Commentary Magazine


A Writer at War edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945
edited by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova
Pantheon. 400 pp. $27.50

There are writers who seem consumed by the times they live in, and Vasily Grossman, the great Russian novelist and war correspondent, was one of them. Born in 1905 in the provincial Ukrainian town of Berdichev, he was the child of assimilated and secularized Jews. His parents often traveled abroad, and like other members of the family might well have settled in Europe or America. As a Soviet subject, he was instead doomed to the experience of Stalinism and Nazism.

Photographs show Grossman as earnest and ungainly, bespectacled, the very type of a sedentary intellectual. Always somewhat naïve, and apparently never a party member himself, he nevertheless wrote the sort of novels that a Communist was expected to write between the two world wars. Even so, however, he was interrogated for suspected “Trotskyite” links in 1938, and could well have ended as a victim of the Great Terror.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman immediately volunteered. Rejected on physical grounds for military service, he became a special correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”), a military magazine with a huge readership. His editor, General Ortenberg, a party man, considered Grossman to be “utterly civilian by nature [without] commanding intonations in his voice,” but also said of him: “He knew about people’s souls.”

Hardly ever out of the front lines, Grossman often skirted death as he covered the Red Army in its initial retreat and later recovery; in particular he was present throughout the months of the battle of Stalingrad. He must have been tougher than he appeared, in fact extraordinarily fearless: as recorded in A Writer at War, he once crossed a broken bridge over the Vistula by climbing up a rope attached to a ladder, with a suitcase in one hand. So well did his belief in the spirit of the soldiers fighting for Mother Russia coincide with Stalin’s expedient nationalism that Grossman became a household name.

Grossman was with the Red Army soldiers who liberated the Nazi extermination camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. In Berdichev, he discovered that his mother had been murdered along with some 20,000 other Jews there. The shock of these events—and guilt over having abandoned his mother to her fate—overshadowed the rest of his life.

After the war, under the auspices of the official Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, Grossman collaborated with Ilya Ehrenburg (the writer who for decades navigated all the shoals of Stalinist policy) in a collection of documents and eyewitness accounts of the mass murder of the Jews, whose title was to be The Black Book. Stalin’s anti-Semitism, the violent dissolution of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and post-war paranoia and terror generated by the so-called Doctors’ Plot blocked all prospect of publication. Decades were to pass before The Black Book appeared, and then only in English and French, not Russian.

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Ilya Ehrenburg once said that Stalin was Grossman’s most devoted reader, but on another occasion that Stalin hated him. What is almost certain is that only Stalin’s timely death in 1953 saved Grossman from the gulag or worse. In its cruel and random way, the Soviet experiment had first promoted and then crushed him.

His response was to spend the next years writing Life and Fate, a huge masterpiece of a war novel, with Tolstoyan echoes and ambitions, based on everything he had lived through. His hero, Jewish like himself, refuses to participate in the odious ideological process of denunciation and confession demanded by the party, instead standing up both for moral and intellectual honesty and for himself as a Jew. Ironically, a fictionalized telephone call from none other than Stalin brings an end to the hero’s persecution.

In one of this novel’s most brilliant scenes, a Nazi camp commandant and a captured old Bolshevik debate the totalitarianism common to them both. One of the very first to depict Communism and Nazism as mirror images, Grossman was also able to make, in Life and Fate, the prediction that eventually proved true in both cases: “A totalitarian state that renounces violence will perish.” Risking his own life, he wrote as well that Stalin was to raise over the heads of the Jews “the very sword of annihilation he had wrested from the hands of Hitler.”

In another unforgettable scene, Gestapo agents, after surrendering to the Red Army at Stalingrad, are compelled to carry their dead victims out of a building in front of horrified and vengeful Russians. Among the corpses is a young girl with blond hair. An elderly Russian woman rushes forward crying, “My child!,” but then, inexplicably, thrusts a piece of bread into the hand of one of the defeated Germans. Grossman’s guiding idea is that impulsive kindness is all that is needed for redemption.

In Life and Fate, Grossman had found himself as a free human being and a Jew. But only his political naiveté can account for the fact that, in 1960, he presented the work for publication. The KGB immediately confiscated everything connected with it, including—so it is said—the carbon paper and ribbons used by the typists. (Vitaly Shentalinsky does not mention this theft in The KGB’s Literary Archive, his otherwise informative book on suppressed Soviet writers.) The case went straight up to the central committee of the Communist party. Mikhail Suslov, keeper of the party’s ideology, told Grossman that the novel could not be published for 200 years—a tribute, in its perverse way. Grossman appealed to General Secretary Khrushchev himself: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested?”

To no avail. At the time of his death from cancer in 1964, the despairing Grossman could only hope for Life and Fate to be published some day. One surviving copy of the typescript had been secreted away with a friend and was eventually smuggled abroad, allegedly with the help of Andrei Sakharov. The English-language version appeared in 1985, coincidentally with the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev and the policy of glasnost. The novelist Vladimir Voinovich, already in exile, was quick to welcome it as “a tremendous event,” and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed “great respect” for Grossman’s work.

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As for A Writer at War, it consists of the numerous surviving notebooks Grossman kept in the field, amplified into consecutive narrative by the inclusion of letters, quotations from articles in Red Star, and commentary by the editors. Altogether it is a compelling and dramatic whole—the raw material from which Life and Fate was quarried. It is also a historical document in its own right, uniquely conveying the day-to-day evolution of the war on the Eastern front.

Grossman’s technique was to conduct rolling interviews with generals, snipers, tank crews, artillery gunners, pilots, anyone and everyone, and then to write up what he heard. The bloodiness, the brutality, and the self-sacrifice that went with them often stir him to emotional generalization:

At the front, there is patience and resignation, submission to unthinkable hardships. This is the patience of a strong people. This is the patience of a great army. The greatness of the Russian soul is incredible.

Confronting concrete scenes, however, Grossman almost always remains dispassionate. “Submachine-gunner Kolosov was buried up to his chest in earth,” goes one entry. “He was stuck there laughing: ‘This makes me mad!’ ” Or again:

I was told back at the front headquarters that Khasin’s family had all been killed in Kerch by Germans carrying out a mass execution of civilians. Purely by chance, Khasin saw photographs of the dead people in a ditch and recognized his wife and children. I was thinking, what does he feel when he leads his tanks into the fighting? It is very hard to have a clear impression of this man, because there is a young woman, a doctor, in the staff izba [peasant house], who is ordering him about in a vulgar and impertinent manner.

Here and elsewhere, the novelist and the reporter in Grossman coexist. Twice during the war, he happened to visit Tolstoy’s home at Yasnaya Polyana, and it is as though he is under a felt obligation to match its old master: “Tolstoy’s grave. Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn. It is so hard. I have seldom felt such pain.” Cats caught in the fighting, or sheltering on window-sills from gunfire, are beneficiaries of his insistence on kindness, here verging on sentimentality. In general, the subjective and the objective correspond perfectly:

Twilight. It is foggy and rainy. A smell of forest mold. Puddles on the road. Dark pine woods, fields, farmsteads, barns, houses with pointed roofs. A huge poster: “Soldier, here it is! The Lair of the Fascist Beast.”

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Had anyone in authority read these diaries, Grossman would have been arrested. It would have been quite enough to quote against him the comment he records of a woman in a canteen: “Oh this Hitler! He’s a real Satan! And we used to say that Communists were Satans.” Perhaps protectively, he ignores the collaboration of Ukrainians in Nazi mass murder as well as the Red Army’s ignominious standstill while the Germans destroyed Warsaw in 1944. But the theme that surreptitiously emerges as the days pass is his own determination to separate the heroism of the Soviet soldier from the inhumanity, vainglory, and finally the incompetence of Stalin and the party.

Patriotism and Communism, Grossman came to realize, were two distinct things, which during the war had been combined merely by accident. Much of the killing that he recorded was official brutality for the sake of it. “Extraordinary event” was the Soviet euphemism for desertion or collaboration with the enemy. Grossman reports an occasion when one such accused traitor, waiting to be executed, stood by while military engineers dug a grave for him. “ ‘Take off your boots,’ they told him. He took off one boot very deftly, with the toe of the other foot. The other boot took some time, he was jumping on one leg for a while.” And elsewhere: “An extraordinary event. Sentence. Execution. They undressed and buried him. At night, he came back to his unit, in his bloodstained underwear. They shot him again.”

Like the Russian mother at Stalingrad in Life and Fate, Grossman had feelings even for captured Germans; they too were human. But confronted with the Nazi extermination camps, and interviewing survivors and local Poles in the attempt to reconstruct exactly what had happened and so to grasp the enormity of it, he asks himself how human beings could have set up and run such places. Red Star published his report under the title “The Hell Called Treblinka.” It was quoted at the Nuremberg trials, and is rightly reprinted at length here.

Grossman’s careful and minute description of the ordeal of mass murder has a power to move and to appall akin to Primo Levi’s. He was also among the very first to draw the obvious moral conclusion:

It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: “Why write about all this, why remember all that?” It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.

Stalin, and therefore the party, decreed that the victims of the Nazi extermination campaign on Soviet soil were all to be described as Soviet citizens, thus denying the particularity of the fate of the Jews. Worse than a lie, this flat denaturing of the terrible truth confirmed Grossman’s burgeoning insight into the similarity between the Communist and the Nazi regimes. Life and Fate was a blow he struck for humanity, and now, so long after the times that consumed him, A Writer at War is another.

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About the Author

David Pryce-Jones, the British novelist and political analyst, is the author of, among other books, Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews (Encounter).




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