Reviews — From the July 2019 issue

The Trials of Vasily Grossman

A twentieth-century Tolstoy and his forgotten novel

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Discussed in this essay:

Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books. 1,088 pages. $27.95.

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff. Yale University Press. 424 pages. $32.50.

Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler. New York Review Books. 904 pages. $24.95.

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler. New York Review Books. 160 pages. $14.95.

Vasily Grossman (left) at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1945. Courtesy Fedor Guber

Vasily Grossman (left) at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1945. Courtesy Fedor Guber

The Soviet Union, it must be remembered, was a regime founded by freelance writers and editors. In other words, a nightmare. Pamphleteers, autodidactic theoreticians, critics, publishers of small journals, hot-­take artists, takedown artists, and failed poets who’d reinvented themselves as labor organizers—fractious and at constant war with one another, literary people through and through.

If we imagine the early Soviet Union as a hierarchical publishing company, a magazine or new media outfit like The New Republic or BuzzFeed, Lenin was the founder and publisher, Trotsky was the deputy editor, and Stalin was the seemingly humble managing editor. As anyone who has worked in publishing knows, the managing editor is the hardest worker. They make sure the deadlines are met and the trains run on time. They are, above all, reliable. This particular managing editor takes no vacations, never leaves town. He lives for the work, strives to appear to be the mere executor of the will of the publisher and the company.

When the publisher becomes very sick, it is the managing editor who visits him at home to cheer him up with jokes and receive his instructions. By bringing the boss’s instructions back to the office from on high, he leverages this personal relationship and increases his authority within the organization. It’s not hard to see how Stalin’s ascent within the Bolshevik hierarchy happened. We’ve all seen this person before. When the publisher dies, no one suspects the managing editor of harboring ambitions to take over. But really, who better understands the day-­to-­day functioning of the organization, who better to be in charge?

Stalin was a consummate editor. He seemed to understand that the role was to sublimate ego in order to shape the world quietly in the background. Good editors know how to render themselves invisible. Stalin’s blue pencil, unlike that of other editors, glided across not just poetry chapbooks and literary journals but life itself. “Fool,” “bastard,” “scoundrel,” he wrote in the margins of Andrei Platonov’s 1931 novella, Profit, destroying Platonov’s career. “Radek, you ginger bastard, if you hadn’t pissed into the wind, if you hadn’t been so bad, you’d still be alive,” he scrawled on a male nude drawing that reminded him of Karl Radek, an editor and strategist of the October Revolution whose death he had ordered years earlier. “You need to work, not masturbate,” he wrote on another. The combination of editorial influence with the power of life and death itself resulted in absurd, nearly un­believable situations—such as when Stalin’s old friend and comrade Nikolai Bukharin wrote him from the prison cell Stalin had put him in, begging his inquisitor for a preface to what would be his last book. “I fervently beg you not to let this work disappear . . . this is completely apart from my personal fate . . . Have pity! Not on me, on the work!

Like any editor, Stalin could be ambivalent. “Stalin has a very particular attitude toward me,” the great Soviet writer Vasily Grossman told his daughter. “He does not send me to the camps, but he never awards me prizes.” Several times anticipated to win the prestigious Stalin Prize for his celebrated novels—in one instance, having planned the victory party, à la ­Hillary at the Javits Center—at the last minute Grossman found his name mysteriously removed from the list each time.

Today Grossman is best known as the author of Life and Fate, a novel often called the War and Peace of the twentieth century. The kaleidoscopic thousand-­page book, which follows the middle-­class Shaposhnikov family through the Second World War, is an indictment of ideological zealotry and a stark account of the horrors of Stalinism. The narrative ranges from the Great Terror to the gulag, the German camps, and Stalin’s late anti-­Semitic campaigns of the 1950s, slowly building the sense that, in their lack of humanity, the Soviet and Nazi regimes became mirror images of each other. “Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?” Grossman asks at a pivotal moment. “The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depend on the answer to this question.” The book was considered so dangerous that all known copies of the text were “arrested” and suppressed by the KGB in 1961, an experience that broke Grossman physically and spiritually. “They strangled me in a dark corner,” he said. After his death, a copy he had hidden with an old friend was smuggled out of Russia on microfilm and published in the West in 1980, only appearing in Russia during the glasnost.

His tragic life story has since become a familiar parable: the brave arch-humanist defying seemingly limitless power. But two new books reveal Grossman as a more ambiguous figure. Robert Chandler, who first translated Life and Fate into English, has now, along with his wife, Elizabeth, brought us the forgotten pre­quel to that novel, Stalingrad. Where Life and Fate presents a disillusioned moral hellscape, Stalingrad is a work of hope and true belief in the long march of the Soviet project. Above all, it is a paean to the strength of the Soviet people as they mobilized to confront fascism. Long dismissed as phoned-­in socialist realism, this major work, Chandler suggests, has been unjustly ignored because of stubborn Cold War ­thinking—an ­enduring prejudice that if a book actually managed to get published at the apogee of Stalin’s rule, it couldn’t be good.

Though it is far from perfect, Stalingrad is an accomplished historical war novel, focusing, like Life and Fate, on the Shaposhnikov family, and is similarly remarkable for its scope. It switches between dozens of perspectives throughout—a truncated list of characters in the book’s appendix runs to almost ten pages—yet still manages, as Chandler writes, to treat “with equal delicacy and respect . . . the experiences of a senior Red Army general, a newly recruited militiaman or a terrified housewife.” (Grossman “even devotes a surprising amount of space to the effects of the Battle of Stalingrad on the lives of dogs, cats, camels, rodents, birds, fish and insects in the surrounding steppe.”) It dredges up the ideological strata of antebellum communism, the pre-1917 world of European salons and cravats, and is laced with unsparing discourses on the depredations of fascism:

In Mein Kampf Hitler stated that equality benefits only the weak, that progress in the world of nature is achieved solely through the destructive force of natural selection, and that the only possible basis for human progress is racial selection, the dictatorship of race. He confused the concepts of violence and strength. He saw the vicious despair of impotence as a strength and failed to recognize the strength of free human labour. He saw the man sowing a vast wheat field as inferior to the thug who smashes him over the back of the head with a crowbar.

This is the philosophy of a loser who has fallen into despair, who is unable to achieve anything through labour but who is endowed with a strong mind, ferocious energy and a burning ambition.

Alongside Stalingrad, a new biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff, charts Grossman’s life as a journey from moral compromise to the truth of Life and Fate. (The chapter on Life and Fate is simply called, “The Novel.”) Both books make clear the extent to which Grossman was a product of the Soviet literary system—the troubles he experienced publishing his books and articles and the compromises and censorship he accepted in order for them to see the light of day. His anger and frustration, his desire to tell the truth of what he had seen grew slowly only from long participation within that system. At the height of the Great Terror, he could still write to the head of the N.K.V.D.: “All that I possess—my education, my success as a writer, the high privilege of sharing my thoughts and feelings with Soviet readers—I owe to the Soviet government.” It was only with Life and Fate that he gave up completely and wrote what he wanted, in spite of the consequences.

Born in 1905 to a middle-­class Jewish family in Ukraine, Grossman spent his formative years working as an air-­quality inspector in the brutal mines of the Donbass. His delicate health didn’t hold out long (and, as the village’s sole intellectual, he was very lonely), but he used the material to write his first novel, Glückauf.* The book was socialist realism, portraying the Donbass miners as the true proletarian heroes of Soviet life—but Grossman immediately encountered roadblocks to publication because of its unusually frank depiction of alcoholism and violence in the mining communities.

* A traditional German greeting among miners in the Ruhr Valley that roughly translates as “happy going-up.”

Like those of many young writers of his generation, Grossman’s career was made possible by the Maecenas of Soviet literature, Maxim Gorky. A fascinating and Janus-­faced person of letters, Gorky took a particular interest in the fate of his writers, especially his Jewish writers. At the same time, his violent polemics against “wreckers” and his literary initiatives glorifying forced-­labor projects provided cultural cover for Stalin’s atrocities. Struggling to find a publisher for Glückauf, Grossman appealed directly to Gorky, hoping to secure his blessing (he would employ the trick of appealing to the person at the top of the masthead for the rest of his life). “I wrote the truth,” he put it forthrightly in his letter to Gorky. “Perhaps, this is a bitter truth. But the truth can never be counter-­revolutionary.” Gorky’s choleric response shows that the dilemma that would define Grossman’s life—the struggle between telling the truth and seeing his work published—was there from the very beginning:

It is not enough to say, “I wrote the truth.” The author should ask himself two questions: “First, which truth? And second, why?” We know there are two truths and that, in our world, it is the vile and dirty truth of the past that quantitatively preponderates. . . . Why am I writing? Which truth am I confirming? Which truth do I wish to triumph?

Working days at the Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory in Moscow, Grossman made Gorky’s recommended changes and cuts to his “long-­suffering book” and was taken into the tastemaker’s fold.

Glückauf was a sensation. The writer Isaac Babel praised it, as did the Donbass miners depicted within. Grossman abandoned engineering in favor of literary work, which, in the Soviet Union, was the more lucrative career track. Doors opened for him. As one of Gorky’s writers, he was considered safe, and was able to push the line of what was possible in the system. In stories such as “In the Town of Berdichev,” and novels like Stepan Kolchugin, Grossman took on such taboo subjects as misogyny and pregnancy within the Bolshevik ranks, and he humanized outré political factions like the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks.

Meanwhile, the state that had made his writing career possible was also persecuting his friends and family. As the Great Terror began, Grossman’s cousin and booster Nadya was deported for her association with the Trotskyite writer Victor Serge. Grossman’s father, a former Menshevik, voluntarily exiled himself to a frozen yurt on the periphery of Kazakhstan to avoid the gulag. When Grossman’s own wife was jailed for her previous marriage to an “enemy of the people,” he acted quickly to adopt her children and secure her release. After Babel was shot for his association with the ousted N.K.V.D. head Nikolai Yezhov, Grossman lamented that so many of his literary peers were attracted to power, asking a friend, “What happened to his soul? Why did he celebrate New Year with the Yezhovs? Why do such unusual people—him, Mayakovsky, your friend Bagritsky—feel so drawn to the [N.K.V.D.]?”

After the German invasion in 1941, Grossman was recruited as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the official paper of the Red Army. He had none of the makings of a macho war reporter—he was overweight, depressed, nearsighted, and walked with a cane. He also suffered from agoraphobia, avoided crowds and public transport, and had never been on an airplane or shot a firearm. But his sensitivity, his insatiable curiosity about other people, and his fearlessness at the front distinguished him and resulted in some of the best war reporting ever written. His dispatches were full of portraits and histories of people and places he encountered, as well as philosophical musings, the raw material for Stalingrad and Life and Fate. Grossman wrote Stalingrad from his voluminous wartime notebooks.

Grossman stuck with the war from the beginning until the end, several times barely avoiding capture, and spent almost three months in the worst part of Stalingrad, the right bank of the Volga—it smelled like a “cross between a morgue and a blacksmith’s,” he wrote. He then joined the Red Army and it swept through the occupied territories of Ukraine and Belarus, including his largely Jewish hometown of Berdichev, where his disabled mother had been trapped with others unable to flee. His devastating essay on the Shoah in the occupied territories, “Ukraine Without Jews,” is all the more heartbreaking because it doesn’t mention his mother, who, like millions of others, had disappeared without a trace:

I travelled and walked this land from the northern Donets to the Dnieper, from Voroshilovgrad in the Donbass to Chernigov on the Desna; I have walked along the Dnieper and looked out at Kiev. And during all this time, I met one single Jew.

To get Stalingrad published, Grossman underwent a three-­year editorial process so nightmarish that the book exists in twelve distinct versions. By the end, he was begging his editor-­tormentors, “Give me any reply, as long as it’s final.” Seemingly anticipating problems from the beginning, he even kept a journal titled “Diary of the Journey of the Novel For a Just Cause Through Publishing Houses.” There was an official governmental push to have a “red” Tolstoy, and in taking on the task, Grossman had set a high bar for himself. War and Peace was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he designed Stalingrad according to its schematic. The novel, which would portray Stalin and Khrushchev, was expected to be pitch-­perfect.

Stalingrad is a nineteenth-century novel updated for the twentieth century, and at times feels like a diorama. Like a post-­rock record, the book has meandering, slow chapters, where Grossman noodles off in a corner, exploring, to no discernible end, some aspect of human nature during wartime. But it is also a time capsule of lives, documenting the ideological nuances and socio­economic complexity of this lost world. It is a reminder that there were classes in Stalinist society. There were bourgeois city dwellers and poor farmers, Communists and non-­Communists, reactionaries, Old Bolsheviks, internationalist Com­intern officials; fur coats, pianos, subways, airplanes; careerism, backbiting, and ambition. It was a complex world—a recognizable world, which has largely been painted over by the gray, totalitarian 1984 vision of the Cold War. Grossman’s style and focus—in which his own voice is excised, and an omniscient, objective narration reigns—almost seems like a predecessor of Western magazine war reporting. There are world-­historical set pieces with Hitler and Mussolini and the generals, but the bulk of the book follows the day-­to-­day experiences of ordinary people caught in events beyond their control.

One such character is Krymov, an honest and committed former Com­intern agent who throws himself into the tumult of war, signing up as a political instructor on the Southwestern Front. As he prepares to leave fortified Moscow, the “scowling city,” he stops off in Red Square to hear Stalin speak.

In the murk Krymov was unable to make out his face. But his words were entirely clear. Towards the end of his speech, he wiped the snow from his face just as the rank-and-file soldiers had done, looked around the square and said, “Can anyone doubt that we can and must defeat the German invaders?”

Criss­crossing the front lines in Ukraine, Krymov is stunned by the disarray he finds in the Soviet defense. Generals and soldiers are poisoned by an attitude of retreatism. “The retreat had developed its customs and routines; it had become a way of life.” Rather than defending the territory, the Red Army has learned that it can continually fall back into the Soviet Union’s interior without real consequences:

Those who retreated brought the war with them, close on their heels. The vast spaces to the east were a dangerous lure. The limitlessness of the Russian steppes was treacherous; it seemed to offer the possibility of escape, but this was an illusion . . . The troops were bound to the war by a heavy chain, and no retreat could snap this chain; the further they retreated, the heavier the chain grew and the more tightly it bound them.

Krymov fantasizes about teaching his soldiers an object lesson, to show them “that no part can survive without the whole.” When he is handed the infamous “Not One Step Back!” order, in which Stalin made retreat punishable by death, he is awed to learn the man at the top shares his on-­the-­ground analysis. This seeming endorsement of Stalin’s strategy was not part of the compulsory edits foisted upon Grossman.

Gorky and his early advice to make “useful” art runs like a shadow through both Stalingrad and Life and Fate. In Stalingrad, the hard-line Communist Marusya scolds her younger sister, Zhenya, for painting pictures rather than making propaganda posters, using Gorky’s exact words: “There’s the truth of the reality that will defeat the past. It’s this second truth, the truth of the future, that I want to live by.” This ongoing conversation with Gorky continues in Life and Fate, when Krymov is being brutally beaten by the N.K.V.D. in order to extract a false confession. The investigator points to a portrait of Gorky above his desk: “ ‘What was it the great proletarian writer Maxim Gorky once said?’ . . . ‘If an enemy won’t yield, he must be destroyed.’ ”

Stalin’s role in both books is that of the Old Testament God—distant, motivating the weakhearted, speaking the unspoken desires of the masses, doling out cruel and punishing fates. He is also the voice on the telephone ringing in the middle of the night saying, “I wish you success in your work,” imparting his pardon and blessing. The city of Stalingrad itself is also an important character, wedged up against the Kazakh steppes, a straight shot up to Moscow. From Stalingrad, there is nowhere else to run. One by one, all the characters realize this.

Reading the Chandlers’ “restored” version—which undoes much of the prior censorship—one finds it hard to understand what made Stalingrad so controversial. (The Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov called it “spittle in the face of the Russian people.”) The novel exudes Soviet triumphal­ism, glorifying the ordinary steelworkers, collective farmers, and Red Army soldiers that sacrificed themselves for the motherland.

According to Popoff, the main issue was the Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum—he was not the “right kind” of central character for a book of this magnitude. This was bureaucratic anti-Semitism at work. Grossman’s editors and gatekeepers were anxious to make the book “safe”—something he didn’t want. Some regarded him as an “exceptionally difficult author—obstinate and troublesome.”

Grossman’s editors flip-­flopped, having him remove Shtrum, then allowing him back in, punting responsibility off to various agencies and institutes. The text was finally denounced to the Central Committee by a competing writer, and printing was halted. Grossman’s editors physically hid from him, falling into alcoholism. Grossman, in turn, wrote directly to Stalin that his book was trapped in editorial purgatory, but got no response. The submission was ill timed, coinciding with a campaign against “cosmopolitanism” and Jewish nationalism that led back to the Jewish Anti-­Fascist Committee, which Grossman had been part of. He was told to remove Shtrum, but stood his ground. “Editing must have its limits,” Grossman wrote. “When twelve middle-­aged men interfere in creative work, the resulting picture is bad.”

The book finally appeared in serialized form and sold well, but several months later, the “killer doctors” plot came to light—in which Jewish doctors were accused of plotting to poison Stalin. A denunciation campaign against Grossman and his book kicked off in the major papers, his editors calling the publication a “grave mistake” and demanding the advance back.

In this suffocating atmosphere, Grossman was asked to sign an open letter from prominent Jews calling for the execution of the killer doctors. He did so, perhaps thinking it might save his book, and immediately regretted it, drinking vodka in the street on his way home. Signing the symbolic letter did nothing to stop the slander campaign against him and his work. Former friends and editors kept their distance, and the phone stopped ringing. In Stalingrad, he hadn’t quite given up on the system, hadn’t resolved to stop making compromises. In Life and Fate, Shtrum is haunted by his decision to sign a similar letter, in order to save his career and social position.

