Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff
Yale University Press, 2019
Hardcover, 424 pages

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman is officially released today. While I'm waiting for my copy to arrive by mail, I wanted to share a little about this outstanding biography. Alexandra Popoff has written several literary biographies and is a former Moscow journalist. In Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century she follows Grossman's life and how it was intertwined with and influenced by a large part of Soviet history. While officially a reporter in World War II, Grossman's mature writings capture two of the totalitarian nightmares of the century.

As a Jew whose mother was killed by the Nazis in his native Berdichev, Ukraine, Grossman felt the twentieth-century calamities most acutely. His mother had perished in September 1941, during one of the first massacres of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories. Her destiny became the strongest motivation force in Grossman's life. It prompted him to become an early chronicler of the Holocaust and was behind his determination to tell the whole truth about the global evil unleashed by the twentieth-century's totalitarian regimes. (page 3)

In his last and most radical anti-totalitarian novel, Everything Flows, written after the arrest of Life and Fate, he declares that "there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom." (5)

To help in understanding Grossman's early life, Popoff describes the treatment of the Jews in Russia: pogroms, distrust, deportation. Grossman was twelve at the time of the February 1917 revolution, with promises of freedom and equality ending when Lenin seized power. As Popoff covers Grossman's life, she notes how much of his life and the experiences of his friends were used in his writings. His scientific background and job took him to various places around the Soviet Union and he was able to see firsthand some of the horror from the deliberate Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. Members of his family were exiled or murdered, and his father lived in constant fear of arrest. Many of his early writer friends were shot as traitors to the state.

While aware of the nature of Stalin's regime throughout his life, Grossman's early works were fairly conventional even if they didn't quite fit the socialist realism (propaganda) mold that journals and censors wanted. Popoff delves into these works to find seeds for later, more confrontational writing, especially in his determination to make truthful depictions.

An endorsement from Maxim Gorky took Grossman from relative obscurity to publications clambering for his work. As Popoff details, having Gorky as a friend or an acquaintance was no guarantee of safety since there were repeated purges of those not faithful or loyal enough to the Soviet state or just simply being an inconvenience to those in power. Grossman's fame brought him close to authors who would later be suspect and/or liquidated because of relationships or publications that weren't pure enough. Some of his writings were noted for their ideological unsoundness, but he (mostly) escaped harsh treatment. His wife in the late 1930s, though, was arrested. Her eventual release was a rarity for the time.

Germany's invasion in 1941 changed Grossman's life drastically. As noted above, his mother was trapped in the former Ukraine, although Grossman would not learn of her outcome for several years. Taking a job as a war correspondent, Grossman saw firsthand the incompetence of Stalin's micromanagement and the heroism of the lowly Soviet soldier. His job also afforded him with access and information that most Soviets would never see, such as experiencing the siege of Stalingrad or the liberation of concentration camps. His reports were prominently published (after censorship, of course) and what he saw and learned provided the basis for his greatest novels.

In a book that provides exciting and moving passages, the two chapters I found the most exciting and the most moving are "The Battle of Stalingrad" and "Arithmetic of Brutality" (Chapters 8 & 9). Stalingrad provided Grossman deep insight into the Soviet (and human) psyche. Men and women fight hopeless battles, but feel more alive because of their freedom in doing so, provides some of the most stirring passages in Life and Fate. In his later writings, Grossman often focused on the ordinary...men, events, etc....for deeper looks into what it is to be human, and the siege gave him plenty of examples to use. Some of the worst aspects of the battle was the fight for recognition after it was over, ignoring the countless casualties needed to secure the victory. "Arithmetic" also looked at countless casualties, in this case those of the Jews during the war. The chapter follows Grossman during the revelations of deportations and massacres of the Jews across Soviet territory and German territory. He helped work on The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry (often shortened to The Black Book), providing a record for a worldwide audience of the special targeting of Jews during the war. While the Kremlin was uninterested in allowing such a publication, several of Grossman's articles such as "The Murder of the Jews of Berdichev" (which included his mother's death) and "The Hell of Treblinka" combined "investigative journalism, a historical and philosophical essay, and "a requiem to the victims." (173) The strain of what he saw and his work on articles to capture the atrocities took its toll on him personally, causing Grossman to have a nervous collapse. Another result is that his writing would not be the same.

