(Unsung genius among great modern Russian novelists)
Courtesy: Simon Pirani
Simon Pirani pays tribute to a forgotten writer.
KGB Colonel Vladimir Prokopenko came to arrest not the novelist, Vasili Grossman,
but his novel, Life and Fate. Prokopenko and two other high-ranking officers
searched Grossman's apartment from top to bottom. They took manuscripts, carbon
copies and notebooks. They drove to Grossman's typists and took their copies.
And the typewriter ribbons.
It was 14 February 1961. Nikita Khrushchev's post-Stalinist "thaw"
was underway and with it came a measure of freedom for literature. Boris Pasternak's
Doctor Zhivago was published abroad in 1957 and, although vilified by officialdom
he was left at liberty. Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
was to be published in Moscow in 1962.
Grossman, whose front-line journalism made him a Soviet national hero during
the war, believed that Life and Fate, which centres on the battle of Stalingrad,
could now be published. But politically it went too far. It not only described
the gulag, as Solzhenitsyn did, it questioned Stalin's role in the war and compared
his regime with Hitler's.
At the Writers Union, Grossman was told: "Your novel will not be published
for at least 200 years".
In fact, before even 20 years passed, a copy of the novel was smuggled abroad
by the writer Vladimir Voinovich and published in 1980 in Switzerland. Before
30 years went by, in 1989, the book was published in Moscow as freedom of expression
widened. It was a sensation.
Still less than 40 years into those 200, Grossman's daughter Yekaterina, a retired
languages teacher, told me she is sure of her father's place in history. "A
new four-volume edition of Grossman's works has just been published. Of course,
at the moment, the younger generation is not so interested. They are too busy
watching American films. But they don't last. History does."
In 1998 Solzhenitsyn expressed his "great respect" for Grossman's
"patient, persistent work, its wide sweep" in Russia's foremost literary
journal, Novy Mir.
But Grossman had died in 1965, not knowing if his novel would ever be read.
"I never saw Grossman so crushed as he was after Life and Fate was 'arrested',"
his friend Semyon Lipkin, a poet, said in an interview. "He grew old in
front of our eyes. His hair got greyer and a bald patch appeared. His asthma
returned. His walk became a shuffle." And, typical for one who had fallen
foul of the regime, "the phone fell silent. Many old friends abandoned
Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, Ukraine, one of Europe's largest Jewish
communities. From childhood he sympathised with revolutionary socialism. "His
family strongly supported the 1917 revolution," said Yekaterina. Grossman
took a chemistry degree and worked in the Donbass coal mines. When he began
writing in the 1930s, his heroes and heroines were usually ordinary Soviet citizens.
When keeping your mouth shut became part of Soviet life, Grossman did so. He
said nothing when his cousin Nadya, a trade union official, and other friends
were arrested during the purges. When he himself became seditious, it was the
sedition of an insider.
The war was a catalyst. In 1941 Grossman's mother, Yekaterina, was trapped in
Berdichev as Hitler's armies advanced. Aged 35 and exempt from conscription
as a privileged member of the Writers Union, Grossman nevertheless volunteered
for the front.
He became a reporter for Red Star - the army newspaper whose frank, shocking
reports contrasted with drab propaganda and became incredibly popular - and
witnessed the disastrous retreat before Moscow, the defence of Stalingrad that
turned the tide, and the advance on Berlin.
Grossman's descriptions of ethnically-cleansed Ukraine and the opening of Treblinka
concentration camp in Poland were the first accounts anywhere of what came to
be called the holocaust.
Lipkin recalls his first meeting with Grossman, in besieged Stalingrad. "Grossman
believed that this war's holy blood would clean from us the blood of the innocent
victims of forced collectivisation and of 1937 [i.e. the purges]". It did
nothing of the kind. Instead it was followed by officially-orchestrated frenzy
against Jews ("cosmopolitans") culminating in frame-up trials of leading
Jewish public figures.
Lipkin believes it was Stalin's anti-semitic campaign that cracked Grossman's
belief in the Soviet system. "In 1946, I went to Kirgizia. I met some close
friends, one Ingush and one Balkarets, whose families had been deported to Kazakhstan
during the war. I told Grossman and he said: 'Maybe it was necessary for military
reasons'. I said: 'Aren't you ashamed? Would you say that if they did it to
the Jews?' He said that could never happen. Some years later a virulent article
'against cosmopolitanism' appeared in Pravda. Grossman sent me a note saying
I had been right after all.
"For years Grossman didn't feel very Jewish. The campaign 'against cosmopolitanism'
brought his Jewishness into his soul."
The suppression of the Black Book, a documentary account of Nazi war crimes
committed on Soviet territory that Grossman worked on, shook him. First the
regime ordered changes in the text to conceal the specifically anti-Jewish character
of atrocities and to downplay the role of Ukrainians who worked as Nazi police.
Then the book was scrapped, and only published in Israel in 1980.
While researching the book, Grossman learned for sure that his mother was a
victim of the Nazis' Ukrainian genocide. The central character in Life and Fate,
the physicist Viktor Shtrum, loses his mother in the same way.
Shtrum, probably again reflecting Grossman himself, is tormented by guilt that
he failed to invite his mother to his already-crowded Moscow flat at the start
of the war, when she still could have escaped. Shtrum's wife Lyudmila is haunted
by the death in battle of her son by her first husband, who is imprisoned in
the Soviet gulag. The pressure on the family is unbearable. The novel lays bare
how war and dictatorship bear down on, unpick and destroy human relationships.
Grossman's war is waged by frail, ordinary heroes against dictators. A captain
in a ruined Stalingrad building, cut off from bullying commissars in the rear,
preaches liberation in the face of certain death. A soldier intervenes to stop
mistreatment of German PoWs. An old Ukrainian peasant woman shelters a starving
Grossman showed, as only an insider could, how Stalinism gutted and perverted
socialism. One old communist, Mostovskoy, leads a revolt in a German PoW camp
while another, Krymov, is being tortured in a secret police cell in Moscow.
Grossman's style is traditional, consciously modelled on Tolstoy. His prose
is unremarkable beside, for example, the crazy surrealism of his friend Andrei
Platonov, another dissident insider. But as statements on the great issues of
the 20th century - war, totalitarianism, the holocaust and the dehumanising
perversion of the socialist idea - both Life and Fate and Grossman's final novel,
Forever Flowing, are monumental.
One political digression in Life and Fate discusses the "unexpected obedience"
with which millions of people witnessed the 20th century's great genocides.
Is this a new trait in human nature? No, it means that "the supreme violence
of totalitarian social systems has been able to paralyse the human spirit on
The risings in the Warsaw ghetto and the Treblinka and Sobibor concentration
camps, the partisan struggle against fascism, the anti-Stalinist revolts in
Berlin in 1953 and Hungary in 1956
all testify to the human striving
"That striving has been crushed, but it exists." A human "can
be a slave by fate, but not a slave by nature".
appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 17 February 2000
Simon Pirani is a freelance journalist covering Russia and other parts of the
former Soviet Union, and, occasionally, central and eastern Europe. Primarily
he writes about business, finance and industry. He also follows political, social
and labour issues.