Vasily Grossman

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Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany. (1945)
Born December 12, 1905(1905-12-12)
Berdychiv, Russian Empire
Died September 14, 1964 (aged 58)
Moscow, USSR
Occupation writer, journalist
Notable work(s) Life and Fate

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman (Russian: Василий Семёнович Гроссман, December 12, 1905–September 14, 1964) was a Jewish propagandist in the Soviet Union. Grossman trained as an engineer and worked in the Donets Basin, but changed career in the 1930s and published short stories and several novels. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he became a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, writing firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin. Grossman's accounts of alleged conditions in Holocaust camps were among the earliest.

After World War II, Grossman's faith in the Soviet state was shaken by Joseph Stalin's embrace of anti-Semitism in the final years before his death in 1953. While Grossman was never arrested by Soviet authorities, his two major literary works—Life and Fate and Forever Flowing—were censored during the ensuing Nikita Khrushchev period as unacceptably anti-Soviet, and Grossman himself became in effect a nonperson. The KGB raided Grossman's apartment after he had completed Life and Fate, seizing manuscripts, notes, and even the ribbon from the typewriter on which the text had been written. Grossman was told by the Communist party's chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years. At the time of Grossman's death from stomach cancer in 1964, these books were unreleased. Copies were eventually smuggled out of the Soviet Union by a network of dissidents, including Andrei Sakharov and Vladimir Voinovich, and first published in the West, before appearing in the USSR in 1988.

Early life and career

Born Iosif Solomonovich Grossman in Berdychiv, Russian Empire (today in Ukraine) into an emancipated Jewish family, he did not receive a traditional Jewish education. A Russian nanny turned his name Yossya into Russian Vasya (a diminutive of Vasily), which was accepted by the whole family. His father had social-democratic convictions and joined the Mensheviks. Young Vasily Grossman "idealistically" supported the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Grossman began writing short stories while studying at Moscow State University and later continued his literary activity working as an engineer in the Donbass. One of his first short stories, In the town of Berdichev (В городе Бердичеве), drew favorable attention and encouragement from Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. The movie Commissar (director Aleksandr Askoldov), made in 1967, suppressed by the KGB and released only in October 1990, is based on this four-page story.

In the mid-1930s Grossman left his job as an engineer and committed himself fully to writing. By 1936 he had published two collections of stories and the novel Glyukauf, and in 1937 was accepted into the privileged Union of Writers. His novel Stepan Kol'chugin (published 1937-40) was nominated for a Stalin prize but deleted from the list by Stalin himself for alleged Menshevik sympathies.[1] During the Great Purge some of his friends and close relatives were arrested, including his common-law wife. For months he petitioned the authorities to release her, which happened in 1938.

War reporter

When National socialist-Germany invaded the Soviet-Union in 1941, Grossman's mother was trapped in Berdychiv by the invading German army, and eventually murdered together with 20,000 to 30,000 other Jews who had not evacuated. Grossman was exempt from military service, but volunteered for the front, where he spent more than 1,000 days. He became a war reporter for the popular Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). As the war raged on, he covered its major events, including the Battle of Moscow, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Kursk, and the Battle of Berlin. In addition to war journalism, his novels (such as The People are Immortal (Народ бессмертен)) were being published in newspapers and he came to be regarded as a legendary war hero. The novel Stalingrad (1950), later renamed For a Just Cause (За правое дело), is based on his own experiences during the siege.

Grossman alleged National Socialist ethnic cleansing in German occupied Ukraine and Poland. He described the liberation by the Red Army of the Treblinka and Majdanek Holocaust campss. He published some of the first alleged eyewitness accounts—as early as 1943—of what later became known as the Holocaust. His article The Hell of Treblinka[2] (1944) was disseminated at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal as evidence for the prosecution.

The Black Book of Soviet Jewry

Grossman participated with Ilya Ehrenburg in the assembly of the The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, a project of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. The book was not allowed to be published in Russian upon the conclusion of war. Its insistence on the uniqueness of Jewish suffering – above and beyond the rest of Soviet citizenry – was denounced by the Central Committee as anti-Soviet.

Conflict with the Soviet regime

The Semyon Lipkin, Grossman's friend, believed it was Joseph Stalin's post-war so called "antisemitic" campaign that cracked Grossman's belief in the Soviet system:

In 1946... I met some close friends, an Ingush and a Balkar, whose families had been deported to Kazakhstan during the war. I told Grossman and he said: "Maybe it was necessary for military reasons." I said: "...Would you say that if they did it to the Jews?" He said that could never happen. Some years later, a virulent article against cosmopolitanism appeared in Pravda. Grossman sent me a note saying I had been right after all. For years Grossman didn't feel very Jewish. The campaign against cosmopolitanism reawoke his Jewishness.

Grossman also criticized collectivization and political repressions of peasants that led to the Holodomor tragedy. He wrote that "The decree [about grain procurement] required that the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their little children."[3]

Because of state persecution, only a few of Grossman's post-war works were published during his lifetime. After he submitted for publication his magnum opus, the novel Life and Fate (Жизнь и судьба, 1959), the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks, as well as the typists' copies and even the typewriter ribbons were seized. The Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov told Grossman that his book could not be published for two or three hundred years[4]:

I have not read your novel but I have carefully read the reviews of your manuscript, responses to it, which contain many excerpts from your novel. Look how many quotes from them I have written down.... Why should we add your book to the atomic bombs that our enemies are preparing to launch against us?... Why should we publish your book and begin a public discussion as to whether anyone needs the Soviet Union or not?[5]

Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev: "What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested... I am not renouncing it... I am requesting freedom for my book." However, Life and Fate and his last major novel, Forever Flowing (Все течет, 1961) were considered a threat to the totalitarian regime; these novels were suppressed and the dissident writer effectively transformed into a nonperson. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, not knowing whether his major novels would ever be read by the public.


Memorial plaque in Donetsk where Grossman lived and worked in the 1930s.

Life and Fate was published in 1980 in Switzerland, thanks to fellow dissidents: physicist Andrei Sakharov secretly photographed draft pages preserved by Semyon Lipkin, and the writer Vladimir Voinovich managed to smuggle the photographic films abroad. Two dissident researchers, professors and writers, Efim Etkind and Shimon Markish retyped the text from the microfilm, with some mistakes and misreadings due to the bad quality. The book was finally published in Russia in 1988 after the policy of glasnost was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. The text was published again in 1989, because further original manuscripts emerged after the first publication. Forever Flowing was also published in the Soviet Union in 1989.

Life and Fate is considered to be in part an autobiographical work. Robert Chandler, the novel's English translator, has written in his introduction to the Harvill edition that its leading character, Viktor Shtrum, "is a portrait of the author himself," reflecting in particular his anguish at the murder of his mother at the Berdichev Ghetto. Chapter 18, a letter from Shtrum's mother, Anna, has been dramatized for the stage and film The Last Letter (2002), directed by Frederick Wiseman, and starring Catherine Samie. Chandler additionally suggests that aspects of the character and experience of Shtrum are based on the physicist Lev Landau. The late novel Forever Flowing, in turn, is especially noted for its quiet, unforced, and yet horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state: a work in which Grossman, liberated from worries about censors, spoke honestly about Soviet history.

Some critics have compared Grossman's novels to the work of Leo Tolstoy.[6][7]


  1. Chandler, Robert. Introduction to Life and Fate, pages viii-ix. New York, NYRB Classics. 1985.
  2. (Russian) Треблинский ад (Tryeblinski ad)
  3. Robert Conquest (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505180-7.
  4. Chandler, Robert. Life and Fate: Introduction. New York, New York Review of Books Classics, 1985.
  5. Under Siege, by Keith Gessen. Published in the New Yorker on March 6, 2006; accessed July 11, 2007.
  6. Tolstoy Studies Journal: Ellis, Frank. "Concepts of War in L.N. Tolstoy and V.S. Grossman." Volume II, 1989, pp. 101-108.
  7. Biography of Grossman (PDF) by Gregory Freidin, Stanford University


