Vasily Grossman, Russia's greatest chronicler, awaits redemption
Ekaterina fled Kiev with her mother and sister just ahead of the advancing Germans. At the city of Dnipropetrovsk the enemy caught up. 'We were trying to cross the bridge across the Dnipro river. It was packed with refugees and military. The Germans had already seized the railway station. They were attacking us with bombers and artillery. My legs were going but we weren't moving forward,' she recalled. Somehow, she reached the other side.
Grossman, meanwhile, almost fell into fascist hands on several occasions – fleeing from encircling Panzer tanks as they advanced relentlessly into Soviet territory. Somewhat overweight, bespectacled, Jewish, and an intellectual, Grossman was an unlikely war correspondent. But he was to become its greatest chronicler – witnessing the battle for Stalingrad and advancing with the Red Army to Berlin and its shattered Brandenburg Gate.
This weekend Moscow celebrates the 65th anniversary of the end of the second world war and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Sunday's Kremlin parade on Red Square is the largest in history with 10,000 troops, 160 military vehicles and 127 aircraft on display. The Soviet Union's wartime allies are taking part for the first time, with British, US and French soldiers marching over the cobbles.
But Russia's bombastic celebrations have been overshadowed by accusations of historical revisionism, in particular over what role, if any, should be allotted to Josef Stalin, whose death in 1953 almost certainly spared Grossman from the gulag. Over the past decade the Kremlin has waged a subtle campaign of rehabilitation. It has portrayed the Soviet dictator not as a mass murderer but as a great and ultimately successful wartime leader. The campaign is part of Vladimir Putin's broader ideological effort to restore Russia as a mighty superpower.
Ahead of Sunday's drive-and-fly past, Stalin's image has been making a minor comeback – adorning the number 187 bus in St Petersburg this week, for example, and hanging outside several Moscow museums. He is also reappearing on photos in metro stations. Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzkhov had originally wanted to display Stalin's portrait on Red Square. The plan was dropped at the last minute.
Not everyone agrees with Stalin's insidious return. In an interview with the Guardian, Ekaterina points out that his misplaced faith in Hitler, with whom he signed a non-aggression pact, left the Soviet Union catastrophically unprepared for the Wehrmacht's attack. Despite numerous intelligence reports, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler would invade. 'Stalin wasn't prepared for war. Our borders weren't solid enough,' she said. 'The Soviet victory wasn't Stalin's personal deed.'
This week marks the publication of a new UK edition of Everything Flows, Grossman's last great work. Like his epic Life and Fate set around the battle for Stalingrad, the unfinished novel was published only in the late 1980s – more than two decades after Grossman's death in 1964. In the west, his reputation has soared in recent years, thanks in part to the 2005 publication of the writer's wartime diaries. In the autumn Robert Chandler, Grossman's translator, is publishing his short stories. Next year the BBC is broadcasting an eight-hour Radio 4 version of Life and Fate, its most ambitious dramatisation ever.
In Russia Grossman is out of fashion. His great themes – his account of the extermination of the Jews, the famine in Ukraine, the gulags and the purges, and the collaboration of Soviet citizens with the Germans – remain at odds with the Kremlin's heroic version of history. According to Ekaterina, now 80, who lives in a Moscow flat filled with her father's books and his old armchair, Everything Flows includes her father's best prose.
'His descriptions of the famine in Ukraine are the strongest things he wrote,' she says. The Kremlin still refuses to acknowledge that the 1932-33 deaths of three to five million peasants in Ukraine amounts to a genocide.
She mentions a brief, poignant chapter recounting the love a simple peasant family have for each other. All starve to death.
Ekaterina didn't meet her father during the war. She lived with her mother and stepfather in dusty Tashkent in Soviet Central Asia. Instead, they exchanged letters. She said Grossman was aware she didn't get enough to eat. 'I was surviving on 200 grams of bread a day. I was extremely thin. My father arranged me to get meals from the writers' union.'
Ekaterina got to know her father better after moving to Moscow in 1955. At this point Grossman was working on Life and Fate. He read chapters aloud to family and friends, she said. He wrote furiously, but also went to plays, concerts, and saw fellow-writers. 'He led a highly desirable way of life,' she recalled. Despite its 'sad and gloomy' theme, Ekaterina says it is an optimistic book warmed by values such as friendship and the love of family. The KGB's decision to confiscate the manuscript in 1961 was a crushing blow but at the time of his death from cancer Grossman remained optimistic it would find an audience.
'Many people lost their belief in human beings. He never did. If you compare him with today's interpreters of events he was an idealist. He believed that even in the most terrible person you can find something bright.'
What would Grossman, a Soviet realist who criticised the system from the inside, have made of post-communist Russia and Putin's bureaucratic state? 'I think he would have been very happy to see his books published in the 1980s. But I'm sure he would have seen the defects of the present society.'
• Everything Flows is published today by Harvill Secker