Should Wars Always Take Us by Surprise?

As Albert Camus aptly observes in the novel The Plague, “There have been as many plagues as wars in history; yet, always wars and plagues take people equally by surprise.” On February 24, 2022, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine came unexpectedly for most. We had known about Putin’s brutal war in Chechnya, his invasion of Georgia, his bombings of Syrian infrastructure, and of his long hybrid war in Ukraine. Why weren’t we paying attention?

In fact, information about Putin’s imperial ambitions and wars of conquest has been around for two decades. Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent investigative journalist who reported extensively on the war in Chechnya, warned us of Putin’s dream to restore the Soviet empire and of Russia’s relapse into authoritarianism. In her book Putin’s Russia, published in London in 2004, she wrote that Putin’s regime dismisses the value of human life: “In Russia holding on to power is more important than saving soldiers’ lives…” She also reported on brutality and incompetence in the Russian army “where beating the hell out of someone is the basic method of training.” Putin’s war in Ukraine is a mirror image of his war in Chechnya, and Politkovskaya’s writings shed light on the many developments that surprise us today. Thus, two decades ago, Russia’s brainwashed majority did not condemn the war Chechnya, which Putin presented as a war on terrorism; society went along with state propaganda and felt no need to protest. Politkovskaya writes, “Our society ignored what was really going on in Chechnya, the fact that the bombing was not of terrorist camps but of cities and villages, and that hundreds of innocent people were being killed.” Putin’s propagandists peddle “a completely fake reality,” she explained. For the same reason, most Russians today do not denounce the war in Ukraine.

Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow on October 7, 2006; her murder, timed to coincide with Putin’s 54th birthday, sent a message to all journalists that honest reporting would not be tolerated. In her book A Russian Diary, released posthumously in 2007, Politkovskaya chronicled the country’s transformation into a lawless state run by the Kremlin mafia. Introducing this book, journalist Jon Snow asked rhetorically, “How did it happen that our leaders so steadfastly ignored what they knew Putin was up to? Was it the hunger for gas?” In fact, Western politicians turned a blind eye to the war in Chechnya, which helped Putin consolidate personal power.

The current war in Ukraine was both preventable and predicted: the conflict at the heart of Europe was slowly burning for eight years. Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and hybrid war in Ukraine’s east came as a direct response to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. In February 2014 Ukrainians overthrew the Kremlin’s puppet government, choosing a path towards democracy and the union with Western European nations.

Putin’s nemesis, the liberal politician Boris Nemtsov who had denounced Russia’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, was assassinated on February 27, 2015. Russia’s former first deputy prime minister, Nemtsov was an outspoken critic of Putin’s regime and was preparing a report on the hybrid war in Ukraine, which he called a crime with no statute of limitations. In one of his interviews he accused Putin of waging this war with a single goal “to maintain power at any cost.” Hours after Nemtsov’s final interview to Echo Moscow radio station, in which he demanded “an immediate end to the war with Ukraine” he was shot dead near the Kremlin walls. In this last interview he described Putin’s war policy as “insane, aggressive, and deadly” for Russia and Ukraine alike.

Politkovskaya’s and Nemtsov’s grasp of political reality took years to fully appreciate. Both were marginalized during their lives, but left influential legacies. As Philip Short writes in his recent biography Putin, “Nemtsov acquired a symbolic importance after his death which was disproportionate to his role before he died.” Having mentioned this biography, I should also say that Short absolves Putin of any involvement in Nemtsov’s murder: “Putin had no conceivable reason for wanting Nemtsov killed.” This mammoth 1,082-page biography gives Putin undeserved credit, portraying him, at the start, as a liberal-minded politician, even “a Westernizer.” Putin’s transformation into a hardliner is said to have been conditioned by the strongmen from the KGB, military, and enforcement agencies (whom Putin himself brought to power), as well as America’s foreign policy and NATO’s enlargement. I believe Putin would not disagree with this account.

I found Garry Kasparov’s 2015 book Winter Is Coming (the title echoes Politkovskaya’s words about Russia’s “political winter”) more thought-provoking than Short’s biography. A former World Chess Champion and political activist, Kasparov perceives “two stories behind the current crisis. The first is how Russia moved so quickly from celebrating the end of Communism to electing a KGB officer and then to invading its neighbors. The second is how the free world helped this to happen, through a combination of apathy, ignorance, and misplaced goodwill.” Kasparov had accurately predicted that Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his war in Eastern Ukraine “will only stoke his appetite for more conquests.” Like Politkovskaya before him, he had identified Putin’s “dangerous turn to ethnically based imperialism.” Years before Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Kasparov alerted us to the threat: “Those who say the Ukraine conflict is far away and unlikely to lead to global instability miss the clear warning Putin has given us.” Western politicians took too long to read Putin’s character and intentions. Europe’s dependency on Russian oil and gas may explain their continual appeasement and overlooking of Putin’s corruption and brutal wars.

So, should wars always take us by surprise or can we learn to read early signs? We live in a nuclear age and the outcome of the war in Ukraine concerns all of us. The damage from actions of a single dictator, like Putin, can be far greater than climate change.


Of Historical Memory and Forgetting

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting Milan Kundera recalls a comment by the Czech historian Milan Hübl that “the first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.”

It was with this intention––to make people forget their country’s history––that on December 28, 2021, Russia’s Supreme Court ordered the liquidation of Memorial International. Formed in 1989 during Gorbachev’s glasnost by the physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, it was the oldest human rights organization working to uncover the truth about the Soviet past and to commemorate millions of victims of Stalin’s terror.

