Vasily Grossman is hard to pigeonhole. A Jewish novelist and journalist and not a party member, he was one of the Soviet Union’s leading war correspondents during World War II, first at Stalingrad, then with the Soviet Army moving westward. He wrote powerfully about the destruction of the Jews of the Ukraine and Poland. His big postwar novels, For the Right Cause and Life and Fate, drew on his wartime experiences, and at one point it seemed he might be a plausible contender for the role of the Soviet Tolstoy. But the novels, especially Life and Fate, had too strong a Jewish theme for the Soviet authorities. They also suggested a basic similarity between the Soviet and Nazi political systems, so he often had trouble with the censors, though his work was never under a total ban. Life and Fate was confiscated by the KGB in 1961 before publication, but his other writings stayed in print, and he remained at liberty and died of cancer a few years later.
Grossman was never a favorite of Soviet dissidents, being too Soviet-minded for them and coming too early, and during his lifetime he had prickly relations with the main reform-minded Soviet journal of his day, Novyi Mir. While Western literary critics were often lukewarm about his work for stylistic reasons, Life and Fate nevertheless finally found a niche with Western readers who enjoyed its big, multicharacter war-and-Holocaust narrative and its clear moral line, relaxed narration, and vivid realistic settings culled from his journalistic days. No doubt those readers also approved of the implicit message that Soviet Communism and Nazism were much the same thing.
When people write about Grossman, they often start by complaining that he is insufficiently appreciated. That is an odd comment about a writer whose work achieved great popularity in his homeland and—mainly after his death—abroad, but there is a grain of truth. He is not in the Western or Russian canon of top Russian writers or great Soviet dissidents and truth tellers. The Americans Carol and John Garrard published a biography (The Bones of Berdichev) on Grossman in 1996, stressing the Jewish subject matter of his novels and the pivotal impact of his mother’s killing, along with the rest of the Jewish population of Berdichev, under German occupation. In 2005, World War II historian Antony Beevor, with Luba Vinogradova, published Grossman’s wartime diaries (A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army 1941–1945), a salutary reminder of his perspicacity and reportorial talents as well as his celebrity as a Soviet war correspondent, and a recent Russian-language monograph by Yurii Bit-Iunan provides an exhaustive examination of Grossman’s work in the context of the byzantine intrigues and struggles with the censors that characterized Moscow literary life in the 1950s and ’60s.
What Alexandra Popoff’s new biography seeks to add to the mix is not altogether clear. Like other Grossman biographers, she argues that he has not been adequately appreciated. His prose, in her view, “hasn’t aged,” and his ideas “are essential to understanding Russia’s totalitarian past and authoritarian present.” She praises him as having “the mentality of a man from the free world” and implicitly makes an even stronger claim for his moral status in her epigraph, from Elie Wiesel’s 1972 Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters: “His daring, his frankness were drawn from his very despair. So was his revolt.”
Both characterizations seem seriously off. Grossman, a quintessentially Soviet (meaning someone formed by operating within the Soviet context) literary figure, did not revolt, and he was not apparently all that despairing, either. Like many Soviet writers who had troubles with censorship, his intermittent daring and frankness coexisted with a prudent understanding of the rules of the game and an ability to produce work that could be published and even acclaimed by Soviet authorities. Keith Gessen, writing in a 2006 issue of The New Yorker, captures the ambivalence of the man more accurately when he quotes Grossman’s assertion of Soviet patriotism: “All that I possess—my education, my success as a writer, the high privilege of sharing my thoughts and feelings with Soviet readers—I owe to the Soviet government.” This is from a groveling letter to security chief Nikolai Yezhov in 1938. Gessen comments, “That part was true; or, at least, Grossman meant it. He basically meant it.”
But perhaps Popoff’s most exalting claims in her epigraph and introduction need not be taken too seriously. After all, the detailed story of Grossman’s career in the body of her book is quite compatible with a less heroic view of him. In Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century we find a complicated figure, a writer who was committed to the Soviet project and willing to make the necessary compromises to achieve great success in Soviet terms but who was frequently frustrated by the constraints it imposed on him.
The man later known as Vasily Semyonovich Grossman, with a Russian name and patronymic, started life in 1905 in Berdichev with the Jewish name Iosif Solomonovich, though from the beginning, his prosperous, assimilated, secular, and Russian-speaking Jewish family called him Vasya (a diminutive of Vasily). He had an unusual childhood, living in Switzerland with his mother, Ekaterina Savelievna, from age 5 to 7 after his parents divorced and returning in 1912 to Berdichev, a major town in the southwestern region of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, which Poland ceded to Russia in the 18th century. There they settled into the “peaceful and plentiful” household of her brother-in-law David Sherentsis, a prosperous doctor whose wife, Savelievna’s sister, was a passionate philanthropist working with the poor.
