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How Vasily Grossman became a thorn in Stalin’s side

As Putin’s Russia glorifies its Soviet past, Grossman’s urgent, questioning voice needs to be heard again.

In Moscow on 23 July 1962, the writer Vasily Grossman had a three-hour audience with the Kremlin’s “grey cardinal”, Mikhail Suslov. For 30 years Suslov was the Soviet Communist Party’s chieftain in charge of ideology, one of the most powerful positions in the USSR – the guardian of Bolshevik orthodoxy.

Meticulously and in great detail he explained to the author why his novel Life and Fate could not be published – “not now and, if ever, not for 250 years”. He told Grossman that the book “would serve only to benefit our enemies”. He said it was “incomparably more dangerous to us” than Boris Pasternak’s banned Dr Zhivago, which had been smuggled to the West several years previously, became a bestseller in the US and Europe, was turned into an Oscar-winning movie and earned its author a Nobel Prize – much to the embarrassment of the Soviet authorities (and to Suslov personally).

The account of this interview is among the most chilling passages in Alexandra Popoff’s superb and timely biography of Grossman – and in the novelist’s monumental Stalingrad, his “prequel” to Life and Fate, which contains some of the most memorable (and grisly) descriptions of warfare in fiction.

Suslov’s was the authentic voice of 20th-century totalitarianism, clear-sighted in his way; it didn’t matter what was true or what was false, “our Soviet writer must produce only what’s necessary for society”. Grossman was, by this time, most definitely an enemy of the Soviet state and Suslov was right about why.

Every copy of Grossman’s manuscript and his drafts were seized by the KGB – even his typewriter ribbons were taken away. His friends’ apartments and publisher’s offices were ransacked. “My book was arrested but I am free,” he said. And in a letter to Suslov, he wrote: “There’s no logic, no truth, in the present condition, in my physical freedom when the book to which I have given my life is in prison… I ask for my book’s freedom.” He received no reply.

He was ignored rather than jailed because he was well known in the USSR outside intelligentsia circles. As Popoff shows, he was also a more typical figure of the times than the only other great Soviet novelists – haute bourgeois Pasternak and relentlessly dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

Born Ukrainian-Jewish in 1905 in the town of Berdichev, Grossman trained as a scientist and worked as a chemist in a Donbass coal mine. Later, astute critics noted that his meticulous observations about natural phenomena and animal life were similar to the medically trained Chekhov’s.

He was a Communist sympathiser from the late 1920s but never became a party member. His early novels and stories were set in industrial plants where characters discussed the dignity of labour and described happy faces in the fields on collective farms. Millions starved to death in villages he knew from childhood during the Ukraine famine. Many fellow writers and friends were murdered or disappeared into the Gulag during the purges in the late 1930s, but he prospered and kept his mouth shut.

Grossman became famous during the war as a fearless and brilliant journalist for the Red Star newspaper. He spent three months under fire during the Battle of Stalingrad and accompanied Soviet troops westward until the Red Army captured Berlin.

He was the first reporter to describe the Nazi death camps. His 12,000-word article “The Hell of Treblinka” is one of the finest pieces of journalism to come out of the Second World War; written at breakneck speed to catch a deadline, it feels timeless. Well before VE Day he was a household name in the USSR.

After the war, gradually, Grossman turned dissident. He began work on what he saw as a two-volume epic, with deliberate echoes of War and Peace, and he was encouraged by the highest levels to produce it as quickly as possible. At the same time, those at the highest levels were trying to dissuade him from writing a few chapters of a volume called the Black Book of Russian Jewry. Stalin was waging a postwar campaign of anti-Semitism, but with Grossman’s Jewish background it was a dilemma for the Communist Party to propose him as the author  it wished to label “the Soviet Tolstoy”. 

