I’d never heard of Vasily Grossman until Timothy Snyder referred to him, briefly, as a Soviet journalist who published some of the first unflinching reports of atrocities committed by Nazi soldiers and Hitler’s secret police during their conquest of eastern Europe. In Bloodlands, Snyder lauded Grossman as a reporter guided by a clear moral vision and a keen understanding of the tenuousness of human life. A Ukrainian Jew who rhapsodized the Red Army’s defense of Stalingrad and then followed it all the way to Berlin, he built a literary career under the Soviet system before passing away with little fanfare. Although his early novels sold in the millions, at the time of his death in 1964 his reputation in his homeland was shattered, his health had deteriorated, and his final novels were blacklisted. He could count himself lucky to have lived through a number of purges of the U.S.S.R.’s literary elite. Edited and compiled by Robert Chandler for the impressive New York Review Books imprint, The Road collects of a number of his short stories, essays, letters, and articles in one well-curated volume, an excellent introduction to an important but neglected voice.
Organized chronologically, Grossman’s stories are separated by brief biographical notes thoughtfully included by Chandler. Although the selections fall into early, middle, and later works, it becomes clear that Grossman’s life as a man and as a writer (at least how it is presented here) can be broken up into distinct periods marked by increasing dissatisfaction with life under Soviet rule. Chandler labels the periods, from earliest to latest: “The 1930s,” The War, The Shoah,” and “Late Stories.” The works in this collection are sad—truly sad—but throughout he returns to remembrances of love and small gestures of tenderness. He is marked by the excesses of the totalitarian regimes he waged war upon and lived under. As a result, his writing demonstrates an appreciation of kindness that could only arise from a true comprehension of both humanity’s potential for cruelty and the limitless power of an autonomous mind.
The first short section, “The 1930s,” collects three concise stories concerning the creation and dissolution of family bonds. “A Small Life” describes a couple that decides to foster a child from their village orphanage who ultimately finds them weird and boring, while in “In the Town of Berdichev” a rough female commander in a military unit must take a forced leave when her pregnancy makes it impossible for her to fulfill her duties to her company. She fondly remembers the father who was shot down in battle, but struggles to balance her duty to protect her child against her duty to protect her county. Perhaps the most striking of the three stories is the last, titled “A Young Woman and an Old Woman.” The title characters are both rewarded by their state employers with a free trip to a seaside resort and share a train cabin as they journey to the coast. They talk. The young woman, enjoying her rise through the Soviet system, befriends the older woman who has been saddened by the surprising detention of her daughter and her own stalled professional ambitions. These two subtly drawn characters never fully understand the hidden mechanisms behind their fleeting instances of happiness. Perhaps these mechanisms have been hidden by the totalitarian state or, maybe because they’re people, they will always be doomed to wonder.
As the book transitions to its second section, Grossman seems torn between his duty as a reporter to inspire his fellow citizens to sacrifice for the greater good and his need to rail against the injustices perpetrated by warring totalitarian regimes. Like “In the Town of Berdichev,” “The Old Man” finds Grossman adopting a tone that might almost be described as propagandistic. A quiet old man, a beekeeper whose livelihood requires patience and silence, overcomes a lifetime of reticence by braining a German soldier with a shovel. Much better is “The Old Teacher,” a story about a village’s elderly teacher, a Jew. Distraught by what he sees as Nazi soldiers advance on his town—long simmering feuds settled by prompt denunciations, families thrown out of houses, all sorts of groveling and obsequiousness—the old man reflects on his failings and his fleeting successes. The teacher and the town’s other Jews are forcefully marched to a ravine. There they are made to lie down and wait for the firing squad, positioned above them on a hill, to reload. The victims, in their last moments, see brave assertions of individual dignity, dole out small kindnesses, and console each other with the hope that others will not suffer similar fates. “The Hell of Treblinka” and “The Sistene Madonna” close this section. The former is Grossman’s terrible and moving account of the discovery of the death camp at Treblinka, written while reporting the westward march of the Soviet Red Army. The latter is an attempt to explain the power of Raphael’s rendering of The Sistene Madonna. The Madonna and her child symbolize the universal mother’s struggle to protect a child — a child she must relinquish to the world. For Grossman, the mother and son are recurring historical figures who reappear wherever human life is reduced to a simple mathematical calculation: at the death camps; in blackened cities throughout Europe; in the famine-ravaged Ukraine; at Hiroshima. Freedom requires individuals to confront existential fears — “Their human strength triumphed over the violence. The Madonna walked toward the gas chamber, treading lightly on small bare feet. She carried her son over the swaying earth of Treblinka.”
The final section contains a number of staggering stories, the type you shove into a stranger’s hand with a wild look in your eye. These are stories that remind you of the masters of the form, writers like Hemingway, Chekov, Eudora Welty, and Cortazar. “The Elk” is a fantastic rumination on illness, love, and political repression. “The Road” is written from the vantage point of an Italian mule conscripted into the war on the side of the Axis powers. As he is forcefully marched through northern Africa and then the Russian steppe strapped to heavy artillery he forgets the pleasure taken from green shoots and visions of young mares. His indifference permits his survival. In “Mama,” one of Stalin’s top advisers adopts the orphaned child of parents he may have had a hand in killing. Grossman gives his readers a glance of the luxurious and precarious lives of those residing at the very top of the Soviet system. Even Isaac Babel makes an appearance (read Red Calvary if you haven’t already).
The Road brings together a number of works by an artist who deserves greater recognition. Grossman witnessed some of worst atrocities of the twentieth century, and his writing demonstrates a need to speak out against a particular brand of cruelty. His writing in The Road is brave not only because a number of these stories could probably have led to his imprisonment, exile, or condemnation, but also because he utilizes terrible situations to illustrate humanity’s best qualities. Without being obvious, he champions mercy, understanding, and unconditional love. Beautiful stuff. Pick it up if you can.