Vasily Semenovich Grossman

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(19051964), one of the most important Russian novelists of the twentieth century who became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet system.

Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in the town of Berdichev in Ukraine. He spent the years from 1910 to 1914 in Switzerland with his mother and attended high school in Kiev. He received a degree in chemical engineering from Moscow University in 1929 and worked in various engineering jobs until becoming a full-time writer in 1934. He published his first news article in 1928 and his first short story in 1934 and became a prolific writer of fiction during the 1930s. He published a long novel about the civil war entitled Stepan Kolchugin between 1937 and 1940. In 1938, his wife was arrested, but Grossman wrote to Nikolai Yezhov and achieved her release.

During World War II, Grossman served as a correspondent for Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda ) and spent the entire war at the front. His writing during the war years was immensely popular, and his words are inscribed on the war memorial at Stalingrad (now Volgograd). He also began writing short stories, which were collected in titles such as The People are Immortal. However, from that perspective, he also began to doubt the abilities of the systems that organized the war effort.

Grossman's postwar projects were often challenging to the Soviet system, and several were not published until long after their completion. Beginning in 1943, Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg began to collect personal accounts of the Holocaust on the territories of the Soviet Union, entitled the Black Book of Russian Jewry. Grossman became the editor of the collection in 1945 and continued to prepare it for publication. The printing plates were actually completed, but in 1946, as anti-Semitism began to increase and Josef Stalin turned against the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, they were removed from the printing plant. The book would not be published in any part of the former USSR until 1994.

His postwar fiction about the war generated intense criticism from Soviet officials. His novel For a Just Cause (Za pravoye delo ), published in 1952, led to attacks for its lack of proper ideological focus. His most contemplative piece about the war, Life and Fate (Zhizn i sudba ) was arrested by the KGB in 1961. Although they seized Grossman's copy of the manuscript, another had already been hidden elsewhere and preserved. Often compared to Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, the novel bitterly attacks Stalin and the Soviet system for failures. He focuses on the suffering of one family at the hands of large forces outside of their control. In it he touches upon the Gulags, the Holocaust, and the repressions that accompanied the heroism of ordinary Soviets. After twenty years, it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm and published in the West. His last novel, Everything is in Flux (Vse techet ), is an angry indictment of Soviet society and was distributed only in Samizdat.

On his death from cancer in 1964, Grossman disappeared from public Soviet literary discussions, only reappearing under Mikhail Gorbachev. In retrospect, Grossman's writing has been acknowledged as some of the most significant Russian literature of the twentieth century.

See also: censorship; jews; samizdat; stalin, josef vissarionovich; world war ii


Ehrenburg, Ilya, and Grossman, Vasily. (2002). The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, tr. David Patterson. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Garrard, John, and Garrard, Carol. (1996). The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Grossman, Vasily. (1985). Life and Fate, tr. Robert Chandler. New York: Harper & Row

Karl E. Loewenstein

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