A Writer At War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army

Vasily Grossman, Antony Beevor, and Luba Vinogradova

Created on Monday, October 31, 2011.
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An overview of the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman’s frontline reporting during the Second World War.


“We leafed through a series of the Front newspaper. I came across the following phrase in a leading article: ‘The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.’”


“In an izba, there are peacetime newpapers pasted on the walls instead of wallpaper. We look at them and say: ‘Look, it’s all about peacetime.’ Yesterday we saw a house with wartime newpapers instead of wallpaper. If that house survives, people will one day remark: ‘Look at these wartime newspapers!’”


“‘Why didn’t you write anything about the heroic defence of Orel?’ ‘Because there was no defence.’”


“Reconnaissance men Kapitonov and Deiga [presumably on a scouting mission behind enemy lines] changed into civilian clothes and visited a meeting where Germans were holding the election of a starosta [village leader in German-occupied territory]. Germans shouted: ‘Those who aren’t locals, stand up!’ They stood up and were arrested.”


“Resupplying forward and isolated units was a major problem. The 62nd Army often resorted to U-2 biplanes, mostly flown by the young women pilots, who could switch off their engines and glide silently either over German trenches to drop bombs, or over Soviet positions to drop supplies. During the night, U-2s drop food for our troops. We mark the front line with oil lamps (flat dishes), which the soldiers light on the bottom of trenches. Company Commander Khrennikov once forgot to do this, and suddenly he heard a hoarse voice coming from the dark sky above: ‘Hey, Khren [an insult that incidentally matches the Commander’s name]! Are you going to light those lamps or not?’ That was the pilot. The engine had been switched off. Khrennikov says this made a terrifying impression on him: a voice from the sky calling his name.”


“When the Germans captured one workshop, they even managed to raise a disabled tank up to a certain height and fire from the window.”


“‘We had marched for eight days, 120 kilometres, without sleep and without food. I had been imagining what war was like – everything on fire, children crying, cats running about, and when we got to Stalingrad it really turned out to be like that, only more terrible.’”


“‘We kept beating them off all day. Pavlov called to me: “Let’s attack.” I asked: “How many people have you got?” “Ten. And you?” “Four.” “Well, let’s attack!” And there were about a hundred Germans, two companies of SS. Well, we went for them. ‘I leaped out and ran upright. “Follow me! Ura!” I ran to the second house alone.”


“Ortenberg also recounted a bizarre event, which took place during one of Grossman’s trips to Stalingrad from Akhtuba, the base on the east bank of the Volga. ‘Once, in mid-October, he told officers from the Political Department of the front that he was going to visit [General] Rodimtsev the next day. They had two well-packed parcels with presents sent by an American women’s organisation. Grossman was asked to deliver these presents to the two “most courageous women defending Stalingrad”. The Political Department had decided that the two most courageous women could be found in Rodimtsev’s division, and that Grossman was a suitable person to deliver these presents to them. Although he did not like official ceremonies, Vasily Semyonovich reluctantly agreed. He crossed the Volga in a motor boat, and joined Rodimtsev. The two girls stood in front of him. They were very excited about the famous writer and the heroic general presenting them with gifts. They said a formal thank you and started unwrapping the packages at once. Inside were ladies’ swimming costumes and slippers to go with them. Everyone was extremely embarrassed. The luxurious swimming costumes looked so strange in this environment, under a thundering cannonade of the Stalingrad battle.’”


“We are walking on a wasteland covered with holes from bombs and shells – German snipers and lookouts can see the place well, but the skinny Red Army soldier in a long trenchcoat is walking by my side calmly and without haste. He explains soothingly: ‘You wonder whether he can’t see us? Well, he can. We used to crawl here at night, but now it is different: he is saving rounds and shells.’”


“‘The men in one of my companies were so fast asleep that they didn’t want to wake up even when the Germans were pricking them with their bayonets. The company commander was awake and with his sub-machine gun managed to hold the Germans off. That’s why it’s clear, one shouldn’t overstrain the men, no good will come of it.’”


“We walk on and on across the bottomless unsteady land of Treblinka, and then suddenly we stop. Some yellow hair, wavy, fine and light, glowing like brass, is trampled into the earth, and blonde curls next to it, and then heavy black plaits on the light-coloured sand, and then more and more. Apparently, these are the contents of one – just one sack of hair – which hadn’t been taken away. Everything is true. The last, lunatic hope that everything was only a dream is ruined. And lupin pods are tinkling, tinkling, little seeds are falling, as if a ringing of countless little bells is coming from under the ground. And one feels as if one’s heart could stop right now, seized with such sorrow, such grief, that a human being cannot possibly stand it.”


“In the town of Landsberg near Berlin. Children are playing at war on the flat roof of a house. Our troops are finishing off German imperialism in Berlin this minute, but here the boys with wooden swords and lances, with long legs, with their hair cut short on the back of their heads, with blond fringes, are shouting in shrill voices, stabbing one another, jumping, leaping wildly. Here, birth is being given to a new war. It is eternal, undying.”


“Foreigners. [Forced labourers and prisoners of war.] Their suffering, their travelling, shouting, threats towards German soldiers. Top hats, whiskers. A young Frenchman said to me: ‘Monsieur, I love your army and that’s why it is painful for me to see its attitude to girls and women. This is going to be very harmful for your propaganda.’”


“On a bench, a wounded German soldier is hugging a girl, a nurse. They see no one. When I pass them again an hour later, they are still sitting in the same position. The world does not exist for them, they are happy.”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.