In 1961 Vasily Grossman was summoned by Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union’s ideological commissar, to discuss the fate of a manuscript that the KGB had confiscated from his flat. Suslov told Grossman the manuscript was so incendiary that publication was unthinkable "for another two to three hundred years." The work in question was Life and Fate, Grossman’s epic novel about the entangled lives of two Soviet families during World War II. In structure and spirit the novel is reminiscent of War and Peace, and it proved anathema to Soviet authorities because it portrays Stalinist Russia as a totalitarian state, likening it to the fascist Nazi regime.
How do we know this? Before KGB agents searched his home, Grossman had entrusted two copies of the manuscript to close friends. One copy was smuggled to the West after the writer’s untimely death from cancer in 1964. Translated and published by a Russian émigré press in 1980 and reissued in the NYRB Classics series in 2006, Life and Fate has earned Grossman a worldwide audience. NYRB has followed suit with translations of two more Grossman titles: The Road, a compilation of fiction and nonfiction from the 1930s to the early ’60s, and Everything Flows, a short novel brimming with historical reflections that Grossman worked on from 1955 until his death. Masterfully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, the two volumes reveal a crucial dimension of Grossman’s oeuvre to English readers for the first time.
Grossman is often described as a writer who led antithetical lives. There is the celebrated young author of the 1930s and ’40s who was repeatedly nominated for a Stalin Prize, and there is the embittered, postwar writer whose manuscripts rarely left the drawer. Some Western critics extol the late Grossman as an anti-Soviet "individual freedom fighter" while regarding many of his prewar works as little more than conventional Soviet set pieces, or puzzles laden with subversive meanings. The Road and Everything Flows, which assemble stories early and late, published and unpublished, suggest a different view: the work is all of a piece, and its author kept exploring the same moral questions while progressively expanding his critical frame of vision. "We [are]," Grossman wrote, "people of the epoch of Fascism." This was in 1955, ten years after the end of the war. The Nazi onslaught opened his eyes to a number of fundamental oppositions: between freedom and oppression, "life" and "fate," the individual and state power. Over time he concluded that these oppositions did not vanish with the defeat of Hitler’s Germany but instead could emerge in different forms in different political systems. How might ordinary people meet the challenges of an extraordinary era of violence and the political oppression of the twentieth century? What can—and must—we do as individuals, not just to survive but to preserve our humanity? During the postwar years, Grossman argued that even the Soviet state was a foe of humanity. This made him a heretic in Suslov’s eyes. Yet it was Grossman’s moral seriousness, anchored by his admiration of the Soviet revolution and its universal ideals of humanity and freedom, that spurred him on.
Grossman died in a Moscow hospital, bitter and alone. He was buried in the Troyekurovskoye cemetery on the city’s outskirts after state officials denied his wife’s request that he be laid to rest in Novodevichye, the most famous Russian cemetery. If he could have chosen his burial place it might have been, following the story "Eternal Rest," alongside other believers in a world commune. The Soviet century, his life experience suggests, accounted not only for human tragedies, large and small, at the hand of callous state leaders and their willing henchmen; it also produced a luminous writer whose abiding moral concerns derived from Russian literary traditions and the Communist age, and whose questions remain vital after the passing of the Communist state.