Telling the truth about genocide and totalitarian terror

A central question in the past year or so in Understanding Society is how historians and philosophers should confront the evils of the twentieth century. It seems clear that studying these processes fully and honestly is a key part of the answer, both for scholars and for ordinary citizens. We need to confront the truth about ugly facts about our history. In his documentary article “Treblinka as Hell” Vasily Grossman tries to express why it is important to speak honestly about the facts of mass murder and genocide.

It is the duty of a writer to tell the truth however gruelling, and the duty of the reader to learn the truth. To turn aside, or to close one’s eyes to the truth is to insult the memory of the dead. The person who does not learn the whole truth will never understand what kind of enemy, what sort of monster, our great Red Army is waging battle against to the death. (399)

But telling the truth about acts of genocide, atrocities, and state crimes is not easy. This is partly true for reasons of psychology and identity — as LaCapra has argued, the horrors of the Holocaust are locations of trauma, and trauma is difficult to confront (link). But there is a more material barrier to truth-telling when it comes to genocide and state repression: the states and groups that commit or collaborate in these atrocities are very interested in preventing knowledge of their crimes to become public. And they are generally very willing to use coercion, violence, and massive deception against those who attempt to learn the truth and make it public. Truth-telling, therefore, can be career-ending or life-ending.

This situation was especially acute during the years of Soviet dictatorship in the USSR and its dependent states in Eastern Europe, and most pointedly for writers. Anyone who lived in these countries in the 1930s through the 1980s knew a great deal about the facts of dictatorship, arbitrary arrest, state lies, and the prison camps in the Gulag. But writing openly and honestly about these facts — or even whispering about them to trusted friends — could lead to arrest and imprisonment or death. So how could gifted and principled authors deal with this contradiction during Soviet times? 

A substantial number of writers during the Soviet era became willing accomplices in the ideology, propaganda, and crimes of Stalinism (and the Leninist regime that preceded). But some did not. And many who did not, did not survive the purges of 1938 and later years. 

There were a few noteworthy exceptions — writers who maintained a degree of independence and honesty, but whom good fortune permitted to survive. Consider for example Mikhail Sholokhov, a highly prominent writer from the Cossack region of the Ukraine whose Don novels became among the most popular fiction throughout the period; who became a close confidant of Stalin; and yet who persisted in expressing the suffering of the peasants of the Ukraine (his neighbors) during the 1930s collectivization and the war of starvation that Stalin waged against them. Sholokhov maintained a degree of independence and integrity, even as he navigated censorship and the NKVD. (Brian Boeck’s biography of Sholokhov, Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov, is an excellent source on Sholokhov’s life and writing. Sholokhov won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965.) Sholokhov was not entirely admirable — he is accused of sharing the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist period more generally (including sometimes his comments about Vasily Grossman). And he never wrote or spoke publicly against the genocide of the Jews during World War II, the mass exterminations that occurred across the Ukraine, or the resurgence of Soviet anti-Semitism following the end of the war. For example, his 1943 short story about Nazis at war, “The Science of Hatred,” does not mention atrocities against the Jews and other innocent people; link. But he was willing to speak some of the truth of the failures and criminality of Soviet persecution of the peasants of the Ukraine — and that was a considerable political risk. 

But consider another singular and important case in point: the life and writings of Vasily Grossman (link). (Alexandra Popoff’s biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is an excellent treatment of his life and work.) Grossman was born as a Jew in the Ukraine in 1905 (the same year as Sholokhov), and in early adulthood he became a writer. He gained a degree in chemistry and worked for several years in a coal mine and a factory. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 he attempted to volunteer for military service, but was rejected for health reasons. He was accepted as a war journalist, and he traveled with the Red Army through its most desperate fighting, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad. His journalism from the front was among the most highly respected in the Soviet Union. It was honest, penetrating, and very sensitive to the conditions of life for the average Soviet soldier in combat. 

Grossman was personally aware of the program of extermination that the invading German army was waging in the western territories of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and the Baltic countries through his active combat experience with the Red Army. Grossman’s mother had remained in their home city, Berdichev, and in 1941 the Jews of Berdichev were rounded up and massacred. Here is Grossman’s account from about 1944 about the massacre of Berdichev (link), included in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry. In a period of only two days over 20,000 Jewish children, women, and men were killed by gunfire, rifle butt, and brutal beatings — including Grossman’s mother. (Estimates range from 20,000 to 38,536 Jewish victims during the summer of 1941.) The Communist Party and the Stalinist government of the USSR were unwilling to provide an honest account of the campaign of murder and extermination against the Jews of Eastern Europe during 1941 and subsequent years, and Grossman’s directness and honesty in his journalism and in Life and Fate are exceptional. As noted in the earlier post, Grossman was the first journalist to provide extensive details about the workings of any Nazi death camp, as a result of his arrival at the site of Treblinka with the Soviet 62nd Army in 1944. His essay, “Ukraine without Jews,” is an enormously important contribution to the effort to understand the true significance of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. Grossman’s experience in the Ukraine before the war and with the Red Army gave him a dramatic view of the crimes committed by the Soviet state. He witnessed the forced collectivization of agriculture and campaign of starvation in the Ukraine in the early 1930s, the crushing terror of the late 1930s, and the creation of the Gulag in the 1940s. He thus witnessed the massive totalitarian atrocities committed by Stalin’s apparatus in the name of communism and the total power of the Communist Party, resulting in the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens and hundreds of thousands of writers, engineers, functionaries, and other “enemies of the people”.

