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.

“Life and Fate” on TV or An Attempt at a Review

So… Last week I was in Tallinn and was able to follow the launch of the new TV series based on Grossman’s Life and Fate. I had heard previously that this was happening, and was worried already then. I love the book and it is a tough one to dramatise, just because of its size and the amount of characters, to mention just one obvious difficulty. It is that common thing of: “What did you think of the film?” “Oh I prefer the book…” So I was wondering what would happen. One serious flaw of this review is that I haven’t finished watching the series yet, so can only comment up to the last few episodes.

As I spent the last four years writing my PhD on the novel and know it pretty well by now, everyone says that it is natural that I won’t like the film because, inevitably, it won’t be like the novel. I am too biased to have an honest opinion of it. I will admit that the book is precious to me and any rendering of it is always something that I anticipate with some dread. However, I was equally ready to find a good film of the book so that I could share its treasures with people more easily (rather than suggesting they read the 700 page epic or forcing them to listen me reading passages from the book, not the best experience). But, as you can tell, I was disappointed with the series. Why?

I concede that some revision is necessary to bring a book to the screen, but some of the rewriting of the events and the dialogue removed the series too far from the book. It seems that the writer/director fuses For a Just Cause with Life and Fate, which I think is not a bad idea, but the way that it is done has re-arranged the events quite substantially. (I am talking here of Tolya, who is DEAD in Life and Fate, but has a very different role in the film – I’m trying to not give too much away here if you should want to see it.)

Also, I know that the book is about the battle of Stalingrad, but it seems to me that the filmmakers focused exclusively on war and battles. What makes Grossman’s novel amazing (and his wartime articles), is the fact that he goes beyond the war and depicts people, personalities and relationships. He sees the man in war, his fears, his hopes, his vulnerabilities. In the film, it is the fighting itself that takes center stage. There is blood, explosions, dirt and a great amount of vodka. In order to make a moment meaningful the director just puts some loud violin over it and we’re supposed to feel touched. Of course, it is a film and Grossman’s words need to be represented audiovisually, but the subtlety of human relations is lost in the film. I suppose this could be proof of the power of words, that perhaps they can touch us more than imagery. But it also makes me wonder whether it is an attempt at pacifying the messages in the novel, removing the very reasons for which it was arrested in 1961. Is that really freedom for the novel in the 21st Century Russia?

Another very typical problem with dramatisations is the choice of actors for characters. Often we get disappointed because they never look like what we imagine them to be like. Or the actors replace our personal idea of the character completely, who can think of Mr. Darcy without imagining Colin Firth? I can’t, and to be honest, I don’t want to. As expected, I do not agree with some of the choices of actors for this film. But one thing I really liked was the choice of Sergey Makovetsky as Shtrum. This is because he looks remarkably like Grossman, and considering Shtrum was based on Grossman, this was a good choice indeed. It points to the relationship between the author and the novel, without making an obvious statement.

Shtrum and Marya Ivanovna in the film

Grossman at Stalingrad


Krymov I felt didn’t look like what I imagined him in the book (especially because he reminded me of a serious and slightly slimmer version of Dara O’Briain), but I wasn’t too disappointed with that, it is to be expected.



I always imagined Krymov to be dark haired and severe looking, a bit more like the director’s choice for Novikov, played by Evgenii Dyatlov.


This was perhaps the choice that I was least pleased with. To me, Novikov is a bit of a softer character than the man above, but that is my impression. Otherwise, the choices of women was generally very good. Zhenya, played by Polina Agureeva, and Lyudmila, played by Lika Nifontova, were both good choices I think, and good actresses.





Overall, I got bored watching the film, which just seems unbelievable considering how much I love the book. I was touched by the scene of Lyudmila at Tolya’s grave, but otherwise felt that I never came close to the characters. I just couldn’t feel that I understood or cared for them. There is also a narrator in the film, reading passages from the novel, but even his voice sounds dull and tired. Considering he is narrating war, one can understand that the voice has to be sombre to an extent, but what makes Grossman’s novel so amazing is the light that permeates the whole narrative. In the end human spirit, freedom, love and an inner light, all survive and that is the ultimate message. This seems to me to be missing from the film completely. I may change my mind as I finish watching it, but having seen as far as Film 4 Episode 2 and having only four episodes left, I have little hope….