During its three decades of existence Memorial collected archival information to establish museums and monuments to the gulag victims. The Russian state and its powerful bureaucracy worked against them by prohibiting archival access and hindering efforts to remember.

Despite such hindrance Memorial and its volunteers amassed millions of names in its database and published memory books. I worked at the library of Memorial International in Moscow while researching Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century. This library is stacked with memory volumes, produced by every region of Russia and the former Soviet republics––Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. The books containing names and brief information about the repressed fill an entire reading room. This is where I first fathomed the scale of Soviet repressions.

In 1996 Putin declared that “Russia’s return to totalitarian past is possible.” Upon becoming president in 2000, he worked to recreate the Soviet Union and Stalin’s image as a great leader. Since then Memorial had been continuously harassed and finally branded a “foreign agent,” a ubiquitous term in Putin’s Russia, used against members of the political opposition, NGOs, independent media, and historians and meant to put their activities outside the law. The pretext for shutting down Memorial was its alleged failure to display the “foreign agent” label on some of its materials. The real charge brought up during the December hearings by the Prosecutor General’s representatives was that Memorial was “creating a falsified image of the USSR as a terrorist state.”

Russian authorities still refuse to recognize the obvious fact that throughout seventy years of its existence the USSR WAS A TERRORIST STATE. (Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror and The Harvest of Sorrow, and Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine provide plentiful evidence.) Nations tend to embellish their pasts, but in Russia a coherent Soviet history has never existed. There is always a newer version crafted to suit a current leader.

Totalitarian states prohibit thinking and remembering. Keeping a memory becomes a crime. Under Stalin people were physically annihilated and airbrushed from group photographs. Under Putin Stalin’s crimes are being erased from public memory and books are written to praise the dictator and his secret police.

Yuri Dmitriev, historian and former head of Karelia’s chapter of Memorial, had uncovered thousands of names of Stalin’s terror victims. He located mass graves in the forests Sandarmoh (where fifty-eight nationalities lie buried) and Krasnyi Bor, and turned these places into public memorials. In December 2016 Dmitriev was imprisoned on trumped-up charges. During his third trial, which took place on the eve of Memorial’s liquidation, his jail term was extended to 15 years.

In her book Never Remember Masha Gessen tells a story of a woman, Elizaveta, who was a baby when her parents were exterminated under Stalin. Elizaveta’s terrified relatives destroyed family photographs. All she had left from her family was an album with no pictures inside. Elizaveta spent decades searching for information about her parents, eventually discovering that her mother, an actress, was killed during a mass execution in Sandarmokh. In Russia her story is typical.

Gessen had traveled to the killing grounds of Sandarmokh and through major sites of Russia’s extended gulag. Her book is dedicated to historical memory, the subject she discusses with Irina Flige, head of St. Petersburg’s chapter of Memorial. As Flige remarked, in Russia there is no “clear line separating the present from the past. That’s when you can say, ‘After the Holocaust,’ for example. But we don’t have that break—there is no past, only a continuous present.”

Proper remembering hasn’t happened, so Russia remains trapped in its past. The nation is again prevented from learning its history. How will it fare without a historical memory? The answer is suggested in the opening of this blog post.

Grigory Baklanov’s Forever Nineteen and Other Novels

“I was seventeen and finishing high school when the war broke out. We had twenty boys and twenty girls in our class. Almost all the boys went to the front, but I was the only one to return alive. Our city, Voronezh, the ancient Russian city on the steppes, perished under the bombs (…) I came back after the war, in the winter of 1946. None of my family was there. My two older brothers had been killed––one near Moscow in 1941, the other in the Ukraine.

I looked up a former classmate, and she and I went out to the only surviving restaurant in the city. Heavy snow fell outside the windows. I watched it fall across the street into our old apartment through the collapsed roof, onto the smashed beams and floors, through the iron supports of the balcony. My whole life had been spent in this house.

Voronezh has been rebuilt (…), but the city we knew and loved is alive only in our memory. And only in our memory are people who no longer exist still alive and still young. I wanted them to come alive when I wrote this book. I wanted people living now to care about them as friends, as family, as brothers.”

This is a piece from Grigory Baklanov’s introduction to the American edition of his novel Forever Nineteen. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, the novel was described by The New York Times as a “piercing account of a Russian soldier’s experiences during World War II,” which “belongs on a shelf next to, say…Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.” [].

Grigory Baklanov (born Grigory Friedman, 1923-2009) had volunteered for the front in 1941, at 17; he met the end of the war in Austria. He belonged to the generation of young people who faced the full brunt of the German attack on the Eastern Front and of whom only 3% survived.

Unlike Vasily Grossman, who had been a war correspondent, Baklanov had experienced WWII as a soldier and artillery officer. His depiction of the war is more personal than Grossman’s in Stalingrad, and has a different angle: rather than describing famous battles, Baklanov depicts ordinary soldiers’ experiences.

Baklanov debuted in 1959 with the novel The Foothold [An Inch of Land]. Soviet critics relentlessly criticized him for depicting the war from an ordinary soldier’s perspective, a depiction that conflicted with the official propagandist version. Although attacked in his homeland, this novel was swiftly recognized in the West as a genuine work about the war. Published in 36 countries, it brought the writer international fame.

