In This Review

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century
By Alexandra Popoff
Yale University Press, 2019, 424 pp.

Vasily Grossman was a humanist bearing witness to an inhuman age. The Russian writer’s dispatches from the Battle of Stalingrad described Red Army soldiers as freedom fighters facing down the fascist menace, and they cemented his literary fame. In 1944, Grossman was among the first to report on the Nazis’ Treblinka death camp. After the war, Grossman extended his lens to depict Stalin’s regime as a foe of humanity, as well. He went further still, taking aim at all the parties to the Cold War that were amassing weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, Grossman’s universal concerns take a back seat in Popoff’s biography, which presents the writer as a Western-style dissident in conflict with the Soviet state. Her account flattens Grossman’s complex humanism, in which progressive nineteenth-century traditions mixed with the pathos of the Soviet revolution and—later in his life—westernizing impulses. Drawing a straight line from the Stalinist past to the present, Popoff claims that Russia under Vladimir Putin is once more sidelining Grossman. But she makes no mention of a serialized production of his novel Life and Fate that aired on official Russian television in 2012 and garnered prizes and rave reviews. This book is a missed opportunity to more fully engage with a writer whose abiding moral concerns reached far beyond the Soviet Union and remain vital after the passing of the communist state.