P.S. So far, there is no depiction of camps and thus Ikonnikov’s discussions of Good and Evil, so there you go.

Before Life and Fate

Before Life and Fate came For a Just Cause. I was recently re-reading the novel again and what I really enjoyed was the description of life in Stalingrad just at the start of war. The novel starts with a meeting in Salzburg between Hitler and Mussolini, moves onto the conscription of Vavilov and only then do we meet the whole Shaposhnikov family. In this way the narrative moves from the events in the world to the effects on the individuals. And it is the relationships between the characters and the history that surrounds them that Grossman depicts so well. After the recent focus on Life and Fate and all the horror of war that it depicts, I have really enjoyed going back to the very beginning. I hope people will be able to read the novel in English soon.Until then, I thought I would summarise the plot of the novel, for those interested in the very beginning.

After introducing the events as they unravel at the hands of people in power, Grossman narrates the impact that this has on normal people. Firstly we are introduced to Vavilov who is drafted and then the Shaposhnikov family, who gather together to say goodbye to Tolia who is on his way to the front. Vavilov is one of the last men in the village to be recruited and was therefore looked down upon, but now the villagers all look at him with compassion and sorrow. He spends his last night chopping wood, hoping to provide all he can for his wife and two children. Vavilov later days in battle in the Stalingrad train station. In Stalingrad, the Shaposhnikov’s gather for what may be their last meeting. This is where the reader is introduced to all the major characters that are at the centre of the two novels (Alexandra Vladimirovna, Marusya, Zhenia, Serezha, Vera, Spiridonov, Mostovskoy, Andreev and Sofya Levinton). Alexandra Vladimirovna is the head of the family (her husband died years ago), she is a chemist and mother of Marusya, Liudmila and Zhenia, as well as her son Dmitrii. Dmitrii is the father of Serzha. After being arrested he has now disappeared in a camp and it is assumed that he is dead. It is during this meeting that Tolia inspires Serezha to join the army, and the next day he is recruited. Alexandra Vladimirovna is devastated, as Serezha is only 17 and has lived with her throughout his childhood (his mother lives in another city and dies while Serezha is at the front). The reader finds out more about Serezha in Life and Fate.

Alexandra Vladimirovna and Sofya Osipovna Levinton are old friends. Sofya Osipovna is head of a surgical department and is depicted as a large woman of whom not only her department, but other doctors are scared of. Despite this, she is also sensitive to the horror around her and often bursts out in tears when describing the young soldiers she has to treat. She works all day and night and rarely sleeps. She and Alexandra Vladimirovna are separated during an air raid in a shelter, after which she is caught by Nazi soldiers together with Mostovskoy.

Marusya is Alexandra Vladimirovna’s middle daughter and is married to the StalGRES power plant engineer Spiridonov. They have the daughter Vera, who works for the military hospital in Stalingrad (they all live with Alexandra Vladimirovna). Marusya is supportive of the Communist regime and reprimands Zhenia for making art that doesn’t support the communist cause. However, Marusya is also shown to be trapped between the Party bureaucracy and her own felings and common sense. She is sent to an orphanage to reprimand the manager for not firing a worker, who has stolen shoes for her son. During the visit she sees a traumatised boy who refuses to speak.  Only one of the workers has been able to get the boy to speak and eat, and it turns out this is the same woman whom Marusya wants to see fired. In the end Marusya is highly confused and is pitied by the very person she had to reprimand. When the battlefront moves to Stalingrad Marusya follows the orphanage on its evacuation, and dies when crossing the Volga.

Spiridonov stays in Stalingrad as he has to keep the StalGRES power plant running. His daughter Vera stays with him. She falls in love with one of her patients, Viktorov, who leaves the hospital soon after his recovery. Vera is another hero of the battle. When the hospital catches fire during one of air raids and she finds the strength to go into the burning hospital and save the soldiers. She is severely injured and is in danger of losing her sight. However, she recovers and stays with her father at StalGRES in Stalingrad. In a touching scene she tells her father that she is pregnant, to which he is silent at first, and then puts his arm around the skinny shoulders of his daughter and says: “Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to the little one”.

