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Stalingrad by Vasiliy Grossman

January 13, 2020

The well worn notion that  good – if not great – literature could not see the light of day in Soviet Union is just a bunch of hooey.

Just finished this wondrous book, Stalingrad, and am now reading the sequel – Life and Fate – both by Vasiliy Grossman. It held my attention for all of its 1053 pages. Together the two books are 1900 pages so reading them – and they should be read together – is not for the weak willed.

Why am I reading Grossman?

In part because I am tired and frustrated at the venom being spewed about Russia today – you know the stuff about the Russians supposedly being the reason that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential contest. The anti-Russian anti-Putin propaganda is so shrill now that it surpasses that which targeted the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That combines with a near total lack of appreciation of NATO’s on-going attempts to balkanize the former Soviet Union – now Russia – even further.

So this is one reason… but there are others. Two specifically come to mind

1. The role of the battle of Stalingrad in turning the tide against Nazi-ism in WW2
2. that whole trajectory of Soviet History. It rise – culminating in its victory over fascism in WW2 followed by its fall and ultimate collapse in 1991.

Concerning the first.

Even during that brief window when U.S.-Russian relations were on the up and up (when that drunkard Yelstin was following World Bank-IMF advice on the privatization of the former USSR’s assets) the Soviet role in WW2 was underplayed and often misunderstood. The casualties it suffered during the war, the defense of Moscow, the seige of Leningrad, the historic victories Stalingrad and the Kurst salient (largest tank battle in history) and the final assault up the Seelow Heights to Berlin still remain largely unknown to the American reading public.

I wanted to re-read about all this as a reminder that with all its many warts and problems, if not for the Soviet Union in World War 2, today we in the United States would probably be living under some form of fascism. Stalingrad dwarfs the D-Day landing in size, scope and its role in defeating Nazism. This needs to be remembered. The story is eloquently related by Grossman in this epic novel which has been compared to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

To my mind iStalingrad achieves the same level of greatness.

There is the human drama of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that is virtually unknown here. Grossman delves into it in every page – people worried about loved ones, the struggle to maintain courage in the face of the Nazi advance, the quiet unyielding dignity of the entire nation. It is all quite gripping. While there is some truth to that desertion was met by execution (Stalin’s order), to believe that this was what drove the Soviet soldiers to resist the Nazi onslaught is little more than cheap Western propaganda.

Of course, today it is easy to discredit Soviet Communism. It did collapse and ultimately could not overcome its Stalinist heritage. But it is a historic mistake to believe it did not enjoy some accomplishments both in terms of economic production on the one hand and also in terms of eliminating the capitalist class exploitation and class inequality that comes with it on the other.

Grossman explains and elaborates on this as well as anyone.

Stalingrad, first written in the late 1940s, nearly didn’t see the light of day. The Soviet censor(s) kept demanding this revision and that. But finally the book was issued and was so in the Soviet Union. In fact there are three somewhat different edition with the third edition having more of a critical and honest content than the first two. The English translation by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler masterfully weaves together as much of the three editions as possible.

Life and Fate, the second volume of this duology, is better known in the West.

This is so largely because in contrast to Stalingrad, Life and Fate is much more – one might even say – scathingly more critical of Soviet Communism. The same author who in Stalingrad praises Soviet Communism and its role in WW2 deconstructs it, exposes its underbelly mercilessly in Life and Fate.” It is as if in the first book we see its rise and Life and Fate we see it’s fall and collapse, but the two really should be read and considered together and not separately. Taken together they are, in my view, about as good a way to understand Soviet history in the 20th century. The second book details the background for the great unraveling. I’m 100 pages into it right now so will hold off on commenting in more depth until I’m through with it. But like Stalingrad I can assert, that the book is riveting.

Grossman was Jewish and evolution of Soviet Jewry is sketched out some in Stalingrad, elaborated upon in much greater depth in Life and Fate. More on that later.

Bottom line – Read Vasily Grossman. More on Grossman soon.

PS… After posting remembered another reason I wanted to write about this – I’m 75, and forgetful – it was in large measure a response to the movie “Enemy At The Gates” starring Jude Law and Joseph Fiennes. Although at the time I saw it I enjoyed it greatly, a bitter after taste remained that I couldn’t figure out until I read Grossman’s Stalingrad. Then it all came back.

