Posts Tagged ‘Great Patriotic War’

Vasily Grossman: Stalingrad

July 23, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Reading the prequel to Life and Fate felt strange: I knew the characters from that novel, and was now meeting them in an earlier incarnation; also, of course, the actual historical events were familiar. The genesis of the novel is very complex, and Robert Chandler has not only done a really good job of translating Stalingrad, he has also provided a very detailed and helpful introduction and notes.

Grossman paints an optimistic and committed panorama of Soviet society, with touching portraits of peasants making their farewells to family, home and village as they set off to war from which they do not expect to return. He takes time to build up his canvas, with a convincing aura of pride and optimism shining though his characters who are committed to the revolution, genuine and sincere in their desires to build a better world for everyone (whatever Stalin may be up to), and clear that Hitler is out to destroy all they have achieved. Here is a patriotism we in the West find difficult to comprehend or accept. And yes, at times some of Grossman’s characters do talk like rather wooden socialist realists: we must remember the times and conditions under which he wrote (he was told by the KGB that it would be two centuries before publication of Life and Fate would be possible!). The propagandist line is there, quite subtle, with positive references to Stalin as a father-figure of the nation.

An atmosphere of foreboding builds up, with the Soviet armies still in retreat from the German advance, and the crucial effort to prevent them reaching and crossing the Volga. There is determination, there is sacrifice, there is a full picture of a country at war for its very survival, aware that their people are considered and treated as sub-human by the Nazis. The colossal Soviet war effort, moving entire sectors of the economy hundreds of miles to safety beyond the Urals is something very difficult to imagine – yet they did it.

Thumbnail portraits of individuals are lovingly done, clearly showing their dedication to their tasks, their modesty, their pride in work well done, and their love of their country: you do feel that many millions of people did really have their lives improved under communism. Equally, and perhaps surprisingly, Grossman portrays his German characters insightfully, without hatred or racism, allowing the evils of Nazism to speak for themselves, as well as trying to show the political and psychological reasons for the success of that ideology among the Germans.

There is a very powerful sense of immediacy when the actual German attack on Stalingrad begins; the sudden disappearances and deaths of characters we have grown to know and like are very shocking but obviously realistic: war doesn’t spare favourites. Equally touching are the cameos of moments of reunion and happiness in the midst of warfare. What I found most powerful of all, extraordinary even, were his portrayals of men and women fighting to the death in the ruins of their city, conscious of the fact that they were certainly going to die quite soon. We see how they are transformed by their experiences, and if we find this all rather hard to believe at times, the notes remind us that many of Grossman’s accounts are factually-based.

Stalingrad struck me as a less mature novel than Life and Fate, more propagandist and more diffuse, even naive at times. Nevertheless, it is a stunning achievement when one takes all the different factors I’ve tried to mention into account. It means I’ll have to go back to Life and Fate again soon. I’ve mentioned the excellent critical apparatus in Chandler’s work; I’ll moan about the poor maps which lack the necessary detail to be helpful to the reader in following the action, and the shoddy production values of the UK edition of the book, which is basically a glued-block paperback with a cheap flat-spine cardboard cover…

But, read this book!

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Vassily Grossman: A Writer at War

June 12, 2019

51A67VDPEHL._AC_UL436_  While I was waiting for Grossman’s novel Stalingrad to be published (it’s the prequel to the stunning Life and Fate, and I now have my copy, though as it’s a 1000-page doorstop, don’t expect a review too soon!) I decided to revisit this collection of his journalism from the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call their Second World War, which lasted from 1941-45. It’s not pure Grossman, as it’s edited, selected, commented on and analysed, but this has been done well.

Grossman was medically unfit to serve, so became a war correspondent for the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvedza, and followed the war through all the fronts, from the retreat and loss of Bielorussia and Ukraine almost to Moscow, the battle for Stalingrad, the biggest tank battle ever at the Kursk salient, and the push back which took the Red Army to Berlin.

