Vasily Grossman: A Story of One Photograph

This spring, one year after my biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century came out, I received a letter from the Literary Museum in Moscow. A curator wrote they were preparing an exhibition and came across a photograph they long believed to have been taken of Grossman in Armenia in 1961. This photo had appeared in my book and numerous other books and articles and was associated with the year when Grossman’s major anti-totalitarian novel, Life and Fate, had been confiscated by the KGB. Shaken by this tragedy—his labor of many years had been seized from him by the state—Grossman traveled to Armenia to collaborate on the translation of someone else’s novel. The photo of a gloomy Grossman appeared to have captured his despair after losing his life’s work. As it turns out, the photograph has a different meaning.

This picture was made ten years earlier. Grossman himself had signed it on the back: photo by Ryumin, Moscow, 1951. According to the museum curator, Grossman was on a tour of the Kremlin when the photographer from the Russian Information Agency had made the shot. Grossman is shown standing near The Grand Kremlin Palace, formerly the tsars’ Moscow residence. The design in the background (wrongly believed to be Armenian) corresponds with the distinct stonework of the ancient Palace of Facets, adjacent to the Grand Kremlin Palace. Grossman stands at the spot known as the Red Porch (destroyed in the 1930s, it was rebuilt in the post-Soviet era).

Grossman is looking up at the onion domes of the Kremlin’s ancient cathedrals. The curator sent me an enlarged picture of Grossman’s upper face. The reflection in his glasses is that of the onion domes in the Cathedral Square.

So, here is the actual story behind the photograph. In 1951, when Grossman took a Kremlin tour, he was struggling to push his novel For a Just Cause (Stalingrad in the English translation) to publication. Stalin was still alive, soon to launch his final campaign against the Jews. Grossman, only forty-six, looks exhausted after years of battling Soviet editors and censors who demanded endless changes and rewrites from him. Publication of his novel, the first part of Life and Fate, was held up: his editors dreaded displeasing Stalin.

Incidentally or not, at this time of uncertainty Grossman came to the place where Russian tsars had been crowned and anointed, and which had become the axis of Soviet political power. In his novel Everything Flows, which he began in 1955, Grossman would write about Russia’s unfortunate legacy of political oppression and of “a thousand years of” of Russia’s slavery. Possibly, it was with these thoughts that Grossman was looking up gloomily while near the Grand Kremlin Palace.

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