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Vasily Grossman: Народ бессмертен (The People Immortal; No Beautiful Nights)
This book was first published in Russian in serial form before appearing in book form. It was soon published in English in the United States and then in the UK. However this version was somewhat censored, partially by Grossman himself as anything even vaguely critical of the Soviet way would not be accepted. Using Grossman’s original manuscript this latest version restores the text that was omitted in the original version. Copious and excellent end-notes tell us where these changes have been made.
Grossman was essentially a war correspondent and his war novels are based on his wartime experiences. The Germans had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, to Stalin’s surprise, and quickly swept through what are now Belarus and Ukraine, capturing and killing large numbers of Soviet troops. To counteract the mass surrenders, Stalin issued Order No. 270 which, among other things, banned surrender and said that Soviet troops had to fight to the last man. Those disobeying were to be shot.
The novel opens in Gomel, in modern-day Belarus. Grossman was sent there as a war correspondent in August 1941 and witnessed its destruction by the Germans.
Grossman was somewhat appalled by the false reporting which claimed great victories and acts of heroism when the Germans were clearly easily winning. However, though he tried to give an accurate portrait in this novel, as mentioned he had to be careful not to be critical of the Soviet command or Soviet strategy. He does, for example, mention how efficient the Germans are. The troop he is writing about get hold of a copy of German orders, which seem to have planned everything down to the last detail.
We follow a troop and some of the characters in it. There is Sergey Alexandrovich Bogariov, the commissar. Every troop had to have a political commissar who made sure the correct political line was followed but often also acted as chaplain/psychiatrist. He had been a professor in the Faculty of Marxism in one of the main Moscow higher education institutes and his great joy was studying Marxist theory. However, he had adapted to his new role. Cherednichenko was also a commissar but a senior one and member of the Military Soviet who, to everyone’s surprise, takes to Bogariov. Semion Ignatiev is the ordinary Soviet soldier. He is a womaniser and likes fun but also cheerfully carries out any task assigned to him. Various commanding officers, some of whom are based on real characters, come and go. Babadjanian, for example, is clearly based on Hamazasp Babadzhanian.
We follow the action which, initially, does not go well for the Soviets as the Germans drive ruthlessly forward. We see the bombing of Gomer, for example, which Grossman also saw. The Germans dropped flares before the actual bombing and, as the houses were mainly made of wood, the city soon burned down.
We do also see the occasional Soviet victory but even then, Bogariov is highly critical as the organisation had been poor so the victory was not as great as it could have been.
We also see how the Germans treat civilians when they capture the village where Cherednichenko’s mother lives and we see a lot of cruelty and debauchery. The splendid table he had prepared the previous evening was covered in filth, vomit and overturned bottles. Drunken Germans were staggering from room to room.
Our troop is having a tough time of it and Grossman shows their successes and failures, from stealing a lorry load of bread from the Germans and holding back an attack, to various push-backs and being encircled. We learn about desertion. Some of the locals disappear into the forests never to be seen again though one man is captured and executed.
The Germans (whose point of view we see) are supremely confident, not least because the Soviets are utterly predictable and the Germans are accordingly prepared. However, the Soviet commander realises ths and does try something different.
Grossman is both a fine novelist and a fine reporter so we get both a good story but also a good description of the action, with the human interest side. At one point we get a lyrical description of the natural world they are fighting in- A black beetle walked by, sullen and businesslike, sometimes getting stuck in the sand. Ants were setting off to work. A few birds fluttered down from a tree; after trying to bathe in the cold dust, which the sun’s first rays had still barely touched, they called out and flew off to the stream. – while the bird imagery is also used shortly after for attacking German planes while the background to this almost idyllic scene is the sound and sight of shelling. We will get a similar lyrical break in the middle of a key battle, while the Soviet soldiers are in hiding, waiting for the Germans and able to enjoy the beauties of nature.
The actual text takes up about two-thirds of the book. We have copious and helpful notes, mainly to show what has been put back in from Grossman’s manuscript which did not make it into the actual publication. We also get a detailed account of the genesis of the novel, key characters and whom they might be based on, the publication history, details of Grossman’s and others’reporting of the events in the novel and the background to what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time. One interesting point is that Stalin felt that the Germans were winning because they had superior equipment. It seems that this was not the case. The real reason why they were winning is firstly because Stalin had fired and, in some cases, executed his best commanders (Hitler had not) and, secondly, because the Germans were far better organised than the Soviets.
There is also an interesting commentary on how Russian writers were perceived in the West. The West essentially divided Russian writers into two categories: corrupt time-servers and heroic, dissident martyrs, the latter including the likes of Pasternak, Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn. However, there were some excellent Soviet-approved writers such as Platonov and Grossman. They had to tread carefully and self-censor but still, as we have seen in the novels of Grossman published in the West, produced quality work.
The New York Review of Books has now published three of Grossman’s novels (and two other works by him). I am hoping that they may be considering his Степан Кольчугин (Stepan Kolchugin) which was published in English in 1946 in a translation by Rosemary Edmonds as Kolchugin’s Youth but is long out of print. In the meantime this is another excellent Grossman novel to be going on with.
First published in 1942 in serial form
First published in 1945 in book form by Pravda
First published in English in 1943 by Foreign Languages Publishing House
Translated by Elizabeth Donnelly and Rose Prokofiev
Published in 1944 as No Beautiful Nights by J. Messner
Published in a revised edition in 2022 by New York Review of Books
Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
Note that the book was published in Welsh in 1945