The war on the Eastern Front remains largely “undiscovered country” for the Western reader despite the fact that the Red Army was responsible for nearly 75 percent of German military losses, including soldiers killed in battle, wounded, taken prisoner and otherwise unaccounted for. The best guide to this terrain is Vasily Grossman, who spent over 1,000 days at the front as a combat correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda, the Soviet Army newspaper. A decorated lieutenant colonel by the end of the war, he fell afoul of the Soviet authorities and died in 1964 a non-person, his works swept from library shelves and bookshops.
Grossman’s determination to tell the truth about how the war was actually experienced by both Red Army soldiers and civilians put him on a collision course with the Soviet propaganda machine. Josef Stalin’s pitiless wastage of soldiers was buried under grandiose memorials extolling how first he and subsequently the Communist Party had triumphantly led the united Soviet peoples to victory. The specifically Jewish nature of the civilian massacres was silenced with the scripted line, “Do not divide the dead. All Soviet nationalities suffered equally.” Grossman would accept neither Big Lie.
With fellow correspondent Ilya Ehrenburg, he compiled and co-edited “The Black Book,” the first documentary record of the Holocaust on Soviet soil. It was never published inside the Soviet Union. Even his magnificent novel “Life and Fate,” which centered on the battle of Stalingrad but embraced the entire country, was seized in manuscript by the KGB. Grossman himself was summoned to the Kremlin to hear from Party ideologue Mikhail Suslov that his novel was far more dangerous to the Soviet state than Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago.” It was in “Life and Fate” that Grossman arrived at the startling conclusion that the two warring socialist states, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, were in fact mirror images of each other. Grossman’s comparison — called an “atomic bomb” by Suslov — led him to a profound reassessment and rejection of the Soviet experiment, and of Vladimir Lenin himself, a generation before his compatriots approached similar judgments.
Grossman began his journey of discovery in his war diaries, written in “real time” from 1941 to 1945. They were first published by his daughter Yekaterina Korotkova-Grossman in the collection “Gody Voiny” in 1989, when perestroika and glasnost had loosened the Party’s stranglehold. Now, the bulk of them have been translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova for an important new book, “A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945.” Here, with useful commentary, is a description of war as endured by the Red Army soldier, the “Ivan” so disastrously underestimated by the German high command and so callously expended by his own. Badly led, and sometimes not even led at all, his rugged courage changed the course of history.
Among the most politically sensitive of the themes Grossman confronted were desertion and collaboration in the Holocaust. He accompanied an army in full strategic retreat for six terrible months in 1941, from the invasion of June 22 to the magnificent stand in front of Moscow in December. The human tragedy was colossal. The entry “Interrogation of a Traitor” is a searing example of the kinds of choices individuals made. Grossman witnessed the summary court martial and execution of a young Ukrainian deserter, whose former commander, “shouting and crying at the same time,” sentenced him to death as a comrade told the traitor: “You’ve disgraced your son! He won’t be able to live with this shame!”
“A Writer at War” also juxtaposes “The Killing of Jews in Berdichev,” Grossman’s postwar article about his hometown, translations of the two letters Grossman wrote to his mother on the anniversary of her death in 1950 and 1961, and his fictional treatment in “Life and Fate” of life inside the Berdichev ghetto prior to the massacre. After the Red Army retook Berdichev’s shattered ruins, Grossman discovered that his mother and a female cousin had been among the approximately 20,000 Jews rounded up early on the morning of Sept. 15, 1941. They had been taken to the military airport, where German Einsatzgruppen had shot them and dumped their bodies into pits. (To this day, the victims’ bones lie under mounds still visible near the airport’s fence.)
Much of the material in “A Writer at War,” whether background notes or translations, was first covered in “The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman,” which I published with Carol Garrard in 1996. But Vinogradova and Beevor’s adaptation gives the reader a condensed and easily accessible version as well as more extensive selections of Grossman’s war diaries.
While “A Writer at War” is a welcome tribute to a neglected author, it contains several puzzling lacunae and imprecisions. For instance, it is of significance that Grossman died not sometime in “the summer of 1964,” but on Sept. 14 — the eve of the anniversary of his mother’s death in the Berdichev massacre 23 years earlier. Far more important is the fact that the authors’ discussion of the Soviet Union’s effort to suppress Grossman’s “ruthless truth of war” lacks any mention of the most calculated and brazen attempt: the giant World War II monument Leonid Brezhnev erected on Mamayev Kurgan, the scene of the fiercest firefights in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Nowhere is the Party’s cynical campaign to co-opt the victory seen in starker relief than here, where Grossman interviewed the Siberians of the 308th Rifle Division for his most famous Krasnaya Zvezda piece, “Axis of the Main Attack.” Words from this piece are carved in granite nearly two meters high along the wall leading to the mausoleum.
A German soldier questions: “They are attacking us again, can they be mortal?” Inside the mausoleum, a Red Army soldier answers in letters tooled in gold around the base of the dome: “Yes, we were mortal indeed, and few of us survived, but we all carried out our patriotic duty before holy Mother Russia.” Yet neither inside nor outside of the mausoleum is the source of these words or their author acknowledged. Ironically, by failing to draw attention to the Stalingrad memorial, Beevor and Vinogradova miss an opportunity to right the very wrong their book sets out to redress: the Soviet campaign to erase Grossman from the memory of his countrymen.
John Garrard is professor of Russian studies at the University of Arizona and, together with Carol Garrard, a co-author of “The Bones of Berdichev: The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman” and the forthcoming “From Party to Patriarch: Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent.”