1964: An Author That Mother Russia Did Not Know How to Take Dies in Disgrace

'Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?' ideology chief challenged Vasily Grossman.

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Vasily Grossman, wearing hat and glasses and a coat, photographed in Schwerin, Germany with the Red Army, 1945.
Vasily Grossman died not even knowing if his magnum opus would ever be published.Credit: Keith Gessen, Wikimedia Commons

On September 14, 1964, the Soviet-Jewish writer and journalist Vasily Grossman, died. Like many great artists in the Soviet Union, Grossman had periods when he was in favor, and periods when he was persona non grata. He ended his life not even knowing if his magnum opus, the novel “Life and Fate,” would ever see the light of day.

Iosif Semyonovich Grossman was born on December 12, 1905, in the city of Berdichev, in what is today Ukraine. His father, Solomon (Semyon) Iosifovich Grossman, was a chemical engineer, who separated from his mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, a French teacher, when Vasily was about 5. (The nickname “Vasily” was given to him by a nursemaid, and it stuck.)

Mother and son lived for several years in Switzerland before returning to Kiev in 1914, where Vasily attended secondary school, and began studying chemistry at the Kiev Institute of Higher Education. He finished a degree in that field at Moscow State University in 1929. Within a year, he was also married and the father of a daughter. He divorced in 1932.

Stalin himself takes note

Grossman worked for several years as a mining engineer and chemistry teacher, but at the same time, he was writing and publishing fiction. In 1934, he published both his first novel (“Glyukauf,” about miners) and a short story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” that earned the attention of such literary luminaries as Maxim Gorky.

By 1937, having brought out two additional collections of stories, he was accepted into the prestigious Union of Writers, and had written another novel that was nominated for the Stalin Prize. It was later struck from the short list by Comrade Stalin himself, who suspected Grossman of “Menshevik tendencies.”

Stalin seems to have been conflicted about Grossman, who he suspected had “Menshevik tendencies.”Credit: AP

In 1935, Grossman married Olga Mikhailovna, the ex-wife of his writer friend Boris Guber. Two years later, when both Boris and Olga were arrested during the Great Purge of 1937, Grossman assumed custody of their two sons and somehow succeeded in convincing the head of the secret police, the NKVD, that Olga should not be held responsible for the crimes of her ex-husband, attaining her release.

During World War II, Grossman volunteered for service, and spent 1,000 days at the front as a journalist, reporting for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). His accounts of the battles for Moscow, Stalingrad and Berlin, among others, made him a national hero.

He also wrote the first article describing a liberated death camp, “The Hell of Treblinka” (1944), which was later used as evidence by the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials. His mother, who remained in Berdichev, was a victim of the Nazis.  

Losing the faith

Under Soviet Communism, it was permitted to discuss the crimes of the Germans, but not to acknowledge that any of their victims were murdered for being Jewish, or that the Germans had local accomplices. Grossman participated in the compilation of the “Black Book,” which was intended to document just these things, and when the government blocked its publication, in 1948, he was shaken.

It was the beginning of the end of his belief in the regime.

Even so, when he submitted the manuscript of “Life and Fate” – an epic war novel that condemns Nazi fascism but also points a finger at Stalin’s totalitarianism -- to the official censor, in 1959, six years after the death of Stalin, he was still sufficiently nave to believe that the USSR under Khrushchev was ready to accept some self-criticism. Instead, police came to his home and confiscated all of his manuscripts and his typewriter. He argued for the publication of his book, but was told by the state’s ideology chief that it would be another 200-300 years before the country would be ready to read it: “Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?”

After “Life and Fate” was banned, Grossman became unemployable. His wife left him. And in 1964, at 58 a prematurely old man, he died of stomach cancer.

But in a way, being freed of his illusions served to liberate him. He began another novel, “Everything Flows,” that looked at the famine politically engineered in Ukraine in the early 1930s. Both it and “Life and Fate” were finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988 and 1989 respectively. And today, as a writer, he is frequently compared to Tolstoy.