Email This Post - Print This Post Print This Post

By John Helmer, Moscow

Journalism is war by other means. If you don’t understand this you are either an enlisted soldier or a  casualty with a serious head-wound.  On the ground covered by journalism it’s impossible to hide;  innocent civilians are inevitably caught in the cross-fire.

Most Russians have known this since the start of the nineteenth century.

After Anton Chekhov’s reports from Sakhalin were published between 1891 and 1893, Russian  journalism didn’t recover to his standard for fifty years. It began again at the German invasion on June 22, 1941. But it lasted for just four years – until the Red Army victory in Berlin and the capitulation of the Germans in May 1945.

Vasily Grossman (lead image) was one of the very best of the Russian reporters on the front in that brief period. He far excelled his English-writing peers on other fronts, particularly American fakers like Ernest Hemingway. 

A new biography of Grossman, published in the US, reveals in Grossman’s own words why he is still a model of the genre in Russian. It also explains how and why he was silenced on orders of Josef Stalin, and his major book, combining his battlefield notes and interviews, banned from 1961 until 1988.  

“Evil is overthrown”, Grossman reportedly said to another Russian correspondent on the roof of the Reichstag on May 2, 1945. Just for the time being, he acknowledged later on.

There can be no irony, just dismay that Grossman’s biography demonstrates that the biographer, Alexandra Popoff, a Russian turned Canadian, and her publisher, the Yale University Press, have no comprehension of what Grossman meant, nor of his lesson for journalism the world over – that evil isn’t overthrown.  That today, as you read this, it’s alive and well in Canada and at Yale University, not to mention Berlin (again), Paris, London, Washington, and not to forget, Moscow (again). Grossman the Russian soldier is on the opposite side from Popoff the American soldier.

Grossman was born in 1905 in prosperous circumstances in Berdichev, eastern Ukraine. His mother, originally from Odessa, had studied medicine in France. His father, from a grain-trading merchant family, studied chemical engineering in Switzerland. They met in Italy, when Grossman’s mother was already married to an Italian. She divorced; they married but separated when Grossman was still a baby, though they remained friends and dutiful parents. Grossman’s father was also an active socialist in the years before the Russian Revolution, ending up as a Menshevik and an underground organizer among Black Sea fleet sailors in Sevastopol during the 1905 rebellion.

When Grossman was five, his mother took him to Geneva where he was at school for two years. He learned French at the time, and according to Popoff’s version, Grossman was “introduced…to Western values, including the respect for individual rights and freedoms he later believed was essential.” Grossman was then seven. Mother and child returned to Berdichev, and then in 1914 to Kiev, where Grossman went to high school.

He reportedly read Darwin and Marx at the time. Popoff hasn’t found a trace of Grossman’s activities during the revolutionary year of 1917, when he was 12. Instead, Popoff writes her own version of the time. “Had Russia followed the path to democracy offered by the Provisional Government, the nation would have been spared Lenin’s Red Terror and civil war, the widespread famine that ensued, and Stalin’s terror and genocides.” There is no evidence Grossman shared this opinion, either at 12 or later. But Popoff and the Yale University Press are determined that their hero should be their flag bearer. Their flag isn’t red; Grossman’s was.

At 17 in 1923, Grossman moved to Moscow to study chemistry at Moscow University. On a meagre allowance from his father, he lived with student friends, some of whose came from revolutionary backgrounds stretching back into several anti-tsarist movements, including People’s Will.  Diary notes of what they told him reappear in Grossman’s later books.

His first newspaper journalism was on assignment from a family friend who worked at trade union headquarters. His first published piece appeared in Pravda in July 1928; he was still at the university, and didn’t graduate until the end of 1929. By then he was also married, with a child. He opted to work as a laboratory assistant for air-quality testing at the Smolyanka-11 coalmine at Makeevka, in eastern Ukraine. It was 1930. He lasted two years before contracting tuberculosis and getting a release for treatment at Sukhumi, on the Black Sea coast.

Popoff doesn’t miss the opportunity to report how unsafe Grossman found the Donbass mines, and who was to blame: “Stalin’s industrialization was fuelled by coal”, she reported – without statistics. At the same time, US coalmines were averaging more than two thousand casualties from methane explosions a year. For the high methane explosion rate among Russia’s privatized coalmines since 1990, read this.  Grossman gathered his interview, location and research notes into the form of a novel, which was submitted to Profizdat, the trade union publisher; it turned the manuscript down.

