Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman - John and Carol Garrard

This book is the second edition of "Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman."  Although much of Grossman's life and thoughts we will never know with precise detail, the authors were able to assemble an impressive amount of information about the country Grossman grew up in and his contributions to literature and history.  In many ways, "The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman" is not only a biography of Grossman but also a history of Berdichev, the city he grew up in, the Soviet Union, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, as well as the Eastern Front of the Second World War.  The authors have gathered a large amount of information to help those unfamiliar with the aforementioned events contextualize what they're reading.  Thus, after the introductory chapters, the first chapter discusses the emerging Holocaust and the fate of the Jews of Berdichev, while the second switches time periods and focuses on the history of anti-Semitism in Russia and the place Berdichev occupied in the greater Russian Empire.  Only after those initial chapters is Grossman's family and Grossman himself introduced and described in minute detail.

There is no doubt that Grossman, among many Soviet authors, suffered for his work.  Today he is one of the best known, although this has been a recent revelation for the west.  His major work, "Life and Fate," is considered the "War and Peace" of the Eastern Front (although I'm sure some would disagree).  Those in charge of censorship, including his fellow authors, warned him that such a novel could not be published for 250 years - and some assert that the damage "Life and Fate" could have done would have been worse than what the publication of "Dr. Zhivago" unleashed abroad.  Throughout the war Grossman served as a frontline correspondent for "Red Star," the military newspaper, and was one of the most popular journalists (similar to Simonov and Ehrenburg).  Unfortunately, the popularity and fame that Ehrenburg and Simonov achieved was denied Grossman.  A few of his books and stories were published but were soon forgotten as the post-war period began and Stalin moved the country toward a mythical memory of the war instead of the unvarnished truth that most authors knew could not be mentioned.  But Grossman seems to have wanted to remain true to his reader, himself, and his mother whom he lost during the Holocaust.  For all his faults in the pre-war period, including the fact that he had a chance to get his mother out of Berdichev when the war began but never did, he seems to have wanted to repent for his actions with future deeds.  Unfortunately, his popularity waned when only a few of his pieces were published and soon he seemed to be forgotten altogether as no new editions of his previous work appeared.

Only when his manuscripts ("Forever Flowing", his final book, and "Life and Fate") made it to the west and were published was he recalled in the Soviet Union's collective memory of the war.  His comparisons between the Soviet Union and that of Nazi Germany spoke to those who suffered during Stalin's reign and under the German occupation.  The famine in Ukraine, the innocent victims of the purges, Soviet collaboration during the war, as well as the fate of Soviet prisoners of war and the evolution of the Holocaust were all discussed and dissected, from one degree to another, in Grossman's publications and helped reignite a discourse on the Soviet past that Khrushchev began with his Secret Speech but that he soon strangled due to his own complicity in Stalin's crimes.  That today Grossman's books have been published in new editions and voraciously devoured by the west is a testament to his insights and talent.  For those interested in understanding the world he grew up in, survived, and tried to portray for his readers, this is a must read.  The only minor problem I had with the biography was the dated historical analysis (much of the military history is based on a few select sources, one of which is quite dated (Clark's "Barbarossa")).  Additionally, the authors don't correctly portray order 227, issued on the eve of the Battle of Stalingrad, which forbid unauthorized retreats, not retreats in general.  Additionally, on more than one occasion the authors refer to Gurtiev's division in Stalingrad as a 'punishment division', but no such divisions existed.  While it might have contained penal formations, there were no formations of penal units above that of company and battalion.  Finally, there are also a few myths and generalizations, like the defense of Moscow in 1941 being assured by the release of some 40 divisions from the Far East (Siberia), when in fact divisions were moved to help defend Moscow from all over the Soviet Union and those from the Far East were on the move as early as July of 1941.  So one will have to take the historical narrative of the Eastern Front that's presented here with a grain of salt.  Otherwise, a highly recommended biography of a talented and in some ways tragic figure.

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