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

by Vasily Grossman, edited and translated by Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Pantheon Books, New York, 2005, $27.50.

Firsthand accounts from the Soviet side of the Nazi-Soviet war are difficult for readers of English to find. So much the better that Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova have built a book around the notes and letters of one of the Soviet Union’s most perceptive and skilled observers, Vasily Grossman. A war correspondent with Krasnaya–Zvezda (Red Star), the Red Army newspaper, Grossman spent nearly three years on the front lines, from the fall of Gomel in August 1941 through the battle of Stalingrad to the Soviet entry into Berlin. He developed a reputation as an honest, insightful writer and down-to-earth interviewer who was willing to share the troops’ hardships—much like Ernie Pyle on the American side.

While researching A Writer at War, Beevor and Vinogradova relied almost exclusively on Grossman’s notebooks, which unlike his heavily censored published works relate a more honest, straightforward and immediate sense of what he experienced. The success of the book lies in the editors’ ability to fill in the background, about both the war as a whole and Grossman’s role in it. The courage of Soviet soldiers and civilians is there; so too are cowardice and collaboration. The skill of Soviet commanders comes out, as do vanity, cruelty and stupidity. You’ll read of the unbelievable atrocities the Wehrmacht perpetrated, as well as the rape and pillage Red Army soldiers carried out on German soil.

Grossman was hardly a dispassionate observer, as the editors point out. He lost his own mother to a German death squad, and he described the destruction of the Jews in outraged detail. (Politically naive, he would only later come to grips with the anti-Semitism lurking within the Stalinist system.) There is in this book, above all, a sense of the overwhelming loss, pain and anger that so many millions of Soviet citizens experienced. This was sacrifice on a scale that most Americans, fortunately, can barely even imagine.

Nothing in A Writer at War will come as a revelation to readers already familiar with the conflict. The book’s value lies, instead, in its ability to evoke the reality of the frontline soldier, to bring life to the vast, nearly incomprehensible war the Soviet people fought against a vicious invader.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.