Written as a first person account, The Foothold is a short novel. The events take place on the Eastern Front in spring and summer of 1944. The Allies have already opened a Second Front, and this predetermines the outcome in the war, but not the destinies of young men defending the bridgehead. The novel conveys their love of life and their intense desire to survive. Time in the novel is packed, reflecting the narrator’s calm realization that each minute of his life can be his last. The novel ends with a lyrical scene: the narrator holds a Moldavian boy on his lap and looks at the horizon where a new battle is being fought; he thinks that if he lives to the end of the war, he’d want to have a son.

Baklanov’s anti-Stalinist novel July 1941 is his best work by many accounts. It has never been translated into English. After the initial publication in 1965 July 1941 was suppressed in the USSR for 14 years. In this novel Baklanov broke a major Soviet taboo by depicting insurmountable Soviet losses in 1941 as a direct result of Stalin’s mass purges of the Red Army. Explaining the idea of the novel, Baklanov remarked, “I wrote about the people’s tragedy, and about the greatest crime that resulted in millions of dead, millions captured prisoner––of whom the greatest criminal of all, Stalin, had said, ‘We have no prisoners, we have only traitors.’” In July 1941 the army of General Shcherbatov becomes encircled and perishes at the fault of an incompetent military commander, who is Stalin’s protégé. Like The Foothold, this novel is short, condensed, and memorable.

Baklanov’s other novels (in English translation) include The Moment Between the Past and the Future (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994). Translated by Catherine Porter, it portrays the end of Brezhnev’s stagnation era, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms.

During Gorbachev glasnost Baklanov became the editor of Znamya literary magazine and published a number of previously suppressed works, such as Vasily Grossman’s travel account An Armenian Sketchbook and Georgy Vladimov’s novel Faithful Ruslan.


Vasily Grossman: A Story of One Photograph

This spring, one year after my biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century came out, I received a letter from the Literary Museum in Moscow. A curator wrote they were preparing an exhibition and came across a photograph they long believed to have been taken of Grossman in Armenia in 1961. This photo had appeared in my book and numerous other books and articles and was associated with the year when Grossman’s major anti-totalitarian novel, Life and Fate, had been confiscated by the KGB. Shaken by this tragedy—his labor of many years had been seized from him by the state—Grossman traveled to Armenia to collaborate on the translation of someone else’s novel. The photo of a gloomy Grossman appeared to have captured his despair after losing his life’s work. As it turns out, the photograph has a different meaning.

This picture was made ten years earlier. Grossman himself had signed it on the back: photo by Ryumin, Moscow, 1951. According to the museum curator, Grossman was on a tour of the Kremlin when the photographer from the Russian Information Agency had made the shot. Grossman is shown standing near The Grand Kremlin Palace, formerly the tsars’ Moscow residence. The design in the background (wrongly believed to be Armenian) corresponds with the distinct stonework of the ancient Palace of Facets, adjacent to the Grand Kremlin Palace. Grossman stands at the spot known as the Red Porch (destroyed in the 1930s, it was rebuilt in the post-Soviet era).

Grossman is looking up at the onion domes of the Kremlin’s ancient cathedrals. The curator sent me an enlarged picture of Grossman’s upper face. The reflection in his glasses is that of the onion domes in the Cathedral Square.

So, here is the actual story behind the photograph. In 1951, when Grossman took a Kremlin tour, he was struggling to push his novel For a Just Cause (Stalingrad in the English translation) to publication. Stalin was still alive, soon to launch his final campaign against the Jews. Grossman, only forty-six, looks exhausted after years of battling Soviet editors and censors who demanded endless changes and rewrites from him. Publication of his novel, the first part of Life and Fate, was held up: his editors dreaded displeasing Stalin.

Incidentally or not, at this time of uncertainty Grossman came to the place where Russian tsars had been crowned and anointed, and which had become the axis of Soviet political power. In his novel Everything Flows, which he began in 1955, Grossman would write about Russia’s unfortunate legacy of political oppression and of “a thousand years of” of Russia’s slavery. Possibly, it was with these thoughts that Grossman was looking up gloomily while near the Grand Kremlin Palace.

On Influential Books

What makes a book influential? I believe it’s a message that can withstand the test of time. Harper Lee’s 1960 novel To Kill a Mocking Bird appeared when social and racial tensions in America were high and its message about shattered innocence with an appeal for compassion impacted audiences. But has the world changed to become more tolerant and less divided? The novel’s continuing popularity proves that it hasn’t, that Harper Lee touched on an enduring theme. In 2006 To Kill a Mocking Bird topped the list of British librarians who were asked to name a book every adult should read before they die (…).

Library lists of twentieth-century influential titles may differ. Selections made by the Boston Public Library––and I’ll speak here only about several works of literary fiction and non-fiction––include George Orwell’s 1984 , The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, and Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. These books have influenced our collective consciousness, their titles became household words.

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl appeared in 1947, shortly after the end of the Second World War and well ahead of major Holocaust studies and memoirs. It has accomplished what later volumes could not. Anne Frank’s tragic fate affected us personally, deeply, and unforgettably; through her story we could grasp the unfathomable nature of the Holocaust and the fate of millions. In the midst of today’s global conflicts this book will continue to live on, acquiring new meaning and importance.

