I walk mid shamble smear and stench, The dead I mourn." John Finley.
The Soviet journalist and author Vasily Grossman did more than kneel behind the soldier's trench. He lived with the Red Army from the catastrophic summer of 1941, through the defense of Moscow, the apocalyptic carnage of Stalingrad, the hard-won liberation of Soviet territory, the horrible discoveries of Nazi genocide in Madjanek and Treblinka, and the final bloody, triumphant march into Berlin. Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova's "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945" is a marvelous examination of both "Grossman's war" and the war itself.
Vasily Grossman is something of a forgotten, unsung giant of Soviet literature. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine in 1905, Grossman rose to prominence and received national acclaim as a war reporter for Red Star, the official newspaper of the Red Army. Although never a member of the Communist Party, Grossman was, for most of his life, a strong supporter of the Soviet Union. Grossman's reporting was realistic (despite editing by Party censors) and was enormously popular among both high ranking officers and foot soldiers. After the war, Grossman returned to writing. His magnum opus, Life and Fate was not published in the USSR until 1988. When it was originally submitted for publication the Soviet authorities `arrested' the book and told Grossman that it would not be published for 200 years. Fortunately, a copy of the manuscript survived, was smuggled to Switzerland and published in Europe in 1980, fifteen years after Grossman's death. Life and Fate was based, in good part, on Grossman's wartime experiences. Consequently, Beevor's work provides both an historical, ground-level examination of the war generally and a great deal of insight into the life experiences that formed the moral foundation of Grossman's novels.
Beevor (and his translator and collaborator Vinogradova) have taken Grossman's notebooks, war diaries, personal correspondence and his Red Star articles and set them out as part of their narrative. The transition from Grossman's text to the commentary is well thought out and seamless. Beevor is no stranger to the Eastern Front, (he has written two well received books"Stalingrad" and "The Fall of Berlin") and he does an excellent job of putting Grossman's writings into the context of his times.
Grossman is swept into the war as a reporter for Red Star immediately after the German invasion in June, 1941. Grossman's writing (and Beevor's commentary) takes us through that first disastrous summer of defeat, despair, death, and retreat. The magnificent and bloody defense of Stalingrad follows and the success of Operation Uranus in November, 1942 that resulted in the encirclement and destruction of General Paulus' Sixth Army follows. The next portion of the book has Grossman writing about the Red Army on the offensive, from the Battle of Kursk through the liberation of the Ukraine and then Poland. It is here that Grossman first learns of the horror that was the holocaust.
Grossman's reports from Treblinka were the first, first-hand accounts of the Nazi death camps and what Grossman saw changed his life. Although Jewish, Grossman had always considered himself a secular citizen of the USSR. The death camps and the murder of his mother at the hands of Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators reawakened his sense of a Jewish identity even though he remained totally secular. Grossman's experience of the camps and the evidence he saw there of man's innate inhumanity to man stunned him even after almost 4 years of living with brutality on an unfathomable scale. In ending one of his reports Grossman writes: "It is infinitely hard even to read this. The reader must believe me, it is as hard to write it. Someone might ask: "Why write about all this, why remember all that?" It is the writer's duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it."
It is clear from reading A Writer at War and two of Grossman's novels, "Life and Fate" and "Forever Flowing" that Grossman took his duty to tell his terrible truth seriously. Beevor has done Grossman a good service by letting Grossman's voice be heard again. I hope this book creates renewed interest in Grossman's life and writing.