The Soviet Tolstoy’s Forgotten Novel

Vasily Grossman. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate has been hailed as a twentieth-century War and Peace. It has been translated into most European languages, and also into Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, and Vietnamese. There have been stage productions, TV series, and an eight-hour BBC radio dramatization. Most readers, however, have been unaware that Grossman did not originally conceive of Life and Fate as a self-contained novel. It is, rather, the second of two closely related novels about the Battle of Stalingrad—it is probably simplest to refer to it as a dilogy. The first of these two novels was initially published in 1952, in a heavily censored edition and under the title For a Just Cause. Grossman, however, had wanted to call it Stalingrad—and that is how we have titled it in the novel’s first English translation.

The characters in the two novels are largely the same, and so is the story line; Life and Fate picks up where Stalingrad ends, in late September 1942. Ikonnikov’s essay on senseless kindness—now a part of Life and Fate and often seen as central to it—was originally a part of Stalingrad. Another of the most memorable elements of Life and Fate—the letter written by Viktor Shtrum’s mother about her last days in the Berdichev ghetto—is of central importance to both novels. The actual words of the letter were probably always intended for Life and Fate, but it is in Stalingrad that Grossman tells us how the letter reached Viktor and what he felt when he read it.

Grossman completed Life and Fate almost fifteen years after he first started work on Stalingrad. Life and Fate is, among other things, a considered statement of his moral and political philosophy—a meditation on the nature of totalitarianism, the danger presented by even the most seemingly benign of ideologies, and the moral responsibility of each individual for his own actions. It is this philosophical depth that has led many readers to speak of the novel as having changed their lives. Stalingrad, in contrast, is less philosophical but more immediate; it presents us with a richer, more varied human story.

Grossman worked as a frontline war correspondent throughout nearly all the four years of the Soviet–German war. He had a powerful memory and an unusual ability to get people from every walk of life to talk openly to him; he also had relatively free access, during the war years, to a wealth of military reports. His wartime notebooks include potted biographies of hundreds of individuals, scraps of dialogue, and sudden insights and unexpected observations of all kinds. Much of this material found its way into Stalingrad and it endows the novel with great vitality and a certain democratic quality; Grossman writes with equal delicacy and respect about the experiences of a senior Red Army general, a newly recruited militiaman, or a terrified housewife. He even devotes a surprising amount of space to the effects of the Battle of Stalingrad on the lives of dogs, cats, camels, rodents, birds, fish, and insects in the surrounding steppe.

Few war correspondents can have experienced so many aspects of war in only a few years without becoming desensitized. Grossman’s extended analysis of the mood of a retreating army is subtle and penetrating. His evocation of the thoughts and feelings of the inhabitants of a large city subjected to a massive bombing raid is almost encyclopedic. And the account of the defense of the Stalingrad railway station can stand comparison with the Iliad; Grossman’s evocation of the inner life of young men who know they are certain to die within the next twenty-four hours is remarkably convincing.

Grossman is a master of character portrayal, with an unusual gift for conveying feelings through some tiny but vivid detail. The quiet, modest Major Berozkin, for example, has lost touch with his wife and does not know if she is still alive. Grossman tells us that, on sitting down to an unusually lavish meal, Berozkin “touched the tomatoes, hoping to find one that was fully ripe but not going soft. Then he felt embarrassed, thinking sadly how Tamara used to tell him off for doing exactly this. She didn’t like him fingering the tomatoes or cucumbers on a shared dish.”

Grossman is equally deft in his repeated shifts of perspective, moving between the microscopic and the epic and showing the same generous understanding toward his German characters as toward his Russian. One of his most interesting creations is Lieutenant Bach, an intellectual and former dissident who gradually yields to the seductions of Nazi ideology. A company commander in one of the first divisions to cross the Don, he feels himself to be a participant in a venture of epic grandeur:

He rose to his full height and stamped his foot against the ground. He felt as if he were kicking the sky … He could feel, it seemed, with his skin, with his whole body the furthest reaches of this alien land he had crossed. Perhaps he was stronger now than in the days when he glanced anxiously at the door as he whispered his secret thoughts. Had he truly understood what the great minds of the past would have made of the present day? Were those great minds now aligned with this resounding, triumphant force or were they on the side of those whispering old men and women who smelled of mothballs?

A thousand pages later, in the last part of Life and Fate, Lieutenant Bach realizes he has been deluded. This, perhaps, will come as no surprise to the reader; what is astonishing is Grossman’s ability to enable us to sense how easily we, too, might have been deluded.

*

Stalingrad is one of the great novels of the last century. If it has been overshadowed by its sequel, this is probably for two main reasons. First, we are still in thrall to Cold War thinking; people have been unable to conceive that a novel first published during Stalin’s last years, when his dictatorship was at its most rigid, might deserve our attention. Eminent figures have been dismissive of Stalingrad and it has been easy to assume that there must be good reason for this. I, too, made this lazy assumption for many years and I am grateful to the historian Jochen Hellbeck for persuading me—albeit belatedly—to read the novel and judge for myself.

A second reason is that none of the previously published editions of Stalingrad, in Russian or any other language, do justice to Grossman’s original vision of the novel. There are many bold, witty, vivid, and perceptive passages in his early typescripts that have never been published and have probably been read by only a few dozen people. Grossman’s editors—who, like all Soviet editors, also played the role of censors—required him to delete them, and scholars have yet to study and publish the wealth of material preserved in his archive. In this translation we have, wherever possible, restored these passages. It is an honor to be in a position to publish some of Grossman’s finest writing for the first time. My hope is that this may allow readers to recognize the full breadth, humor, and emotional generosity of another of Grossman’s masterpieces.

*

War and Peace has probably never been as widely read as in the Soviet Union during World War II. The authorities had every reason to promote the novel. Tolstoy was seen as a forerunner of socialist realism and the novel’s implications for the outcome of the war were obviously positive. War and Peace was broadcast at length on the radio. The two generals who played the most important roles in the defense of Stalingrad both spoke afterward about how important Tolstoy had been to them; General Rodimtsev said he read the novel three times and General Chuikov said in a 1943 interview that Tolstoy’s generals were the model by which he judged his own performance. The People’s Commissariat for Education printed brochures with instructions on how to summarize War and Peace and explain the novel to soldiers.

In late August and early September 1941, Grossman’s mother, Yekaterina Savelievna, used a French translation of War and Peace to teach French to the children of the doctor with whom she lived during her last weeks in the Berdichev ghetto, before being shot by the Nazis. As for Grossman himself, he wrote, “During the whole war, the only book that I read was War and Peace, which I read twice.” And Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, concludes a brief summary of her volume of memoirs with the words: “I remember a letter of his from Stalingrad: ‘Bombers. Shelling. Hellish thunder. It’s impossible to read.’ And then, unexpectedly: ‘It’s impossible to read anything except War and Peace.’ ”

The Soviet literary and political establishment wanted a Red Tolstoy, a Tolstoy for the Soviet era. A short article published by Grossman on June 23, 1945, testifies both to his determination to take on the challenge and to his awareness of the responsibility involved. Grossman begins by evoking the atmosphere in an infantry division command post during a hard-fought battle in 1944. The divisional commander is under great pressure; his immediate superior is yelling at him down the field telephone and his subordinates are begging for support he is unable to offer. At one point, Grossman imagines himself in the commander’s shoes, bearing such a weight of responsibility. “Just then, as if reading my mind, the commander—who had seemed to have forgotten I was there—suddenly turned to me and smiled. Still smiling, he said with a certain schadenfreude, ‘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.’ ” Grossman then returns to the present, late June 1945, only six weeks after the German surrender: “And so, the time has now come for us writers to shoulder our responsibility. Do we understand the magnitude of this noble and far from simple task? 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?” Grossman concludes: “Are our labours worthy to stand beside the great literature of the past? Can they serve as an example to the future? Today we can only answer in the negative. And this makes it all the more painful when, in our literary milieu, we sometimes encounter a certain boastful presumptuousness, a lazy, self-satisfied contentment with the paltry results of hurried and superficial work.”

Structurally, the Stalingrad dilogy is clearly modeled on War and Peace, and Grossman directly refers to Tolstoy several times. It would have been unlike Grossman, however, to imagine he could simply copy his predecessor. His first step was to question him. Grossman visited Tolstoy’s Yasnaya Polyana estate in the autumn of 1941 and the following paragraphs from Stalingrad, which Grossman reproduced almost verbatim from his wartime notebooks, clearly convey his own thoughts and feelings. Here, as elsewhere in Stalingrad, Commissar Krymov is Grossman’s mouthpiece:

The storm that had flung open every door in Russia, that had driven people out of their warm homes and onto black autumn roads, sparing neither peaceful city apartments, nor village huts, nor hamlets deep in the forest, had treated Leo Tolstoy’s home no less harshly. It too was preparing to leave, in rain and snow, along with the entire country, the entire people. Yasnaya Polyana was a living, suffering Russian home—one of thousand upon thousand of such homes. With absolute clarity, Krymov saw in his mind Bald Hills and the old, sick prince. The present merged with the past; today’s events were one with what Tolstoy described with such truth and power that it had become the supreme reality of a war that ran its course 130 years ago

… And then Tolstoy’s granddaughter Sofya Andreyevna came out of the house, calm, downcast, shivering a little in spite of the coat thrown over her shoulders. Once again Krymov did not know whether this was Princess Maria, going out for a last walk around the garden before the French arrived, or whether it was Lev Tolstoy’s elderly granddaughter scrupulously fulfilling the demands of her fate: applying all her heart and soul, as she prepared to leave, to checking the accuracy of her grandfather’s account of the princess’s earlier departure from this same house.

At this point Krymov seems to see little difference between the two wars. Later, however, he comes to understand that the atrocities of World War II were on a different scale from anything imagined by Tolstoy:

Krymov looked at the wounded who had fallen by the wayside, at their grim, tormented faces, and wondered if these men would ever enter the pages of books. This was not a sight for those who wanted to clothe the war in fine robes. He remembered a night-time conversation with an elderly soldier whose face he had been unable to see. They had been lying in a gully, with only a greatcoat to cover them. The writers of future books had better avoid listening to conversations like that. It was all very well for Tolstoy—he wrote his great and splendid book decades after 1812, when the pain felt in every heart had faded and only what was wise and bright was remembered.

Grossman, of course, knew only too well that his position was very different from Tolstoy’s. Tolstoy had relatively few problems with censors, whereas Grossman battled editors and censors throughout his career. Much of what he wrote in the thirties was bowdlerized. And from 1943 to 1946, along with Ilya Ehrenburg, he had worked for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee on The Black Book, a collection of eyewitness accounts of the Shoah on Soviet and Polish soil.

A Soviet edition of The Black Book had been ready for production in 1946, but in February 1947 Georgy Alexandrov, the head of the Agitprop Section of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, declared that “the book presents a distorted picture of the real nature of Fascism [since the impression it gave was that] the Germans fought against the Soviets only in order to annihilate the Jews.” A final decision not to publish The Black Book was announced in August 1947, and in 1948 the plates were destroyed. Now that the war had been won, now that there was no longer any need to solicit international support against Hitler, no amount of compromises by the editors could render The Black Book acceptable. Admitting that Jews constituted the overwhelming majority of those shot at Babi Yar and other Nazi execution sites might have led people to realize that members of other Soviet nationalities had been accomplices in the genocide. In any case, Stalin had no wish to emphasize Jewish suffering; anti-Semitism was a force that he could exploit in order to bolster support for his regime.

In the late spring of 1945, Grossman had taken over from Ehrenburg as head of the editorial board of The Black Book. Grossman’s mother had been shot at Berdichev and he himself had written the first published account of Treblinka. What he must have felt when The Black Book was aborted is hard to imagine. That he simply continued doggedly working on Stalingrad—his other great postwar project—testifies to an extraordinary strength of character.

