Vassily Grossman (1905 – 1964) has become well-known in the last twenty years – above all for his novel LIFE AND FATE. This has often been described as a Soviet (or anti-Soviet) WAR AND PEACE. Most readers, however, do not realize that it is only the second half of a dilogy. The first half, originally titled STALINGRAD but published in 1952 under the title FOR A JUST CAUSE, has received surprisingly little attention. Scholars and critics seem to have assumed that, since it was first published in Stalin’s lifetime, it can only be considered empty propaganda.
In reality, there is little difference between the two novels. The chapters in the earlier novel about the Shaposhnikov family are as tender, and sometimes humorous, as in the later novel. The chapters devoted to the long retreats of 1941 and the first half of 1942 are perhaps still more vivid than the battle scenes in the later novel. And there is no real ideological difference between the two novels. It is simply that in STALINGRAD, Grossman often has to write in code, whereas in LIFE AND FATE he is shockingly direct. Getting STALINGRAD into print was in itself a terrible battle. After spending around 6 years writing the novel, Grossman spent well over three years struggling with his editors. Sometimes he compromised; sometimes he did not. Research into archival variants (there are no less than twelve complete texts!) show that the first versions of STALINGRAD were still closer in spirit to LIFE AND FATE. The earliest complete typescript was in fact extraordinarily outspoken – still more daring for its time than LIFE AND FATE ten years later.
Comparing all these variants is a difficult and time-consuming business. This is a unique opportunity to hear Yury Bit-Yunan talk about his ongoing work.
Yury Bit-Yunan lives in Moscow and teaches at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU). He is the co-author of three books about the life and work of Vasily Grossman. He writes, “As a young student, I intended to become a journalist, but in my third year at university I realised that I was more interested in literature. Among my favourite writers at the time were Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Platonov, Dombrovsky and Grossman. As a postgraduate I decided to focus on Grossman. There was already a large group of prominent scholars working on Platonov and I was attracted by what I saw as the comprehensiveness of Grossman’s work. And his ideas were clear to me, and consonant with my mindset.” Yury’s other main interest is the English language. He also works, privately, as a language teacher.