A 20th-Century Tolstoy?

Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad was intended to memorialize the Russian experience of a crucial phase of World War II. For a Just Cause (the title that Grossman’s editors substituted for his original one) was a sensation with the Russian public when it appeared in 1952 in three issues of a popular journal. People lined up at bookstores hoping to snap up each issue. Now, in an excellent translation by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, an English speaking audience gets to weigh the novel’s merits almost 70 years later. The results, to use a word that Russians love, are slozhnye—complex. On the one hand, the novel feels like a production, albeit an excellent one, of official Soviet socialist realism. On the other hand, as a war narrative and a depiction of the Russian experience of World War II, its artistic and historical merit is unquestionable.

Grossman was born in 1905 to a secular Jewish family in the mostly Jewish town of Berdichev in northern Ukraine. He graduated in chemistry from Moscow University in 1929 and worked three years in the Donbass region as a chemical engineer. In the mid-1930s, he became a successful professional writer of short stories, novels, and plays. Exempt from the draft for health reasons, he volunteered in the summer of 1941 and then worked for four years on the front lines as a special correspondent for Red Star (Krasnaia Zvezda), the official newspaper of the Soviet Armed Forces. He was present at key battles, including the siege of Stalingrad in 1942-43.

There is no definitive version of Stalingrad. Grossman began writing it in 1943, during the height of war, and submitted the manuscript for publication in 1949. It took three years to get it into print, and it was reset many times as editors worked with him to make it politically acceptable. After its first appearance in 1952, it was published in an almost identical version in 1953-54, and then again in a substantially different version in 1956 which has been republished many times since. Unpublished drafts of various parts exist as well. As Robert Chandler explains in an appendix, his translation, though based mostly on the 1956 version, borrows from different drafts and publications.

Chandler is the man responsible for bringing Grossman to the attention of the Anglophone public with his wonderful 1980 translation of the novel Life and Fate. After Grossman had submitted the novel for publication, Soviet authorities “arrested” it in 1961 and attempted (unsuccessfully) to destroy all copies of it. Grossman died in Moscow in 1964. Ironically, this arrest, which ruined his life, saved his novel, which could not have been published during his lifetime in the form we know it. It first appeared abroad in 1980 and in Russia only in 1988. The relation of Life and Fate to Stalingrad is also complicated. Chandler calls them a dilogy, with Life and Fate featuring the same cast of fictional characters as Stalingrad, and beginning in September 1942, where Stalingrad ends. As others have suggested, however, in certain ways Life and Fate seems like a rewriting of the previous novel in which the point of view of the narrator and even the author has changed.

Like Life and Fate, Stalingrad is divided into three parts. The first is about the Russian retreat east to Stalingrad; the second covers preparations for the defense of the city; and the third chronicles the German occupation of parts of the city and the beginning of the Russian counter-offensive in September 1942. Each part has many chapters. The connection of the novel to Grossman’s war correspondence is clear: among other things, it reads like reports from the front. Vivid, detailed descriptions of tactics, weaponry, mining, and factories reflect Grossman’s practical education in science and engineering.

Woven into this chronicle is a fictional narrative with dozens of military and civilian characters and only a few historical figures. (Writing about historical figures—even those of the enemy—was one of the elements of Grossman’s original draft that his editors had the biggest issues with.) Lyrical evocations of nature and the terrain, especially the Volga River, give the novel an epic tone. The characters are organized around a few families but also within various settings and organizations, all related in some way—military or civilian—to the war. They range from young children to old veterans of the civil war who remember the tsarist regime, and they come from different classes of Russian society. One, physicist Viktor Shtrum, is partly autobiographical: like Grossman, he is from Berdichev, and his mother, like Grossman’s, was murdered by Nazi occupiers early in the war. The characters are social types of varying psychological depth depending on their importance in the narrative.

Grossman is especially concerned to recreate wartime experience in its entirety, from the separation of loved ones to heroism, cowardice, and death in its many forms. There are many horrifying, sublime, and thrilling episodes. One especially striking example is an account of a doomed artillery battalion assigned to defend the railroad station and delay the German assault. We see such episodes from the point of view of both the narrator-chronicler and the participants in the action. This attention to particular scenes breaks the novel into digestible parts.

Both Stalingrad and Life and Fate are indebted to Tolstoy`s War and Peace, which Grossman carried with him throughout the war. Grossman is more didactic than Tolstoy: whereas psychological intricacies in Tolstoy’s novel do not always illustrate the reflections of his narrator, in Grossman’s works they do. But like Tolstoy, Grossman in both novels concentrates on the experience of individuals. And as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, he presents the sum total of these individuals’ actions—their patriotism—as the cause of victory. In Life and Fate, Grossman would move closest to Tolstoy’s version of wars won by those who actually fight them. In Stalingrad, however, he also credits victory to leaders up the chain of command, including Stalin. Stalingrad praises the Red Army at all levels, including Headquarters, and presents the German officers as petty (at the bottom of the chain of command) and monstrous (at the top).

Life and Fate, by contrast, portrays both National Socialism and the Stalinist version of Soviet communism as enemies of humanity. Sinister characters like apparatchik Dementii Getmanov (possibly based on Nikita Khrushchev, who was present at the Battle of Stalingrad) and Stalin himself are introduced only in the second novel, and commissar and loyal communist Nikolai Krymov, a protagonist in Stalingrad, ends up in the Gulag in Life and Fate. Life and Fate is a 20th-century version of War and Peace that describes totalitarian regimes exercising a degree of control that Tolstoy could not have imagined. In this respect, it makes Tolstoy look naïve. Stalingrad lacks this full depiction of tyranny.

As others have pointed out, Grossman’s two novels also differ from War and Peace because, while Tolstoy’s novel was written over 50 years after the events it portrays, Grossman is describing a war in which he himself participated. This does not necessarily make his novels more truthful than Tolstoy’s, but they are uniquely valuable as eyewitness accounts.

Stalingrad is almost 1,000 pages long in the Chandler translation. Reading it is a big commitment of time, especially for those who choose to read Life and Fate, which is only slightly shorter. Nonetheless, I recommend reading both. Life and Fate is the better book, not only because of its narrator’s point of view, but also because it expands its scope to include the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Gulag, and German prisons. But Stalingrad, with its celebration of the Soviet regime, is written from a perspective shared by the majority of Russians at the end of the war and possibly even today. We cannot know exactly how much of the difference between it and Life and Fate results from the influence of Grossman’s editors on the writing of the first novel. But to the extent that it represents Grossman’s own evolution, it illustrates a change in perspective that is itself historically important. The author of the two books read together is an idealist and a tragic figure crushed by history but rising above it to argue for freedom and justice.