On Mamayev Kurgan, the hill overlooking Stalingrad – now Volgograd – stands “The Motherland Calls”, an 85-metre-tall statue of a female figure holding a sword aloft. It was built between 1959 and 1967 and is the centrepiece of the “To the heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad” memorial complex. Mamayev Kurgan changed hands many times during the battle, which has itself come to represent the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. To this day in Russia there is probably no event more symbolic, more mythologised, than the struggle for Stalingrad. Here, so the story goes, the forces of good and evil faced each other, and here humanity prevailed.
In huge granite letters on the walls leading to the complex, a German soldier asks: “Were they immortal, those who attacked us?” Within the complex comes the reply of a Red Army soldier, in gold: “Yes, we were mortal indeed, and few of us survived, but we all carried out our duty before holy Mother Russia.”
The source of the quotation is a wartime article in the Soviet propaganda press by a writer called Vasily Grossman, but the author is not credited anywhere on the monument itself; his work had fallen into official disfavour by the time it was being built. Grossman had been one of the mythologisers of the Soviet war effort but had later become a vehement critic of Stalinism. The post-Stalin Soviet state decried Stalin’s excesses and cult of personality, but it had to keep the criticism limited; free discussion of the Stalinist years would have invited comparisons between the Soviet system and Nazism and would have undermined the presumption that the 1917 Revolution had ushered in a new and glorious era of human development. To question the revolution would have been to question the meaning of the Soviet Union itself and raise the question of why the Russian empire should not have fragmented into nation-states at the end of the First World War, as the Habsburg and Ottoman empires did.
Putinism, like Stalinism, draws on a tale of imperial Russian destiny, and requires the existence of a great evil pressing against the motherland’s borders to validate its rule. It is no coincidence that the Ukrainians in 2022 are posited as Nazis. In this seamless Russian-nationalist narrative, that is what they have to be.
Stalin gave the Red Army a heroic visage, appropriate to its historic role. In artistic terms this was called Socialist Realism, a term coined in 1932, with the establishment of the Union of Soviet Writers. In that year the twenty-seven-year-old Grossman’s first novel was rejected for its “counter-revolutionary tendencies”. This story of coal miners in the Donbass had described a drinking, brawling proletariat and suggested that the workers did not always go down into the pits cheerfully. Writing to Maxim Gorky, Grossman protested that “truth and revolution cannot be separated”. Gorky told Grossman to wise up: Soviet truth was aspirational; it had to articulate the shining ideals of the workers’ paradise that was coming into existence.
Had Grossman been a worker rather than a soon-to-be Soviet writer, he would have died from the respiratory disease he had developed from his job as a safety inspector in an unventilated mine. He wrote, privately, of laborers so shackled by quotas and obligations that “you wouldn’t find even ten workers out of forty or fifty thousand going to work willingly and freely”. But he took Gorky’s hint. He rewrote his novel. The danger of the mines allowed him to portray the workers as heroic and his book was published. Its author never went down a mine again, and his lungs got better.
Even before WWII had ended, the search was on for the writer who would transform the Battle of Stalingrad into a patriotic epic. The task was awarded to Grossman, who had accompanied the Red Army as a correspondent from Stalingrad all the way to final victory in Berlin. Along the lines of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman’s Stalingrad portrayed the historical action through a vast cast of characters, from Hitler down to frontline soldiers, skilfully integrated with powerfully written descriptions of the battle itself. Stalingrad went through numerous drafts; the editors insisted he remove any allusions to Soviet prison camps, defeatist sentiment or treasonous grumbling. Also removed were references to poor food, lice, rats – and at one point a pair of unwashed hands. To accounts of martial valour, his editors insisted he add chapters on feats of proletarian heroism (more coalminers, busting their quotas while dreaming of the future of humanity and the motherland). Grossman was no lapdog; pushing the boundaries was risky; some 1,500 Soviet writers had not survived Stalin’s purges. Still, the version of Stalingrad published in 1952 was a work of propaganda. An English translation, published in 2019, draws on multiple drafts to get closer to what Grossman would have wanted published. The backstory of Stalingrad’s composition is so compelling that it is hard to read the work purely as a novel; it is a record of the workings of Soviet disinformation, and the story of Russia’s mythologisation of WWII.
