Volgograd-Stalingrad Metro Station / Photo: Fill1970 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Providing Witness: Vasily Grossman’s ‘Stalingrad’

In Vasily Grossman, the lost and nameless victims of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union – soldier and civilian, ordinary men and women – found their literary chronicler.

Vasily Grossman
NYRB Classics
June 2019

When E.P. Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) that he was seeking to rescue the ‘obsolete’ artisans, weavers, rural labourers, and domestic outworkers that made up the pre-industrial working class from the “enormous condescension of posterity”, he introduced the practice now well known as “history from below” into English-language historiography. The resistance his subjects felt for the new industrialism after 1780 may have been backward-looking, and their insurrections in defense of their way of life may have been doomed to fail, but “they lived through these times of acute disturbance, and we did not.” Thompson brought a sort of moralistic cast of mind and a philosophical basis for examining the experiences and aspirations that animated the lives of such subjects. In Thompson, the lost and nameless victims of industrialist “progress” found their historian.

In Vasily Grossman, through Stalingrad (1952) and Life and Fate (1960), the lost and nameless victims of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union – soldier and civilian, ordinary men and women – found their literary chronicler. It has been typical for literary critics to compare Grossman’s style and approach to that of Leo Tolstoy, and there are merits to this view. Grossman himself offered explicit comparisons between 1812 and 1942 and invited the reader to ponder its significance. “The present merged with the past,” he writes in Stalingrad, “today’s events were one with what Tolstoy described with such truth and power that it had become the supreme reality of a war that ran its course 130 years ago.”

The comparison draws attention to the shared space allowed for both writers, having positioned themselves within a certain Russian literary tradition to dilate on the idea of the Russian nation. Grossman allows himself these flourishes, and not all of it is convincing. Some of it even rings false in light of Grossman’s early career as a functionary of the Soviet state. “The brotherhood of all Soviet workers continued to live and breathe in the churned-up mud of the front line, in half-flooded trenches, in summer dust and winter snow-drifts,” he writes. Elsewhere, at a critical moment, “Stalin’s words burnt with bitter truth. They summoned men to their highest duty.”

But these are not regular beats in Grossman’s writing, and their occasional appearances might not, for the modern reader, lower Stalingrad or detract from the prevailing humanity of his characterizations. His lengthy digressions into the desperate experiences of a group of Ural-based coal miners illustrate the tension. Miners are, of course, the enduring symbol of the indefatigable proletariat, cherished by Marxists in this period for their salt-of-the-earth quality and their historically well-developed sense of class consciousness. But Grossman’s technical descriptions of their routine activities are interesting in their own right, and the sensitivity with which he characterizes their inner lives is evocative.

His character sketch of Vavilov, the honorable and hardscrabble peasant-soldier whose experiences begin and end the book, shows that this where his heart is – with ordinary people and the emotional and psychological content of their lives. “He looked up and down the village,” just moments after signing his conscription call-up papers, “at its one wide street, at its huts and yards, at the high, clear, sky, and at the dark forest in the distance. Yes, this is where his life had gone.” He felt anguish over the imminent separation from his wife and children. He knew he was probably going to die.

Grossman’s most affecting images pause over such moments. Often for these characters in these circumstances – we know, and sometimes they know – these are the moments before their death. It is sudden death, where Grossman describes plumes of green water expelled from under the Volga, “noiselessly, as in a dream”, as Germans bomb a boat filled with children. It is the moment of death, “the last bubbles and gurgles of departing life” of hand-to-hand street fighters in Stalingrad. It is imminent death, as a section leader is “crushed beneath a huge heap of brick, unable to give out orders, or even let out a groan.” He would die alone with his gun.

It is lingering death, where buildings die, “killed on the spot”, just as people die. The memories and meanings built up by their occupants, Grossman knows, will fade and become lists of things left behind: “Portraits on walls, cupboards, double beds, bedside tables, jars of millet, a half-peeled potato on a table covered with an ink-stained oilcloth.”

An exact figure for the number of Russians who died in World War II will never be established, but the scope of it was surely sensed by Grossman, who was also a journalist and a writer of non-fiction. An overwhelming melancholy settles gradually on the reader with full force in the course of the book’s over-1,000 pages. But these grim facts are partly why his work in general, and Stalingrad in particular, is powerful: he is providing witness to posterity for such lost lives.