The People Immortal by Vasily Grossman review – Soviet wartime propaganda with a human face

An expanded reissue of the author’s 1942 novel about a Red Army unit encircled by German forces is overtly polemical but also vividly written

Some authors have a very active afterlife, though the results when the writer’s literary estate dips its hand in the bran tub marked “other works” can be very mixed. The Soviet writer Vasily Grossman already had many of his books available in English at the time of his death in 1964, but a renewed surge of interest in his masterpiece Life and Fate over the past decade means his other work is being rediscovered. These books are not of the same calibre as Life and Fate: even on its first English publication, Grossman’s early novel Stalingrad was called a “socialist realist dog” and a “gelded fictional brontosaurus”.

Now we are reintroduced to Grossman’s 1942 novel The People Immortal in a new expanded translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. From 1941 Grossman was a reporter on the army newspaper Red Star, and this novel draws on his experiences and contacts there. The story is based on an account given to Grossman by a Soviet officer of how he led a Red Army unit out of German encirclement after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

The narrative drive comes from the Russian attempts to retreat safely – victory is simply getting out of the German encirclement alive – and the story is told largely from the viewpoint of the army. Among others we meet Bogariov, a former professor now charged with leading this “important mission”; Ivanovich, an expert in military strategy impatient with those who aren’t; the calm, reassuring senior officer Cherednichenko; and in the lower ranks, soldiers Ignatiev, Sedov and Rodimtsev.

As we might expect, there is a good deal of vivid action writing, such as a virtuosic account of the “death of a city” by German bombing: “There was something indescribably painful about these few seconds, when many tons of death had been released from the planes and had not yet touched the earth.” But Grossman humanises his tale with occasional comic touches: the army top brass argues about the ripeness of the apples supplied to them, while their cook complains about “all this damn dive-bombing. How can I shape my dumplings properly?” Soviet civilians are there too: the heart of the people is represented by a Cherednichenko’s young son Lionya, and his grandmother Maria, whose efforts to flee their apartment add human drama and underscore the theme of the importance of a secure homeland.

The blurb for The People Immortal says that the book is “far from being mere morale-boosting propaganda”. Well, not so very far – in fact, it’s pretty near. Grossman’s renaissance in the west is unusual since, as Robert Chandler notes in an afterword, we tend to prefer dissident Russian writers and Grossman was not that. Indeed he was, “if not at the very summit of the Soviet literary establishment, [then] not far below it”.

As a result, the book contains a lot of dialogue alternately boosterish (“to defeat Lenin means to defeat the natural laws of our life”) and anti-German (“I am constantly amazed by fascism’s monstrous sterility!”), as well as sentimental filler (“I’d never have thought there could be so many tears stored up in my heart”). Sometimes Grossman doesn’t even bother to put the propaganda into the mouths of characters, but delivers it directly: “The day will come [...] when the sun will shine down in disgust on Hitler’s fox-like face.” Even the title has an evangelistic ring to it.

But Grossman was not quite Stalin’s poodle. This new translation restores many of his lines that the Soviet authorities removed from The People Immortal. Mostly the cuts make sense – such as a section where the Soviet army commanders have a defeatist discussion about a loss of confidence among their troops – but it’s surprising to see some of the lines Grossman was allowed to keep, such as a long exchange in which Bogariov criticises the poor organisation and tactics of the Soviet forces.

Knowledge of these changes comes from the Chandlers’ exemplary annotations to the book: all reissues should be given this much love. (The novel itself is 224 pages long: the notes, sources and commentary add another 118.) Indeed, this might be appropriate for a book that at times – depending on your appetite for discussions on military tactics and Soviet cheerleading – is more interesting to read about than to read.

The People Immortal by Vasily Grossman (translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler) is published by MacLehose Press (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


John Self

The GuardianTramp

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