The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

September 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm (anti-fascism, anti-semitism, BBC, drama, history, humanism, Jim D, literature, stalinism, terror, war, wireless)

“There is no sense or truth in my present position, in my physical freedom while the book to which I dedicated my life is in prison. For I wrote it, and I have not repudiated it, and am not repudiating it. (…) I ask for freedom for my book” – Vasily Grossman, letter to Krushchev, 1961

Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany (1945).From Wikipedia

In October 1960, the Soviet author and former war correspondent Vasily Grossman, submitted his novel Life and Fate to the editors of the state magazine Znamya, in the hope that it would be published. Friends had warned him against doing this, and called him ‘niave’, but it was during Krushchev’s ‘thaw’ and the author seems to have really believed that the novel stood a chance of being published.

Instead, the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated the manuscript, carbon copies, notebooks and even the typewriter ribbons. Fortunately, they never discovered that Grossman (not so niave after all) had placed another copy with a trusted friend: that copy was eventually (some ten years after Grossman’s death) put onto microfilm and smuggled into the West with the help of the dissident nuclear scientist Andrai Sakharov. It was eventually published in 1980.

Grossman regarded it as the ‘arrest’ of the book, although he himself was never arrested. He continued to demand that his novel be published and in July 1962 the Politburo chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov told him that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years…as has been pointed out, this seems to have been a backhanded recognition of the work’s lasting importance.

Grossman went into a depression from then on and died in 1964, never having seen Life and Fate published and probably believing that it never would be.

The title, of course, invites comparisons with Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which may seem presumptious. But Grossman’s book stands up to the comparison with its vivid depiction of of the battle of Stalingrad playing the same role in the saga as Austerlitz played in Tolstoy’s masterpiece. Grossman had spent five months in Stalingrad as a correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (the Soviet army newspaper) during the siege and the house-to-house fighting, and had even spent time with a sniper named (and this must have pleased him) Checkhov. Much of the military aspect of the story involves real contemporary figures in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Gradually, though,  as the book progresses, Grossman seems to lose interest in military matters and, like War and Peace, the story and its various sub-plots revolve around members of a single extended family. The main character, Viktor Shtrum, is a self-portait and the character’s thoughts and opinions are undoubtably those of Grossman at the time he wrote the book. The Nazi death camps and the fate of Soviet and Eastern European Jewry become a dominating theme (Grossman’s reports on Treblinka, compiled as a war correspondent, ensured that the Nazis’ attempt to obliterate all traces of the camp, did not succeed and his evidence was used at the Nuremburg trials).

But as well as Tolstoy, another Russian author – one who worked on a very much smaller canvas – comes to mind: Checkhov. The individual chapters of Life and Fate are rather like Checkhov short stories in their morality, pathos and even humour.

A final comparison is with Orwell: they were near-contemporaries and lived through the same great world-historic turmoils; both were journalists who turned their hands to fiction; both were war correspondents who’d have prefered to have been anti-Nazi combatants; both were men of the left who became disillusioned with ‘official’ leftism, and especially Stalinism; both were flawed individuals only too well aware of their own flaws. Grossman, a Jew whose disillusionment with Soviet “communism” was largely brought about by his experience of Stalinist anti-semitism, nevertheless signed a petition calling for the harshest punishment of the Jewish doctors accused of plotting to kill Stalin in 1952: a capitulation that makes Orwell’s notorious list of “Crypto-Communists and Fellow-Travellers” seem relatively innocuous.

Grossman blamed himself, above all, for his failure to to save his mother from the Germans in 1941: she died in their home town of Berdichev along with most of the other 12,000 Jews who’d lived there. After Grossman’s death, an evelope was found amongst his papers; it contained two letters written to his mother: one in 1950, the other in 1961, on the ninth and twentieth anniversaries of her death. He wrote in the first, “I have tried dozens, or maybe hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you. He was the last person to see you. I know you were thinking about me (…) during that time.” Together with the letters in the same envelope were two photographs: one of his mother with himself as a small child; the other, taken by Grossman from a dead SS officer, shows hundreds of naked dead women and girls in a huge pit.

Maternal love seems to have been a theme for Grossman and it bookends his literary career. In his first published story (approved of by the Soviet authorities and in proper socialist realist style), In The Town of Berdichev (1934) he described a tough female Bolshevik commissar who’d become pregnant during the civil war, and gives birth while billeted on a poor Jewish family. As the Polish forces approach, she decides to stay with her baby rather than retreat with her regiment. Then she sees a group of workers marching in a hopeless attempt to stop the Poles. She follows the workers to their inevitable deaths, leaving her child to the Jewish family.

In Life and Fate, one of the sub-plots concerns Sofya Osipovna Levinton, a middle aged Jewish, female Russian doctor, childless and a virgin. In the cattle-truck to the death camp she ‘adopts’ a lone Jewish child, David (who bears an uncannily resemblence to the young Grossman), and then refuses to abandon him, rejecting the opportunity to save her own life when the Germans ask doctors and surgeons to step forward and be spared. Sofya and the boy go to the gas chamber together:

This boy, with his slight, bird-like body, had left before her.

‘I’ve become a mother,’ she thought.

That was her last thought.

Her heart, however, still had life in it: it contracted, ached and felt pity for all of you, both living and dead; Sofya Osipovna felt a wave of nausea. She pressed David, now a doll, to herself; she became dead, a doll.

* Acknowledgements to Robert Chandler, who superbly translated Life and Fate and whose Introduction to the Vintage Books (London) edition provided me with much of the information used above; also to Keith Gessen in The New Yorker of March 6, 2006.

BBC Radio 4 will be dramatising Life and Fate on Sunday at 3pm and throughout the week on all the station’s drama strands.

BBC Radio 4 ‘Start The Week’ on Grossman, with Antony Beevor, Andrey Kurkov and Linda Grant


  1. Geoff Collier said,

    It’s only a minor quibble, I suppose, but I don’t like the suggestion that Orwell’s list could be made to seem relatively innocuous. That’s absolutely what it was.

  2. Faster Pussycat Miao! Miao! Miao! said,

    Oh noes, not ‘Orwell’s list’ again!

  3. Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    shud doo Orwell’S shopping list

    *packet of family size cheeese and onion crisps
    *digestive biscuits
    *eggs (half a dozen)
    *Tetley Teabags (the round ones)
    *Sausages (fancy Tesco pork ones – none of that nasty furren muck)
    *Mars’ Bar
    *1kg spuds
    2 tins baked beans

  4. Monsieur Jelly est formidable said,

    forgot some butter and some fish fingers (Bird’s Eye – haas got to be the Bird’s Eye) as well.

    no bother. thank you for your custom and hev a nice day.

  5. Sarah AB said,

    It’s an outstanding novel.

    Not in the same league, but I thought Tom Rob Smith’s ‘Child 44’ was a very absorbing novel – less good as a thriller than as a depiction of the paranoia of Stalinist Russia.

  6. Poumashash « Poumista said,

    […] Denham on the Life and Fate of Vassily Grossman. Amador Fernández-Savater on Lawrence of Arabia and the (Non) Battle of Sol. James Bloodworth on […]

  7. Vasily Grossman: links | Sarah J. Young said,

    […] to recent events and previously, as well as commenting on the Grossman-fest in Oxford. See also Shiraz Socialist, and for a Russian perspective on the sudden growth of interest in Grossman in […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: