Vasily Grossman (1905–1964), chronicler of the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1945, correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the Soviet army newspaper, was one of the finest reporters of World War II. An educated Jew from Ukraine who never joined the Communist Party, he was also a novelist and a brilliant—and very lucky—truth teller who was always at the sharp point of epic fighting. Grossman’s wartime notebooks were translated by Luba Vinogradova and military historian Antony Beevor, who edited and commented upon Grossman’s firsthand accounts for A Writer at War (2005). Beevor’s comments are shown in italics and brackets in the excerpt below, from Grossman’s reporting on the 308th Rifle Division of Siberians’ defense of the silicate works in Stalingrad in October 1942.
On witnessing the war’s finale at Treblinka, the Nazi death camp, Grossman wrote: “Someone might ask: ‘Why write about this, why remember all that?’ It is the writer’s duty to tell this terrible truth, and it is the civilian duty of the reader to learn it.” Grossman took his duty very seriously and labored over his eyewitness descriptions, such as this one of the no-quarter fighting in Stalingrad.
Germans were on the edge of the plant. That was in the afternoon of the 2nd. Some of them took cover, others ran away. A Kazakh was escorting three prisoners. He was wounded. He took out a knife and stabbed the three prisoners to death. A tankist, a big red-haired man, jumped out of his tank in front of Changov’s command post when he ran out of shells. He grabbed some bricks and [started throwing them at] the Germans, effing and blinding. The Germans turned on their heels and ran.
The men’s spirits were high, they had had some experience of fighting. Their ages ranged from 23 to 46. Most of them were Siberians, from Omsk, Novosibirsk, and Krasnoyarsk. Siberians are more stocky, more reserved, more stern. They are hunters, they are more disciplined, more used to cold and hardship. There wasn’t a single case of desertion [en route to Stalingrad]. When one of them dropped his rifle, he ran three kilometers after the train and caught up. They aren’t talkative, but are witty, and have sharp tongues.
“We’re used to ‘whistlers’ [Stukas]. We even get bored when the Germans aren’t whistling. When they are whistling, this means they aren’t throwing anything at us. They started attacking the silicate plant on the night of 2 October. The whole of Markelov’s regiment was killed or wounded. There were only eleven men left. The Germans had taken the whole plant by the evening of the 3rd. Our instruction was: not one step back. The commander was wounded heavily, the commissar was killed.
“We began to defend a destroyed and burning street in front of the sculpture garden. No one came back from the fighting. They all died on the spot. The climax came on 17 October. The enemy kept bombing us day and night on the 17th, 18th, and 19th. Two German regiments started to advance.
“The attack began at 5 in the morning and the battle went on for the whole day. They broke through on a flank and cut off the command post. The regiment fought for two to three days from house to house, and the command post was in the fighting, too. The commander of the 7th Company with 12 men took out a company of Germans in a gully. They got out of there during the night, then they occupied a house. There were 20 of them in a grenade battle, fighting for floors, for stairs, for corridors, for rooms.
“Kalinin, the deputy chief of staff, killed 27 men and hit four tanks with an antitank rifle. There were 80 workers and a security company at the plant. Only three or four of them survived. They had never received any military training. Their commander was a young worker, a communist, and they were attacked by a regiment of Germans.
“On 23 October, fighting began inside the plant. Workshops were on fire, as well as railways, roads, trees, bushes, and grass. At the command post, Kushnarev and the chief of staff, Dyatlenko, were sitting in the ‘tube’ with six submachine gunners. They had two boxes of grenades and they beat the Germans off. The Germans had brought tanks to the plant. The workshops changed hands several times. Tanks destroyed them, firing at point-blank range. Aircraft were bombing us day and night. A captured German, a teacher, told us on the 27th about the strict order to reach the Volga. His hands were black, there were lice in his hair. He began to sob.”
Mikhalyev, Barkovsky, Chief of Staff Mirokhin have all been killed. They all received posthumous awards…. Submachine gunner Kolosov was buried up to his chest in earth. He was stuck there laughing: “This makes me mad!” The signals platoon commander, Khamitsky, was sitting by the entrance of hisbunker reading a book during a heavybombing raid. Gurtyev [the divisional commander] became angry.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I’ve nothing else to do. He’s bombing and I read a book.”
Mikhalyev was very much loved. When someone now asks: “How are things?”“Well, what can I say?” [comes the answer]. “It’s as if we’d lost a father. He had pity for his men. He spared them.”
Liaison Officer Batrakov, a chemist,black haired and wearing spectacles,walked 10 to 15 kilometers every day.He would come in to headquarters, clean his glasses, report on the situation and go back. He arrived at exactly the same time every day.
“It was quiet on the 12th and 13th [of October], but we understood what this quietness meant. On the 14th, [the enemy]began firing at the divisional command post with a Vanyusha [a German multibarreled smoke mortar]. [The bunker]became blocked up with earth, but we got out. We lost 13 or 14 men at the command post. A thermite shell makes a hollow noise. It hits one’s ears. At first,there’s a creaking noise: ‘Aha! Hitler’s started playing [his violin],’ and one has time to hide. Vladimirsky was dying to go to the toilet, he suffered so much until nightfall. He wanted to take a mess tin from a soldier.”
