Stalin Posts

Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

Vasily Grossman”s Stalingrad is a prequel to Life And Fate. Life and Fate (Russian edition, Soviet Union, 1988) was translated from Russian into English in 1985 by Robert Chandler and Stalingrad ( 1952, Russian edition) in 2019 by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. Life and Fate had been completed by Grossman before he succumbed to cancer in 1964 but the English translation was published before permission was granted for the Russian edition. It became possible after glasnost.

Vasily Grossman was a correspondent in World War Two. His novels borrow heavily from all that he witnessed. Recently, Robert Chandler wrote a magnificent essay, “Writer who caught the reality of war” ( The Critic, July/August 2020 ). Grossman was a correspondent for Red Star, a daily military newspaper as important as Pravda and Izvestia, the official newspapers or the Communist Party and the Supreme Soviet. It was a paper read by both military and civilians. Chandler writes “According to David Ortenberg, it’s chief editor, Grossman’s 12 long articles about the Battle of Stalingrad not only won him personal acclaim but also helped make ‘Red Star’ itself more popular. Red Army soldiers saw Grossman as one of them– someone who chose to share their lives rather than merely to praise Stalin’s military strategy from the safety of an army headquarters far from the front line.”

Stalingrad is a massive book to read at nearly 900 pages. I read Constance Garnett’s translation of War and Peace in three days flat but Stalingrad was far more difficult to read. Perhaps because it was written so close in time to the events it describes. Within a decade of the Stalingrad blockade by the Nazis, Grossman’s novel had been published. Whereas “War and Peace” was written fifty years after the events fictionalised by Tolstoy. It makes a difference to the flavour of literature. Reading “Stalingrad” during the lockdown is a terrifying experience. More so because today nations around the world are dominated by right wing politicians who see no wrong in implementing xenophobic policies. The parallels with Grossman’s accounts are unmistakable. Having said that I am very glad I read Grossman”s novel. It is a detailed account of the blockade using the polyphonic literary technique. Sometimes it can get bewildering to keep track of so many characters. Also because there are chunks in the text over which Grossman does not have a very good grasp. His details of the battlefield or the stories about the Shaposhnikovs are his strongest moments in the novel. Perhaps because the war scenes are first hand experiences, much of which is brilliantly accounted for by Chandler in his recent article. And the weaker portions were written during Stalinism and Grossman probably had to be careful about what he wrote for fear of being censored.

After reading Stalingrad, I reread portions of Ales Adamovich and Daniil Granin’s A Book of the Blockade ( English translation by Hilda Perham, Raduga Publishers, Moscow, 1983; Russian edition, 1982). This book is about the nine hundred day siege too. The auhors recreate the event by referring to diaries, letters, poems written during the blockade, and survivors’ testimonies. They also interviewed “the strong and the weak, and those who had been saved and those who had saved others”. At times it felt as if there was little difference reading Grossman’s novel or these eye witness accounts that had been gathered by Adamovich and Granin.

These are very powerful books. I am glad the translations exist. Perhaps this kind of war literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially during the lockdown but it is highly recommended. Sometimes it is easier to understand our present by hearkening back to the past. These books certainly help!

Moscow, 1942. Summer.
There were several reasons why people felt calmer … it is impossible to remain very long in a state of extreme nervous tension; nature simply doesn’t allow this.


7 July 2020

Of biographies

Twenty-first century is being touted in publishing as the age of memoirs/biographies. Everyone has a story to tell. People always have. Now with technology making it “easier” for people to share their personal stories, there is a deluge of the “I, me, myself” stories. These shifts in telling narratives are impacting the texture of stories being told. But what continues to stand out are extraordinarily well-researched, brilliantly told, almost meditative narratives that focus upon the particular but persaude the reader to look beyond, to think, to reflect. Two such books that I read recently are: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper and Samanth Subramanian’s A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane

Historian Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women killed by Jack the Ripper is a fascinating account of building together biographies of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The canonical five — Mary Jane Kelly, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Ann Nichols, Elizabeth Stride and Annie Clapman. For more than a hundred and fifty years it was firmly believed that these victims were prostitutes. With her impeccable research and marshalling of empirical evidence by scouring police records, newspaper clippings of the time, witness testimonies, reviewing of historical socio-economic and political facts and consistently making it available to the modern reader in an immensely accesible narrative, makes Hallie Rubenhold’s book a dream to read. It is packed with information. Each woman has a section devoted to her, giving a birth-to-death biographical account, neatly interspersed with explanations from contemporary accounts of what could be the rational explanation for the woman’s behaviour or what was a reaction to socio-economic conditions prevailing at the time. More importantly Hallie Rubenhold teases out from history the despicable attitudes towards women that probably contributed to the social downfall of these women, ultimately making them vulnerable to criminals such as Jack the Ripper. Interestingly enough, not once, does she ever give a graphic description of the body disovered at the crime scene or shares details of the autopsy reports. Instead there are a few photographs and illustrations tipped into the book along with a seemingly mundane list of the possessions found upon the women’s bodies. A list that in most cases highlights that these were extremely poor women. Nevertheless these women were careful about appearances as is evident from the list of grooming articles found upon their persons. What is truly remarkable is that The Five is not just a historian delving into the past and putting together bits and pieces of information to create a clear narrative, a short biography of the women victims but it is also an attempt to recover the dignity and respect that these women deserved. The only time Hallie Rubenhold betrays her fury is in the concluding paragraph of the book.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents. By permitting them to speak, by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

Hallie Rubenhold won the 2019 Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction with The Five. It is a prize well deserved for historical research that unearths so many truths that were for so long masked in one-sided, most often imbued with patriarchal perspectives. It is modern day research arguing and bolstering every single observation about the victims by going far back in time and piecing it together meticulously. With The Five Hallie Rubenhold has done a great service not only for the five victims but also created a fresh way of looking at Victorian England and at historical research much in the way that Hobsbawm’s trilogy about the long nineteenth century did. ( Although Rubehold never cites Hobsbawm in her bibliography.) Revisting the past with the tools of the present to investigate and understand and get to the truth by assessing the facts for what they are rather than imposing one’s own modern judgements and reading. Read The Five. An immensely readable history book that reads like an astonishingly well-written nineteenth century novel.

Award-winning writer and journalist Samanth Subramanian’s biography of geneticist H.B.S Haldane has been long awaited. Every fortnight Samanth Subramanian also ran a podcast called The Intersection that melds culture, science and history in India. ( Shortly the backlist will be made available on Spotify. Worth listening to!) So it is no surprise that A Dominant Character: The Radical Science and Restless Politics of J.B.S. Haldane melds together cultural and historical contextual references along with Haldane’s scientific temperament. This is a biography that follows the classic definition of a biography of following step-by-step every major development of Haldane. Of course there is a sufficiently long preamble emphasising that Haldane was in many senses the product of the Victorian Age. His curiosity and asking innumerable questions was a trait very similar to that of his father, John Scott Haldane. Haldane Senior a physiologist was known to have gone on madcap experiments in the pursuit of science such as he entered, in the middle of the night, the crowded one-room tenements of slum dwellers where more than six or seven persons lay sleeping in a room holding a vial aloft to collect a sample of the air. Like his father, J.B.S. Haldane was not averse to experimenting upon himself. He had seen his father do it. He had also assisted his father in conducting these experiments such as checking the atmospheric pressure below water wearing a submarine suit. This methodology of self-experimentation became Haldane’s trademark. Some of his more outrageous experiments were to drink hydrocholoric acid or to enclose himself in an airtight space to monitor the effects of carbon dioxide in his blood stream — about which he complained bitterly for it having given him a terrible headache. Haldane was particularly gifted in being able to work with numbers. What comes through very clearly in this biography is that Haldane was known for his irascible temperament and did not suffer fools easily but was quite at peace absorbed in his world, fiddling with mathematical equations. For example Haldane estimated way back that the mutations in the haemophilia gene was equivalent to roughly one mutated nucleotide per 25 million. The full human genome contains roughly 6.4 billion nucleotides. In 2009, a study conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in England using sequencing technology showed that there is one mutated nucleotide per 30 million. Incredibly Haldane with his pen and paper scribbles and before the structure of the DNA had been discovered had come within spitting distance of what is now believed to be the true figure.

