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Georgi Vladimov: Генерал и его армия [The General and His Army]

The eponymous general of this novel is General Kobrisov, based on General Chibisov. Much of the action takes place near Predslavl’ (clearly based on Kiev) where the 38th Army, under Kobrisov’s command, is attempting to recapture the city from the retreating Germans. However, thing are not going well, not least because the Germans were fully prepared and repel the attackers. The book came in for a lot of criticism in Russia, despite winning the 1995 Russian Booker, primarily because it is a work that mixes facts and fiction (real characters with their actual names and real places with their actual names are mixed with fictionalised historical characters such as Kobrisov, and entirely fictional characters, as well as fictionalised places). Those of us who are not Russian can ignore the perceived inaccuracies/fictionalisation and just enjoy the book for what it is – a novel.

Kobrisov has something of a reputation as a hothead. He drives around in an open jeep, with no protection and refuses to use an armoured car. Twice his jeep and driver are blown up. On both occasions he had fortunately just stepped out of the jeep. He also goes into areas where the enemy may be. Later in the book we get a long story of such behaviour from his past. During the Battle of Moscow, he phones one of his general colleagues to learn of his whereabouts. The general – Sviridov – informs Kobrisov that he has captured Peremerki, specifically the larger one, i.e. Bol’shiye [i.e. Greater] Peremerki and not the smaller one, Malyye [i.e. Lesser] Peremerki. Moreover, in their hasty retreat, the Germans left behind quantities of fine French brandy and he invites Kobrisov to join him to sample the brandy. The town is some six kilometres away so Kobrisov grabs a passing soldier, Chesterikov, and they set out on foot in the bitterly cold weather. Unfortunately, by some anomaly Bol’shiye Peremerki is the smaller of the two towns and he has, in fact, only captured Malyye Peremerki. When Kobrisov and Chesterikov arrive at Bol’shiye Peremerki and greet what they assume to be Soviet troops, they find that that they are German troops. The Germans open fire, seriously wounding the General and Chesterikov has to drag him to safety. That could be the end of the story but Vladimov goes off on another tangent. While waiting for help, Chesterikov sees Soviet troops passing and tries to get help, without success. In a convoluted story about the Germans and their tactics, initially told from the German perspective, we learn that a couple of Siberian regiments has got lost and is looking for Kobrisov. They approach an unnamed Soviet general who is in need of fresh troops to help him. He effectively steals the two regiments, fights off the Germans and forces them into retreat, thereby saving Moscow. This is, apparently, a well-known story but one which has little basis in fact.

In the initial part of the story, we follow four main (and fictitious) characters, in addition to the general. The first is Sirotin, the general’s driver. He does not share the general’s enthusiasm for danger. The second is Svetlokov. He had been in the artillery with Donskoi but is now in SMERSH, the Soviet counter-intelligence agency. He is very smart and sees it as his job to keep close tabs on the general and his rash behaviour. He will cleverly cajole both Sirotin and Donskoi into effectively spying on the general and reporting his every move and plan. With Sirotin he uses Zoia, a telephonist who works for him and who seduces Sirotin. The third is Donskoi, the general’s aide-de-camp. He has dreams of having his own division. He equates himself with Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace, as both are aides-de-camp and they have the same name and patronymic, Andrei Nikolaivich. However, Svetlokov is too clever for him and has him spying on the general, as well. Chesterikov is the fourth but he is very reluctant to spy on his boss, not least because he considers it to be illegal.

However, the bulk of the novel is about the attempt to take Predslavl’, i.e. Kiev. We follow, in considerable detail, the behind-the-scenes discussions between the various commanders, with the lead being taken by the very real Zhukov. Kobrisov, however, remains a maverick. While the other generals are holding the Southern bridgehead, he goes to his commanding officer, Vatutin, and says that, as his troops are not doing a great deal, he thinks it would be a good idea to take the town of Miriatin (real-life Liutezh). He persuades Vatutin, though it is soon very clear that he has no intention of taking Miriatin but, once he has crossed the Dnieper, he aims to head straight for Predslavl’. We follow his carefully planned and executed crossing and then his move towards Predslavl’.

However, there is a council of war, chaired by Zhukov and attended by all the generals and the political commissar, Nikita Khruschchev (yes, that Khrushchev). Vladimov mocks Khrushchev as something of a bumbling fool, out of his depth in military strategy but still trying to intervene. For example, Khrushchev points that everyone there is Ukrainian or, at least has a close connection to Ukraine. Kobrisov points out that he himself is Don Cossack and that he knew a Khrushchev family who did not live in Ukraine and spoke not a word of Ukrainian. However, the outcome of the meeting is that it is generally understood that Kiev should be liberated by a Ukrainian general, not by Kobrisov, and he is ordered to take Miriatin. He is reluctant to do this for two reasons. Firstly, he has learned that there is a large contingent of anti-Soviet Russians there and he does not want to fight Russians. Secondly, he fears it will cost him 10,000 men to liberate a city of 10,000 and he does not considered it justified, as it is not a strategic city.

We know, from the beginning of the book, that he will return to Moscow and we find it out why at this point. On his return to Moscow, he hears an announcement about the glorious capture of Miriatin. However, despite returning to the scene of the battle, we know that the 38th army will capture Predslavl’/Kiev but, neither in this book or in real life, under his command. However, it is at this point that we get another long flashback, as we learn about what happened to him in 1941. We have already learned that he was almost shot and now we learn why he was arrested, why he was almost shot and how and why he was reinstated. We also follow his career during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

This is a long and complex book. What makes it interesting is the detailed coverage of the attack on Predslavl’/Kiev and the events surrounding the Battle of Moscow. The military strategy and action is superbly well told by Vladimov as is the psychology of Kobrisov and those he associates with. As this novel was written after the fall of the Soviet Union but while Vladimov was still living in Germany, he has no qualms about damning individuals where he thinks it appropriate, from his mockery of Khrushchev to the comment of one of the generals that if the Soviets expended as much effort and thought to fighting the Germans as they did to fighting one another, they would have been in Berlin long ago. It may not be historically accurate – indeed, it certainly is not – but it does make for a very fine novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Possev, Frankfurt
No English translation
Published in French as Le général et son armée by Editions de l’Aube in 2008
Published in German as Der General und seine Armee by Volk & Welt in 1997
Also available in Polish