Saturday, December 12, 2015

Life and fate

‘Stalingrad is burned down. I would have to write too much if I wanted to describe it. Stalingrad is burned down. Stalingrad is in ashes. It is dead.’ This is from the diary notebooks kept by Vasily Grossman, born 110 years ago today, during his 1,000 days with the Red Army during the Second World War. After the war, he fell foul of the Stalinest regime which prohibited publication of his novels, and he died without knowing how famous one of them would become.

Iosif Solomonovich Grossman was born on 12 December 1905 in Berdychiv, Ukraine (then in the Russian Empire) into a Jewish family. A Russian nanny is said to have been responsible for first calling him Vasya (a diminutive of Vasily). His parents separated, and for several years he lived in Switzerland with his mother, before returning to Kiev to stay with his father. He studied physics and mathematics at Moscow State University, and married Anna (Galia) Petrovna Matsuk from a Cossack family in 1929. They had one child, born in 1930, but divorced two years later.

Grossman went to work in Donbass as an engineer-chemist, writing occasional articles for the Literary Donbass. After recuperating from tuberculosis, he returned to Moscow and worked in a pencil factory. However, he was determined to pursue a literary career and, in 1934, published a much-admired short story, In the Town of Berdichev, and a novella, Glyukauf, about the Donbass miners. In 1936, he married Olga Mikhailovna, days after her divorce from a friend of his. During 1937, Grossman was admitted to the Union of Soviet Writers, but also Olga was arrested for not having denounced her former husband, considered an enemy of the state. Grossman first registered himself as guardian of Olga’s two children, and then bravely wrote to the state authorities arguing for, and winning, Olga’s release. Grossman’s first full novel Stepan Kolchugin was published in instalments between 1937 and 1940.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman’s mother was murdered in Berdychiv along with thousands of other Jews, and although exempt from military service he volunteered for the front, becoming a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). He used his experience - covering many of battles of the war years, not least Stalingrad - for novels such as The People are Immortal and For a Just Cause (not fully published until after Stalin’s death). Also, he is credited with reporting some of the first eyewitness accounts - as early as 1943 - at Treblinka of what later became known as the Holocaust. He worked with other writers on a project known as The Black Book to document the horrors suffered by Soviet Jews at the hands of the Nazis, but became disillusioned with Stalin’s regime when it suppressed the work.

Grossman became critical of other Soviet policies, a dissident, and few of his works, thereafter were published. After submitting, what is now considered his magnum opus, the novel Life and Fate (a semi-autobiographical sequel to For a Just Cause), the KGB raided his flat and confiscated all related manuscripts. He appealed to Nikita Khrushchev, but to no avail; and he died in 1964, not knowing whether Life and Fate would ever see the light of day. In fact, it was finally published in 1980 in Switzerland thanks to dissidents smuggling out photographs of the text, and then in the Soviet Union in 1988. Further biographical information is available at Wikipedia, New World Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Soviet Writers, and Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature (page 64, viewable at Googlebooks).

During the war, while embedded with the Red Army, Grossman kept detailed diaries or notebooks. These were edited, translated and weaved into a narrative by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova for
 publication by The Harvill Press in 2005 as A Writer at War - Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945. The authors say: ‘The notebooks reveal a good deal of the raw material which he accumulated for his novels as well as his articles. Grossman, a special correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, or Red Star, proved to be the most perceptive and honest eyewitness of the Soviet frontlines between 1941 and 1945. He spent more than a thousand days at the front - nearly three out of the four years of war. The sharpness of his observation and the humanity of his understanding offer and invaluable lesson for any writer and historian.’ The book (now in paperback under the Pimlico imprint) can be previewed at Random House or Googlebooks. And a review by Andrey Kurkov can be read in The Guardian.

Much of Grossman’s writing, as translated, in the book does read like a diary. However, as all of his words are woven into the authors’ text, particular entries are rarely given a specific date (whether or not there was one in the originals) - thus all the extracts below are undated.

‘The headquarters has been set up in the Paskevich Palace. There is a wonderful park, and a lake with swans. Lots of slit trenches have been dug everywhere. Chief of the political department of the front, Brigade Commander Kozlov, receives us. He tells us that the Military Council is very alarmed by the news that arrived yesterday. The Germans have taken Roslavl and assembled a great tank force there. Their commander is Guderian, author of the book Achtung-Panzer!.

We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper. I came across the following phrase in a leading article: ‘The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.’

We sleep on the floor in the library of the ‘Komintern’ club, keeping our boots on, and using gas masks and field pouches as pillows. We have dinner at the canteen of the headquarters. It is situated in the park, in an amusing multicolored pavilion. They feed us well, as if we were in a dom otdykha [Soviet house of rest] before the war. There’s sour cream, curds, and even ice-cream as a dessert.’


‘We came under fire near a cemetery. We hid beneath a tree. A truck was standing there, and in it was a dead rifleman-signaller, covered with a tarpaulin. Red Army soldiers were digging a grave for him nearby. When there’s a raid of Mssers, the soldiers try to hide in ditches. The lieutenant shouts: ‘Carry on digging, otherwise we won’t finish until the evening.’ Korol hides in the new grave, while everyone runs in different directions. Only the dead signaller is lying full length, and machine guns are chattering above him.’


‘Cucumbers. Four men from the fruit and vegetable store load cucumbers at the station, during a bombing raid. They are crying with fear, get drunk, and in the evenings they recount, with Ukrainian humour, how scared they were and laugh at one another, eating honey, salo [pork lard], garlic and tomatoes. One of them imitates wonderfully the howling and explosion of a bomb.

B. Korol is teaching them how to use a hand grenade. He thinks they’ll become partisans under German occupation, while I sense from their conversation that they are ready to work for the Germans. One of them, who wants to be an agronomist for this area, looks at Korol as if he were an imbecile.’


‘Spent the night  in the house of the RAIKOM chairman. He talks about collective farms, and about chairmen of collective farms who take their livestock far into the steppe and live like kings there, slaughtering heifers, drinking milk, buying and selling. (And a cow now costs 40,000 roubles).

Women talking in the kitchen of the RAIKOM canteen: ‘Oh this Hitler, he’s a real Satan! And we used to say that communists were Satans.’


‘Stalingrad is burned down. I would have to write too much if I wanted to describe it. Stalingrad is burned down. Stalingrad is in ashes. It is dead. People are in basements. Everything is burned out. The hot walls of the buildings are like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and haven’t gone cold yet.

Huge buildings, memorials, public gardens. Signs: ‘Cross here.’ Heaps of wires, a cat sleeping on a window sill, flowers and grass in flowerpots. A wooden pavilion where they sold fizzy water is standing, miraculously intact among thousands of huge stone buildings burned and half destroyed. It is like Pompeii, seized by disaster on a day when everything was flourishing. Trams and cars with no glass in their windows. Burned-out houses with memorial plaques: ‘I. V Stalin spoke here in 1919’.

Building of a children’s hospital with a gypsum bird on the roof. One wing is broken off, the other stretched out to fly. The Palace of Culture: the building is black, velvety from fire, and two snow-white nude statues stand out against this background.

There are children wandering about, there are many laughing faces. Many people are half insane.

Sunset over a square. A terrifying and strange beauty: the light pink sky is looking through thousands and thousands of empty windows and roofs. A huge poster painted in vulgar colours: ‘The radiant way’.

A feeling of calm. The city has died after much suffering and looks like the face of a dead man who was suffering from a lethal disease and finally has found eternal peace. Bombing again, bombing of the dead city.’

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