Thank You Asya!

Today is International Women’s day and it is a great occasion to celebrate some fantastic women. There is one woman in the history of Russian literature that is hugely influential, yet for some reason often overlooked. She is mentioned in connection to some of the greatest publications of the 1950s and 60s, such as Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, many of Grossman’s publications, Dombrovskii’s The Keeper of Antiquities, works of Viktor Nekrasov, Vasil’ Bykov, Vladimir Tendriakov, Fazil’ Iskander and many more… The woman I am talking about was a literary critic and the editor of the literary submissions in Novyi Mir (1958-71),-  Anna Berzer (1917-1994). Novyi Mir was a literary journal that published some of the most challenging works during Khrushchev’s Thaw period in the 1960s USSR.


I myself came across Anna (or Asya as she was affectionately called) when studying for my PhD. There was always some confusion surrounding my thesis, why did I choose two authors that are so different? Well, as it turns out they have more in common than it seems. One thing they have in common is their close relationship to Anna Berzer. After the publication of For a Just Cause she became very close to Grossman and has written an autobiographical narrative about his last days Farewell (Proshchanie). There, she describes her visits to his hospital bed and how she receives his final novel Everything Flows. She narrates all the details of what was happening in the editorial offices of Novyi mir  and what was said about Grossman at a time when his novel Life and Fate was under “arrest”. It is a unique document from the perspective of the person that was closest to Grossman towards the end of his life.

Equally, her impact on Dombrovskii was immense. It was in great part thanks to her that his novel The Keeper of Antiquities was published at all. She edited the novel into the great work of fiction that we know now. Her skills are impossible to overestimate as it is largely because of her that the novel has such an uncanny feel. It depicts the very feeling of the 1937 terror, yet it withholds it from the reader. This is exactly what she wanted to maintain – the suffocating fear of the terror. When the novel was published Dombrovskii dedicated it to her with the words: “To dear Anna Samoilovna, without whom this novel would certainly not have seen the light of day.With love and gratitude, Dombrovskii.” Even when his novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published abroad in 1978 (as it would have been forbidden in USSR), he also dedicated it to her: “The author dedicates this book to Anna Samoilovna Berzer with profound gratitude on behalf of himself and all others like him.”


And there were many more like him whom she helped. In an article dedicated to her Inna Borisova explains the tenacity of Anna Berzer. She had no fear, only stamina and determination. If she has received a work of truth then it is her duty to make sure the public hear it. Her commitment was both to the authors and to the world. She was an excellent literary critic and often pointed out that a work needs to be published at the right time. If Fathers and Sons was not published in the 1860s, she used to say, then it would have lost some of its impact. And so, the same can be said for many of the works of 1960s (many of which unfortunately had to wait until 1980s, when they lost some of their impact in wave of publications). This is why she had a sense of urgency and achieved such incredible publications.

Anna Berzer certainly fought for literature and is one of, to my mind, unsung heroes of her time. Bulgakov’s saying that “manuscripts don’t burn” infuriated her. She pointed out that this was said by the devil, and we should never become complacent. Anna Berzer’s role and approach to literature is truly inspiring. Her knowledge and editing skills have created the some of the greatest Russian novels of the 20th Century. To me she is a true hero and I hope we will speak more about her as time goes by.

Grossman’s Triumph

The recent discussions in the media about Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate have prompted me to think about the importance of the novel’s arrest. Grossman’s career as a writer can be (and often is) divided into two periods, one before the War and one after. Before the war he was  a rather successful and well paid member of the Soviet Writer’s Union, after the war, however, his career took a complicated turn. He went from being relatively easily published to having to spend years trying to publish a seemingly Soviet piece of writing. Grossman died not knowing the fate of his novels Life and Fate and Everything Flows, and as Linda Grant explained at the BBC Radio 4 seminars on Grossman, it is the worst fate for a writer. She was passionate about the difficulty in dealing with an unpublished piece of work, which reminds one about the relationship of an author to their work. It was nice having Linda Grant give Grossman a voice as a fellow writer. This is something that has escaped me until now, although Grossman wrote passionately to both Stalin and Khrushchev about the publication of For a Just Cause  and Life and Fate respectively, it is sometimes hard to imagine what kind of impact the suppression of publication may have.

