As the Red Army swept into Ukraine in the late summer of 1943, Vasily Grossman was overcome with both exhilaration and foreboding on re-entering his homeland. The novelist-turned-war-correspondent warmed to the “soft breath of Ukraine” on his face again and the evocative sight of tall poplars, white huts and wattle fences in the countryside. But after two years of Nazi occupation, he found his beautiful mother country scarred by “fire and tears” and consumed by “sadness and wrath”.
He was shocked to see the devastation as he passed through the cities he knew well from his prewar days (and whose names have become all too familiar to us today during the latest conflict in Ukraine): Donetsk (then named Stalino) where Grossman had worked as a coal mining engineer; Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital with its golden cupolas, where he had married his girlfriend Anna Petrovna Matsyuk; and Odesa, the culturally rich Black Sea port, where many of his mother’s Jewish relatives had lived and later been massacred.
“Old men, when they hear Russian words, run to meet the troops and weep silently, unable to utter a word. Old peasant women say with a quiet surprise: ‘We thought we would sing and laugh when we saw our army, but there’s so much grief in our hearts, that tears are falling’,” he wrote.
The contrast between the Red Army’s victorious campaign across Ukraine in 1943 and President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of 2022 could not be starker. Harking back to the Soviet Union’s triumphs during the second world war, the Russian president has played up the fraternal ties between the two Slavic peoples and the historic symmetry of a Russian army “liberating” the Ukrainian people from the supposed grip of neo-Nazis. As Putin wrote in an impassioned (and historically selective) essay on Ukraine, published last July, Russians and Ukrainians have been bound by centuries of common trials, achievements and victories. “Together we have always been and will be many times stronger and more successful. For we are one people.”
But, apart from a few separatist pro-Moscow districts of eastern Ukraine that have welcomed Putin’s intervention, the reality has been very different. Even before the latest conflict, a Ukrainian opinion poll published last December showed that 72 per cent of respondents considered Russia a “hostile state”. The defiance, courage and sense of nationhood shown by the Ukrainians in the face of the merciless onslaught has been extraordinary. The only brotherhood shown between the Russians and Ukrainians, according to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, resembles that between Cain and Abel.
There are always many good reasons for reading Grossman, but few times are as resonant as our own. As a proud son of Ukraine, steeped in Russian culture, Grossman was both a chronicler of the Soviet Union’s greatest victories and a clear-eyed investigator of some of its darkest crimes. He would have understood better than most the split identities, divided loyalties and historical animosities that underlie the current conflict. Indeed, he embodied many of them.
Born into the Jewish Ukrainian intelligentsia in Berdychiv in 1905, Grossman grew up in an era of murderous upheaval, living through the Russian Revolution, the civil war, the Terror Famine in Ukraine, the Stalinist purges, the second world war and the Nazi Holocaust.
As a war correspondent for the Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) army newspaper from 1941-1945, Grossman spent more than 1,000 days reporting from the frontline. There, he reported the “ruthless truth of war” with all its horror, heartbreak and heroism. His accounts of the epic siege at Stalingrad, the titanic tank clash at Kursk and the final savage battle for Berlin marches the reader straight into the frontline. In particular, his reporting on the ferocious fighting at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942 give us a glimpse of what it must be like today to be in Kharkiv and Mariupol as these Ukrainian cities are pounded by Russian shell fire.
It was a horrible sight to see Stalingrad perishing amid “smoke, dust, fire”, Grossman wrote, but it was still more horrible to see a six-year-old child crushed by a fallen beam. “There is power, which can resurrect huge cities from the ashes, but no power in the world is capable of lifting the light eyelashes over the eyes of a dead child.”
As a novelist, Grossman transformed this encyclopedia of experience into Life and Fate, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, echoing Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Switching between the frontline drama and the shattered lives on the home front with Tolstoyan sweep, he describes the human face of war as ordinary citizens were torn between the twin evils of Nazism and Stalinism, the concentration camp and the Gulag.
As a victim, as much as a witness, of history, Grossman’s writings also tell us much about the tragic fate of Ukraine and its Jewish community, in particular. His last (unfinished) novel Everything Flows contains graphic memories of the Terror Famine that was inflicted on Ukraine in the early 1930s. Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture and his brutal campaign against the richer peasantry, known as the kulaks, caused the deaths of almost 4mn Ukrainians, and has come to be known as the Holodomor (combining the words for holod, hunger, and mor, extermination).
Still worse was to follow during the second world war, when the Nazi and Soviet armies turned Ukraine into a giant battlefield and SS death squads roamed the land murdering its Jewish population, including Grossman’s beloved 70-year-old mother, a French language teacher.
Grossman did not write about his mother’s death in any of his newspaper reports. But on the ninth and 20th anniversaries of her murder, he did write two heart-rending letters to her as though she were alive. In the second, discovered after his own death, he wrote that he had dedicated Life and Fate to her memory. “I do not fear anything because your love is with me, and because my love is with you forever,” he ended with a defiant coda. In one of the most moving chapters in Life and Fate that echoes this imaginary correspondence, the partly autobiographical character of Viktor Shtrum receives a farewell letter from his mother declaring that “no one has the strength to destroy” her love.
