One Side Fought for Freedom at Stalingrad

This June brought the first English translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad. Movingly illustrating the tragedies of wartime Soviet society, Grossman’s epic novel is a nonetheless powerful rebuke to those who equate Nazism and those who fought against it.

Armed with light machine guns, Soviet troops attack the German forces in the vicinity of the Red October plant in Stalingrad, November 26, 1942. Hulton Archive / Getty

The first English-language translation of Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is no minor event. With the memory of World War II increasingly serving as a key battleground for Europe’s resurgent far right, the Soviet author’s long-dismissed prequel to Life and Fate has a clearly political charge.

The stakes of this fight over memory were clearly brought into relief by a vote in the European Parliament last month. Ignoring the voluminous academic scholarship on the subject, the Brussels parliament passed a motion which blamed the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939–41 for starting the war and crudely equated communism with fascism.

The reactions from a previous generation of anti-fascists were exasperated, but little-publicized in mainstream media. Luciana Castellina wrote in Il Manifesto that the motion’s language “could have come from the neofascist CasaPound;” by promoting a “despicable distortion of history … [and] through its resounding botching of the historical record — it calls into question the prestige of the parliamentary institution that promulgated it.”

The English-language publication this June of an almost 900-page novel by Grossman — the most experienced of Soviet war reporters — thus seems auspicious in its timing. Praised by some as the “Tolstoy of the USSR,” his works have often been invoked by those who seek to equate the Nazi and Soviet regimes. For this very reason, the new availability of his work dealing with the decisive clash between the two powers only adds to his political, rather than simply literary, significance.

Home Front

Stalingrad’s title may give the impression that it is about the battle which turned the tide against Nazism in Europe. Yet the actual fighting begins more than halfway through the book. We are instead introduced — in the style of Tolstoy’s War and Peace— – to a rich narrative portraying the fate of a whole society through the perspective of a single family. It is no coincidence that War and Peace was the only novel Grossman read during the war (completing it twice). From the early catastrophic defeats of 1941, Grossman builds a total picture of Soviet society around the Shaposhnikov family.

In this vein, his landscape ranges from encircled frontline soldiers to their commanders in embattled headquarters, and from peasants receiving their conscription orders, to scientists discussing steel production, and miners supplying the front. The substantial sections of the book concerning the “Home Front” may grate with those who care little for industrial fiction with which Grossman first cut his literary teeth; meanwhile a chapter praising Stalin’s role as commander-in-chief will be exotic for those unused to the style of high socialist realism demanded by Grossman’s censors.

Yet while the many labors sustaining such a gargantuan war effort don’t have the same urgency as other sections, this owes less to Grossman’s lack of expertise regarding industrial life (in fact, he had worked in the Donbass as a mining engineer before the war) than to the convincing realism of his portrayal of everyday life at the front. Grossman was one of the USSR’s most famous and experienced war journalists — second only to Ilya Ehrenburg, with whom he co-authored the long-suppressed The Black Book of Soviet Jewry. Like his late 1943 article “Ukraine Without Jews” — pulled at the last minute by the editors of literary magazine Znamya — Grossman also had to struggle to have his “The Hell of Treblinka” published. Distributed by the Soviet delegation at the Nuremberg trials, it was one of the first journalistic accounts of its kind.

As historian Sheila Fitzpatrick has written, “Soviet leaders (and, as far as can be ascertained, the majority of the Soviet population as well) were always uneasy about any suggestion that the Soviet people were not the chief victims of Nazism, and therefore they tended to play down the special status of Jews as Nazi victims.” Having lost his mother in the extermination of the Berdichev ghetto, this attitude was to have a profound impact on Grossman’s later writing and outlook.

Social History

As in Life and Fate, Grossman’s understated yet redolent literary style is most obvious in Stalingrad when it comes to characterizing the confused, vulnerable, and isolated rather than the certain and the fanatical. Grossman’s empathetic and humanistic approach to his subjects appears most powerfully in scenes like when Viktor Shtrum receives a posthumous letter from his mother in the Berdichev ghetto (echoing the fate of the author’s own mother); or when an orphanage crosses the Volga as German planes bomb and strafe (Boris Pasternak’s favorite part of For a Just Cause); or when Stalingrad’s confused dogs, horses, cats, dogs, and birds wildly flee into the river or take refuge in the pits and crevices as German bombardment turns the city into a fireball:

Only the white doves and blue rock pigeons, chained to their dwellings by an instinct more powerful than that of self-preservation, went on circling over the burning buildings. Caught by fierce currents of incandescent air, they perished in smoke and flame.

