Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman


Year Published:2019 (First published in serial form in 1952 and as a book in 1954)

PAGES:892 (963 with afterword, notes, seclected readings and maps)

Vasily Grossman
Translators:Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

For anyone interested in the Second World War, and particularly for those interested in the defence of Stalingrad against Germany’s 6th army in 1942 and 1943, Vasily Grossman’s epic novel is a must read. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation marks the first time the book has been available in English, and it’s a highly readable interpretation of Grossman’s text and possibly a faithful rendering of his intentions. The book can also be read as a prequel to Life and Fate, Grossman’s most famous book. Stalingrad was written first, but Life and Fate was first published in the West in 1980 after it was smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm. It had been suppressed by the KGB in 1960 and was never published in Grossman’s lifetime.

The battle for Stalingrad was a turning point in World War II. The surrender of Hitler’s 6th army halted Germany’s push eastward and prevented Hitler from obtaining much-needed agricultural land and access to oil fields which would have supported Germany’s ongoing effort to conduct war in Europe. The Soviets had initially been complicit in Germany’s invasion of Poland. They had also invaded Poland shortly after Germany under the terms of an economic and military pact signed with Germany in 1939 known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. The pact guaranteed that Germany would not act aggressively towards the Soviet Union for at least 10 years (clearly, that promise wasn’t kept), and settled each country’s spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.

So, the Soviet Union really marked its entry into the war on the side of the allied powers in World War II with Germany’s invasion of Russia in June 1941. I go into more detail about this in my review of Anthony Beevor’s historical account of the battle of Stalingrad. You can read my review of Beevor’s account by clicking here.

Stalingrad reveals little of this historical context. In fact, in the opening paragraphs of the novel Grossman outlines the relentless campaign Germany has waged against much of Europe – “Fascism had enjoyed seven years of triumph…” – without acknowledging the Soviet Union’s complicity. Instead, there is a tone of contempt for those allied with Hitler, who act with “sickening servility” and betray “freedom, goodness and truth.” It is an attitude that is reflected in the rest of the novel: heroic Soviet workers and soldiers are pitted against the rapacious German machine.

Because of this, I think a discussion of this first English edition has to begin with thoughts about the provenance of Grossman’s text and the translation, itself. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s English prose translation is highly readable, and their text is unobtrusively supported by hundreds of endnotes, explaining everything from untranslated phrases, to living conditions of Russian peasants and other cultural and historical contexts of the narrative. But their introduction and afterword also provide valuable insight into exactly what they have produced. There is no definitive edition of Stalingrad, we learn, not even in Russian.

After the war the Soviet establishment had wanted a ‘Red Tolstoy’ to memorialise and glorify the Soviet victory. Stalingrad’s publication first began in July 1952 in a journal, Novy Mir, under the title For a Just Cause. But Grossman had to rewrite the novel four times before the censors were satisfied. And Grossman was a Jew, so when public opinion turned against Jews after an alleged plot to poison Stalin by doctors and professors was ‘revealed’ – doctors were predominantly Jewish – public opinion also turned against Grossman, who was forced to sign a letter calling for the execution of ‘killer doctors’ in an attempt to placate his detractors. Throughout the history of Grossman’s book, his text was subject to censorship and State interference. There are various versions of the text, depending on which period it was published. Early versions attempted to omit any sympathy for Jews, and there was also the consideration of how Soviet forces, Soviet people and the culture, as well as how Stalin was being portrayed. The novel was published as a book four times in the 1950s, and each edition has differences. What the Chandlers have produced, then, is an amalgamated version, which primarily uses what they call the third version of the book (the first is in Grossman’s scrawling hand and is virtually unreadable, and the second was lost, making the third version the closest version to Grossman’s unexpurgated text that is practical to work with) and a version from 1956 which has become a standard version in Russia. Their decision to do this is naturally fraught with problems. But they chose to do this to overcome some of the deadening effects of Soviet censorship on the text over time. Decisions were therefore required about what to reinstate and what version of scenes to use that differ in the two texts. And as to the problem of restoring cut scenes, they explain they had two guidelines:

Not to reinstate any passages that would result in plot conflicts, and not to reinstate any passages unless we had good reason to think that it was Grossman’s editors – rather than Grossman himself – who were responsible for their omission from the published editions.