Haldane was extremely bright. He learnt to read at the age of three, and at four, after injuring his forehead he famously asked the doctor, “Is this oxyhaemoglobin or carboxyhaemoglobin?” And as is the case with exceptionally gifted children, they keep their adults on their toes. Haldane was no exception. He found his stability at home. His mother particularly was his anchor. Later he had his ups and downs with his educational institutions including Eton College. It was evident that he required understanding and sympathetic adults around him otherwise he would lose his keel. He had cleared the Eton entrance exams easily, topping the list of successful candidates in that year. Yet his grades began to take a sharp dip as he was bullied for what was perceived as arrogant behaviour. Later his circle of acquaintances in Cambridge recognised this rudeness as merely his impatience with those around him as Haldane was constantly needy for stimulating conversationalists. Fascinatingly his circle of friends included Julian Huxley, brother of writer Aldous Huxley. While he was young Haldane could be contained and his excessive amounts of energy were (mostly) constructively channeled. In his adulthood he was more or less a loose canon. Doing as he pleased as long as it enabled him to focus on his passion — his work. It did not make him very popular with many people but he did not really care. Perhaps it was this obstinate trait in him that enabled him to believe wholeheartedly in communism. So much so that Haldane’s blind faith in the ideology clouded his scientific temper to see the merit of biologist and plant breeder Nikolay Vavilov who fell victim to Stalin’s purges. Instead as Subramanian recounts in his splendid biography, Haldane in the battle of the geneticists in Stalinist Russia batted for Lysenko, a Stalin favourite, vs Vavilov, a true scientist. In 1943, Haldane was invited to participate in a BBC symposium on the Lysenko controversy. According to Subramanian, Haldane “delicately” handled Lysenko’s primary claim to fame, “the vernalization of wheat” even though it invalidated Haldane’s own research and went against everything that Vavilov had proven via his experiments.

There are many more details in Haldane’s extraordinary life such as being a possible spy, being followed by the MI5 ( the poor suffering agents had to sit through long lectures on the sex life of extinct fungi or a Science for Peace meeting). In 1956 Haldane left London to take up a job as the head of the biometry unit at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata. This was when renowned mathematician P. C. Mahalanobis was the director. Haldane moved lock, stock and barrel to India believing that the country shared his socialist beliefs. After a run-in with Mahalanobis, Haldane moved to a newly established biometry unit in Orissa. He died due to cancer on 1 December 1964 and as a true scientist he donated his body for medical research and teaching.

Samanth Subramanian takes the art of writing a biography to a new level. Packed with information. Detailed, impeccable research, with plenty of end notes and a select biography which runs into a few pages of fine print. A Dominant Character seems to be the new kind of biography where you delve into data as much as you can to recreate a life on paper, with all the highs and lows of the person being chronicled and with no judgement on the part of the author. It is a presentation of facts. It is an interesting balance to achieve as it could not have been easy to put down on paper. In it there is something for everyone — the lay reader, the scientist, the historian, the geneticist, the science historian, researchers etc. It is a form of resurrection in popular forums that is bound to be influential for years to come. In fact it would be fascinating to hear a conversation between Samanth Subramanian and Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee on the science of writing biographies. Till then read A Dominant Character!

Biographies are a useful access route into a slice of history. Through the lens of the personal they enable readers to get their bearings of historical events. It is a pleasurable learning experience if these texts are authenticated by facts as is the case with these two remarkable books.

8 February 2020

Julian Barnes, “The Noise of Time” and Wolfgang Hilbig, “I”

julianbarnestnosiseoftimeBut endless terror continued for another five years. Until Stalin died, and Nikita Khruschev emerged. There was the promise of a thaw, cautious hope, incautious elation. And yes, things did get easier, and some filthy secrets emerged; but there was no sudden idealistic attachment to the truth, merely an awareness that it could now be used to political advantage. And Power itself did not diminish; it just mutated. The terrified wait by the lift and the bullet to the back of the head became things of the past. But Power did not lose interest in him; hands still reached out – and since childhood he had always held a fear of grabbing hands. 

