Part of illustration by Katrin Stenmark.

Essays Vasily Grossman and Hrachya Kochar

There is a great deal that we do not yet know about Vasily Grossman’s life. The widely held belief that Grossman lived out his last years in poverty and isolation is probably mistaken.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Issue 1, 2013, pp38-39
Published on on May 10, 2013

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There is a great deal that we do not yet know about Vasily Grossman’s life. The widely held belief that Grossman lived out his last years in poverty and isolation is probably mistaken.

In 1986, a Russian-language publishing house in the United States brought out the first edition of Semyon Lipkin’s memoir, Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad. Lipkin wrote that in 1961  — after the “arrest” of Life and Fate — a translator from Armenian asked him to find her someone who could edit her own word-for-word translation of The Children of the Large House, a war novel by Hrachya Kochar. And Lipkin naturally recommended his close friend, Vasily Grossman.

Kochar’s daughter, however, tells this story differently. According to her, “Vasily Grossman arrived in Yerevan in autumn 1959. This was a difficult time for the writer, after the arrest of Life and Fate. […] He was both depressed and in financial difficulties. My father had been longing to have The Children of the Large House translated into Russian — and he wanted this to be done by Grossman, whom he worshipped. Vardkes Tevekelyan, the chairman of the Literary Fund, had introduced my father to Grossman.”

The contradictions between these two accounts are glaring. Lipkin makes out that it was thanks to his mediation that Grossman was able to travel to Armenia and earn money there; according to Lipkin, it was only when Grossman was already in Armenia that he first met Kochar. Mary Kochar, however, states that the two writers were brought together by the chairman of the Armenian section of the Literary Fund, a powerful organization that decided almost all the financial matters of the Armenian section of the Soviet Writers’ Union. A commission from the Literary Fund would have been very important; there would certainly have been no need for Lipkin’s mediation.

Mary Kochar does, of course, get the date wrong. It was in February 1961 that Life and Fate was arrested, and in autumn of 1961, not 1959, that Grossman travelled to Armenia. Mistakes of this nature, however, are common enough in memoirs, and this particular mistake in no way invalidates the rest of her account.

It goes without saying that Lipkin’s and Kochar’s accounts cannot both be accurate. It is, however, possible that both are inaccurate, that the truth is somewhat different from either of these versions.

Since the mid-1950s Grossman had been an acknowledged master. His articles about the war were being republished again and again, and the first of his two Stalingrad novels, For a Just Cause, was seen as a classic. Few people knew about the “arrest” of Life and Fate, and Grossman’s public reputation remained intact. He could, in principle, have begun again. He could have written another novel like For a Just Cause. He could have produced a fully revised and self-censored version of Life and Fate. This, admittedly, would no longer have been Life and Fate — but no one was preventing him from following this course.

It is natural to assume that Grossman took on this “translation” because he needed the money. Lipkin writes, “I thought it would be good for Grossman to go to Armenia, and he needed the money badly.” Anna Berzer (the editor from Novy Mir who, in 1990, published another memoir of Grossman, titled Goodbye) says much the same: “He travelled to Armenia […] because of need and unhappiness.” And Grossman himself wrote to his wife in December 1961, “I am glad that I have managed to extricate myself from material need without getting into debt, without borrowing money from my well-wishers.”

All these statements, however, are puzzling. It is hard to conceive how, in 1961, Grossman can have been in need of money. In 1960 he had received from the journal Znamya an advance against the publication of Life and Fate. We know, from a letter sent to Grossman by the chief secretary of Znamya, that this advance totaled 16,587 rubles and that it was irrevocable. In 1960, this was a large sum.

In 1960 Grossman also published several extracts from Life and Fate in other Soviet periodicals. Given Grossman’s fame as a war novelist, these publications must have been well paid.

And Grossman must have earned other large sums. His articles written as a war correspondent had been republished in 1958, and For a Just Cause had been republished in 1959. And his pre-war novel, Stepan Kol’chugin, had been republished twice, in 1959 and in 1960. During the 1940s and 1950s authors received an average payment of 3000 rubles for each avtorsky list (a print unit of 40,000 letters, spaces and punctuation marks — still the standard Russian system for calculating payments to authors). In view of his eminence, Grossman would almost certainly have been paid more than this average rate. Authors were, admittedly, paid less for work that had been published already, but Grossman would still have received a minimum of 1500—1800 rubles for each print unit. His war journalism constituted thirty of these units, For a Just Cause forty-six, and Stepan Kolchugin over forty-four. Grossman would, therefore, appear to have earned well over 180,000 rubles during the years 1958—60. This was at a time when an average salary was 650 rubles a month and a woman’s coat with a fur collar cost 700 rubles.

Writers’ income during these years was often extraordinarily high; there were dramatists earning more than a million rubles a year. The need for a progressive income tax on writers was, in fact, a frequent topic of discussion in the Communist Party Central Committee. There was, however, no disagreement about the fact that a writer was a representative of the elite — and so was entitled to earn large sums. It is hard to imagine that Grossman, a member of the Writer’s Union since 1937, was living in poverty. All this, however, only raises more questions; it does not help us to understand why Grossman should have taken on a task that, for a writer of his standing, would have been seen as something of a humiliation. It is possible that a clue lies in Anna Berzer’s words about Grossman accepting this commission because of “need and unhappiness”. Berzer’s memoir is written with restraint and she does not discuss Grossman’s personal life, but she would certainly have known that his marriage was close to a complete breakdown. He may simply have been glad of a chance to get away from Moscow.