Workshop No. 14 started to burn from the inside: When Ivan Andryushenko was killed, the regimental commissar(holder of four medals, Lieutenant Colonel Kolobovnikov, a man with a face of stone)telephoned the command post and started to speak: “Comrade Major-General, may I report?” He stopped, then said, sobbing:“Vanya is dead,” and hung up.
A “hired” tankist [the commander of a tank attached to the infantry]: They gave him chocolate, vodka, and collected his ammunition for him. And he worked like an ox. They thought the world of him in the regiment.
“We had grenades, submachine guns,and 45mm [antitank] guns. Thirty tanks attacked. We were scared. This was the first time it happened to us! But no one ran away. We started firing at the armor.The tanks were crawling over deep slits.A Red Army soldier would take a look and laugh: ‘Dig deeper!’”
Postmen: Makarevich, with a little beard,a peasant, with his little bag, with little envelopes, postcards, letters, newspapers.Karnaukhov has been injured. There are three wounded and one killed….When he was wounded, Kosichenko tore the pin from the grenade with his teeth.
[Grossman wrote up the story of the attack on the 308th Rifle Division for Red Star, and it was published just over a month later under the title “Axis of the Main Attack.” David Ortenberg, the paper’s editor, wrote a little later about Grossman’s interviewing technique. “All the correspondents attached to the Stalingrad Front were amazed how Grossman had made the divisional commander, General Gurtiev, a silent and reserved Siberian, talk to him for six hours without a break, telling him all that he wanted to know, at one of the hardest moments [of the battle].”
Grossman may have been influenced by the superstitions of the frontoviki, [the soldiers evacuated from the front], the result of living constantly with death in its most unpredictable form, but he also had his own as a writer. His editor was entertained to find that Grossman believed it was bad luck to seal up your own letters and packages. “When he wrote another of his essays, he would ask Gekhman, who often accompanied him on trips to the front: ‘Efim, you’ve got a light hand. Could you take my material, seal the envelope with your own hands and send it to Moscow?’”
Ortenberg, a hardened Communist Party journalist, was also amused by how carefully Grossman checked the final printed version of his articles. “I remember how he would change when a newspaper with his essay in it arrived. He was so happy. He would reread his essay, checking how one or another phrase sounded. He, an experienced writer, simply worshipped the printed word.” Ortenberg may well have been a little disingenuous in this description. Grossman was often furious at the way his articles were rewritten and chopped about. He wrote in a letter to his wife, Olga Mikhailovna, on 22 October:
I’ve written an angry letter to the editor and now await his reply not without interest. I wrote about a bureaucratic attitude and officials’ tricks on the editorial board.
In fact, Grossman’s prose was probably interfered with less than that of most other journalists. Ortenberg openly acknowledged that much of the newspaper’s popularity was due to Grossman. Even the Party hacks in Moscow were well aware of the determination which his prose gave to the soldiers of the Red Army, to say nothing of the whole population. It had far more effect than the most impassioned Stalinist clichés.]
It is only here that people know what a kilometer is. A kilometer is one thousand meters. It is one hundred thousand centimeters. Drunken [German] submachine gunners pushed on with a lunatic stubbornness. There is no one now who can tell how Markelov’s regiment fought…. Yes, they were simply mortals and none of them came back.
Several times during the day, German artillery and mortars would suddenly fall silent, and the squadrons of dive-bombers would disappear. An incomprehensible quietness would ensue. It was then that the lookouts would shout: “Watch out!” and those in forward positions would grip their Molotov cocktails, men in antitank units would open their canvas ammunition bags and submachine gunners would wipe their [weapons] with the palms of their hands. This brief quietness preceded an attack.
It wasn’t long before the clang of hundreds of caterpillars and the low humming of motors would announce the movement of tanks. A lieutenant shouted: “Watch out, comrades! Submachine gunners are infiltrating on the left!” Sometimes the Germans got so close that the Siberians saw their dirty faces and torn greatcoats, and heard their guttural shouts….
Looking back now, one can see that heroism was present during every moment of daily life for people in the division. There was the commander of a signals platoon, Khamitsky, who was sitting peacefully on a hillock reading a novel while a dozen German Stukas dived down roaring, as if about to attack the earth itself. And there was liaison officer Batrakov, who would carefully clean his glasses, put reports into his field bag, and set out on a 20-kilometer walk through the “death ravine” as if it were a Sunday walk in the park. There was the submachine gunner Kolosov who, when an explosion buried him in a bunker up to his neck, turned his face to Deputy Commander Spirin and laughed. There was a typist at the headquarters, Klava Kopylova, a fat red-cheeked girl from Siberia, who had begun typing a battle order at the headquarters and was buried by an explosion. They dug her out and she went to type in another bunker. She was buried again and dug out again. She finally finished typing the order in the third bunker and brought it to the divisional commander to sign. These were the people fighting on the axis of the main attack.
Excerpted from A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army, 1941–1945, by Vasily Grossman, copyright © 2005 by Ekaterina Vasilievna Korotkova-Grossman and Elena Fedorovna Kozhichkina. English translation, introduction, and commentary © 2005 by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Used by permission of Pantheon Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.