Alexandra Popoff: «Neither Stalin nor Hitler would succeed with their extermination campaigns without local collaboration»

Alexandra Popoff is a former Moscow journalist and Alfred Friendly Press Partners fellow. She is an expert on Russian literature and cultural history and the award-winning author of several literary biographies, including Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century.

1. Comparison of fascism and communism … Can we say that Grossman was a harbinger in the Soviet Union?

Grossman had unprecedented access to information. During the Second World War he reported on major battles from Moscow and Stalingrad to Berlin, had interviewed Soviet soldiers and generals, and was present during interrogations of captured Nazis. As an early chronicler of the Holocaust he was among the first to comprehend the meaning of the Final Solution. After the war he witnessed Stalin’s “secret pogrom,” the destruction of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee accompanied by a massive anti-Semitic campaign. Grossman had experienced anti-Semitism twice––during the war with the Nazis and again in the Soviet Union. These experiences provided major points of comparison between the two regimes, which he makes in Life and Fate and Everything Flows.

Furthermore, Grossman had interviewed the survivors of Nazi extermination camps and of the Soviet gulag. He understood that the Nazi and the Soviet totalitarian systems were alike in their complete inhumanity, their rejection that individual human lives have value. Was Grossman the first in the Soviet Union to understand this? No! Evgeniya Ginzburg, the writer and gulag survivor, compared the Nazi and Stalinist destruction of human life in her memoir Within the Whirlwind, and Varlam Shalamov has made this comparison in The Kolyma Tales

But while similarities between Communist and Nazi dictatorships were apparent to these and other gulag survivors, Grossman alone in the USSR was able to draw comprehensive conclusions. Writing almost simultaneously with Hannah Arendt, he analyzed the structure of totalitarian states, their total control over the individual; the use of propaganda, indoctrination, and terror in both Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Russia. 

2. The comparison between fascism and communism is still very controversial today, despite all the information available. Why?

Information about Nazi crimes became available after the war, when the world first learned about Auschwitz. But not until decades later would the world learn about the deadliest Soviet arctic camp, Kolyma, and other crimes of the Soviet regime. Nazi crimes were exposed once and for all, while information about Stalin’s atrocities became available later, beginning in mid-1980s, and even still is not fully released. 

The defeat of fascism in Nazi Germany only strengthened Stalinism. Information about Stalin’s genocides and terror campaigns was kept secret; there was never a Nuremberg trial for Stalinists. In post-Soviet Russia, in the 1990s, when archives became open (now they are closed again) there was a call to ban the Communist Party, responsible for mass destruction of human life. But the Communist Party was not banned in Russia, and it was not banned in China. The leaders of both countries continue to suppress information about communists’ responsibility for the murder of millions. They have never officially rejected the ideology, which justified terror in the name of unattainable ideals. 

Comparison between fascism and communism remains illegal in Putin’s Russia where the authorities continue to struggle against the truth. Memorial International, Russia’s human rights organization, which chronicles and discloses Soviet crimes, has been continuously harassed, threatened with closure, and branded as a “foreign agent.” Historian Yuri Dmitriev, head of Karelia’s branch of the Memorial Society, who located major execution sites of Stalin’s Great Terror, including the massive killing field of Sandarmokh, has been imprisoned since 2016 This is happening today. Monuments to Stalin are popping up across Russia. Maintaining the myth of Stalin as a great leader is convenient to Putin, who has built a new authoritarian regime.  

Many people still confuse communism with the ideals of justice and equality. Such ideals cannot be attained by means of mass murder. Stalinism––and Communism––is when human life is worth nothing. The same applies to Fascism. Yet, some idealists in the West still believe that there is nothing wrong with Communism, that Stalin and Mao simply did not get it right. The world must understand a simple truth––Stalin and Mao did get it right! Communist ideology rejects the notion of human rights and freedoms; it leads to totalitarianism and the gulag. The gulag did not begin under Stalin, it began with Lenin.

