A Writer at War:
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army,
Edited and translated
by Antony Beevor
and Luba Vinogradova
Knopf Canada, 416 pages, $39.95
The Second World War was lost and won not at Normandy or at Iwo Jima, as important as those battles were, but on the Eastern Front in Europe. It is there that the decisive encounters took place, on the outskirts of Moscow, at Stalingrad and at Kursk. It is there, amid the smoke and fury of battle, that incredible horrors took place, the genocide of the Jews and the mass murder, by the millions, of civilians.
As two brutal regimes, those of Hitler and Stalin, confronted each other, all rules of civilized engagement were abandoned and a new barbarism, germinating since the devastating inferno that was the First World War, became the norm. In this war of extermination ( Vernichtungskrieg) launched by Hitler, Russian losses were stunning, approaching 30 million. The Russians, many of them prodded by the heartless violence that had accompanied Bolshevism and Stalinism, responded in kind.
We in the West appreciate little about that war. We know a good deal about the Holocaust, but less about its broader context: life and strife, ethnic, religious and ideological, in the borderlands of Eastern Europe. But those conflicts bear lessons for us today, as similar confrontations now occur on a global scale, as the microcosm that was Eastern Europe has been transposed to the world stage. Our world has become one huge borderland.
This is why Vasily Grossman, who is virtually unknown in the West, is so important. His life amounted to a remarkable journey through the hell of what Osip Mandelstam called "the wolfhound century" to a spiritual transcendence by the end of his life. Born in Ukraine in 1905, Grossman moved to Moscow in 1923 to study chemistry. He then worked as an engineer in the Donbass coalfields in eastern Ukraine, but in 1932, having decided to become a writer, he returned to the Russian capital. His early work was tentative and conformed broadly to the rules of socialist realism. He played the game. When friends were arrested during the terror of the mid-1930s, he held his tongue. If not exactly a hack, he was an intellectual apparatchik.
His greatest work, Life and Fate, about the battle of Stalingrad, he would complete only in 1960. A work of Tolstoyan grandeur, it is luminous in its humanity, the exact reverse of his early work. Grossman had moved from subservience to revolt. The KGB under Nikita Khrushchev, who incidentally had been chief commissar for Stalingrad during the war, confiscated what it thought were all copies of the manuscript, including notes and drafts, and told Grossman that he would have to wait two centuries before he could publish his epic novel. He died a non-person, in 1964, of stomach cancer, in poverty and great pain.
The turning point for Grossman was the Great Patriotic War, as the Second World War was called in the Soviet Union. When Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941, Grossman volunteered for the army but was turned down for health reasons. He became a war correspondent instead, writing mainly for the army newspaper Red Star.
Next to Ilya Ehrenburg, he became the reporter most cherished by Russian soldiers because he told their story with honesty, literally from the front line -- the smell of which, he said, reminded him of both a morgue and a blacksmith's. He covered the early German assault on Moscow, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the entry into ruined Warsaw and then, in 1945, the victorious march of the Red Army, with its rape, pillage and random revenge, on Berlin. His was also the first extensive report on a Nazi death camp, Treblinka. He saw it all, and he wrote about it from the point of view of the common soldier whom he came to venerate, indeed love, and therefore occasionally scolded.
There was personal loss as well. In 1944, he learned that his mother, who had remained in Ukraine, had been murdered during the initial German onslaught in 1941.
In this world of incomprehensible violence and inexpressible grief, all categories seemed to be reversed: Victims became heroes and heroes victims. The only constant, anywhere, it seemed, was the individual human being, with his or her basic instincts and longings. No political system, no matter how merciless, and no war could ever destroy this humanity, with its potential for compassion, courage and love.
With help from Grossman's daughter and stepson, the irrepressible British historian Antony Beevor and his assistant in this project, Luba Vinogradova, have pieced together selections from Grossman's wartime notebooks and correspondence. It's a fascinating and rewarding compilation, accompanied by helpful editorial interjections. No one, of late, has done more than Beevor, with his popular books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin, to stress the importance of the Eastern Front in the Second World War.