“But There Has Been a Catastrophe”: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”

By Philip Ó CeallaighJuly 15, 2019

“But There Has Been a Catastrophe”: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman


STALINGRAD, NOW APPEARING in English, was first published in Russian in 1952, the last year of Stalin’s life. Its more famous sequel, Life and Fate, Grossman’s masterpiece, was written after Stalin’s death and refused publication. The two novels are remarkably similar and utterly different. Life and Fate picks up chronologically where Stalingrad leaves off, at the peak of the battle for the city, and a number of key characters appear in both works. But Life and Fate confronts Stalinism directly and analyzes the many ways a totalitarian regime obtains the complicity of individuals in its lies and murder. Stalingrad is the same author, shackled in his expression.

In 1941, on the eve of war with Germany, the Soviet Union was a failure by any measure and a spectacular failure when measured against the proclaimed ideals of the Russian Revolution. The ending of capitalism was to have ushered in a benevolent dictatorship of the proletariat. Even with peace restored after the chaos of a civil war in which as many as 13 million died, the regime found an impediment on the road to paradise — the people themselves. Forced collectivization of agriculture and food requisitioning killed millions in the countryside, there were purges and mass executions and deportations and relocations of entire population groups, and a system of slave labor was instituted.

Grossman would depict the Soviet Union as a vast penitentiary in his later novels, Life and Fate and Everything Flows. In Stalingrad, however, we have passages of the following kind:

Scattered and annihilated by the Revolution, whole classes of people had disappeared. […] Workers and peasants had become the masters of life. […] Russia had attained an unprecedented level of literacy and general enlightenment, a sudden leap whose power can be compared only with that of some cosmic force; if there were an electromagnetic equivalent for Russia’s cultural explosion in 1917, astronomers in other galaxies would have registered the birth of a new star, a star growing ever brighter.

In this passage, Grossman is entering the consciousness of the old Bolshevik, Mostovskoy. Even so, examples of this kind of language are common throughout the almost 1,000 pages of Stalingrad.

But something more complex is going on in the novel because we know the author was not an ideologue, and in many cases he is gritting his teeth as he types. There is an underlying struggle on every page.


The phrase “Socialist Realism” was coined in 1932, and in 1934 the method it described was adopted as the obligatory house style of the newly established Soviet Writers’ Union. It was enough for Stalin to write “fool” and “bastard” in the margins of Andrei Platonov’s 1931 novel about collectivization, The Foundation Pit, to render him unpublishable. Isaac Babel stopped submitting work for publication in the 1930s, which smacked of sabotage; he was shot in 1940. Of the 2,000 writers arrested during the purges, only 500 survived.

1932 was also the year the 27-year-old Grossman’s first novel was rejected for its “counter-revolutionary tendencies.” Alexandra Popoff’s new biography of Grossman, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, is particularly good in illuminating his literary milieu, and she quotes a letter he wrote to Maxim Gorky at the time, asking for his opinion:

I wrote what I saw while working for three years in the mine Smolyanka-11. I wrote the truth. Perhaps, this is a bitter truth. However, truth cannot be counterrevolutionary. In our day truth and revolution cannot be separated. I fail to understand what’s counterrevolutionary about my book — is it that there’s drinking in the Donbass [sic], that there are frequent brawls there, that work in a coalmine is very hard or that people, coalminers […] don’t smile 24 hours a day?

Gorky replied that it was obtuse of Grossman to claim his naturalistic snapshots were “reality”: “The author can see well the truth of the past. […] He truthfully depicted the dull-wittedness of coalminers, their drunkenness, brawls. […] Of course, all this — is truth, but it’s a very bad and tormenting truth.”

Soviet truth was aspirational. Socialist Realism had to articulate the shining ideals of the workers’ paradise that was coming into being.

