Dun-Coloured Dust

Thomas de Waal

  • Russia's War by Richard Overy
    Penguin, 416 pp, £8.99, July 1999, ISBN 0 14 027169 4
  • Stalingrad by Antony Beevor
    Viking, 512 pp, £12.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 14 024985 0

At the heart of Vasily Grossman’s great novel of the Second World War, Life and Fate, is an unforgettable depiction of a house cut off from the frontline in Stalingrad. A group of soldiers and civilians are stranded in no man’s land, linked to their comrades-in-arms only by a narrow underground passageway and forced to fight off an onslaught on three sides. They are so close to enemy lines that they can hear the voices of the German infantrymen swarming around them. Their chances of surviving are virtually nil and, after ingeniously defying death for two months, both house and inhabitants are duly obliterated by a bomb.

The defenders of the house go through an experience of such intensity that Grossman endows them with a kind of freedom. Detached from their commanders, they also forget the official version of what they are fighting for. The commissar who is despatched down the improvised tunnel from the frontline to ‘impose Bolshevik order’ in the besieged house emerges to find the faces of the defenders ‘divinely calm’ and the place an ideological mess. Grekov, the man who has taken charge, claims he has no paper on which to write reports to his commanders, whose names in any case he does not know. He blithely encourages criticism of collectivisation and Stalin’s regime.

Grossman based his story on a real house in Stalingrad, known as Pavlov’s House, which lasted for 58 days in the same spirit of mad bravery. Vasily Chuikov, the Soviet commander at Stalingrad, boasted that Pavlov’s men killed more German soldiers than died in the capture of Paris. The real Pavlov survived and proved his heretical credentials after the war by becoming an archimandrite in the Sergeyev Posad monastery outside Moscow. Grossman, who covered the battle of Stalingrad as a war reporter, would have heard all the stories about Pavlov and his men. But his account of what happened was published in the Soviet Union only in 1988, long after his death. His book was considered so dangerous that the KGB raided his apartment and confiscated the manuscript and every typewriter ribbon he possessed. In an unintended compliment, the chief Brezhnev-era ideologue, Mikhail Suslov, told Grossman that the book would not be published for two hundred years.

Grossman’s model was War and Peace and his main crime to depict Red Army soldiers who were as alienated and remote from their superiors as the peasant conscripts of 1812; who, indeed, had more in common with the ‘Fascist invaders’ than with the generals and commissars handing out impossible orders. The point hit home, for all the idealising. Tolstoy’s novel also served as an inspiration to Lidya Ginzburg, the author of Blockade Diary, a magnificent memoir of the siege of Leningrad, which also remained unpublished for many years: it described the wrong kind of heroism.[*] Starving Leningraders, she wrote, read War and Peace for encouragement: Tolstoy’s characters were the best measure they could find for their own extraordinary feats of survival.

Russian historians estimate that 27 million Soviet citizens died in the Great Patriotic War between 1941 and 1945 – thirty times more than the combined British and American war dead. The Soviet Government, evidently uncomfortable with the scale of its citizens’ sufferings, long conceded casualty figures of no more than a few million. The official line was exalted but gave little away: ‘the Soviet people saved mankind from annihilation and enslavement by German Fascism.’ Thousands of war memorials kept faith with the monumental style in avoiding anything personal or intimate. The largest of them is also one of the ugliest: the giant woman brandishing her sword on the Mamayev Kurgan hill at Stalingrad. The soldiers who did the fighting are there only anonymously, jumbled figures on the bas-relief terracotta brickwork at the base of the statue. Soviet citizens tended to limit their acts of remembrance to silent toasts drunk inside their apartments, though newly-wed couples sometimes left small bunches of carnations by the war memorials in an awkward effort to domesticate them.

The Russian Government attempted to set a new tone in 1995, when it organised the 50th-anniversary celebrations of the German surrender. Boris Yeltsin paid tribute at last to the millions of Soviet prisoners of war who returned from captivity in Germany only to be arrested and sent to the Gulag. But then, like any Communist Party General Secretary, he repaired to Lenin’s mausoleum in Red Square and took the salute from a massed military parade. (The Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, had meanwhile commissioned his court sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, to erect yet another gigantic monument: a sword with an angel stuck to it – uncomfortably suggestive from a distance of a cockroach stuck on a pin – which now towers over the west of the city.) In the evening, however, the centre of Moscow was closed to traffic and the streets given over to the celebrating crowds. Strangers talked animatedly to one other and teenagers went up to shake the hands of veterans, easily recognisable by their ten-inch-long rows of medals.

What exactly were they all remembering – apart from the dead, that is? If the socialist apostate Yeltsin had stepped down from the mausoleum into the crowd, he would no doubt have uttered something about the enduring strength of the Russian state. The commissar’s children might have argued that victory had validated the Soviet system, only for it to be betrayed in the Eighties. Certainly the history of what actually happened in the war has only just begun to be written.