There are further complications to the story of Grossman’s work as a “translator”. The Children of the Large House was written in two stages. The first edition was published in Armenian in 1952. This was followed by the publication in 1954, in Armenia, of a Russian translation by Arus’ Tadeosyan; this translation was republished in 1955. Tadeosyan’s translation was not perfect, but it was good enough for its purpose. Some passages of the original were omitted and, by the standards of the time, the print run was small (5000 copies); it seems likely that the literary authorities simply considered it important that the book be published in Russian — the language of the entire Soviet Union — and not only in the language of one of the constituent republics. How many people read the book was of lesser concern.

In 1955 an expanded and re-edited version of Tadeosyan’s translation was published by a major Moscow publishing house, Sovetsky Pisatel’; this time the print run was 15,000 copies. And in 1956 this new version was republished by the no less important military publishing house, Voenizdat. We do not know the print run, because of a gap in the records, but it is sure to have been at least 15,000 copies. Kochar, however, decided at some point to continue to work on his book. In 1959 he published what we now look on as the second part of his novel. This, of course, needed to be translated — and the obvious choice for this task was Tadeosyan. She was qualified and experienced; she specialized in long epics and two of the most prestigious Moscow publishing houses evidently considered her work acceptable. To commission a translation from anyone else would have been a blow both to her reputation and to her income. And as far as the Armenian section of the Writers’ Union was concerned, commissioning a translation from so important a figure as Grossman would have entailed considerable costs. They would have had to pay him a high fee; they would have had to pay his travel and living expenses; and they would have had to arrange for him to visit Armenia’s main sites of cultural interest. He would have been an expensive guest.

It is also surprising that it was thought necessary to ask Grossman to translate not only the second half of the novel but also the first half, which had already been translated. It would have been cheaper, and less insulting to Tadeosyan, to commission Grossman to translate only the second half. And translations by more than one person were, at this time, common enough.

The “arrest” of the manuscript of Life and Fate was a unique event. Usually, the authorities either just censored work they considered dangerous or else arrested the writer himself. The authorities’ treatment of Grossman, however, was entirely logical. Their main concern was to make it absolutely impossible for the novel to be published abroad. In 1956, after all, Pasternak had sent Doctor Zhivago to two Soviet literary journals. After they had refused it, Pasternak had sent the novel abroad. In 1957, it had been published in Milan — and in 1958 Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel Prize. Grossman’s novel had also been refused by a Soviet literary journal. The authorities had good reason to fear that this might lead to equally catastrophic consequences.

And so the authorities not only told Grossman that his novel was ideologically harmful and therefore unpublishable; they also reminded him that it was his duty to prevent it from being published abroad. This was why they confiscated his manuscripts, and their failure to find every copy is of only secondary importance. What mattered is that Grossman signed a declaration, after his apartment had been searched, to the effect that he possessed no more copies. This meant that any publication of any extract from Life and Fate in an émigré journal would have been a criminal offence — proof that Grossman had misled the KGB. The Soviet authorities had not only locked the book up; they had also turned it into a weapon they could use against its author. No part of it could be published without endangering Grossman and his family.

This was the stick — or, as we Russians say, the whip. What of the carrot — or the gingerbread, its Russian equivalent? This was, after all the Khrushchev era. Recent political liberalization meant that it seemed appropriate to provide Grossman with some kind of compensation for his loss, at least at a material level. And so it was decided to send Grossman to Armenia. He would meet new people and have the chance to visit a new country. He would earn good money. Apart from Life and Fate being under lock and key, everything would be all right for him . . . It seems then that Mary Kochar’s version of the story is more accurate than Semyon Lipkin’s: if Grossman’s commission was organized by the Central Committee, then the person who introduced Grossman to Kochar would have been not Lipkin but Tevekelyan, the chairman of the Armenian Literary Fund.

Grossman’s involvement would also have brought benefits both to Kochar and to the Armenian section of the Writers’ Union. A “translation” by a writer of Grossman’s stature would have greatly enhanced the novel’s status. It would, above all, have given the novel a real chance of winning the most important Soviet literary prize of the time — the Lenin Prize, which had recently been resurrected in place of the now defunct Stalin Prize.

On returning from his successful and well-paid trip to Armenia, Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev, asking for Life and Fate to be returned to him. The Kremlin’s response was to summon Grossman to a meeting with Mikhail Suslov, the member of the Central Committee responsible for matters of ideology. Suslov addressed Grossman as “comrade” and treated him with respect, but he refused to return his novel. It was, he said, a provocative novel, and its publication would bring terrible consequences, for which Grossman would not be forgiven.

The Russian version of The Children of the Large House, credited to Vasily Grossman and Asmik Taronyan (the translator of the literal version from which Grossman worked), was published in Yerevan in 1962. It was republished in Moscow in 1966 and 1971. It then appears to have been forgotten until 1989, when it was republished in a print run of 200,000 copies. And in 1989 — in constrast to earlier years — a large print run truly was an indication of public interest. This, of course, was a consequence of the first Soviet publication, in 1988, of Life and Fate. Grossman’s involvement did indeed — at least in the short term — win Kochar’s novel a huge number of readers. ≈


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