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 ... 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.
The story of Life and Fate, as told in Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff, a former Soviet journalist, is gripping. Equally revealing is the rest of Grossman’s biography ... As told by Popoff, the stories behind Grossman’s stories, particularly of censors’ efforts to alter and limit them, are fascinating ... Popoff’s book has its flaws: Its writing can be labored and she too often assumes that characters in Grossman’s novels and stories can be considered stand-ins for him. But her emphasis on what she calls 'the connection between totalitarian regimes and political ignorance' not only applies to Soviet Russia but constitutes a warning for the United States
What Alexandra Popoff’s new biography seeks to add to the mix is not altogether clear ... She praises [Grossman] as having 'the mentality of a man from the free world' and implicitly makes an even stronger claim for his moral status in her epigraph, from Elie Wiesel’s 1972 Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters: 'His daring, his frankness were drawn from his very despair. So was his revolt.' Both characterizations seem seriously off. Grossman, a quintessentially Soviet (meaning someone formed by operating within the Soviet context) literary figure, did not revolt, and he was not apparently all that despairing, either ... But perhaps Popoff’s most exalting claims in her epigraph and introduction need not be taken too seriously. After all, the detailed story of Grossman’s career in the body of her book is quite compatible with a less heroic view of him.
... make[s] clear the extent to which Grossman was a product of the Soviet literary system—the troubles he experienced publishing his books and articles and the compromises and censorship he accepted in order for them to see the light of day .
Popoff’s summary of Grossman’s life in the 1930s is striking ... When asked to review a draft of this book, I strongly recommended publication. I did, however, criticise Popoff’s excessive reliance on Lipkin. Since then, she has made many changes, but there are still instances when she has stayed faithful to what is sometimes called ‘intelligentsia folklore' ...
All in all, this is a clear, well-structured guide to the world Grossman lived in—though it is marred by a certain reluctance to challenge conventional views.
Comprehensive ... An essential companion to the ongoing reissue campaign, courtesy of the New York Review of Books, of Grossman’s work in English and of interest to students of literature, journalism, and history alike.
... a fine biography ... This well-researched portrait should introduce many new readers to a significant writer whose stand against totalitarian ideology, as Popoff’s epilogue on Putin’s veneration of Stalin demonstrates, has taken on new relevance and urgency today.