“Well, comrade Mostovskoy,” said Sofya, “so much for your 20th century. So much for its humanity and culture… All I see is unprecedented atrocities.” —Stalingrad, Vasily Grossman

In a conversation sometime in the mid-1970s, Saul Bellow remarked to me on the crucial difference between European and American writers of his generation. Writers in Europe have looked the devil in the eye, he said, while in America writers have to make do with irony, comedy, and anything else that comes to hand. The devil, of course, was totalitarianism, in particular fascism and Communism, which promised its adherents heaven and brought them unmitigated hell. 

The European writers Bellow had in mind were Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Stefan Zweig, André Malraux, Boris Pasternak, and others. Vasily Grossman (1905–1964), a writer Bellow surely did not know about at the time we spoke, perhaps stared that devil in the face with greater intensity than anyone else and came away the most impressive of all literary witnesses of the malevolence of totalitarianism. Judged by the centrality, the significance, of his subject and his aesthetic grasp of it in powerful novels and penetrating essays, Grossman may have been the most important writer of the past century.

Vasily Grossman had the misfortune of being born in Russia, a country that, under the czars as under the comissars, has traditionally treated its people as if they were a conquered nation. “There was only one thing Russia hadn’t seen during these thousand years,” thinks a character in Grossman’s novel Everything Flows—”freedom.” Another character in the same novel remarks: “Happiness doesn’t seem to be our fate in this world.” In 2014, the actor Leonid Bronevoy, whose father had been sent off to the Gulag, described the Soviet experiment as “an absurd horror film stretching over 70 years.” Government-organized famine, hideous show trials, brutal gulags, mass murder, life in the Soviet Union made the plagues that fell upon Egypt seem a week in the Catskills.  

Grossman was also a Jew, who under the Czars were for the most part kept segregated in the Pale of Settlement and victimized by pogroms (there were more than 1,200 pogroms in the Ukraine alone). Under Stalin, Jews were systematically hunted down after the false Doctors’ Plot of 1952–53, in which Russians were told that a group of mostly Jewish doctors supposedly plotted to assassinate the dictator. Grossman somehow evaded the fate of death by execution that befell those two other immensely talented Jewish writers, Isaac Babel and Osip Mandelstam. But his mother was murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev in 1941 in Ukraine, where some 62,000 Jews were massacred.

Like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Grossman was trained as an engineer, in his case a chemical engineer. During World War II, owing to near-sightedness and poor health, he failed to qualify for the military but served primarily as a journalist covering all the major battles of the war for Red Star and other Soviet publications. Grossman arrived with the Soviet troops at Treblinka, the death camp, and was among the first, in a devastating essay called “The Hell of Treblinka” (1944), to reveal the deadly mechanics of Hitler’s Final Solution. As a journalist, he was also at Stalingrad, the great battle that marked the beginning of the end for the Nazis. 

Grossman is best known for his two connected and hefty novels—together, in their New York Review editions, they weigh in at a combined 1,830 pages. These are Stalingrad and Life and Fate. His unfinished novel Everything Flows (1961), written toward the end of his life, is a root-and-branch attack on Soviet Communism as told through the lucubrations of a man, one Ivan Grigoryevich, who had spent nearly 30 years in the Gulag.

The story of the publication of Grossman’s books under Soviet Communism could be the source of an impressively complex novel of its own. Grossman wrote his Stalingrad while Stalin was still alive, and thus under the artistically crushing restraints of Socialist Realism, which Maxim Gorky defined as “the ability to see the present in terms of the future” and which Grossman later said was as “convention-ridden as the bucolic romances of the 18th century.”What Socialist Realism actually meant was that no art was allowed that did not support, defend, extol the Soviet Union, which of course meant no art of any independence, complexity, ultimate worth was permitted publication. 

