Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945.
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945.
BornIosif Solomonovich Grossman
(1905-12-12)12 December 1905
Berdichev, Russian Empire
Died14 September 1964(1964-09-14) (aged 58)
Moscow, Soviet Union
OccupationWriter, journalist
NationalitySoviet Union
SubjectSoviet history
World War II
Notable worksLife and Fate
Everything Flows
Spouse? (–1933)
Olga Mikhailovna (m. 1936)

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman (Russian: Васи́лий Семёнович Гро́ссман, Ukrainian: Василь Семенович Гроссман; 12 December (29 November, Julian calendar) 1905 – 14 September 1964) was a Jewish Russian writer and journalist, who lived the bulk of his life under the Soviet regime. Grossman was trained as a chemical engineer at Moscow State University, earning the name Vasya-khimik, Vasya the Chemist because of his diligence as a student. Upon graduation he took a job in Stalino (now Donetsk) in the Donets Basin, but changed his 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 eyewitness accounts of a Nazi extermination camp, following the discovery of Treblinka, were among the earliest. Grossman also translated Armenian literature into Russian, despite the fact that he could not read Armenian,[1] instead working on the basis of an interlinear translation.

After World War II, Grossman's faith in the Soviet state was shaken by Joseph Stalin's turn towards antisemitism in the final years before his death in 1953. While Grossman was never arrested by the 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 flat 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 Grossman was told by the Communist Party's chief ideologist Mikhail Suslov that the book could not be published for two or three hundred years.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. Hidden 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 Soviet Union 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. His father Semyon Osipovich Grossman was a chemical engineer, and his mother Yekaterina Savelievna was a teacher of French.[2] 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, and was active in the 1905 Revolution; he helped organise events in Sebastopol.[3] From 1910 to 1912, he lived together with his mother in Geneva after his parents had separated.[2] After returning to Berdychiv in 1912, he moved to Kiev in 1914 where, while living with his father, he would attend secondary school and later attend the Kiev Higher Institute of Soviet Education.[3] Young Vasily Grossman idealistically supported the hope of Russian Revolution of 1917.[3]

In January 1928, Grossman married Anna Petrovna Matsuk; his daughter, named Yekaterina after his mother, was born two years later.[3] When he had to move to Moscow, she refused to leave her job in Kiev, but in any case, she could not get a permit to stay in Moscow. When he moved to Stalino, she certainly did not want to go, she had started having affairs.[2] Their daughter was sent to live with his mother in Berdychiv.

Grossman began writing short stories while studying chemical engineering at Moscow State University and later continued his literary activity working running chemical tests at a coal mining concern in Stalino in the Donbass, and later in a pencil factory.[2] One of his first short stories, "In the Town of Berdichev" (В городе Бердичеве), drew favourable attention and encouragement from Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. The film 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 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.[4]

Grossman's first marriage ended in 1933 and in the summer of 1935 he began an affair with the wife of his friend, writer Boris Guber, Olga Mikhailovna Guber. Grossman and Olga began living together in October 1935, and they married in May 1936, a few days after Olga and Boris Guber divorced. In 1937 during the Great Purge Boris Guber was arrested and later Olga was also arrested for failing to denounce her previous husband as an "enemy of the people". Grossman quickly had himself registered as the official guardian of Olga's two sons by Boris Guber, thus saving them from being sent to orphanages. He then wrote to Nikolay Yezhov, the head of the NKVD, pointing out that Olga was now his wife, not Guber's, and that she should not be held responsible for a man from whom she had separated long before his arrest. Grossman's friend, Semyon Lipkin, commented, "In 1937 only a very brave man would have dared to write a letter like this to the State's chief executioner." Astonishingly, Olga Guber was released.[5]

War reporter[]

When Nazi 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 correspondent 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 described Nazi ethnic cleansing in German occupied Ukraine and Poland, and the liberation by the Red Army of the Nazi-German Treblinka and Majdanek extermination camps. He collected some of the first eyewitness accounts — as early as 1943 — of what later became known as the Holocaust. His article The Hell of Treblinka (1944) was disseminated at the Nuremberg Trials as evidence for the prosecution.[6]

The Hell of Treblinka[]

Grossman interviewed former Sonderkommando inmates who escaped from Treblinka, and wrote his manuscript without revealing their identities. He had access to materials already published.[7] Grossman described Treblinka operation in the first person.[8] He wrote in the following way about Josef Hirtreiter, the SS man who served at the reception zone of the Treblinka extermination camp during the arrival of transports.[8]

This creature specialized in the killing of children. Evidently endowed with unusual strength, it would suddenly snatch a child out of the crowd, swing him or her about like a cudgel and then either smash their head against the ground or simply tear them in half. When I first heard about this creature – supposedly human, supposedly born of a woman – I could not believe the unthinkable things I was told. But when I heard these stories repeated by eyewitnesses, when I realized that these witnesses saw them as mere details, entirely in keeping with everything else about the hellish regime of Treblinka, then I came to believe that what I had heard was true".[8]

