In September 1942 the German high command announced that the city of Stalingrad had fallen. Soviet troops were clinging on to a narrow strip of land next to the Volga river, and held a couple of giant factories to the north. Their situation seemed hopeless. After a spectacular advance, German officers believed they had won the war, with the Red Army doomed and in retreat.
The unexpected Soviet counter-offensive forms the climax of Vasily Grossman’s 1952 novel Stalingrad, one of the great novels of the 20th century, and now published in English for the first time. Grossman originally envisaged Stalingrad and his masterpiece, Life and Fate (1960), as a single organic work. Stalingrad is a dazzling prequel. It features characters who appear in both.
They include the physicist Viktor Shtrum and political commissar Nikolay Krymov, whose experiences are close to Grossman’s own. The story ends with Krymov crossing the Volga under fire. He reaches the murderous west bank. There, Soviet and German troops are engaged in a pitiless urban battle that Grossman calls “more grinding, more relentless than Thermopylae or even the Siege of Troy”.
Grossman worked for nearly three years as a Soviet war correspondent. He narrowly escaped capture as Hitler’s divisions headed remorselessly east, and spent four months on the Stalingrad frontline. There, he interviewed soldiers and generals, snipers and women medical orderlies. His dispatches – written with unusual clarity and honesty – made him famous.
In Stalingrad, Grossman transforms his reportage into a work of lyrical art and fierce power. His descriptions of battle in an industrial age are some of the most vivid ever written – the whoosh of enemy fire, how “each splinter made its own particular sound”. “One, which must have had curly jagged edges, sounded like someone playing a comb or a kazoo. Another howled, ripping through the air like a large steel claw,” he observes.
At the moment of German triumph, a battalion of Soviet soldiers fought its way to Stalingrad’s railway station. It advanced 1,400 metres into enemy lines. Grossman describes the ensuing German night attack using tanks and waves of men – a bitter hand-to-hand struggle fought with submachine guns and mortars, rifles and spades, across a darkness filled with “screams, groans and wheezes” and “the last bubbles and gurgles of departing life”.
Like Tolstoy, Grossman convincingly portrays the thoughts and feelings of ordinary soldiers in the hours before their deaths. All come to realise they are doomed. Nevertheless, as bombs fall, they continue to imagine “their own fortunate outcome of the war”: “Their lives would be happy and fulfilling – happier, it went without saying, than in the past… Some thought about their wives, vowing to treat them more gently.”
At the beginning of the novel, Pyotr Vavilov – a middle-aged kolkhoz (collective farm) worker – says farewell to his wife and children and leaves his village for the front. Later in Stalingrad he takes command after every officer is killed. Vavilov is a Soviet everyman: competent, well liked, practical and modest. His death at the railway station at the hands of “vying” German machine guns is depicted in quasi-religious terms. He vanishes into a “dusty, milky, yellowish” mist.
Grossman’s genius extends to imagining the conquering Germans. One of the book’s arresting characters is Lt Pieter Bach, an intellectual with a fiancee in Berlin. On reaching the Volga, Bach overcomes his long-held doubts about Nazism, and embraces “cruel and brilliant” German power. Grossman shows us Hitler in his chancellery – his “exhausted look” and “inflamed protruding eyes” different from his face in photos. We see Mussolini.
Much of the novel is set in Stalingrad before the “harsh whirlwind” arrives. It is told through the prism of the Shaposhnikov family. Shtrum is married to a daughter of the family matriarch Alexandra; other family members work at the power station; Krymov, the commissar, is a former son-in-law. There are sibling rivalries; quarrels between mother and daughter; love affairs that don’t quite work out. And then German bombs fall.
The Tolstoyan echoes are deliberate. Stalingrad and Life and Fate are modelled on War and Peace – the only book Grossman said he was able to read at the front. Grossman consciously took on the role of Red Tolstoy. He set out to write a requiem for the millions of Soviet citizens who perished, especially those lost in the months after the 1941 invasion. He succeeds – blending the sweep of Tolstoy with the minuteness of Chekhov.
In Stalingrad, Krymov makes the same wartime pilgrimage as Grossman did to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s house and estate south of Moscow. He sees Tolstoy’s grand-daughter Sofya Andreyevna and wonders if she is “Princess Maria going for a last walk around the garden before the French arrived”. Krymov visits Tolstoy’s grave. He finds “damp, sticky earth; damp, unkind air; the rustle of autumn leaves underfoot”. A Junker bomber breaks the silence.
Tolstoy wrote about the events of 1812 from a distance. Grossman began writing in a more treacherous age, at a time when the war was fresh and Stalin was embarking on an antisemitic campaign. As a Jew, Grossman was a target. He published a version of Stalingrad in 1952, under the title For a Just Cause. Soon after, the book was denounced. Stalin’s death the following year may have saved Grossman from execution. Unlike Tolstoy, Grossman spent much of his career grappling with censors. Editors insisted on cuts and reworkings: chapters set in a coal-mine were plugged in. Robert Chandler – the original English translator of Life and Fate – gives us, along with his wife Elizabeth, a masterful new version of Stalingrad. It is mostly based on Grossman’s early typescript and the post-Stalin 1956 edition of the novel. The Chandlers restores bold, humorous passages scrubbed by fastidious officials. They include mentions of lice, bad behaviour and infidelity.
Grossman never saw Life and Fate appear in print; in 1960, the KGB “arrested” his manuscript. The novel was eventually published after his death, to international acclaim. In Putin’s Russia, Grossman is largely ignored. Stalingrad’s long non-appearance in English is a mystery. It may have suffered from a lack of interest in Soviet culture. The novel was wrongly estimated on the grounds that anything published under Stalin couldn’t have literary merit.
In fact Stalingrad is Life and Fate’s equal. It is, arguably, the richer book – shot through with human stories and a sense of life’s beauty and fragility.
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• Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, is published by Harvill Secker (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99