Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century

This Q & A was compiled by the author herself.

Q. What prompted you to write Vasily Grossman’s biography?

A. If I had to answer in one sentence––Vasily Grossman’s subject matter. To use James Atlas’ words about Edmund Wilson, Grossman “offered a large canvas on which you could draw a map of the twentieth century––the ideal subject for a big, ‘definitive’ biography.” This line comes from Atlas’ memoir The Shadow in the Garden: A Biographer’s Tale. In fact, Grossman’s novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows capture the twentieth century along with its calamities brought about by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes––World War II, the Holocaust, Ukraine’s famine, and the Gulag. Each of these topics may take a lifetime to explore, but I felt I could approach them through Grossman. As Atlas remarks, a biographer’s biggest reward is a chance to educate yourself while reconstructing someone else’s world.

Q. Writing a book is a marathon. What kept you going?

A. I had a sense of personal connection to Grossman’s themes. My birth family of Russian Jewry had suffered under Stalin and Hitler. My mother’s family––her uncle, aunt, and cousin––were liquidated during Stalin’s Great Purge. Her other uncle was shot as a Jew in Nazi-occupied Kiev. Earlier, while living in Kharkov and Kiev in the 1930s, my mother and grandmother witnessed Ukraine’s famine.

World War II is also not a remote event for my generation. My father had fought on the Eastern front; his brother and cousin were killed in battle. After the defeat of German fascism, Stalin launched his own anti-Semitic campaign, so my father, a war veteran, was, as a Jew, denied employment. In Life and Fate, commenting on postwar Soviet politics of state nationalism and antisemitism, Grossman writes that Stalin raised over the heads of Jews “the very sword of annihilation he had wrested from the hands of Hitler.”

I grew up in Moscow where Grossman spent much of his life. My parents and I lived in the apartment building where Grossman had a studio and kept part of his archive. Our house was among the addresses where in 1961 the KGB confiscated copies of Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate. My father, the novelist Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), brought his first fiction about the war to Grossman and later studied in his creative writing seminar. During Gorbachev’s glasnost my father became editor of Znamya literary magazine and published Grossman’s splendid Armenian memoir and short prose, and also published his wartime diaries as a separate volume.

Q. Vasily Grossman died in 1964. Why are his works relevant today?

A. Grossman wrote about state nationalism, the rise of totalitarianism, and antisemitism, topics that today remain among the most discussed. In Life and Fate the Nazi officer Liss says, “Nationalism is the soul of our epoch.” We are now witnessing the rise of nationalism in America, Europe, Russia, and China, and these words can be read as a warning from history.

In the 1950s both Grossman and Hannah Arendt elucidated on the nature of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. As Timothy Snyder points out in Bloodlands, “The Nazi and the Stalinist totalitarian systems must be compared, not so much to understand the one or the other but to understand our times and ourselves.” We are observing a strong comeback of far-right populist governments in Europe and elsewhere; in her award-winning book, The Future Is History, Masha Gessen even argues that totalitarianism has reclaimed Russia.

Because Grossman was a banned writer, his major works have only appeared after much delay. In the past two decades interest in his ideas has been steadily rising. Grossman’s novels are now recognized as a valuable historical source, a testimony about the twentieth century and the global evil perpetrated by totalitarian regimes. His powerful 1944 article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” became part of the evidence at Nuremberg. Today it continues to provide insights into the Holocaust, which Grossman was among the first to fathom and to chronicle.

Q. Martin Amis referred to Grossman as “a Soviet Tolstoy.” Do you agree with this description?

A. Yes and no. As a war novelist Grossman had undoubtedly experienced Tolstoy’s influence: his research notes for Life and Fate reveal that he used the structure of War and Peace as a blueprint. Written with epic sweep, Grossman’s novel also includes war parts and peace parts. Like Tolstoy, he depicts historical figures alongside fictional characters; his narrative switches between global events and family occurrences. Grossman, however, was not imitating Tolstoy. He was leading a dialogue with his predecessor and, as he states in his notes, intended to show “how life changed over 100 years.” Grossman’s protagonists fight in Stalingrad; are marched to a gas chamber, and, like the physicist Victor Shtrum, work on the Soviet nuclear program.

Actually, it was not merely Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist that had inspired Grossman to model his epic Life and Fateon War and Peace. He saw in Tolstoy an example of a writer who was driven by the moral imperative to tell the truth. Having testified about Nazi crimes in Treblinka, he realized the pressing need to also make the world aware of the crimes of Stalinism.

In 1952, after three years’ battling with Soviet editors, Grossman succeeded in publishing a censored version of the novel For the Right Cause (this was the first part of Life and Fate). The initial reaction was positive: critics hailed it as “a Soviet War and Peace.” A few months later, For the Right Cause was attacked in the Soviet press and a political campaign against Grossman was launched, nearly ending in his arrest. Unlike Tolstoy, Grossman lived and wrote in a totalitarian state and many of his topics were the strictest Soviet taboos. In 1960 Grossman produced his uncompromising anti-totalitarian novel, Life and Fate. His attempt to publish it in the USSR was an act of desperate bravery and defiance.

Q. How will your book affect what we know about Grossman?

A. This book will come out 23 years after a single English-language biography by John and Carol Garrard. It’s drawn from my archival research, published and unpublished memoirs, letters, and interviews. My biography amasses the latest information about Grossman and his subject matter. I read everything Grossman had produced, including his early works, which were usually dismissed by biographers. My research helped me discover, for example, that Grossman’s beliefs in freedom and democracy were lifelong and that the Jewish theme was also conspicuous in his early works. My biography traces his life and ideas from the beginning, and I show how the war and the Shoah moved him to openly oppose the state.

I’ve always tried to unveil myths in my books, and this biography dispels a number of myths. Ehrenburg’s remark that Grossman was born under the star of misfortune has been given too much attention. Although there was tragedy in Grossman’s life, he was fortunate to survive Stalin’s mass purges and the war––despite reporting from Stalingrad and Kursk, the site of the largest tank battle in history. When discussing the confiscation of Life and Fate we need to know that this violent action was not unprecedented in the Soviet Union. The epilogue of my book tells the story of Georgy Demidov, a writer and Kolyma survivor, whose manuscripts were seized by the KGB and who was also deprived of the means to complete his testimony about the Gulag. In contrast, Grossman was able to produce his most uncompromising novel, Everything Flows, which became his political testament. One needs to remember that the list of Soviet literary martyrs is extraordinarily long. It includes writers murdered by the regime––Isaak Babel, Osip Mandelstam, and Boris Pilnyak.

Q. It took you four years to produce this book. Any regrets?

A. It pains me to see the clichéd image on my book cover. This picture of Grossman, made in the burning Berlin in 1945, has been repeatedly published. I provided the publisher with a little known picture of Grossman in his study, but it was rejected “as not dramatic” enough. I believe a cover is important. It gives the first impression about the book. Regrettably, someone in the marketing department, who did not even read my book, decided the cover’s outcome.

  1. Dear Ms. Popoff,

    I just finished reading your excellent (informative, interesting and compationate) book about Vasily Grossman, thank you!!
    I discovered his books a few years ago and read all works available in English so far. FOR A JUST CAUSE is still on my list.

    Thank you again and all the best,
    Graciela Kittel, Israel

    • Dear Graciela, thank you for your kind words about my book. I’m delighted to have an appreciative reader in Israel.
      All the best to you and yours,

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