Comprehensive biography of the great Soviet war correspondent, novelist, and dissident.
As a young man, Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) ignored advice to change his patronymic from Solomonovich to Semyonovich, embracing his Jewish heritage in a time of pogroms. He was skeptical about the Bolshevik Revolution, writing in his novel Everything Flows, “in February 1917, the path of freedom lay open for Russia. Russia chose Lenin.” Yet, as Moscow-born journalist and historian Popoff (Tolstoy’s False Disciple: The Untold Story of Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Chertkov, 2014, etc.) writes, Grossman weathered tuberculosis and unsatisfying work as a chemist (not in that alone does he resemble the Italian writer Primo Levi) to embark on a literary career. An early novel presaged themes he would follow in later works, namely the sameness of different totalitarian systems; the similarities between Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes would emerge in several of his pieces, which did not endear him to the authorities. He traveled with units of the Red Army throughout World War II as a war correspondent, getting into the thick of Stalingrad, Kursk, and, later, Berlin, providing some of the best reportage on any theater of the war: “The dead sleep on the hills,” he wrote of Stalingrad, “near the ruins of factory workshops, in gullies and ravines; they sleep in places where they fought….Sacred land!” His novel Life and Fate, which preoccupied him for years, captured those experiences while repeating his mistrust of totalitarianism. Amazingly, he was not executed, but he constantly ran afoul of Soviet authorities and often endured their “administrative violence.” As Popoff notes in closing, Grossman remains little known in Russia today, in part because of historical amnesia and in part because Vladimir Putin, “who is striving to re-create the Soviet police state," does not brook criticism of Stalin or any equation of Stalinism and Hitlerism.
An essential companion to the ongoing reissue campaign, courtesy of the New York Review of Books, of Grossman’s work in English and of interest to students of literature, journalism, and history alike.