Richard Overy’s impressive overview is a reminder of how poorly the English-speaking reader has been served with histories of the war on the Eastern Front. Although it was of a far greater order of magnitude than the war in the West (Hitler sent 228 divisions to the East and only 58 to the West), the Russian front has inspired perhaps half a dozen serious works in English. Written to accompany a documentary series, Russia’s War also incorporates a lot of film-archive material. It is a great pity, then, that Overy lists no Russian-language books in the bibliography and makes only sporadic reference to new archival sources.

On the other hand, he effectively – and sometimes provocatively – suggests how the war in Europe looked from Russia’s point of view. For example, France and Britain take much of the blame for triggering the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by sending only a very low-profile delegation to Moscow in August 1939 to negotiate the terms of an alliance. He focuses most of his energies, however, on the question of why the war started so badly for Russia but ended victoriously. Stalin looms large in this debate and is held chiefly responsible for the fact that his country was very nearly defeated in 1941. He not only ignored all the signals of an impending invasion, but failed to provide proper leadership in the first days of the war (Khrushchev says in his memoirs that the generalissimo was drinking heavily). In due course, paralysis gave way to obduracy: one of his first decrees, signed on 16 July, was also one of his most disastrous, reintroducing dual political control into the Army and crippling the military chain of command. He then began to insist on costly last stands. In the summer of 1941 he ordered his armies to hold Kiev at all costs, so that when the city was finally encircled in September, half a million men had either been killed or were now captured – a disaster almost on the scale that the Germans were to suffer at Stalingrad. By the end of the year, 3,350,000 members of the Red Army had been taken prisoner and 2,663,000 had been killed: 20 dead Soviet soldiers for every dead German one.

Almost everyone outside the Soviet Union had by then written the country off. In a closely argued epilogue Overy seeks to establish the reasons for its implausible victory. He is surely right to pinpoint Stalin’s change of approach in late 1942. The Soviet leader started to concede his own fallibility and jettisoned many of the ideological injunctions that were constraining the war effort. He downgraded the commissars and gave ordinary soldiers and workers a greater margin of freedom. He reopened the churches and had new medals struck in honour of tsarist heroes. In essence, while maintaining tight administrative control, he reinvigorated his people. ‘You felt as though you alone held the fate of Russia in your hands,’ the novelist and veteran Vyacheslav Kondratyev is quoted as saying.

Overy’s narrative is studded with numbers that the mind strains to comprehend. We read of 444,000 Soviet soldiers and 80,000 Germans dying in a pointless Soviet offensive of early 1942, aimed at liberating Leningrad and recapturing parts of Ukraine. How to write about such massive suffering in a work of history without howling like Solzhenitsyn? This is the challenge taken up Antony Beevor in Stalingrad. Beevor maps out the strategic scheme as seen from above, but also gives the view from ground level, with the help of voluminous accounts from the people involved. He has done his research on both sides, in the archives and with the survivors. If he is less of an artist than Grossman, he has a much wider range of sources, for some of whom – like the Russian deserters and collaborators – Stalingrad marks a belated recognition that they were involved at all.

Stalingrad was the last city standing between Hitler’s armies and the Volga. Had Hitler managed to get across the river, he would have seized the main supply route that linked the farmlands of southern Russia and the oil cities of Baku and Grozny with Moscow and the industrial north. In effect Russia would have been cut in half, with most of its armies on one side and the supplies they needed on the other. There was the further matter that Stalin had supposedly saved the city for the Reds during the Civil War, when it was still called Tsaritsyn: he had it renamed in his own honour. In 1942, it became a totemic prize in the struggle with Hitler.

A harsh winter made conditions unbearable. When the journalist Alexander Werth visited Stalingrad after the battle was over in February 1943, it was so cold that he found he could not write three words on a piece of paper with an ungloved hand. Yet these were the kinds of temperature in which soldiers fought ferocious battles for two months. By the time Werth arrived, a million people had died. At first, the Germans tried to destroy the city from the air, killing 40,000 of its civilians, but at the same time creating an urban wasteland which was easier to defend against a land assault. Then came the infernal battle, with ground troops fighting for every street:

During the last phase of the September battles, both sides had struggled to take a large brick warehouse on the Volga bank, near the mouth of the Tsaritsa, which had four floors on the river side and three on the landward. At one point it was like a ‘layered cake’ with Germans on the top floor, Russians below them, and more Germans underneath them. Often an enemy was unrecognisable, with every uniform impregnated by the same dun-coloured dust.

