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 In an unintended compliment, the chief Brezhnev-era ideologue, Mikhail Suslov, told Grossman that the book would not be published for two hundred years.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.

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