In his introduction to Life and Fate and his afterword to Stalingrad, the translator Robert Chandler offers an admittedly partial account of the fiery hoops through which Grossman had to jump to get his work published. The editors of the Soviet journal Novy Mir made so many radical editorial suggestions to render Stalingrad“safe”—including cutting some characters, adding others, altering the occupations of still others—that the original manuscript underwent six heavy revisions and was set in type no fewer than three times before finally being run in serialization in a much-altered version. About the no less complicated editorial maze through which Grossman’s Life and Fate was put, it is more than enough to say that its author failed to live long enough to see it in print. He died in 1964.

Grossman’s book was arrested instead of its author; Grossman spoke of Life and Fate as being “imprisoned.” The novel in fact wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until the late 1980s, and even today Grossman is apparently not all that well known in his native land. Imagine the utter frustration, leading to the deep depression that Grossman suffered, of having written a masterpiece of world literature and never getting to see it in print!

In Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, Alexandra Popoff, a Russian journalist who has written books about Countess Tolstoy and about Tolstoy’s disciple Vladimir Chertkov, has turned out an excellent biography of Grossman. Hers is a biography that offers no striking psychological portrait of its subject or radical reading of his works. Instead it is what I think of as a Dragnet, or Jack Webb, biography—“Just the facts, Ma’am”—the accretion of which is no small accomplishment about a life lived almost entirely in the murky and heavily censored atmosphere of the Soviet Union.

Grossman, Popoff recounts, was “descended from well-to-do merchants,” a fact that needs to be qualified, as she also notes, by the fact that Jews, however well-to-do, were “first among non-equals in the Russian Empire.” His parents were divorced soon after his birth in 1905, though they remained friendly. His mother was a cultivated woman, educated in Europe and fluent in French, a subject she taught. She took her son to live in Switzerland between the ages of five and seven, where, as Popoff writes, he was “introduced to Western values, including the respect for individual rights and freedoms he later believed essential.” Grossman himself read the French writers, the classics, Kipling and Conan Doyle, and was a great admirer of Tolstoy and Chekhov. “Although Grossman lived all his adult life in a totalitarian Soviet state,” Popoff writes, “he had the mentality of a man from the free world.”Friends early noticed the qualities in him of attentiveness and detachment, a combination suggesting a future novelist. 

Grossman set out in life to be a scientist but fairly early sensed that he could not do first-class work in science. Social questions began to absorb him, and by 23 he decided that his true vocation was for literature. How literary talent comes to fruition remains one of the mysteries of the arts. Musical talent and skill at visual art tend to show up early and appear to be, as they doubtless are, gifts from God. But literary talent is an acquisition that often comes only later in life—Joseph Conrad published his first novel, Almayer’s Folly, at 39—if it isn’t earlier set adrift by discouragement. In the Soviet Union, with its strict censorship, the decision to become a writer, always a risky venture, had the further disadvantage of being fraught with danger. Only in the Soviet Union, it used to be said, do they truly take writers seriously; only there did they take them seriously enough to kill them.

Writing against the grain of Socialist Realism was not yet a problem for the young Vasily Grossman. If he was never an ideologue, he nonetheless respected the idealism of the early Communists. (His father was a Menshevik.) In a 1934 story, “In the Town of Berdichev,” he wrote of a female commissar who finds herself pregnant, and during her lying-in lives with a poor Jewish family, the Magazaniks, until the birth of her child. Once born, the child awakens deep, previously unexpected maternal feelings in her. But when the Poles attack the town of Berdichev, she leaves her child behind—permanently, we are given to believe—to go off and fight with her old regiment. Great sympathy is shown for the Jewish family, and the details in the story are nicely done, yet the moral of the story is clear: The state comes first, yes, even over motherhood. One likes to think that the older Vasily Grossman would have despised this story. 

“In the Town of Berdichev” marked Grossman’s arrival as a Soviet writer. It paved the way for him to publish two rather negligible early novels. He was given a much-desired apartment in Moscow. Never a member of the Party, he was a member in good standing of the Union of Soviet Writers. Grossman in those days was not cynically playing the system—he claimed at the time that he owed everything to the Soviet government—but neither was he fighting it. 