Numerous books have been written about fascism and communism, the twentieth-century’s plague; however, few titles had the capacity to capture international audiences and become classics. In 1984, when I was still living in Moscow, my friend gave me a samizdat copy of George Orwell’s dystopian novel. That year marked a unique literary anniversary of Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s book was still banned in the USSR: its publication only became possible at the height of Gorbachev’s glasnost. Back then, reading it in Russian, I was unaware that its translation had been secretly commissioned by the Communist Party Propaganda Department for distribution among a select few. In an Orwellian turn of events the Big Brother and the Ministry of Truth controlled what Soviet people should read. But a copy of Orwell’s novel slipped into samizdat. Soviet readers viewed 1984 as a close portrait of their tyranny, along with the fear and conformity it inspired. Although Orwell had never lived in a totalitarian state, he intuitively captured its nature: “a boot stamping on a human face––forever.” Published in 1949, his novel supplied metaphors and terms we use today.

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, launched in the West in December 1973, produced, in Robert Conquest’s words, “an almost unprecedented, worldwide impact” on audiences. It revealed the truth about the hidden empire of deadly Soviet prison camps and changed the way communism was perceived; the term “gulag” entered nearly every language. Although books about Soviet concentration camps had appeared before Solzhenitsyn’s, The Gulag Archipelago provided overwhelming evidence and changed the minds of millions about the socialist paradise. Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of the Soviet political system exploded in the West during Cold War; the fact that the author was an ex-inmate still living in the USSR gave his work tremendous moral authority.

In 1958, the year Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Edmund Wilson extolled his novel Doctor Zhivago as “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history. Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state… who did not have the courage of genius.” At the time, Vasily Grossman’s incomparably more scathing novel, Life and Fate, was unknown. Written almost simultaneously with Pasternak’s, Grossman’s work was a powerful testimony about crimes of the Communist and Nazi regimes, which he presciently compared. An early chronicler of the Gulag and the Holocaust, Grossman put the two totalitarian systems on trial.

In 1961, after Grossman bravely attempted publication of Life and Fate in a Moscow journal, his novel was seized by the KGB. The Soviet authorities correctly considered this work more dangerous than Pasternak’s; they compared its potential impact to a nuclear bomb, and vowed to keep it suppressed for 250 years. In the event, they managed to postpone publication until the Gorbachev era––enough to reduce the initial effect of Grossman’s message. The novel’s reputation and influence grew slowly over the years. Today it has become recognized among the most important works about the calamitous twentieth century. In the West it has influenced scholars researching the Second World War, Ukraine’s famine, and the Holocaust. In post-Soviet Russia, where comparison between Nazism and Stalinism remains illegal, the book could not become influential.

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century

This Q & A was compiled by the author herself.

Q. What prompted you to write Vasily Grossman’s biography?

A. If I had to answer in one sentence––Vasily Grossman’s subject matter. To use James Atlas’ words about Edmund Wilson, Grossman “offered a large canvas on which you could draw a map of the twentieth century––the ideal subject for a big, ‘definitive’ biography.” This line comes from Atlas’ memoir The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale. In fact, Grossman’s novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows capture the twentieth century along with its calamities brought about by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes––World War II, the Holocaust, Ukraine’s famine, and the Gulag. Each of these topics may take a lifetime to explore, but I felt I could approach them through Grossman. As Atlas remarks, a biographer’s biggest reward is a chance to educate yourself while reconstructing someone else’s world.

Q. Writing a book is a marathon. What kept you going?

A. I had a sense of personal connection to Grossman’s themes. My birth family of Russian Jewry had suffered under Stalin and Hitler. My mother’s family––her uncle, aunt, and cousin––were liquidated during Stalin’s Great Purge. Her other uncle was shot as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Kiev. Earlier, while living in Kharkov and Kiev in the 1930s, my mother and grandmother witnessed Ukraine’s famine.

World War II is also not a remote event for my generation. My father had fought on the Eastern front; his brother and cousin were killed in battle. After the defeat of German fascism, Stalin launched his own anti-Semitic campaign, so my father, a war veteran, was, as a Jew, denied employment. In Life and Fate, commenting on postwar Soviet politics of state nationalism and antisemitism, Grossman writes that Stalin raised over the heads of Jews “the very sword of annihilation he had wrested from the hands of Hitler.”

I grew up in Moscow where Grossman spent much of his life. My parents and I lived in the apartment building where Grossman had a studio and kept part of his archive. Our house was among the addresses where in 1961 the KGB confiscated copies of Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate. My father, the novelist Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), brought his first fiction about the war to Grossman and later studied in his creative writing seminar. During Gorbachev’s glasnost my father became editor of Znamya literary magazine and published Grossman’s splendid Armenian memoir and short prose, and also published his wartime diaries as a separate volume.

Q. Vasily Grossman died in 1964. Why are his works relevant today?

A. Grossman wrote about state nationalism, the rise of totalitarianism, and antisemitism, topics that today remain among the most discussed. In Life and Fate the Nazi officer Liss says, “Nationalism is the soul of our epoch.” We are now witnessing the rise of nationalism in America, Europe, Russia, and China, and these words can be read as a warning from history.

In the 1950s both Grossman and Hannah Arendt elucidated on the nature of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. As Timothy Snyder points out in Bloodlands, “The Nazi and the Stalinist totalitarian systems must be compared, not so much to understand the one or the other but to understand our times and ourselves.” We are observing a strong comeback of far-right populist governments in Europe and elsewhere; in her award-winning book, The Future Is History, Masha Gessen even argues that totalitarianism has reclaimed Russia.

Because Grossman was a banned writer, his major works have only appeared after much delay. In the past two decades interest in his ideas has been steadily rising. Grossman’s novels are now recognized as a valuable historical source, a testimony about the twentieth century and the global evil perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. His powerful 1944 article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” became part of the evidence at Nuremberg. Today it continues to provide insights into the Holocaust, which Grossman was among the first to fathom and to chronicle.

