On 22 June 1941, a Sunday, Hitler declared war on his former ally Stalin. The German invasion of the Soviet Union – code-named Barbarossa after the “red-bearded” Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I – was much more than a surprise attack. It was the beginning of a calamity. In his drive to acquire Lebensraum (“living space”) for the German nation in the East, Hitler murdered some ten million people, including more than five million Jews and three million prisoners of war. Operation Barbarossa was, essentially, a war of extermination.  

            Vasily Grossman, the Ukraine-born Jewish journalist and writer, was embedded in the frontline Soviet forces when news came of Hitler’s abrupt betrayal. Like most Russians he was quite unprepared for the magnitude and ferocity of the attack. Having terrified the world with blitzkrieg victories over Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France, the Wehrmacht was seizing as much as 600 square miles of Soviet Russian territory every hour. The new masters meant business. Grossman’s mother was murdered in the Ukrainian village of Berdichev as part of Hitler’s war against perceived “useless mouths”: Slavs, Jews, Roma, Bolsheviks.

            The People Immortal, smoothly translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, was Grossman’s first novel. Grossman dashed it off in two months in 1942 for serialization in the Soviet army’s daily newspaper Red Star for which he was a war correspondent. The novel chronicles a brief period in the late summer of 1941 when the German invader was advancing rapidly towards Leningrad and the rumble of artillery could be heard from L’vov (the former Polish Lwów) in western Ukraine to the Donets Coal Basin in the east. In pages of vivid description, Grossman focuses on a group of beleaguered Russian troops and their attempts to break through enemy lines. The ordinary Red Army conscript is represented by the no-nonsense Ignatiev, a jovial former farmer. Higher up the ranks is the stern-faced Bogariov, a one-time Moscow academic.

As a deep-dyed anti-totalitarian, Grossman tried in his journalism to document truthfully what he saw and heard. His 1944 report on the vile workings of Hitler’s extermination camp, ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, is a masterpiece of controlled rage and unsparing lucidity. The People Immortal is marred somewhat by propagandist overtures to Mother Russia (‘Death Will Not Conquer!’ is a typical chapter title). It was written at a time when the Kremlin was looking for a “Red Tolstoy” to memorialize what came to be known as Russia’s Great Patriotic War against Germany. For all its faults, The People Immortal laid the groundwork for Grossman’s now-classic novel of the Hitler conflict, Life and Fate, published posthumously in the Soviet Union in 1988. Three decades on, unfortunately, Grossman is not much read in Russia; to the legion nostalgic Stalinists and tsarists under Vladimir Putin he is a “Zionist sympathizer” (for “Zionist” read “Jewish”). It is a fine way to treat a giant of Russian literature and the fearless writer at the Barbarossa front.

This review first appeared in the Tablet on 15 October 2022