One of the low points in his career came in 1953 with his agreeing, along with 56 other prominent Soviet Jews, to sign a document that denounced the Jewish physicians who supposedly led the Doctors’ Plot. Grossman later came greatly to regret it, and in Life and Fate he assigns the character Viktor Shtrum, who signs a similar document, “a feeling of irreparable guilt and impurity” for his having done so. Grossman’s upbringing was secular; Jewishness did not loom large in his early life. Popoff remarks that he had nevertheless read the Bible and “was deeply influenced by the Jewish belief in the need for compassion, in the need to love life and resist death to the last minute, in the need and obligation to remember the past and honor the dead, and in the need to bear witness.”

Many of these qualities are at the heart of Stalingrad. The book is chiefly about the effects of the German invasion on the citizens at all levels of Soviet life, and of the attack on Stalingrad—“a battle,” as Grossman writes, “more grinding, more relentless than Thermopylae or even the siege of Troy. . . the city on the Volga where the world’s fate was being decided.” In Life and Fate, Grossman wrote that “every epoch has its own capital city, a city that embodies its will and soul. For several months during the Second World War this city was Stalingrad.” 

Stalingrad qualifies nicely as one of Henry James’s “loose and baggy monsters,” those novels without the aesthetic form that for James was essential. The novel has no fewer than 151 characters, not counting those who appear only once. These run from Soviet scientists to German generals to Russian peasants to Stalin and Hitler, who put in appearances, the former in a full-length portrait. (“It was indeed during these hours of ugly, troubled sleep that Hitler was closest to being human.”) New characters are introduced as late as page 868. Domestic scenes are played out, characters intricately described (General Yeromenko “was massive yet stooping; his build did not make it easy for tailors”), and observations on human nature offered: “Love has meaning only when it inspires people to sacrifice—otherwise it is just base passion.” Grossman’s account of the battle of Stalingrad, its confusions, its arbitrary destruction, its deadliness—roughly 2 million Russians and 4 million Germans are said to have perished there—is no less compelling than Tolstoy’s account of the battle of Borodino in War and Peace.

‘Human suffering,” Grossman writes. “Will it be remembered in centuries to come? The stones of buildings endure and the glory of generals endures, but human suffering does not. Tears and whispers, a cry of pain and despair, the last sighs and groans of the dying—all this disappears along with the smoke and dust blown across the steppe by the wind.” In Stalingrad Grossman set himself to record the human suffering brought on by Hitler’s war. Apart from that visited upon the Jews, no people endured more suffering during World War II than the Russians. Through the build-up of detail—of depredations, devastation, death—Grossman succeeds in his self-appointed task of enshrining suffering and its brutally high cost for ordinary people. 

It is a splendid, an important, book, possibly a great book, but not, alas, a great novel. Stalingrad is too diffuse to have the special power, the concentration and intensification, that only fiction carries. At its end, too many loose ends have not been ravelled, significant characters go unaccounted for, themes are set out but left inadequately unexplored. Much of this may well be owing to the endless editing and relentless revisions that beset the book by its Soviet editor-censors. One is nonetheless pleased to have read Stalingrad, not alone for its bringing one of the great battles of history down to personal cases, but for its testimony on behalf of the brave dead. 

 A question that arises is whether Stalingrad is meant to stand as the first half of a diology, with Life and Fate its second half. The books’ translator Robert Chandler is moderately confident that Grossman intended the two books as a single work. Certainly, Life and Fate can be read on its own, and before reading Stalingrad, which is the order in which I read them. Yet the latter volume enhances the former by providing what in film scripts is called backstory to a novel that already has something akin to classic status among its coterie of devoted readers, among whom I have long been one. 