Q. Martin Amis referred to Grossman as “a Soviet Tolstoy.” Do you agree with this description?

A. Yes and no. As a war novelist Grossman had undoubtedly experienced Tolstoy’s influence: his research notes for Life and Fate reveal that he used the structure of War and Peace as a blueprint. Written with epic sweep, Grossman’s novel also includes war parts and peace parts. Like Tolstoy, he depicts historical figures alongside fictional characters; his narrative switches between global events and family occurrences. Grossman, however, was not imitating Tolstoy. He was leading a dialogue with his predecessor and, as he states in his notes, intended to show “how life changed over 100 years.” Grossman’s protagonists fight in Stalingrad; are marched to a gas chamber, and, like the physicist Victor Shtrum, work on the Soviet nuclear program.

Actually, it was not merely Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist that had inspired Grossman to model his epic Life and Fateon War and Peace. He saw in Tolstoy an example of a writer who was driven by the moral imperative to tell the truth. Having testified about Nazi crimes in Treblinka, he realized the pressing need to also make the world aware of the crimes of Stalinism.

In 1952, after three years’ battling with Soviet editors, Grossman succeeded in publishing a censored version of the novel For the Right Cause (this was the first part of Life and Fate). The initial reaction was positive: critics hailed it as “a Soviet War and Peace.” A few months later, For the Right Cause was attacked in the Soviet press and a political campaign against Grossman was launched, nearly ending in his arrest. Unlike Tolstoy, Grossman lived and wrote in a totalitarian state and many of his topics were the strictest Soviet taboos. In 1960 Grossman produced his uncompromising anti-totalitarian novel, Life and Fate. His attempt to publish it in the USSR was an act of desperate bravery and defiance.

Q. How will your book affect what we know about Grossman?

A. This book will come out 23 years after a single English-language biography by John and Carol Garrard. It’s drawn from my archival research, published and unpublished memoirs, letters, and interviews. My biography amasses the latest information about Grossman and his subject matter. I read everything Grossman had produced, including his early works, which were usually dismissed by biographers. My research helped me discover, for example, that Grossman’s beliefs in freedom and democracy were lifelong and that the Jewish theme was also conspicuous in his early works. My biography traces his life and ideas from the beginning, and I show how the war and the Shoah moved him to openly oppose the state.

I’ve always tried to unveil myths in my books, and this biography dispels a number of myths. Ehrenburg’s remark that Grossman was born under the star of misfortune has been given too much attention. Although there was tragedy in Grossman’s life, he was fortunate to survive Stalin’s mass purges and the war––despite reporting from Stalingrad and Kursk, the site of the largest tank battle in history. When discussing the confiscation of Life and Fate we need to know that this violent action was not unprecedented in the Soviet Union. The epilogue of my book tells the story of Georgy Demidov, a writer and Kolyma survivor, whose manuscripts were seized by the KGB and who was also deprived of the means to complete his testimony about the Gulag. In contrast, Grossman was able to produce his most uncompromising novel, Everything Flows, which became his political testament. One needs to remember that the list of Soviet literary martyrs is extraordinarily long. It includes writers murdered by the regime––Isaak Babel, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pilnyak.

Q. It took you four years to produce this book. Any regrets?

A. It pains me to see the clichéd image on my book cover. This picture of Grossman, made in the burning Berlin in 1945, has been repeatedly published. I provided the publisher with a little known picture of Grossman in his study, but it was rejected “as not dramatic” enough. I believe a cover is important. It gives the first impression about the book. Regrettably, someone in the marketing department, who did not even read my book, decided the cover’s outcome.

Notes on Political Correctness

In January 2018 the conservative National Review magazine published a piece The Most Ridiculous PC Moments of 2017 . The comedian and television personality Katherine Timpf commented on eleven nonsensical episodes of political correctness on campus and elsewhere.…

“Novelists are now employing ‘sensitivity readers’ in order to make sure that they don’t portray fictional characters from other communities in an inaccurate way. Note: No one actually knows how to portray a fictional person ‘accurately,’ because fictional people do not exist. In all seriousness, this trend is a terrifying one that threatens to ruin the art of fiction as we know it.”

I believe the comedian is right. Political correctness has gone too far. It threatens freedom of expression at universities and in publishing.

Thus, the PC people propose we stop studying Shakespeare and Mark Twain. They intimidate writers and publishers by setting off online outrage against books they deem offensive. But the definition of “offensive” is vague. It can be endlessly stretched. This is why hiring “sensitivity readers” will not always work. Someone who looks for cultural stereotypes will find them between the lines.

When in 2009 my book, Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography was being published, my editor insisted on removing the word “black” from the following paragraph: “A famous tragedian of the day, the black American actor Ira Aldridge, was on tour in Russia and his performance in Moscow was not to be missed.” Ira Aldridge was playing Othello, so I failed to understand how this could be offensive and did not budge. In the end, my editor, who threatened to delay my book’s publication, backed off.

Today there’s also much ado over the issue of cultural appropriation. I find this issue highly confusing and debatable. A few years ago at a writers’ conference an aspiring Canadian writer, a German immigrant married to an aboriginal man, asked whether she can write a fictional story about her neighbors on an Indian reserve. She said she attempted to publish her stories, but was always refused––not because her stories were bad, but because of the cultural appropriation issue. She argued that she did not write outside her immediate experience: she lived with an aboriginal man next to the reserve. “Does the Canadian government prohibit writers of non-aboriginal ancestry to explore aboriginal subjects?” she asked.

