Using personal interviews as well as letters, memoirs and official literary archives, Popoff excels in her depiction of the struggles of Soviet writers with the authorities. In 1934, Grossman describes “everything going dark” before his eyes on seeing the published version his first novel edited beyond recognition. He was lucky to have been so well censored – of the 2,000 Soviet writers arrested in the 1930s, only 500 survived. Isaac Babel, who had praised Grossman’s early literary efforts, was tortured and shot in 1940; that he no longer published anything smacked of sabotage.
In her epilogue, Alexandra Popoff asks why Grossman remains unpopular in Russia. Her conclusion is that “it’s easier to believe in a glorious past than to admit that Stalinism and Nazism were mirror images of each other”. Yet for Russians the question tends to be the reverse: why is Grossman so popular in the West? One explanation for Russians’ relative lack of interest in his work may be that Grossman is now considered not anti-Soviet, but Soviet. As the liberal writer Dmitry Bykov has commented, “there are books written for a concrete place and time. [Had it been published] in Russia in 1960, [Life and Fate] would have been a revolution”. Even now, Vasily Grossman remains a stepson of the time.
It is a prodigious novel, following the lives of dozens of characters, including historical figures, over the course of the war. The Battle of Stalingrad lies at the novel’s centre but it is far more than a fictionalised version of military history... Not being a reader of Russian I can’t testify to the translators’ first responsibility, fidelity to the original text, but I can vouch for the translators’ second responsibility, readability in the new language. The Chandlers have done a superb job in rendering Grossman’s Russian prose into a limpid and evocative English... However, for all their efforts, it is a characteristic of Grossman’s fiction that moments of precise observation such as this often sit with passages of earnest, formulaic exhortations, ramming the message home... [Grossman's] experience as a war reporter honed this talent and it is probably Grossman’s humane gaze and clear understanding of the complexities of the human condition that made the paranoid Soviet authorities see potential subversion everywhere in his fiction... Milan Kundera famously observed that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. Vasily Grossman’s epic novels contribute massively to memory’s endurance in that unending confrontation.
Alexandra Popoff’s biography is crisp and comprehensive, deftly interweaving Grossman’s personal life with the momentous events he experienced. The portrait she paints in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century is of a highly intelligent and surprisingly cheerful man, who viewed the world with a kind and quizzical gaze and defended his friends and principles with near-reckless courage. As she writes, it was the worst and most dangerous time to be a humanist, pacifist and internationalist. His core belief that “there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom” was a forthright challenge to both Nazism and Stalinism. One of the recurrent, and most moving, themes of Grossman’s life and Popoff’s book is the love he felt for his cultured and handicapped mother and the excruciating guilt he experienced at not doing more to save her following the Nazi invasion.