One is immediately struck by the immediacy and the impressionism of his reportage. He chronicles the horrendous start to the war, with the Soviet Union paralysed by Stalin’s unwillingness to believe his erstwhile Nazi ally had dared to attack. This denial of reality seems to have gone on for a long while, worsening the military collapse. Then there was the tragedy of the Ukraine, devastated by Stalin’s starvation tactics and famine ten years previously, which meant that its inhabitants often welcomed the Germans with open arms, not realising what was about to happen to them.

The hectic nature of life under fire and the uncertainty of war come across vividly, as does the astonishing heroism of so many in defence of their motherland. And Grossman was at the front, among it all. I cannot recall any parallel to the extraordinary callousness and brutality of warfare: Grossman paints a picture of Russians fighting for their very existence, rather than just not to be invaded and conquered: here is a very different sense of conflict.

Grossman’s accounts of the battle for Stalingrad are very vivid; he interviewed commanders and men and wrote up his accounts for the newspaper: the men recognised themselves and the deeds he described, and his reputation grew; he was only censored ‘lightly’ because of the patriotic feelings his accounts inspired. Only when he mentioned specifically what was happening to the Jews – he was Jewish – was the blue pencil heavier; the Soviet authorities did not approve of the Jews being viewed as any different from other Soviet citizens, and such anti-semitism was to worsen after the end of the war.

The accounts of the winning back of Soviet territory from the Nazis, and the discovery of the full horror of what the Germans had done in the territories they had occupied, make very unpleasant reading: it is clear that the Nazi approach to Slavs was that they were subhuman and they were treated as such. This did not happen in Western Europe: there are just too many stories we cannot comprehend, just as in Svetlana Alexievich’s accounts of the same war. You need a particularly strong stomach to read his descriptions of the Treblinka extermination camp, culled from interviews with those who lived in the area.

There are those who say that such events are now so long ago in the past that it’s time to forget them. I’m not one of those. Very many Germans – not all, though – have striven to come to terms with this appalling period of their history and what members of their families did, more or less willingly. We do not have the right to forget what bestialities humans inflicted on each other, nor should we blithely imagine that such things are only part of the past.

Svetlana Alexievich: Last Witnesses

October 24, 2018

51ry8viRY5L._AC_US218_This is a book I don’t think I can bear to read again, so harrowing is the subject-matter; I was conscious of deliberately distancing myself as I read it. Svetlana Alexievich deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago. This Belorussian writer is determined that there are certain things that must not and will not be forgotten; she has collected testimonies from those who dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet women who fought in the Second World War, those who remember life in the Soviet Union, and here, the children who lived through the Second World War.

She collects testimonies – a couple of pages, up to half a dozen; there are no questions, the witnesses remember, and speak, reliving their trauma as they do. In this book she tell us the name of the speaker, their age when war broke out in 1941 and their current profession. She took over twenty years collecting these testimonies. There are some who have challenges her methods and suggested she edits to exaggerate effects; I’m sorry, but faced with testimonies like these, I do not have time for such nit-picking.

It’s a truism that children suffer the most in a war. Here, we learn just what they did have to go through in this most brutal of wars, invasion by the Nazis, who regarded Russians as subhumans and treated them as such. There are so many random killings, so many slaughters of innocent villagers in revenge for partisan attacks, burnings of villages, torturings; there are children who live in the forests with partisans for years. So many orphans: small children see their parents gunned down, unable to comprehend. And – though I thought I was inured to this, but I wasn’t – so much random sadism and viciousness by German soldiers.

I’m not going to go into any more detail than this, apart from to mention one particular detail: the testimonies of starvation, particularly from children who managed to survive the 900 days of the siege of Leningrad. Peeling off the wallpaper to suck out the glue I just about coped with, but I was genuinely speechless when I came to a section titled ‘We ate the park’… some children, evacuated after the siege to a small town, saw a park, swooped on it and devoured every bit of living greenery in sight…

Here in the privileged West we are accustomed to see Russians as dangerous, potential warmongers to be kept in check; we have no comprehension what it would have been like to live through such times and therefore no understanding of their determination to be secure enough for nothing like it ever to be visited on them again.

