Leon Aron: The Russian Masterpiece You've Never Heard of

Roundup: Talking About History

[Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of a forthcoming book on the intellectual origins of the Soviet collapse. All translations in this piece are by the author.]

Fifty years ago this past October, Vasily Grossman submitted for publication the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century. The KGB immediately destroyed all copies of what Grossman called Life and Fate (Zhizn' i sud'ba in Russian) except for two hidden by his friends, and he died in 1964 without ever seeing his work published. For more than a quarter-century, the book was unavailable in Russia. Finally, in 1988, it was embraced by the cultural revolutionaries of glasnost as they slashed and burned their way through the official narrative of Soviet history, encrusted with 70 years of lies. In their search for a usable past, something not to be rejected in disgust, not to shudder over, but to cherish and be inspired by, they were awed by the brave and nearly lost attempts of their fathers and mothers to imagine a just and moral political order.

This being Russia, literature was the first and the main resource of the glasnost warriors. They trafficked in great books, some that had waited decades to be read: Andrei Platonov's Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem. Yet even in such august company, Grossman's Life and Fate, serialized in the popular literary magazine Oktyabr, was instantly recognized for its brilliance.

The commentary included with the book's first complete Russian edition in 1989 was titled "The Spirit of Freedom" ("Dukh svobody"). This was a remarkable insight. For Life and Fate continues to overwhelm and wound through its characters' heroic insistence on their freedom to exercise moral choice, even in the hells of Stalingrad, Treblinka, and the Gulag, and among the daily perils and humiliations of life under Stalinism. Most of all, the book is matchless in the artistic power of its affirmation of freedom as the essence of our humanity -- freedom that today, in a Russia run by reincarnated KGB officers, seems far more elusive than when the book was first rediscovered.

Grossman lived the freedom of which he wrote. One is immediately struck by a complete absence of internal censorship in Life and Fate, written by an author in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, some of it when Joseph Stalin was still alive. What one Soviet critic called a "concentration of truth, fearlessness, and inner freedom" was likely without parallel in Soviet Russian literature at the time. In a still totalitarian Soviet Union barely thawed from the paralysis of Stalinist terror, Grossman's book, as another glasnost-era commentator put it, was "the novel of a free man."

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 10/20/2010

Mr. Aron,

I know for a fact that many Russian intellectuals and literary critics would not agree with your unambiguous characterization of V. Grossman's "Life and Fate" as "the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century."
Some of them, e.g., consider M. Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita" as such novel, the others - B. Pasternak's "Dr.Zhivago", yet the others - Nabokov's "The Gift", still others calls M. Sholokhov's "And Quiet Flows the Don" the greatest one...

The 20th century has been very productive for Russian/Soviet writers and rich with great works of fiction, regardless of the partisan affiliation of the artists;
perhaps, not as classic as the ones written by giants of the 19th century, but still full of remarkable originality and unforgettable characters.

I have read all of the listed above novels and more. From literary and artistic point of view, I would
name neither Grossman's, nor Solzhenitsyn's novels, the greatest ones.
Thus, I wonder whether your choice was made with, primarily, politics/ideology in mind.