When it comes to cultural appropriation I also want to ask seemingly naïve questions. What does it mean to write outside one’s own cultural experience? Journalists, scholars, artists, and writers have always explored unchartered territories with success. (As in the Shakespearean play cited above.)

The best and most comprehensive nineteenth-century dictionary of the Russian language was compiled by Vladimir Dahl, neither an ethnic Russian nor a trained lexicographer. Dahl, whose father was Danish and whose mother was of mixed German and French ancestry, had served in the Russian Navy and was later trained as a military doctor. Yet, his dictionary of the Russian language informed generations of writers, including Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Some of the most influential books on Ukraine’s famine were written by Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum, also the author of the Gulag. Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine has just been named the 2018 world’s best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs.

For centuries foreigners produced illuminating and astute travel accounts. George Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia captures ethnographies and histories of Siberia’s native peoples. This book continues to inform audiences, and no one yet complained about cultural appropriation.

Are we traveling less in the age of globalization? Can we travel and can explore another culture but cannot write about it? Was Life of Pi, Yan Martel’s best-selling novel about India, cultural appropriation? The truth is––nobody cares.

Yet, a Canadian editor of Write magazine Hal Niedzviecki was forced to resign for urging white middle-class writers to explore “the lives of people who aren’t like you.” In 2017 a campaign of shaming was launched against him and his supporters.

Would these PC people shame the French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin for his Tahiti paintings?

This March I learned that the Cambridge Dictionary will include the term “cultural appropriation” and will define it as cultural theft.…

Actually, writers and artists do not steal from other cultures––they create their own work, which enriches us globally.

Cultural appropriation strikes me as a brainchild of a radical minority, empowered by social media.

I grew up in the Soviet Union, and the notion of enforced “political correctness” brings back the memory of political censorship.

Do we want censorship in the free world?


In One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Márquez tells how in Macondo three thousand workers are machine-gunned at the behest of a ruthless banana company. Their corpses are thrown into the sea and relatives are told that there haven’t been any dead bodies: “You must have been dreaming… Nothing has happened in Macondo, nothing has ever happened…This is a happy town.” Residents accept the official account and dismiss the testimony of the only survivor. But subsequently the town sinks into ruin. Such is the story of Macondo, and of all world dictatorships, which leave a destructive, lasting, and demoralizing legacy.

The brutal Stalinist regime left Russia depopulated and suffering from collective loss of memory. Millions were destroyed in the Gulag and during the Terror Famine. But in Putin’s Russia, the history of Communist terror has been replaced with the myth of the country’s great past. There is no national monument to the numerous victims; instead, there are calls to restore monuments and museums honoring Stalin. Recently, in her Nobel lecture Svetlana Alexievich called Russia “a country without memory, the space of total amnesia.”

The loss of Russia’s national memory is the main theme in Sergei Lebedev’s insightful debut novel, Oblivion. It belongs to a new generation literature examining the impact of Stalinism on Russia today. The novel is masterfully translated by Antonina W. Bouis, whose list comprises 80 titles––writings by famous Soviet and post-Soviet authors as diverse as Mikhail Bulgakov and the Nobel Prize Laureates Alexievich and Andrei Sakharov. Lebedev’s compressed metaphorical novel is the prose of a poet, and Bouis renders his original style effortlessly and artfully.

Lebedev’s writing benefitted from his training as a geologist: he can read the story in a rock or the tundra permafrost. As a poet, he tells it through imagery, creating sensual portraits of objects: “It was through a break in the fog that I saw the barracks in a mountain pass… The barracks stood like plywood cargo crates in which people were stacked… The outlines felt like a long scream…” Having traveled widely in Siberia and Russia’s north, Lebedev had come across the many decaying barracks of the Gulag Archipelago. Soviet labor camps were constructed in desolate places with no witnesses, at the “limit of the inhabited world,” as Lebedev aptly puts it. Russia’s vastness helped conceal the existence of prison camps where conditions were similar to the Mauthausen. Scientists, philosophers, writers, dispossessed peasants, and international communists shared a single and horrible fate. Branded as “enemies of the people,” they were starved and worked to death in uranium and gold mines or constructing railroads and canals. Lebedev creates a collective portrait of the generation, which vanished without a trace, of people whose lives were “smashed” by the will of the state. His novel traces their experiences through visions and dreams––of people becoming prisoners instantaneously; of freight cars with barred windows; of a train engineer unaware he is transporting his own brother to the Gulag. Robbed of names, families, and freedom, multitudes were banished to places where everything from landscape to speech was meant to dehumanize. Their destruction was complete: branded as “enemies of the people,” they were crossed out of contemporary records and died in anonymity, so that “their deaths took place in geography, not in history.”

The Soviet State viewed its people as dispensable and their lives as subordinate to production targets. But the gigantic construction projects, devised by the Party and built by slave labor, such as the White Sea canal and railways constructed beyond the Polar Circle, proved useless. Lebedev alludes to this through the story of an abandoned railroad he saw in the mountains near the Arctic Ocean. He makes the reader feel the anguish of prisoners who cleared the rock with bare hands, only to realize futility of their labor. The railway line was left unfinished: “the ends of rusty rails hung over the emptiness.” The mountain, where prisoners toiled, opens a view to the lake with striking contours: “A mean trick of nature, a joke that had waited several million years: the lake looked like Lenin’s profile, which was imprinted on us by medals, badges, stamps, statues, paintings, and drawings in books.” Numerous lives were sacrificed to the socialist dogma. Soviet history was a series of falsifications, its ideals were stillborn, and the end of the Soviet era spelled out their demise. Soviet textbooks and insignia with Lenin’s profile were discarded; paper money, too toxic to be burned, was dumped in plastic bags in a northern mine. But Stalinism did not end there: the old guard resisted the change.