The advert highlights the arrest of the novel, literally....

Grossman died from stomach cancer not knowing what would happen to his two novels damning the Soviet state. Life and Fate was arrested in 1961 and lying on his deathbed in 1964 Grossman was rewriting his last novel Everything Flows. In a way it may be seen as a last desperate attempt to expose the awful truth of the Stalinist era, however, there is no repetition of the themes in Life and Fate, instead he develops the idea of Russia as a slave soul. I try to imagine what Grossman felt those last days when he was writing, knowing that all his work would be suppressed. He evidently felt the need to write no matter what the outcome would be. However, the fact that there are no parallels between the two novels, and no repetitions,makes it evident that Grossman must have felt that his novel would be published in the end.

The BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of Life and Fate brings forth the unbelievable fact that the novel was arrested while the writer remained untouched. This is an incredible story, and the  anger of the authorities about the novel blatantly expose the importance of the novel. A ban of 250 years is perhaps one of the greatest compliments a writer or a novel may get. The brilliant TV advert dy Devilfish for the  BBC  dramatisation concludes: “A novel so dangerous it was arrested”.  It makes the novel’s history sound positively Hollywood-like. Of course, it is very hard  not to focus on this, especially as it highlights to us now how important fiction can be. It is hard to imagine a book being arrested in our time. However, it makes a great marketing tool, as it makes the novel stand out among all the lost masterpieces of the past century. Grossman’s personal tragedy was the arrest of the novel, ironically it also became his greatest selling point.

Many works were banned by Soviet censorship, Grossman’s however is the only known one to be arrested. This fact kept being brought up at the little Grossman festival that the BBC organised in Oxford, and everyone was puzzled by why Grossman submitted the manuscript to the publishers at Znamia. Many suggested that he was naive or that perhaps it was the early days of the Thaw that made him believe it would be published. However, one of the more recent research into the subject by a Russian scholar Yury Bit-Yyunan shows that Grossman was very far from naive. He hid copies of the draft with people who had nothing to do with literature and broke off all ties with them, knowing that he might lead the authorities back to them and the novel would disappear forever. This may explain the profound difference of Everything Flows to Life and Fate, Grossman knew that his novel was alive and did not have to repeat any of the material mentioned in it.

So, it is perhaps Grossman’s cunning way of hiding the novel for posterity that needs to be brought forward… But there is something even more incredible than all of that. It is the courage and the daring of Grossman in submitting the manuscript at all that is significant. Grossman was aware of the bomb that he was giving to Znamia and although he cut pieces of the novel, it was still a damning piece of work and by submitting it to the magazine he managed to get the greatest readership that he could during his lifetime. It is almost as if Grossman lulled the authorities into a sense of security by first producing the relatively “Soviet” For a Just Cause and publishing the safe parts of Life and Fate before submitting the whole manuscript. He put himself in great danger by doing so and perhaps it was a reckless move on his part, but at the same time he must have felt it to be his duty.

His letter to Khrushchev begging for the release of the manuscript shows how strongly Grossman felt about the truth of his novel, and how much it pained him that it was arrested. However, it could not have been a surprise to him that it would at least be banned. Grossman would fight for his novel, but not by keeping it secret – he didn’t write “for the drawer” – he was ready to confront the authorities face on and prepared for the consequences, and for that he should be admired. The fact that BBC are dramatising the novel and that it has been #1 on the Amazon “Movers and Shakers” list and is now #2 on Bestseller list and #3 on the “Most Wished For” list, is a triumph beyond any. I can’t help but feel incredible joy on Grossman’s behalf, finally he gets the recognition he deserves. His daring actions in submitting the manuscript, having it arrested and having saved copies, have all allowed for the novel to become the best seller it is now.