Grossman trained to be a chemical engineer, but found his calling as a writer in the 1930s, reporting how workers were faring during the first two Five-Year Plans. Almost immediately he had to cope with censors who banned several of his short stories, but Maxim Gorky, the famous writer who briefly became a key arbiter of taste in the early ’30s, took a liking to Grossman and his work. Grossman managed to avoid arrest during Stalin’s purges, even after his wife, Olga, was seized in 1938 but then released. By the end of the ’30s he had fewer illusions about Stalinism and, as a result, was writing “for the desk drawer.” Meanwhile, however, his novel “Stepan Kolchugin” appeared in installments in 1939-40 and was wildly popular. By the end of a decade marred by collectivization and terror, Grossman, remembered a close friend, seemed a happy man: “He had literary success … interesting and intelligent friends, and a beautiful wife.”
The war further elevated Grossman’s reputation. Reporting from the front for three years, including the blood bath at Stalingrad, he conveyed the horrors of war as well as the incredible resilience of Russian soldiers and civilians. His 1942 novel, “The People Immortal,” depicting a people’s war rather than one whose main hero was Stalin, inspired the troops and was republished several times. But his wartime notebooks, containing material he would later use in novels like “Life and Fate,” portrayed chaos, incompetence and devastating defeats for which Stalin’s draconian, reckless leadership was largely responsible.
In the fall of 1941 Grossman wrote to Olga, “I’ve become a different person.” A year later he wrote from Stalingrad, “I’ve never felt so deeply as I do now.” In the midst of war, he jousted with editors of the military newspaper Red Star, who wanted to reshape his reporting from the front. Yet fame and fortune continued to tempt him. When the 1942 Stalin Prize went to Ilya Ehrenburg’s novel “The Fall of Paris,” rather than to “The People Immortal,” Grossman confessed he was “very upset and offended,” especially since Stalin himself was said to have vetoed Grossman’s candidacy. When Grossman’s dear friend Semyon Lipkin later warned him there was “no hope” that “Life and Fate” would be published, Grossman insisted on submitting it anyway — to a hard-line Communist editor, no less.
As told by Popoff, the stories behind Grossman’s stories, particularly of censors’ efforts to alter and limit them, are fascinating. Censors wanted to delete a scene of a Soviet battery commander dying in a pool of black blood (too gruesome, they said; also, the commander was Jewish) from an article about the Battle of Kursk, the war’s biggest tank battle. Grossman’s editor, who managed to save the description, was soon fired. Grossman’s “Ukraine Without Jews,” depicting what was left after Nazi extermination, was suppressed entirely. “The Hell of Treblinka,” about the death factory Grossman entered just after it was liberated, made it into print unchanged. But “The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry” was banned. It was prepared by Grossman and Ehrenburg along with members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, who were mobilized in 1942 to support the Soviet war effort but were charged and executed after the war as “spies.”