Thursday, September 22, 2011

How Did Life and Fate Get to KGB?

BBC’s Radio 4 continues with its week-long monumental 8-hour 13-episode adaptation of Vasily Grossman’s world war II classic novel Life and Fate (based on translation by Robert Chandler, producer Alison Hindell).

Practically every reference to the novel mentions that Soviet leadership deemed the work so damaging to the communist cause that the novel was arrested by the KGB. A single copy, or perhaps two, was hidden by Grossman’s friends, smuggled to the West and published there, more than twenty years after it was written.

Here is the story of how it happened as told by Semyon Lipkin, poet and translator and a close friend of Grossman. He was one of the first readers of the book, the one who helped the writer to cut out the more politically risky chapters before presenting the manuscript to a literary journal. He was also one of the friends who saved the novel.

Grossman wrote a prequel to Life and Fate soon after the war and submitted it to the prestigious literary journal Novy Mir (New World). Originally it was titled Stalingrad. Novy Mir editor Konstantin Simonov, himself a famous war writer, rejected the novel after a year-long delay. The  new editor Alexander Tvardovsky, a poet and an influential power in Soviet literary establishment, pushed the novel through censors and party bosses. After a few substantial changes – a chapter with a positive portrait of Stalin was added and the Russian-Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum, the main character in the novel, was given an ethnic Russian mentor Chepyzhin.  The novel was published in 1952 under the title For the Just Cause.

The novel came out just as Stalin launched his last campaign of terror, the so-called Doctors’ Plot, aimed at Soviet ethnic Jews. Grossman’s novel was denounced as anti-Soviet and ‘damaging’. There was a possibility that Grossman himself could be dragged into the Doctors’ Plot. Tvardovsky, a personal friend of Grossman, recanted, denounced the novel and declared himself in error. When Stalin died in March 1953 the Plot investigations were stopped, arrested ‘conspirators’ released and Grossman’s novel published widely to huge acclaim.

But he fell-out with Tvardovsky in a big way, remembers Lipkin. Grossman was writing Life and Fate throughout the 50s. Chapters from the novel were published in the press and there was already big interest regarding the new book without anyone realising what was in it. Novy Mir expressed interest in the novel, but Grossman wouldn’t have anything to do with the editor and friend who had betrayed him.

The editor of another literary journal, Znamya (Banner), Vadim Kozhevnikov persuaded Grossman to give the novel to him. During the summer of 1960 the novel was finished and in October Grossman submitted the typed manuscript to Znamya.  Weeks passed and there was no answer from the journal. Through friends Grossman found out that the editor was hiding the novel from the staff and that something unpleasant was afoot.

That autumn he and his wife were at a writers’ resort at the Black Sea. Tvardovsky and his wife happened to be there too. The wives, who were friends independently from their husbands, arranged for them to make peace. Tvardovsky asked for a copy of the novel, ‘just to read it’. Back in Moscow, Tvardovsky came to Grossman’s flat in the middle of the night to say that the novel was greater than anything he had read, but was unpublishable. He drunk up all the vodka that was there to drink at Grossmans' and among other things told the writer that Kozhevnikov had denounced Grossman to those ‘who ought to know’, meaning the KGB – or the party, or both.

One day in February 1961, in the morning, two KGB officers, one with the rank of a colonel, came to Grossman’s flat with a warrant to seize the novel and all materials related to it. The officers acted in a polite, but firm, very efficient way. It looked as though they had precise orders about what to do. They only searched the room where Grossman worked, left alone anything that wasn’t connected to Life and Fate, but collected all copies, drafts, studies and scribbles for the novel. They then went to Grossman’s typist's flat and confiscated a copy of the novel she’d kept for proofing, carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Tvardovsky’s copy of the book was also taken away. 

A year later Grossman wrote an appeal to Khruschev asking for the book to be released. He was received by Mikhail Suslov, the party’s chief ideologue. In a meeting that continued for about three hours Suslov admitted that he hadn’t read the book himself, but decided that it couldn’t be returned to the author. Nor could it be published, not for another 200 years, he said. He promised (promise not kept), though, that Grossman’s five-volume collected works would be published and assured him that the party ‘highly valued his previous works’.  Suslov based his judgements on two memos prepared for him by party aides. According to Lipkin, by Grossman’s account each memo was about 15-20 type-written pages.

Summing up what’d happened to him, Grossman told Lipkin: ‘I was strangled in a dark passageway’.

He died of cancer in 1964, his books were hardly published, the memoryof him as a writer faded and name rarely mentioned, except by friends and a few writers and scholars. 

I was lucky that I had among my university professors Galina Belaya and Anatoly Bocharov, who in their lectures put Grossman among the top writers of the Soviet literature. It was from them that I first heard the name. Bocharov wrote a book on Grossman in 1970. 

Semyon Lipkin’s book ‘The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman’ was published by Kniga publishers, Moscow, 1990. The text is available online here.
BBC Radio 4 page on Life and Fate dramatisation is here.
In Russian the book is here.

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