They had two sons of their own, Peter and Victor, and Vasya was welcomed and loved. Although Vasya remained a member of this household until he grew up and moved to Kiev and then Moscow and he wrote affectionately about it in fictional form (with himself as the only son, disposing of his cousins), we hear very little about it after Grossman left Berdichev. Sherentsis’s clinic was nationalized by the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917, but he evidently continued to practice as a doctor and provide a home for his sister-in-law (and later for a daughter from Grossman’s short-lived first marriage) until he was arrested and shot in 1937 during the Great Purge.
Having proletarian origins—which Grossman clearly did not possess—was at a premium in the early Soviet years, so it would have been interesting to know more than Popoff tells us about how he made the considerable leap from bourgeois status as an adolescent in Berdichev to having acquired some proletarian veneer before entering Moscow State University at the age of 18. We do learn he briefly worked in a factory and spent a year or so in a proletarian educational institution in Kiev, but how he got into the most prestigious university in the country remains unclear. Perhaps a useful family connection in Moscow played a part: His elder cousin Nadya Almaz worked in the mid-1920s as the personal secretary to a Bolshevik bigwig, Solomon Lozovsky, who at the time was the head of the trade-union international Profintern.
Almaz, at any rate, was the one whose contacts launched Grossman into journalism after his graduation as a chemical engineer. He worked as an engineer in the mines of the Donbass, and his early writing focused on the very Soviet subject of industrial life and workers’ conditions. It was there that he honed a skill that was crucial in his later journalistic (and writing) life: the ability to interview individuals and get an interesting story out of them.
Although Grossman made a modest reputation for himself as a writer in the 1930s, it was his work as a war correspondent during World War II that made him famous. Like his illustrious contemporaries Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov, Grossman wrote for the military newspaper Krasnaia Zvezda under its independent-minded editor David Ortenberg, who, like many of his correspondents, was Jewish. Grossman made his name at Stalingrad, reporting on the crucial battles of the fall and winter of 1942, which ended the Germans’ long advance into Russia. Then he moved westward with the Soviet Army as it pushed the invaders back. In Elista, the capital of Soviet Kalmykia, Grossman heard in February 1943 that the Germans had killed all 93 Jewish families there during the occupation. Reaching the Ukraine, he heard similar news of mass murder of Jews by the Germans, and he wrote about it in a story, “The Old Teacher,” published in the literary journal Znamia in 1943.
It’s often said that the Soviet Union refused to recognize the Holocaust and prevented the publication of war correspondents’ reports on it. This is true up to a point, but it is only part of the story. Soviet leaders (and, as far as can be ascertained, the majority of the Soviet population as well) were always uneasy about any suggestion that the Soviet people were not the chief victims of Nazism, and therefore they tended to play down the special status of Jews as Nazi victims. But Soviet war correspondents—several of them Jewish—were among the first to write about the mass murder of Jews in occupied Ukraine and Poland.
Grossman was one of them. He was with the Soviet troops who liberated the Maidanek concentration camp and then Treblinka, and he wrote about Dachau. The Nazis’ extermination of Europe’s Jews was a topic of tremendous importance to him, not only because he was a Jew but also because his mother, who had remained in Berdichev, was one of the 12,000 Jews who were murdered there in September 1941. Grossman heard early accounts of this massacre, but it was a long time before he could accept that his mother was among the victims. His grief was compounded by the fact that he had not brought her to live with him in Moscow because of his wife’s objections. Unlike in his fictionalized account in his postwar novel Life and Fate, there was no last letter from her before her death, only two heartbroken, unsent letters that Grossman wrote to her after the war.
Grossman’s powerful article “Ukraine Without Jews,” completed in the fall of 1943, was scheduled for publication in Russian in the December issue of Znamia, but at the last moment, the censor forbade it, although the piece was allowed to appear in a Yiddish translation in the journal of the Soviet Anti-Fascist Committee, Eynikayt. “Jews are silent across Ukraine,” he wrote. “None are left in Ukraine…. Silence. Stillness…. This is not the death of armed people during the war…. This is the murder of a people…of a people’s soul and body. An entire people murdered.” A page or two later, he wrote, “The Germans execute Jews solely because they are Jews…. Being a Jew—is the greatest crime, and it’s punishable by death.”
Grossman had to fight too for the publication of his article “The Hell of Treblinka,” but this was a marginally less sensitive issue, since it involved deaths in Polish rather than Ukrainian territory, and this time he won. The piece appeared in Znamia in 1944 and was reissued as a stand-alone publication by the chief Soviet military publishing house, was translated into many languages, and was distributed by the Soviet delegation at Nuremberg as part of the evidence of Nazi war crimes.
