(Courtesy: Andrew Glikin-Gusinsky)
An overview of the life and times of the prolific Russian writer and war correspondent Vasily Grossman.
Russian author Vasily Grossman was a prolific writer and chronicler of the turbulent times that marked much of his life. Perhaps best known as a war correspondent during the Battle of Stalingrad, he is often overlooked in the great pantheon of 20th Century Russian writers. However his is a body of work that encompasses both the complexity of 19th Century Russian literature and the matter-of-fact honesty that reflects his journalistic career.
Berdichev Roots: Grossman’s Childhood and Early Adulthood
Grossman was born on December 12, 1905 in the town of Berdichev. Berdichev was an epicenter for Jewish life in Tsarist Russia; however Grossman’s family had assimilated into the dominant Russian culture for at least one generation prior to his birth. As a result, Grossman’s Jewish identity was, at times, something of an afterthought. Growing up he considered himself stalwartly Russian. However, his ethnic background was ultimately inescapable and Grossman would later have to come to terms with his Jewish identity during his war experiences, when faced with the atrocities of the Holocaust.
As he grew older, Grossman moved to the Ukrainian capital of Kiev with his mother where he received his primary and secondary education. He would later move to Moscow to attend Moscow State University. It was during that period of his life, as university chemistry student, that he first began to write.
Upon completion of his university studies Grossman became an engineer and worked in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine. His experiences, while perhaps banal and at times quite dangerous, (he would often go down into the mines) left an imprint on Grossman as a writer. In 1934 he published his first book Glyukauf, a short novel which incorporated his work experiences.
1934 also saw the publication of one of Grossman’s most famous works, the short story In the Town of Berdichev. The story, which addressed issues of gender, social conventions, Jewish life, and the Russian Civil War, was received with critical acclaim.
Grossman as a War Correspondent: World War II and the Holocaust
At the outset of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 Grossman tried to enlist in the Soviet military. Initially, he was turned down for duty at the front due to minor health issues. Unable to accept no for an answer, his persistence paid off and Grossman eventually secured a place for himself as a correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda, the Red Army’s newspaper.
As a reporter, Grossman saw a quite a bit of front-line action, particularly at the Battle of Stalingrad. Grossman often volunteered for dangerous assignments and would routinely spend prolonged periods alongside regular infantrymen. It was this behavior that made Grossman such a popular reporter. The regular soldier was able to relate to Grossman and, subsequently, would open up to him, providing the intrepid correspondent with the material he needed to deliver story after story.
Grossman’s reporting further benefitted from his background as a prose writer. His vivid and descriptive writing style made him and his work popular across the Soviet Union and he was read by soldier and civilian alike.
The Holocaust left an indelible mark on Grossman. At the most personal level, his mother, who had never left the Ukraine, perished at the hands of the German invaders. On a larger scale, Grossman was acutely aware that the culture from which he had been born had been decimated. He had, for most of his life, largely downplayed his Jewishness. However the sheer brutality and horror of what befell Russian Jewry during the German invasion and occupation of the USSR forced Grossman to come to terms with his Jewish identity.
Grossman was witness to many Nazi atrocities and his record of what he saw at the Treblinka concentration camp was used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials. Grossman, along with fellow war correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg, wrote an official record of the Holocaust on Soviet soil known as the Black Book. Soviet publication of the book was suppressed in the post-war period. However the Black Book was eventually published outside the borders of the Soviet Union.
Post-War: Grossman’s Later Years
Grossman returned to writing prose after the end of World War II. His work manifested in itself a keen awareness of the reality of post-war life in the Soviet Union. Pieces such as In the Country conveyed the tension and fear that many Soviet citizens felt during those years. Grossman, in particular, felt considerable anxiety as a result of the anti-Jewish campaign that raged in the Soviet Union in the period following the Second World War.
Grossman’s most famous works, the novels Life and Fate, widely regarded as his seminal work, and Forever Flowing, were written in the post-war period. Both manuscripts were confiscated by the KGB and neither book could be published domestically during Grossman’s lifetime. Hidden copies were eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union for publication abroad.
Despite official hindrances to his literary career, Grossman did continue to publish in the USSR. His short stories regularly appeared in Soviet periodicals such as Novy Mir.
Never seeing his magnum opus, Life and Fate, published, Grossman passed away from stomach cancer in a Moscow hospital in 1964.