Grossman complained in a letter to Maxim Gorky (right): “I wrote the truth. Perhaps, this is a bitter truth. However, truth cannot be counterrevolutionary… I fail to understand what’s counterrevolutionary about my book – is it that there is drinking in the Donbass, that there are frequent brawls there, that work in a coalmine is very hard or that people, coalminers…don’t smile 24 hours a day?”

Gorky replied: “Of course, all this – is truth, but it’s a very bad and tormenting truth.” Grossman, Gorky advised, should ask himself “why he writes? What kind of truth he asserts?…[Grossman] is a gifted man, and should be able to resolve these questions.” Grossman revised his book; Gorky helped sponsor its publication in 1935. It sold well; the reviews were positive. Popoff is negative: “the political message overshadowed his talent and originality”.

With editorial retrospect of 94 years, Popoff knows what the truth is and why Grossman should have written it. Her themes are that Stalin was a genocidal monster; that there is an exact equivalent between him and Hitler; that Russian anti-semitism was, still is, no different from German anti-semitism; and that Grossman was a Jewish writer in Russian whose duty was to report Popoff’s themes as if they were his own. They weren’t. “My Jewish heart” —  Grossman reported in a personal letter from a trip to Armenia in 1961 — “delights at the bazaars – with heaps of fruit and vegetables” It’s the only verbatim record Popoff can find of Grossman making an ethnic identification – and that was when he was identifying with the Armenians. “I was at home; I was among my own kind…these people are closely and durably linked by ties of kinship and community. These ties are eternal; their strength has been tested over millennia. Not even the wrath of Stalin would destroy them.”

By then Stalin was eight years dead, but far from gone.


A selection of Grossman’s books in English translation: Stalingrad was the original title of For the Right Cause, completed in 1952. The Black Book was prepared for publication between 1943 and 1948,  but not published in English until 2002. Life and Fate, completed in 1959-60, was published in Russian (abroad) in 1980; in French in 1983; in English in 1985; in Russian (at home),  1990. Forever Flowing (Everything Flows) was completed in 1963; it appeared in Russian in 1989.   For a sample of Grossman’s batlefield despatches, read this from Stalingrad in 1942.   The Grossman archive, more than ten thousand pages of notes, manuscripts, and letters,  was released by the FSB for public access in 2013.

Grossman had been among the first to report to millions of Russian readers on the German concentration camps as they were liberated by the Red Army; here is what he reported from Treblinka, republished in Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in 1946. 

At the start of 1961 Grossman’s manuscripts and notes were seized by the KGB, and copies of his book Life and Fate were on the run,  hidden around Moscow by friends. In February 1962 he wrote to First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, arguing that in Khrushchev’s public denunciations of “the bloody lawlessness and brutal acts carried out by Stalin”, he had hope and “reasons to think that the norms of our democracy will grow… There is no logic, no truth in the present condition, in my physical freedom when the book, to which I have given my life, is in prison… I ask for my book’s freedom.”

“My book,” Grossman told Khrushchev, “is not a political book. I spoke in it, as best I could, about people, their grief, joy, prejudices, death; I wrote about love and compassion… If my book is a lie, then let people who want to read it learn this….Let Soviet people, Soviet readers for whom I’ve been writing for thirty years, judge what’s true and what’s false in my book.”

Khrushchev didn’t reply. Instead, he delegated the job to Mikhail Suslov (right), the Central Committee official in charge of ideology. They met for three hours at Suslov’s office on July 23, 1962. Suslov told Grossman, according to the latter’s notes: “Your novel cannot be published… Your novel is a political book… Your novel will serve only to benefit our enemies. You know as well as we do… about the great and intense struggle between our two systems.” Popoff has been unable to find any trace of anti-semitism in Suslov’s remarks, though Grossman did record that Suslov mentioned religion, God, Catholicism and Trotsky. Suslov also put Grossman’s book in immediate political context. That was the CIA-financed campaign to promote Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago; for details, read more.  Grossman didn’t think much of Pasternk’s writing and said so publicly; Pasternak retaliated, writing that Grossman’s book on the Battle of Stalingrad “gave him as much pain as his dentures.”

