A WRITER AT WAR (Beyond Propaganda)
(Courtesy: Richard Wong)
A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945
by Vasily Grossman. Edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova
To what extent does A Writer at War present the "ruthless truth of war"? Assembled by editors Antony Beevor (Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall 1945) and Luba Vinogradova from a collection of hitherto unpublished notes taken by Soviet journalist/ novelist Vasily Grossman during his time with the Red Army from 1941 to 1945, A Writer at War provides a rare insider's look into the private life and psyche of the author, as well as the war's soldiers, civilians, and victims.
Born in 1905 in Berdichev, Ukraine, to a middle-class, educated Jewish family, Iosif Solomonovich Grossman received the Russified Vasily from his Russian caregiver. Shortly after the revolution, a thirteen-year-old Grossman returned home from Switzerlandùwhere he had lived for two years with his motherùto a permanently transformed Berdichev, scarred first by the German conquest, and soon afterwards by the civil war between the Red and White armies battling for control of the country. It was during this time that the young Grossman saw for himself the dichotomous nature of the revolution. This period of his lifeùduring which the spectre of random death was visited upon friends and enemies alike, and with anti-Semitic pogroms destroying approximately one-third of the Jewish population in Ukraineùwas to resonate with his experiences, many years later, in the Second World War.
After graduating from Moscow University with a degree in chemistry, Grossman found work as an engineer, but by the early 1930s he decided to devote himself full-time to his real passion: writing. In April 1934, Grossman published the acclaimed short story In the Town of Berdichev (a tale set during the civil war in which a pregnant female political commissar finds refuge with a poor Jewish family), proving that for him, the pivotal, violent period in the early decades of the 20th century, in addition to the theme of anti-Semitism, would continue to haunt the writer and provide him with inspiration for his later work.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and without hesitation, Grossman rushed to volunteer to fight. However, at thirty-five years of age and physically unsuitable for combat, this "completely civilian person," as his daughter Ekaterina Korotkova-Grossman recalled, was assigned instead to become a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda or Red Star. Grossman's notes begin on August 5, 1941. His insistenceùsometimes against the wishes of his superiorsùthat he be at the front and mingling with the fighting troops eventually took him to all the key events on the Eastern Front. He was with the Red Army during its disastrous first few weeks; he was at Kursk, describing the world's largest tank battle; he lived the grind-it-out fighting in Stalingrad; he saw the death factory that was Treblinka; he witnessed the last, desperate gasps of the Nazi regime in Berlin. In total, Grossman would end up spending over one thousand days dodging bullets to detail the fighting and record the enormous, wrenching human costs of the war.
Rarely do Beevor and Vinogradova venture as far as to opine about Grossman's observations; instead, their narrative serves to contextualise the journalist's notes and situate them chronologically. The two editors rightly keep their narrative frame to the background, so that the dominant voice effectively remains that of the writer at war. Anything more intrusive would be an affront to Grossman's potent prose, which he wields with a novelist's descriptive powers. In his seminal essay, "The Hell Called Treblinka" (later used at Nuremberg during the trial of several prominent Nazis charged after the war with crimes against humanity), he wrote of the final moments leading up to the gas chamber:
"Naked people were led to the cash office and asked to submit their documents and valuables . . . documents, which no one on earth any longer needed, were thrown on the groundùthese were the documents of naked people who would be lying in the earth an hour later. But gold and valuables were subject to a careful sorting. . . And an amazing thing was that the swine utilized everything, even paper and fabricùanything which could be useful to anyone, was important and useful to these swine. Only the most precious thing in the world, a human life, was trampled by their boots."
Even from the very beginning, Grossman distinguished himself with his uncompromising honesty; he made sure to note what he saw and felt accurately, and most importantly, he strove to write without prejudice. In the words of fellow Krasnaya Zvezda correspondent Ilya Ehrenberg, Grossman "was a true internationalist and reproached me frequently for saying 'Germans' instead of 'Hitler's men' when describing the atrocities of the occupiers." In "The Hell Called Treblinka", Grossman lays out the responsibilities of the writer and his reader: "It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it."
His work, as highly respected as it was, was tightly vetted, and some of his articles dealing with subjects considered defeatist or taboo within the Soviet Unionùsuch as desertion or collaboration with the enemy, and the categorical massacre of Jewsùwere either censored or never published. Even work that did not necessarily clash with the party line was edited, as was standard practice, to become more 'politically correct'. In a letter addressed to his second wife, Olga Mikhailovna, on December 5, 1942, during the particularly vicious winter fighting at Stalingrad, Grossman complained that "the editorial office has adopted a rule of cutting off the end of any essay, replacing dots with comas, crossing out the descriptions that I particularly like, changing titles and inserting phrases like: 'This faith and love virtually made miracles.'" Such editing should not have surprised Grossman, as every issue of the widely read Krasnaya Zveda was read page by page, line by line, by none other than Joseph Stalin himself, before being sent to the presses.
Despite the aforementioned tinkering, Grossman's writing never lost its intended effect of providing clarity, veracity, and education for his readership about the brutalising effects of war on both friend and foe. It was not his objective to glorify the bloody struggleùhowever just and necessary it was to crush Hitler's murderous regimeùbut to show readers how humanity and civilisation had been stripped from soldiers and civilians alike in these murderous years.
"Finally, after a successful attack on a German column, the fighters returned and landed. The lead aircraft had human flesh stuck in the radiator . . . Poppe, the leader, is picking the meat out with a file. They summon a doctor who examines the bloody mass attentively and pronounces [it] 'Aryan meat!' Everyone laughs. Yes, a pitiless timeùa time of ironùhas come!"
Grossman refused to act as an organ for Stalin's propaganda machine in any way. He noted down the lawlessness of the Red Armyùwhich he once admired for its tenacity and resiliency in the first desperate days of the warùon German territory: atrocities ranged from the gang raping of young girls to looting to arson. His writing was microcosmic in scope, reflecting the shock of discovering that many Ukrainian villages had voluntarily helped the Germans round up Jews for mass execution, say, or recording the reply of a divisional commander to his second-in-command wanting additional directions on the use of flares ("I shit on your flares. Sit down and have dinner with me"). It was this, as opposed to the dispassionate and more encompassing reports of army group movements, tank thrusts, or division-level counterattacks, that has made his writing so enduring.
However much death and destruction he was witness to in his lifetime, Grossman never lost the ability to be touched by anguish, grief, or sorrow; the war had not succeeded in dehumanising him the way it had so many of his subjects. In a letter to Olga in late 1942, on hearing of the death of her son, Misha (one of two sons from her previous marriage), he awkwardly wrote, "Don't give way to despair. There is so much sorrow around us . . . [Others] work, they look forward to victory, they don't lose their spirits. And in what hard conditions they had to survive!" This clumsiness, an inability to adequately express himself in wordsùsomething he never had to contend with when writing about othersùat this private moment of familial loss showed his other side, that side of him that had been there all along: not the famous journalist or novelist, but like many others, a man caught up in a miserable war he didn't want.