Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
Yale University Press 2019
New Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in BiographyNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Literary StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network July 12, 2019 Jennifer Eremeeva
Memory and truth are malleable and nowhere more so than in the Soviet Union. To be a writer in that country was to face an ongoing dilemma: conform to State-mandated topics and themes, or consign oneself to obscurity, writing only for “the desk drawer” or “without permission.”
Vasily Grossman challenged that binary choice, creating some of the most compelling and uncompromising fiction and journalism of the century, but also enduring heartbreaking censorship. Born in 1905 in Berdichev in present-day Ukraine, Grossman’s life spanned that of the twentieth century; his fate was to spend that life witnessing — and documenting — many of the century’s cruelest moments. As a war correspondent for Red Banner, Grossman was an eyewitness to many of World War II’s most pivotal moments, including months embedded with Red Army troops as they fought house by house to defend Stalingrad against the Nazis. Grossman was one of the first correspondents to witness the horror of the Holocaust, and his essay, “The Hell of Treblinka” remains one of the more moving accounts of the struggle of the prisoners to salvage humanity in that most inhumane place.
Grossman was born into a family of assimilated Jews, and as a young man, he eagerly embraced the values and principles of the February Revolution of 1917, which was fought to secure freedom and equality. His passion for writing developed early and throughout his life, he felt great affinity with Leo Tolstoy. Like that titan of nineteenth-century Russian literature, Grossman tried to show the sweep of history through the lens of individuals. This and Grossman’s unwavering commitment to telling the truth made him less popular than his contemporaries, such as Stalin’s favorite writer, Mikhail Sholokhov, author of Quiet Flows the Don.
Grossman poured his wartime experiences into two epic novels. For a Just Cause, (which has recently been translated and released in the West with its original title, Stalingrad) and Life and Fate. Though the same characters inhabit both novels, the two books are quite different, as are their fates: the more cautious Stalingrad was published to great acclaim in the Soviet Union in the years immediately following the war, while Stalin was still alive. In Life and Fate, which was written after Stalin’s death, Grossman presents an unblinking assessment that Stalinism and Hitlerism were two sides of the same coin. Though masterful in its depiction of the war, Life and Fate “was deemed “impossible to publish in Russia for the next 250 years” by Grossman’s publishers. The manuscript was confiscated, as was everything to do with it, down to the typewriter ribbons. It was only published after Grossman’s death. Despite being a masterpiece of Russian literature — the Soviet War and Peace— it is afforded scant attention in Russia today.
Alexandra Popoff’s excellent new biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (Yale University Press, 2019) brings the life and work of this often-overlooked writer into brilliant focus. Biography of a writer — particularly one with Grossman’s output — can be tricky to pull off, but Popoff’s extensive research is elegantly arranged into a very readable narrative, in which we follow Grossman through the harrowing experiences of witnessing first hand, famine in the 1920s, the Terror of the 1930s, the carnage of World War II, and the dull ache of censorship in the post-war Soviet Union.
Popoff leans lightly on Grossman’s texts, introducing them in only when they truly enhance the narrative. Popoff expertly traces Grossman’s passion for the rights of the individual and his burning need to tell the truth about what he witnessed in both war and peace. In Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, Popoff unflinchingly shows us the cost Grossman paid for both.
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century was longlisted for McGill’s 2019 Cundill History Prize.
Alexandra Popoff is an independent writer, specializing in world literature. She began her career as a journalist in her native Russia, and later after she emigrated to Canada where she lives today. Her previous works include, “The Wives, The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants,” “Tolstoy’s False Disciple,” and “Sophia Tolstoy.” Visit http://russianliteratureandbiography.com to learn more.
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who divides her time between Riga, Latvia, and New England. Jennifer writes about travel, food, lifestyle, and Russian history and culture with bylines in Reuters, Fodor’s, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the in-house travel blogger for Alexander & Roberts, and the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow. Follow Jennifer on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook or visit jennifereremeeva.com for more information.