The best corrective to Grossman’s censored Stalingrad are his own personal diaries of his experiences at the front, edited and contextualised as Vasily Grossman: a Writer at War. The journalist Grossman was by that point a political insider with access to Zhukov, the Russian commander at Stalingrad, as well as to frontline soldiers. His private notebooks record unheroic details absent from his fiction, such as how Russian snipers would shoot civilian captives forced into the open by the Germans on errands such as fetching water from the Volga, or any Russian women seen in the company of the enemy. He also records incidents of desertion and insubordination among the troops, and the existence of punishment battalions, made up of prisoners called smertniki – the dead – as these soldiers were given the most dangerous tasks (including, on occasion, marching across minefields in advance of attacking troops). Russian military records show that some 400,000 men died serving in such units. The situation for regular troops forced into the Stalingrad meat-grinder was not very much better, and the NKVD took up position behind attacking infantry to shoot at anyone who tried to retreat. The official figure of 13,500 Russian troops executed by their own side should be treated with caution: the Soviets were not scrupulous in keeping records of who they killed.
The lack of popular appetite for the fight is correlated by other witnesses, including Joszef Czapski in his Inhuman Land. Czapski was a Polish officer – one of the few to survive Soviet captivity – who was released in 1941 when Hitler reneged upon his pact with Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. Czapski quotes a peasant woman who “told us that three hundred men from the village had set off for the war, but they had hung crosses around their necks and said they would surrender to the Germans. She said this out loud, to foreigners, as if all of a sudden there was no more terror in the Soviet Union!” Czapski was “struck by the wave of bitterness, hatred for the regime, and objection to the war” that surfaced in the early days of the conflict, when the regime looked set to fall. “Only when the Russians came to believe the initially incredible news of the inhuman, mindless cruelties committed by the Nazis on a mass scale did the mood change.”
For all Grossman’s efforts to satisfy the ever-changing demands of the censors, Stalingrad was denounced within weeks of its late-1952 publication, including by Alexander Fadeyev, the chairman of the Writers’ Union, who remarked on the “reactionary, idealist, anti-Leninist philosophy” expressed by a character in the novel. Grossman would certainly have been arrested and executed had Stalin not died shortly after, in March 1953. Grossman was Jewish and Stalin, just before his death, had unleashed a wave of antisemitic terror. Prominent Jews were arrested and executed and Stalin seemed set to deport Soviet Jewry to some inhospitable region, as he had already done in the case of other minorities, such as Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks and Chechens. A million copies of a pamphlet titled “Why the Jews of the Industrial areas must be resettled” had been printed and readied for distribution.
In 1956, Fadeyev, Grossman’s denouncer, shot himself in the heart. He left a suicide note, condemning the Stalinists for physically exterminating the country’s finest writers; of course, as head of the Writer’s Union, he had himself been an accessory to the crime. Grossman too was forced to reckon with his complicity; he had known about the purges, the deportations, the camps and the state-induced famines that had killed millions in the countryside, particularly in Ukraine. And he had almost become a victim himself.
Stalin’s anti-Jewish campaign had been a long time coming. Grossman had been a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an organisation of many prominent Soviet Jewish cultural figures. The JAFC was founded in 1941 to publicise Nazi crimes and to lobby American Jewry for US involvement in the war. In his role as correspondent, Grossman was one of the first witnesses to the scale of the Nazi programme of extermination of Jews, as the Red Army moved across his native Ukraine and into Poland, where he entered Treblinka extermination camp shortly after its liberation and wrote an account of its functioning. From 1944, Grossman was involved in the compilation of The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, a JAFC-coordinated documentation of the Holocaust on Soviet soil. The completed Black Book was refused publication in 1948. Stalin did not wish to confound the story of The Great Patriotic War with actual history, and he was concerned that giving the Jews a particular primacy as victims would distract from the simple tale of Russian sacrifice. Real historiography also risked raising the subject of the widespread collaboration by Soviet citizens in Germany’s crimes. During the war, Stalin had made a distinct Russian-nationalist pivot; he sought an understanding with Russian Orthodox Church, embraced many of the symbols of Russian nationalism, and had Tolstoy’s War and Peace broadcast over the radio. The idea of expelling the Jews held parallels with the Tsarist rules that prohibited Jews from residing outside of a designated area of the empire’s borderlands. In 1952, with Stalin’s antisemitic campaign gathering pace, many of the JAFC’s most prominent members were arrested and executed.