3. Grossman has a special clairvoyance. Does he belong to a special generation?

Grossman was born in 1905 and had witnessed life before the Bolshevik Revolution. The generation, to which he belonged, could not accept a bloody dictatorship and was therefore wiped out by Stalin. Grossman witnessed Stalin’s terror campaigns and later interviewed gulag survivors. As a writer and witness, he felt the pressure to tell the story. 

4. How the connection between the Russian-Jewish identity (very complex) and communist internationalism developed.

 This is indeed a very intricate question, and I’m not sure whether it’s well formulated. If we are talking about Jewish history––Jews have been persecuted and scattered around the world. So, historically they had double identities as Russian Jews, Polish Jews, German Jews, Spanish Jews, and so on. My father, writer and editor Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), was, like Grossman, a Russian Jew. By the way, he knew Grossman and had published his wartime notebooks and Armenian memoir during the Gorbachev glasnost. 

Grossman loathed state nationalism; he was a man of the world. In this sense he was an internationalist. This understanding of internationalism also reflects my views. As a true internationalist Grossman sympathised with other nations and wrote with compassion about the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, and the Ukrainian famine generated by Stalin. 

But communist internationalism, a cornerstone of Communist ideology, is a big lie. It covers up the real goal––world domination. It’s unfortunate and tragic that in the twentieth century many Jews sympathized with Communism, thinking the ideology represented the opposite of Nazism, and not knowing how similar it was in many ways. 

5. How Grossman survived the anti-Semitism of 1945-1953 (closure of the Yiddish theater, the ‘doctors conspiracy’)

After the Second World War Stalin unleashed his own anti-Semitic campaign; the years 1946––53 became known as “the black years of Soviet Jewry.” Commenting on postwar Soviet politics of state nationalism and anti-Semitism, Grossman wrote in Life and Fate that Stalin raised “the very sword of annihilation” over the heads of Jews that “he had wrested from the hands of Hitler.” Mass arrests in the Jewish community and the secret executions of members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were followed by the highly publicized campaign against Jewish doctors. This was Stalin’s final murderous campaign, and Grossman survived it only because Stalin died in early March 1953. Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg were on the list of those to be arrested next. 

6. Vasily Grossman was a boy who supported the Bolshevik revolution and argued with his father (more moderate) for political reasons. Later, he realized that his father was right in many ways. What were the most important circumstances that made him change?

I’m not sure that Grossman ever supported Bolshevik ideology or their coup d’état. This is apparent from his early work: he was sceptical that communist ideals were workable. Both he and his father supported the 1917 February Revolution, a popular revolution, which brought down the monarchy. The new Provisional Government gave Russia its first liberal laws, guaranteed freedom of the press, of assembly, and of conscience. Moreover, it abolished discriminatory legislation based on ethnic origin, class, and religion. The Bolsheviks, after the October Revolution, quickly dismantled the liberal laws and installed a dictatorship in the name of the proletariat. Grossman believed in democracy, but, of course, he gradually attained his profound understanding of totalitarianism, expressed in his novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows. This understanding came from learning the facts.

8. Grossman criticized, but also remained silent and even signed a letter of accusation. He was victim, guilty, a witness and a convict at the same time. How he changed his role? 

We are talking here about the events of 1953 and Stalin’s final campaign against the Jewish doctors. On January 13, 1953, the major Communist Party newspaper, Pravda, announced the “Doctors’ Plot” on its front page. Days after Pravda’s announcement meetings were held to condemn Grossman’s newly published novel Stalingrad (titled in Russian For A Just Cause). This novel was also attacked in Pravda. During this time Grossman anticipated arrest. In late January an incident took place that haunted him for the rest of his life. Acting on Stalin’s initiative, Pravda editors drafted an open letter on behalf of the Jewish elite that denounced the Jewish doctors. A list of prominent Soviet Jews was compiled; their signatures were sought. Grossman signed the letter. Although it was never published, he could not forgive himself for acting against his conscience. (Ilya Eherburg attempted to protest, but in the end signed a softer version of the same letter.) The incident, which Grossman describes in Life and Fate, strengthened his resolve to overcome his fear and tell the whole truth about the regime. 

