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A survivor speaks

Efim Schumann / dbJanuary 27, 2014

Distinguished Russian author Daniil Granin, a survivor of the Nazis' siege of Leningrad during World War II, addresses the German parliament on international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Daniil Granin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Daniil Granin is a phenomenon.

The 95-year-old writer is an undisputed moral authority for young Russians fond of Western ways and liberties. But even incorrigible old communists who still mourn the demise of the Soviet Union and are convinced that the West is out to enslave and corrupt the country show great respect.

The Russian opposition appreciates Granin as one of the pioneers of perestroika and a fearless advocate of democracy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, wary of the freedom of the press and other democratic liberties, visited Granin in his home to congratulate him on his 95th birthday.

Subversive conscience

Writer, intellectual, humanist and cultural sponsor, Daniil Granin is one of the most outstanding characters of Russian contemporary literature and Russian society. He is the author of many books that focus on the protagonists' "moral choice" and often on talented scientists grappling with bureaucracy. “Those Who Seek” and “Into the Storm” are early works that don't appear to contradict the ruling ideology.

Granin was chairman of the country's Union of Writers, but hard-line literature critics watched him like a hawk, accusing him of a "bourgeois lack of character."

The Soviet Union's ideological watchdogs regarded Granin's works not only as odd from a communist point of view, but also subversive. The observant overseers had a point: Granin wrote about mercy, remorse, tolerance and the conscience - notions dangerous to the prevailing ideology

Leningrad occupation
Granin was a young soldier in beseiged LeningradImage: imago/ITAR-TASS

"From the start, the communist ideology carried out a general amnesty that had become necessary in the name of the Socialist cause," he reflected later in life. "Soviet citizens were supposed to believe in the wisdom of the party that never errs. That absolved the individual from any responsibility."

A reluctant war hero

The censors butchered many of his books, including the famous “Book of the Blockade” set during the 900-day siege of Leningrad. About one million people, mainly civilians, lost their lives in the siege and most of them died of hunger. The Soviet Union stylized the siege as a heroic epic.

With the help of documents, diaries and survivors' personal memoirs, Granin and co-chronicler Ales Adamovich showed how badly the people suffered and asked who was responsible on the Soviet side. The book was fully published only after the liberalization policies known as perestroika took hold. Both the book and Granin played an important role in strengthening the German-Russian dialogue.

Daniil Granin and Michail Chodorkowski
Granin and Kremlin critic Michail ChodorkovskiImage: imago/Russian Look

Granin was 22 years old when he fought to protect Leningrad. He joined the Communist Party, volunteered and eventually served as a tank officer in World War II and was awarded a number of war medals. But he never wrote a book about his experiences during the war.

In an interview during the Brezhnev era, when World War II was glorified as the Great Patriotic War, Granin was surprisingly candid: "During that war, I learned to hate and kill, to be brutal and vindictive - everything a person doesn't need," he said.

Never a militant or blatant dissident, Granin despises violence. One could assume he is not a big fighter but he is in his own way. Granin has always been unyielding, a quiet fighter. In his work “Lost Mercy - a Russian Experience,” he criticized the truism that it needs fists to push through good deeds. "Good deeds initiated by violence won't generate anything good,” Granin wrote. “Good is strong enough in itself, not least because it creates awareness for justice."

The co-founder of the Russian PEN center, Granin is an adversary of "people who have an underdeveloped conscience." An idealist perhaps?. But also a wise and just man who has lived to see much and knows the world.

For sure, Granin is an excellent choice to address the German Bundestag on Holocaust Remembrance Day.