Vasily Grossman has received many well-deserved tributes as a dissident writer who dared state what is now the obvious — that when reviewing the wreckage inflicted upon humanity by such dictators as Stalin and Hitler, there are more similarities than differences to be found in their legacies. Paying tribute to this conclusion, and to the blunt, powerful language through which Grossman expressed it, in recent years The New York Review of Books has produced editions of his works, such as “Life and Fate,” “Everything Flows” and “The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays.”
In 2011, a BBC Radio 4 dramatization of “Life and Fate” starred Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant and Janet Suzman. The impression that these worthy productions give is that of a ready-made courageous dissenter, whereas as it turns out, for much of his life Grossman was an avid believer in Marxist-Leninist dogma. This apparent paradox is documented in “Vasily Grossman: A Combative Author,” a massively detailed new biography published in March by Les Éditions du Seuil.
Written by Myriam Anissimov, who previously published biographies of Primo Levi and Romain Gary, the book is an unsparing look at one Jewish writer’s complex path to dissidence under Soviet anti-Semitic oppression. Anissimov sifts the evidence with gimlet-eyed attention and, unlike the uncritical hosannas of praise that have likened Grossman as a novelist to Leo Tolstoy, lucidly distinguishes between when the author wrote admirably and when he disappointed.
When, in 1905, Iosif Solomonovich Grossman was born in Berdychiv, in northern Ukraine, Berdychiv was about 80% Jewish, hence its nickname, “the Jerusalem of the Volhynia.” A historic region in western Ukraine, its lore included such notables as Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, cited in Martin Buber’s “Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters.” In 1928, Grossman published an essay, “That’s Enough Joking About Berdychiv!” addressing the status of his native shtetl as a target for Russian anti-Semitic jests. Yet Grossman’s essay does not defend Jews on cultural grounds; instead, he argues that Jews fought alongside the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and therefore Marxist class-consciousness should make Soviets aware that “Marxism itself is the cure for anti-Semitism,” as Anissimov describes Grossman’s naive, if well-intentioned, argument.
Though by his seminal 1959 book “Life and Fate” Grossman underlines similarities between Stalinist and Nazi anti-Semitism — while defining anti-Semitism as the “benchmark of man’s lack of talent” — ideological blinders also seem to have affected Grossman’s first efforts in fiction. In 1934 he was employed as the chief chemist at Moscow’s Sacco and Vanzetti Pencil Factory, an establishment named in honor of two men officially seen as martyrs to American capitalism. That year, Grossman published a tale, “In the City of Berdychiv,” in a literary review controlled by the Union of Soviet Writers. As Simon Markish points out in “The Grossman Case,” a penetrating critique that was published in French in 1983 and is long overdue for translation into English, Grossman’s story contains a highly selective presentation of local Jewish life.