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When they come for the typewriter ribbons

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Vasily Grossman: A Writer's Freedom edited by Anna Bonola and Giovanni Maddalena (McGill-Queen's UP)

Many great writers go unread by the average book buyer. Of the 20th-century greats whose books remain unread, Vasily Grossman – a Ukrainian-born Jewish war journalist and novelist who died in 1964 and whose major works were suppressed by the Soviet Union – may be the one we neglect at our own risk.

Grossman’s two masterpieces are each daunting in their own way. Life and Fate, which he completed in 1960, did not appear in the West until 1980. Likewise, Everything Flows, which was written between 1955 and 1963 when Grossman was effectively a non-person in Soviet Russia, did not appear in a Russian edition until the Gorbachev era.

Grossman’s reputation in his homeland rested for many years on his early stories and his unparallelled CV as a war reporter. Historians tell us that it was the Battle of Stalingrad that turned the Second World War against the Germans; Grossman witnessed the key turning points of the battle (and thus his century) in late 1942 and early 1943, sending his reports to the army’s Red Star newspaper, often to have them reprinted in Pravda for a popular audience.

These reports included a record of the brutal house-to-house combat by haggard Soviet troops made up of fighters drawn from Siberian penal battalions – men who feared being interviewed by a Red Army commissar of Grossman’s rank.

In Vasily Grossman: A Writer’s Freedom, a collection of essays about the author, we learn that Grossman’s interviewing technique was “more like counselling than journalism. He did not take notes. He did not have the men stand to attention.… He had them carve their famous wooden spoons, so they would focus on their hands, rather than look him in the eye.”

In one report, titled “As Chekhov Saw It,” he recounts how his young interviewee had “hunted in Siberia and knew how to lie motionless in the snow.” He “was determined not to allow the Germans to walk proudly in the city … they would hunch over, fearful of being picked off.”

It was the undercurrent of these reports that led to Grossman being targeted by Stalin. His clear message was that Soviet forces had prevailed against the Germans in Stalingrad because, for 100 days, they were free men.

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As soon as the battle was won, the secret police “trickled back into the city,” to enforce party ideology and to fashion their own narrative about the army’s Stalingrad victory. Life and Fate portrays this turn of events as one of the battle’s leading generals finds himself denounced and imprisoned, a voice of conscience beaten bloody by interrogators in the Lubyanka prison.

Grossman’s efforts to publish Life and Fate gained him total censure (though he was too important to be imprisoned). When the KBG raided his apartment, they “seized everything they could find of Life and Fate, down to the typewriter ribbons.”

The essays collected in Vasily Grossman: A Writer’s Freedom convey the stakes raised by such a writer’s silencing, both for Russians and for those of us in the West. As late as the Gorbachev era of perestroika, Grossman’s views regarding Lenin as the harbinger of a totalitarian “new order” protected by state violence remained taboo. An English-language 1989 edition of Everything Flows elicited condemnation in Russian literary circles for the novel’s willingness to link Leninism with Stalinism, as well as for its willingness to contrast German Nazism and the Soviet state in a consideration of 20th-century state terrorism.

Grossman’s critique of Russian state power retains its relevance in the era of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially for Western readers who struggle to understand the revived polarization between East and West.

In line with major thinkers, including George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, Grossman strives to account for the underpinnings, strategies and the guiding characteristics of totalitarian thought and systems. Among the essays in Vasily Grossman: A Writer’s Freedom is a study of the role of language – “single words, idioms and sentence structures” repeated “and taken on board mechanically” – in the assertion of state ideology.

Certain phrases trademarked by Lenin and reiterated interminably under Stalin, recur in our contemporary context. As early as 1917, Lenin made use of the insult, “enemies of the people,” to stigmatize and target groups or individuals who disagreed with Bolshevik plans for retaining power. When this phrase is repeated today by U.S. President Donald Trump, in relation to the press, there is no doubt that it operates as it did under Lenin and Stalin – as a cue toward popular ideology.

Grossman’s writing remains provocative on these themes, alongside its detailed, emotionally heightened accounts of total war and genocidal violence. His war reporting, including a harrowing piece filed after his arrival at the Treblinka camp with the westward-moving Red Army, offered the first detailed accounts of the German killing fields in western Ukraine and Poland. As early as the summer of 1943, his story, “Ukraine Without Jews,” published in the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee’s newspaper Eynikayt, reported the shock of Jewish Red Army soldiers who passed through their home towns: “In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere – not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin.… Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered.”

The essays collected in Vasily Grossman: A Writer’s Freedom quote liberally from Grossman’s work, offering up weighty chunks of epic fiction and his musings on the ways of individuals and governments, which tempt the reader to open the once-suppressed books of mid-20th-century Russia.