“Their art was vastly different”, according to Popoff.  Suslov was sharper. “You know,” he told Grossman, “what great harm Pasternak’s book inflicted upon us. For everyone who read your book…there’s no doubt that the harm from Life and Fate would be incomparably greater than from Pasternak’s book. Your book is incomparably more dangerous to us than Doctor Zhivago.”… We have revealed the mistakes that accompanied Stalin’s personality cult, but we will never criticize Stalin for fighting the enemies of the Party and the state. We criticize him for fighting our own people.”

Popoff reports no record of Grossman’s reaction to Suslov’s points.

Educated in Moscow, Popoff migrated to Canada where she studied and then taught at a university in Saskatchewan.  Her journalism credits are few.  Popoff calls herself a “Russian-Jewish writer”; the identity is also one she applies to Grossman although he didn’t.   Popoff doesn’t call herself Canadian although she is. When she promoted her Grossman book at the Harvard University Centre for Russian and Eurasian Jewry, Grossman was presented as one of the “Great Russian Jews Who Shaped the World”.  Grossman’s predecessor in the Harvard series was the Israeli politician Golda Meir


Left to right: Alexandra Popoff; Yury Bit-Yunan; Robert Chandler, Vasily Grossman’s translator  into English.

Popoff’s identification of herself with Grossman turns out to be more geographical than religious. In her self-published résumé,  she says she “grew up in Moscow where Grossman spent much of his life. My parents and I lived in the apartment building where Grossman had a studio and kept part of his archive. Our house was among the addresses where in 1961 the KGB confiscated copies of Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate. My father, the novelist Grigory Baklanov (Friedman), brought his first fiction about the war to Grossman and later studied in his creative writing seminar. During Gorbachev’s glasnost my father became editor of Znamya literary magazine and published Grossman’s splendid Armenian memoir and short prose, and also published his wartime diaries as a separate volume.” 

She does not explain how and why Grossman and other Russian journalists of his time put their newspaper reporting into fictional formats, short stories and longer novels. In the latter, characters  became composites of many individuals,  and their quoted speech composites too. This is not to say that Grossman’s fiction was untrue. It was obviously too true for Suslov and the Soviet censors who preceded and followed him.

In our own time, there is a parallel for this Russian method of journalism: in the 1970s it was called the  “New Journalism” by American reporters publishing at Esquire in New York — Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Hunter Thompson are the best known bylines. Fictional techniques – dramatization of scenes and dialogue; subjectivity of narration; accumulation of detail – were their method for breaking out of another fictional technique, the so-called objectivity of mainstream media reporting.

(None of these distinctions survive today. Today, the new American journalism on Russia is published  by a professor of magazines  at a New York university  interviewing  his sister in the columns of New Yorker which pays both of them to promote the sale of each other’s books on themselves in Moscow. Fifty years earlier, Esquire’s New Journalists made fun of New Yorker to the guffaws of hundreds of thousands of readers outside New York. Now no one dares to laugh.) 

But if not from Saskatchewan and the Harvard Centre for Russian and Eurasian Jewry, from where and how to judge what was true of Grossman’s coalmines and Red Army battles? The Russian answer can be found in a three-volume biography by Yury Bit-Yunan  and David Feldman. This can be found in Russian, as well as in shorter presentations in Moscow  and in London. Popoff conceals from her readers that Bit-Yunan and Feldman exist; in a single footnote of irrelevance and a passing reference, she sent their work to the small print at the back of her book.

“Grossman can be called an ‘uncomfortable’ writer. His legacy is still at the centre of political intrigue”,  Bit-Yunan explained in September 2017. “We study the history of Russian literature in a political context. There are still many unresolved issues.”  The KGB operation to confiscate his papers was part of an “intrigue…on an international scale. If Life and Fate had been printed, Grossman would have been highly likely to be nominated for the Nobel Prize. The novel would have been as well-known as Doctor Zhivago. And the Central Committee would have had as many problems as in 1958.”

 “Grossman has long been of interest outside his homeland. There he is interesting as a fighter against totalitarianism and any manifestation of anti-semitism. Therefore, he is studied in different countries. However, foreign colleagues are more interested in Grossman’s philosophical ideas and artistic aspects of his work. The tasks of comparing different kinds of sources related to his life and work, editions of his works, etc., are as a rule undertaken by domestic philologists.”

That’s to say, discreetly, that Grossman the man has become a composite, a war-fighting creation of the Anglo-American alliance against Russia. Bit-Yunan acknowledges, as Popoff does not, that the sources for Grossman’s biography turn out to be much more problematic than Grossman’s sources for his work. “Vasily Grossman is a very famous novelist,” according to Biy-Yunan. “He is sometimes called a classic of Russian prose of the twentieth century. He already has biographers. But the information about [him] is very contradictory. We have discovered this and have been trying to resolve these contradictions for a long time. And this approach necessarily implies criticism of much of what was written by memoirs and literary critics.”

