Unsung genius among great modern Russian novelists

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At the Writers Union, Grossman was told: “Your novel will not be published for at least 200 years”.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 him.”

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 Russian officer.

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 whole continents”.

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 for freedom.

“That striving has been crushed, but it exists.” A human “can be a slave by fate, but not a slave by nature”.

This article appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 17 February 2000 
Posted 27.3.01; © 2000 Simon Pirani

Advertisements

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: