I want to tell you about a writer who looked old in his mid-30s. He walked with a cane. He was overweight, lethargic, pasty-faced and depressed. It was no wonder. He was a writer trying to write vividly, truthfully and with compassion under a totalitarian regime. He believed in the socialist dream, at least he had believed in it once, and his writing is also rich with psychological portraits of people who ambivalently struggle with the crash of ideals and disillusionment.
Vasily Grossman’s first short story, “In the Town of Berdichev”, was published in a Soviet literary magazine in 1934. By 1937 the Terror as it was known was in full swing. By the end it would scoop up 700,000 people and send them to the gulag and execute another 700,000 people. Among those arrested was Grossman’s wife and her ex-husband. Her two young sons aged 11 and 6, who had been living with her ex in a communal apartment, were alone and destined to be separated, sent either to a slave labour camp for children or to an orphanage for children of “enemies of the people,” which was much the same thing.
Grossman rushed to their room, took them home, and applied for guardianship. He also wrote to Yezhov, the head architect of the Terror, the man in charge, and appealed on his wife’s behalf. It was a crazy move. Miraculously she was released within the year. It could just as easily have gone the other way with his arrest.
When war came and the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman was devastated and haunted by the death of his mother and extended family, all Jewish, under the Nazis in the Ukraine. Nevertheless the war invigorated him. He lost his lethargy and his ill-health on the front. He also turned out to be a crack shot. He refused to hang back on the safer side of the Volga River during the battle for Stalingrad or write from the rear. Traveling everywhere at the front, he lived with combat soldiers, who couldn’t wait to read his reports and stories in the Red Star. Imagine a group of soldiers, exhausted in body, heart-weary, hungry. The smell of burning. The smell of blood. They are huddled around a fire. One of them has a ragged newspaper, which has been passed from unit to unit. He reads aloud. The others listen hungrily. They sigh, satisfied.
Post-war, his bravery was a matter of persistence, writing his truth despite persecution and threat. He lived only because Stalin died. He died too young, at age 58 or 59, not knowing whether his major novels would ever be read by the public. They were eventually smuggled out, translated and published.
Jeffrey Eugenides advises writers to write posthumously. Vasily Grossman did. He was a great man and I hope that I can follow in his footsteps (without the totalitarianism thank you!) in a small way.