Julian Barnes’s latest novel, The Noise of Time, is about the Russian composer Shostakovich. It is about how he Shostakovichpractised his art, trying to lead a normal life during Stalin’s regime and it was not easy. Shostakovich never joined the Communist Party while Stalin was alive. He  did so much later in 1960 when he was to be appointed by the government as General Secretary of the Composer’s Union and had to be a party member in order to hold the post. ( It was the second time in his life that Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, saw his father weep.)  Julian Barnes has for more than fifty years been a fan of Shostokovich. As he says in an FT interview, “My brother used to sell me the classical music records he most despised or had grown out of.” ( 22 Jan 2016, )

The Noise of Time opening scene is about the performance of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on 26 January 1936 at the Bolshoi Theatre. Shostakovich attended the operatic performance in the presence of Stalin and his Politburo comrades, Molotov, Mikoyan and Zhdanov. It had been a success at home and abroad for more than two years, making Stalin curious. Two days after Shostakovich witnessed Stalin at the theatre, the Pravda carried a scathing article — “Muddle instead of music”. Subsequently, many commissions for Shostakovich dried up. It is said his income fell to at least one-third of what he had been earning. Even his patron,  Marshal Tukhachevsky, was unable to help. During the Great Terror which was to follow Shostakovich was fearful of his life. He lived in great dread of being taken away in the middle of the night as many of his friends and neighbours had been and shot including Marshal Tukhachevsky. But he never was. ( The sketch of the man on the book cover looking over his shoulder anxiously while holding a suitcase is meant to be the composer who for a while waited with a packed suitcase every night waiting to be picked up.) Within these stifling circumstances he tried to lead as normal a life he could, much like his father who ‘was an entirely normal human being’. ( p.22) His music began to be more conservative and in 1946 he composed a cantata, Song of the Forests, praising Stalin as a great gardener. Yet Shostakovich never left Russia. He did go abroad for performances and represented his country officially but he never left unlike Stravinsky.

Keeping an Eye OpenJulian Barnes novel is bio-fic ( to use David Lodge’s term for such literature). It is a sophisticated tribute by one artist to another, the writer imaging the trauma the composer experienced during Stalinism. In his book Keeping an Eye Open ( published 2015) a collection of essays on art and artists, Barnes says, “Artists are greedy to learn and art is self-devouring… .” ( p.103). He then puts forth an old idea of the artist being a voyeur. “This is exactly what the artist should be: one who sees ( and voyeur can also carry the sense of hallucinatory visionary).” (p.123)  In The Noise of Time Barnes probably is so focused on the relationship that Shostakovich had with the Stalinist state that it occupies the bulk of the story. Then the writer gallops through the remaining years reducing even Boris Pasternak to a passing reference and not even mentioning  the legendary black and white production of Hamlet ( 1964). It was based on Pasternak’s translation and Hamlet ( 1964)Shostakovich composed the music.

While one can appreciate Julian Barnes tribute to a musician he has long admired, it is the timing of the publication of the novel that has to be lauded. The Noise of Time is published in 2016, the 400 year birthday celebrations of Shakespeare’s wherein the story of Shostakovich revolves around his musical interpretation of Macbeth. It is also exploring the life of an artist under Stalin’s version of communism in Russia. A form of government that came with the Russian Revolution of 1917, nearly a hundred years ago.

Another book that is worth mentioning here given the many similarities it shares with The Noise of Time is I Hilbigby Wolfgang Hilbig, translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole. It is not an easy book to read for its shifts in literary texture and excessive reliance on interior monologues that can be disconcerting. It is a fear that he lived with in East Germany given how the Ministry for State Security, or Stasi, employed a vast network of official collaborators including literary figures. So Hilbig was never able to trust anyone even though he was never implicated.  , is a book  that leaves the reader very disturbed for the paranoia conveyed by Hilbig in his book written from the perspective of a writer-informant. This feeling of fear is what one is left with upon closing the book.

This unforgiving and constant fear can only be experienced and it is not a figment of anyone’s imagination or relegated to history books. It is still to be found in nations where freedom of expression is stifled and it is even more alarming when it is done using official machinery. At such moments it is immaterial whatever the political system — whether a communist or a democratic state. The full import of living with this kind of round-the-clock anxiety can never really understood by writers and readers distanced from such authoritarian regimes but these stories could be read as appreciating art for art’s sake. Having said that The Noise of Time and are going to be spoken about for a long time to come for the tremendous impact they are going to have on literature and the art of writing.

Julian Barnes The Noise of Time Jonathan Cape, London, 2016. Hb. pp. 180. 

Julian Barnes Keeping An Eye Open Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. Pb. 280

Wolfgang Hilbig I (translated from the German by Isabel Fargo Cole), Seagull Books, 2015. Hb. 

28 January 2016


Web Analytics Made Easy -