Life & Culture

Book review: The People Immortal - A final war novel from a Russian master

A gripping chronicle of Soviet life in wartime and an indispensable companion piece to the author's other works


The People Immortal
by Vasily Grossman
MacLehose Press £25

Vasily Grossman was one of the great war novelists of the 20th century. He spent more than 1,000 days reporting on the Eastern Front, from Stalingrad and the Battle of Kursk to the Battle of Berlin.

The People Immortal, the first Soviet novel about the Second World War, is set during the catastrophic defeats of its first months. It was serialised in the Red Army newspaper Red Star in 19 consecutive daily issues in July and August 1942.

It has now been translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, who produced the brilliant translations of Life and Fate, The Road and Stalingrad, which established Grossman’s reputation as one of the greatest writers of our time.Like these other works, The People Immortal features a teeming cast of soldiers, political commissars and civilians, living during the German invasion of 1941.

Bogariov is a Battalion Commissar, previously a professor in the Faculty of Marxism in Moscow; Lionya, only 11, is staying with his grandmother, Maria Timofeyevna, in a small village, which is being abandoned before the Germans arrive; Kotenko, lives in the same village, a bitterly anti-Soviet peasant who hopes the Germans will rescue him from the Communists.

Everywhere people are fleeing for their lives. The unlucky ones, an elderly lawyer, a beautiful young refugee, appear for a moment and are then killed. Grossman’s descriptions are unsparing. The old lawyer lies dead, “the whole upper half of his body was deformed — his skull smashed and his ribcage shattered”. Next to him lies a copy of Chronicles by Tacitus.

This is Grossman’s genius. In a few lines he can evoke a whole life. Maria Timofeyevna is getting ready to leave her home.

She had known the village street all her life. “Once she had been driven down it to be married. She had walked the length of it behind the coffins of her father, her mother and her husband. And tomorrow … she would be leaving the home she had looked after for 50 years.”

Again and again, Grossman compares such domesticity with the brutality of the Nazi invasion.

“This was a war like no other; the enemy was riding roughshod over the whole life of the nation, smashing crosses in cemeteries where mothers and fathers were buried, burning children’s books, wrecking orchards where grandfathers had planted black cherry and Antonovka apple trees, stepping on the throats of old women who liked to tell their grandchildren the tale of the cock with a golden comb, ripping linen shifts from the bodies of breastfeeding mothers…”

The People Immortal is shorter than Grossman’s more famous novels and not as dark and complex. There is less about the Holocaust and nothing about antisemitism under Stalin.

All the same it is Grossman’s last heroic novel about the Russian people and the Soviet Union at war.

His account of the German invasion of a Soviet village is extraordinary, the best chapter in the novel.

The book is barely 200 pages but this new edition is full of fascinating footnotes and biographical and historical information, explaining how much of the novel was previously unpublished and why.

It is an indispensable companion piece to his other works, casting a new light on the complexities of Grossman’s career. But, above all, it reminds us of the horrors of war and why Grossman was one of the greatest chroniclers of the Second World War in all its inhumanity.

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