top of page

Vasily Grossman's tragic
World War 2 novel is a 
masterclass in social
impact messaging.

By Charley Arrigo

Vasily Grossman.gif

Preface.

The year is 1942. After a Nazi advance that has the Soviet Union near collapse, Vasily Grossman—a Soviet war reporter—is watching the Red Army hang on by tooth and nail in the city of Stalingrad.

 

For Vasily and his countrymen, retreat is forbidden and nobody knows if refuge is anywhere in sight. German storm troopers sweep the streets. Stuka dive bombers scream like devils out of hell, and turn a city into ash.

 

Desperation, duty and death are the spirit of the times.

 

But it was here, in this little known city on the river Volga, that the whole world came to a stop, for a place that few outsiders could find with even an eyeglass and a map.

 

For a battle that could be drawn back to two men.

Introduction.

It was in this front row seat to hell on earth, that inspired war reporter turned novelist, Vasily Grossman, to write Life and Fate.

 

Seen as one of the underrated works of 20th century literature, the story is based on his time during the Eastern Front, which to this day, remains mankind's most prolific death factory.

 

More people died in the face-off between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin than any other theater or continent combined in the Second World War. That's more than the entire population of Canada today (38 million citizens to 40 million dead).

 

The result is a book so devastating, Life and Fate makes All Quiet on the Western Front feel like a children's novel. 

But, I'll stop. Because maybe I have you confused. What does World War 2 have to do with social impact marketing? 

 

First, let me tell you where I stand on the topic. And you can decide if you want to keep reading.

 

(Warning... no holds barred.)

What I hate about social impact marketing.

You know what I hate about social impact marketing? It reduces people to numbers.

 

There's something hollow, if not empty-hearted about the social impact brand whose storytelling consists of asking their graphic designer to put together a social media graphic in bold serif font that says "2 Million People Served."

People need to see impact. Stakeholders, especially. I empathize with that.

 

But as the old saying goes — “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.”

 

And while I'd never suggest you make a habit of looking to Joseph Stalin for life's answers. That just so happens to be an accurate reflection on the human condition by a very, very bad man.

Society is glued to news stories that focus solely on the suffering of one individual. While we seem to forget about those tornadoes that wipe out entire towns in places we can never seem to remember.

It's not right. Just a fact of life.

But it teaches us that storytelling is about more than broad impact, it's about finding the individual struggle within it.

What I love about social impact marketing.

 

You know what I love about social impact marketing? Most social impact brands have something new to add to the conversation.

But, genuinely.

Not like big corporations, where a movement happens, then men in grey suits in some conference room around some unnecessarily long table decide to swallow up "said cause" because according to the latest scientific investigations—brands tend to make more money if only they wave the right colored flag during the right time of year.

That sucks. Just as much as that run on sentence.

 

You founded, joined, or decided to lead a social impact brand because chances are you didn't like how the big guys were doing it.

Well, screw 'em.

This article is about putting in the work. It's about reaching for something deeper in your marketing, and building a story out of human truth.  

Why a marketing article with Nazis?

You ask the right questions.

 

I don't like marketing blogs because they're dryer than a dustbowl. And on LinkedIn, many of those people would piss on their mother's grave if it meant they went viral. As a result, the writing sounds the same. And it's hard to find an original thought anywhere. 

 

Read it enough, and you can actually feel your soul start to whither. It's a quite a feeling.

So when it comes to writing, I like to write on my own terms. Even if it means missing out on a big audience.

Besides, I don’t think the world needs another Simon Sinek. And I don't believe in fortune cookie wisdom anyway.

 

For this article, that's why I've chosen a novel with the gravity of Life and Fate. Because I'd attract deeper readers like you (and because I love classic literature).

But, there's ambition, too.

When everyone goes right, I believe only great writers have within them, that burning desire to reach out and uncover what's on the left (and one day, a great writer is what I hope to be).

What you'll get out of this.

You'll get a philosophical framework for how to tell a better social impact story.

Because as you know, the marketing doesn't improve until the story does. That starts with the narrative. Within Life and Fate, there are 3 principles in the writing structure, that are also used by great social impact brands.

(We'll save the suspense, there's plenty to come).

 

They are — 

 

  1. The Blind Truth

  2. What is Good?

  3. Beyond Good.

 

Everyone sees and applies things differently. So what you'll get out of this article is up to you.

My only hope is that this content will ask you to think. Maybe it'll even challenge what you think. And I consider that a victory in a world of marketing held back by groupthink.

Let's begin.

"When we look one another in the face, we’re neither of us just looking at a face we hate – no, we’re gazing into a mirror. That’s the tragedy of our age."  Said the Gestapo Officer to the Old Bolshevik.

Life and Fate was published in 1980, twenty one years after it was originally written by Grossman on his experiences covering what Joseph Stalin coined as the 'Great Patriotic War'.

In fact, Grossman's writing was so patriotic that the Soviet Union banned his book, and he died of stomach cancer before it saw the light of day.

So, we'll consider this a tribute in the war against censorship.

