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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

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The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

April 23, 2018 Leave a comment

For the last few years I’ve been reading twentieth century Russian authors, my favourite being Mikhail Bulgakov, so it was only natural that I’d make it to Vasily Grossman and his epic Life and Fate eventually. Grossman published stories and a few novels under the Soviet regime, but became increasingly upset by the atrocities he saw during WWII. Present at the Battle of Stalingrad, Grossman was one of the first outsiders to see the hell the Nazis had created in their extermination camps, doubly or triply confronting for him as he was Jewish himself and his mother had been murdered by the Nazis. He wrote about this in “The Hell of Treblinka”, which was used in the Nuremberg Trials to prosecute the perpetrators of those foul acts.

The first of Grossman’s books I read also happened to be his last, written shortly before he died of cancer in 1964. This is a wry, meditative piece suffused with acute observations of ordinary people and ruminations on life and death. It’s a great introduction to Grossman, a taster before you tackle the main courses in the same way that A Country Doctor’s Notebook is an excellent place to start with Bulgakov before you attempt The Master and Margarita. One chapter is an amazing piece on Grossman’s sense that he was about to die that night – he was only out by a few months.

The Road is a collection of short stories and essays, including “The Hell of Treblinka”. Perhaps not as endearing as An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s nevertheless a good introduction to Grossman and his thoughts.

Life and Fate is Grossman’s opus, supposedly the Soviet War and Peace. At 850+ pages, it’s a daunting but rewarding read. Disjointed and unruly in places owing to the fact that Grossman was never permitted to publish it during his lifetime (his book having been “arrested”), Life and Fate follows a large cast of characters, many of whom are related to each other by birth or marriage, in and around Stalingrad at the time of the German invasion and subsequent eviction. What stands out here is Grossman’s simple, decent humanism, profoundly in opposition to the heartless barbarities of the Soviet state. It’s a document on the history of a time and place, and also a reluctant critique and denunciation of Socialism. Grossman was a Soviet man in a way that Bulgakov never was, but his faith in the regime couldn’t survive the many atrocities he witnessed. The purges of 1937, the callous disregard for human life in defence of the homeland and the increasing Antisemitism of the Soviet state put paid to that. The chapters on the Nazi extermination camps are the best I’ve read aside from Elie Wiesel’s Night.

A book I haven’t got to yet is Everything Flows, written after Life and Fate but also denied publication. Other than An Armenian Sketchbook, it’s Grossman’s last book.

Another book I’m yet to read but eager to get my teeth into is A Writer at War, a collection of Grossman’s writings during the war. I’m curious as to what degree of overlap there is between this and The Road. I’ve also heard that a number of the events in Life and Fate are based on real events described here.

And finally there’s The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman, a biography by John and Carol Garrand. Ordinarily, when approaching a writer of this stature, I like to read a biography early on, but it looks like in Grossman’s case I may come to the biography last.

So, in summary, Vasily Grossman is simply one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and crucial to any understanding of the Soviet State. Go read him.