I can’t imagine any of my readers are wanting to read this book for yourselves, but if you do, I’m afraid my searches have not succeeded in finding an English translation. I wonder why…

On honour, duty, loyalty and patriotism

July 9, 2017

I’ve been thinking about these topics as a result of the previous book I read, about Major-General Sosabowski’s loyalty to his country, and where it got him. I’ve never felt in the least bit patriotic, shocking as this may sound, and I’m aware that some of this lack of feeling may come from being neither fish nor fowl, half-English and half-Polish. But somewhere I’ve always agreed with Johnson’s adage that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Looking rather more seriously at the issue, I have always found it almost impossible to understand why men marched to their deaths in the Great War in the way they did. I have stood at various places on the former western front, where the British climbed out into no-man’s-land on the first day of the battle of the Somme and looked into the distance at the crest of the hill some hundreds of yards away where the Germans were entrenched, and thought, my God how could anyone bring themselves to do that? And, when teaching the A level English Literature paper on Literature and the First World War, students and I would agree that we could not behave like that now, we would not be prepared to die like that…

Writers and poets of the time were clearly doing what they felt to be their duty, including rebels like Sassoon who threw his medals into the Mersey and brought much opprobrium on himself by writing in protest against the way the war was being conducted. He felt loyalty and a duty of care to the men under his command, as did Wilfred Owen, who also protested against incompetent leadership in his poems, and who ultimately gave his life.

I’ve also wondered about what creates and fosters a sense of loyalty to one’s country. Shakespeare creates a marvellous picture of ‘this sceptred isle’ in the famous speech in Richard II, and I agree that England is a beautiful country that is very fortunately situated… but to die for? And because we are an island, unconquered for nearly a thousand years, we do not perhaps understand what happens in the thoughts of others. French casualties in the Great War were horrendous, and a huge proportion of the deaths came in the first months of the war as the French strove desperately to drive the marauding German invaders from their country. I can see that men like Sosabowski felt great loyalty to their nation which, having only regained independence in 1918 after over a century of non-existence, was snuffed out a mere twenty years later by the combined treachery of Nazis and Soviets, and why thousands of men like my father volunteered for the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade that Sosabowski set up in order to train men for the liberation of Warsaw (which never happened). And having read his book, I am now clearer about the enormous sense of betrayal all those men felt as a result of Churchill’s machinations after Arnhem and in the closing months of the war.

Similarly, it’s quite clear the sense of pride in their country, in the motherland, in defending their socialist homeland, that the millions of Soviet men and women who died in the Great Patriotic War felt, even in spite of the horrors of Stalinism which they had also lived through. Reading novels like Vassily Grossman’s epic Life and Fate, or the last part of Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy, Dust and Ashes, is incredibly moving, and, for me, a learning experience about the meaning of loyalty and patriotism. And Svetlana Alexievich’s book of Soviet women at war was even more powerful, because true…

Sadly, I have to say that very little about the current nation of England (or Great Britain, or the United Kingdom) makes me feel proud, other than our National Health Service, which the current government is doing its best to wreck. And throughout the Cold War I was aware that any conflict with the Warsaw Pact would mean that ‘my’ country would be attacking the country where half my family lived, while ‘their’ country would be trying to kill us… I wasn’t looking forward to the consequences of being a conscientious objector, but mentally prepared myself. And then I discovered that I would have been a ‘security risk’ because of my family on the ‘other side’ and thus probably not liable to service anyway.

