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Vasily Grossman: За правое дело (Stalingrad)

Vasily Grossman is best known for his novel Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate), one of the great twentieth century Russian novels, based on Grossman’s own experiences as a reporter at the Battle of Stalingrad. Grossman had a lot of difficulty getting the novel published and, indeed, it was only published when Vladimir Voinovich was able to smuggle a microfilm version out of the Soviet Union. Even then, there were further difficulties in finding a publisher, till it was finally published in Switzerland five years later.

Grossman had, however, written a novel about the events preceding those that took place in Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). This had been published in 1954 under the title За правое дело [For a Just Cause]. One again Grossman had had difficulty in getting it published. It was initially published in 1952 in the magazine Novy Mir, though heavily censored. When it came time to publish it in book form, there was considerable opposition. The Novy Mir version had started attracting criticism, not least fromMikhail Sholokhov.

Voenizdat, the publisher, now backed away from publishing it and asked Grossman to return his advance. Then Stalin died. Criticism continued for a while and then dropped off. Voenizdat revived its offer and the book was finally published, still heavily bowdlerised, in 1954, and received a certain amount of success. However, till 2019, it was never published in English. When the translators – Robert and Elizabeth Chandler – started working on it, they went back not just to the Novy Mir and book version but to Grossman’s original manuscript. The original Russian published text had 654 pages, while this translation has 992 pages. You can reads about the Chandlers’ efforts here.

As mentioned, the book tells of events immediately preceding those that took place in Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). Many of the characters are the same. There is a mixture of both fictitious characters and real-life ones. The action starts in the Spring of 1942. Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, while conquering vast swathes of the country, had ultimately been a failure, as the Soviets prevented the Nazis from capturing Moscow in the Battle of Moscow. For 1942, Hitler was determined to capture Stalingrad .

We start with Hitler summoning Mussolini, telling what help he will give to the Nazis. Mussolini and his son-in-law, Count Ciano, are very concerned but see no way out. We will see here (where Hitler wants a war on two fronts in the Soviet Union) and also later, that Hitler is determined to have a quick and decisive strike, while his generals are more cautious.

The first part of the novel concerns events of the 1942 campaign prior to the actual Battle of Stalingrad. On the one hand, we follow the lives of many ordinary people, primarily the extended family (including friends) of Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova, an elderly widow. However, we also follow the military action (primarily from the Soviet perspective but, occasionally, from the German perspective). In this case , we see the ordinary people, i.e. Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova’s relatives friends and acquaintances, many of whom are directly involved in the war, as well as others, including many historical characters. We see the lives of the ordinary people – marriages, divorces, family issues and so on – but we also see the effect of the war on them.

Alexandra has four children three daughters and one son. The son Dmitri is in a camp for anti-Soviet activities. His fifteen-year old son, Seryozha, is being brought up by his grandmother. Without telling her or anyone else, he joins a labour battalion. The now divorced and remarried Ludmila is one of Alexandra’s daughters. Her second marriage is not faring much better than her first. Tolya, her son, is in the army and we follow him there. The second daughter is Maryusa and her husband, Stepan Spiridonov, runs the power plant which is important not just for the locals but for the three large factories, making steel for the armaments. He is naturally concerned by German bombing and German attacks. Zhenya is divorced from Krymov and being wooed by Novikov, both of whom are interesting. However, she does say The days of great romantic love are now gone forever.

Novikov is a colonel in the army. He was a witness to the first day of the German invasion and gives us a vivid description of it. Later, in newspapers and journals, he often came across the phrase “surprise attack.” How—he wondered—could anyone who had not experienced the war’s first minutes ever understand what these words really meant? Everything he loved was in flames. The Russian earth was on fire; the Russian sky was cloaked in smoke. We will follow part of the battle through him.

Krymov is a commissar. He has to take tough decisions, e.g. he orders the execution of man who says the Germans will win. However, he also gets involved in the fighting.

Tolstoy and his War and Peace are key to this book and often mentioned. Krymov has twice been to Yasnaya Polyana. On the second occasion he saw Tolstoy’s granddaughter there. However, people are more worried about the bombing than Tolstoy and Grossman gives us an excellent comparison between the peace of Yasnaya Polyana and the war, when Krymov leaves Yasnaya Polyana and goes to nearby Tula, which has just been under a heavy bombing attack. Tolstoy’s granddaughter is not the only historical character he sees. While in Moscow, he sees Stalin rallying the troops.