Under the period of relative freedom known as the Khrushchev thaw, Grossman wrote his masterpiece, Life and Fate. Chronologically, this novel picks up where Stalingrad left off, with Soviet victory in the city. In some respects, like Stalingrad, it is deficient as a historical record. In other important areas, it re-establishes it; what was lost to censorship with the suppression of the Black Book emerges in the description of a German-occupied town in Ukraine where the occupants are forced into a ghetto and later massacred. This unnamed town was based on Grossman’s home town of Berdichev, and one of the characters was based upon his mother.
The most heretical aspect of Life and Fate, however, was that the author identified the essential similarity between fascism and communism.
By the time Grossman had completed Life and Fate, construction of the Call of the Motherland, sword held aloft, had begun on the hill overlooking Stalingrad. Stalingrad had been renamed Volgograd but Khrushchev’s thaw had already turned cool. Grossman had submitted Life and Fate to his editors in 1960. In February 1961, three KGB officers came to his flat and confiscated the manuscript, along with carbon paper and typing ribbons. He then led the officers to the homes of his typist and his cousin, so that they could confiscate the remaining copies. (He had wisely hidden two more copies, which is why we can read the novel today.)
Other writers suffered a similar fate. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had been fighting with the Red Army against the Germans when he was arrested for criticising Stalin in a private letter. He received an eight-year sentence. His monumental Gulag Archipelago documented the Soviet system of mass incarceration and the use of slave labour. Among innumerable other offences, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag was scathing about Stalin’s treatment of his army; any Soviet soldiers who survived imprisonment by the Germans (most did not) were immediately sentenced to ten years’ hard labour for the crime of surrendering, or having been captured. The same fate awaited any soldiers who were considered to have seen too much of the West. Solzhenitsyn had also dared to mention the atrocities committed against civilians by the Red Army, particularly the systematic gang-rape of German women and girls.
Khrushchev was ousted in 1964, the year Grossman died. There was only so much criticism the state could take; it still did not extend to examining a past that involved the slave labour of the Gulags, deportations, state-induced famines, arbitrary killings or the brutalisation and brutality of the glorious Red Army, or even to an acknowledgement of the Holocaust on Soviet Territory. Life and Fate and Gulag were not published in Russia until the late ’80s. The only time in the past century in which free discussion of Russian history has been tolerated is during the less than two decades between the final years of the Soviet Union and the consolidation of Putin’s rule.
This goes some way to explaining why Putin and his subordinates find it easy to speak about the de-Nazification of Ukraine, and convenient to present the present conflict to the Russian people as a rerun of WWII. That Ukraine’s president is Jewish matters not a bit, because the Holocaust has never figured in the Russian story of WWII, which has always been about the Motherland raising her sword aloft to slay the fascist beast. The myth of Russian heroism, constructed under Stalinism, is less reflective than the worst Hollywood war movie. It is too good to waste.
Note on sources: the place to start with Grossman, or if you’re just interested in the period, is the supremely readable A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945, edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, composed mostly of excerpts from Grossman’s notebooks. Highly compelling too is Jozsef Czapski’s Inhuman Land: Searching for the Truth in Soviet Russia 1941-1942, which covers the Polish officer’s search for news of the fate of thousands of his comrades held in Soviets camps and his dawning realisation that they had been murdered by their captors. Grossman’s masterpiece is Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler, but also rewarding is his late (and much slimmer) novel Everything Flows, and also The Road, a collection of his fiction and essays, including his account of the workings of Treblinka, which was used in evidence at the Nuremberg trials. A thousand pages long, Grossman’s Stalingrad is probably for the geeks and scholars, but it’s worth getting hold of for the introduction and afterword by translator and editor Robert Chandler. For political background and a picture of the perilous job of being a Soviet writer the book to have is Alexandra Popoff’s recent biography, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century – it was my source for Grossman’s correspondence with Gorky. If there is one work, literary or otherwise, to read on what happened in the twentieth century, it is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s utterly compelling The Gulag Archipelago. It is usually sold in an abridged edition but some of the best passages are in the complete version.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh has published over fifty short stories; his most recent collection is Trouble, from the Stinging Fly Press. He lives in Bucharest.