9. Grossman analyzed the (taboo) topic of collaborationism. He was shocked by the discovery of the role of Ukrainians in the massacres. He witnessed the cruelty committed by some Soviet soldiers and officers towards German citizens. And he discovered the anti-Semitism of the Soviet regime. What was the most difficult topic to write about? Why?

Neither Stalin nor Hitler would succeed with their extermination campaigns without local collaboration. This topic still remains among the most sensitive. Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg had collected the evidence about local collaboration for The Black Book of Russian Jewry they were jointly compiling and editing. This book was banned in the USSR. Grossman, however, succeeded in publishing a story “The Old Teacher,” one of the first fictional works about the Holocaust, which raises the topic of local collaboration. 

If you are asking what was more difficult to write I will remind you of certain events, so you can judge for yourself. In 1943, during the liberation of Ukraine, Grossman arrived in the areas where the Jewish population had been exterminated by the Nazis. As he wrote in an article “Ukraine Without Jews,” which was suppressed from publication, “This is the murder of a people, murder of a house, of a family, of books, of faith; this is the murder of the tree of life…” After he visited Babi Yar in Kiev, the site where 100,000 people had perished, he realized this was also his mother’s fate. Before the war his mother lived in Berdichev, near Kiev. Grossman traveled there in early 1944, interviewed a few Jewish survivors and other witnesses of the massacre. His mother was killed during a mass execution of the Berdichev Jews. He documented the events in the article “The Murder of Jews in Berdichev.” This article was to appear in The Black Book of Russian Jewry, the compendium that neither Grossman nor Ehrenburg would ever see published. Grossman’s articles explain the meaning of the Final Solution and create a moving memorial to victims, of whom his mother was one. 

In 1944 Grossman was among the first journalists who entered Treblinka; in his article “The Hell of Treblinka” he told the world about the death factory. This article became part of the evidence at Nuremberg. “The Hell of Treblinka” is at once a work of investigative journalism, a historical and philosophical essay, and a requiem to the victims. Grossman produced it before literature on the Holocaust became available. The world would not be prepared to deal with the ghastly evidence of Nazi death camps for another decade.

Grossman was not an impassionate observer. As a Jew, a writer, a pacifist, and as a man whose mother was killed in a massacre of Jews in Ukraine, he felt the events deeply and personally. In 1944, after completing the Treblinka article, Grossman fell ill. But he had to write it. He believed in his responsibility as a writer and a witness “to tell the terrible truth.”

10. Like much of the literature of the Soviet era, which has received recognition in the West, Grossman’s writings are celebrated as a warning about the dangers of revolutionary aspirations. Is this why ‘Life and Fate’ is better known than Stalingrad? The stories of Soviet victory are much less enthusiastic …

 Life and Fate is incomparably more important and powerful than Stalingrad. It’s good that Stalingrad was translated, but in this earlier novel Grossman did not yet rise to a full understanding of totalitarianism. As a literary and artistic work it also represents a less mature Grossman. Unlike Life and Fate, Stalingrad was written with an eye on publication; moreover, it was produced under Stalin. So, Grossman in this novel could not possibly express more than half-truths. 

11. Grossman was persecuted and censored. But at the same time, his book was “arrested”, not himself. Was it just luck or was he not “crossing red lines”?

Life and Fate was seized from Grossman in 1961, during the de-Stalinization period, which had begun in 1956 with Nikita Khrushchev’s semi-secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress. Only a privileged few in the USSR were able to read this speech. Writers were informed of Khrushchev’s partial disclosure of the crimes committed by Stalin and his regime. Khrushchev was reluctant to admit to mass arrests, deportations, and man-made famine, which had affected millions in the USSR and for which he and his government bore personal responsibility. Moreover, Khrushchev promoted the validity of communist doctrine. The regime could not afford a full disclosure for, in Khrushchev’s later words, “We were scared––really scared. We were afraid the thaw might unleash a flood…which would drown us…” Grossman pressed for full disclosure. He presented his evidence in Life and Fate, where he also juxtaposed the communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes. Because Grossman was an internationally known writer arresting him would not benefit Khrushchev’s government in the eyes of the world. So, they arrested the novel and kept it suppressed. By the way, this was not only done in Grossman’s case––a story I tell in the epilogue of my book.

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