A war of words

As BBC Radio 4 prepares to celebrate the Soviet author Vasily Grossman, Mark Burman explains how a national hero fell foul of the communist regime

Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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“An iron wind hit them in the face, yet still they came on. A superstitious dread must have seized the foe: ‘Were these men really mortal?'”

Those words appear in Vasily Grossman’s Red Star newspaper article of 20 November 1942 In the Direction of the Main Blow. You will also find them carved in stone at the heart of one of Russia’s most sacred war monuments, the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex in Volgograd, the city that was formerly called Stalingrad.

Grossman’s reports from the Second World War’s front line gave millions of Russians a profound sense of themselves and their struggle during the conflict. At the height of the battle for Stalingrad (1942–3), soldiers and civilians pored over his words as did a worldwide audience awaiting the outcome.

Today at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial there is no clue as to who wrote those words. Parading soldiers in the Hall of Martyrs, and local tourists, will shrug in ignorance, mystified as to the identity of their author. By the time the memorial complex had begun construction in 1959 Grossman was seriously out of favour with the Soviet state. His epic novel, Life and Fate, would soon be seized. It was deemed by the state to be so dangerous that it should not be published for at least two centuries. How had the once popular writer fallen so far from favour?

On the eve of war Grossman had been a successful writer of short stories and novels, acceptable by Soviet norms. The purges and terror had touched but not claimed him. He was an assimilated Ukrainian Jew from the town of Berdichev. Born in 1905, he was a privileged writer with a dacha and a Moscow apartment. He was bespectacled and unfit, and carried a stick to lean on.

The invasion on 22 June 1941 swept away Grossman’s old world. The Germans reached Berdichev and his mother’s house two weeks later. Nearly all of its 30,000 Jews were murdered in one of the first Nazi aktions on Ukrainian soil. Grossman, driven by guilt over his mother’s fate, volunteered to fight but was assigned to Red Star, the newspaper of the Red Army that had a mass readership in this time of crisis. Its editor General Ortenberg saw in Grossman a writer with “a profound knowledge of the human heart”.

He had never fired a weapon or witnessed the “ruthless truth of war” but this would be his reality for the next four years as a ‘frontoviki’ – a frontline journalist.

Grossman’s work rarely lavished adulation on Stalin or the party, instead drawing out accounts of war from baby-faced snipers, taciturn anti-tank gunners and striving commanders. His work won him a vast audience and the respect of those he sought amidst the rubble of battle. He received several awards and medals for his words and bravery. For Grossman, as with many of his generation, the war was, according to close friend Semyon Lipkin, an opportunity “to wash away all the Stalinist filth from the face of Russia”.

By the time he reached ruined Berlin he had described not just the war-stained lives of Soviet soldiers and civilians but the shocking, genocidal evidence of Nazi conquest as he travelled with the Red Army through liberated Ukraine onto Majdanek and Treblinka. By May 1945 his hair had partially turned white, his nerves were shot and his greatcoat tattered and filthy. But he was gripped by a fierce determination to convey the truth of those years of war in the peace that followed. As he made clear in his 1946 essay, Memories of the Fallen:

“Those who write about the war and the present day must remember – fascism wanted to destroy the very concept and words ‘human being’. Our victory affirmed the right of human beings to live, think and be free”

But after the war, the right to live, think and be free was not open for discussion. The state’s new ‘enemies’ took many forms: suspect Soviet PoWs were sent to the Gulags; troublesome ethnic populations were deported; and ‘anti-cosmopolitans’ – essentially Jews – were subject to an increasingly sinister public campaign of purges. After the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, their loyalty was deemed particularly suspect.

Grossman was both a Jew and an increasingly unquiet voice. Official attacks on him began as early as 1946 following the publication of his play If We Are to Believe the Pythagoreans, as Stalin tightened his grip once more. The attacks became suddenly vicious during the fraught publication of his 1952 novel For A Just Cause, a treatment of Stalingrad that shared many characters and themes with the later Life and Fate. It was hacked about by the censors and savaged as “spittle in the face of the Russian people” by Mikhail Sholokov (author of Quiet Flows the Don).

