[Marxism] Vasily Grossman
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jan 12 06:50:39 MST 2006
NY Times, January 11, 2006
Books of The Times | 'A Writer at War'
Dispatches From the Hottest of Hot Zones
By WILLIAM GRIMES
From August 1941 until May 1945, the novelist Vasily Grossman worked as a
special correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the newspaper of the
Red Army. From the bleak early days of the war, when the German advance
across Ukraine seemed unstoppable, to the final push into Berlin, he spent
more than a thousand days on the front lines. Interviewing generals and
enlisted men alike, he filed white-hot reports read avidly by millions of
Soviet readers eager not just for news of Stalingrad or Kursk, but for a
picture of the lives that their sons and husbands were leading hundreds of
Much of the material that filled Grossman's notebooks never made it into
print, because it was either politically sensitive or, in the view of the
censors, too disturbing for Soviet citizens to read. In "A Writer at War,"
the British historian Antony Beevor and his research assistant, Luba
Vingradova, have mined this rich seam of gold, translating and editing
generous excerpts from the notebooks (made available by Grossman's
descendants) and stitching together a coherent narrative from Grossman's
completed articles, his letters and the memoirs of contemporaries, notably
his editor at Krasnaya Zvezda. The result is a first-rate volume of war
reporting that belongs with the best work of writers like Ernie Pyle, A. J.
Liebling and John Hersey.
Grossman spent the entire war in the hottest of the hot zones. On several
occasions he was within a hair's breadth of being encircled by the German
advance. Purely as a record of events, "A Writer at War" has value.
Grossman's journals, for example, contradict the usual accounts of the fall
of Orel in the first week of October 1941, which portray a city taken
completely by surprise, with streetcars still running. Grossman, by
contrast, describes a scene of mounting panic, with citizens already
packing up and leaving, well aware that the enemy is at the gates.
Grossman was more than a mere note-taker, however. His dispatches,
conveying the taste, the smell and the sounds of the front lines, made him
one of the most read and admired writers of the war. He observed with a
novelist's eye for the telling detail and a rich appreciation of the
characters moving events along. He listened with a sharp and sympathetic
ear. He even managed to find a wild, absurd strain of humor as the bombs
fell. "They chase vehicles, individual trucks, cars," an irate commissar
complained to Grossman. "It's hooliganism, an outrage!"
"A Writer at War" does not present a sweeping account of battle. Grossman
specialized in the vignette, the quick snapshot that captured a few moments
of a story moving at top speed. It is usually a few salty lines of dialogue
or a strange, horrifying detail caught on the fly that make his journal
entries and his newspaper articles spring to life.
"There is a flattened Romanian," he wrote, surveying the battlefield
outside Stalingrad. "A tank has driven over him. His face has become a
bas-relief." In Berlin, he noted, "ladies wearing fashionable hats,
carrying bright handbags, are cutting pieces of meat off dead horses lying
on the pavement."
Brief jottings suggest the magnitude of Russian suffering and the ferocity
of combat waged against a technologically superior enemy. The seriously
wounded, in the early days of rapid retreat, get a piece of herring and 50
grams of vodka to keep them going. During the fiercest fighting in
Stalingrad, a tank driver, out of ammunition, jumps out of his tank and
begins throwing bricks at the Germans and cursing. "This war in villages is
a bandit war," one lieutenant tells Grossman, adding that his men sometimes
strangle Germans with their bare hands. Even more shocking is the admission
of a peasant soldier who tells Grossman, "As for hardships, life is harder
in the village."
Grossman kept his own story out of the newspapers. As a good journalist, he
let the soldiers do the talking (he had an uncanny gift for drawing them
out) and, even in his private journals, complained only about ham-fisted
editors who mauled his copy or, even worse, failed to get one of his
articles into the newspaper. Mr. Beevor, however, deftly weaves in the
personal drama behind many of Grossman's reports.
Grossman, a Jew, left his mother behind in his hometown of Berdichev, in
Ukraine, where she and 30,000 other Jews were executed by the Nazis.
As Soviet forces regained lost territory in Ukraine and western Russia,
Grossman quickly grasped the enormity of what had happened to the Jews. He
filed a powerful article, "Ukraine Without Jews," which Krasnaya Zvezda
refused to run. It is a spare, heart-rending account of Ukraine under
occupation that makes a point of citing specific names and specific places
while memory is fresh. He went on to write "The Hell of Treblinka," a
superb piece of reporting, after entering that concentration camp with the
Red Army in July 1944. He was also among the first journalists to enter the
Grossman was fortunate that the secret police did not read his notebooks.
They contained frank criticisms of drunken officers, inept leadership and
bureaucratic bungling, as well as shocked condemnations of Russian soldiers
who raped not only German women, but Polish and Russian women freed from
Nazi hands. "Horror in the eyes of women and girls," a laconic notebook
Grossman always insisted to his editor that his articles had to depict "the
ruthless truth of war." They did, and he did.
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