Grossman and Ehrenburg, another celebrated Jewish war correspondent who wrote about the destruction of the Jews, hoped to get the whole issue out to the Soviet and international public via a compendium of Nazi crimes, The Black Book of Russian Jewry, to which Grossman contributed his Treblinka article and “The Murder of the Jews of Berdichev.” The Black Book’s sponsor was a wartime creation, the Soviet Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which for a few years enjoyed remarkable status and access to the Soviet leadership as a self-appointed representative for Soviet Jews in addition to its formal brief of fund-raising and publicity for the Soviet Union in the international Jewish community. But in the end, only international versions of The Black Book came out, distributed by the propaganda agency Sovinformburo under the direction of Solomon Lozovsky (the man Grossman’s cousin Nadya Almaz worked for before the war). The agitation and propaganda department of the Party Central Committee found the domestic publication of The Black Book “inexpedient,” and it was banned in October 1947.
Popular anti-Semitism was always latent in the Soviet Union, even if it was discouraged by the Soviet state and Communist Party in the prewar years. But with the onset of the war, such sentiment rose sharply. It became even more pronounced in the years after the war: In Stalin’s last years, anti-Semitism became quasi-official in practice in the Soviet Union, if never formally or explicitly condoned. Young Jews had difficulty getting into universities, and older Jews often ran into trouble at work. The Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee was closed down, and most of its leaders were executed, along with Lozovsky, one of their (and probably Grossman’s) main patrons. Solomon Mikhoels, the director of Moscow’s famous Yiddish theater and a friend of Grossman and Ehrenburg, was murdered on an out-of-town trip, apparently on Stalin’s orders. The covert anti-Semitic campaign culminated in the arrest of a group of Kremlin doctors accused of treachery and terrorism in the so-called Doctor’s Plot in 1952.
Neither Grossman nor Ehrenburg was among the victims. Grossman, in fact, flourished professionally in the early 1950s. His novel For the Right Cause, a Tolstoyan epic on World War II based largely on his wartime reportage at Stalingrad, was published to acclaim, and it became a blockbuster with the Soviet public. Grossman had prepublication trouble with the censors, who were unhappy with a central character being Jewish. But Grossman refused to budge on that, though making some other concessions, and eventually prevailed.
Fights with the censors were more or less par for the course in the late Stalin period, particularly for major literary works. Vladimir Dudintsev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn struggled to get their novels Not by Bread Alone and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich published. But Grossman faced an even more significant challenge, which resulted from not having Novy Mir on his side; its editors felt that the non–party member Grossman was not enough of a Communist and was too inclined to foreground Jewish issues.
The Jewish motifs in For the Right Cause became even more pronounced in Life and Fate, a second volume about the same characters, which Grossman completed in 1960. Written after Stalin’s successors called off his campaign against Soviet Jewry, the book’s Jewish themes were nonetheless deemed too controversial for the Soviet public, showing that even under the thaw, echoes of anti-Semitism remained, not least in the country’s new leader, Nikita Khrushchev. In a remarkable diversion from familiar practice, Grossman was not arrested for having written the book, but his manuscript was. On February 14, 1961, three KGB officers in civilian clothes arrived at his apartment, announcing, “We are here to conduct a search, to arrest the novel.” They then collected seven copies of the typescript and departed, although not before calling his daughter-in-law to come and administer medicine in case Grossman, sitting silently at his desk, had a heart attack.
How the fight over the manuscript would have ended is unknown, since Grossman was a stubborn fighter and Soviet literary politics was full of twists and unexpected reversals. But he died in 1964 before recovering the texts, and it was not until the 1980s that a manuscript of his novel was found and published, first in the West and then in 1988 in the Soviet Union.
By that time, however, the novel’s hour had passed, at least as far as the Soviet Union was concerned, and it had relatively little impact in the West. Though it did finally take off in England in 2011, after BBC Radio 4 aired an adaptation with Kenneth Branagh, most Western critical responses to the novel were lukewarm as well, despite its congenial analogy of Soviet Communism and Nazism.
Besides Life and Fate and For the Right Cause, a large sum of Grossman’s energy was directed toward journalism. Grossman did write one other work of fiction, Everything Flows, a short novel that he began in 1955 and never finished that was published in Germany in 1970 and the Soviet Union in 1989. Framed around the experiences and observations of a fictional Gulag survivor released after 30 years, it reads more like a political tract than a novel, offering a cyclical view of history (as against the conventional Soviet progressive one) and a strongly critical account of basic milestones in Soviet history, from collectivization and famine to the anti-Semitic campaign of Stalin’s last years. But in his better work—For the Right Cause, Life and Fate, and some of his short stories—Grossman conveyed the complications and contradictions of Soviet existence. They were, after all, amply found in his own life: Did the constraints that the Soviet system imposed on him limit the scope of his writing and reporting, or did his perseverance and partial success in resisting and evading them prove to be one of his great strengths? Should we be more surprised that Life and Fate was arrested or that he was not? And was it more noteworthy that the Soviet Union impeded, without totally preventing, his and others’ journalism on the Holocaust or that Jewish Soviet war correspondents, appalled by what they learned in the field, ended up being the first to report it?