Peter Davison on parallels between George Orwell & Vasily Grossman

Parallel Worlds: George Orwell and Vasily Grossman,
by Peter Davison

Hearing John Baker speak at the PEN Conference in London in August 1944 led Orwell to make a serious start on what would become Nineteen Eighty-Four. Baker exposed the perversion of science under Stalin particularly through the part played by Trofim Denisovich Lysenko. Lysenko rejected traditional hybridisation and believed he could make wheat become rye. Stalin had complete faith in him and decreed that any biologist opposing him should be dismissed: some 3,000 were, some to prison camps to die.

Baker argued that ‘The case of Lysenko provides a vivid illustration of the degradation of science under a totalitarian regime.’ Although Lysenko’s approach failed utterly he was not discredited in the USSR until 1964. Orwell’s writings were frequently attacked, especially by Communists, but until hearing Baker he believed that science, being ‘fact-based’, was immune from such prejudice.

Thus, ‘countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying a historical fact.’ The case of Lysenko demonstrated otherwise to him. The fog of lies and misinformation that affected even the factual – the scientific – showed him only too clearly how destructive of truth was Soviet communism.

Just as Lysenko’s work depended on a denial of science, so is science denied in Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Science, in the old sense, has almost ceased to exist.’ In Newspeak ‘There was, indeed, no word for “Science”, any meaning that it could possibly bear being already sufficiently covered by the word Ingsoc’.

What is particularly interesting is how well Orwell sensed the atmosphere of life under the Soviet regime without his ever having lived there. His insight into what motivated and what would eventually undermine Stalin’s empire, coupled with his creative genius in offering a warning for all time rather than merely prophesying what might happen, has given Nineteen Eighty-Four its enduring power. It was a mark of his genius that in highlighting the significance of scientific truth and the danger implicit in distorting it, the novel is continuously relevant. It is possible to see how accurately he hit the mark by examining the work of his great contemporary, the Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman. His novels, Life and Fate and Everything Flows, show striking parallels with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. Though neither author knew of the other, nor of what each had written, they both saw the dangers of a society destroying genius and denying people their freedom and individuality in similar terms.

The common element is Lysenko, for Orwell a real-life character, but in Grossman transformed as the fictitious physicist, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum. Shtrum, however, is the reverse of Lysenko and becomes, as Robert Chandler describes him, the author himself.

Shtrum and Winston betray their better instincts. Shtrum signs a letter asserting that two doctors had killed Gorky, something he knew to be false; Winston screams ‘Do it to Julia! Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! …’; Grossman felt he had betrayed his mother to the Germans in not getting her out of Berdichev. Hence his perfect epigraph for those who struggle hard to do what is right but, on a single occasion, fail:

Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness. The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed – while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single sin for years on end.

It is impossible in a brief article to list the many parallels between the writings of these two authors, but a select few might be illuminating. Thus, Grossman’s description of ‘The attitude of a Party leader to any matter, to any film, to any book, had to be infused with the spirit of the Party; however difficult it might be’, and Orwell’s ‘All the beliefs, habits, tastes, emotions, mental attitudes that characterise our time are really designed to sustain the mystique of the Party and prevent the true nature of present-day society from being perceived’.

Winston’s discovery of a photograph providing ‘concrete evidence’ contradicting that given at a state trial is paralleled in Life and Fate by ‘The might of the State had constructed a new past’, transforming past events by changing ‘the face in a news photograph.’ For Winston, ‘the past not only changed, but changed continuously’; in Life and Fate, ‘A new history had been written.’ In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is the adulation of Big Brother; in Life and Fate, Shtrum ‘counted eighty-six mentions of Stalin’s name in one issue of Pravda; the following day he counted eighteen mentions in one editorial’.

Life and Fate has the story of the proof-reader sent to a labour camp for seven years for missing a typo in Stalin’s name; Nineteen Eighty-Four has poor Ampleforth meeting a similar fate for rhyming ‘rod’ with ‘God.’ In both books and in Everything Flows there is repeated puzzlement as to why innocent men and women confess to crimes they had not committed. One cannot forget the horror of the false confessions of the animals in Animal Farm. The four pigs confess and the dogs tear out their throats; three hens are slaughtered; a goose confesses to secreting six ears of corn; a sheep to urinating in the drinking pool; then two more sheep, all slain on the spot: ‘And so the tale of confessions and executions went on, until there was a pile of corpses lying before Napoleon’s feet.’ One can readily see why it was that the Ukrainian Displaced Persons to whom Ihor Sevczenko read Animal Farm responded acutely to Orwell’s tale, knowing how, during Stalin’s Ukrainian Terror Famine, ‘even to glean grain from the field [was] severely punished’.

There are more generalised similarities. Thus, Krymov believes it was Zhenya who had betrayed him just as Winston and Julia confess that they had betrayed each other. In Everything Flows, Nikolay Andreyevich has to convince himself he has not betrayed his cousin, Ivan. Krymov’s interrogation, though different in detail to Winston’s shock treatment and the cage of rats, has parallels in its savage beatings. Both are injected with syringes.

Nothing of this sort appears in Grossman’s reports for the Red Army newspaper, Red Star, on Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, the taking of Berlin, and Treblinka Extermination/Concentration Camp. Full awareness of Stalin’s monstrosities came later. Stories written in the 1930s when Grossman was still a loyal Stalinist, however, might suggest he even then had doubts about Soviet life. The BBC’s Radio 4 discussion of Grossman on 12 September stated that his early stories are not available in English, but several are. ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ (where Grossman’s mother was killed) and especially ‘A Young Woman and an Old Woman’ (both in The Road, 2010), suggest Grossman’s doubts if one reads between the lines. Thus, in the former, Haim-Abram Leibovich-Magazanik says, ‘this is the best time for all of us townsfolk. One lot has left – and the next has yet to arrive. No requisitions, no “voluntary contributions”, no pogroms’. And, like Orwell, in Animal Farm, Grossman also wrote stories from the point of view of animals: the mule in The Road and ‘The Dog’ in that same collection.


2 thoughts on “Peter Davison on parallels between George Orwell & Vasily Grossman

  1. Lovely piece, Peter. Animal Farm and 1984 have a way of stopping you in your tracks, freezing the moment, making you think in shock and awe how these things can actually happen. Grossman’s work obviously does the same. Thank you.


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