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Authors: Vasily Grossman

A Writer at War (3 page)

BOOK: A Writer at War

For Grossman, the battle of Stalingrad was undoubtedly one of the most important experiences of his life. In
Life and Fate
, the Volga is more than a symbolic thread for the book, it is the main artery of Russia pumping its lifeblood to the sacrifice in Stalingrad. Grossman, like many fellow idealists, believed passionately that the heroism of the Red Army at Stalingrad would not just win the war, it would change Soviet society for ever. Once victory over the Nazis had been won by a strongly unified people, they believed that the NKVD, the purges, the show trials and the Gulag could be consigned to history. Officers and soldiers at the front, with the freedom of the condemned man to say whatever they wanted, openly criticised the disastrous collectivisation of farms, the arrogance of the
and the flagrant dishonesty of Soviet propaganda. Grossman later described this in
Life and Fate
through the reaction of Krymov, a commissar. ‘
Ever since he had arrived in Stalingrad
, Krymov had had a strange feeling. Sometimes it was as though he were in a kingdom where the Party no longer existed; sometimes he felt he was breathing the air of the first days of the Revolution.’ Some of these optimistic ideas and aspirations appear to have been encouraged in a whispering campaign instigated by the Soviet authorities, but as soon as the end of the war came in sight, Stalin began to tighten the screws again.

The Soviet dictator, who took a close interest in literature, appears to have disliked Grossman. Ilya Ehrenburg thought that he suspected Grossman of admiring Lenin’s internationalism too much (a fault close to the crime of Trotskyism). But it is far more likely that the Soviet leader’s resentment was based on the fact that Grossman never bowed to the personality cult of the tyrant. Stalin was conspicuously absent from Grossman’s journalism, and his sole appearance in Grossman’s fiction, written after the tyrant’s death, consists of a late-night telephone call to Viktor Shtrum in
Life and Fate
. This constitutes one of the most sinister and memorable passages in any novel. It is a scene which may well have been inspired by a similar night-time call from the master of the Kremlin to Ehrenburg, in April 1941.

In January 1943, Grossman was ordered to leave Stalingrad. Ortenberg had called on Konstantin Simonov to cover the dramatic end of the battle in his place. The young, good-looking Simonov, was a great hero in the
eyes of the Red Army and almost worshipped as the author of the poem ‘Wait for Me’.
This poem had been written in 1941, just after the outbreak of war, when he had to leave his great love, the actress Valentina Serova. The song and poem became sacred to many soldiers of the Red Army, with its central idea that only the love of a faithful fiancée or wife could keep a soldier alive. Many of them kept a hand-written copy of it folded in their breast-pocket like a talisman.

Grossman, who had been in Stalingrad far longer than any other correspondent, felt betrayed by this decision. Ortenberg sent him nearly three hundred kilometres south of Stalingrad down into Kalmykia, which had just been liberated from German occupation. This in fact gave Grossman the opportunity to study the region before Lavrenty Beria’s battalions of NKVD security police moved in to take revenge by massive deportations of the less than loyal population. His notes on the German occupation and on the degrees of collaboration with the enemy are poignant and brilliantly revealing of the compromises and temptations which faced civilians caught up in an international civil war.

Later that year he was present at the battle of Kursk, the largest tank engagement in history, which ended the Wehrmacht’s ability to launch another major offensive until the Ardennes in December 1944. In January 1944, when attached to the Red Army advancing westwards through the Ukraine, Grossman finally reached Berdichev. There, all his fears about his mother and other relations were confirmed. They had been slaughtered in one of the first big massacres of the Jews, the main one just before the mass executions at the ravine of Babi Yar, outside Kiev. The slaughter of the Jews in the town in which he grew up made him reproach himself even more for the failure to save his mother in 1941. An additional shock was to discover the role played by their Ukrainian neighbours in the persecution. Grossman was determined to discover as much as he could about the Holocaust, a subject which the Soviet authorities tried to suppress. The Stalinist line was that the Jews should never be seen as special victims. The crimes committed against them should be seen entirely as crimes committed against the Soviet Union.

Just after the Red Army reached Polish territory, Grossman was one of the first correspondents to enter the death camp of Majdanek near Lublin. He then visited the extermination camp of Treblinka, north-east
of Warsaw. His essay, ‘The Hell Called Treblinka’, is one of the most important in Holocaust literature and was quoted at the Nuremberg tribunal.

For the advance on Berlin in 1945, Grossman arranged another attachment to the 8th Guards Army, the former 62nd Army of Stalingrad fame, and he again spent time in the company of its commander, General Chuikov. Grossman’s painful honesty ensured that he recorded the crimes of the Red Army as much as its heroism, above all the mass rape of German women. His descriptions of the sack of Schwerin are some of the most powerful and moving of all eyewitness accounts. Similarly, his Berlin notebooks, when he was there to cover the fighting in the city and the final victory, deserve the widest possible audience. The fact that Grossman had seen more of the war in the East than almost anybody is of inestimable value. ‘
I think that those who
never experienced all the bitterness of the summer of 1941,’ he wrote, ‘will never be able fully to appreciate the joy of our victory.’ This was not boasting. It was the simple truth.

These pages from his notebooks, together with some articles and extracts from letters, show not just a great writer’s raw materials. They represent by far the best eyewitness account of the terrible Eastern Front, perhaps the finest descriptions ever of what Grossman himself called ‘
the ruthless truth of war

A page from one of Grossman’s many notebooks.

Field Marshal Hermann von Eichhorn (1848–1918). Following the harsh terms exacted by the Germans in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, Eichhorn’s task in 1918 was to supervise the stripping of the Ukraine to feed German cities starving from the British blockade. This policy was naturally hated by the Ukrainians and Eichhorn was assassinated in July.