Zhenia is the youngest daughter and has moved back to her mother’s after leaving her husband Krymov. Nobody in her family understands why she left a man of such a good standing and see her as being whimsical and the black sheep of the family. Zhenia is greatly admired by men and is seen as the beauty of the family. She is also engaged in a romantic relationship with Colonel Novikov, whom she met whilst studying at the Arts Academy. Novikov and Zhenia’s romance is very touching. Years pass since their first meeting and Novikov accidentally sees Zhenia on a train and ends up travelling for miles in the wrong direction, only to spend time with her. He also visits the Shaposhnikov flat when the army is moving through Stalingrad, and awakens everyone in the middle of the night. This is the only meeting between the lovers in For a Just Cause, however, it consolidates their relationship for the future. Novikov has always admired and been in love with Zhenia, so his devotion to her is something that sustains him during the warZhenia on the other hand has a complex relationship to both Novikov, whom she is undoubtedly in love with, and  also spends a lot of time thinking about Krymov, and pondering their failed marriage.

There are a few parallels between Novikov and Krymov. Although they are very different characters, there is some similarity in their thought processes. Both ponder their personal/romantic life as much as the war or communism. Both have a brother that they look up to as someone who has succeeded with their lives, especially in terms of having a family. And obviously, both are in love with Zhenia. Novikov’s brother is depicted separately from Novikov in the book. He works in a mine in one of those villages that sprung up all around the Soviet Union only to provide a space for the  industry. This village is depicted as being part of the war effort and is something that is reinforced by Novikov’s complete devotion to work. Both brothers sacrifice their lives to the war (as do other characters). Colonel Novikov is sent to Moscow to await further instructions. He is also the one who takes a letter to Shtrum from the Shaposhnikov’s, which turns out to be the letter that his mother wrote to him. This letter is passed from person to person until it reaches Shtrum. In Moscow, Novikov is worried that he is neglected by the army, but is eventually sent to the front, which is one of the happiest moments of his life. The same happiness can be detected in Krymov when he is in battle and when he returns to Stalingrad at the end of the novel.

Liudmila Nikolaevna is the oldest daughter of the Shaposhnikov family, and is depicted as more of a mother to Marusya and Zhenia than a sister. She met Abarchuk at university where he was deeply involved in revolutionary and Party matters and thought that she was too bourgeois. After they married and had a son Tolia, Abarchuk left them as he believed that the Party mattered more than Liudmila and his son. Grossman depicts Abarchuk as the most staunch Communist, and so the Shaposhnikov family is even more surprised when he is arrested as an enemy of the people in 1937. At the same university Liudmila meets Viktor Shtrum, whom Abarchuk attempts to have expelled from the university. Liudmila and Viktor marry and have a daughter Nadia, who is a little bit spoilt but a typical 15 year-old. In For a Just Cause the family has already evacuated to Kazan from Moscow. At the beginning of the novel Tolia is only just travelling to the front, while at the end of the novel we see him dying in a heroic battle just outside Stalingrad. He is depicted as a shy young man, however he leads his troop to the outskirts of Stalingrad where the German Army doesn’t expect to see the Russian troops. It is in this battle that he manages a surprise assault on the German forces and is then fatally injured. Throughout the novel Liudmila ponders the fate of her son and it is only the reader that knows what is happening to him.

Although Shtrum is one of the major characters in Life and Fate, he is less present in For a Just Cause. He is summoned to his academy in Moscow for a meeting to discuss whether it is possible to get the metal that he needs for his experiment. During his time in Moscow Shtrum returns to his flat to see it covered in dust and abandoned. Here he spends a lot of time with his neighbour Nina, towards whom he develops some romantic feelings, however, this doesn’t develop into a relationship. Shtrum then goes to his dacha (summer-house) where he reads the letter from his mother, something that the reader is not privy to until Life and Fate. The story of Shtrum ends with his return to Kazan from Chelyabinsk, where he met Krymov’s brother, an engineer at the steel plant that Shtrum was visiting. In Kazan Liudmila and Shtrum are visited by Alexandra Vladimirovna who has escaped Stalingrad at the start of the battle. It is from here that Life and Fate picks up.

This has been a lengthy but not at all exhaustive summary of the main characters and their fates in Za pravoe delo. I imagine it may make some boring reading, however I shall return to the many aspects of the novel in the future. There are so many reasons that this novel is great (and some that make it hard-going) that I really would like to share all the various facets of it. What I think I like most about the novel is that there is a sense of unease or inconsistency (possibly because I know the history of the novel) but there is something that makes it indefinable that I absolutely love and will return to in later posts.

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.