Oblivion is a first person account, a meditation on the memory of millions, and on personal memory. The narrator recalls his family’s neighbor at their dacha, whom he had met in childhood and whom he named Grandfather II. The old man is hiding his past, so his story unwinds slowly, until it becomes apparent that Grandfather II was a warden in a Gulag camp where prisoners dug radioactive ore; he had “administered death through labor.” For this service the state rewarded him with a luxury apartment. Grandfather II is blind, and his secretiveness and blindness are suggestive of Russia’s suppression of facts about the past. Having outlasted his epoch, “dead inside,” the old man wants to continue living through the boy. The episode of Grandfather II saving the boy’s life by donating his “scrawny” blood is symbolic. The transfusion takes place in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and the new era dawned. Grandfather II dies, and the boy, saved by his blood, grows “like a graft on old wood.” This is a fitting image for an embryonic Russian democracy, grafted on Stalinist stock.

The Stalinist legacy is pervasive in contemporary Russia: “There were barriers everywhere, warning signs, ‘no entry’ symbols, guard booths…Man … was not master in these lands, and the guard booths were the architectural descendants of prison camp guardhouses; this land was infected with a fungus, the fungus of the watchman, and all of this, the fences, wire, barricades, was like a single never-ending shout: ‘Stop or I’ll shoot!’” The northern town, where Grandfather II had lived supervising prisoners in a nearby uranium mine, was built by slave labor. Every brick tells the story of working under duress. Love of labor has been destroyed here forever, which is why “the whole town drank,” its residents bent on self-destruction. The town’s self-isolation is a part of the Soviet legacy and of Russia’s present. The town “cut off its own path to the outside, destroyed the window to the big world.”

Russia’s failure to deal with its Stalinist legacy, to establish the truth by remembering the millions who died, has invited the past to return. Lebedev’s imaginative novel is thoroughly pessimistic, as it’s meant to be: “This text is a memorial, a wailing wall, for the dead and the mourners have no other place to meet, except by the wall of words…” An insightful and soulful tale about Russia’s historical amnesia, Oblivion speaks of the need for us to remember and to renounce evil regimes with their man-made calamities.



The BBC Adaptation of War and Peace

The BBC has produced an adaptation of War and Peace featuring scenes of nudity and incest. The adaptation, by Andrew Davis, will air in the New Year. As The Telegraph writes, Davis is known “for his racy take on Pride and Prejudice and for admitting that he read Austen’s book only when he undertook the project.

So, does Tolstoy depict an incestuous relationship? I read War and Peace many times in Russian and in translations by Anthony Briggs, and Pevear and Volokhonsky. I will be quoting here from the latter, but first a few words about Tolstoy’s plot.

Scholars are now debating Tolstoy’s intention in depicting Anatole and Hélèn Kuragin, more specifically the brother and sister relationship. I believe there is hardly any need to speculate––Tolstoy clearly suggests it involved incest.

When Pierre Bezukhov receives a vast inheritance, becoming a millionaire overnight, the Kuragin family at once considers him a match for their beautiful daughter, Hélèn. During Anna Pavlovna’s soirée, attended by the cream of Petersburg aristocracy, Hélèn is seated next to Pierre: money and beauty go together.

Pierre is divided in his heart between everyone’s expectations of him to marry Hélèn and the unattractive things he knows about her: “I’ve been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, and there was a whole story, and that’s why Anatole was sent away.”

True, not everything Tolstoy wrote appears in the final draft. As Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, writes in her autobiography, she persuaded her husband to exclude some “cynical scenes” involving the beautiful Hélèn Kuragina. However, Tolstoy was no puritan and an ardent reviser, so it’s hard to know whether he heeded her advice or slashed some paragraphs because he wanted to.

In an early draft, published in Tolstoy’s 90-volume Collected Works, the brother and sister relationship is shown in more detail. Anatole refuses to leave his sister’s room until the small hours of the morning; their mother, entering unexpectedly, witnesses Anatole caressing Hélèn. Tolstoy further suggests that Anatole experiences sexual arousal and that Hélèn enjoys being fondled. After the incident the old Prince Kuragin strictly forbids brother and sister to be together and sends Anatole away.

Tolstoy undoubtedly implies an incestuous relationship. But he certainly doesn’t show brother and sister in bed. It is enough to depict Anatole’s sensuality, to show “animal” expression on his face when he is caressing Hélèn’s bare shoulders. Less is more––the reader gets the message.

I believe that scenes of nudity in the BBC production of War and Peace will not affect audiences as much as Tolstoy’s implication, which leaves room for imagination.

Finally, because I know and love the novel, I unlikely will be watching the BBC production, although I also realize that some viewers may be drawn to the adaptation because of the bedroom scene. And this is regrettable. While scandal helps draw attention to the film, it takes away the audience’s attention from the book.

Fifteen years ago a Russian publisher produced Tolstoy’s magnificent novel without the war and philosophical parts––a sensational publication of War and Peace minus the war. The BBC adaptation strikes me as an attempt to sell the masterpiece on the strength of nude scenes, to which modern audiences are accustomed, but which present some novelty because this is about nineteenth-century aristocracy.