The book picks up during autumn of 1942. The Red Army is holding on for dear life against the climax of Nazi power in the battle for Stalingrad.

 

In the 16 months since Hitler sent the biggest invasion in history (3.2 million of those Hugo Boss made uniforms) over the border of his mortal enemy—brothers and mothers, sons, fathers and daughters were living and dying in a war the world has never seen.

I was too naive in grade school to know what this war was about.

 

I was more excited about the tanks and planes that seems to have its effect on boys of all ages. Especially, if I may add, the ones who order them from the factory, send them to battle, along with millions of others to their death.  

But this war was different.

Fascists on the right. Communists on the left. And human beings in between.

There was ideology. There was race. There was hatred that burned to such a degree, it was unrivaled even by the sun.

Step one: The Blind Truth.

They’re people like any others — good, bad, gifted, stupid, stolid, cheerful,

kind, sensitive, greedy… Hitler says none of that matters — all that matters is

that they’re Jewish."  Viktor thought.

 

"But then we (the Communists) have the same principle: what matters is whether or not you’re the son of an aristocrat, the son of a merchant, the son of a kulak; and whether you’re good-natured, wicked, gifted, kind, stupid, happy is neither here nor there.”

Social impact marketing at its core, is about building a new narrative.

But, it demands we break down the old. I'm talking about those perceptions that were burned into the brains of your prospect. Perceptions that affect how people think and feel about your product.

To do this, we'll start with our novel's hero, the story of Life and Fate's 

Viktor Shtrum.

Kind of like a Soviet Oppenheimer, he's a leading Jewish physicist with a

mind dead set on changing the world.

 

His work isn't the problem. In fact, it's brilliant.

 

But science in a communist state means one must toe the party line. Viktor won't. And as more colleagues lose their soul to conformity—the more he loses his loyalty to his own country.

 

Yet, as Viktor struggles with the pressure from his own system, he's haunted by the horror of another. 

His mother is shot by the Nazis during the invasion. 

 

Just like Grossman's mother was when her Jewish Ukrainian town of Berdychiv was put into ghettos. Then, exterminated by the Einsatzgruppen, "Special" SS Death Squads, when German Army South captured the town in 1941.

 

The death of Viktor's mother is important.

 

The tragedy lends itself to a narrative structure that intends to break a perception. One that's living not just in our minds, but Viktor's as well.

 

The perception lies in what we the masses think we know about the Nazis and

Communists. 

'Two enemies who're the living, breathing model of left versus right, a

symbol of radical difference in a world where nobody can agree.'

Viktor hates these fascists. Yet as his heart tries to heal, his mind cannot

forget.

 

For him, the Nazi terror waging war on Russian soil, is not as foreign as Stalin wants him and his countrymen to believe. 

In fact, he's seen it all before.

He's lived and loved and worked within this old Bolshevik system—and there's no shortage of cold-blood.

 

Just like that 'Bohemian Corporal' he so hates, Stalin sends people to camps, too. Not because they're Jews. But because they belong to the wrong social class. Or once upon a time, they made too much money off a farm that they owned.

And so, on the train they'd go, for something out of their control. 

It's a ghostly epiphany. One that comes crashing down on Viktor like a bomb

from the German Luftwaffe. The kind that often comes with such force, you're

never really the same once it gets into your consciousness—and gives it a strangle hold.

'What really... is the difference between the Nazis and Communists?' Viktor asks.

 

In a state where free thought is forbidden, the question alone is enough to punch Viktor a one-way ticket to Siberia. 

 

That'll put fear into anyone thinking about saying what's on their mind. Yet the punishment itself, is a testament to those who fear what your words may do to their world.

 

Because anything that questions our world, and challenges how we think, is never welcomed with the comfort of warm embrace. It's feverishly rejected. Not only by friends and neighbors. But those who stand to lose.

 

What a terrible thing it is to be received in kind when we first share our thinking. Only in the volume of our detractors, do we find the true measure of our perspective.

However, I must say. There's a certain safety in staying silent. Nobody will ever hate you. And any pain that comes with having an outside point of view is avoided.

Crisis averted.

 

But then again—you're here—because you want to make more out of your ideas and your social impact. So, in light of Viktor and Life and Fate, I'd consider following this instead:

 

1. The Blind Truth  is the ability to make an individual observation. Most importantly, one that the majority is unwilling to see. Call it "inherent bias." The Blind Truth is so strong that many identities will be shaken. Some would rather even fight, than listen to the fullness of your claim.


 

(For giggles, imagine telling someone in the 1940s during this war, that cigarettes will kill them. Just be ready to roll around in the dirt after the bartender tells you to take the punches outside.)

 

But what about Grossman?

The Blind Truth he saw, was that two enemies fighting over extreme difference—were, under the surface, eerily similar. At first glance, the concept doesn't hold water if you consider the opposing worldviews, the ideological contradictions.

But, the most fascinating human interest stories always betray what we thought we knew.

For the Nazis and Communists, be it a camp or gulag, their means differed but their ends were always the same. Political purges were pathways to power unopposed. Imperialism, mass murder, and the death of the individual, all justified for "the future of the state."