Stalingrad is comprehensive in its scope, with scenes encompassing everything from the lives of the Shaposhnikov family as the war bears down upon them, to the various aspects of the Soviet preparation for defence, the heroic exploits of Soviet soldiers and the lesser-thought-about but equally important efforts of industry, coal miners and even farmers to support the war effort. Grossman makes us privy to the conversations and personal lives of Germans, with a fly-on-the-wall insight into Hitler’s inner sanctum, to his high command, as well as regular soldiers’ experience in Hitler’s army. This expansive perspective is similar to Tolstoy’s treatment of the war against France in 1812. Grossman admitted that he was heavily influenced by War and Peace, which he read twice during the war.

The novel builds, with news of the German invasion across the Ukrainian steppe and the battles at the Don, to the eventual arrival of the Germans in Stalingrad with a devastating bombing campaign, followed by desperate battles in the city itself, as Russian soldiers sacrifice themselves to hold onto the west bank of the Volga River, including industrial areas to the north of the city, and a fierce fight centred on the Railway Station when Filyashkin’s Russian force pushes too far ahead of the rest of their army and leave themselves exposed. The novel ends with Krymov’s return to the city in a boat across the Volga, as he watches Russian forces in a battle that will turn the tide against the Germans.

What all this results in is a somewhat sprawling story that involves not only many characters and plots, but retains the flavour of a propaganda piece, despite the efforts of its translators to restore expurgated sections of the novel (which is to say that we can’t forget that Grossman was also a patriot). First, consider some of the novel’s various characters: the Shaposhnikov family form the structural backbone of the plot, as can be seen by the character map I’ve produced which is available to view or download to the right. For those interested in the novel, this will be a good resource to help keep track of many of the main characters. And because Stalingrad is a prequel to Life and Fate, many of the same characters appear in that novel, too. I’ve placed a grey label under many of the characters to give some indication of their profession and social status. As can be seen, most characters, apart from Vavilov and other military characters, have some kind of professional or intellectual status: doctor, chemist, electrical engineer, physicist.

This doesn’t just serve the exigencies of a large story, but the demands of socialist realism. Stepan Spiridanov’s role as head of Stalingrad’s power station, for instance, gives the reader an insight into one aspect of the Soviet resistance. Viktor Shtrum’s background in physics places him at the heart of the Soviet effort to overcome Germany with science and technology. Pavel Andreyev’s expertise as a steel worker demonstrates is the practical ends of that research which will produce better tanks. Other characters round out the experience of Soviet society at this time. Lena Gnatyuk, drawn into a love affair with Kovalyov, is a fiercely independent woman who refuses the luxuries offered by an American gift pack; she is determined to accept the realities of her situation and maintain her Soviet values. Vavilov’s wife Marya represents that class of women left to maintain a family and livelihood in the absence of their husbands who have gone to war. Any number of characters represent the bravery of the Soviet soldier against overwhelming odds. Even minor characters like Novikov’s brother, Ivan, a coal miner, become significant. Ivan represents not only the bravery and resilience of individuals, but the mythic strength of the Soviet worker. In a section demanded by Grossman’s publishers – but which he was nevertheless happy to insert – (a digression of a few chapters at the end of the second part of the book) we are introduced to the mining community in which Ivan works. As his team drills into bedrock, seeking a seam of coal, a jet of water mixed with pieces of rock bursts forth and strikes Ivan. Nevertheless, he continues drilling, and his fellow workers observe:

At this point, something happened that everyone present, astonished by what they had witnessed, tried later to explain in their own way. Gentle, courteous Ivan Novikov was transformed. This man who so rarely raised his voice […] – this man was transformed. His bright eyes darkened; his movements, usually calm and slow, became swift and sharp; even his quiet voice became brusque and commanding.