In early 1953, the anti-cosmopolitan campaign was peaking in the so-called Doctors’ Plot, where leading Moscow doctors, mainly Jewish, were accused of planning to assassinate the Soviet leadership. Grossman, along with other terrified Jewish writers, was summoned to sign an open letter to Stalin asking for mass deportation of Jews to save them from the “wrath of the people”. To Grossman this was his last act of betrayal and, depressed, he felt his own arrest could not be far away.

Hiding out with old friend Semyon Lipkin, Grossman waited for the knock on the door. A neighbour told them that the ‘Boss’ – Stalin – had died on 5 March. Investigation into the Doctors’ Plot was abandoned and Nikita Khrushchev (first secretary of the Communist party) and the new elite began the ‘Thaw’, a policy of de-Stalinisation. For A Just Cause was even reprinted and Grossman was awarded the Red Banner of Labour for services to literature.

Grossman believed the time was right for Life and Fate, a kaleidoscopic portrayal of Gulags and concentration camps, and Soviet and German dug-outs on Stalingrad’s frontline. A portrait of soldiers and grieving mothers, it had cameos of Stalin and Hitler, compared Nazism and Stalinism, had a rendering of what we now call the Holocaust and an attempt to imagine his mother’s fate. An epic yet tender work of love and loss, of the struggle of a fragile good against a greater evil, it meant everything to him.

Criticising Stalin

But there had been a furore over Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago, with its implied criticisms of Stalinism. It had been smuggled out of the Soviet Union to the west, where it won the 1958 Nobel prize. The Soviet state would not make the same mistake again – certainly not with something as potentially incendiary as Life and Fate.

They came for it on 14 February 1961 – three KGB men, two colonels to act as ‘witnesses’, a general to serve the search warrant not to arrest Grossman but his manuscript. To him it felt like “taking a child from its father”. He pleaded for the release of his book with Khrushchev (now premier): “It was written with the author’s heart’s blood and written in the name of truth and love for the people… I ask you to release my book”. Soviet chief ideologue Mikhail Suslov summonsed Grossman to the Kremlin and detailed his lapses of judgement in “examining Soviet life from a non-Soviet viewpoint” and told him of the impossibility of publishing a book full of “question marks”. He had not read it, just reports that compared its threat to that of “the atomic bombs our enemies are preparing against us”.

The arrest of his masterpiece crushed Grossman: “They strangled me in the dark,” he said. He continued to write but largely without an audience, and died of stomach cancer in 1964. He never knew that the KGB had missed a copy of his manuscript. Secretly microfilmed, it was smuggled abroad and published in Switzerland in 1980. It began a new life in the west where it has never been out of print. Radio 4’s fortnight of readings, documentary and a dramatisation of Grossman’s masterpiece are a testament to the power of his unquiet voice.

Mark Burman is the producer of Vasily Grossman From the Frontline – readings from his wartime journalism – and of the first major documentary on the writer.

Essential Grossman

There’s never been a better time to discover Vasily Grossman. It is still possible to pick up wartime translations of his journalism, his novel Kolchugin’s Youth and his landmark 1943 novella The People Immortal.

Life & Fate

Vintage, 2011

A beautiful and wise book. Set during the battle of Stalingrad it depicts a society at war with Nazi Germany and itself. Said Grossman to Khrushchev: “I wrote about ordinary human beings, and about their pain, their joys, their mistakes and their deaths.” The celebrated chapter of a mother’s last letter from the ghetto has been staged by Frederick Wiseman and also adapted as a libretto by Scottish Opera. Radio 4’s dramatisation of the book airs from 18 to 24 September.

Everything Flows

Vintage, 2011

Written after Life and Fate, this is an astonishing tale of a return from the Gulag in the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw. Within are devastating accounts of the famine caused by collectivisation and an astonishingly powerful attack on Lenin and the Russian slave mentality, the first such ever published in Russia during Glasnost.

A Writer at War

Pimlico, 2006

A detailed and compelling compilation of Grossman’s private frontline journals from 1941 to 1945. These shards containing the “ruthless truth of war” inform both his celebrated combat journalism and his later fiction.

The Road

Vintage Classics, 2010

This is the first collection of Grossman’s short stories to see print in English and they display a writer’s power in the short form. They are beautifully translated by Robert Chandler.

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Also of note is the film Commissar, directed by Aleksandr Askoldov in 1967. A beautiful and stunning film of Grossman’s short story In the Town of Berdichev. The film was itself banned.