Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

If, as the Czech-born novelist Milan Kundera wrote, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, then Vasily Semyonovich Grossman must rank as one of humanity’s greatest heroes.

As a Jew, born in Ukraine in 1905, whose father was a Menshevik revolutionary, the writer was thrice cursed by fate. The “wolfish” 20th century, as he called it, devoured millions of others who shared his religion, nationality and background.

Yet, against all odds, Grossman survived to witness and describe many of the most appalling acts in human history: the Russian Revolution of 1917; the brutal civil war that followed; the mass starvation of Ukraine in the 1930s; the Great Terror, the Nazi invasion of 1941; the Holocaust; and Stalin’s anti-Jewish purge of the 1950s. Although he died in 1964, some 27 years before the Soviet Union collapsed, Grossman endured the worst extremes of the Soviet century.

“I’ve seen a lot of human suffering, this war is infinitely cruel,” he wrote to his wife Olga in 1941. “I’ve seen so much that I’m sometimes surprised how all this could fit inside me.”

Miraculously, throughout all this global carnage and personal tragedy, the cerebral, bespectacled novelist turned war reporter preserved an indestructible faith in human compassion. During the second world war, he wrote, no one was moved by “blood, suffering and death; what surprised and shook people was kindness and love.” If one sentence were to summarise his philosophy, it would be this: “There has been no time crueler than ours, yet we did not allow what is human in man to perish.”

Grossman won much acclaim in the Soviet Union during the second world war as a brave reporter for his vivid frontline reports of the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. His heart-rending account of the discovery of the Treblinka concentration camp was one of the first reports to reveal the scale and horror of the Holocaust and was widely cited at the Nuremberg trials.

But Grossman is best remembered today for his magnificent novel Life and Fate, a devastating account of the clash between the twin totalitarian evils of Nazism and Stalinism. Completed in 1960 after many years of research, the book was almost immediately “arrested” by the KGB and never published during his lifetime.

Remarkably, Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev, the then Soviet leader, appealing for the novel’s “release”. “There is no logic, no truth in the present condition, in my physical freedom when the book, to which I have given my life, is in prison, for I wrote it, I have not renounced it, and I do not renounce it,” he wrote. “I ask for my book’s freedom.”

An official response came belatedly during a three-hour meeting between Grossman and Mikhail Suslov, the chief Soviet ideologist. Suslov compared the explosive force of Life and Fate to that of a nuclear bomb, arguing that it could not appear for 250 years. The book, which centres on the life of Viktor Shtrum, a brilliant Jewish scientist, and the battle of Stalingrad, was later denounced as a “dirty slander” by Soviet apparatchiks who had never read it. But the amoral equivalence that Grossman drew between the Nazi and Soviet regimes was stark and incendiary.

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff

Such is the historic sweep and emotional power of the novel that Life and Fate drew comparisons with Tolstoy’s War and Peace when a smuggled copy was finally published in Switzerland in 1980. The book eventually appeared in the Soviet Union in 1988 during the glasnost era initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Although the novel is a work of fiction it must count as one of the most truthful accounts of the age. Grossman’s fame as a Soviet writer may have been eclipsed by the likes of Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn but his epic novel may yet prove more enduring as a testament to those times.

Alexandra Popoff’s biography is crisp and comprehensive, deftly interweaving Grossman’s personal life with the momentous events he experienced. The portrait she paints in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century is of a highly intelligent and surprisingly cheerful man, who viewed the world with a kind and quizzical gaze and defended his friends and principles with near-reckless courage. As she writes, it was the worst and most dangerous time to be a humanist, pacifist and internationalist. His core belief that “there is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom” was a forthright challenge to both Nazism and Stalinism.

One of the recurrent, and most moving, themes of Grossman’s life and Popoff’s book is the love he felt for his cultured and handicapped mother and the excruciating guilt he experienced at not doing more to save her following the Nazi invasion. Trapped in the Ukrainian city of Berdichev in 1941, she was shot by the SS alongside most of its Jewish population. Grossman did not discover her fate until the Red Army reclaimed Berdichev in 1944. Life and Fate was dedicated to her memory.

After Grossman’s own death, an envelope was found on his desk containing two letters he wrote to his mother on the ninth and 20th anniversaries of her murder. “I do not fear anything because your love is with me, and because my love is with you forever,” his second letter concluded.

Although Grossman’s reputation has only grown over the years in the west, Popoff laments the fact that his influence has already faded in Russia, which has been afflicted by a kind of “historical amnesia”. As Popoff writes, it is easier to believe in a glorious Soviet past than to accept that Stalinism and Nazism were mirror images of each other. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, memory is still struggling against forgetting. The best way to honour Grossman’s own struggle is to read Life and Fate.

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, by Alexandra Popoff, Yale University Press, RRP£25/$32.50, 424 pages

John Thornhill is a former FT Moscow bureau chief

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