  • ...there is no higher happiness than to be able to crawl on one's stomach, out of the camp, blind, one's legs amputated, and to die in freedom, even if only ten yards from the cursed barbed wire. (Forever Flowing, chapter 9)
  • ...only one form of retribution is visited upon an executioner — the fact that he looks upon his victim as something other than a human being and thereby ceases to be a human being himself, and thereby executes himself as a human being. He is his own executioner... (Forever Flowing)
  • "Man never understands that the cities he has built are not an integral part of Nature. If he wants to defend his culture from wolves and snowstorms, if he wants to save it from being strangled by weeds, he must keep his broom, spade, and rifle always at hand. If he goes to sleep, if he thinks about something else for a year or two, then everything's lost. The wolves come out of the forest, the thistles spread and everything is buried under dust and snow." (Life and Fate)
  • ..."There's no one left in Kazary to complain, no-one to tell, no-one to cry. Silence and calm hover over the dead bodies buried under the collapsed fireplaces now overgrown with weeds. This quiet is much more frightening than tears and curses.
  • Old men and women are dead, as well as craftsmen and professional people; tailors, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, house painters, ironmongers, bookbinders,workers, freight handlers, millers, bakers and cooks; also dead are physicians, prosthesists, surgeons, gynaecologists, scientists - bacteriologists, biochemists, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry. Dead are professors, lecturers and doctors of science, engineers and architects. Dead are agronomists, field workers, accountants, clerks, shop assistants, supply agents, secretaries, nightwatchmen, dead are teachers, dead are babushkas who could knit stockings and make tasty buns, cook bouillon and make strudel with apples and nuts, dead are women who had been faithful to their husbands and frivolous women are dead, too, beautiful girls, and learned students and cheerful schoolgirls, dead are ugly and silly girls, women with hunches, dead are singers, dead are blind and deaf mutes, dead are violinists and pianists, dead are two-year olds and three year olds, dead are eighty year old men and women with cataracts on hazy eyes, with cold and transparent fingers and hair that rustled quietly like white paper, dead are newly born babies who had sucked their mothers breasts greedily until their last minute.
  • This was different fom the death of people in war, with weapons in their hands, the deaths of people who had left behind their houses, families, fields, songs, traditions and stories. This was the murder of a great and ancient professional experience, passed from one generation to another in thousands of families of craftsmen and members of the intelligensia. This was the murder of everday traditions that grandfathers had passed to their grandchildren, this was the murder of memories, of a mournful song, folk poetry, of life, happy and bitter, this was the destruction of hearths and cemeteries, this was the death of the nation which had been living side-by-side with Ukrainians over hundreds of years ..." (A Writer At War Edited and Translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova)

See also


  • Life and Fate (ISBN 0-00-261454-5 - first English translation edition, other editions ISBN 0-09-950616-5; ISBN 1-59-017201-9; ISBN 1-86-046019-4)
  • Forever Flowing (European Classics - ISBN 0-8101-1503-4)
  • The Black Book: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the Death Camps of Poland during the War 1941–1945. by Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg (ISBN 0-89604-031-3)
  • Everything Flows, Trans Robert & Elizabeth Chandler (2010), Harvill Secker.
  • The road, Stories, Journalism, and Essays, translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova, commentary and notes by Robert Chandler with Yury Bit-Yunan, afterword by Fyodor Guber, New York, New York Review Books, 2010, ISBN 1590173619
  • (Russian) Grossman's publications at


  • The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman by John Gordon Garrard, Carol Garrard (ISBN 0-684-82295-4)
  • Vasiliy Grossman: The Genesis and Evolution of a Russian Heretic by Frank Ellis (ISBN 0-85496-830-X)
  • A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (Pantheon, 2006 - ISBN 0-375-42407-5 ) - Based on Grossman's notebooks, war diaries, personal correspondence and articles.

External links

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