By 1949 the first part of the book Grossman planned to call Stalingrad was completed, and his serious troubles began. The censors didn’t like the principal characters in the novel (intellectuals with bourgeois backgrounds) or the unheroic behaviour of some Russian troops and political bosses in the besieged city. They disapproved of any mention of the suffering of the Jews in German-occupied Ukraine and Russia – Grossman’s own disabled mother, with whom he was very close, was killed by an SS Einsattzgruppen unit in Berdichev in 1941.

A rewritten and edited version of the book came out in 1952, under the title For a Just Cause, mainly containing descriptions of battle scenes. But even this was deemed politically incorrect. Grossman was vilified in the press and denounced by the party. In the final stage of Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign he was close to arrest. But the tyrant’s death in 1953 saved him.

Nevertheless, he barely published another word in his lifetime, although he worked furiously almost until his death from cancer in 1964. When he finished Life and Fate in the mid 1950s, even though it was during the period of Khrushchev’s “thaw”, Grossman knew it was unlikely to appear.

The KGB never knew about the existence of one typescript of the novel, hidden by a friend of Grossman, smuggled to the West after the author died, and published in Switzerland in 1980. It was not an overnight success, but has since been acknowledged as a masterpiece of Soviet literature.

Stalingrad has been beautifully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and lovingly pieced together, with the censored passages restored. Anybody who knows and admires Life and Fate would enjoy it (many of the same characters reappear), yet somehow this “prequel” lacks the vitality or depth of its companion volume. It is a powerful war book, but rather less good about peace. I have a feeling that if Grossman ever imagined that it would appear as part of the two-volume sequence he once planned, he would have reworked it.

Suslov and his fellow apparatchiks were right about Grossman. He was profoundly dangerous to them and, as Popoff discusses in her fine biography, to their legacy. It has become commonplace to make the point that the two tyrannies that soaked the last century in blood – communism and fascism – are identical twins, opposite sides of the same coin. Most histories of modern Europe take the idea as axiomatic, and it is used in contemporary argument about populism and nationalism.

Grossman was among the first to write about it. Before Hannah Arendt argued the point philosophically, Grossman was witnessing it as a journalist and feeling its truth, from his mother’s murder (fictionalised in Stalingrad) to the sight of prisoners boarding goods trains to Siberia (Life and Fate). The Stalinists found “there was a greater probability of finding enemies among people from a non-proletarian background… the same probability theory was used by the fascists to destroy people and nations”.

Suslov told Grossman, perceptively, that for a Soviet citizen to compare Hitler to Stalin was to hand “our enemies a nuclear bomb to use against us”.

In the liberal democracies this argument still matters – perhaps rather less so in many parts of the former USSR today. Grossman predicted that whatever his crimes, Stalin would be lionised in Russia for his “victory” in the Second World War. So he is. Sadly, the opposite has happened to Grossman. Though his reputation is high in the West, some of his books are out of print in Russia. During the 70th anniversary of VE Day four years ago, books about the Great Patriotic War were all the vogue; his works were never on display. A stage version of Life and Fate was a sellout in London and New York last year. In Moscow it closed after a couple of weeks, and audience numbers were poor.

Grossman’s themes of freedom and internationalism do not chime with the language of Vladimir Putin. In official Russian school history textbooks issued to 12-year-olds Stalin is called “a great Russian leader” (no matter that he was Georgian). There is a huge new bust of Stalin in the Alley of Rulers in the heart of Moscow and in provincial towns statues of him are appearing at an alarming pace. Putin says that Stalin “made mistakes” but modernised the country, and refers to some of the glories of the Soviet past. A recent opinion poll by the Levada Centre named Stalin the most outstanding Russian in history, run close only by Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Putin.

Most depressing of all, as Grossman would doubtless agree, there is a move by the far left and far right in Russia – those twins – to rename Volgograd back to Stalingrad. Who these days would confidently bet against their campaign succeeding? 

Victor Sebestyen’s most recent book, “Lenin the Dictator”, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
Alexandra Popoff
Yale University Press, 424pp, £25

Stalingrad
Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler
Harvill Secker, 992pp, £25

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order