An Homage To Vasili Grossman

FEATURE BY Willard Manus

I’ll always remember the summer of 2014 because it was then that I discovered the work of Vasili Grossman, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Grossman, born in Ukraine in 1905, came to prominence during WW II when he served as a correspondent for the Russian army newspaper, Red Star. Much like his American counterpart, Ernie Pyle, Grossman wrote about the war from the front lines, risking his life to be with the brave men and women who were battling the Nazis. He spent nearly four years with the Russian army, witnessing many of the decisive and bloody skirmishes on the Eastern Front. He was also in the thick of the fight for Stalingrad, the most horrendous hand-to-hand battle in human memory.

Grossman put much of what he experienced in Stalingrad into his masterful novel, Life and Fate (New York Review of Books). Written after WW II ended, the novel has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace in the way it not only centers on a key wartime episode (Austerlitz for Tolstoy, Stalingrad for Grossman) but also manages to portray the life of an entire country.

Grossman’s canvas is large (the book is 871 pages long) and it is peopled with a vast range of characters, all of whom are brilliantly realized. At the heart of the story is a Jewish family headed by Alexandra Shaposhnikova, “an old woman whose spiritual roots are in the populist tradition of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia; her children, and their families, are the novel’s other central figures,” explains the book’s translator, Robert Chandler.

Two subplots are set in a Russian labor camp and a physics institute; other subplots deal with friends and relatives of the Shaposhnikova family. “One works at the Stalingrad power station, another is serving at the front, another tries to organize an uprising in a German concentration camp; another is transported by cattle-truck to the gas chambers.”

Life and Fate is an epic novel, but, as Chandler points out, it contains many individual chapters that resemble the short stories of Anton Chekhov. Like Chekhov, Grossman has a subtle understanding of human nature and a keen insight into the moral complexities of life. But above all, he is a remarkably bold and courageous writer, one who was not afraid to denounce the Stalinists for their criminal behavior during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Grossman, a secular Jew from an upper-middle-class family, was one of the Soviet regime’s early beneficiaries. His first novels and stories (mostly about working-class heroes) were published and he became a member of the Soviet Writers Union, one of the most powerful, prestigious (and corrupt) organizations in the country (see Inside the Soviet Writers Union by John and Carol Garrard, The Free Press). Grossman fought hard for the Soviet Union’s survival, but then disillusionment began to set in, triggered by the Great Terror of the 1930s when many of his friends and relatives were imprisoned and even murdered by the Stalinist regime.

Grossman, much to his regret, remained silent during much of that wolfish period, but he made up for that as he matured and came face to face with the evil of the Holocaust (his first-hand account of the workings of the Treblinka concentration camp was introduced as evidence at the Nuremberg trials).
It was not just German but Russian anti-Semitism that began to reshape Grossman’s thinking. In 1943 he and his fellow Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg compiled a book called The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry (Transaction Publishers, translated and edited by David Patterson). A collection of eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, affidavits and other documents on the vendettas of the Nazis against the Jews in the camps, ghettoes and towns of Eastern Europe, the book was suppressed for many years by Josef Stalin, who did not want the Jews identified as the primary victims of the Nazis. He also did not want the world to know just how many Lithuanians and Ukrainians had collaborated with the Nazis in a gleeful and bloodthirsty way.

Above all, Stalin forbade any mention of the fact that his secret police, the NKVD, had killed tens of thousands of so-called enemies of the state in Ukraine and Lithuania in the 1930s.
Grossman began to move closer and closer to a total rejection of communism’s fundamental premises and values. Ultimately in Life and Fate he came to the traumatic realization that Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were in fact mirror images of each other.

Needless to say, this sentiment, dramatized even more vividly in Everything Flows (New York Review of Books), Grossman’s second post-war novel, got him in trouble with the Soviet authorities. Although his friends warned him that Life and Fate was political dynamite-–more threatening to the Stalinists than Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago-–Grossman, somewhat naively, believed the book’s worth would be recognized and that it would be published. After years of struggle and near-misses with publishers and apparatchiks, Grossman was told by Russia’s literary czar that “the book could not be published for 250 years.”

