Vasiliy (Iosif) Grossman - biography
Vasily Semyonovich Grossman (Russian: Василий Семёнович Гроссман, Ukrainian: Василь Семенович Гроссман; December 12, 1905–September 14, 1964) was a Soviet writer and journalist. Grossman trained as an engineer and worked in the Donets Basin, but changed career in the 1930s. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, writing firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. Grossman's eyewitness accounts of conditions in a Nazi extermination camp, following the liberation of Treblinka, were among the earliest. After World War II, Grossman's faith in the Soviet state was shaken by Joseph Stalin's embrace of antisemitism. While Grossman was never arrested by Soviet authorities, his two major literary works—Life and Fate and Forever Flowing—were censored as unacceptably anti-Soviet, and Grossman himself became a nonperson. The KGB raided Grossman's apartment after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing the manuscripts, notes, and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written. The book remained censored by Nikita Krushchev after Stalin's death; Grossman was told by Mikhail Suslov that it could not be published for at least two hundred years. At the time of Grossman's death from stomach cancer in 1964, his books were unreleased. They were eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a network of dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich, and first published in the USSR in 1988.
Early life and career
Born Iosif Solomonovich Grossman in Berdychiv, Russian Empire (today in Ukraine) into an emancipated Jewish family, he did not receive a traditional Jewish education. A Russian nanny turned his name Yossya into Russian Vasya (a diminutive of Vasily), which was accepted by the whole family. His father had social-democratic convictions and joined the Mensheviks. Young Vasily Grossman idealistically supported the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Grossman began writing short stories while studying at Moscow State University and later continued his literary activity working as an engineer in the Donbass. One of his first short stories, In the town of Berdichev (В городе Бердичеве), drew favorable attention and encouragement from Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. The movie Commissar (director Aleksandr Askoldov), made in 1967, suppressed by the KGB and released only in October 1990, is based on this four-page story.
In the mid-1930s Grossman left his job as an engineer and committed himself fully to writing. By 1936 he had published two collections of stories, and in 1937 was accepted into the privileged Union of Writers. During the Great Purge some of his friends and close relatives were arrested, including his common-law wife. For months he petitioned the authorities to release her, which happened in 1938.
When Nazi-Germany invaded the Soviet-Union in 1941 and the Great Patriotic War broke out, Grossman's mother was trapped in Berdychiv by the invading German army, and eventually murdered together with 20,000 to 30,000 other Jews who did not evacuate Berdychiv. Grossman was exempt from military service, but volunteered for the front, where he spent more than 1,000 days. He became a war reporter for the popular Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). As the war raged on, he covered its major events, including the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin. In addition to war journalism, his novels (such as The People are Immortal (Народ бессмертен)) were being published in newspapers and he came to be regarded as a legendary war hero. The novel Stalingrad (1950), later renamed For a Just Cause (За правое дело), is based on his own experiences during the siege.
Grossman described Nazi ethnic cleansing in German occupied Ukraine and Poland, and the liberation by the Red Army of the Nazi-German Treblinka and Majdanek extermination camps. He collected some of the first eyewitness accounts—as early as 1943—of what later became known as the Holocaust. His article The Hell of Treblinka 1944) was disseminated at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal as evidence for the prosecution.
Conflict with the Soviet regime
Grossman participated in the assembly of the Black Book, a project of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to document the crimes of the Holocaust. The post-war suppression of the Black Book by the Soviet state shook him to the core, and he began to question his own loyal support of the Soviet regime. First the censors ordered changes in the text to conceal the specifically anti-Jewish character of the atrocities and to downplay the role of Ukrainians who worked with the Nazis as police. Then, in 1948, the Soviet edition of the book was scrapped completely. The poet Semyon Lipkin, Grossman's friend, believed it was Joseph Stalin's post-war antisemitic campaign that cracked Grossman's belief in the Soviet system:
In 1946... I met some close friends, an Ingush and a Balkar, whose families had been deported to Kazakhstan during the war. I told Grossman and he said: "Maybe it was necessary for military reasons." I said: "...Would you say that if they did it to the Jews?" He said that could never happen. Some years later, a virulent article against cosmopolitanism appeared in Pravda. Grossman sent me a note saying I had been right after all. For years Grossman didn't feel very Jewish. The campaign against cosmopolitanism reawoke his Jewishness.
Grossman also criticized collectivization and political repressions of peasants that led to Holodomor tragedy. He wrote that "The decree [about grain procurement] required that the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their little children."
Because of state persecution, only a few of Grossman's post-war works were published during his lifetime. After he submitted for publication his magnum opus, the novel Life and Fate (Жизнь и судьба, 1959), the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks, as well as the typists' copies and even the typewriter ribbons were seized.
With the "Thaw period" underway after the death of Stalin, Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev: "What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested... I am not renouncing it... I am requesting freedom for my book." The Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov told Grossman that his book could not be published for at least three hundred years:
I have not read your novel but I have carefully read the reviews of your manuscript, responses to it, which contain many excerpts from your novel. Look how many quotes from them I have written down....Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us? . . . Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?
Life and Fate, as well as his last major novel, Forever Flowing (Все течет, 1961), were considered a threat to the totalitarian regime, and the dissident writer was effectively transformed into a nonperson. Forever Flowing, in particular, is unique in its quiet, unforced, and yet horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state, a work in which Grossman, liberated from worries about censors, spoke honestly about Soviet history. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, not knowing whether his novels would ever be read by the public.
Life and Fate was published in 1980 in Switzerland, thanks to fellow dissidents: physicist Andrei Sakharov secretly photographed draft pages preserved by Semyon Lipkin, and the writer Vladimir Voinovich managed to smuggle the photographic films abroad. Two dissident researchers, professors and writers, Efim Etkind and Shimon Markish retyped the text from the microfilm, with some mistakes and misreadings due to the bad quality. The book was finally published in Russia in 1988 after the policy of glasnost was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. The text was published again in 1989, because further original manuscripts emerged after the first publication. Forever Flowing was also published in the Soviet Union in 1989.
Life and Fate is considered to be an autobiographical work. Robert Chandler, the novel's English translator, has written in his introduction to the Harvill edition that its leading character, Viktor Shtrum, "is a portrait of the author himself," reflecting in particular his anguish at the murder of his mother at the Berdichev Ghetto. Chapter 18, a letter from Shtrum's mother, Anna, has been dramatized for the stage and film The Last Letter (2002), directed by Frederick Wiseman, and starring Catherine Samie. Chandler additionally suggests that the character of Shtrum is based on the physicist Lev Landau.
Some critics have compared Grossman's novels to Leo Tolstoy's prose.