During his years as a war correspondent Grossman continued to have great respect and admiration for ordinary Red Army soldiers, but the command staff and political officers soon became contemptible to him.

Grossman wrote two important novels based on his experience at Stalingrad. Both were massively long — well over 1,000 pages. The first, Stalingrad, was published in the USSR under the title For a Just Cause in 1943 but was quickly withdrawn from the public by Soviet censors. The second, a masterpiece of world literature, was Life and Fate, and had a much more grim view of the Soviet state and of Stalinism. In 1961 the manuscript was seized (“arrested”) and Grossman was told that it could not be published for 250 years. He was expelled from the Writers Union — his primary source of income — and his health began to decline. He wrote several other novels, but died of stomach cancer in 1964 at the age of 59.

There were several themes which drew Grossman into conflict with the Stalinist censors, and with Stalin himself. First was the fact that Grossman understood very well that Hitler’s genocidal plans of extermination were directed primarily against the Jews of Europe — not random victims of war. But the Soviet party line was to refrain completely from “separating” Jewish victims from other “Soviet citizens” who died at the hands of the Nazis. This was an ideological principle, but it also derived from resurgent anti-Semitism in the USSR as well. This accounts for the Soviet, and later Ukrainian, refusal to place a memorial at Babi Yar in honor of the tens of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children killed there in 1941.

Second, Grossman wrote honestly about ordinary workers and soldiers, including their shortcomings. He was not primarily interested in making heroes of coal miners or infantrymen, and was very explicit about alcohol and other forms of “anti-socialist behavior” among workers. The censors, in contrast, wanted to see novels and stories in which workers were portrayed heroically.

The third line of conflict had to do with the totalitarian and murderous grip of Soviet rule itself. Grossman was especially aware of the massive harms created by Stalin’s decimation of the Red Army officer corps through purges before the war and his pig-headed interference with military strategy in the conduct of the war, leading to several million unnecessary casualties and prisoners of war. Grossman was revolted at the behavior and abuses of the state and its functionaries during the conduct of World War II, and he found ways of expressing these views in his writings — most clearly in Life and Fate. Grossman was a critic of Stalinism before it was either fashionable or safe to do so. Here is a passage from Life and Fate on the Gulag and the political prisons:

In other times, before the war, Krimov often walked past the Lubyanka at night and wondered what was happening behind the windows of that sleepless building. Those arrested were locked up in prison for eight months, a year, a year and a half, while the investigation was ongoing. Then his relatives received letters from the fields, they discovered new names: Komi, Salekhard. Norilsk, Kotlas, Magadan, Vorkutá, Kolymá, Kuznetsk, Krasnoyarsk, Karaganda, Nagayevo Bay … But thousands of people who were imprisoned in the inner Lubyanka prison disappeared forever. The prosecution informed the relatives that they had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence”, but there were no such sentences in the camps. Ten years without the right to correspond almost certainly meant that they had been shot. (853)

Consider finally the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago exposed in great detail the horrendous crimes and scope of suffering created by Stalin’s reign of terror through secret police and prison camps. Born in 1918 near Stavropol in the North Caucasus, Solzhenitsyn’s experience of the Soviet Union came a decade or more later than that of Grossman and Sholokhov. He served in the Red Army as an artillery captain, and was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1945 for critical comments about Stalin that he had included in a private letter to a friend. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years of labor in the Gulag. He was cleared of charges in 1956. 

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag is a massive documentation of the experience of life in a labor camp in the extreme north, the tundra and the forest, of the USSR. It begins with the arrest and progresses through the many hardships and deprivations created for the prisoners by the state. The aftermath of the arrest:

For those left behind after the arrest there is the long tail end of a wrecked and devastated life. And the attempts to go and deliver food parcels. But from all the windows the answer comes in barking voices: “Nobody here by that name!” “Never heard of him!” Yes, and in the worst days in Leningrad it took five days of standing in crowded lines just to get to that window. And it may be only after half a year or a year that the arrested person responds at all. Or else the answer is tossed out: “Deprived of the right to correspond.” And that means once and for all. “No right to correspondence”—and that almost for certain means: “Has been shot.”

And the helpless desire that it might have been possible to resist:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?… The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If…if…We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…. We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (Gulag Archipelago)

Telling the truth — as Grossman and Solzhenitsyn did remarkably well throughout their careers, and Sholokhov did in a partial way — is enormously hard in a totalitarian society. When the state is willing to send its critics to deadly labor camps, or to shoot them out of hand, it is virtually impossible to imagine many writers striving to tell the truths that they know. And in any case, since the state controls the means of publication, the critical writer cannot publish his or her work in any case. During the Soviet period, many writers wrote “for the desk drawer” — manuscripts that could only be published in the distant future. And, knowing the likelihood of hidden manuscripts, the NKVD was very careful in its searches of the apartments of suspected critics and its other victims; correspondence, files, and unpublished manuscripts were routinely burned. In the somewhat less repressive period of post-Stalinist USSR there was a period of Samizdat (self-publishing) — writings that were distributed as typescripts, hand-written documents, mimeographed documents, and eventually photocopies. Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was published as Samizdat to a limited readership. But truthful description, diagnosis, and criticism — these forms of expression were almost entirely impossible within the Stalinist regime. And yet it is impossible for a society to repair its most dehumanizing features if it is impossible to speak openly about those crimes.

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