Tzevtan Todorov, the Bulgarian critic, wrote of the Vasily Grossman of the 1950s, the author of Life and Fate and Everthing Flows, that he “is the only example, or at least the most significant, of an established and leading Soviet writer changing his spots completely. The slave in him died, and a free man arose.” This is an oversimplification, but it is true that the Grossman of the 1950s was a different writer from the Grossman of the 1930s and ’40s. Nitika Khrushchev’s famous “Secret Speech” of 1956, setting out some of the sins of Stalin and suggesting a “thaw” in the realm of Soviet culture, was doubtless partially responsible for the change in Grossman. But one wonders if his own Jewishness didn’t even more influence the change, however gradual. 

In covering the war as a journalist, Grossman also learned about the slaughter of Jews in Ukraine. Along with his article on the inhuman ghastliness at Treblinka, which was put in evidence at the Nuremberg Trials, Grossman saw Babi Yar, the ravine in Kiev where nearly 100,000 Jews were executed and dumped into mass graves in 1941. He knew that many Ukrainians had been complicit in the slaughter of Jews during the Shoah. Add to this his mother’s murder at Berdichev. During these years Grossman worked in collaboration with Ilya Ehenberg on a volume called The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a book that was not allowed publication in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin, himself an anti-Semite, had famously declared, “Do not divide the dead,” by which he meant that emphasizing the mass murder of Jews was prohibited. 

Grossman had come a long way, and the evidence of what he learned along that way is plain in the advanced artistry and political candor of Life and Fate. Among the most stirring pages in Life and Fate are those about anon-Jewish Soviet physician, Sofya Osipovna Levinton, who chooses not to save her own life so that she can comfort a child, David, a small Jewish boy, in the gas chambers of Treblinka and feels herself thereby his mother in the moments before her own death—an episode that might be taken as the very reversal, and thereby a repudiation, of “In the Town of Berdichev.”

The miseries of Stalinism and the grave mistakes of Stalin himself in his direction of the war, which are generally given a pass in Stalingrad, are not ignored in Life and Fate. The novel opens on a number of brief chapters in which an old Bolshevik, Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy, begins to lose his faith in “the cause of Lenin.” A figure of wisdom and much looked up to in Stalingrad, Mostovskoy, now in a German prisoner camp, “was unable to recover his former sense of clarity and completeness. . . . ‘I must be getting old,’ he said to himself.” In Life and Fate, true believers often have their belief shaken.

Life and Fate offers several brilliant pages on anti-Semitism, Soviet and worldwide. “Anti-Semitism,” Grossman writes, “is also an expression of a lack of talent, an inability to win a contest on equal terms—in science, in commerce, in craftsmanship or in painting. States look to the imaginary intrigues of World Jewry for explanations of their own failure.” He sets out the different levels of anti-Semitism and notes that “historical epochs, unsuccessful and reactionary governments, and individuals hoping to better their lot all turn to anti-Semitism as a last resort, in an attempt to escape an inevitable doom.” In this novel, too, Grossman offers a brilliant portrait of Adolf Eichmann, which one wishes Hannah Arendt had read, as it might have prevented her from writing her wretched book portraying Eichmann as a mere banal bureaucrat. 

Told from the point of view of several different characters, with several plots and subplots, Life and Fate is not readily summarized. Life under the two totalitarianisms—Communist and fascist—is explored in the novel as is the connection between the two as enemies of humanity. What holds the novel together is the material about the family of Alexandra Vladimorovna Shaposhnikova, a laboratory chemist, her three daughters, their husbands, and their children. One of the husbands, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, is a theoretical physicist whose views in many respects resemble those of Grossman. Shtrum not only signs the document blaming colleagues that he much regrets; he holds a grudge against his wife, Lyudmila, whose demands prevented him from saving his mother from the Holocaust. “Good men and bad men alike are capable of weakness,” Grossman writes. “The difference is simply that a bad man will be proud all his life of one good deed—while an honest man is hardly aware of his good acts, but remembers a single bad act for years on end.”

