Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad offers vivid insight into the heroic fight of Russian people at the decisive turning point of World War II, finds Lindsey German
The Nazi advances in the Second World War were at their high point by the beginning of 1942. Most of continental Europe was directly occupied by Hitler or controlled by his fascist ally Mussolini in Italy, plus sympathetic dictatorships in Spain and Portugal. The Hitler-Stalin pact, signed just before the outbreak of war in 1939, had kept Russia out of the war until the summer of 1941, allowing Germany to invade the western countries, launch a bombing campaign on Britain and to divide Poland between itself and Russia.
Germany then turned its firepower on Russia, using its blitzkrieg tactics to make swift advances, besieging Leningrad (St Petersburg) and threatening Moscow. Meanwhile, Hitler’s generals continued to advance to the southeast, crossing the River Don and reaching Stalingrad on the Volga, at the edge of the Kazakh steppe. Victory for them there would mark, they thought, the end of the war: Russia would be defeated, their troops would advance to the Iranian oil fields, and then to the jewel in the crown of the British empire, India, where they would join up with Japanese forces. The US and Britain would make a peace deal.
That this did not happen was the result of the epic battle and siege of Stalingrad, fought over months and leading to the defeat of the German armies and the turning point of the war. The average life expectancy of a Russian soldier during the battle was 24 hours. Around three quarters of a million German and allied soldiers died or were injured, with nearly half a million Russian dead. Fighting took place round the big factories and in the streets of the city. Up to two million were killed, wounded or captured. Hitler promoted General Paulus to Field Marshal to stop him surrendering (no German Field Marshal had ever surrendered).
Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is a huge novel which covers the events in Stalingrad from a variety of points of view in the early months of that battle. Its publication is in itself a major event; the novel is a ‘prequel’ to Grossman’s Life and Fate and contains many of the same characters. While the latter was for a long time banned, the former was published while Stalin was still alive, although subject to varieties of censorship and existing in several different editions.
The translators, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, have done a tremendous job not just in rendering Grossman’s prose into beautiful English, but in forensic detective work to discover as far as possible his intentions in various parts of the book. The books are very much modelled on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which is set against a background of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia (although unlike Grossman’s work, it was written decades later). So, they are massive (Stalingrad is nearly one thousand pages), ordered into separate parts which cover phases of the action, and focus on a large number of characters although centred on one large family, the Shaposhnikovs.
Grossman himself was a war correspondent in Stalingrad, and it shows throughout the book. He was also Jewish, and his mother perished in the Berdichev ghetto in the early months of the war as the Nazis invaded through Ukraine. He has an amazing ability to project himself into the minds of those fighting and dying at Stalingrad, and manages to do so for a range of characters including peasant women, generals, refugees, nurses and conscript soldiers.
None of the subject matter makes for an easy read or happy endings, but Grossman has the talent to make human the suffering, and in a strange way to instil hope into the narrative. His description of the Russian soldiers defending the briefly recaptured railway station from the Germans is horrific but also a tremendous description of those who fought, made all the more poignant by the fact that none survive.
It is impossible to review a book like this without looking at the wider politics. Stalin’s Russia was very much removed from the aspirations of the revolution which took place in 1917 and overthrew the Tsar. Only a quarter century later, there were very high levels of repression; there are references in the book to those in camps or having been in trials of the sort which characterised the late 1930s. The Ukraine had witnessed terrible famine, and levels of exploitation in Russia were high as it tried to ‘catch up and overtake’ the west economically and industrially.
Some historians – and reviewers of this book – have argued that the heroism shown at Stalingrad was precisely because of this repression. Stalin’s slogan at Stalingrad was ‘not one step back’ and those who tried to retreat were shot. But while this clearly will have had an effect, it cannot explain the defence of the city or the bravery of so many. We can explain this partly by the sense that this was the last stand against Hitler, partly by the wide mobilisation of civilians (as happened in other countries) and partly by a residual loyalty to a system which many still saw as superior, not just to fascism, but to the western capitalism which had helped pave the way for fascism.
So, the Shaposhnikov family matriarch, Alexandra Vladimirovna, is an old Bolshevik whose husband attended the 1903 congress of the Russian socialists in London. She and her family have experienced first-hand some of the repression, with her son and son in law both arrested in 1937. Yet they also discuss the building of socialism and social advances in their work.
Grossman was well aware of all this and suffered censorship of his work. He was made to put in chapters which praised the war effort, as in one about mineworkers. He also sometimes, especially in the latter part of the book, lapses into a socialist realist style which has a bit too much uncritical nationalism in it. Nonetheless, he also within the book makes significant acts of resistance. One of the most sympathetic characters in both books is Viktor Shtrum, a Jewish scientist who is modelled on the real-life figure of Lev Yakovlevich Shtrum, a founder of Soviet nuclear physics who was executed in 1936, accused of Trotskyism. He also gives one of his most attractive characters the name Vasilov, after an eminent biologist who died of starvation in prison in 1943, again a victim of the repression. Grossman is deliberately honouring those who have fallen foul of Stalin.
So, Grossman’s novel is complex: a history of a huge battle through the eyes of its participants, the story of a whole range of characters set against the trials and tribulations of a society where millions dared to change the world but could not do so in conditions of their own choosing. In doing so, he has a great grasp of history and how it affects ordinary people. The story of Stalingrad was followed daily by millions around the world who understood that its fate was their fate as well.
The Holocaust is only touched on tangentially here, mainly through the existence of Shtrum’s letter from his mother – her last letter because she knows the Nazis will murder her. In Stalingrad, we witness him reading it after its circuitous journey to him, but only in Life and Fate do we read the contents, and it is one of the most moving things you can read.
I would urge everyone to read this book. Here is Grossman describing the power of the fascists in 1942:
‘In twenty countries, mills were grinding barley and wheat, and ploughs turning over fields, for the fascist occupiers. In three oceans and five seas, fishermen were catching fish to supply fascist cities. Hydraulic presses were at work in plantations throughout Europe and Northern Africa, pressing grape juice, olive oil, and flax and sunflower oil. A fine harvest was ripening on millions of apple, plum, orange and lemon trees; fruit already ripe was being packed into wooden crates stamped with a black eagle. The Reich’s iron fingers were milking Danish, Dutch and Polish cattle, shearing sheep in Hungary and the Balkans.’
And he manages to portray Stalingrad socially and physically: the city built on a cliff on the west bank of the Volga, the huge river which has to be crossed under constant bombardment, the emptiness of the steppes on the eastern side with their camels and watermelons.
We are fortunate to have these novels in their own right, but also as an insight into the minds of those who made a revolution but who found that time was not on their side.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Right turn for Labour – weekly briefing
- Can Johnson gain politically from this crisis? – weekly briefing
- Straight talking honest politics - As It Happened book extract
- Tory arrogance is threatening our lives - weekly briefing
- World War 2: we weren’t all in it together
- Coronavirus, the market and who controls society? – weekly briefing
- Afghanistan is a prime example of why 'humanitarian intervention' is a lie