Vasily Grossman: The People Immortal, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, New York Review Books Classics, 2022, 352 pages.

 “He had achieved nothing. He would leave behind him no books, no paintings, no discoveries. He had created no school of thought, political party, or disciples. Why had life been so hard? He had not preached, he had not taught; he had remained what he had been since birth – a human being.”

“let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere.

Anton Chekhov

“In those difficult days, people wanted only the truth, however difficult and cheerless it might be. And Bogariov told them this truth.” 

Vasily Grossman

A work not only of considerable literary significance but also an important historical document. As a new world war is brewing in Ukraine, and the vilest nationalism, xenophobia and historical lies are being promoted by the ruling classes everywhere, works like this will help reconnect the generations that have to wage the revolutionary battles of today with the socialist traditions of 1917.

—Clara Weiss, World Socialist Website

“There are also other aspects of Grossman’s work that are becoming important today. During the last 20 years, the Anglophone world has gradually recognised that the second world war was fought between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany and that the Western allies played a secondary role in it. There are many, many reasons why Grossman seems more relevant today than when I was first translating him over 40 years ago.”

Robert Chandler

In September 2022, The Immortal People, the Soviet author Vasily Grossman’s first of three superb novels chronicling the Second World War, was published with a new English translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler. The recent re-publication of the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s book reflects a renewed surge of interest in his books. Grossman has a journalist’s eye for detail coupled with a novelist’s empathy. His work has been compared to that of Erich Remarque and Stephen Crane.

Perhaps the most significant thing about this extraordinary new translation by Robert Chandler, who called Grossman’s political stance “revolutionary romanticism”, is that it contains never before-published passages from Grossman’s original manuscript. It, therefore, represents the complete edition of this work published so far in any language, including Grossman’s native Russian. As Claire Weiss correctly states, “The result is a work of considerable literary significance and an important historical document.” Weiss’s interview with Robert Chandler can be seen on the[1]

Grossman’s novel opens with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The fact that the Nazis could overrun large swathes of the Soviet Union was down to the fact that The Red Army and Soviet people had been left completely unprepared for the Nazi invasion. According to Weiss, Stalin had not only rejected dozens of warnings of the impending attack but had also murdered the leadership of the Red Army and large portions of its ranks in the Great Terror of 1936-1938.

Weiss states in her book review, “As a result, the Red Army of 1941 was poorly led militarily and politically, and vastly under-equipped to confront the highly sophisticated weaponry and mass assault of German imperialism. In the first months of the war, millions of Red Army soldiers were captured—about two million of them would be starved to death by spring 1942—and many more were killed and wounded on the battlefield”. [2]

The book is a fascinating look at the brutal nature of the Nazi invasion and the extraordinary sacrifice of The Red Army and the Russian Working Class. Grossman includes many important and politically fascinating characters. Such as the political commissar, Bogariov; the commander Babadjanian; and the soldier Ignatiev.

Bogariov doesn’t appear to be modelled on any particular individual but is probably an amalgam of many people met by Grossman. The Marx-Engels Institute mentioned in the book was a refuge for many oppositionists to the |Stalin regime. Mikhail Liftshitz and the Hungarian philosopher and literary critic György Lukács carried out work there. While Lukacs and Lifshitz managed to survive, many leading Bolsheviks, such as Isaak Rubin, were shot in 1937, and the leader of the Institute, Ryazanov, suffered the same fate. Grossman was aware of what was happening and added characters such as Bogariov, who opposed the Stalin regime.

As Clara Weiss writes, “Bogariov is a former employee of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, devoted to the legacy of Lenin and the early Russian socialists, who now take to the art of war as much as he did to the writings of Marx and Engels. Bogariov becomes the embodiment of what good political leadership means for Grossman. In what can only be read as a blatant rebuke of the Stalinist effort to dull the population and the soldiers into unconsciousness in the face of the immense dangers they were facing and of the bureaucracy’s constant lies during the war, Grossman writes, “In those difficult days, people wanted only the truth, however difficult and cheerless it might be. And Bogariov told them this truth.”  [3]

One might add that Grossman told the truth, and his novels, including Stalingrad and Life and Fate, were in opposition to the Stalinist falsifications of this history. As Weiss points out, the material also provides a sense of how the soviet bureaucracy’s constant political and historical lies impacted the cultural and socio-political climate at the time. To fully appreciate the book, the reader will need to familiarise themselves with what Weiss says was the “political and ideological crackdown by the Stalinist bureaucracy of the 1930s. “[4]

To conclude, Grossman’s books should be a must for every worker and young person and should be on every university reading list. Grossman, although long overdue, is correctly seen as one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century. His best works are regarded as masterpieces. Grossman states, “I wrote the book out of love and pity for ordinary people, and I still believe in them.” Despite living through what the poet Osip Mandelstam called the “wolfhound century”, Grossman retained this sentiment to his dying day.


[2]The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War

[3] The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War

[4] The People Immortal: Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s first novel about World War

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