Ivan is something more than a coal miner at this point. He is the embodiment of the Soviet ideal: a hard worker, resilient and brave. His transformation is engendered by his adherence to the ideals of the Soviet system and his belief in the importance of his work. It is a point made more explicit by the end of the second part: “there was no task beyond the power of the working class as they fought to defend their home.” Grossman reminds his reader of the elements of the Soviet state – “tens of thousands of mines, factories and railway-station workshops” and of the workers who think “constantly about […] the countless people who, like Novikov […] knew their strength as workers was invincible, that it would overcome everything.”

This is a common theme of the novel – despite Russia’s apparent weakness in the early days of the invasion, most notably characterised by many Soviet retreats – that in Germany’s apparent strength lay the seeds of its own demise, while Russia progresses like implacable fate. Krymov, as he travels to reach Russian headquarters, is struck by a “sense of the unity of tens of millions of his brothers and sisters who had risen to fight for the people’s freedom.” Germany’s military might and its seemingly endless trail of victories, Grossman’s narrative suggests, “paved the way for their eventual defeat. The reality of the war – everything except Hitler’s strategy – had changed.” It’s a theme reiterated throughout the novel. Mostovskoy argues:

They did have a plan once […] But this war has already been going on for fifty-six weeks. This miscalculation matters. The war was supposed to paralyse our industry […] What, I ask you, has become of Hitler’s elegant plan? What’s so well planned about this wild rush across the southern steppe? Do you think their evil acts are making the fascists stronger? Far from it. Their evil acts guarantee their collapse.

Novikov later sees the weakness of the German position as Soviet industry begins to turn the tide:

The real planning was being undertaken at a depth of tens of thousands of hours. What truly mattered were the tank corps and the artillery and aircraft divisions now taking shape in Siberia and the Urals. The war’s reality was not only the present day; it was also the brighter day that would dawn six months or a year from now. And this day still hidden in the depth of space and time was being prepared in countless ways and countless places – it was not only today’s defeats or victories that would determine the future course of the war.

So, while Grossman acts as the ‘Red Tolstoy’ by presenting a fictionalised account of this moment in history, he is at the same time presenting a clear ideological position that underpins the worth of the Soviet system, not only in passages like these, but through his characters, their relationships and the way their experience shapes a multifarious representation of the Russian defence, realised at all levels of the army and society. Early in the novel, Grossman has his Hitler reference Greek myth as he grasps for a metaphor to describe the revolutionary import of Germany’s military might: “The Aryan is the Prometheus of Mankind,” he states, and he returns to the thought as he speaks with Mussolini: “We have now established the eternal dominion of the Aryan Prometheus over all human and other earthly beings.” Of course, Hitler’s remarks in Grossman’s hand are blatant misrepresentations of the Promethean ideal. Prometheus is a liberator, not an enslaver, which is a point Grossman returns to towards the end of the novel: “For tens of millions of people the fire of Stalingrad was the fire of Prometheus.” Germany’s might has been turned against it, like an adroit jujitsu move that has been leveraged with the potency of science, industry and indomitable bravery.

This is not to say that Grossman is merely a blatant propagandist. His work is far greater than that, taking in, as it does, a great arc of human experience and suffering which is clearly inspired by his own months spent at the front, interviewing the inhabitants of Stalingrad, as well as his own travels through Russia. The Chandler’s efforts to restore much of what had been excised over the years is a testament to their belief that Grossman was better than a propagandist. It is hard not to feel that Grossman was patriotic, but his narrative as it is now presented to us reveals a willingness to also acknowledge Soviet weakness: the constant retreats which irk Krymov, sexual infidelities, the lice and filth of the soldiers, blatant cowardice and desertion, Stalin’s policy of ‘not one step back’; these are not flattering representations of a soviet resistance, but they represent a part of the reality Grossman witnessed, and they ground the narrative. When Grossman tried to publish his first book, Glückauf, in 1932, he was accused of having written a counter-revolutionary novel because he had portrayed the harsh realities of living conditions in a mining community. In a letter to Maxim Gorky he defended himself: “I described what I saw while living and working for three years at mine Smolyanka-11. I wrote the truth. It may be a harsh truth but the truth can never be counter-revolutionary.”

