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Authors: Vasily Grossman

A Writer at War (7 page)

BOOK: A Writer at War

An empty house. The family moved out the day before, the owner is leaving too. The neighbour, an old man, has come to see him off: ‘And the doggy will stay?’

‘He didn’t want to go.’

And the house remains where it has always stood. Green tomatoes are ripening on the roof, flowers amuse themselves in the garden. In the room there are little cups and jars, fig trees in flowerpots, a lemon tree, a palm tree. Everywhere, in everything, one can feel the owner’s hands.

Dust. White, yellow, red dust. It is stirred up by the feet of sheep, pigs, horses, cows, and by the carts of refugees, Red Army soldiers, trucks, staff cars, tanks, guns and artillery tractors. Dust is hanging, swirling, whirling over the Ukraine.

Heinkels and Junkers are flying at night. They spread among the stars like lice. The blackness of air is filled with their humming. Bombs are crashing down. Villages are burning all around. The dark August sky becomes lighter. When a star falls down, or when there is thunder during the day, everyone gets scared, but then they laugh: ‘That’s from the sky, from the real sky.’

In the terrible retreats of 1941, Red Army soldiers walked for hundreds of kilometres.

An old woman thought she might see her son in the column that was trudging through the dust. She stood there until evening and then came up to us. ‘Soldiers, take some cucumbers, eat, you are welcome.’ ‘Soldiers, drink this milk.’ ‘Soldiers, apples.’ ‘Soldiers, curds.’ ‘Soldiers, please take this.’ And they cry, [these women], they cry, looking at the men walking past them.

The girl Orinka in the village Dugovaya – the grief itself, the very black-eyed poetry of the people. Black legs, torn dress. We offered her apples from the garden of her collective farm. Well, this garden is hers. The old guardian of the orchard watches in silence as we pick the apples.

A massive gun is moving along the road in the black-yellow cloud of dust. Two Red Army soldiers are sitting on its barrel, their faces black with dust. They are drinking water from a helmet.

Grossman, leaving Ukraine only a step ahead of Guderian’s panzers, was no doubt thinking of his mother, trapped in Berdichev, nearly five hundred kilometres behind him to the south-west. From Shchors (named after a Bolshevik hero of the civil war), Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring travelled to Glukhov and then took the main road north eastwards to Orel.

To think of the towns now occupied which one had visited before is like remembering friends who have died. It is infinitely sad. They seem terribly remote and close at the same time, and life in them seems like the ‘other world’.

Talk in villages. All sorts: angry, sincere. Today a loud-voiced young woman shouted: ‘How can we possibly take orders from the Germans? How can we allow such a disgrace to happen?’

Cucumbers. Four men from the fruit and vegetable store load cucumbers at the station, during a bombing raid. They are crying with fear, get drunk, and in the evenings they recount, with Ukrainian humour, how scared they were and laugh at one another, eating honey,
[pork lard], garlic and tomatoes. One of them imitates wonderfully the howling and explosion of a bomb.

B. Korol is teaching them how to use a hand grenade. He thinks they’ll become partisans under German occupation, while I sense from their conversation that they are ready to work for the Germans. One of them, who wants to be an agronomist for this area, looks at Korol as if he were an imbecile.

Face and soul of the people. In three days we went through Belorussia, Ukraine, and arrived in the Orel area. Hard times reveal the best side of people. They are kind and noble. There are similar traits in the three nations, and also some deeply different aspects. Russians are the strongest and most enduring. The face of a Ukrainian is sad and gentle, they are sly and a little disloyal. The grief of Belorussians is quiet and black.

Orel. Driving in the dark. The brakes of our vehicle are not working. We stop hard in front of a group of refugees. A woman screams. Jewish refugees.

Arrival in Orel. The city is blacked out. Before the war one could see the murky shine of the city even from the remote countryside. Now, it’s dark. Hotel. Bed! We sleep without our boots or clothes on for the first time on this journey. A telephone conversation with Moscow. This ability to communicate freely with the city of my friends, my family and my work leaves a melancholy aftertaste.

The poet Iosif Pavlovich Utkin (1903–1944) volunteered for the Red Army in June 1941, and was wounded. After these wounds healed, he returned to the front as a military correspondent. Many of his wartime poems were used in songs. He died in a plane crash in 1944 when returning to Moscow from the front.

Grossman used this episode in his novel
The People Immortal
, when the commissar’s son is rescued in a similar manner.

Ortenberg wrote later: ‘
The next day [21 September] we were able
to offer more to the readers: Vasily Grossman and Pavel Troyanovsky had sent a selection of various materials from Gomel. It contained an interview with the Secretary of the Communist Party of Belorussia about the feats of partisans.’

Ponomarenko, Panteleimon Kondratyevich (1902–1984), First Secretary of the Belorussian Communist Party, 1938–1947, in exile in Moscow during German occupation 1941–44 where he supervised the organisation of partisan resistance. Ponomarenko, a Stalinist stalwart, was an improbable jazz fan who set up the Belorussian National Jazz Orchestra in Minsk in 1940. After the war he served as Soviet ambassador in a number of posts and was closely connected with the KGB.

‘Two military journalists and a photojournalist were sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree near the shack made of branches where the Military Council was accommodated . . . They heard the commander’s voice from the shack: ‘If you remember, in
Travel to Arzrum . . .’ Travel to Arzrum
was a travelogue parody written by Pushkin in 1836, the year before his death in a duel.

