Stalin lived longer, its likely Grossman would have been executed. Grossman would later write a letter in 1961 to then Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, pleading for “freedom for my book”. The author sadly died a few years later without his plea being attended, tragically before its first publication in 1980 with the manuscript having been smuggled into Switzerland.   

Not without coincidence, the enduring relevance of Grossman was duly recognised in a recent article published in the Financial Times. Noting how the author forces us to confront the “ruthless truths of war”, as John Thornill writes, ‘As a proud son of Ukraine, steeped in Russian culture, Grossman was both a chronicler of the Soviet Union’s greatest victories and a clear-eyed investigator of some of its darkest crimes’. Furthermore, as Thornill reminds, there can be no doubting his providence as a witness, having grown up ‘in an era of murderous upheaval, living through the Russian revolution, the civil war, the Stalinist purges, the second World War and the Nazi Holocaust’.  

Life & Fate is set against the backdrop of World War II. Written in a non-judgmental and yet deeply humanising way, it provides a stern reminder of the need for basic human recognition in our deliberations. There is so much to be said about this book. I will not however provide an elaborate overview of the plot here; for I believe that is for the readership to discover. What I am more interested in are the lessons we can learn from the book as testimony on violence. Grossman does not provide us with “simple”, “obvious” or well-rehearsed “truths” about war. As with life, war is complex, and as such, it demands an appreciation that only comes with the passage of time. You cannot understand the depths of importance to a book like Life & Fate from a small review. It takes its time. Or to echo some words from its: “Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don’t even know it”.

The book also offers a searingly brutal insight into how a revolutionary movement ends up eating its own, especially those who have the audacity to speak truth to its consuming power. But such truth for Grossman is not of an ideological kind, led into battle by armies of the good. “I don’t believe in your “Good”, Grossman reminds, “I believe in human kindness”. As images of war fill every media platform today, how quickly the very complexities Grossman was determined to have us think about as we try to salvage something of the human out of the wreckage of war, has given way to immediate soundbites and memes, throwaway words and forgotten lines, which fill the air with a hyper-moralised digital noise that couldn’t be further away from the authorship demands that plagued Grossman. 

The message Grossman leaves us with is clear: be wary of those who continually speak in the name of the good and be more attentive to how violence opens the deepest of wounds, which demands all too human reflection. Indeed, the tragic beauty of Life & Fate is to show how our humble uniqueness as individuals can work against those who would condemn a life through claims of political and moral certitude. It is a testimony to the power of imperfection and the search for a deeper truth to existence marked by time. But it is also an optimistic call against those forces that would claim to annihilate us. As Grossman wrote in the article The Hell of Treblinka, while “the beast that triumphantly kills the man remains the beast”, we can take some comfort from the realisation that “the man being killed by the beast retains to his last breath his strength of spirit, clarity of thought, and passionate love”.

Of course, I am acutely aware not everybody has the luxury of setting aside the time to read the 800 plus pages of Grossman’s magnificent tome. Hence, for those who therefore want a sense of his witnessing, I could do no better than point to Aleksandr Askoldov’s movie adaptation Commissar, which is taken from Grossman’s first acclaimed piece of writing, “In the Town of Berdichev”. Filmed in Ukraine, the film was also banned by the KGB following its production in 1967. Askoldov was summarily expelled from the communist party and labelled a “social parasite” by the State. It would take until 1988 before the film (which the director was told had been destroyed) was released. This would be the same year that Life & Fate was also finally released for publication in Russia. 

Telling the tale of a pregnant Red Army commissioner (Klavdia Vavilova) during the Russian Civil War (1918-22), the film plots her move into the domestic setting of a poor Jewish family who are tasked with looking after her through to childbirth. The brilliance of the film is to show in a style that brings back some memories of the truly unrivalled Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, the ways revolution quickly turns into a search for traitors; how everyday people can see through the lies of ideology and progress from all sides; the ways children learn to mimic violence through also being witness to its effects; the prophetic vision of a coming catastrophe for Jewish peoples; along with how those who claim to have the eye to properly see the trajectory of history end up destroying those very qualities that make us human: namely, the capacity to love, the ability to laugh at the tragedy of life, the power of believing in small acts of kindness, and the ability to find joy in existence. 

There are two scenes in particular that really stand out in Askoldov’s cinematic score. The first concerns a game played by the family’s young, which results in a brutal stripping of the elder girl, her binding and near fatal sacrifice. Confronting such intolerable scenes is something Grossman wants us to consider. “There is power” he wrote, “which can resurrect huge cities from the ashes, but no power in the world capable of lifting the light eyelashes over the eyes of a dead child”. The second is Klavdia’s premonition of a Jewish funeral, whose procession is looked down upon by gaunt men in striped pyjamas, which invokes evident comparisons with the Nazi concentration camps and the fated memory to come that would be the Holocaust. From cradle to grave and beyond, Askoldov reminds us in his adaptive testimony, Grossman wanted to ask about the violence we all embody and ritualistically perform. And combined, they both serve as a warning against those who believing history is on their side, wish to destroy life and obliterate free and creative expression.   

We censor at our peril, Grossman would advise, for those who prohibit the past already have their eye on controlling the future. And the chances are it will be just as violent and oppressive as what came previously, especially if it is unwilling to abide the complexities, contradictions, conflicts, and doubts of the human condition. In the still resonant words of Life & Fate: “The more they talked and argued, the less they understood each other. In the end they fell silent, full of mutual contempt and hatred. And in this silence of the dumb and these speeches of the blind, in this medley of people bound together by the same grief, terror and hope, in this hatred and lack of understanding between men who spoke the same tongue, you could see much of the tragedy of the twentieth century”.


Brad Evans is a Professor of Political Violence at the department of Politics, Languages & International Studies at the University of Bath – his New York Times series on violence can be found here.