When Vasily Grossman submitted his masterpieceLife and Fate to be published, he was informed that it would not be published for at least 200 years, and all known copies were seized by the KGB. When the manuscript was finally published in 1980, long after Grossman's death, it was acknowledged to be the War and Peace of the twentieth century. Alexandra Popoff illuminates the life of the man whose compassion bore witness to some of the most horrific events of the Soviet reign.
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.