VASILY GROSSMAN AND THE SOVIET CENTURY
By Alexandra Popoff
On Feb. 14, 1961, Vasily Grossman’s novel “Life and Fate” was arrested. K.G.B. agents confiscated several copies of the manuscript in Grossman’s Moscow apartment, as well as others in his friends’ apartments and the editorial offices of two journals. Grossman himself, a famous war correspondent and author of other celebrated novels, was not arrested. But “Life and Fate” was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988 , 24 years after Grossman died at the age of 58, and even then only in an abridged version.
Presenting a vast panorama of World War II centered on the story of several individual heroes, “Life and Fate” has been compared to Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” It is not a literary masterpiece; Boris Pasternak regarded only “60 pages” in Grossman’s earlier 600-page novel, “For the Right Cause” (which foreshadowed the first part of “Life and Fate”), as “genuine.” The Russian poet Polina Barskova, who has written about Grossman, reports that Anna Akhmatova apparently did not bother to read “For the Right Cause.”
But “Life and Fate” was a political bombshell. It was the first Soviet work to equate Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the two totalitarian regimes that confronted each other as enemies in the war. The pairing of late Stalinist anti-Semitism with Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was devastating. Mikhail Suslov, the Kremlin’s gray cardinal in charge of ideology, told Grossman: “Your book contains direct parallels between us and Hitlerism. … Your book speaks positively about religion, God, Catholicism. Your book defends Trotsky. Your book is filled with doubts about the legitimacy of our Soviet system. … Your book is incomparably more dangerous to us than ‘Doctor Zhivago.’” The official Soviet Writers Union informed Grossman that his novel might someday be considered publishable, but “perhaps not for 250 years.”
The story of “Life and Fate,” as told in “Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century” by Alexandra Popoff, a former Soviet journalist, is gripping. Equally revealing is the rest of Grossman’s biography: He was a celebrated Soviet writer who turned against the Soviet regime but tried to express his doubts within the limits it allowed. He was neither an apologist nor a dissident; like so many Soviet intellectuals, he led an often tormented “double” life.
Grossman trained to be a chemical engineer, but found his calling as a writer in the 1930s, reporting how workers were faring during the first two Five-Year Plans. Almost immediately he had to cope with censors who banned several of his short stories, but Maxim Gorky, the famous writer who briefly became a key arbiter of taste in the early ’30s, took a liking to Grossman and his work. Grossman managed to avoid arrest during Stalin’s purges, even after his wife, Olga, was seized in 1938 but then released. By the end of the ’30s he had fewer illusions about Stalinism and, as a result, was writing “for the desk drawer.” Meanwhile, however, his novel “Stepan Kolchugin” appeared in installments in 1939-40 and was wildly popular. By the end of a decade marred by collectivization and terror, Grossman, remembered a close friend, seemed a happy man: “He had literary success … interesting and intelligent friends, and a beautiful wife.”
The war further elevated Grossman’s reputation. Reporting from the front for three years, including the blood bath at Stalingrad, he conveyed the horrors of war as well as the incredible resilience of Russian soldiers and civilians. His 1942 novel, “The People Immortal,” depicting a people’s war rather than one whose main hero was Stalin, inspired the troops and was republished several times. But his wartime notebooks, containing material he would later use in novels like “Life and Fate,” portrayed chaos, incompetence and devastating defeats for which Stalin’s draconian, reckless leadership was largely responsible.
In the fall of 1941 Grossman wrote to Olga, “I’ve become a different person.” A year later he wrote from Stalingrad, “I’ve never felt so deeply as I do now.” In the midst of war, he jousted with editors of the military newspaper Red Star, who wanted to reshape his reporting from the front. Yet fame and fortune continued to tempt him. When the 1942 Stalin Prize went to Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel “The Fall of Paris,” rather than to “The People Immortal,” Grossman confessed he was “very upset and offended,” especially since Stalin himself was said to have vetoed Grossman’s candidacy. When Grossman’s dear friend Semyon Lipkin later warned him there was “no hope” that “Life and Fate” would be published, Grossman insisted on submitting it anyway — to a hard-line Communist editor, no less.
As told by Popoff, the stories behind Grossman’s stories, particularly of censors’ efforts to alter and limit them, are fascinating. Censors wanted to delete a scene of a Soviet battery commander dying in a pool of black blood (too gruesome, they said; also, the commander was Jewish) from an article about the Battle of Kursk, the war’s biggest tank battle. Grossman’s editor, who managed to save the description, was soon fired. Grossman’s “Ukraine Without Jews,” depicting what was left after Nazi extermination, was suppressed entirely. “The Hell of Treblinka,” about the death factory Grossman entered just after it was liberated, made it into print unchanged. But “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry” was banned. It was prepared by Grossman and Ehrenburg along with members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who were mobilized in 1942 to support the Soviet war effort but were charged and executed after the war as “spies.”
Grossman succeeded in getting much, but far from all, of “For the Right Cause” into print; he had to revise it 10 times and obey instructions such as: “Take out Malenkov”; “Take out Stalindorf” (residents of a Jewish agricultural colony eliminated by Stalin); stress “the Party, not only the people.” The novel’s final installment was published in October 1952, a mere five months before Stalin’s death. But in January 1953, Grossman signed an open letter demanding extreme punishment for Jewish physicians accused of trying to murder Kremlin leaders in the so-called “Doctors’ Plot.” Although the open letter wasn’t published, Grossman never forgave himself.
Popoff describes Grossman in his last years as “impoverished, dejected, lonely.” But the dying writer managed to finish one more novel, “Everything Flows,” which he had begun drafting in 1955. It included a devastating portrait of Stalin’s collectivization campaign that led to the death of millions of peasants in the 1930s, tracking some who returned from the labor camps after Stalin’s death. The book’s main message is “there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom.”
Putin’s Russia, too, has found reasons to sacrifice human freedom. Grossman’s books are available, but not widely, in a regime that legitimizes itself by glorifying the Russian past and especially the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II. Popoff’s book has its flaws: Its writing can be labored and she too often assumes that characters in Grossman’s novels and stories can be considered stand-ins for him. But her emphasis on what she calls “the connection between totalitarian regimes and political ignorance” not only applies to Soviet Russia but constitutes a warning for the United States. Popoff quotes Hannah Arendt: “If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. … And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people, you can do what you please.”
William Taubman, Bertrand Snell emeritus professor of political science at Amherst College, is the author of biographies of Nikita Khrushchev and of Mikhail Gorbachev.
VASILY GROSSMAN AND THE SOVIET CENTURY
By Alexandra Popoff
395 pp. Yale University Press. $32.50.
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