It was a film censored and shelved by the KGB for more than 20 years, because its favorable depiction of Jews didn’t jibe with Party doctrine. Based on the short story that launched Vasily Grossman’s Soviet literary career, 1967’s Commissar brought his 1934 tale “In the Town of Berdichev” to the big screen.
For ten years, Grossman exploited his ability to publish works of striking realism on the plight of all Russians, including Jews, but with a patriotic style that satisfied Soviet censors. As Keith Gessen wrote in a 2006 New Yorker article, Grossman “understood the rules and he was going to play by them.”
He was not alone. “The rules” had been beaten into fellow writer Olga Berggolts after she was imprisoned in late 1938 as part of Stalin’s Great Purge. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich had been publicly denounced in 1936, while the poet Anna Akhmatova was slapped with a 15-year publication ban on all of her work, and forced to hide her masterpiece, Requiem, which mourned Stalin’s campaign against his own people. Yet, when Hitler’s army besieged the city of Leningrad in 1941, all three took on the public mantles of Soviet patriots.
To mark today’s 65th anniversary of the lifting of that siege, the Shorefront Y hosted the Dialogue Literary Theater’s presentation of “I Speak With You from Leningrad…”, a Russian-language performance taken from the music of Shostakovich and the writings of Berggolts and Akhmatova, both of whom weathered the brutal 900-day Leningrad siege, in part, through defiant artistic expression. Indeed, the title of the play itself is a quote spoken by Berggolts and others while broadcasting patriotic writings over Soviet radio from within the embattled city.
The fact that anyone survived such a harrowing ordeal is, itself, amazing. And yet, when set against the larger war — which left over 20 million Russian casualties — and subsequent decades of Russian Jewish life that saw the threat of a Nazi-sponsored Holocaust replaced with Soviet anti-Semitism, one might wonder why a Jewish organization would host a reading of works celebrating Soviet patriotism.
One reason may lay within the tight controls placed on Russian artists of the Great Purge era — a time when the everyday existence of many Russian Jews, especially those with artistic celebrity, was overshadowed by a government demand for intellectual and religious submission. In order to survive, poets and journalists of all religious stripes had to compromise free expression for messages considered acceptable to Stalin’s government. And no Russian Jewish writer better embodied that compromise than Vasily Grossman.
When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Grossman became a field correspondent for the newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (”Red Star”), and spent three years riding with the Red Army through some of the most pivotal battlefields of the war. This included another famously-besieged city: Stalingrad, where he wrote about Vasily Zaitsev, a Soviet sniper whose encounter with a German opponent is the basis for the film Enemy at the Gates.
But as the Red Army cut south into Ukraine, and then west toward Berlin, Grossman witnessed a far less heroic side of the war. He learned that the Jewish populace in his hometown of Berdichev, including his own mother, had been murdered. In Poland, he saw the remains of the Treblinka and Majdanek concentration camps, and his 1944 article “The Hell of Treblinka” would later be used as evidence for the prosecution at Nuremberg.
These experiences would spur Grossman and fellow writer Ilya Ehrenburg to begin compiling The Black Book, a master collection of Soviet data on the Holocaust. Yet, unlike Grossman’s earlier writings, this one would be suppressed by Soviet censors — due in no small part to the report’s assertion that the Holocaust was primarily aimed at Jews, and that Ukrainians had been complicit in the Nazi liquidation of ghettos like Berdichev.
For Grossman, The Black Book’s suppression was devastating, and served as his wakeup call to the overtly anti-Semitic policies of the Stalin regime. After more than a decade of dutifully writing by “the rules,” the creative compromise he’d come to live by was broken. For the rest of his life, Grossman tried — mostly in vain — to publish works which included criticisms of the Soviet system.
Again, he was not alone. In 1987, 43 years after the end of the Leningrad siege (and 21 years after her death), Anna Akhmatova’s long-suppressed Requiem was finally published in its complete form in Russia.
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