In spite of all evidence to the contrary, Grossman still believed he could slip Life and Fate through the system. After all, Khrushchev’s thaw was underway—wasn’t there room for heretical thinking? When his friend Semyon Lipkin begged him not to send the manuscript out, telling him that he would be arrested, Grossman exploded: “I’m not a coward, like you, I will not be writing for my desk drawer.”

It didn’t go well. After sending the manuscript to an editor who had gone to bat for him in the past, Grossman was summoned to a struggle session disguised as an editorial meeting in which other writers were directed to have “an intense political conversation” with him. He declined to attend, but the message was loud and clear—the novel could be published, maybe, in 250 years. The KGB confiscated all known manuscripts from his house and various editorial offices on Valentine’s Day.

The novel was considered far more damaging than Doctor Zhi­vago. The author had watched the crucifixion of Boris Pasternak with great interest. The CIA promoted that book heavily as part of their Cold War cultural front, and there were fears that Grossman would send his own novel abroad.

But Grossman wasn’t interested in following Pasternak’s path of becoming a dissident writer—the cost, of losing the Soviet readers he cared about most, was too high. “He wanted political change to come from within,” Popoff writes. Instead, Grossman appealed directly to Khrushchev, begging him to release his novel. Khrushchev in turn ­handed him off to the head of Agitation and Propaganda, Mikhail Suslov, who met with him. In his notes from the meeting, Suslov seems vexed:

Your novel will serve only to benefit our enemies. . . . Why should we add your book to the nuclear bombs that our enemies are getting ready for us? . . . Why should we publish your book and launch a public discussion with you on whether people need Soviet power? . . .

I highly value [Stepan] Kolchugin,The People Immortal, and [For a Just Cause]. . . . I urge you to return to your former outlook, which you held at the time when you wrote these books . . .

“It would have been better if they killed me,” Grossman later told his daughter.

After Life and Fate was suppressed, the Soviet regime tried to keep Grossman busy (and quiet) by offering him a gig translating a long Armenian novel. Having written his own masterpiece, he was understandably insulted, but the trip to Armenia seems to have done him good. There, he wrote a wonderful travelogue, An Armenian Sketchbook, which contains some of the most personal and moving writing of his life.

The book opens with Grossman musing on a massive statue of Stalin overlooking the capital of Yerevan:

If a cosmonaut from a far-­off planet were to see this bronze giant towering over the capital of Armenia, he would understand at once that it is a monument to a great and terrible ruler. . . . He is the expression of a power so vast that it can belong only to God.

When Grossman praises the statue to his Armenian companions, they become uncomfortable:

My companions would not concede that he had played even the slightest role in the construction of heavy industry, in the conduct of the war, in the creation of the Soviet state apparatus: Everything had been achieved regardless of him, in spite of him. Their lack of objectivity was so glaring that I felt an involuntary urge to stand up for Stalin. . . . Their hysterical worship of Stalin and their total and unconditional rejection of him sprang from the same soil.

Even after all he had been through, Grossman could still maintain a sense of ambivalence toward the person who ruined his life and had so many of his friends and family exiled or shot. “No, no, it was impossible not to give this figure his due—this instigator of countless inhuman crimes was also the leader, the merciless builder of a great and terrible state.”

The war was over, his career was over, and he no longer had to keep up a front. Though he had made so many sacrifices and compromises to become a part of the Soviet literary world, in the end he was unable to fully subordinate himself to it. But in exile, he had, in a roundabout way, gotten what he had always wanted: freedom to write what he pleased. Grossman could embrace any number of contradictions: loyal Soviet citizen and dissident, kulak and commissar, Stalin worshipper and Stalin hater, in-­group and out.

But Grossman’s central preoccupation remained freedom, romanticizing what had been so frequently denied to him. Buried in An Armenian Sketchbook is probably one of the best, most deeply felt paragraphs on what it is to have to wake up every day in captivity, when one longs to be free, but is still trapped in the maw:

How mighty, how terrible, and how kind is the power of habit! People can get used to anything—the sea, the southern stars, love, a bunk in a prison, the barbed wire of the camps.

What an abyss lies between the first night of passion and a long, grinding argument about how best to bring up the children! How little there is in common between a first wonderful encounter with the sea and trudging along the shore in the stifling midday heat to buy something from the souvenir kiosk! How terrible the despair of a man who has just lost his freedom! And then there he is, lying on his bunk and yawning as he wonders what will be in today’s prison gruel: pearl barley or pickled cabbage? What creates this abyss is the power of habit. Dull as it seems, it is as powerful as dynamite; it can destroy anything. Passion, hatred, grief, pain—habit can destroy them all.

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is a writer from North Carolina. His article “Light in the Donbass Window” was published online in November.

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