But there was irony, too.

Irony so rich that even a writer like Grossman couldn't pull it from imagination.

 

Because at the heart of even the world's most horrific crimes against humanity, there lies that four letter word spelled with a capital "G".

Step two: What is Good?

"I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women... who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good." Wrote the Preacher Man.

There's a powerful scene in Life and Fate. And will help us build out this next step in our social impact narrative.

 

It occurs when one prudent Soviet prisoner of war realizes that escape from starvation at the hands of the Germans means facing execution from his own home country. (Surrendering was an instant death sentence for Red Army soldiers.)

After reflecting on which side he'd rather die, the Nazis or the Communists. "The Old Bolshevik" as he's called, runs into a fellow prisoner. A preacher of sorts.

 

The man is half-crazed, half-enlightened. He refuses to believe in God anymore. Nor goodness.

Then, The Old Bolshevik picks up what The Preacher Man has scribbled onto paper (which he's most likely stolen from someone in the camp).

He reads it aloud:

"Few people ever attempt to define ‘good’. What is ‘good’? ‘Good’ for whom? Is there a common good – the same for all people, all tribes, all conditions of life? Or is my good your evil? Is what is good for my people evil for your people? Is good eternal and constant? Or is yesterday’s good today’s vice, yesterday’s evil today’s good?"

The Preacher Man's words are simple, yet profound. They are moving, and yet force us to stop. Beyond this manifesto written by a man at the doorsteps of hell—lies a moral dilemma.

As founders, leaders, creators and human beings, "What is Good?" is something we all must answer.

2. What is Good?  It's the process by which we dismantle yesterday's status quo. Through what we've learned from The Blind Truth, we identify perceptions that have been perpetuated. We call them out. We make them known. We unveil them for what they are, a false prophet in the minds of our audience.

 

Grossman says "What is Good?" is in the eyes of the beholder.

He's right.

 

Through the eyes of a man-in-a-toothbrush-mustache, thousand year civilizations, cultures and its citizens, have been herded like cattle into rail cars, put into camps and burned to dust in the name of it.

But "Good" can't be confused with ideologies. And it can't hide behind

emblems. Whether that take the shape of a swastika or red star.

Step three: Beyond Good.

“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." Read the Old Bolshevik (from the scribbles of the Preacher Man).

Politicians. Corporations. Society. Ideals. All inspired by a yesterday you may have never truly believed in. And, the penultimate question. 

 

What's left when "Good" is no longer something we can turn to?

 

I want you to think back to how we began this article. Put yourself into the shoes of Grossman.

 

You're a Red Army reporter, living breath by breath in the ruins at Stalingrad, shells shattering all around; your day is consumed by listening out for those German accents you've grown to fear; the thumping of jackboots that tell you the end could be near.

Dying is as sure as a breath. Surer than food, water, or shelter.

What do you control?

Your life? Whether you'll survive, or die? Maybe what you'll write if you do make it out alive? How you really feel about the war, and those tiny little men who send so many to their death?

Unlikely.

The great theme in Life and Fate, is the tragedy of common people. They fight for freedom against their invaders, only to remain a slave to their own state.

 

They're forced to survive the onslaught of pretenses, false prophets that use words like "patriot" and "country"; those power hungry animals who mistake "truth" for "treason."

 

But beyond this world of tanks and planes and dictators, there are some things that not evil can take away.

Grossman went to the grave hoping we'd understand it. At a time where history seems to be horrifically repeating itself—he hoped, that we would hold onto it.
 

3. Beyond Good  Is the act by which we redefine yesterday's "Good." Moving far away from the ideals, perceptions and stereotypes that are the antithesis of our offering, we put into words, this new thinking that directly contrasts the old world with the new world—a declaration for what lies Beyond Good.
 

The Preacher Man was the bearer of Beyond Good.

 

And he challenges us.

Like what separates insanity from enlightenment? Is it a fine line? Does one bleed into the other? Feed off each other? What if one is not possible without the other?

The Preacher Man has taken a patriotic plunge into the horrors of war, his words are none other than a harrowing perspective shaped by genocidal war.

He's seen more than any man can see before life becomes unlivable. Yet as the Nazis force life out of him, and his home country has no place for him, his soul holds on. 

The Preacher Man knows deep inside in a place that the Machine cannot reach, that there's a world Beyond Good and evil. 

"Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital ‘G’, there is every day 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.

With that, we've made it.

You've been introduced to the three steps toward building a better social impact narrative — The Blind Truth, What is Good?, and Beyond Good.

It's the foundation to better storytelling. Because as I like to say to my clients, the marketing doesn't improve until the story does.

I hope you've enjoyed this article. This journey through Life and Fate and the insights and heartbreak of Vasily Grossman.

 

As much as I'd love to keep you, must send you off into the world... because I know you have some things to say of your own.

 

And so, goodbye I tell you now.

 

Goodbye for now.

- Charley

a-nazi-soldier-murdering-jewish-civilians-including-a-mother-and-child-in-1942-at-ivanhoro
A German soldier shares his rations with a Russian mother, 1941.webp
bottom of page