Russia’s ‘Year of Literature’


Russia has proclaimed 2015 the Year of Literature. Coming from the state where nothing happens without Putin’s personal approval, the initiative can only inspire scepticism, not pride.

Throughout Russia’s history, genuine writers were the main opposition to authoritarian regimes and were relentlessly harassed for speaking out. Sensing hypocrisy, Kommersant newspaper is publishing a calendar of Russia’s literary persecutions: e.g., February 24 marks Leo Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Orthodox Church and February 28 confiscation of Vasily Grossman’s famous novel, Life and Fate.

If the Kommersant calendar of Russia’s literary harassments were comprehensive there would be enough cases of writers’ arrests, book banning, deportations, and murder to mark every day of a year. All literary celebrations in Russia begin with Alexander Pushkin, the national genius and the country’s pride. The poet, however, pursued his entire writing career under police surveillance. Censored by the Tsar himself and prohibited from traveling even within Russia, he needed a special permit to publish and to read his poems to friends.

Tolstoy lived under police surveillance for 50 years. Russia’s intellectuals were always watched; yet, there are more police reports on Tolstoy than on any other public figure. Three police departments maintained constant surveillance. Scrutiny was intensified during Tolstoy’s last decades, after he had denounced the authoritarian regime and its obedient Orthodox Church. Tolstoy accused the Church of endorsing all repressive government policies and war. Had Tolstoy lived today, he would protest Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the role of the official Church, which hasn’t changed. During Tolstoy’s life, his nonfiction circulated in underground copies. It was never reprinted in Soviet Russia; will it be celebrated today?

Back to the calendar of literary persecutions: April 23 will mark an anniversary of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s incarceration in Peter and Paul’s Fortress. In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for belonging to a group studying utopian socialism and narrowly avoided execution by firing squad. The day when his death sentence was commuted to hard labour in Siberia was the happiest in his life, he said: Dostoevsky was singing in his cell. Later, when he became loyal to the regime, the police still treated him as a former political convict, confiscating some of his manuscripts at the Russian border.

The fate of twentieth-century writers was far more tragic: under the Soviet dictatorship 2,000 were arrested and of those 1,500 perished in the gulags. Every Soviet republic lost its bravest and most talented. In Russia, Isaac Babel, Boris Pilnyak, and Osip Mandelstam were among those tortured and killed under Stalin. Mandelstam was re-arrested on May 2, 1938, for composing a satirical poem about Stalin; he died that year in a transitory camp in the Far East. As he had famously remarked, “Poetry is respected only in this country––people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” Mandelstam’s spiritual legacy survives today only because his widow, Nadezhda, was heroically hiding it for decades from the authorities.

The Soviet state routinely persecuted writers, seizing their manuscripts, libraries, and archives in the course of arrests. There was one case though when a novel was “arrested” independently from its author.

On February 28, 1961, the writers’ community in Moscow, to which my family belonged, was shaken by the news that the KGB had searched Vasily Grossman’s apartment and confiscated the manuscript of his major novel, Life and Fate. Depicting WWII, the Gulag, and the Holocaust this novel is compared today to War and Peace––both in scope and mastery. However, the author died without seeing his masterpiece published or his papers returned to him. Grossman was the first to compare, with clarity and depth, the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian systems. Timely release of this novel would have had tremendous impact on Soviet Russia and would have changed what the nation knew about its Stalinist past. Sensing a threat to the regime, the authorities vowed to keep it suppressed for 200 years; in the event, they succeeded in postponing the book’s publication by three decades. In December 2013, the FSB released Grossman’s papers from its vaults, much to surprise and delight of the Russian State Archive for Literature and Arts. This archive had long petitioned the authorities to release all confiscated writers’ libraries and manuscripts, including Grossman’s.

Writers’ deportations should also be marked on the calendar, like feast days: along with freedom deportees were awarded world fame. Joseph Brodsky was put on a plane to Vienna on June 4, 1972; Alexander Solzhenitsyn was flown to West Germany on February 14, 1974. (A tradition of exiling Russia’s intellectuals to Germany is an old one.

In 1922, protesting Lenin’s deportations, the German chancellor quipped that “Germany was not Siberia.” The list of Russia’s literary martyrs is long and distinguished. Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, and Mikhail Bulgakov were not imprisoned, but they endured decades of persecution.

Bulgakov, to whom Stalin himself had repeatedly denied publication, died in obscurity on March 10, 1939. A brilliant satirical writer and playwright, he was destined for posthumous world fame. One of the finest poets of her generation, Tsvetaeva was driven to despair and took her own life on August 31, 1941. It should be noted that by the end of the Soviet era, the same Party officials who earlier prohibited Bulgakov’s and Tsvetaeva’s works were showing off the volumes in their own libraries––not because they came to value genuine literature, but because these editions were impossible to get.

During the Year of Russia’s Literature officials will make speeches, to be broadcast through state-controlled media. This strikes me as ironic, since writers succeeded despite government interference in their lives and work. Today, the state is broadening its sphere of influence, and Soviet practices of controlling literature are being revived. Last December, Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky said that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina should be excluded from the high school curriculum as inappropriate. The minister, whose previous responsibilities include the Federal Tax Police and the menacing Presidential Commission Against the Falsification of History, will determine the lists of books for patriotic reading. Will Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, and Grossman make it to the recommended lists?