Conceived and (re)written between 1943 and 1952, Stalingrad is embedded with a structure of feeling indelibly linked, though in the last instance autonomous from, the official state discourse which smatters the novel. Indeed, additional text from non-published and withheld editions adds to the novel, while the translators’ excellent description of what was excised from the official editions — and why — offer a fascinating insight into the minds of Soviet censors (the unprofessionalism inherent in talk of dirty hands, thievery, and tardy commanders could be as problematic as divisive political ideas).

The power of the novel lies less in its literary conceit as a Tolstoyan novel than as a fictionalized work of social or even oral history. Unlike Tolstoy’s writing — which took place more than forty years after his novel’s time period ends — Grossman was writing in the war’s immediate aftermath with the pressure to portray in realistic terms the immediate and pressing memory of the extraordinary resistance he had witnessed as a journalist. As his war diaries show, Grossman had the ability to extract information from individuals through conversation, amassing a whole library of character portraits of which his fictionalized individuals are often but an amalgam. Grossman recounts an under-pressure commander in a battle of 1944 turning to him and saying, “Well, I may be sweating now, but after the war it will be the writers’ turn to sweat as they try to describe all this.”

Opaque Representations

Reading Stalingrad is an uncanny experience — the line between historical characters and their fictional representations is all the more evocative due to their opaqueness. With some exceptions, rich and variegated character portraits escape the strictures of classic socialist realism on the model of Ostrovsky’s How the Steel Was Tempered. One of the most memorable parts of the Stalingrad is when one of the dilogy’s most important figures — political commissar and former Comintern agent Krymov — leads a motley crew of two hundred soldiers, sailors, pilots, factory workers, and assorted misfits to break out of German encirclement near Kiev. They trudge back towards the Soviet front line through forest, river, swamp, constant hunger, and occasional firefights. Krymov’s experiences remarkably matches the actual attempt of political education commissar Ivan Shabalin of the 50th Army, who perished while trying to break out of the Ukrainian Bryansk pocket and whose recovered diary survived the war. Through Krymov, Grossman boldly rescues the memory of those who fought behind enemy lines during the Red Army’s retreat. Encircled troops caught behind enemy lines had been treated either as those responsible for allowing the Germans so deep into Soviet territory or — if they survived — as potential traitors, spies, and security threats. “What Krymov’s men needed more than anything was certainty,” Grossman writes.”‘So strong was their desire to overcome all doubt that they often chose to devote their short, precious hours of rest to serious discussion rather than to sleep over questions like whether when Communism was established ‘would both bread and boots be distributed to everyone free of charge?’”

Krymov’s life had taken shape in a world of Communist ideals; more than that, it was woven from these ideals … there was no doubting Krymov’s moral strength.

Life and Fate makes much more sense as a novel with the development of many of its characters in Stalingrad. The accusation and interrogation of the model Bolshevik Krymov in Life and Fate appears all the more tragic in relation to this previous history. Krymov is in many ways a vector for Grossman’s own disenchantment with his previous commitment. In this regard, he appears as a truly tragic figure who, alongside that of Viktor Shtrum, is Grossman’s vessel to channel his own clearly tortured relationship with the Soviet Union. As Keith Gessen wrote in the New Yorker on Life and Fate, whereas “Solzhenitsyn thought the old revolutionaries were despicable criminals; Grossman prefers to say that, for the most part, they were terribly, tragically mistaken, and most of them paid for it with their lives.”

Gatekeepers of Memory

Unlike the latter part of Grossman’s dilogy, Stalingrad has taken decades to publish. Grossman’s English-language translators argues this is due to two primary reasons: the obstinacy of “Cold War thinking” which dismissed any major work published under Stalinist auspices and that none of the published editions in any language “do justice to Grossman’s original vision of the novel.” Robert Chandler discretely suggests in the book’s introduction that the disparaging attitude of prominent gatekeepers had meant he had previously shied from reading the book. One late and eminent British historian thought it “deadened by its ideological conformity,” encouraging readers to see Life and Fate and For a Just Cause (now expanded as Stalingrad) as “separate novels that happen to portray some of the same characters.” The book was assumed to be a “Socialist Realist dog” with persona represented as merely “names with problems.” Indeed, many of the recent reviews of Stalingrad read as if they were excuses to re-review Life and Fate, barely mentioning the new book.

That Life and Fate’s prequel was a curious “dud” was taken for granted. Eight eventful years of repression and censorship between first and second novel was assumed enough time for Grossman to “digest his experiences” before writing Life and Fate — a process having culminated in the “Doctors’ Plot.” By including a character dialogue which drew comparison between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Life and Fate appealed to neoconservative forces resurgent from the 1980s seeking to draw parallels between the two. One leading British historian of Russia positively commented that Grossman had “portrayed the Nazi and Soviet regimes, not as opposites, but as mirror images of each other.”

In fact, Grossman was far too astute to draw such a moral equivalence between the two — even if some of his posthumous supporters seek to read him as doing just that. Indeed, the fact that Grossman was considered “too Soviet-minded” a writer delayed his proper appreciation in the West. That he could ever have been a “Soviet-minded” author is awkward for those who want to argue — as does a new biography this year — that he has “the mentality of a man from the free world” who is “essential to understanding Russia’s totalitarian past and authoritarian present.” The pre–Life and Fate Grossman is somewhat of an embarrassment for those for whom his canonization depends on his immaculate conception as critic of totalitarianism.

Mirror Image?

Stalingrad makes no such equation between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Grossman’s use of “Aesopian language” to hint or allegorize the unsayable — with self-criticism of a Nazi officer argued by one reviewer to be a subliminal criticism of the USSR’s similar totalitarianism — is the limit to this form of exegesis. Even when text from alternate versions rejected by the censors is put back in, the novel clearly seeks to foreground the role of Soviet troops and the steadfastness of their officers and political commissars.

Indeed, any narrative of “mirror images” seems forced when read alongside Grossman’s searing account of the Soviet defense of Stalingrad’s railway station. Robert Chandler is not bending the stick too far when he argues that this description “can stand comparison with the Iliad.” Filyashkin’s battalion constitute one of the book’s “longest threads,” writes Grossman: “The dead — most of whose names are forgotten — lived on during the Battle of Stalingrad. They were among the founders of a Stalingrad tradition that was transmitted from heart to heart, without words.”

The description of the encircled and outnumbered Soviet soldiers, facing certain death, fighting to the last man in a last-ditch attempt to gain time for reinforcements to enter the city, is all the more extraordinary due to its rarity of exposition outside the (former) Soviet Union. Classic Soviet war films such as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood, Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying, and Grigory Chukhray’s Ballad of a Soldier are notably sparse of actual combat while memoirs or interviews like those of Viktor Nekrasov (Front-Line Stalingrad) or Alexander Bek (Volokolamsk Highway) are little read today.

Historian Jochen Hellbeck quotes from the official SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps from October 29, 1942 on the kind of courage and sacrifice that comes through from Grossman’s narrative: “The Bolshevists attack until total exhaustion, and defend themselves until the physical extermination of the last man and weapon … Sometimes the individual will fight beyond the point considered humanly possible.” That they would fight in such a way was unthinkable to the Germans — the Bolsheviks were of another “race,” a “baser, dim-witted humanity” unable “to recognize the meaning and value of life” — unlike their European aggressors. At the end of the battle for the railway station, Grossman describes a German soldier Lenard touching the bodies of the Soviet troops “with the toes of his elegant boots …

wondering if they might contain some secret. What, he wanted to know, was the hidden source of the grim, monstrous obstinacy of these men now lying dead on the ground?

If we are to follow those who read Grossman as a consistent advocate of the “mirror image” thesis, then these Soviet soldiers who fought with such ferocity are but mistaken dupes. By a ruse of reason too complicated for them to understand, these Soviet soldiers died to replace one totalitarianism with another. The logical route of the “equivalence” argument is that it would have been better if they had stayed on the east back of the Volga and let their country (and then the world) be overrun. Were the anti-fascist forces all over the world who looked to Stalingrad in late 1942, seeing it as the last chance to stop Nazism, similarly deluded? The notion that the immediate personal and moral authority of Grossman’s painstakingly reconstructed characters is the “mirror image” of their fascist opponents cannot be sustained by a reading of Stalingrad, as much as some fans of Life and Fate would wish it.

A magisterial work of translation and research, Stalingrad is a different though complementary novel to Life and Fate. Together, they tell the story not only of a society in a war for its existence as if through the voices of its members, but also of the tribulations of a complex author attempting and then failing to reconcile his commitment to the Soviet Union with the scale of the crimes committed in its name.

Stalingrad’s overdue appearance is a cultural landmark in a Europe whose anti-fascist legacy is more and more contested. In such a context, Grossman’s words from June 1945 seem all the more apposite:

And so the time has now come for us writers to shoulder our responsibility … Do we understand that it is we who, more resolutely than anyone, must now enter into battle against the forces of forgetfulness, against the slow and implacable flow of the river of time?