The Soviet-Jewish journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman is best known for his 1960 novel Life and Fate, an epic tale of World War II, the Holocaust, and Stalinism, which was “arrested” by the KGB and then smuggled out of the USSR in manuscript. It was not published until 1980, sixteen years after Grossman’s death, and then only in the West. But Life and Fate was in fact the sequel to a lesser known work, Stalingrad, which was published in censored form in 1954. Reviewing a new English translation of the latter book—based on uncensored manuscripts—along with a new biography of Grossman by Alexandra Popoff, Gary Saul Morson writes:
In Stalingrad, Grossman relies on the technique Russians call “Aesopian language,” which hints at (or allegorizes, like Aesop’s fables) the unsayable. Life and Fate and Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, insist explicitly that Communism and Nazism are mirror images of each other, but Stalingrad could not. Instead it criticizes the Nazis for faults that readers would recognize as equally characteristic of the Soviets.
For Grossman, the most important similarity between the two systems lies in their views of entire groups of people based not on what they do but on who they are. Class had the same place in Soviet ideology that race had in that of the Nazis. At the worst of times, descendants of aristocrats, merchants, or moderately prosperous peasants (“kulaks”) lost their lives by the millions. When times were better, they would merely have difficulty getting an education or finding a job. Class, like ethnic origin, did not depend on anything one could control: if your parents were kulaks, you were a class enemy.
Grossman, like Viktor Shtrum, the hero of the two novels, came to this conclusion while witnessing the ravages of the Holocaust, which he was among the very first to document, working alongside the Jewish literary figures who made up the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. But these efforts were later suppressed by Stalin, the committee was disbanded, and most of its members were murdered; Grossman was one of the exceptions.
To suggest that Jews suffered disproportionately under the Nazis was to “divide the dead,” and one had to refer not to Jewish victims but to “Soviet civilians.” Technically, anti-Semitism was still taboo, and so the press attacked “Zionists” and “rootless cosmopolitans,” a category that also included anyone who kowtowed to the West.
In December 1952 Stalin declared to the Communist-party presidium that “every Jew is a nationalist and an agent of American intelligence,” which meant that they all deserved execution or, at least, a long sentence of hard labor. At best, the Jews were to suffer the fate of Chechens, Crimean Tatars, or other despised groups, deported en masse to remote eastern or northern regions where those who survived the journey would be left with little or no means of survival.
One can therefore imagine the difficulties Grossman faced in 1949 when he tried to publish Stalingrad, with its Jewish hero, many Jewish characters, and discussions of the Holocaust. As Popoff notes, Shtrum’s Jewish name “alone could frighten editors out of their skin.”