Vasily Grossman died just over 50 years ago, on 14 September 1964. I returned recently from a conference in Moscow in commemoration of this anniversary – the first Grossman conference ever held in Russia. It is twenty-five years now since Life and Fate was first published in the Soviet Union, but Grossman’s reputation in the West remains far higher than his reputation in his own country. Many in the West see Grossman as the greatest Russian novelist of the twentieth century; few Russians would make such a claim. Western readers admire his analysis of the parallels between Nazism and Stalinism; many Russians still see such thoughts as almost blasphemous.  Russian nationalists are still more enraged by Grossman’s discussion in his short novel Everything Flows of what he calls ‘the Russian slave soul’.

Its title and length give Life and Fate a somewhat nineteenth-century air, and Grossman is not a writer who sets out to dazzle the reader with stylistic innovations.  Perhaps for these reasons, or perhaps simply because Grossman was never – like Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn – caught up in international political controversy, literary critics have been slow to give him his due. In the Anglophone world, it has been a historian, Antony Beevor, who has done most to bring him to the attention of readers.  And in this respect, at least, things seem similar in Russia; the best talks at the Moscow conference were those given by historians.

Oleg Budnitsky (from Moscow), spoke about Grossman’s wartime notebooks.  Historians, he said, are usually trained to make as much use as possible of official documents. Soviet documents, however, can be misleading. Documents relating to medals awarded for bravery often mention the number of Germans killed by an individual Soviet soldier; if one adds together the numbers from all these documents, one arrives at a total far higher than the number of soldiers in the entire German army…  Budnitsky sees Grossman’s notebooks as an important historical resource, and he hopes to bring out a new, and more complete Russian text of them within the next 2-3 years.

Jürgen Zarusky (from Munich) spoke interestingly about For a Just Cause, the first of Grossman’s two long novels centered on the battle of Stalingrad, saying that this and Life and Fate should be considered as two halves of a dilogy. The fact that Grossman managed to publish For a Just Cause in the Soviet Union has – at least in the eyes of Western readers – counted against it. The only real difference between the two novels – Zarusky argued convincingly – is that in the earlier novel Grossman had to ‘encode’ certain themes. Official Soviet antisemitism made it impossible, in the last five years of Stalin’s life, to mention the Shoah overtly. Grossman, however, has one of his Russian heroes walk into the centre of Kiev – just before the city falls to the Nazis – along precisely the route that the Jews, soon afterwards, would be forced to follow on their way to Babi Yar, the ravine that was the site of one of the worst of the Nazi massacres. Each street of this route is named.

One of the conference’s several sponsors was the human rights organization Memorial. Irina Sherbakova, the educational director of Memorial, pointed out that, other writers, when begging the authorities to allow their work to be published, often made self-centered statements along the lines of ‘You are destroying me as a writer’; Grossman’s emphasis, however, was different. In his letter to Khrushchev after the confiscation of Life and Fate he wrote, ‘Give my book to the reader!’ He genuinely believed that the collective historical memory embodied in the novel could help people make sense of their lives.

Grateful though I am to all these historians, I would have liked to hear more about the artistry of Grossman’s very last works, Everything Flows and the short stories he wrote in the three years before his death. I was pleased therefore when Irina Sherbakova, talking to me during a coffee break, mentioned the story ‘Mama’. This is based on the true story of an orphaned girl who was adopted in the mid-1930s by Nikolay Yezhov and his wife. Yezhov was the head of the NKVD between 1936 and 1938, at the height of the Great Terror; Russians often refer to this period as the Yezhovshchina. All the most prominent Soviet politicians of the time used to visit the Yezhov household. These figures, including Stalin himself, appear in ‘Mama’, but the reader sees them only through the eyes of the orphaned girl, or of her good-natured but politically ignorant peasant nanny. Grossman leads us into the darkest of worlds, but with compassion and from a perspective of peculiar innocence – the nanny is described as the only person in the apartment ‘with calm eyes’.

‘Mama’ is one of Grossman’s most laconic and perfectly written works. What Sherbakova emphasized, however, was the almost prophetic intuition Grossman had shown by homing in on the first chapters of a life story so painfully emblematic of Russia today. Natalya Khayutina (the real name of Yezhov’s adoptive daughter, who is still alive and living in the region of Kolyma, in the far north east) has remained fiercely loyal to a father she remembers as kind and indulgent. She has petitioned several times, so far unsuccessfully, for his official ‘rehabilitation’. The adoptive daughter of Stalin’s chief executioner, she sees herself as the daughter of one of Stalin’s victims – and there is, of course, truth in her view. Yezhov, like most high-ranking NKVD officers, was eventually executed himself.

Many, many Russians, if to a less extreme degree than Natalya Khayutina, can be considered the children of both victims and executioners. We should not be surprised that it is proving difficult for the country to come to terms with its recent past.

Robert & Elizabeth Chandler’s translation of ‘Mama’, along with eleven other of Grossman’s short stories, his 1944 article ‘The Hell of Treblinka’ and much biographical information, is included in The Road (MacLehose Press, 2011).

You can buy Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler, through our book partner Foyles.

For more information about Vasily Grossman, please see his author page at Random House.