A Writer at War:
Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945

Antony Beevor + Luba Vinogradova (editors)

translated from the Russian
Pimlico 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2016 http://dannyreviews.com/
In 1941 Vasily Grossman became a front-line reporter for Red Star and he went on to cover most of the major campaigns on the Eastern Front, from the initial Soviet collapse through the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk and Operation Bagration to the final assault on Berlin. He also reported on the fate of the Jews of the Ukraine and Poland; his own mother was one of the victims.

A Writer at War consists of excerpts from both Grossman's published stories and unpublished notes and letters, interspersed with explanatory material. Beevor and Vinogradova use commentary to link excerpts into a coherent narrative and to provide background information, pointing out for example where Grossman gets things wrong or is unaware of important information. Some longer pieces, such as his report from Treblinka, are included almost unabridged, with only a brief introduction. Overall, perhaps three quarters of the text is Grossman's. There's also a small selection of halftones, most of them from photographs depicting him on campaign.

Grossman's writing captures the daily life of both soldiers and civilians amid the chaos and violence of war, as well as something of the messiness and confusion of actual combat, especially in the close-range fighting at Stalingrad. And he combines a feel for the broad picture — he had a more varied wartime experience than most — with small, telling details.

"Charming and sad. Mamaev Kurgan — here is the command post of the battalion. Men from the mortar company are playing a record all the time with the song 'No, friends, please not now, don't put me on this bed of frost.'
There was never another place with so much music. This ploughed-up clay, stained with shit and blood, was ringing with music from radios, gramophone records and from the voices of company and platoon singers."

"There's only one kind of complaint and lament that I didn't hear in Poland, only one kind of tears that I didn't see: that of Jews. There are no Jews in Poland. They have all been suffocated, killed, from elders to new-born babies. Their dead bodies have been burned in furnace. And in Lublin, the Polish city with the biggest Jewish population, where more than 40,000 Jews had been living before the war, I haven't seen a single child, a single woman, a single old man who could speak the language that my grandparents spoke."

He spent time with air force, tank and infantry units, on the offensive and on the defensive, in Russia, Poland and Germany. He got to know ordinary soldiers, and was one of the most popular war correspondents among the rank-and-file, but he also had access to commanders at all levels and his interviews and descriptions give a feel for how the Red Army grew over four years into a well-trained, professional and effective fighting force. (He was also able to interview captured Germans on occasion.)

"The enemy fear being encircled. They don't believe that their defence lines are strong, because their commanders keep deceiving them the whole time.
Characteristics of our officers during this new phase: (1) Will; (2) Confidence; (3) Scorn towards the enemy; (4) Ability to fight using the force of tanks and artillery, the infantry being small in number; (5) Ability to save, to keep account of every cartridge and shell — a big war with poor reserves; (6) They have learned to hurry, but it isn't their motto, it is just in in everyone's blood. They hurry to cross the rivers, because it is much quicker to use a branch than to wait for days on end for a pontoons. The speed of pursuit matches the speed of the enemy's retreat."

His writing displays an entirely unfeigned enthusiasm for the fight against fascism and a celebration of the stubborn Russian spirit — and acceptance of some aspects of official propaganda — but there is also sharp and critical observation of failings and flaws. Grossman describes the vanity and one-upmanship of many of the commanders, for example, and doesn't ignore the rape and pillage by Soviet troops in Poland and Germany.

"Horrifying things are happening to German women. An educated German whose wife has received 'new visitors' — Red Army soldiers — is explaining with expressive gestures and broken Russian words, that she has already been raped by ten men today. The lady is present."
"Soviet girls liberated from the camps are suffering a lot now. Tonight, some of them are hiding in our correspondents' room. During the night, we are woken up by screams: one of the correspondents couldn't resist the temptation. A noisy discussion ensues, then order is re-established."

Much of this remained private, of course; and Grossman's notebooks contained more than enough political commentary to have had him shot if the NKVD had ever seen them. A brief epilogue describes the trouble he had after the war because of his work on The Black Book documenting the Holocaust, barely escaping from Stalin's final anti-Semitic campaign, and how he fell into disfavour again in 1960, when he tried to publish a novel Life and Fate based on his wartime experience.

For anyone curious about the Russian experience of the Second World War, A Writer at War will be essential and engaging reading.

January 2016

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%T A Writer at War
%S Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945
%E Beevor, Antony
%E Vinogradova, Luba
%M Russian
%I Pimlico
%D 2006
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781845950156
%P 378pp