On the Bryansk Front

Ortenberg allowed Grossman and Troyanovsky no time to rest in Orel after their escape. They were ordered back to work on the Bryansk Front, which would soon suffer the full force of Operation Typhoon when General von Bock’s Army Group Centre launched its offensive against Moscow.

Drive to the front
. Two Red Army soldiers in a lush empty garden. A quiet clear morning. They are alone, they’re signallers. ‘Comrade officers, I am going to shake some apples off the tree for you, right now.’ Heavy soft thuds of apples falling. On the ground in the silent abandoned garden. The mournful white house of the landlord, it’s abandoned once again and its second master is gone, too. A new master will be here soon. Yet the soldier’s face is happy and dirty. He is holding a heap of apples in his hands.

A old woman says: ‘Who knows whether God exists or not. I pray to Him. It’s not a difficult job. You give Him two or three nods, and who knows, perhaps He’ll accept you.’

In empty
. Everything has been taken away, except for icons. It’s so unlike Nekrasov’s peasants, who would first of all save icons when there is a fire, leaving other pieces of property to burn.

A boy keeps crying all night. He has an abscess on his leg. His mother keeps whispering to him quietly, calming him: ‘Darling, darling.’ And a night battle is thundering outside their window.

Bad weather – gloom, rain, fog – everyone is wet and cold, yet everyone is happy. There is no German aviation. Everybody says in a pleased way: ‘It’s a nice day.’

The approach of the Germans prompted the more foresighted peasants to turn livestock into hams and sausage which were easier to conceal.

Slaughter of pigs. Terrible screams making one’s hair stand on end.

The interrogation of a traitor in a little meadow on a quiet, clear autumn day with a gentle, pleasant sun. He has an overgrown beard and is wearing a torn brown russet coat, a big peasant hat. His feet are dirty and bare, his legs naked to the calf. He is a young peasant with bright blue eyes. One hand is swollen, the other one is small – it looks like a woman’s hand, with clean fingernails. He speaks, stretching words softly in Ukrainian. He is from Chernigov. He deserted several days ago and was captured last night on the front line when he was trying to get back to our rear wearing this almost opera-like peasant costume. By chance he was captured by his comrades, soldiers from his own company, who recognised him, and there he is in front of them now. The Germans had bought him for a hundred marks. He was going back to look for headquarters and airfields. ‘But it was only a hundred marks,’ he says dragging out the words. He thinks that the modesty of this sum might make them more forgiving. ‘But that makes me uncomfortable too, I see, I see.’ He isn’t a human being any more, all his movements, his grin, his glances, his noisy, greedy breathing – all that belongs to a creature that senses a close and imminent death. He has trouble with his memory.

‘And what’s your wife’s name?’

‘Wife’s name, I remember. Gorpyna.’

‘And your son’s?’

‘I remember his name, too. Pyotr.’ He reflects for a while and adds: ‘Dmitrievich. Five years old.’ ‘I’d like to have a shave,’ he continues. ‘The men are looking at me, and I feel embarrassed.’ He strokes his beard with his hand. He picks at grass, earth and chips of wood, in quick, frenzied movements, as if doing some work that will save him. When he looks at the soldiers and their rifles, there’s an animal fear in his eyes.

Then the colonel slaps his face, shouting and crying at the same
time: ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ The guard, a Red Army soldier, then shouts at him, too: ‘You’ve disgraced your son! He won’t be able to live with this shame!’

‘Don’t you think I don’t know what I’ve done, comrades?’ the traitor says, addressing both the colonel and the sentry as if they might sympathise with him in his trouble. He was shot in front of the company where he had been a soldier only a short time before.

Major Garan received a letter from his wife. As he was busy with work at that moment, he sternly put the letter aside unopened. He read it later and then said with a smile: ‘I didn’t know whether my wife and son were alive or dead; I had left them in Dvinsk. And now my son has written to me: “I climbed on the roof during an air raid and fired at aircraft with a revolver.” He’s got a wooden revolver.’

Grossman wrote to his father still desperately concerned about his mother and his daughter Katya. He did not know that Katya had in fact been sent to a Young Pioneers’ camp well to the east.

I am in good health
, feeling well and my spirits are high. Only I am worried day and night about Mama and Katyusha, and I so want to see all my dear ones. I’ll probably be allowed to spend a few days in Moscow in about three weeks. I’ll have a good wash then and a proper sleep with no boots on – that’s now my idea of supreme comfort.

Grossman also wrote to his wife shortly afterwards. This letter, dated 16 September, like those of any front-line soldier, provides very little information except the reassurance that the sender was still alive on the date when it was sent.

Dear Lyusenka

I am seeing a lot of interesting things. I keep moving from one place to another all the time, that’s what life at the front is like. Are you writing to me? A drop of pitch fell on the card from the beam in the bunker while I was writing.

Look through
Krasnaya Zvezda
. Two or three of my articles are published there every month. They would be an additional hello to you from me.

Your Vasya

Soviet citizens were desperate for news of the war, but newspapers gave little reliable news in 1941.

Two days earlier,
Krasnaya Zvezda
had just published his latest article. It was entitled ‘In the Enemy’s Bunker – On the Western Axis’.

German trenches
, strongpoints, officers’ and soldiers’ bunkers. The enemy has been here. There are French wines and brandy; Greek olives; yellow, carelessly squeezed lemons from their ‘ally’, slavishly-obedient Italy; a jar of jam with a Polish label; a big oval tin of fish preserve – Norway’s tribute; a bucket of honey from Czechoslovakia. And fragments of a Soviet shell are lying amid this fascist feast.

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