I’ve been chewing through Vasily Grossman‘s “Stalingrad”. From the first pages one can see that this book, recently published as an English translation, was a product of Stalin’s Soviet Union. When it first saw the light of day, in 1952, its name had been changed to “A Just Cause.” The new English version was given its first name back, and material was added from the original manuscript.
The heavy hand of the censor and the pervasive reach of Soviet doctrine is all-too-clear in this work. As such, this alone makes the book an interesting read; we can see into the mind of a man born into the Soviet Union, see the thought processes of the children of the Russian Revolution. Mr. Grossman speaks of “entire classes” swept from history, he paints portraits of ideal New Soviet Men. There is a “shock” coal miner, a selfless collective farm worker, scientists, industrial leaders, exemplary political officers, doctors and legions of brave Red Army soldiers. The Gulag, the secret police, the many repressive organs of the State are only obliquely referred to.
I can’t hold this against Grossman. If he was to have any chance at all of his work being published, he had to toe the party line. That there was even a passing mention of the dark underbelly of the Soviet state was almost foolishly bold in Stalin’s time. Grossman was a brave man and an excellent, analytical writer. His subsequent books were repressed for political reasons, and he died forgotten in 1964 of stomach cancer.
But what a legacy he left behind. As a reporter for the “Red Star,” he covered much of the major action on the Eastern Front in WW2. The Frontier battles and the fight for Moscow in 1941. Stalingrad. Kursk. The drive to Berlin, the liberation of death camps. Grossman was there; no wonder that his portrayal of the enemy in “Stalingrad” is damning, vitriolic, and tinged with raw hatred. After all, his own mother was killed in the war. He wanted to write his novels while the memory of the war was still fresh, and he did.
“Stalingrad” is quite a book. It starts slowly, and it takes some patience on the part of the reader to persist. There are a bewildering range of characters, I found myself getting lost in how they were all related to one another; one almost needs a flow-chart to keep them unentangled. From time to time I found myself getting thrown out of the story by statements Grossman made about the self-explanatory goodness of the Revolution and the benefits of life under the Soviet state.
Every time this happened I reminded myself of the circumstances in which he wrote this book, the frigid Cold War with a living Josef Stalin in the Kremlin. Grossman was literally one phone call away from a stretch in the camps or a bullet in the neck. He speaks repeatedly of “freedom loving Soviet men” in the book, all the while knowing, living, the lie behind the phrase.
But I digress. The book picks up the pace like a steam locomotive, we watch as the city of Stalingrad transforms from a place where kids play in the streets to a city under siege, to the worst sort of maelstrom; the deadliest place on Earth in 1942-43. All the threads come together into a city transformed into hell, a place where a soldier’s life expectancy was reduced to hours, minutes.
One passage toward the end of the book really stuck with me. Grossman describes a mortar and artillery attack in terms I’ve heard or read nowhere else; he was either a first-hand, very experienced connoisseur of death by explosives or a damn good reporter of those who had such knowledge. Me? I think he was both, and he must have written down exactly what it’s like to be “blown up” immediately after the fact. His description of the different sounds varying types of shrapnel make is accurate, harrowing.
And all too often the shrapnel found its intended target. No-one is spared in Grossman’s merciless work.
Unlike a lot of his readers, I didn’t read the follow-on novel “Life and Fate” first (it was translated and published into English earlier). I’m glad this wasn’t the case because now I can flow into book two without an issue.
At the beginning of “Stalingrad” I wasn’t sure I wanted to read “Life and Fate.”
Grossman, however, convinced me otherwise.
“Stalingrad” is essential reading for those who want to make some sense of the human condition’s unique madness- war.
A recommended reward for the patient reader.