On 2 July 2019 Pushkin House hosted the discussion of Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s new translation of Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad (1952). The new translation aims to restore the original vision of the author, disturbed by the editors’ interventions, and does the justice to this great novel, often overshadowed by Grosman’s later work Life and Fate (1960). Robert Chandler was joined by historian Tatiana Dettmer, who shed the light on the protagonist of Stalingrad Viktor Shtrum and his real-life model – a Jewish nuclear physicist Lev Shtrum (1890-1936). Both Chandler and Dettmer shared their unique insights into Grossman’s life and the creation and reception of his work.

Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

Grossman (1905-1964) was born to a Jewish family in Ukraine. He studied Chemistry at university, but soon gave in to his passion for literature. Today his name is mostly associated with his 1960 novel Life and Fate, acclaimed as Twentieth Century War and Peace. Stalingrad is lesser known, but an astonishingly rich and polyphonic prequel first published in 1952 under Grossman’s lesser preferred title For a Just Cause. Stalingrad precedes Life and Fate in terms of both context and characters. Viktor Shtrum appears in both novels, as does his mother’s powerful letter written from a Jewish ghetto, which is carried across the frontline in Stalingrad until it reaches Viktor, who finally reveals its content in Life and Fate. Chandler reflected that Stalingrad has, unfortunately, been overshadowed by its sequel. This was partly due to the assumption that a novel published under Stalin could not possibly interest modern readers, and partly due to a lack of an edition that does justice to the original – which Chandler hoped his new translation would change.

Vasily Grossman (Estate) Archives

Dettmer dedicated her section of the talk to Grossman’s relationship with Lev Shtrum. She first made the connection between the two after meeting Elena Shtrum, Lev Shtrum’s daughter, who told Dettmer about her father. Dettmer then investigated archives in Kyiv and reached the conclusion that the character of Viktor Shtrum was partly inspired by Lev Shtrum, whom Grossman admired. She supported her findings with the research of Alexandra Popoff, the author of the recent biography Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century.

Lev Shtrum was born into a Jewish family in Ukraine and began studying at the Department of Mathematics of Saint Petersburg University in 1908. In the 1920s, he coined the theory of particles travelling faster than light. Shortly before the First World War, he moved to Kyiv, where Grossman’s family also happened to live. By 1932, he was the head of the Theoretical Physics Department at Kyiv University. Tragically, Shtrum was arrested in 1936, accused of being a ‘Trotskyist’ and ‘enemy of the people’ and was executed. His scientific works were destroyed, but thankfully some of them survived in the West.

Dettmer explained that Grossman was initially trained as a chemical engineer and dreamt of becoming a prominent scientist. Lev Shtrum was his physics tutor, but as the letters that Popoff discovered in the Grossman archives in Moscow demonstrate, there was a strong personal bond between the two. For example, in his letter to his father dating from February 1929 young Grossman wrote that he had seen Shtrum in Kyiv and had borrowed money from him. In her book Popoff also quoted Grossman’s ironic remark about the town of Kolchugino being re-named Leninsk: ‘… Why all of a sudden Leninsk? The name “Shtrumsk” seems to me to be more appropriate’.

Lev Shtrum. Photo courtesy of Elena Shtrum

Fast-forward some years, and Grossman was attempting to publish For a Just Cause. The editors wished to uphold the Party’s stance that no group within Soviet society experienced more suffering during the war than any other – they spoke of Soviet suffering, never of Jewish suffering. Grossman fully understood the danger of introducing a Jewish name – Shtrum – to his novel whilst Stalin was still in power. Although the editors did not realise that the protagonist was based on the real-life  scientist, they certainly rejected the idea of a Jewish protagonist. Grossman paid every price and made every possible compromise to retain Shtrum’s name. For example, he eventually agreed to include content about Stalin at the editors’ request, and introduced the character Dmitri Chepyzhin, a Russian physicist, who would be Shtrum’s teacher and friend. The aim of this was to detract from the Jewish theme in the novel. Chandler and Dettmer both agreed that Grossman was extremely brave to persistently insist on the inclusion of Shtrum’s character. Lev Shtrum’s fate, which mirrored that of a generation of scientists under Stalin, had clearly resonated with Grossman.

Dettmer and Chandler drew attention to the fact that For a Just Cause was eventually published during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign, coinciding with the secret trial of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC) in August 1952. The list that had been compiled by this time, which included the names of those allegedly associated with the JAC, included Grossman’s name. It was that very summer, in July, that For a Just Cause was published in Novy Mir, initially receiving positive reviews. However, by February that year, Grossman was attacked for giving an ‘historically inaccurate’ account of Nazism and for portraying too many Jewish characters. Ultimately, Grossman and For a Just Cause were saved from arrest by the death of Stalin in March.

Since the death of Stalin, there have been various translations and Russian republications of the novel. They followed the final 1956 edition. Unlike them, the new translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler makes use of the earlier typescript. Chandler explained that by comparing all the editions of the novel they could analyse which passages the editors had removed, and which ones Grossman had insisted on reintroducing in successive versions.

Alexandra Popoff

Grossman remains an intriguing figure in Russian cultural history. The recent biography by Popoff provoked an interesting debate. Sheila Fitzpatrick, a prominent historian of Russia, recently wrote a review, ‘A Complex Fate’, analysing Popoff’s monograph. Fitzpatrick implied that Popoff granted him excessive appreciation in her book and added nothing new to the existing bibliographical accounts. On the contrary, Fitzpatrick saw Grossman as ‘just another’ Soviet writer struggling with censorship, who might not deserve the attention that Popoff showed for him. Unsurprisingly, the review was not received well. Fitzpatrick sorely overlooked the extensive archival research that Popoff contributed to our understanding of Grossman’s life, and certainly did not care to mention Popoff’s ground-breaking research on Lev Shtrum, which has been supported by the research of Tatiana Dettmer.

Dettmer and Chandler concluded their talk at Pushkin House with a video message from Lev Shtrum’s daughter, Elena Shtrum. She laughed that her father may have hoped to be remembered as a Physicist, but never could have anticipated that he would one day be known as a literary character. Overall, the talk provided an excellent insight into Grossman, Stalingrad and Jewry in the Soviet Union. The new translation of Stalingrad is now available to purchase, offering readers the chance to enjoy Lev Shtrum’s new-found legacy, and experience what Chandler describes as Grossman’s ‘emotional generosity’.