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The epic Russian novel you’ve never heard of

Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman witnessed first hand the horrors of the Eastern Front

I have been reading Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, a biography by Alexandra Popoff. Not widely known in this country, Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew born in 1905 who died in 1964, has been justly described as “the Tolstoy of the 20th century”, because of his vast novel, Life and Fate, which treated similar themes to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Seized by the Soviet censors for its criticism of Stalin and totalitarianism, it was never published during his lifetime.

Popoff has written an informative book which provides much background information about Grossman’s development as a writer (he had initially trained as a chemical engineer), his journalistic articles as a war correspondent in WW2, largely based at Stalingrad, his novels and stories and his letters to friends. There are unanswered questions, probably a mixture of destruction of material and the huge upheavals in Russian society during his lifetime. Thus Popoff comments that there are Biblical references scattered throughout Grossman’s works, but does not examine when and why, as a secular Jew, he read the Bible.

Berdichev in the Ukraine, where Grossman was born, was imbued with Jewish culture and religion. At the end of the 19th century, it had 80 synagogues. Although from a secular family, Grossman, a much-loved only child whose parents separated while he was a baby, was deeply influenced in his writings by three key Jewish characteristics: the obligation to remember the past, to honour the dead and to bear witness. All these traits are to be found in his writings, giving them a unique moral scale and grandeur.

Aged 12 at the time of the Russian Revolution and aged 17 when the vicious civil war ended, Grossman had already become familiar with violent death by the time he became a student. Living under Communism, he saw effects in Kiev of the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s; the German invasion of Russia in 1941; the ferocious fighting and death toll at Stalingrad; and the systematic destruction of Jewish life and culture by the Nazis in western Russia (his mother perished in the Berdichev ghetto in September 1941, an event which haunted him for the rest of his life). There was indeed a mountain of graphic, first-hand material for Grossman to record and bear witness to.

What distinguishes his writings, when compared to Tolstoy, who was writing about Napoleonic battles that had taken place over 40 years before his time, is Grossman’s personal experience; how it affected him and his treatment of his material. As an artist he did not allow himself to become calloused by or indifferent to the cruelty and tragedy he observed. His writing is marked by an unwavering belief individual human dignity. Reporting on the Soviet investigation of the death camp at Treblinka in September 1944, a fellow correspondent noticed that “tears were pouring from underneath his glasses.” On other occasions the same response was noted by colleagues.

As a war correspondent, Grossman constantly jotted down scenes he saw, conversations with soldiers and stories he heard. Everything found its way into his stories and novels, such as a letter from his young daughter found on a dead soldier; an old lawyer killed while trying to save a volume of Tacitus from his library. In a notebook he observed, “There is power which can resurrect large cities from the ashes, but no power in the world is capable of lifting the light eyelashes over the eyes of a dead child.” Struck by the fact that the Red Army had no funeral teams to bury its dead soldiers, Grossman felt a compulsion to remember the fallen.

As Popoff notes, Grossman had “a unique ability to describe the experiences of millions in a personal way.” She suggests that he is not well known today in Putin’s Russia, “where Stalin’s popularity, along with nationalism, has been steadily on the rise.” All the more reason then, for a new readership to discover this great novelist who, although without overt religious belief, retained a reverence and compassion for the courage and humanity of his fellow human beings; a writer who refused to see them as statistics or categories according to the blind movement of historical forces.