“For more than a quarter of a century [Grossman’s friend Semyon] Lipkin’s [right] memoirs were considered the main source of biographical
information about Grossman. All researchers referred to them. The memoirist is now recognized as the man who saved the novel Life and Fate. That is why Lipkin’s words [are quoted], not only about Grossman, but also about Babel, Bulgakov, Platonov, Nekrasov, Kozhevnikov and many other
writers – they have been repeated without critical thinking. When comparing the memoirs of Lipkin with other sources many contradictions are exposed. Lipkin created what is called the myth of Grossman… And almost every story is either not supported by documents or denied by them. In memoirs this is not an unusual case. But as soon as one does this to Lipkin, the identification of such contradictions is treated almost as a personal insult…We don’t deny, but we examine. And if repeatedly reproduced information turns out to be false, we report the results. And this applies to any memoir – not only Lipkin’s. It’s appropriate to call this demythologization, not polemics.”

When he was at work, the discipline of reporting, on top of which Soviet editing style imposed itself unmistakeably, erased much of Grossman’s characteristic wit. His biographer has no wit at all, so she almost misses it. Briefly it emerged at a meeting with the editor-in-chief of Novy Mir, the powerful Alexander Tvardovsky. He told Grossman that in his manuscript of Life and Fate he ought to cut down in status the lead character Lev Shtrum, the real name of a leading nuclear physicist who was targeted because he was Jewish. “Make your Shtrum the head of a military retail shop,” Tvardovsky said. Grossman replied: “And what position would you assign to [Albert] Einstein?”  

The point Bit-Yunan and Feldman are making for the non-Russian reader is that the debate over Stalin, Stalinism and Stalin’s crimes is an entirely different one inside Russia, among Russians, than the debate  outside. So long as the survival of Russia is at stake in a war imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies, Russians say this discreetly; they don’t say if this is going to change.

The same must be said about Russian anti-semitism. That’s a crime for which the Romanov tsars and the Russian Orthodox Church are not less culpable.  To Popoff  living in Canada and preaching that the only two genocides she can think of are Hitler’s and Stalin’s, the destruction of the indigenous peoples of North America doesn’t count.  Mark Rosovsky, a well-known Moscow theatre director, remarked in a broadcast on Grossman,  the genocidal equivalences must extend to Mao Tse-Tung’s Cultural Revolution, to Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and to the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi.

But Grossman recognized in his reporting that the victims of genocide can turn into victimizers by genocide. His reporting from Armenia mentioned the Turkish genocide between 1915 and 1923.  He didn’t concern himself with the creation of the Israeli state in 1948, and there is no mention by Popoff of the Israeli destruction of the Palestinian Arabs. Neither Israel nor Palestine appears in Popoff’s index.

President Vladimir Putin is reported several times over. Not the record of the most philo-semitic ruler in Russian history, nor the fan of Ernest Hemingway. To Popoff, Putin, “who is striving to re-create the Soviet police state”,  is the man who hasn’t done enough to condemn and repress Stalinism and anti-semitism. Putin, she judges, “has employed the myth about Stalin winning the war to bolster his own political power.” It is plain that the Yale University Press and the Harvard Centre for Russian and Eurasian Jewry believe the same;  what they think they are doing placing it in a biography of Grossman is obvious.

A subtle reaction to the book comes from Robert Chandler, the principal translator into English of Grossman’s books. Last month Chandler explained how wrong on the facts Popoff  is. He also recommended the Russian biography by Bit-Yunan and Feldman for readers who want to find out the truth. Chandler has condemned Popoff’s book  so that Russian readers, if not English ones, will be alerted to how deep the condemnation should go.  In the Russia-hating Spectator of London, Chandler writes,  “it is marred by a certain reluctance to challenge conventional views.”:   

Grossman died of cancer on September 14, 1964. The last uncensored word said at his funeral was from his fellow war correspondent Ilya Ehrenberg. Of Grossman, he said: “He was a difficult man. His life was hard, and his death was hard, but he was honest to the end, and if it isn’t necessary to learn from him how to write, it is necessary to learn what to write.”

On the war front between the US and Russia, this choice has almost vanished.

Leave a Reply