Anthony Beevor: A Writer At War – Vasily Grossman with the Red Army 1941-1945

A Writer at War - Cover Image

Author: Antony Beevor

Title: A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945

ISBN: 0375424075

Pages: 400

A Writer at War details the experiences of the Russian author, Vasily Grossman, throughout his time as a frontline correspondent during the Second World War. A period of his life that would inspire Grossman to write Life and Fate, arguably the greatest novel of the Soviet era, as well as undertake The Black Book with fellow Russian, Ilya Ehrenburg, which documents in meticulous detail the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jewish population of Eastern Europe.

At the time of the German invasion of Russia, Grossman was an overweight writer in his mid-thirties. Declared unfit for active duty, he signed up as a war correspondent for Red Star, the newspaper of the Red Army, and insisted on reporting from the front line.

The scale and importance of the events he witnessed and reported on were breathtaking. From the disasters of the summer of 1941, where huge German encirclements threatened to destroy the Russian army wholesale, to the months he spent detailing the street fighting at Stalingrad. From the massive tank engagements at Kursk, to the re-capturing of the Ukraine the following year. As well as being one of the first journalists to enter Warsaw, Grossman also witnessed the discovery of the horrors at Treblinka and finally, in May 1945, found himself standing inside Hitler’s office at the Reich chancellery.

In addition to the articles he wrote for Red Star, Grossman kept detailed notebooks from that time. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of Grossman’s writing is that the level of quality between finished articles and extracts made in those notebooks seem almost negligible. Without clarification from Beevor it’s almost impossible to judge from which source a particular passage is drawn. Perhaps a clue to the consistent quality of his work is found in this comment from Grossman’s editor David Ortenberg:

“Although he had taught himself to write in any conditions, however bad, in a bunker by a wick lamp, in a field, lying in a bed or in a izba (Russian peasant house) stuffed with people, he always wrote slowly, persistently giving all of his strength to the process.”

The dedication shows through. I’m sure that as he started shifting through Grossman’s wartime notes Beevor must have soon realised the treasure-trove he had to work with. A large part of A Writer at War’s narrative is drawn from this source, interspersed with excerpts from his articles, letters to friends and accounts from those who Grossman met during that time. All skilfully woven together and put in context by the insightful commentary of Beevor to form simultaneously the story of one man’s war, as well as the fortunes of two countries.

Time and again you are struck by the poetry of the short staccato writing style Grossman employs to record his thoughts; I could pick numerous examples, but this is an extract that leap out:

“Morning. A battlefield. Shell craters, flat like saucers, with earth split around them. Gas Masks. Flasks. Little holes dug by soldiers during the attack for machine-gun and mortar nests. They did themselves no good when they dug the holes so close to one another. One can see how they huddled together, two holes – two friends, five holes – soldier comrades from the same region. Blood. A man killed behind a haystack, his fist clenched, leaning back like a frightening sculpture – Death on the Field of Battle.”

On first reading I was immediately reminded of a favourite passage from Dances of Death by Aleksandr Blok written some thirty years before:

“Night, street, a lamp, a chemist’s window,
a senseless and dim light. No doubt
in a quarter century or so
there’ll be no change. There’s no way out.


You’ll die, and just the same as ever
begin the dance again. A damp
night, frozen ripples on the river,
a chemist’s shop, a street, a lamp.”

Grossman’s work was immensely popular with ordinary soldiers, and it doesn’t take long to see why. He seems to have had little interest in the great commanders of his day – perhaps the sight of the Generals at Stalingrad bickering over responsibilities and achievements during the battle and squabbling over the glory afterwards formed his opinion.

Instead he displays an enormous affection and trust for the ‘Frontoviki’ (soldiers with experience on the front line), as his reports are filled with character sketches of the soldiers and officers most directly involved. It was through these articles that he in turn earned the trust of these men. Commanders known for their reticence would open up to him, ordinary soldiers would freely voice their opinions in his presence. Possibly the ultimate sign of this trust was that Anatoly Checkov, one of the leading Russian snipers at Stalingrad, allowed Grossman to accompany him on a mission.

As Grossman leads us through the war, we gain further and deeper insight into the thoughts and mood of his countrymen and the pressures Grossman was under to portray a positive impression of the wars progress. In the dark days of 1941 this must have been intensely difficult and may provide another reason for his interest in the man on the frontline. By concentrating on the individual who shows courage, Grossman could create heroes that distracted readers from the reality of the overall situation Russia faced.

However, his notebooks reveal his real opinions. He is critical of Stalin and Russia’s preparedness for war, and often the competence in which it was being fought. Grossman believed in “The ruthless truth of war” and his honesty shines through, even to the point of his disgust at the conduct of Soviet troops when they reached foreign soil; although he attributes the raping and looting they undertook to the rear area soldiers rather than his beloved ‘Frontoviki’. This seems to be one of the few areas where Beevor disagrees with Grossman’s assessment.

In addition to this, we learn of the personal pain of Grossman’s war. He reported from Stalingrad for four months and knew that somewhere else within the city his nephew was also serving. It was not until after the battle had finished that they were to be finally reunited, when Grossman found his nephew’s grave.

As the Russian advance continued, and they reclaimed more and more of their country, he came ever closer to his hometown of Berdichev. At the start of the German onslaught his mother and many other members of his family had been trapped there. He blamed himself for failing to evacuate them in time, a guilt that was all the heavier from the thought of the fate that may befall them as Jews. When Berdichev was eventually re-taken he returned to discover that his worst fears had been true. During the first months of occupation, his mother, her family and 20-30,000 other Jews of the town had been taken by the Nazis to a nearby airfield and executed on mass.

This was not the first such atrocity that Grossman discovered, and it wasn’t to be the last. As the evidence of the Jews treatment built up, Grossman and fellow writer Ilya Ehrenburg decided to document everything that was found in what they called The Black Book. There was plenty of material; from the massacre at Babi Yar, to the almost total annihilation of the Jewish population of the Ukraine, and ultimately to Grossman’s arrival at a newly liberated Treblinka. The interviews he conducted with the forty or so survivors from that camp formed his most powerful and famous article The Hell called Treblinka which was quoted at the Nuremburg trials and is reproduced in large part by Beevor.

Despite the success of that article, others on a similar theme were heavily edited, or like The Black Book itself, suppressed due to Stalin’s order that “The dead shall not be divided”; a decree he used to avoid the embarrassment of collaboration by locals with the Nazi atrocities being revealed.

Ultimately Grossman’s story leaves you with an impression of the sheer scale and brutality of the times he lived through and a feeling that during those years there was no reality, let alone normality, only war.

With A Writer at War, Anthony Beevor has produced a remarkable book that succeeds in a number of ways: as a biography of a crucial period in an important writers life, as a compelling eye-witness account of the most brutal conflict in history, and in revealing the inspiration and source material for two of the most significant works of literature from the last century, Life and Fate and The Black Book. This last aspect is the most original and most revealing, as throughout this wonderful piece of research Beevor points you to characters and events that were to appear in both books. Although sadly Grossman didn’t live to see either published, as both were suppressed by Stalin.

Most readers of A Writer at War will come to it from an interest in the events and time period it covers, but I hope they will leave with a desire to read Grossman’s masterpiece Life and Fate, as everything he witnessed during that tumultuous period of history are contained within its pages.


~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

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