The latest estimates for famine victims between 1930 and 1933 range from 7.2 million up to 10.8 million.

Bulgakov, Mikhail Afanasievich (1891–1940), the author of the novel
The White Guard
(1924) which he adapted for the Moscow Art Theatre as
The Day of the Turbins
(1926). Most improbably, this humane depiction of tsarist officers and intellectuals turned out to be Stalin’s favourite play. His masterpiece,
The Master and Margarita
, was edited but unpublished when he died.

Gorky, Maksim, pen name of Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov (1868–1936), playwright and novelist. Gorky had supported the revolution and been a friend of Lenin, but the dictatorial stance of the Bolsheviks horrified him and he left for Western Europe in 1921. Stalin, using flattery and underhand methods, persuaded him to return to the Soviet Union in 1928, where he was fêted. The city of Nizhni Novgorod was renamed Gorky in his honour. In return Gorky became a tool of the regime, supporting the doctrine of socialist realism in October 1932. He was the grand old man of Soviet literature until his death.

Victor Serge (1890–1947), pen name of Viktor Kibalchich. Born in Belgium, he was the son of an Imperial Guards officer turned revolutionary and a Belgian mother. Serge, an anarchist in France, was a libertarian socialist, who went to Russia in 1918 to join the revolution, but was horrified by Bolshevik authoritarianism. He is best known for his outstanding autobiography,
Memoirs of a Revolutionary
(1945), and the novels
Men in Prison, Birth of our Power
The Case of Comrade Tulayev

Ehrenburg, Iliya Grigorievich (1891–1967), writer, poet and public figure, wrote for
Krasnaya Zvezda
during the war. Later, he worked with Grossman on the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Black Book on atrocities against Jews, which the Stalinist authorities suppressed soon after the war. Ehrenburg had a much better nose for surviving the dangers of Stalinist politics.

This name came from the chief of the NKVD at the time, Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov (1895–1939), known as the ‘Dwarf’ because he was so short and suffered from a crippled leg. Yezhov took over the NKVD on Stalin’s order from Genrikh Yagoda (1891–1938) in September 1936. He was replaced by Lavrenty Beria in December 1938, and thus took the blame for the excesses away from Stalin. Like his predecessor, Yagoda, he was accused of treason and executed.

Simonov, Konstantin (Kyrill Mikhailovich), (1915–1979), poet, playwright, novelist and correspondent of
Krasnaya Zvezda
. Simonov later wrote his own Hemingway-style novel about the Battle of Stalingrad entitled
Days and Nights,
published in 1944. Although physically brave, Simonov, as Grossman reflected later, lacked moral courage in his relationship with the Soviet regime.

Translators’ Note

Any translation from the Russian which hopes to be readable in English requires a slight compression of the original, through the deletion of superfluous words and repetitions. This is especially true of the bureaucratic solemnities of military Russian, but we have, in the cases where Grossman himself was clearly amused by the original formulation, rendered a virtually literal translation to convey the flavour. Certain Red Army terms, like ‘tankists’ and ‘artillerists’ have also been left in their original form. The Russian words, acronyms and initials which we have left untranslated are listed in the glossary.

The Red Army, when talking of the enemy, used to say ‘he’, not ‘they’. As this can be highly confusing in places, we have avoided a literal translation and substituted ‘they’ or ‘the Germans’.

We have provided details on most of the characters mentioned in the text, but it has not been possible to obtain information on Grossman’s colleagues at
Krasnaya Zvezda
whose personnel files remain closed as the newspaper is still a military unit.

It is extremely hard, especially when dealing with some of the fragmentary notes, to achieve the right balance between intervention in the interests of general understanding and respect for the original jottings. We have strived to keep all explanations to the linking passages and to footnotes, but occasionally words have been added in square brackets to aid comprehension.


, when written with a capital letter refers to the Soviet equivalent of an army group, for example, Central Front, Western Front or Stalingrad Front. A Front was commanded by a colonel general or marshal later in the war and usually consisted of between four and eight armies.

, is the Red Army term for soldiers with real experience of fighting at the front.

Glavnoye politicheskoye upravleniye
), was the main political department of the Red Army, headed for most of the Great Patriotic War by Aleksandr Shcherbakov. It was a Communist Party organisation, controlling the political officers and political departments – the commissar system first instituted during the Russian civil war to watch commanders, of whom many had been tsarist officers, and ensure that they were not secretly in league with the Whites. Commissars, or political officers and instructors, were not part of the NKVD, but worked with them on cases of suspected disaffection.

Gold Star
, a popular term for the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Hero of the Soviet Union
, the Soviet Union’s highest award for valour and distinguished service, consisted of a small gold bar with red ribbon from which hung a gold star.

, was a peasant house, or log cabin, consisting usually of one or two rooms. The window frames were often decorated with ornamental carving.

, acronym for the Communist Youth movement. Membership could extend until around the age of twenty, so there were many active Komsomol cells within the Red Army. Children joined the Young Pioneers.

, archetypal Russian peasant.

Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del
– People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs), a direct descendant of the Cheka and the OGPU secret police.

NKVD Special Departments
were attached to Red Army formations in a counter-intelligence role, which in Stalinist terms meant looking for treason within as much as espionage without. Their role was also to investigate cases of cowardice as well as ‘extraordinary events’ – anything deemed to be anti-Soviet – and provide execution squads when necessary. The Special Departments were replaced in the spring of 1943 by SMERSh, Stalin’s acronym for
smert shpionam
, or death to spies.

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