Vasily Grossman’s tragedy was the greatest compliment ever paid by a totalitarian regime to a novelist. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, was arrested and sentenced to 200 years of imprisonment. In February 1961 a KGB colonel and another officer, accompanied by several operatives, came to his apartment in Moscow. They did not simply seize the manuscript. They even went to his typist’s home to confiscate carbon papers and typewriter ribbons.
Grossman wrote to the Central Committee of the Communist Party to ask for his manuscript’s return. The ideological supremo, Mikhail Suslov, told him that his book could not possibly be published for another 200 years. Grossman was bereft. The KGB had taken an early draft that he still wanted to improve.
He completed another novel but soon fell prey to stomach cancer, probably brought on by stress. In September 1964, aged 58, he died in pain and poverty, ignored and forgotten. Only the author Ilya Ehrenburg had the courage to champion Grossman’s writing after his death, but the Union of Soviet Writers forbade recognition of his work.
Yet Life and Fate was not as securely imprisoned as the KGB thought. Grossman had given an early version to a friend to read. This typescript had hung for many years in a satchel under some coats at his summer house. It was microfilmed, smuggled abroad by the writer Vladimir Voinovich and first published in the West in 1980.
Grossman’s orphan survived to flourish amid international acclaim. Now, with a cast including Kenneth Branagh, Greta Scacchi, Harriet Walter and David Tennant, it is to be broadcast in all the main drama slots on Radio 4 this week.
Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in the town of Berdichev in Ukraine. Berdichev had a large Jewish population, though Grossman himself ignored his Jewish roots. Then his mother was murdered by an SS death squad in 1941, along with at least 30,000 Jews from Berdichev.
Grossman never got over his mother’s death and tormented himself with guilt at his failure to have brought her back to Moscow before the rapid German advance overran his home town. Viktor Shtrum, Grossman’s alter ego in Life and Fate, suffers a similar tragedy and remorse.
Grossman, already acknowledged as a rising novelist, wanted to volunteer for the Red Army, but was unhealthy, overweight and needed a walking stick. He finally managed to achieve a position as a war correspondent with Krasnaya Zvezda, the Red Army newspaper. The experience transformed him, physically and mentally.
He had already demonstrated considerable moral courage during the political repression of Stalin’s “Great Purge” of the late 1930s; now he showed extraordinary physical bravery, too. Red Army soldiers, who normally would have despised a Jewish intellectual from Moscow, quickly learned to trust him. Grossman did not write the standard propaganda of many of his colleagues. He wrote, what his editor called in a striking tribute, “the brutal truth of war”.
The power of Grossman’s writing lay in his observation of telling detail. He wrote down everything he found significant in a series of tiny notebooks. This material would then be used later, either in his newspaper articles or in his novel.
When I was working on Grossman’s wartime notebooks in the Russian archives some 15 years ago [for A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, which Beevor edited with Lyuba Vinogradova] it was always a thrill to come across a description or thought jotted down that he used later in Life and Fate.
As the title indicates, Life and Fate was an act of literary homage to Tolstoy and it truly constitutes the War and Peace of the Stalinist era. The battle of Stalingrad takes the place of the Battle of Borodino, and a large cast of interconnected characters conveys the hopes and fears of a whole generation.
Indeed, Life and Fate goes much further than Tolstoy’s little historical lectures, inserted, rather irritatingly, from time to time. Grossman, through his narrative and dialogue, brings out the terrifying reality of the Soviet Union under Stalin and draws parallels between it and Nazi Germany. It was little wonder, therefore, that even under the thaw of the Khruschev period, the book was seen as explosive by the authorities.
Grossman had hoped, like many of the Red Army soldiers in the front line, that the defeat of Nazism would allow the Soviet regime to reform itself, to do away with the secret police and the hated collective farms. But Stalinist repression returned in the “Lesser Terror”. Grossman himself only just avoided arrest and perhaps execution because of his work with the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee at a time when Stalinist paranoia saw the Jews as potential traitors.
Even when the brief thaw came under Khruschev, there were still far too many at the head of the Soviet Union who had advanced in a system sustained by lies. Grossman’s truth was far too brutal for them to stomach. Of few other novelists is it more accurate to say that they live on through their writing after their death.