Somewhere on the other side of the scales, before I get too serious, I have to put Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, the story of a congenital idiot who volunteers to do his patriotic duty at the start of the Great War, for the Austro-Hungarian Empire… one of only two humorous books I know of about war (Catch-22 is the other) and remind myself that, like the Irishman asked for directions, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here. In other words, like Johnson, we ought to be stepping back from the issues of patriotism, loyalty and duty to ask ourselves why we got into the mess in the first place, and aren’t there rather better ways of dealing with our problems?

Beware those who offer you easy answers (especially if their names begin with ‘T’)!

Charlotte Haldane: Russian Newsreel

June 29, 2017

41UYVH8LojL._AC_US218_Two astonishing cerise Penguins in two weeks! First Japan at the start of the Second World War, and now this one reporting from the Soviet Union a couple of months after the Nazi invasion. And this one really is a wartime special, printed on really low-grade paper and the binding stapled together…

Charlotte Haldane comes across as an amazing woman for the time. Clearly a convinced communist, she had already reported on the Spanish Civil War and the war with the Japanese in China for various Fleet Street newspapers, when she got herself sent to Russia, and seems to have been the only woman reporter there at the time. She sets to in a very business-like fashion, undaunted by her lack of Russian, and the pressing problems of the time surrounding her: she cultivates contacts, organises transport and accommodation, and attaches herself to various parties and delegations from Britain: the Soviets are now our friends and Allies.

She reports on Nazi air-raids on Moscow and other towns, unflappable because she lived through the worst of the Blitz, as she reminds Russians astonished at her phlegmatic approach; she reports on interrogations of captured Nazi officers and aircrew, and she demands – successfully – to take part in a lengthy visit to the front lines, on the grounds that it’s only right for a woman to be included in the press corps.

Haldane reports clearly and in a matter-of-fact way; various details she is clear she will not include because of security reasons, and, although she clearly both witnesses Nazi atrocities and interviews victims, she does not go into gruesome detail. At this point we need to remind ourselves that we are still in the opening weeks of the Great Patriotic War and it’s only at the end of the book that the Germans begin their onslaught on Moscow that leads to the winter debacle of 1941 and the cracks in the German war machine beginning to appear; none of the full horrors that were to emerge later on are known at this point, and although the extermination of the Jews has certainly begun, it’s not known about or spoken of yet…

It’s the approaching attack on Moscow that leads to Haldane and others, and various diplomats being evacuated from Archangelsk on one of the famous Arctic convoys…

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course: Haldane is strongest as reporter and much weaker as analyst, and although she supports the idea of Nazi ideology as a pathological infection that has affected an entire generation and will need concentrated efforts to extirpate at the end of the war (no doubt at all that the Allies will be victorious), and is doing her bit for the war effort in bringing information about our new allies to the knowledge of the British public, I had to laugh at the idea of Soviet and Polish soldiers as comrades in arms: she did not know the half of what the newly-released Poles had had to endure for the previous two years at Soviet hands, nor how eager they were to get out of the country… and the graves at Katyn had not yet been discovered. But overall it was a marvellous book by a brave woman, vivid and immediate.

Svetlana Alexievitch: La guerre n’a pas un visage de femme

May 27, 2017

I wrote about her most recent book here, and recall how I was stunned by it; this one is no different. And I find myself thinking hard about what exactly it is that she does so well. She doesn’t write fiction, and she doesn’t write history – at least not in the sense we usually expect history: with names, dates, places, facts, figures and accuracy. She listens, and records; she questions; she selects. And some question what her ‘selecting’ what to include does to what she writes about…

How is this ‘literature’, worthy of the Nobel Prize? How is it different from what we usually think of as literature?

Alexievitch captures the power of witness: these women lived the war, experienced it, suffered it; Alexievitch is collecting voices to preserve forever. And although even to read some of the things they describe is so horrifying I find myself thinking nobody should read this, yet none of this must ever be forgotten.

