Fifty years ago this past October, Vasily Grossman submitted for publication the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century. The KGB immediately destroyed all copies of what Grossman called Life and Fate (Zhizn' i sud'ba in Russian) except for two hidden by his friends, and he died in 1964 without ever seeing his work published. For more than a quarter-century, the book was unavailable in Russia. Finally, in 1988, it was embraced by the cultural revolutionaries of glasnost as they slashed and burned their way through the official narrative of Soviet history, encrusted with 70 years of lies. In their search for a usable past, something not to be rejected in disgust, not to shudder over, but to cherish and be inspired by, they were awed by the brave and nearly lost attempts of their fathers and mothers to imagine a just and moral political order.
This being Russia, literature was the first and the main resource of the glasnost warriors. They trafficked in great books, some that had waited decades to be read: Andrei Platonov's Chevengur and The Foundation Pit, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, Anna Akhmatova's Requiem. Yet even in such august company, Grossman's Life and Fate, serialized in the popular literary magazine Oktyabr, was instantly recognized for its brilliance.
The commentary included with the book's first complete Russian edition in 1989 was titled "The Spirit of Freedom" ("Dukh svobody"). This was a remarkable insight. For Life and Fate continues to overwhelm and wound through its characters' heroic insistence on their freedom to exercise moral choice, even in the hells of Stalingrad, Treblinka, and the Gulag, and among the daily perils and humiliations of life under Stalinism. Most of all, the book is matchless in the artistic power of its affirmation of freedom as the essence of our humanity -- freedom that today, in a Russia run by reincarnated KGB officers, seems far more elusive than when the book was first rediscovered.
Grossman lived the freedom of which he wrote. One is immediately struck by a complete absence of internal censorship in Life and Fate, written by an author in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, some of it when Joseph Stalin was still alive. What one Soviet critic called a "concentration of truth, fearlessness, and inner freedom" was likely without parallel in Soviet Russian literature at the time. In a still totalitarian Soviet Union barely thawed from the paralysis of Stalinist terror, Grossman's book, as another glasnost-era commentator put it, was "the novel of a free man."
Grossman, who had been one of Russia's most popular World War II front-line reporters, as well as the author of a fine war novel to which Life and Fate is a sequel, continued to behave like a free man even after a member of the magazine Znamya's editorial board told him that his "harmful," "hostile" work would not be published in less than 250 years. So terrified were Znamya's editors that they forwarded the manuscript, post-haste, to the authorities. The KGB searched Grossman's apartment and took all copies of the novel, along with every page of the drafts and every used sheet of carbon paper. None of the seized materials would ever be seen again. The 1988 magazine publication was based on the only two surviving texts: a final copy and a draft, each kept hidden by a different friend.
Grossman protested to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, and that letter, too, was unprecedented in its tone of address. "The current situation is senseless," Grossman wrote. "I am physically free, but the book to which I have dedicated my life is in jail -- but it is I who wrote it, and I have not repudiated and am not repudiating it.… I continue to believe that I have written the truth and that I wrote it loving, empathizing with, and believing in the people. I ask for freedom for my book."
In 1962 Grossman was granted an interview with the Soviet Union's final authority on such matters, chief party ideologist Mikhail Suslov. Suslov upheld Znamya's verdict. Grossman never recanted. He died in poverty and obscurity two years later, on Sept. 14, 1964. A few of his stories were published in newspapers and magazines over the following three years, but after 1967, when the last vestiges of Khrushchev's "thaw" were completely extinguished by the reigning Brezhnevism, even his name was forbidden from being mentioned in print, and it remained so for the next 20 years.