Recording a Hidden History

By Andrew Nagorski,
a senior Newsweek editor who is writing a book about the battle for Moscow
Wednesday, April 5, 2006


Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941-1945

Edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova

Pantheon. 378 pp. $27.50


Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

By Catherine Merridale

Metropolitan. 462 pp. $30

"If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate," Vasily Grossman wrote in his epic World War II novel "Life and Fate," which was smuggled to the West for publication long after his death in 1964. Although he had been an immensely popular correspondent for the Soviet Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star) all through the war, it was hardly surprising that Grossman's last years were marked by rejection and threats. The KGB seized the manuscript of his novel and vowed that it wouldn't see the light of day for another 200 years. But as his newly published notebooks make clear, Grossman was far too keen an observer of life's peculiarities -- and the violence done to individuals -- to fade meekly into the night.

In fact, Grossman's stature as a writer has continued to grow with the passage of time and the revival of interest in the clash of the totalitarian titans Stalin and Hitler. "A Writer at War," which offers excerpts of Grossman's notebooks combined with first-rate explanatory narration by the British historian Antony Beevor, will only enhance his reputation.

It's no accident that almost every new book about the war on the Eastern Front quotes Grossman. The latest example is Catherine Merridale's "Ivan's War," which examines the war from the perspective of the ordinary Red Army troops, more than 8 million of whom died in the fighting.

Grossman had to play the role of the propagandist on occasion, but he was as honest a reporter as those horrific times allowed. He was also a masterly writer. "That was a terrible dust, the dust of retreat," he observed during the early days of the battle for Stalingrad. "It ate up the men's faith, it extinguished the warmth of people's hearts, it stood in a murky cloud in front of the eyes of gun crews." A little later, he added: "The war's breath entered the city and scorched it."

"A Writer at War" follows Grossman's remarkable journey from the earliest days of the Nazi attack on Germany's erstwhile ally right up to the Red Army's assault on Berlin. In between, there was the initial panic and retreat -- "Exodus! Biblical exodus!" as Grossman described it -- that allowed the Germans to drive right to the outskirts of Moscow and inflict massive casualties; the dramatic turnaround at Stalingrad and the tank showdown at Kursk; and the drive through Poland that included the liberation of the death camps Majdanek and Treblinka, confirming Grossman's worst fears about the Holocaust. Arriving in Ukraine in the winter of 1944, he learned that his mother, who had remained in the town where he was born, had been killed in a mass execution in 1941.

Grossman genuinely admired the courage and tenacity of the soldiers he accompanied and vividly described their hardships and suffering. "Who can read what is going on in the souls of these men advancing to replace those lying around in the snow?" he wrote. But he was also infuriated by the way his editors at Krasnaya Zvezda would "cut and distort" his pieces and add propaganda phrases that skewed the picture he was presenting.

As the Red Army mounted its final push for victory, Grossman was increasingly disillusioned by the troops' behavior -- particularly their drunken looting and raping, even before they reached German territory. "Liberated Soviet girls often complain about being raped by our soldiers," he wrote, adding that this included women freed from German concentration camps. Everywhere, especially in Germany, he observed "horror in the eyes of women and girls." But while his descriptions of Nazi atrocities had been given full play in Krasnaya Zvezda, his accounts of Soviet excesses were confined to his notebooks.

In the recent works of Western writers, those previously suppressed accounts are on full display -- as are the other aspects of the fighting routinely squelched by Soviet propagandists. Merridale, a British historian, pokes big holes in the myth that all of Stalin's subjects were united in the struggle against the Germans. She notes the high desertion rates early in the war, the cases of self-mutilation to escape the battlefield and the 158,000 Soviet soldiers sentenced to death by their own side -- a figure that doesn't include many more executed at random.

"Ivan's War" is overloaded at times, as Merridale attempts to chronicle the entire sweep of the war and examine almost every aspect of Soviet soldiers' lives. Drawing on numerous interviews and testimony of veterans, she offers revealing insights into the everyday life of soldiers but rarely conveys the kind of raw immediacy and passion that is so evident in Grossman's notebooks.

Nonetheless, her more detached analysis complements the eyewitness accounts. Most tellingly, she points out that, on average, the Red Army losses were at least three times as high as German losses on the Eastern Front -- even when the Soviets won the battles. Near the book's end, she asks: "Could a nation consider that it was triumphant when approximately twenty-seven million of its citizens were dead?"

Grossman never questioned the magnitude of that victory. But as his notebooks illustrate, he was tormented by the horrors he witnessed, whatever their origins. What doomed his efforts to publish "Life and Fate" in his own country was its implicit parallel between Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism -- "two poles of one magnet," as one of his characters noted. So long as the Soviet Union existed, even the hint of such a conclusion couldn't be tolerated. Today, at least among many Western historians of the period, those parallels are conventional wisdom.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company