Still Grossman persisted, if only because he had worked for ten years on his novel. Then, on Feb. 14, 1961, three KGB colonels barged into his Moscow flat and “arrested” the manuscript of “Life and Fate.” Grossman himself was not taken into custody; only his book was put in handcuffs.

The original mss. of Life and Fate still sits in a Russian secret-police safe. Chances are, Grossman would have been sent to a Gulag had Stalin not died in 1953. Though technically free, the writer still could not help but feel that “he had been strangled on his own doorstep.”

Fortunately, two carbon copies of Life and Fate were smuggled to the West and published there. It was not until 1988, 24 years after Grossman’s death, though, that the book was finally published in Russia.
The major English-language biography of Vasili Grossman is The Bones of Berdichev (The Free Press), by John and Carol Garrard, both of whom speak fluent Russian and have traveled numerous times to Russia in search of those who knew or have written about Grossman. On one of their trips they visited the Ukrainian town where Grossman was born and raised. Once home to 30,000 Jews, Berdichev in 1994 was almost “Jew-free” (as the Nazis would have put it.)

It was the Nazis, greatly aided by the Ukrainian polizei (and by vast numbers of ordinary locals), who on Sept. 15, 1941 slaughtered the Jewish population of Berdichev (making it the starting point of the Holocaust). Among the victims was Grossman’s mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, “a charming, witty woman with a fine sense of humor, very widely read, an entertaining conversationalist, and very attentive to others,” said a woman who had been her French pupil in the 1930s.

“We know that she was 70 years old when she was killed, that she walked with a cane because diabetes had caused vascular problems in one leg, and that she had eczema. We know that she spoke excellent French and had lived abroad,” the Garrards explain.

Grossman was already working as a war correspondent when the Wehrmacht attacked the Ukraine. “He had two weeks from the Nazi invasion on June 22 until the capture of Berdichev on July 7 to get on a train and bring her back to safety in Moscow.” But because his shrewish wife refused to take Yekaterina into her home, Grossman did nothing. “His failure to act would cost his mother (and his cousins) their lives and torment him thereafter.”

Out of that guilt and torment, Grossman would replay his mother’s death over and over in Life and Fate, examining it from many different perspectives, adding various details each time. “This multi-faceted perspective gives his account of the Holocaust on Soviet soil its unique realistic texture,” said the Garrards.

Grossman also wrote a letter in his mother’s voice which has become one of the novel’s most famous chapters. It is a letter written while the polizei were rounding up their victims and getting ready to butcher them. This “last letter” from mother to son is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful, profound and heart-rending epistles ever written.

In 2000 Frederick Wiseman produced and directed a 60-minute theatrical version of Le Derniere Lettre in Paris, starring the actress Catherine Samie. He later presented the solo play in New York and Moscow (on the centenary of Grossman’s birth). Wiseman also made a film of the play; it is available from Zipporah Films (

In 1950 and 1961, Grossman wrote two letters to his mother as if she were still alive; they too are extraordinary in their intensity, compassion and poignancy. They can be found in The Road (NYRB), along with his provocative essay on Raphael’s The Sistine Madonna. In Grossman’s estimation, maternal love was the strongest force on earth.

Grossman died in obscurity and frustration, thinking that his magnum opus Life and Fate would never be published. Fortunately, he was wrong in that regard; his novel is with us now and will forever be enshrined in the hearts of those who take the time to read it.

The message of Life and Fate–-and many other of Grossman’s works–-is a universal one. He tried, as the Garrards point out, “not simply to maintain his own personal integrity but to engage in that eternal struggle of remembering against forgetting that is the lot and duty of all people, whether they live in Russia or anywhere else. He attempted to live as a human being in inhuman times. It is this persistence of the humane in the ‘wolfhound century’ that makes his life so fascinating.

What is the effect on a given human being of the most lethal disasters in recorded history? Grossman’s experience is compelling–and consoling–because he reassures us that no matter what, the human species endures and the survivors continue to live as human beings. This is his great theme. The measure of his spirit may be taken by juxtaposing his hope in the human condition against the violence, torment, bewilderment and disintegration of his age.”