Grossman saw his duty in writing as becoming a Soviet Tolstoy, recording a War and Peace for the Soviet era. Fortunately for us, this yielded Stalingrad and Life and Fate, a deliberate comparison to Tolstoy's sweep and storytelling. Unfortunately for him, his work on such an epic would show his dedication to the truth, which was at odds with Soviet politics. Popoff mines Grossman's personal journal for the circumstances and difficulties of publishing his novel For the Right Cause (the published title for Stalingrad). He constantly had to rewrite large sections while fighting to keep central storylines in the novel. Since Stalin was still alive, many hurdles and restraints surrounded publication and it was a tortuous path before the bowdlerized version was released.

One of the low points of Grossman's life was adding his name to the letter by prominent Soviet Jews denouncing the Jewish physicians who were part of the so-called "Doctors Plot" against Stalin. His character Viktor Shtrum signs a similar document in Life and Fate and it's fair to infer that the guilt of character reflects Grossman's feelings of complicity. After Stalin's death and a slight thawing of restrictions, Grossman began work on Life and Fate in order to show the dehumanization of both the Communists and Fascists against man's needs for love, compassion, and freedom. It's still a wonder that the novel was arrested instead of the author. Despite this escape, Grossman didn't have long to live. He died from stomach cancer in September 1964 with several of his works unpublished, and those that had been released mangled by censors.

Alexandra Popoff does a superb job or recounting Grossman's remarkable life, fleshing out the political and social background of his life and times in order to fully appreciate his writings. She also details how parts of his life and his experiences make into his stories. For anyone wanting more of a background on Grossman and how he fit into the "Soviet Century," start here. Very highly recommended.

For more on Grossman, see Yury Bit-Yunan and Robert Chandler's article Vasily Grossman: Myths and Counter-Myths on sorting out facts of Grossman's life from “Soviet intelligentsia folklore."


mudpuddle said...

a grim and portentous business... should be read by every politically conservative person, although they probably wouldn't get the connection...

Jean said...

I really want to read Grossman. Guess I want to read this too? Which first?

Dwight said...

Funny thing...today's Wall Street Journal has a column/review of Popoff's book and Stalingrad together. Popoff's book is a great biography and will give you a wonderful idea of how Grossman's life intertwined with his writings. Not to mention what it was like to be a writer under the Soviet system. If you're planning on reading a lot of Grossman, I recommend it even more since it gives you a great overview of his works (some of which hasn't been translated yet). A great starting point, but that's taking it on faith you'll be interested in his work. (At this point I avoid saying "of course you're going to be interested in his work.") Also, I'd say if you don't have a good background on Soviet history, start with Popoff's book since she will provide the context you have to have to appreciate his writing. (Although if it has to be spelled out, .... I'll stop there.)

You probably want to know that you're interested in Grossman's writing before you get too invested. If you are only going to read one work by Grossman, I'd say it should be Life and Fate. A close second would be Everything Flows. But if I had to provide spot checks on my favorite books of all time, Life and Fate is on that list every day.

My recommendation for you (since I think you'll like him) is to start with Stalingrad. Download the BBC family tree pdf, and also photocopy the character list in the back pages of the book to have handy as you read. I'm only ~100 pages in and it reminds me of a collection of Chekov short stories that, put together, paint a colorful picture. Then read Life and Fate, the stronger novel (because of Grossman's willingness/(perceived)ability to write about his beliefs a little clearer). I don't recommend reading 2,000 pages as an "introduction" lightly, but I think *you* would appreciate this approach. I'm thinking from my limited reading of Stalingrad that you'll get even more out of L&F by starting with Stalingrad.

If you go that route and you're still interested, I'd recommend Everything Flows and Popoff's book, in either order. Both add to his achievements and my appreciation of his work.

Jean said...

Thanks so much! I really appreciate the explanation there. I do want to at least read Stalingrad and Life & Fate; those were already on my list. So it's probably worth reading Popoff's book first. I'll just toss those on the ever-increasing pile of Slavic history/literature...maybe when I'm 85 I'll manage to finish the stack, but it seems unlikely. It just grows faster than I can read it.