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A long-dead Soviet writer reminds us why now is a good time to remember Stalingrad

February 3, 2023

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over German forces besieging Stalingrad. So a few words in praise of a magnificent novel that describes the battle like nothing I’ve read before.

I have always been intensely interested in Russia. Be it fearing for a life hardly started during the Cuba crisis, or watching, fascinated, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it’s a country that’s never been far from my thoughts throughout my adult life.

Fear, wonder, an instinctive sense of common humanity fighting a perception of otherness.

And what of Russia now? What face does it present to generations who didn’t live through the flashpoints, the summits and the ever-present mutual suspicion? It’s hard to not argue that among those who don’t speak Russian, have never visited the country and have no Russian friends, the picture is pretty ugly.

Even before the latest Ukraine war, the West’s old adversary was about oligarchs and their yachts, a grim-faced leader orchestrating election interference, poisonings and defenestrations. Mean, bitter and bullying. A country whose grudges and resentments over its past inform its future.

Its war against Ukraine heaps further damage upon its reputation. Murderers set free to kill. Progozhin the troll farmer and warlord, whose mercenaries castrate deserters or stove in their heads with concrete blocks. Regular soldiers walking down suburban streets randomly killing passers-by. And black-clad thugs bundling protesters off to prison.

This is the Russia you will find on the social media, and indeed in the mainstream media (as if there’s much difference between the two nowadays). At least, it’s what you’ll find if you live in a country that doesn’t control what you watch and what you post in response.  A country without a moral compass, loosely held together by the virulent nationalism spewed out by Putin and his propagandists on state TV. Search YouTube for Simoyan and Solovyev and you’ll discover what I mean.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia seemed to be adopting some of the trappings of the West. A form of capitalism, even if the intended spread of ownership of national assets was perverted by the mafia in league with remnants of the Soviet elite.  We were able to say that a Russian middle class was emerging, consisting of people who shared western aspirations: freedom of ownership, freedom of speech, freedom of movement. Yet if you talked to a Russian you didn’t know well there was always an elephant in the room. Putin, oligarchs and the mafia were subjects best not discussed unless the other person brought them up.

I’ve always been a believer that wherever they are, and whatever political system they live under, people share universal basic needs and values. I still believe that, even if the flip side of that belief is that given the right circumstances people are also capable of unspeakable evil. And that goes for people in Manchester and Philadelphia as much as it does for the citizens of St Petersburg and Shanghai,

I don’t believe that people are basically evil. Yes, they can be led astray by manipulation of resentment and a constant stream of propaganda. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most extreme example, though most recently the willingness of people in the US to embrace Donald Trump and in the UK to vote for Brexit are evidence that the dark art of manipulation is no less potent today.

I’ve read many books about Russia, its contradictions and its struggles, but equally its profound cultural contributions to humanity. One big book has been sitting for a couple of years in my library unread – waiting for me to devote sustained attention to it. Stalingrad, by Vasily Grossman, is a literary monument not to be skimmed or glossed over.

Now I’ve read it, all nine hundred pages, over a period of ten days. It’s a novel that was never published in the author’s lifetime. Grossman, born in Ukraine of Jewish ancestry, was the pre-eminent Soviet war reporter during what Russians call the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. He was covered every major battle, from the defence of Moscow to the final act in Berlin. He was the first writer to describe the horrors of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka. And he was at Stalingrad, the most brutal battlefield of them all.

Stalingrad is the first of two novels that deal with the battle. The second, Life and Fate, I have yet to read. I mention it in the context of Russia’s current struggle for two reasons.

First, because for all Grossman’s riveting descriptions of the fighting, as I read it, the book is actually about love. The love of families for each other, of comrades for each other in the heat of battle and of those fighting to preserve of their nation for the land itself. Each aspect brings forth some of the most lyrical and moving prose I have read in decades.

Second, because the book was finished in the 1950s, the dark side of the Soviet Union was hinted at only in the most oblique terms. To do otherwise would have risked official censure and prevented him from publishing. So no mention of Stalin’s iniquities: the Holodamor (the man made famine that ravaged Ukraine in the early 1930s), nor of the Reign of Terror, nor of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, which enabled Stalin and Hitler to carve up Poland and provided Germany with a vital source of war materials in the early years of the war. In the event, even though he danced delicately around those events, he was unable to get it published. Perhaps it was his ideas about the nature of truth that did for him. These days we talk much about alternative truths as a new concept. Grossman was there six decades ago,

Stripped of its malign context, you might read Stalingrad as a story of heroism and the power of collective will. It’s much more than that. It’s a tale, not of systems and ideologies, but of the power of people doing their best under impossible circumstances in the face of a vicious and remorseless enemy.

Every character has a story that brings them to life – some short and some long. You sense that Grossman has distilled into the cast of Stalingrad hundreds of real encounters in and around the battle scenes from which he reported. It’s commonly held that one major character, whose mother is killed by the Nazis in a Ukrainian ghetto, is based on the author himself, who suffered a similar loss.

The book is a blend of tenderness, compassion and brutality, interspersed with polemics against fascism, as well as the obligatory paeans to the joys of Soviet socialism. But above all, the humanity of the characters shine out – humanity with which any of us would empathise.

So in the week when Vladimir Putin unveiled a new statue of Stalin in the city that was subsequently re-named Volgograd, one wonders how Russia’s current autocrat will be remembered: for the iniquities of his authoritarian kleptocracy, or for what he might claim to be the power of collective will that’s reducing the cities of Ukraine to rubble and feeding his citizens into a human slaughterhouse?

There are many other books and movies that describe the Battle of Stalingrad, For me, Anthony Beevor’s account stands out, as does Enemy at the Gates, the movie that depicts the battle between snipers in the ruins of the city.

But I would recommend Grossman’s novel above all of them, because it reminds us, at a time when we might easily forget, that whatever their differences, human beings, wherever they might be, have more in common with each other than sets them apart. And that includes the capacity for evil as well as good.

What he would have thought of today’s Russia is anybody’s guess. He died in 1964, long before the regime that denied him fame and recognition in his lifetime itself perished. But he has left us a powerful lens through which to view the most brutal of conflicts. Not for nothing is he sometimes regarded as the Soviet Union’s Tolstoy.

From → Books, Film, History, Politics

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