Musings on science, history, philosophy and literature
The case for dumb kindness
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in a typhoon of steel and firepower without precedent in history. In spite of telltale signs and repeated warnings, Joseph Stalin who had indulged in wishful thinking was caught completely off guard. He was so stunned that he became almost catatonic, shutting himself in his dacha, not even coming out to make a formal announcement. It was days later that he regained his composure and spoke to the nation from the heart, awakening a decrepit albeit enormous war machine that would change the fate of tens of millions forever. By this time, the German juggernaut had advanced almost to the doors of Moscow, and the Soviet Union threw everything that it had to stop Hitler from breaking down the door and bringing the whole rotten structure on the Russian people’s heads, as the Führer had boasted of doing.
Among the multitudes of citizens and soldiers mobilized was a shortsighted, overweight Jewish journalist named Vasily Grossman. Grossman had been declared unfit for regular duty because of his physical shortcomings, but he somehow squeezed himself all the way to the front through connections. During the next four years, he became one of the most celebrated war correspondents of all time, witnessing human conflict whose sheer brutality beggared belief. To pass the time in this most unreal of landscapes, Grossman had a single novel to keep him company – War and Peace. It was to prove to be a prophetic choice.
Not only was Grossman present during the siege and eventual victory at Stalingrad – a single battle in which more Soviet soldiers and citizens died than American soldiers during all of World War 2 – but he was also part of the Soviet advance into the occupied territories in which the Nazis had waged a racial war of extermination that would almost annihilate an entire race of people. While forward-deployed units of Nazi Einsatzgruppen killed more than a million Jews in Ukraine, Lithuania and other countries, this “holocaust by bullets” was only a precursor to the horror of Auschwitz and Treblinka. Grossman became the first journalist to enter Treblinka and describe what words could scarcely bring themselves to describe. Most of all, the Holocaust hit home for him in a devastatingly personal way – Grossman’s own mother was murdered by the Nazis in the village of Berdychiv; the prewar Jewish population of this small town numbering more than 40,000 was completely annihilated. This singular episode shaped Grossman’s worldview for the rest of his life.
Over the next ten years Grossman who had seen Stalin’s 1937 purges and the postwar takeover of Europe became witness to his own country’s descent into oppression, conquest and genocidal aspirations. The words that proclaimed liberty and brotherhood during the fight against the Nazis started sounding hollow. In 1960 he put the finishing touches to what was the culmination of his career and thinking – Life and Fate, a 900-page magnum opus that was on par with some of the greatest fiction of all time. Today Life and Fate stands shoulder to shoulder with the great novels. And similar to the great novels, it takes in the entire world and nothing seems to be missing from its pages. Love, hatred, war, peace, childhood, motherhood, jealousy, bravery, cowardice, introspection, economics, politics, science, philosophy…everything is contained in its universe. More importantly, like the great works of literature, like Shakespeare and Dante, Dickens and Hemingway, like Grossman’s compatriots Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, the themes in Life and Fate are timeless, transcending nationality, race, gender and even its wartime setting. It will be relevant two hundred years from now when men and women will still be fighting and killing and discussing and loving. The novel speaks to human beings struggling with common problems across the gulf of time. And it speaks doggedly against the identity politics that riddles our discourse so widely.
Like War and Peace, Life and Fate straddles almost a hundred and fifty characters spread over a variety of times and locations, from the quiet warmth of a matriarch’s dwelling to the absolute nihilism of an extermination camp to several battle locations on the front spread around Stalingrad. Here we encounter characters whose views of life have been forced to be stripped down to their bare bones because of the sheer bleak brutality around them and forced minimalism of their existence. While there are hundreds of major and minor characters, a few key ones stand out. Broadly speaking, the characters fan out from the person of Alexandra Vladimirovna, a factory worker and steely matriarch who had lived in Stalingrad before moving out because of the war, and her two daughters Lyudmila and Yevgenia. The action also centers on Yevgenia’s old husband Krymov who has been an important party official and her new lover Novikov who is a tank commander. Meanwhile, Lyudmila lives with her husband Victor Shtrum, who in many ways speaks for the conscience of the various other characters in the novel. At least in one sense the most interesting person is Mikhail Mostovskoy, a friend of the family who has ended up in a German concentration camp.