For those unfamiliar with the plot – it is a true story about two snipers duking it out in the bombed out ruins of Stalingrad, one Nazi, one Soviet. Eventually, at the end of the film, the Soviet sniper is able to kill his Nazi counterpart.

Very well done, riveting in its own way but somehow even in its truth it is a dishonest film! In the end it cheapens and distorts history in a fundamental manner, so much so that I have to wonder if that wasn’t the reason the film was made in the first place.

How so? It portrays this epic battle in which It is estimated that around 750,000 soldiers from the German army died and nearly 500,000 Russians as a contest between two men as an individual struggle something akin to a medieval knightly contest on horseback. It was the most decisive victory against the Nazis in the entire war and for Hitler a defeat from which he never recovered.

It took place on such a massive geographical plane as well both the fighting in the city itself and the great Soviet plan to encircle and sufficate the Nazi offensive. All of that is lost in “The Enemy at The Gate”.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Phil Jones permalink
    January 13, 2020 5:31 pm

    Some of the constant praise of Soviet accomplishments throughout the book is a bit hard to believe. That some characters always think that way is believable; that all the characters always think that way is not. However, the story deals mainly with political officers and their families, and perhaps they would be the kind of people who would think in such terms, Of course, as you note, this is the first part of a two-part story, and it was being written and edited while Stalin was still alive. Grossman and his editors had to be careful about what was written. Yet it is still an excellent book about a momentous event. (People should know that most of the story in this book is about the time leading up to the battle, the weeks when the Germans were driving across Russia toward Stalingrad. However, the Germans do arrive and the battle around and in the city ensues.) I don’t happen to think this work is as good as “War and Peace,” but “Stalingrad” mixes family issues with the big picture of the war rather well and it certainly merits comparison to Tolstoi’s work. When “Life and Fate” are added, it may equal “War and Peace.”

    • January 13, 2020 6:19 pm

      Phil,

      Have you read “Life and Fate.” As I noted I’m not that far into it but already it adapts a more critical tone about Soviet life than “Stalingrad.” That is noticeable immediately.

      Concerning the parts of the books you found hard to believe… For me much of it (but not all) is quite credible. Think about what life was like prior to the 1917 revolution. For many of the people in the book, the Soviet period was an improvement. That is the only way I can explain their willingness to fight, die and sacrifice so much in WW2. Also, for all its inefficiencies…during the war the Soviets actually outproduced the Nazis and I do believe that is a key and understated reason for their victory. Anyhow, thanks for your response.

      PS. There is a link to an hour talk by the translator, Robert Chandler (click on “Vasiliy Grossman”) I think it is worth watching to give context to the book and to Grossman’s work in particular.

      • Phil Jones permalink
        January 13, 2020 6:38 pm

        Read it many years ago. Can’t remember details at all now. (Can’t remember details of practically everything in my past life, either. The joys of getting old!) I do remember being shocked at the brutality of some scenes in prisons, however.

  2. William Conklin permalink
    January 13, 2020 10:29 pm

    Yes this book has been on my reading list but I have been so involved with the Middle East I haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s nice to read a review. One other thing to say about Soviet communism is that it turned a Third World country that had been devastated by both a revolution and the first world war into a world power that was capable of defeating the Nazis, No small task.

  3. January 14, 2020 4:30 am

    Je crains que ton enthousiasme ne baisse d’un cran, son superbe Vie et Destin dessine un regime politique plus que glauque….

    • January 14, 2020 7:36 am

      je ne suis pas en desaccord…il y a une chose quand meme – comment explique la victoire de Stalingrad sans consider l’applui presque universelle du peuple sovietique pour staline et le gouvernement sovietique.

      en tous cas, le central pour moi c’est ne pas oublier le role sovietique strategique dans le defait du nazisme et que l’hysterie anti-russe aujourd’hui est une grande conerie..

      warm regards to you and “le baron”…

  4. robert Greene permalink
    January 18, 2020 11:54 am

    What makes Stalingrad Different, is that the heros, the Soviets are losing in Stalingrad. Grossman makes it clear that what saves the day for the Soviets, is the Russian people. Grossman also makes it clear that there were Russians who were opposed to the Soviet Union, some of whom did aid the Nazis. Not all Russians were heroic,but Stalingrad is about the Russian people, and that is different from War and Peace.
    Rob is right, most Americans don’t know the horrific amounts of damage suffered by the Soviet Union.
    Read Stalingrad. Its a different book than the usual WW2 books.

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