Grossman, Vasili Semenovich. (pseudonym of Iosif Solomonovich Grossman). Born 12 December 1905 (29 November, Old Style) in Berdichev in Ukraine. His father was a chemical engineer, and his mother a teacher of French. Grossman's parents separated, and he lived with his mother. In 1921, however, Grossman went to live with his father in Kiev so that he could attend the Kiev Higher Institute of Soviet Education. Later, Grossman moved to Moscow where he studied physics and mathematics at university.
While at Moscow University, Grossman began to develop an interest in writing.
On 22 January 1928, Grossman married Anna (Galia) Petrovna Matsuk, a beautiful woman from a Cossack family. The couple, however, mainly lived apart, Anna in Kiev and Grossman in Moscow.
After graduating from the university in 1929, Grossman went to work as an engineer-chemist in the Donbass region. He also did some work for the newspaper Literary Donbass. In January 1930, Grossman and Anna's daughter, Katya, was born.
In 1931, Grossman contracted tuberculosis. He spent some time at a sanitorium in Sukhumi, then moved back to Moscow, where he worked as an engineer in a pencil factory and, eventually, a chief engineer's assistant..
Grossman and his wife were divorced in 1932.
Grossman's first literary work to be published was In the Town of Berdichev (V gorode Berdicheve), which appeared in Literaturnaya Gazeta in April 1934. It is the story of a Russian female commissar who, during the Civil War, leaves her baby in the care of a Jewish family so that she can return to the front. The story was praised by Isaak Babel, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Maksim Gorky.
Later in 1934, Grossman's first short novel, Gliukauf!, (Gluck auf!) about the life of Soviet miners, appeared. Commenting that Grossman was a "talented man", Gorky made some suggestions to Grossman and had a revised version of the novella published in the almanac Year XVII (1934).
Grossman was a member of the Pereval literary group. In 1935, he began an affair with Olga Gruber, the wife of Boris Andreevich Gruber, also a member of Pereval. Olga divorced Gruber and married Grossman in 1936. In 1937, Gruber was arrested and executed as an enemy of the people. Olga was also arrested, on the mistaken belief that she was still Gruber's wife. After about a year and a half in prison, she was finally released. A fictionalized version of these events were later to appear in Grossman's novel Life and Fate.
His first novel, Stepan Kolchugin appeared in installments between 1937 and 1940.
During the Great Patriotic War, Grossman worked as a correspondent for the Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda. In August 1942 the newspaper published his tale The People Immortal (Narod bessmerten), one of the first Soviet novels about the war.
Grossman was with the army at Stalingrad, and in 1943 published Stalingrad, a collection of sketches describing the defense of the city, the beginning of the Soviet counteroffensive, and the first stages of the encirclement of the German forces. One of the most memorable of these sketches is In The Main Line of Attack (Napravleniye glavnovo udara). It describes life and death in a division of Siberian troops who had to bear the brunt of the most frenzied period of Nazi attacks on Stalingrad, withstanding 80 straight hours of bombardment, and more.
Grossman then traveled with Soviet troops all the way to victory in Berlin. He was the first writer from any country to publish a description of the horrors of Treblinka, The Hell of Triblinka (Treblinskii ad, September 1944).
Grossman's mother was among the 20,000 Jews murdered by the Nazis in Berdichev in the early days of the war.
During the war, Vasily Grossman and fellow writer Ilya Ehrenburg undertook a project that was to be called The Black Book. Under their direction, over twenty writers worked to document the horrors suffered by Soviet Jewry at the hands of the Nazis. At first, the project was endorsed by the official Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Later, however, official policy toward the Jews changed. The book was criticized for giving attention to traitors and collaborators among the Ukrainians and Lithuanians, and publication was blocked. It was not until 1980 that a partial version found its was into print. Finally, in 1993, the compete work was published in Lithuania.
Following the war, in 1946, Grossman published the play If You Believe the Pythagoreans (Esli verit' pifagoreitsam), which was actually written before the war. The work was harshly criticized.
In 1943, while the war was still raging, Grossman began work on For a Just Cause (Za pravoye delo), an epic novel about Stalingrad. He originally entitled the work Stalingrad and submitted it to the journal Novy Mir in 1948. Both Aleksandr Tvardovsky (chief editor of Novy Mir) and Aleksandr Fadeev (head of the writers union) thought highly of the work, but they suggested the name change. Three times Novy Mir started printing the novel, but each time they were stopped by Party edict. Finally, in 1952, the work was published in a heavily redacted version. Originally the reviews were positive. Then, in February 1953 writer Mikhail Bubennov published an aggressive blast against the novel in Pravda and plans for the publication of a complete version were shelved. It wasn't until 1956, a full three years after Stalin's death, that the whole version was printed.
Undeterred by the flap over For a Just Cause, Grossman, in 1952, began work on its continuation. The result was his most famous and controversial work, Life and Fate (Zhizn i sudba). As decribed by Boris Lanin:
The first key aspect of the novel [Life and Fate] is the battle of Stalingrad, which changes not only the course of the war, but also world history as well as the development of each character. the second is the character Viktor Shtrum, a brilliant physicist whose work helps the Soviet Union to develop the nuclear capability that enables it to become a great world power. The third is the fate of Jewish people in the Holocaust. Finally, the most impressive aspect is the authorial voice that comments on all the major and small events in this novel, as Leo Tolstoy did in his War and Peace. Life and Fate, in short, is a novel describing the human understanding of freedom and fate in the era of totalitarianism. Totalitarian power, for Grossman, is a disease that perverts both state and people. The writer describes Russia on its way toward George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Grossman's heroic achievement was simply to proclaim human life the main value of the world and the main criterion of all historical change.Grossman submitted his novel to the journal Znamiya in 1960, where publication was promised. However, in February 1961, the KGB "arrested" the manuscript, and all copies (or so the KGB thought) were confiscated from Grossman's flat.
Grossman appealed to Khrushchev, and was given a meeting the chief Party ideologue Mikhail Suslov. Suslov told Grossman that Life and Fate was more hostile to the ideals of the Russian Revolution than was Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Suslov declared that Life and Fate could not be published for at least 250 years.
Also confiscated in 1961 was Grossman's last novel, Everything Flows (Vsyo techyot), which he had been working on since 1955. It tells the story of a man who spent half his life in the gulag.
Concerning Grossman's final two novels, John Garrard wrote:
Grossman's two major works constitute a thorough-going indictment of the Soviet Union and at the same time a challenge to Russian readers to face their own responsibility for what happened. That the indictment and challenge were issued by a man enmeshed within the very system he autopsied, a man who had in his youth believed in the promise of revolutionary change, can only increase our profound admiration. Grossman achieved his insights undistanced by either space or time.
Vasily Grossman died in Moscow on 14 September 1964 after a difficult bout with stomach cancer.
Despite the best efforts of the KGB, copies of Life and Fate and Everything Flows survived. Everything Flows surfaced in Germany in 1970, and Life and Fate was finally published in 1980.
References: Russian Prose Writers Between the World Wars". Edited by Christine Rydel. The Gale Group. Detroit. 2003.