General Chuikov’s orders were all too straightforward: halt the German advance and hold onto the west bank of the Volga at all costs. This demanded extraordinary courage, which is the more shocking for being so routine:

An anti-tank detachment had a Kazan Tatar cook who filled a large army thermos with tea or soup, fastened it to his back and crawled up to the frontline positions under fire. If the thermos was hit by shrapnel or bullets, the hapless cook was soaked. Later, when the frosts became really hard, the soup or tea froze and he was ‘covered in icicles by the time he got back’.

Not everyone obeyed orders like these. There is plenty of new evidence here of the use of terror to keep both armies fighting. The Russians executed 13,500 men – equivalent to a whole division – guilty of cowardice or desertion. The commander of one division adopted the Roman punishment of decimation when his troops were too afraid to advance, walking down a line and shooting every tenth soldier. Thousands ran away or crossed to the other side. Beevor reveals an astonishing statistic: the presence of 50,000 Soviet ‘Hiwis’ fighting on the German side, including not only Cossacks and Ukrainians with political grudges against Stalin’s regime, but thousands of ordinary Russian deserters and civilians.

By now, however, the defenders’ colossal sacrifices were being made in the name of a long-term plan, devised by Stalin’s two best generals, Zhukov and Vasilevsky, and approved by Stalin himself. The two men spent 45 days preparing Operation Uranus, a lightning pincer attack, launched in November 1942, designed to cut off the invading Sixth Army’s retreat. Stalin’s deference to his generals paid off, although it is likely that he would have purged them had Uranus failed – Beevor has evidence to that effect. The trap closed and the Sixth Army was encircled.

Hitler did not follow Stalin’s example. He was deluded by his belief in the invincibility of the Reich and ignored the signs of imminent disaster as wilfully as Stalin had done in 1941. He refused to accept that the Sixth Army was depleted and exhausted. At one point he was so desperate to press home an offensive that he gave orders for tank drivers to abandon their vehicles and assemble as infantry. When Friedrich Paulus and the Sixth Army were completely surrounded in the closing stages of Operation Uranus, Hitler believed they could be adequately supplied by air. In fact they had already begun to starve. As late as Christmas Day, the German propaganda machine was still giving the impression of a valiant defence. Beevor describes the beleaguered Germans on the Volga picking up the broadcast: ‘In positions which were not attacked, men crowded into a bunker which had a wireless to hear “the Christmas broadcast of ‘Grossdeutsche Rundfunke’ ”. To their astonishment, they heard a voice announce: “This is Stalingrad!”, answered by a choir singing “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht”, supposedly on the Volga front’

By that stage Paulus’s army could barely forage for its survival, let alone form choirs. Only in January did the message begin to change. Hitler issued more and more medals and promotions to his trapped forces, preparing for what he believed would be a glorious suicide. Goebbels began to spin the message that the Sixth Army was dying so that Germany could live. The final Wagnerian flourish came on 31 January. Paulus’s supply of Veuve Cliquot had run out, he was sick with dysentery and in charge of the shreds of an army. Hitler made the largest series of promotions since the fall of France, elevating Paulus to the rank of field marshal. Paulus apparently commented, ‘I have no intention of shooting myself for this Bohemian corporal,’ and surrendered to the Russians instead.

The defeat of the Sixth Army marked the turning-point of the war and set the Russians on the road to Berlin. The campaigns that followed were just as bloody. In his eagerness to press forward, Zhukov was prepared to order men across minefields: you could advance more quickly that way. Stalingrad explores the motivation of these soldiers. They were tougher than Western European armies – it is hard to imagine British troops in the ruins of Stalingrad fighting with knives and sharpened spades – and they were driven to fight by a mixture of fear, pride and revenge. But the key element must have been that, as in 1812, they were engaged in the defence of Russian territory. Most Russians, deracinated and distant from their rulers, are not patriotic even in the most hackneyed senses of that word, but the invasion of their land awakened a fierce patriotic solidarity in Zhukov’s divisions.

The extraordinary feats of the soldiers of the Red Army between 1941 and 1945 cast into sharp relief the dismal performance of the Soviet Army in subsequent campaigns. Afghanistan and Chechnya proved that Russian soldiers had no stomach for an offensive war even in the alleged cause of protecting Russia’s strategic interests or territorial integrity. Chechnya in 1994-96 was in many ways a little Stalingrad. Not only was Grozny bombed into a blackened ruin and fought over street by street, but the conflict cast the Russians in the role of hapless invaders. The teenage conscripts were an even more wretched version of the poor Germans or Hungarians who perished outside Stalingrad. The disparate and anarchic Chechens joined together against an occupying army which fell apart in drunkenness and desertion. Yet many of the characteristics of the Russian soldiers – their poverty, naivety and provincialism – had not changed since 1945. The ignominy they suffered in Chechnya makes the heroism of their grandfathers in the Forties more remarkable still.

[*] Translated by Alan Myers, Ginzburg’s book is published in the UK by Harvill.