The novelist who defied a spirit-crushing system to achieve greatness

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
By Alexandra Popoff
Yale University Press, 424pp, £25/$32.50

Vasily Grossman is one of the towering figures of world literature. Even so, full recognition of his stature is arguably work in progress, though surely helped by the publication this year of the English translation of his 1952 novel Stalingrad.

Born in 1905 to Ukrainian Jewish parents, he trained as a chemical engineer, but soon found his vocation as a writer and established himself in the public mind through his wartime dispatches, especially from the Stalingrad front.

Although these were part of a state-directed and state-censored propaganda effort to rally morale back home, Grossman enthralled his readers with his accounts of the men and women – combatants and civilians alike – who endured and died in that unforgiving, unremitting display of the human appetite for destruction.

For him, the value of any literature worth the name was to let life speak for itself: to show people as they are, in their multifarious responses to what fate has dealt them – their untidy loves, their sufferings, their warmth, their stratagems and compromises, their guilt and their dreams.

Considering that anyone with exceptional talent and independence of mind was an especial target of Soviet brutality – which extended to the victims’ family, friends and acquaintances – one wonders how Grossman managed to be so productive throughout his life. Some luck, no doubt, and a fundamental self-belief must have helped. The war against dissident thought was waged as strenuously as the war against the Nazis – in the sense that, while the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were merely tank fodder in the eyes of the state, any wavering of faith in the supreme genius of Stalin and the wisdom of the Communist Party threatened to undermine the entire Soviet edifice.

Whether in military or civilian life, an incautious word or witticism could be a death sentence, or at least a long spell in the Gulag. Such had been the real-life fate of Solzhenitsyn, and of the fictional character Ivan Grigoryevich, the protagonist of Grossman’s final masterpiece, Everything Flows.

One of the strengths of Alexandra Popoff’s biography is its wealth of historical context, making it an excellent introduction for anyone unfamiliar with a grotesque political system that saw fit to kill millions of its own citizens through torture, starvation or a bullet through the head.

If Grossman managed a natural, though limited lifespan (he died of cancer in 1964), it was not through lack of courage. Not only had he placed himself in physical danger at the front, but he had even dared to send a personal letter to the then head of the NKVD, the sadistic Nikolai Yezhov, to secure the release of his second wife. Yet he was forced to endure a version of artistic death, in that much of his writing after those early days was denied publication.

Stalin’s heirs also maintained a rigid guardianship of the party line. There was never any shortage of second-rate hacks and servile apparatchiks to denounce Grossman for his “bourgeois humanism” and dangerously anti-Soviet ideas. Persons, rather than “the people”, were his focus; he summons us to remember the unremembered – those faceless victims who otherwise exist merely as statistics in the history books.

Grossman’s Jewishness was part of his identity – not because he was observant, but because as a member of an oppressed minority he had an acute sympathy for those victimised by state or society. His knowledge of the Bible fed into what can only be described as a deep spirituality, independent of any fixed creed other than a belief that liberty is a fundamental condition of a meaningful existence. He was one of the first to bear witness to the Holocaust, in the agonising clarity of his 1944 essay The Hell of Treblinka.

And there was a very personal grief for him: his own beloved, disabled mother had been murdered following the Nazi occupation of her home town of Berdichev in northern Ukraine. Grossman never forgave himself for failing to rescue her in time, and her memory remained a permanent inspiration to him.

With all great artists – writers most obviously – the full depth of the person lies in the work itself. So much of Grossman is revealed in autobiographical references, most devastatingly the episode in Life and Fate in which an elderly mother writes to her son as she awaits deportation to the gas chambers. Furthermore, the complex structures of the novels bear witness to his richly stranded imagination and control of form.

Life and Fate is woven from several disparate scenes: the Stalingrad front, a camp in the Gulag, a German concentration camp, and civilian life. There is a huge cast of characters, and it seems at times as if Grossman is stretching his writerly technique to its limits; yet the final effect is of numerous waves and currents, each with its own tempo, combining at last in one vast sea.

Truth was Grossman’s goal, as it was for Tolstoy, and truth was not monolithic, but arose from the unpredictability of a free life. What he detested about Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism was that it was based on a lie: it sought to trim the variety of the human to fit a pre-ordained narrative. The cost was a deformation of the human spirit that debases both those who impose dictatorial power and those who must bend to it.

The beginning of Everything Flows leads to an excoriating description of a self-serving mediocrity forced to confront his moral shabbiness. His cousin Ivan has unexpectedly returned after many years in the Gulag, prematurely aged, but with his integrity as intact as his clothing is tattered. By asking for nothing, he wrong-foots the faintly resentful would-be patronage of the other. The encounter is sketched in virtuoso light and shade.

Clearly, Grossman’s attitude to politics and power had evolved throughout his life. His early eagerness to record the Soviet army at close quarters and share the hardships at the front arose from a genuinely patriotic impulse. But this must be set against his personal universalist credo, which required a reaching out to all.

A sign of his open-mindedness is that even in 1940 he began work on a play entitled If You Believe in the Pythagoreans. This embraces an ancient philosophical idea of the endless cycle of nature, completely at odds with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy, in which history is a straight line leading to the perfectibility of man by man’s efforts, no matter what the cost.

The play was fiercely criticised in 1946 for its implication that Marxism-Leninism might be reversible.

In time, Grossman recognised the essential similarity of communism and Nazism, with their shared delusion that you could mould human nature to suit a political system. The result in both cases was the infliction of incalculable misery and waste. At the end of his life he had reached the conclusion that the irreparable fault line between the true and the false ran through Lenin’s original construct. This, the deepest possible heresy against the Soviet state, would, if made public, have threatened the entire social fabric. It was far too dangerous for the Russia of the early 1960s. Little wonder that making this point in Everything Flows resulted in the confiscation of the manuscript.

Yet precautions were taken; other copies were deposited in safe hiding places. It was Grossman’s dearest, and unfulfilled, wish to see his final work published, but that had to wait for nearly two decades.

Popoff’s account of the afterlife of Grossman’s work, with its sorry tale of official cowardice, hypocrisy and foot-dragging, as opposed to the heroic loyalty of those who smuggled out the manuscripts, is powerful and impassioned. The spirit of Grossman lives on in Popoff’s denunciation of present-day Russian refusal to confront its past and Putin’s cynical revival of the cult of Stalin.

History and literature are part of a whole – we need history to remind us of what humans have done, but literature brings us face to face with how it was, what it meant to the individuals concerned.

Fashions come and go, and there was a time when publishers and the public seemed sated with memoirs of the Stalinist era. But Grossman is universal. Speaking through his unforgettable characters, he reminds us of the fundamental values of the world’s great religions, not least Christianity. No good can come of any system that discounts the human.