Friday, September 15, 2017

Chronicles of War by Jochen Hellbeck


As a Soviet victory over Germany became increasingly certain, the war chroniclers came to the fore.  They were already sure of the form history had to take: Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Just as the Red Army drew on pre-revolutionary traditions, Soviet culture by that time found sustenance in a nineteenth-century novel. The iconoclastic spirit of the Soviet avant-garde has become passe. Large runs of Tolstoy’s magnum opus were printed from 1941 onward and inspired thousands of readers accustomed to find answers to life’s questions in literature. As literary critic Lidiya Ginzburg observed, the Soviets everywhere, even Leningraders left starving in the siege, avidly read War and Peace. They read in order to size themselves up vis-vis Tolstoy’s heroes, Ginzburg commented, “not the other way around- no one doubted the adequacy of Tolstoy’s response to life.” Tolstoy had said “The last word as regard to courage, about people doing their bit in a people’s war”; this was the standard by which Soviet readers measured themselves. Whoever had energy enough to read, Ginzburg wrote, “would say to himself: right, I’ve got the proper feeling about this. So then, this is how it should be. “ When interviewed by the historians Lieutenant General Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, revealed that he gauged his own performance based on Tolstoy’s generals General Rodimtsev reported reading the novel three times.

The People’s Commissariat for Education printed brochures with instructions on how to make War and Peace – notorious for its length and complicated plot- accessible for soldiers. A 1942 study on the reading habits of Red Army soldiers concluded that Tolstoy’s  novel was the most discussed in the military. By the close of the war, the parallels between the War of 1812 and the Great Patriotic War had become clear to every Soviet readers: enemy invaders had advanced into the heart of Russia only to be violently crushed by the Russian people. Tolstoy’s novel, which ends in 1815, presents Alexander I as the ‘pacifier of Europe.” Soviet military leaders in 1945 believe that they had liberated Europe from the scourge of fascism. Now the question was, who would be the Soviet Tolstoy, who would write the War and Peace of the twentieth century?

One of the frontrunners for the honor was Vasily Grossman. Since 1943 he had been working on a two-volume war epic. Modeled after War and Peace, the novel incorporated his own experiences but also aimed to be a chronicle of the war in its entirety. Like Tolstoy, Grossman tried to distill the spirit of a historical epoch. He borrowed Tolstoy’s technique of tying together individual protagonists through family connections. The first volume, completed in 1949, told the history of the war from its outset until September 1942 and concluded with a description of Commissar Krymov’s night crossing of the Volga into the burning city of Stalingrad. In August 1948 Grossman submitted the first installment of the work to the journal Novy Mir (New World), where it was serialized as Stalingrad. For four years the book remained in limbo as Grossman rewrote the text at least three times in an effort to satisfy his critics – editors at Movy Mir, directors of the Soviet Union of Writers, members of the Central Committee and the Politburo, and military officers.

Konstantin Simonov, the editor in chief at Novy Mir when Stalingrad was first submitted, complained about Grossman’s strict historical perspective: his portrayal of the war in 1942 makes no reference to its outcome. For Simonov, this was unacceptable. The book ought to propagate optimism among contemporary readers. Other critics objected to the title, which laid claim to a historical objectivity that the narrative’s multitude of subjective viewpoints could not fulfill. The figure of the physicist Viktor Strum – clearly  identifiable as a Jew- particularly incensed critics. The writer Mikhail Sholokhov alluded to this subject when he rang up Novy Mir’s new editor in chief, Alexander Tvardovsky ( he succeeded Simonov in 1950), and barked: “Whom did you trust writing about Stalingrad? Have you taken leave of your senses?” Sholokhov believed that Grossman, a Jew, should not be writing about a quintessentially Russian topic like Stalingrad. Sholochov’s views are just one expression of the anti-Semitic campaigns that had been erupting in the Soviet Union since the latte 1940s.


Surprisingly, however, the novel did eventually appear in serial; form in the summer and fall of 1952, earning Grossman a nomination for the Stalin Prize. But the January 1953 revelation that Jewish doctors in the Kremlin had been conspiring to kill Stalin triggered a backlash. On February 13, 1953, a scathing criticism of Grossman’s novel appeared in Pravda, penned by Mikhail Bubyonnov, one of his rivals in the race to become the Soviet Tolstoy. Grossman’s earlier supporters publically turned against him.

But then Stalin died on March 5, 1953, and the tide turned once again. Not only was the doctors’ trial halted; criticism of Grossman subsided and some of his colleagues privately apologized for their remarks. Grossman, for his part, continued to work on the second part of his novel – retitled Life and Fate in 1949 – but now he intended to write it as a literary reckoning with Stalin. Grossman was the first critic to emphasize the resemblances between Stalin’s regime and the totalitarian ideology of the Nazis, describing the extent of Soviet anti-Semitism and the similar ways in which both states grind individuals into the dust. By the time he finished his work in 1959, it could not be published. The Central Committee secretary in charge of ideological affairs  that questioned Grossman compared the novel, were it to be released, to a nuclear bomb. (The Secretary claimed he hadn’t read the book.) Other political officials who were consulted believed the book could not be published “for the next 250 years.” In 1964 Grossman died bitter and alone following a battle with stomach cancer. It appeared in 1988 in the Soviet Union as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign for transparency known as glasnost. Today Life and Fate is viewed internationally as a grand literary account of the twentieth century. The preceding volume, which appeared under the title For a Just Cause, has remained in the shadows since it appeared.  Despite the ruptures that accompanied their publication, the volumes, when read side by side, reveal their underlying Tolstoyan conception. The show how strongly Grossman remained committed to the belief, despite his growing criticism of the Soviet state, that the mass heroism of Red Army soldiers decided not only the battle of Stalingrad but also the war as a whole.

Grossman's conviction is conveyed in the one place no one would suspect – the monumental memorial atop Mamayev Kurgan*. Had Grossman lived long enough to see its 250-foot Motherland Calls sculpture with extended sword (the memorial was dedicated in 1967), he would likely have seen it as further evidence of an all-powerful state that manipulated people like pawns in a political chess game. Nevertheless, Grossman’s words can be found at the memorial. Some are engraved on a wall that visitors must pass on the way to Motherland Calls: “An iron wind struck them in the face, yet they kept moving forward. The enemy was likely possessed by a superstitious fear: Are these men coming towards us? Are these mortals?” The words are from Grossman’s essay on the regiment that perished while defending the Barricades plant against the Germans (see pages 192-203).

On the other side of the wall is the Hall of Military Glory. From the center of the floor a large white marble hand reaches upward, cupping a torch with an eternal flame. The walls of the circular pantheon are lined with banners bearing the names of 7,200 Red Army fighters – officers and soldiers, men and women – who fell at Stalingrad. (the names were chosen at random from the death roll.) Below the domed ceiling runs an inscription responding to the question posed on the outside wall: “Yes, we were mortal and few of us survived, but we all discharged our patriotic duty to our sacred Motherland.” This is also drawn from Grossman’s essay, but the words have been modified. The original version was simpler: “They were mortal indeed . . .and while a few made it out alive, everyone of them had done his duty.” Despite the melodramatic backdrop created by the monument’s designer’s, the words convey the idea of a people’s war invoked by Grossman during the battle of Stalingrad. Yet nowhere in the museum is Grossman identified as the author of these lines, and no museum guide seems aware of their origin.


* The much contested high ground in Stalingrad where Stalin supposedly had his command post during the earlier Civil War.

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