After the 2016 election, my idea of optimistic reading was a history of the Battle of Stalingrad — the turning point of World War II, five extraordinarily bloody months in 1942-43 that blocked the Nazis from crossing the Volga River and from there into Asia, at a time when they and their allies already occupied almost all of continental Europe. Much of this history was based on the reporting of Vasily Grossman, a Russian-Jewish novelist who covered the war for the Red Army newspaper and was among the first journalists to write about the Holocaust. After the war, he wrote two epic novels about the battle, Stalingrad and Life and Fate.
Stalingrad, published in the U.S. for the first time this June, takes place during the summer of 1942, with the Nazi eastward advance looming, and the first months of the battle. It’s a sprawling, 960-page saga with hundreds of characters. The most central, however, are the Shaposhnikov family: matriarch Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova; her son-in-law, Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum; and three generations of children, exes, and lovers, some evacuated from Moscow to east of the Volga, some in Stalingrad, a few freed from the gulag, and several in the war. Shtrum’s mother is a spectral presence: She, like Grossman’s mother, met an unknown but near-certain fate after the Nazis occupied her home city.
Grossman hoped to write a War and Peace for the 20th century, depicting the panorama of lives during the battle — from soldiers clustered in dugouts to children complaining and adults bickering in a dim, crowded underground bomb shelter, from German soldiers plundering peasants’ cottages to a ragtag crew of inexperienced coal miners laboring to fuel the tank factories of Stalingrad. He describes plumes of green water shooting up from the Volga as the Nazis bomb a boat full of refugee children; the red dust of pulverized bricks; the rare joys of ham, tomatoes, and vodka; and the last missive of a concussed company commander: “Not one of the fuckers will pass.”
Stalingrad is stronger on evoking history and you-are-there feeling than on long-term character development, but that’s probably inevitable in a novel of this scope. In the battle that ends the book, more than two-thirds of the Soviet troops defending the city center were killed.
Grossman’s reporting informs the story, but journalism and fiction are two different sides of storytelling, each partial truths. Reporting brings the realistic details, but the novelist’s imagination creates the personal intimacy that journalism can’t. Writing during the Stalinist era, he also had to grapple with another dualism, the ideology that there are “two truths” and that the sordid soldiers-with-lice truth of reality should be buried in the name of the heroic truth of communist aspirations.
Committed to both reality and the socialist vision of justice, Grossman tried to avoid making that choice. “Only in Stalingrad,” he writes, “did Pyotr Semyonovich Vavilov come to understand what war truly meant. A huge city had been killed.” Vavilov, a collective farmer doing sentry duty in the bombed-out ruins, muses on the “unimaginable amount of work and material” it had taken to build a city of brick and glass, steel and stone, pipelines and cables, now destroyed “in some monstrous act of desecration.”
If “socialist realism” were an accurate description and not just a Stalinist art-must-be-a-weapon directive, Vasily Grossman could be said to have written a classic of the genre: a realistic novel in which ordinary people are the protagonists and heroes — an antitank gunner nervously taking aim, the crew trying to keep the Stalingrad power plant running, the drunken children’s home assistant who got a traumatized-to-muteness orphan to talk.
“For Hitler, strength was a matter of violence — one man’s ability to exercise violence over another,” Grossman philosophizes, taking over the narrative voice from Vavilov. “To Vavilov and millions like him — it was a matter of the power of living breath over dead stone. What we call the soul of the people is determined by a shared understanding of strength, labor, justice, and the common good.”
As it was, when a significantly censored version of Stalingrad was published in the Soviet Union in 1952, the Stalin regime’s literary mouthpieces denounced Grossman for emphasizing the heroism of soldiers and ordinary people instead of the role of the Communist Party leadership. Life and Fate, written in the late ’50s and considered his masterpiece, wouldn’t even get that far. The KGB seized Grossman’s manuscript after he submitted it to a publisher, and it did not appear in print until a microfilmed copy was smuggled abroad, more than a decade after his death in 1964.
Yet decades after that, the rise of a personality-cult tyrant in the U.S. indirectly led me to discover Grossman’s work.
By Vasily Grossman,
Trans. by Elizabeth and Robert Chandler
New York Review Books, 2019
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