There is a sense of this struggle for intellectual freedom within this book, too. If Grossman meant to be critical of Soviet censorship it was displaced into his criticism of fascism. Maximov, an intellectual, rails against the restraints on intellectual freedom in Czechoslovakia under the fascist regime: “Intellectuals and scientists have lost all capacity for freedom of thought – they’ve lost the right to call themselves human beings.” Krymov, a Comintern official before the war, believes his value is in his independence of thought: “Times change – but a human being’s not a gramophone. I can’t just play whatever record another man chooses.” This speaks to a belief that truth is not mutable nor to be adulterated by ideology. It’s a position reflected by discussions of art in the novel. Darensky, a military commander dislikes modern art, but to his mind Rembrandt transcends fashion and intellectual change. Rembrandt is eternal. It’s a thought which is given more consideration during an argument between Zhenya and Sofya Osipovna. Sofya rejects Zhenya’s belief that the truths of the past can be displaced by new realities and ideologies represented in her art. Sofya, a surgeon, refers to the immutable realities of surgery which exist beyond ideology. In a short chapter, Grossman’s narrator reflects adds to these insights. “Art,” he writes, “combines the transparency of glass and the power of a perfect astronomical mirror”, while “Contrived art is a barrier placed between man and the world – impenetrable and oppressive, like a cast-iron grille.” This argument never entirely squares with the realities of Grossman’s novel – its propagandist aspects – since the truth is that all art is ideologically affected by the personality and beliefs of its author, and the culture and history in which the author creates. But Stalingrad does have a stark reality to it which is informed by the author’s own experiences. As readers, we at least are encouraged to imagine the scream of bombs as they plummet towards the city; or the almost non-stop vibration as the city is carpet-bombed; or the nervous anticipation of soldiers who know they are about to die; or the terror of a silent German attack on the Stalingrad train station at night. But for Grossman’s contemporary Russian audience, he was justified in believing that his book would tap into experiences that would enliven his art:

But there are books that make a reader exclaim joyfully, ‘Yes, that’s just what I feel. I’ve gone through that too and that’s what I thought myself.”

For modern audiences, we now have this perspective of a pivotal moment in history for the first time in English. It reflects something of the experience of what happened in this period, and what contemporary Russians may have thought. It is a novel with a wide sweep and filled with humanity. And for that, despite some minor shortcomings, it’s a rewarding reading experience as well as a valuable historical document.

This five minute video provides a good summary of the key aspects of the battle for Stalingrad. There are many more detailed treatments to be found on YouTube and elsewhere
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Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman
Vasily Grossman in the ruins of Stalingrad. Grossman acted as a war reporter throughout the war. His novel, Stalingrad, is based on the months he spent in Stalingrad and the many ordinary Russians he interviewed in the city as it was under attack.

Character Map
Stalingrad - Character Map
This character map shows the basic relationships of key characters but it is not possible to show all the many relationships in the novel. I have focussed on the Shaposhnikova family, key associations with that family, and other characters whom the narrative substantially follows. Click the image to download a pdf copy of the map, or click here to view it on screen.

A Night Attack

“Come nightfall, the soldiers still occupying the station buildings were overwhelmed by exhaustion. They fell asleep in mid-conversation, to the sound of gunfire and shell bursts.

And then, at two in the morning, in total darkness, they were faced with something new and terrible: a night attack.

The Germans did not send up flares. They crept along the ground, coming from every point of the compass. All night long the carnage continued. The stars disappeared behind clouds and the darkness deepened – perhaps to keep the men from glimpsing the hate and fury in one another’s eyes.

Everything became a weapon: knives, spades, bricks, the steel heels of boots.

The darkness was full of screams, of groans and wheezes, of pistol shots, rifle shots and short bursts of machine-gun fire, of the last bubbles and gurgles of departing life.

The Germans attacked in overwhelming numbers. Wherever there was the sound of a fight, there would suddenly be a dozen of them against one or two Russians. The Germans fought with knives and fists. They went for the throat. They were frenzied, furious.”

Stalingrad, page 844 - 845

This edition of Stalingrad includes:

  • An introduction by Robert Chandler
  • A timeline of the war
  • An afterword by the translators
  • A note on Russian Names
  • Comprehensive list of characters
  • Further reading
  • Notes on the differences between versions
  • Maps