Many of the characters who appear in Stalingrad are more fully developed, richer, somehow more memorable in Life and Fate. If in its form Life and Fate tends to imitate War and Peace—the only book Grossman claimed to have read during the battle of Stalingrad—the tone of the novel is closer to that of Chekhov, and many of its chapters, as Robert Chandler suggests, read as if they were Chekhovian short stories. Life and Fate is a novel that fully engages its readers with the lives of its characters while revealing the life of an entire society—the kind of work otherwise known as a masterpiece.

No one would call Everything Flows, Grossman’s final novel, a masterpiece, but, more than anything he had written earlier, it fully reveals his views about the Soviet Union. In this unfinished work, Grossman wrote, perhaps aware he was dying of stomach cancer, without filter. Stalin, so central a figure in the life of all Russians of Grossman’s generation, is revealed as what he was, “a European Marxist and an Asian Despot.” At Stalin’s death, “the death day of the earthly Russian god, the pockmarked cobbler’s son from the town of Gori,” many villagers “breathed a sigh of relief,” in the camps he had created many millions rejoiced. “Stalin Had Died,” Grossman writes. “In this death lay an element of sudden and spontaneous freedom that was infinitely alien to the nature of the Stalinist State.”

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, the sacrosanct Lenin, fares little better in the pages of Everything Flows. The notion that the purity of Lenin’s revolution having been distorted by the monstrosities of Stalin is roundly rejected. “The murder of millions of innocent and loyal people masqueraded as cast-iron logic” all had its origin in Lenin. “The destruction of Russian life carried out by Lenin was on a vast scale.” Grossman writes, “Lenin destroyed the way of life of the landowners, Lenin destroyed factory owners and merchants.” Stalin stepped in and with his brutal collectivization finished off the peasants. But it was “Lenin’s obsession with revolution, his fanatical faith in the truth of Marxism and absolute intolerance of anyone who disagreed with him, [that] led him to further hugely the development of the Russia he hated with all his fanatical soul.” 

Lenin and Stalin are for Grossman among history’s great enemies of freedom, and it was his belief that “there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom.” The only progress Grossman recognized was in the realm of freedom. He even implicitly criticizes Tolstoy and Dostoevsky when he writes that “the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery.” Grossman asks toward the end of Everything Flows: “When will we see the day of a free, human, Russian soul? When will this day dawn? Or will it never dawn?”

Grossman did not entirely despair, for he felt that not even Stalin—who presided over a state that was the enemy of freedom, that overcame freedom in every sphere of life—was able, in spite of all the millions he killed, to do away with freedom entirely. Or with human kindness.

In Life and Fate the old Bolshevik Mikhail Mostovskoy is interrogated by a Gestapo agent who explains to him all that the Nazis learned from Lenin and Stalin and the similarity of their two regimes. Mostovskoy is disgusted at the thought, but back in his cell he reads the pages of a fellow prisoner, a strange, half-saintly figure named Ikonnikov, thought to be slightly unhinged, who has written about the role of kindness in the human condition. 

“This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being,” writes Ikonnikov. “It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil.” Ikonnikov goes on to note that “kindness is powerful only while it is powerless”—the point here being that religions, when in power, lose their goodness in attempting to maintain and protect that power. For Ikonnikov, “the powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of [human] immortality. It can never be conquered.” Ikonnikov concludes: 

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is the battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

Mostovskoy, the life-long committed Bolshevik, thinks these the observations of a mad man. Yet they leave him confused and depressed. They have quite the reverse effect on Grossman’s readers. We think of the act of Sofya Osipovna Levinton in comforting the child in the gas chambers. We think of the six-year-old girl who comforts an 82-year-old man on his way to the firing squad in Grossman’s story “The Old Teacher,” and of scores of other acts of kindness that play through the pages of Grossman’s fiction. Only a certain kind of writer can bring such truth home to his readers through the vividly persuasive examples enacted by his characters—only a great writer, which is what Vasily Grossman was.