It’s hard to keep track of all the characters, but one of the most remarkable things is how even some of the minor, intermittent players leave an indelible memory because of their pronunciations and ideas. There are some extraordinarily poignant moments, such as when Lyudmila’s son Tolya is wounded on the front and she hurries to visit him in the hospital, only to find that he has died shortly before. She asks to be escorted to his grave and spends a moment of hauntingly beautiful, ethereal and yet earthly tragedy mourning at his side, covering him with his shawl so that he won’t be cold. It takes her several minutes to realize the bare truth of Tolya’s non-existence:
“The water of life, the water that had gushed over the ice and brought Tolya back from the darkness, had disappeared; the world created by the mother’s despair, the world that for a moment had broken its fetters and become reality, was no more.”
Perhaps there is no story more emotionally devastating in the book than the story of Sofya Levinton, a Jewish friend of Lyudmila’s who has the misfortune of being snared by the Nazis and put on a cattle train to Auschwitz. On the train Sofya runs into David, a six or seven year-old boy who also shared the misfortune of being cut off from his mother and put in a ghetto with his grandmother. When his grandmother died of disease, the woman she had entrusted David to was too busy trying to save herself. Like two atomic particles randomly bumping into each other by accident, David and Sofya bump into each other on the train. They have no one else, so they have each other. They accompany each other into the camp, into the dressing room, and finally into the gas chamber where there is no light, no life, no meaning. As the Zyklon B starts hissing from the openings above, David clings to the unmarried, childless Sofya:
“Sofya Levinton felt the boy’s body subside in her hands. Once again she had fallen behind him. In mineshafts where the air becomes poisoned, it is always the little creatures, the birds and mice, that die first. This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.
‘I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.
That was her last thought.”
In another German concentration camp, Mikhail Mostovskoy has philosophical disputes with a few prisoners who are trying to shake his confidence in communism and are also trying to organize an escape. Mostovskoy is a true believer and is keeping the flame burning bright. But reality is not so easy. The denouement comes when he is called to the office of the camp commandant. His name is Liss. Liss is interested in certain documents which a dissident named Ikkonikov has thrust into Mostovskoy’s hands, right before refusing to help build a gas chamber and being executed as a result. But that is not Liss’s main concern, and he is not here to punish Mostovskoy. Instead he does something worse than provide an easy death: he brings the hammer down on Mostovskoy’s entire worldview when he tells him how similar Nazism and Stalinism are, how they are built on the backs of oppressed and murdered people, how true believers in both ideologies should ideally stand shoulder to shoulder with each other, how this whole war is therefore an unnecessary farce. Mostovskoy is shaken, and his loss of faith very much mirrors Grossman’s own by the time he wrote the book: with its murder and suppression of all dissent, complete control of people’s lives and total disregard for individual freedom, were fascism and communism that different?
But if Mostovskoy had any lingering doubts about whether his faith in collective action has been built on a house of cards, it collapses completely when he reads Ikkonikov’s pamphlets and hears him speaking from the grave. It’s strange: Ikkonikov is a minor character who appears perhaps in four or five pages of the volume, and the transcript of his documents occupies not more than ten pages in a book numbering almost a thousand pages, and yet in many ways his pamphlet is the single-most important part of the book, communicating as it does the overwhelming significance of individual kindness and action in the face of utter, unending conflict. Individual kindness is the only thing that remains when all humanity has been stripped away from both oppressor and oppressed; when every trace of nationality, race, gender and political views has been obliterated by sheer terror and murder, this kindness is the only elemental thing connecting all human beings simply because they are human beings and nothing else, it is this kindness, this dumb, senseless kindness, that will keep propelling humanity onwards when all else is lost. It is this kindness that goes by the name of ‘good’. As Ikkonikov says,
“Good is to be found neither in the sermons of religious teachers and prophets, nor in the teachings of sociologists and popular leaders, nor in the ethical systems of philosophers… And yet ordinary people bear love in their hearts, are naturally full of love and pity for any living thing. At the end of the day’s work they prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.
Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.
The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.
But if we think about it, we realize that this private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal. It is extended to everything living, even to a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by.
Even at the most terrible times, through all the mad acts carried out in the name of Universal Good and the glory of States, times when people were tossed about like branches in the wind, filling ditches and gullies like stones in an avalanche – even then this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atom…
This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil!”
And who promotes this kindness? Not religion with its conditional acceptance and demands to conform. Not the state which also imposes its own demands for conformity. Not even capitalism which makes kindness conditional on the invisible hand of selfish actions. In fact no system of organization can impose this kindness, no matter how much it speaks of it in glowing terms. It can only come about when all systems of organization have been obliterated, when humanity’s bare existence compels its members to recognize a quality in each other that is completely independent of every group identification, every kind of “ism”.
And who spoke of this kindness? Not the religious prophets who sought salvation in the one true God and heaven, not the commissars whose mind-numbing bureaucratic machinations threatened to grind every human particle of unique identity into the featureless dust of one level playing field, not even the scientific rationalists whose discoveries can only describe, not prescribe. No, to describe senseless, stupid, all-encompassing kindness one must look to the great poets and writers, not the philosophers. And through everyday characters and conversations, nobody demonstrates the timeless nature of individual kindness as well as Chekhov:
“Chekhov said: let’s put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we’ll never get anywhere.”
If you haven’t already, dear reader, I cannot exhort you enough to read Chekhov. Read his plays, read especially his short stories, read anything by him. Throughout Life and Fate the nature of indivisible, immutable bonds between human beings – whether it is a commander and his aide, an aging communist and her son-in-law, and of course the more common and enduring sets of relationships between sons and mothers, daughters and fathers – stand above and beyond the basic essentials of the narrative.
Another character, in a completely different set of circumstances on the Stalingrad front:
“Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.”
If that is not a soaring counterpoint to and a damning indictment of the identity politics that has completely taken over our discourse today, I do not know what is.
When word of Grossman’s magnum opus got out the KGB stormed his apartment. They considered the novel so dangerous that they confiscated not only the manuscript but also the typewriter ribbons which were used to craft the novel. This level of paranoia could only exist in the Soviet Union. Why they did this is clear after reading it. Not only does Life and Fate show, through devastatingly understated examples of indelible characters who gradually become disillusioned, the hollow nature of the Soviet system’s promises and its similarity with the fascism that its patriotic adherents thought they were fighting, but it also demonstrated through the character of physicist Victor Shtrum, the anti-Semitism that while not as fatal as that in Nazi Germany, was slowly but surely brewing in the country’s corridors and the hearts and minds of its people. Even before the war ended it was clear that the Germans’ campaign of Jewish cleansing in Ukraine and parts of Russia could not have been carried out without the complicity of local populations who held grudges against Jews for decades. Grossman’s personal motivation because of his mother’s murder brought to his depiction of the Soviet Union’s initially “benign” and then increasingly oppressive anti-Semitism particularly strident and urgent force. The party line in the country refused to have writers like Grossman single out Jewish victims of the Holocaust because they knew that doing so would shine a mirror into their own faces. The combination of Grossman’s expose of the Soviets as being little different from the Nazis and anti-Semites to boot sealed his novel’s fate.
When Grossman asked when his book might see the light of day, a high-ranking party official named Suslov said there was no question of the volume being published for another two hundred years; by announcing such a draconian sentence on Grossman’s work, he inadvertently announced the novel’s incendiary nature. Grossman died in 1964 without seeing his book smuggled out and translated by Robert Chandler, a sad and lonely man in a Moscow apartment battling stomach cancer.
But his act of defiance, expressed in this profound book as an assertion of the fundamental nature of the individual and a rejection of collectivism of all kinds, spoke to the ages, escaped the fetters of its two hundred-year oppressors and brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. And it could well bring about the collapse of the systems we take so much pride in because we fail to see how they are turning us into inchoate groups. So let us now practice thoughtless, stupid, unwitnessed kindness. It’s the one constant in life and fate.