It is estimated that 6mn-8mn Ukrainians were killed in the conflict, about one-fifth of the prewar population, including 600,000 Jews. Grossman was one of the first reporters to grasp the sheer enormity and evil of the Nazi Holocaust. His article “The Hell of Treblinka” was cited in evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
It is as an insistent, truth-telling humanist that Grossman may have left his most lasting legacy. As a writer in Soviet times, he was severely constrained in what he could publish but he was nonetheless determined to make his own truth known. In that sense, he personifies the ceaseless struggle between two concepts of truth in Russian culture: between that of pravda (temporising human truth) and istina (God’s eternal truth).
Like all other published writers of his time, Grossman was forced to conform to the dictates of socialist realism. But, unlike many other writers, he also espoused a form of humanist realism, according to Julia Volokhova, a Moscow-based literary scholar. “His legacy aroused, and continues to arouse, heated disputes among readers and critics. Assessments of his personality and creative achievements are almost polar opposites,” she says.
Often viewed through a cold war prism, Grossman was accused of slandering the Soviet regime, or collaborating with it. Some admired his Tolstoyan style, others accused him of excessive pathos and an inclination to moralise. But Volokhova says Grossman refused to associate himself with any literary movement or political group and can be considered as a “realist writer.” “That is why he is a ‘very uncomfortable’ writer,” she says.
The bitter irony is that Grossman received much acclaim and sold more than 7mn books while writing within the confines of Soviet propaganda. But he died in desolation after the Soviet authorities banned his masterpiece Life and Fate, into which he had poured his true feelings. “There are bitter and tragic pages in my book,” Grossman acknowledged in a letter to Nikita Khrushchev, the then Soviet leader. “Perhaps it is hard to read them. Believe me, it was no less hard to write them. But I simply had to write them.”
In a futile attempt to free his “arrested” book, Grossman met Mikhail Suslov, the Communist Party’s chief ideologue. Grossman’s account of their meeting in 1962 encapsulates the clash between differing understandings of truth. “Our Soviet writers must only produce what is needed and useful for society,” Suslov said. “Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?”
Two years later, Grossman died from stomach cancer at the age of 58. It was only 24 years later that Life and Fate was eventually published, in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
As Putinism increasingly vibrates with the drumbeat of Stalinism, Grossman has again fallen out of favour with the Kremlin. “There are thousands of ways in which Grossman does not fit with Putin’s Russia,” says Robert Chandler, who has translated much of his writing into English.
“In the pages of Everything Flows, Grossman talks about the ‘slavish Russian soul’. But he wrote out of pain and love for Russia. He was deeply patriotic. But nationalists see him as a westerniser, a Jewish Russophobe.”
Yet other, uncounted readers are still quietly inspired by Grossman as a flag-bearer for a more peaceful, liberal and outward-looking Russia. Chandler recalls a conversation he once had with Arseny Roginsky, one of the founders of Russia’s human rights organisation Memorial (now banned), which painstakingly attempted to record the details of every victim of Stalinism. After Chandler introduced himself as the English translator of Grossman, Roginsky beamed and simply said: “He is our writer.”
In Vasily Grossman and The Soviet Century, the biographer Alexandra Popoff wrote that the novelist had lived during the worst possible time to be a humanist, pacifist and internationalist, making his writings all the more remarkable. “The idea that humanity and compassion would prevail over violence and tyranny was at the heart of Grossman’s beliefs,” Popoff wrote.
The manuscript of Life and Fate was eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in Russia in 1988 during the glasnost era. For a while, there was a flurry of interest in Grossman’s writings, just as there was in those of other rediscovered Stalin-era writers, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov.
The Russian theatre director Lev Dodin staged a magnificent theatrical adaptation of Life and Fate at the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg, warning about the “failure of human memory.” “Grossman’s story is not only about fascism or communism or anti-Semitism,” Dodin told the FT in 2018 before the play transferred to London. “It is about any type of totalitarianism.
“The specific horror differs in this or that country, or this and that continent, but I think it all could lead us into one big tragedy,” he warned.
In the past few years, however, Grossman’s voice has faded as Stalin has been steadily rehabilitated as a great war leader by the Putin regime. Last July, Putin approved a law making it illegal to equate the “aims and decisions” of the Soviet and Nazi leaderships during the war and to deny “the Soviet Union’s humanitarian mission in liberating the countries of Europe.” Chandler laments: “Grossman is not much valued or read in Russia itself these days.”
During my six years of reporting for the FT from Moscow in the 1990s, however, I would often catch echoes of Grossman’s humanism. And even today, as we watch another brutal war ravaging the long-suffering people of Ukraine, it is striking how his spirit endures. A violinist in a Kyiv basement is filmed playing a mournful tune that is then taken up by 93 other musicians around the world. Mothers in the Polish city of Przemysl leave pushchairs on the station platform and extend a warm welcome to hundreds of thousands of arriving Ukrainian refugees. A solitary woman in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod is detained for holding up a blank sheet of paper in symbolic protest against the war. Grossman would surely have nodded in recognition, and appreciation, of these small acts of fellow feeling and kindness.
During the second world war, Grossman wrote that he had seen so much suffering that he did not know how it could all be stuffed inside him. “It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is the reader’s civic duty to learn this truth,” Grossman wrote. “To turn away, to close one’s eyes and walk past is to insult the memory of those who have perished.”
In spite of all the dark times in his life, Grossman retained an innate optimism and an intensely stubborn belief in the essential goodness of people. “There has been no time crueller than ours, yet we did not allow what is human in man to perish,” he wrote. We can only pray that we can match Grossman’s example today.
John Thornhill is the FT’s innovation editor and a former Moscow correspondent
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