Early on, there was nearly only defeat and retreat. People react in different ways – I am assuming that some of the more critical comments, the spreading of rumours and the fear did not make it into the version published in the Soviet Union. In those times, the Germans were seen as fearful monsters. However, once the Soviets make some advances, their is a change. Countless little stories and jokes about Hitler’s stupidity and the cowardly arrogance of his generals began to do the rounds. These stories arose spontaneously and soon became common property, throughout the whole of the front and even far back into the rear.

Evacuation is also key. Many people evacuated from Moscow but many regretted doing so. We see evacuations from Stalingrad, particularly in the second part. But we also learn that there has been huge migration of resources, factories and equipment to the Eastern part of the country, where huge towns have been hurriedly built, with factories to make arms and other equipment.

We follow the battle in some detail. We see the Germans gradually getting nearer, seemingly invincible. Grossman, speaking with the benefit of hindsight, comments Novikov had not yet realized that the Germans were simply no longer strong enough to advance simultaneously across the entire front; they had achieved their breakthrough in the south-east only at the price of enforced inaction on the Moscow and Leningrad axes. In other words, as we see here and we know historically, the Germans had over-extended themselves.

For more than a year now, the fascists have been fighting on a 3,000-kilometre front. What seldom gets mentioned is that, as they advance, the fascists are losing not only lives and blood. They get through thousands of tons of fuel, they wear out a certain proportion of their engines, a certain amount of their tyre rubber. And any number of smaller things. The final outcome of the war depends more on these seemingly unimportant matters than on the big events we all hear about.

But, before that happens, we follow their gradual moves, through the military and through the ordinary people, as they get closer and closer to Stalingrad. The key point is when they reach the shores of the Volga, the traditional divide between old Russia and Central Asia. The men sat on the shore, beneath the steep cliff, and looked at the dismal, sandy semi-desert stretching beyond the far bank. Whoever they were—elderly drivers, spirited young gun-layers or Marshal Timoshenko himself—their eyes filled with sadness. The foot of the cliff was Russia’s eastern boundary; the far bank marked the beginning of the Kazakh steppe.

The second and third parts of the book deal with the actual Battle of Stalingrad and, as with the first part, we start off with Hitler, with Grossman giving a more damning indictment of him than he did in the first part, blaming him for impetuosity.

Also, as in the first part, we follow the battle from the point of view of the military – both senior officers and ordinary solders, and the civilian populace. Air raid shelters now have to be used because of the frequent bombing. The bombing causes huge damage. And every day saw a new city growing up amid the ruins of the old peacetime city. This new city—a city of war—was being built by sappers, signalmen, infantrymen, artillerymen and people’s militia.

Much of the latter part of the book deals wth the actual battle, seen from various perspectives and not just the Soviet perspective but also the Nazi perspective. The Germans are pushing into Stalingrad and are very confident of victory, not least because they seem to have relatively little opposition, as the Soviets retreat. This is undoubtedly the most exciting part of the book, as we follow the Soviet resistance in detail, with the Soviets somehow holding out, despite the relentless Nazi attack. The book ends where Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) begins, with the situation looking fairly grim for the Soviet forces but with a bit of hope.

There is no question that this book, in the form we now have it, i.e. more or less as Grossman intended it to be published, is a masterpiece, clearly an integral part of its successor Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). There is also no doubt that the two books combined will be seen as one of the great masterpieces of 20th century Russian literature and, indeed, 20th century world literature.

Grossman tells a superb story, showing us the events up to and during the Battle of Stalingrad from the perspective of the ordinary people, those involved in the fighting, the senior officers and even the Germans, including Hitler. We know what the result is going to be but, by the end of this book, the result is very much in doubt and, indeed, the German definitely have the upper hand. We must be very grateful that finally, we have the text as Grossman wanted it and only be saddened that it has taken so long.

Publishing history

First published 1954 by Voenizdat
First published 2019 in English by New York Review Books
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler