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 Semyonovich Grossman (1905-1964) regarded the Soviet and Nazi systems as mirror images of each other. Photograph: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
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.