Grossman's description of a physically unlikely method of killing a living human through tearing-by-hand originated from the 1944 memoir of the Treblinka revolt survivor Jankiel Wiernik, where the phrase to "tear the child in half" appeared for the first time. Wiernik himself never worked in the Auffanglager receiving area of the camp where Hirtreiter served, and therefore provided secondhand guesswork based on hearsay.[9] However, the narrative repetition reveals also that such stories were retold routinely. Wiernik's memoir was published in Warsaw as a clandestine booklet before the war's end, and translated in 1945 as A Year in Treblinka.[9] In his article, Grossman claimed that 3 million people had been killed at Treblinka; the highest estimate ever proposed, in line with the Soviet trend of exaggerating Nazi crimes for propaganda purposes.[10]

Conflict with the Soviet regime[]

Grossman participated in the assembly of the Black Book, a project of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to document the crimes of the Holocaust. The post-war suppression of the Black Book by the Soviet state shook him to the core, and he began to question his own loyal support of the Soviet regime. First the censors ordered changes in the text to conceal the specifically anti-Jewish character of the atrocities and to downplay the role of Ukrainians who worked with the Nazis as police. Then, in 1948, the Soviet ion of the book was scrapped completely. The poet Semyon Lipkin, Grossman's friend, believed it was Joseph Stalin's post-war 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 repression 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."[11]

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 flat. 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:[12]

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?[13]

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, Everything Flows (Все течет, 1961) were considered a threat to the Soviet power; these novels were suppressed and the dissident writer effectively transformed into a nonperson. Grossman died in 1964, not knowing whether his major novels would ever be read by the public.


Grossman died of stomach cancer on 14 September 1964. He was buried at the Troyekurovskoye Cemetery on the edge of Moscow.


Memorial plaque in Donetsk where Grossman worked in the early 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 the Soviet Union 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. Everything Flows 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 ion 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 Everything Flows, 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.[14][15]


See also[]


  1. ^ as he writes in 'Dobro Vam!',—the account of a sojourn in Armenia in the early 1960s, during which he worked at the translation of a book by a local writer called Martirosjan
  2. ^ a b c d "The Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945". Yale University. Yale University. 25 October 2017. Retrieved 6 March 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d Grossman, Vasily (25 August 2011). The Road: Short Fiction and Essays (ebook). Translated by Chandler, Elizabeth; Chandler, Robert. London: MacLehose Press. pp. Introduction. ISBN 9781906694265.
  4. ^ Chandler, Robert. Introduction to Life and Fate, pages viii-ix. New York, NYRB Classics. 1985.
  5. ^ Grossman
  6. ^ Василий Семенович Гроссман, Треблинский ад (The Treblinka Hell). Internet Archive. (in Russian). Brochure "Treblinka Hell" was passed from hand to hand at the Nuremberg Trials as a document of the indictment. Original: Брошюра "Треблинский ад" передавалась из рук в руки на Нюрнбергском процессе в качестве обвинительного документа.
  7. ^ Vasily Grossman, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays with Commentary by Robert Chandler, New York Review of Books 2010, page 165. ISBN 1590174097.
  8. ^ a b c Vasiliĭ Semenovich Grossman, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays. Translated by Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Mukovnikova with contribution by Yury Bit-Yunan; ed by Robert Chandler, illustrated ion, New York Review Books 2010, page 101, ISBN 1590173619.
  9. ^ a b Yankel Wiernik (1945), A Year in Treblinka: An Inmate who Escaped Tells the Day-to-day Facts of One Year of His Torturous Experience (see scanned 1945 original in PDF format), New York: digitized by, OCLC 233992530, retrieved April 25, 2014, Complete text, 14 chapters; see: chapter 7
  10. ^ Kopówka, Edward; Rytel-Andrianik, Paweł (2011), I will give them an Everlasting Name [Dam im imię na wieki] (PDF) (in Polish), Drohiczyńskie Towarzystwo Naukowe, pp. 113–114, ISBN 978-83-7257-497-8, archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-10-19
  11. ^ Robert Conquest (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505180-7.
  12. ^ Chandler, Robert. Life and Fate: Introduction. New York, New York Review of Books Classics, 1985.
  13. ^ Under Siege, by Keith Gessen. Published in the New Yorker on March 6, 2006; accessed July 11, 2007.
  14. ^ Tolstoy Studies Journal: Ellis, Frank. "Concepts of War in L.N. Tolstoy and V.S. Grossman." Volume II, 1989, pp. 101-108.
  15. ^ Biography of Grossman (PDF) by Gregory Freidin, Stanford University


External links[]