*

It should come as no surprise that Stalingrad—written during the increasingly repressive and anti-Semitic last years of the Stalin regime—is haunted by the presence of what cannot be talked about. During a meeting at Viktor Shtrum’s institute, his colleague Maximov talks about his recent visit to German-occupied Czechoslovakia; he is appalled by what he has seen of the reality of fascism. The Nazi–Soviet nonaggression pact is still in force, so the institute director and another colleague try to silence him. In the early typescripts of Stalingrad, Viktor then encourages Maximov to write an article about fascism; Viktor hopes, audaciously, to publish it in the institute’s bulletin. Maximov writes no fewer than eighty pages and brings them round to Viktor’s dacha. But Hitler invaded the Soviet Union only a week later, and neither Viktor nor Grossman’s readers ever get to see so much as a word of this article. Viktor and Maximov do not even manage to talk about fascism together, even though both desperately want to.

A still more important document we never read is the last letter Viktor Shtrum receives from his mother, Anna Semyonovna. This is as powerful a presence in Stalingrad as in Life and Fate. We do not—in Stalingrad—get to read Anna’s words, but we read about her letter again and again. Grossman describes each stage of the letter’s journey from the Berdichev ghetto to Viktor’s dacha. Altogether, the letter is passed from hand to hand seven times. There are moments of black humor along the way. At one point the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy takes the letter to the Stalingrad apartment of Viktor’s mother-in-law, Alexandra Vladimirovna. When he hands it to Tamara, the young friend of the family who opens the door to him, she responds, “Heavens, what filthy paper—anyone would think it’s been lying in a cellar for the last two years.” And she promptly wraps it “in a sheet of the thick pink paper people use to make decorations for Christmas trees.”

Tamara then gives the package to Colonel Novikov, who is about to fly to Moscow. Novikov goes to Viktor’s apartment, where he happens to interrupt a romantic tête-à-tête between Viktor and a pretty young neighbor by the name of Nina. Viktor drops the package into his briefcase, then forgets about it. Twenty-four hours later, at his dacha, he momentarily mistakes it for a bar of chocolate—intended, at least in the early typescripts, as a present for this same Nina.

The morning after finally reading the letter Viktor looks at himself in the mirror, “expecting to see a haggard face with trembling lips.” He is surprised to find that he looks much the same as he did the day before. From then on Viktor carries the letter with him wherever he goes, but he is unable to talk about it. He can hardly even talk about it to himself:

Viktor reread the letter again and again. Each time he felt the same shock as at the dacha, as if he were reading it for the first time.

Perhaps his memory was instinctively resisting, unwilling and unable fully to take in something whose constant presence would make life unbearable.

After the suppression of The Black Book, Grossman must have been well aware that he could not write freely about the events Viktor’s mother describes. It seems likely that, rather than toning her letter down to make it acceptable, he took a conscious decision simply to leave a blank space, to replace her letter with an explicit, audible silence. If so, this is a powerful example of Grossman’s unusual ability to make creative use of editorial interference.

On the surface, the Stalingrad dilogy has much in common with War and Peace. Both include general reflections on history, politics, and philosophy. Both are divided between accounts of military and civilian life; the Stalingrad dilogy is structured around a single extended family as much as War and Peace is structured around a group of families who become linked by marriage. There is, however, a fundamental difference. For all Grossman’s appearance of being an omniscient and dispassionate narrator, his dilogy is more personal than War and Peace. Grossman, unlike Tolstoy, lived through the war he describes. He felt profoundly guilty about having allowed his mother to stay in Berdichev rather than insisting that she join him and his wife in Moscow. Her death troubled him for the rest of his life, and the last letter from Anna Semyonovna—who is clearly a portrait of Grossman’s mother—lies at the center of Stalingrad like a deep hole. Or, in Viktor’s words, “like an open grave.”

 

Robert Chandler’s translations from the Russian include works by Alexander Pushkin, Teffi, and Andrey Platonov. He has also written a short biography of Pushkin and has edited three anthologies of Russian literature for Penguin Classics. He runs a monthly translation workshop at Pushkin House in London.

Excerpted from the introduction to Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, out this week from New York Review Books. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Chandler.

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