A Soviet censor who checked out a novel by Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, delivered some bad news to the author. Not only was he banning Life and Fate but he also had a bleak prediction of Grossman's future as an author. He said an explosive book of that kind probably wouldn't be publishable for another 200 or 300 years.
By the 1940s Grossman (1905-1964) had learned to expect this treatment. He was one of a kind, an author who lived under a severe dictatorship but nevertheless wrote as a free man, conveying his own empathy for people he found suffering. Censors managed to keep Life and Fate unpublished till after his death, rightly claiming that it criticized the Soviet government and even Josef Stalin himself. Grossman's book defended the rebel Leon Trotsky and cast doubt on the Soviet system. It compared the U.S.S.R. to Hitler's Nazi regime. This issue was turned over to the secret police, who raided Grossman's apartment and confiscated every scrap of the manuscript.
Roughly a century later, the quality of Grossman's work has given him a spectacular posthumous victory. Far from being a nobody who could be brushed aside by civil servants and censors, Grossman now looks like a heroic Russian writer who managed to oppose both Hitler and Stalin as equally brutal dictators. Published first in Switzerland, Life and Fate gave him a large reputation through translations.
The latest of many tributes to him is a biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (Yale University Press), by Alexandra Popoff. She's clearly spent years in loving dedication of her research, effectively reviving a remarkable life and career.
He was a journalist and war correspondent with the Russian army who revealed the Nazi death camps, then went home and recognized the horror of Stalin's regime. He first encountered the Nazi Holocaust at Treblinka in Poland, where more than 700,000 Jews died and where he wrote that the Nazis condemned Jews to "the abyss of nonbeing."
A Jew himself, he worked at revealing the extent of the Holocaust, contributing to the 500-page Black Book. He realized "the paramount importance of facing facts." He wrote of "the writer's duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader's civic duty to learn this truth."
Popoff incorporates "and the Soviet Century" in her book's title. Her intention, well carried out, is to depict Grossman's life and the life of the Soviet Union as they developed. You cannot read her book without learning a great deal about Soviet life. She sees him dealing with the routine difficulties of day-by-day Soviet existence even as the leaders of the state improvise in the face of both factual and fictional challenges. The notorious fantasy of the "Doctors' Plot" demonstrates the perverse evolution into paranoia of a whole society.
In December, 1952 Stalin declared during a meeting of U.S.S.R. leaders: "Every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence." This announced a new level of mental illness flowing through Russia. A month later, Pravda's front page announced the "Doctors' Plot." TASS, the government news wire, reported that nine "doctors-saboteurs" had been arrested as terrorists.
Six of them were Jews, said to be linked to an international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist organization, guided by American intelligence. Supposedly, they were intent on destroying the Soviet leadership. Other newspapers wrote about "killer doctors" and their plot. Shortly after, Stalin had a stroke and his colleagues asked which doctors should be summoned. Several were named but all of them were in prison. During Stalin's sickness, The Literary Gazette said the Soviet writers had a task portraying "the greatest genius of all time and all peoples -- the immortal Stalin." After Stalin died, the plot was slowly forgotten.
It would be pleasant to report that Grossman's work is now cherished by his fellow Russians. But the last paragraph in Popoff's book suggests that he doesn't appeal to a nation that still yearns (as Vladimir Putin does) for the restoration of national pride.
"Grossman remains unpopular in Russia. It's easier to believe in a glorious past than to admit that Stalinism and Nazism were mirror images of each other."