Today would have been Vasily Grossman’s birthday and in honour of the occasion, I am trying to fit in a few chapters of his epic ‘Stalingrad’ around work and other seasonal duties. While his longer books are absorbing and rewarding reads, in keeping with the novella and short story collection I recommended recently, this The Road review highlights a collection of Vasily Grossman’s short stories, essays and journalism. It is a good place to start if you haven’t read anything by him before, or as an accompaniment if you are familar with the longer works.
Vasily Grossman grew up in the Ukraine and Geneva, before returning to Russia where he trained as a chemist and began writing fiction in the 1930s. When the Second World War began, he volunteered and become a front-line journalist for the Red Army’s newspaper. He saw many of the most critical battles, was in Stalingrad and witnessed the liberation of the Ukraine, where he was one of the first to learn of and write about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar and the Holocaust, including the murder of his own mother. Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, The Road features writing from the 1930s, the War years and post-war, with much of his fiction based on events that he had witnessed. Not all of these works would be published during his lifetime, with the manuscript of his novel Life and Fate effectively being placed under arrest and Stalingrad going through multiple rewrites in an – ultimately futile – attempt to placate the censors.
The stories in this volume from the 1930s include ‘In the Town of Berdichev,’ which is set in Grossman’s mostly Jewish Ukrainian hometown during the Russian Civil War and begins with Revolutionary and political commissar Vavilova being billeted on a Jewish family as she is about to have a baby. Their house is right by the Yatki marketplace and Grossman’s writing vividly recalls this beating heart of the town. Vavilova is a thoroughly modern woman, happier on the back of a horse or knocking sense into soldiers, and utterly horrified and bewildered by what is to come. Luckily for her, the Jewish family – the Magazaniks – have seven kids so wife Beila gets to show her the ropes, as her husband digs out the crib from the attic and tells her, ‘Have no fears, comrade Commissar… You’re joining a thriving business.’ When the Poles approach the town, Vavilova has a choice to make: is she a warrior or a mother first?
This story was filmed as The Commissar in 1967 by Aleksandr Askolodov, with wildly popular movie star Nonna Mordyukova in the lead role and by chance I was lucky enough to catch it recently on Mubi. Worth tracking down if you are able to!
Motherhood and parenting often feature in Vasily Grossman’s stories. In A Small Life, the very morose Orlov and his wife take in an orphan for the May Day holiday, but it doesn’t all go as expected. And in A Young Woman and an Old Woman, Goryacheva is heading back to her dacha, where her mother is taking care of her nieces, to pack for a few days away at a workers’ resort, remembering how they inherited the house from someone who is now an enemy of the people:
…it was over a year now since Goryacheva had moved in, and there was nothing left to recall Yezhegulsky’s existence except for the yellow lilies his father had planted outside the windows.
As well as mentioning the late 1930s terror, the story also refers to the Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, using an experience that is also recorded in Grossman’s journalism from the time, and it is the way his fiction is always rooted in things he had heard about or experienced himself that makes his books such vivid reads, as well as causing so many headaches for his publishers.
Also featured in The Road is a longer article, ‘The Hell of Treblinka,’ which was published in 1944 and quickly translated into many other languages. In the present time, having read a number of different eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust, having seen films or watched documentaries that include interviews with the survivors, it can feel like a familiar tale, where all the atrocities are known. But the raw power of Grossman’s narrative and his skill as a journalist and as a writer brings us close to the feeling that terrible knowledge would have engendered as the world first discovered it:
The square would fill with people four or five times a day. And all these thousands, all these tens and hundreds of thousands of people, of frightened, questioning eyes, all these young and old faces, all these dark- and fair-haired beauties, these bald and hunch-backed old men and these timid adolescents – all were caught up in a single flood, a flood that swallowed up reason, and splendid human science, and maidenly love, and childish wonder, and the coughing of the old, and the human heart.
Having extensively catalogued what happened in all its horrific detail, Vasily Grossman considers how it happened, in urgent words that reduce the years between then and now to mere moments:
Every man and woman today is duty-bound to his or her conscience, to his or her son and to his or her mother, to their motherland and to humanity as a whole to devote all the powers of their heart and mind to answering these questions: what is is that has given birth to racism? What can be done to prevent Nazism from ever rising again, either on this side or on the far side of the ocean…
We must remember that Fascism and racism will emerge from this war not only with the bitterness of defeat, but also with sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to commit mass murder. It has turned out that it is really not so very difficult to kill entire nations.
In an essay that builds on this, ‘The Sistine Madonna,’ written in 1955, Grossman visits an exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of paintings that had been taken to Russia from Germany at the end of the War, on display before they they were to be returned. Raphael’s painting sets him off on a train of thought that takes in the rise of Fascism and what he had learned about Treblinka, as well as the Terror, the Holodomor and even the atomic bombings. It is another powerful reckoning with the history of those years.
This is why the mother and child are so calm: they are invincible. Life’s destruction, even in our iron age, is not its defeat.
His later stories also return to motherhood and family, considering how the events that he and his characters have lived through have touched or distorted familial relationships. In ‘An Elk,’ a sick man waits for his wife to return from work where she may have been denounced. The story ‘Mama’ is very close to the true events of the life of a young girl who was adopted by Stalin’s secret police chief Yezhov, witnessing the comings and goings at the salons run by her mother through the young girl’s eyes or through those of her nanny. ‘Living Space’ sees an old woman return from the Gulag to Moscow, but her time there proves short, and ‘The Road’ experiences the winter war through the gentle eyes of the Italian mule Giu. ‘The Dog’ considers the mysteries of the cosmos via a stray who is chosen for a grand mission and the way she touches the heart of the stern project leader.
Robert Chandler has also compiled biographical and historical information that places the stories in The Road in the context of Grossman’s life and his other works. The most moving chapter of Life and Fate is a letter written by Viktor Shtrum’s mother when she is in the ghetto, knowing that she will be killed soon, and smuggled out via a neighbour to eventually make its way to him. The Road includes two letters written by Grossman to his mother, nine years and 20 years after her death, letters which could be seen as an answer to the one he wrote on her behalf in Life and Fate.
A final essay is about Moscow’s most popular cemeteries and the skullduggery that often goes on to get a relative interred there:
It is difficult to get oneself a place in the Vagankovo cemetery – every bit as difficult as to come to Moscow from the provinces and get oneself a residence permit.
Written at the end of Grossman’s life, it is a man looking back on the times he has lived through, sitting on a bench near the cemetery watching the world pass by, but his affection for the crowds of relatives and the potentially fake priests shines through.
Well-researched appendices give additional details of some of the events in the stories, along with memories from Grossman’s step-son. The care with which The Road has been put together shines through, giving the reader a comprehensive feel for the writer’s life and work, along with plenty of pointers for which of Grossman’s works to choose as your next read after this one.
As well as today being Vasily Grossman’s birthday, Marina Sofia is making December a month for ‘Russians in the Snow.’ Are you planning to join in and read any Russian authors at the moment? Let me know in the comments…