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A writer at war with Stalin’s totalitarian state

Book review: Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century depicts the writer’s battle with censors

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
Author: Alexandra Popoff
ISBN-13: 978-0300222784
Publisher: Yale University Press
Guideline Price: £25

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) stands alongside Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov for his literary testimony on the Stalinist years. The appearance of a biography in English after such a delay is largely due to the decades-long Soviet suppression of his later work. Life and Fate, his masterpiece, was smuggled out of Russia and published abroad by an émigré press in 1980. An English translation followed in 1985. A complete version did not appear in Russia until 1990.

His final novel, Everything Flows, and a collection of stories and essays, The Road, came out in English in 2010. Robert Chandler, Grossman’s principal translator, has said: “Few writers have written more subtly about so many forms of personal and political betrayal, and it is possible that no one has articulated more clearly how hard it is for an individual to withstand the pressure of a totalitarian state.”

Grossman regarded the Soviet and Nazi systems as mirror images of each other in terms of how they obtained individual compliance with lies and mass murder. He was uniquely positioned to compare the two totalitarianisms; a successful novelist before the war, he was a frontline journalist for a Red Army newspaper from the chaotic Soviet retreat of 1941 to the Battle of Stalingrad and on to Berlin. He was one of the first to document the Holocaust.

Reaching his home town of Berdichev in Ukraine shortly after its liberation in 1943, he learned of the mass shooting of 20,000 of the town’s Jews. His mother was among the victims. He entered the Treblinka extermination camp with the Red Army in 1944 and interviewed survivors and guards. His piece, “The Hell of Treblinka”, was the first journalistic account of the workings of an extermination camp and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials.


Alexandra Popoff’s account of the war years is not as well-paced or detailed as Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova’s A Writer at War – Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945 (2005), which was constructed around text from Grossman’s own notebooks, but she does place these years within a greater story. She shows Grossman’s whole life, depicts him among a vast cast of writers, and portrays his long and complex struggles with editors and censors.

Grossman knew of Stalin’s purges, executions and deportations – friends and family were among the victims. He may not have known how many millions of peasants were deliberately starved to death by the state, but he had seen enough skeletal figures and scenes of rural misery in the 1930s to know what was happening. In the end he would be the first Soviet writer to depict Stalin’s Terror Famine, in his final novel, Everything Flows. It remained unpublished until the end of the Soviet era.

Using personal interviews as well as letters, memoirs and official literary archives, Popoff excels in her depiction of the struggles of Soviet writers with the authorities. In 1934, Grossman describes “everything going dark” before his eyes on seeing the published version his first novel edited beyond recognition. He was lucky to have been so well censored – of the 2,000 Soviet writers arrested in the 1930s, only 500 survived. Isaac Babel, who had praised Grossman’s early literary efforts, was tortured and shot in 1940; that he no longer published anything smacked of sabotage.


Grossman became one of the author-editors of The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, documenting the Holocaust on Soviet soil. In 1947, the authorities refused to publish it and banned the book. The state had no interest in complicating the official narrative about the Great Patriotic War by designating Jews as victims. In any case, after 1948 Stalin himself thought a pogrom would be in order and began to whip up anti-Jewish hysteria. It was under such conditions, and after a gruelling to-and-fro with editors, that Grossman wrote For a Just Cause (1952), now in English as Stalingrad, the title Grossman originally wanted.

Next came Life and Fate, more vitally inspired by personal experience and uncompromising in its analysis of totalitarianism. Now Grossman would tell the truth. There would be no more compromises with the state. Stalin had died in 1953 but under the Khrushchev thaw Grossman had no way to tell if his work would help heal his society or just get him arrested.

Grossman did not want the finished book smuggled out of the country, to be feted in the west and unread at home, as had occurred with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. In 1961, the KGB came to his home and confiscated his typescripts. In 1962, he wrote to Nikita Khrushchev:

“There is 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, for I wrote it, I have not renounced it, and I do not renounce it.”

Grossman died two years later, not knowing if his work to which he had dedicated his life would ever be published.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is a Bucharest-based author and translator