Review: Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”

It’s a small miracle that we have an English translation of Vasily Grossman’s novel, Stalingrad, given the huge amount of restorative work Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler had to undertake to piece the novel together. They don’t tell us how many years were involved in examining multiple versions and printed editions of Grossman’s thousand-page novel, but in both the introduction and an afterword Robert tells us that “Grossman battled editors and censors throughout his career,” and that he had to tote the line for what Stalin himself regarded as appropriate Russian realism. It may have helped that in the midst of the appearance of the various editions of Stalingrad (1952-1956), Stalin died (1953). What we do know for certain is that Grossman was a war correspondent and that much of what he observed ended up in the various editions of the work, which Chandler calls “an act of homage…to honour the dead.”

Sadly, that is true. As a battalion commander observes late in the novel, “All deaths are stupid…. There’s no clever way to get killed.” The line is delivered after so many of Grossman’s characters (civilians and military) are dead, in large part because Stalin has earlier decreed, “any further retreat would mean the end of everything. There was, therefore, no greater crime in the world than retreat. The fate of a great country and a great people—the fate of the world—was being decided. There could be no further retreat.” If you were going off to war, you expected to be killed. Whole battalions would be wiped out, but the Germans would finally be defeated.

Like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, this version of Stalingrad loops back and forth between civilians (who are often in denial about the approach of the Germans) and figures in the military. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator provides the grim context for what will unfold: “The new order established by Hitler throughout conquered Europe had seen the modernization and renewal of all the methods and techniques of violence that had arisen in the course of thousands of years of the rule of the few over the many.” Still, reading Stalingrad today often seems quaint. Communication is primitive: phone lines, that so often need to be repaired or run to some other area; letters, carried by messengers. Armored vehicles are always at the mercy of fuel banks; hence, their movement considerably curtailed. Grossman provides details of these handicaps for troops on both sides of the skirmishes, making us pause and realize just how horrific contemporary warfare has become. (Need I remind you of the scourge of drones currently used to destroy entire villages with casualties only on one side?)

In the summer of 1942, there’s a mass exodus of peasants from the Steppes, flocking toward Stalingrad where they believe they will be safe. Observing this mass movement of individuals, Krymov, a Red Army commissar and one of the main characters, thinks of them as “migrating birds or animals.” “Fascism wanted to subordinate all human life to rules similar in their soulless, senseless and cruel uniformity to those that govern the dead, inanimate nature, the laying down of sediments on the seabed or the erosion of mountain ranges. Fascism wanted to enslave the mind, soul, labour, will and acts of mineralized human beings. Fascism wanted its slaves, deprived of freedom and happiness, to be both cruel and obedient; it wanted their cruelty to be like that of a brick falling off a roof onto a child’s head.” And, yet, the generosity of these peasants is ubiquitous.

The three factories on the edges of Stalingrad continue to produce armaments for the war, even as the German approach is so close and their intent is obvious: to blow up the factories, eliminating industries of national importance. What the Germans don’t understand is “The boundless river of the Soviet people’s anger and grief…. The will of the people, the will of the Party and state had transformed it into a river of iron and steel and it was now flowing back, from east to west. Its immense weight would soon tilt the scales.”

Somewhat later, we encounter this passage: “…the millstones of history were already at work. Everything of Hitler’s would be ground to dust: his ideas, his armies, his Reich, his party, his science and his pitiful arts, his field marshals and gauleiters, he himself and the future of Germany. None of Hitler’s failures proved more catastrophic than his success. None brought more suffering to mankind…. Can we call someone a great man if he has left behind him only ashes, ruins and congealed blood, only poverty and the stench of racism, only the graves of the countless children and old people he has killed?”

What we see in contrast—alongside enormous grief and suffering—are individuals who were self-centered before the war suddenly rising to the occasion and helping others. Grossman shows that of both civilians and soldiers in haunting passages that were removed from some editions of the novel because they were considered to be too emotional, too extraneous to the inevitable movement of the war. This is one of my favorites among many in this blistering long narrative: “The bombs reached the ground and plunged into the city. Buildings began to die, just as people die. Tall, thin houses toppled to one side, killed on the spot; stockier, sturdier houses trembled and swayed, their chests and bellies gashed open and exposing what had always been hidden from view: portraits on walls, cupboards, double beds, bedside tables, jars of millet, a half-peeled potato on a table covered with an ink-stained oilcloth.” Though there is enormous destruction, the city survives.

Very few “war” novels have engaged me like Stalingrad, especially novels so long. The Chandlers have constructed something that is not quite a masterpiece but something that comes darn close. And I say that as someone who has read only this novel by Grossman and not his more admired work, Life and Fate, which overlaps (the war, the characters) significantly with Stalingrad. It’s time to praise translators, just as much as writers. If you read Stalingrad, you will understand what I mean.

Vasily Grossman.
New York Review Books. 1053 pp. $27.95.
Translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.