And here is where Western notions of literature and criticism part company with the Eastern. I read – very angrily – an American critic complaining, taking Alexievitch to task because she was editing, not reporting words verbatim, was re-arranging accounts, as if in some way this was ‘fake’ reportage, and therefore of dubious validity…

A woman focuses on women’s experience of war, during the Great Patriotic War. Women flock voluntarily to the war effort, girls lie about their age, resort to all kinds of subterfuge to take part in combat; they are partisans, resistance fighters, sharpshooters, snipers, aviators, as well as the more ‘traditional’ nurses and stretcher-bearers. Their bravery and selflessness is astonishing – no less than that of their menfolk, it is true – but in the West we do not understand this, we have no comprehension of what the war was like in those places. Here is real feeling, along with names, dates, places, some facts and some figures which somehow are not that important in what her interlocutors really have to say…

Many of the women recount the war in Belarus, and it beggars description. They return home to villages, towns where there are no males… I have not forgotten the experience, more than thirty years ago, of seeing the premiere of Elem Klimov‘s film Go and See at the London Film Festival. At the end, the entire audience – 1500 people or so – left in stunned silence. Not a word was said. The final caption on screen told us that 97% of Belarusian males between 18 and 45 did not survive the war.

Alexievitch is a different kind of writer, a listener and a recorder who lets her subjects talk; she presents testimony of times and places. There is no commentary, although occasionally she reflects on what she is doing or someone she has met, in a few paragraphs. And then the listening recommences. It’s incredibly powerful and important stuff. And be warned: you need a strong stomach.

On censorship and the freedom to write (concluded)

August 19, 2015

If we consider writers’ tactics faced with control and censorship – and Eastern Europe, the Soviet empire for half a century provides copious examples – then we can see them taking risks by writing, and having their books published in the West since they would not be published at home, or as samizdats (typed manuscripts circulated clandestinely), or writing allegorically and hoping perhaps to outwit the censors. Writers in totalitarian societies wrote, impelled by the same muses and motivations as writers in the ‘free’ world. Ismail Kadare produced a wonderful allegory about the Kafkaesque control within the social structures of Albania in a novel allegedly about ancient Egypt, The Pyramid.

What particularly interests me – and I’ll admit that this is personal opinion – is the way that writers without freedom seem to produce sharper and more interesting novels, more perceptive literature, which I find more powerful and more moving; somehow they are compelled, it appears, to address broader issues about their (imperfect) society and an imperfect world, to ask existential questions; for them the collective is still relevant, if not paramount. I come back to the example I cited earlier, Vassily Grossman‘s epic about the siege of Stalingrad and its consequences. I will admit that Joseph Heller‘s Catch-22 is another astonishingly powerful novel about the Second World War, but Grossman’s works on an altogether different level, packing power that I cannot think of a parallel to in Western literature. Anatoly Rybakov‘s Arbat trilogy is my second example: he follows the fortunes of a group of classmates through the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s to the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It’s harrowing: the purges are insane and one finds it hard to believe that people could and did behave in such a warped way; Rybakov pulls no punches as far as this episode in Soviet history is concerned. And then, he sets the heroism and self-sacrifice of those young people who have endured the purges as they fight for the liberation of the Motherland: the tension between the cruel tyranny and the love of country is live, sharp, electric…

In freer, Western societies I feel writers have become more introspective, self-indulgent at times, self-interested and self-obsessed, part of an increasingly fragmented literary culture; there is too much navel-gazing. Yes, at one level that’s an almost farcical dismissal of half a century of writing during which voices have been given to, or been seized by many cultural and political subgroups. But this does also represent a fragmentation of any challenge to the dominant cultural and economic hegemony, which remains largely unseen but which dominates every aspect of the way we live.

I’m not advocating that novels and literature should always be political, but I do feel that good literature makes us think about the human condition, about our world and ourselves. I’ve read many good and challenging novels by Western writers who have the freedom to write and say what they like. And I have found that writers who have had to struggle to be heard have written more profound and moving stories. I don’t know where this leaves us, because I’m neither advocating repression of writers in order to stimulate better literature nor didactic literature. But it has made me think a lot…

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