Grossman had developed a respiratory disease from his time as a safety inspector in an unventilated mine. Had he been a worker rather than a soon-to-be Soviet writer, he would have died. He wrote, privately, of laborers so weighed down by quotas and obligations that “you wouldn’t find even ten workers out of forty or fifty thousand going to work at 6 am willingly and freely,” but he was smart enough to take Gorky’s hint and put lipstick on the pig. He rewrote his novel, and it was published. The danger of the mines allowed him to portray the workers as heroic, a trick he repeats in Stalingrad, where at the insistence of the editors he added chapters on proletarian valor far from the front.

In Stalingrad, Grossman’s youthful exchange with Gorky is reprised: Marusya tells her sister Zhenya that collective labor is “a source of constant moral uplift” — “[t]he workers make jokes, their confidence never flags” — and recounts the moment a new gun was wheeled out of the workshop: “I felt such love of my country that I could have gone on working […] for another six days.” Zhenya counters that such language rings false — it turns people into figures on posters. Marusya retorts that there are two truths: “There is the truth of the reality forced on us by the accursed past. And there’s the truth of the reality which will defeat the past.”

Zhenya is Grossman; Marusya is a committee of editors and censors. This passage is the closest thing to Grossman saying, “Forgive my pen, but these are the people who are in charge.”


This English edition, the first ever, is a work of reconstitution by co-editors Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan and co-translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, as there is no definitive Russian edition. The three versions published in Grossman’s lifetime differ greatly from one another. The first and most heavily censored was published in 1952, while Stalin still lived. Under Khrushchev’s relative liberalization, much censored material was reinstated in 1954 and 1956. The editors also consulted the 11 typescripts in the Russian state literary archives, drawing heavily on the third version, as that closest to Grossman’s original vision of the book. This has allowed them to reinstate several hundred ideologically motivated deletions, ranging in length between several words and several pages. Where entirely new chapters were added at a later stage, the editors have drawn on the earliest typescript in which they appear.

This Stalingrad is a colossal work of research and is an attempt at de-censoring the author. Valuable notes are given to each chapter, indicating which versions were drawn upon.

The easiest way to read Stalingrad as a novel is to disregard these notes and to skip Robert Chandler’s fine introduction and afterword. But that would be to miss the true story and the reward of an intensive tutorial on the experience of writing under a dictatorship.

The most vital writing is that from the third typescript, and we get to see the kinds of things Socialist Realism frowned on. Some of the omissions in 1952 concern politically sensitive subjects such as the existence of labor camps and discontent with collective agriculture. But also affected are references to petty theft, bedbugs, rats, fleas, poor food, and, in one instance, unwashed hands. There is also a deadening of tone where the censors strove for the heroic note by deleting passages of oddness, humor, or absurdity. The present editors have been able to save much fine writing that Grossman was never permitted to publish in his lifetime.


Stalingrad depicts a struggle between the forces of Soviet good and Nazi evil, yet we know from Life and Fate that Grossman saw the two regimes as evil twins. Grossman had all the material he needed for the comparison, having been a frontline journalist from the early days of the retreat, through the Battle of Stalingrad, and all the way to Berlin. He encountered the reality of the Holocaust. He saw Treblinka and was the first journalist to give an account of the workings of an extermination camp. He was ceaselessly interviewing eyewitnesses and recording information, even if he could not publish all he heard. His status as journalist and later as a state-appointed Red Tolstoy gave him access to material on Nazism and the war written from the German perspective.

Superficially, Stalingrad looks like a capitulation to the censor, but the reality is more complex. Grossman was a successful Soviet writer, but behind the scenes he rarely missed an opportunity to present his editors, and himself, with problems. In the immediate postwar years, he was chief editor and contributor to The Black Book of Soviet Jewry, which documented the Holocaust on Soviet soil. In 1947, after several years of labor, and with Stalin becoming increasingly antisemitic, it was announced that The Black Book contained “grave political errors” and would not be published.

Considering the fate of this and other projects Grossman was involved in at the time, he showed extraordinary tenacity in struggling with the authorities. He pushed boundaries at great personal risk and was sometimes successful. There is much in Stalingrad that is categorically not the official line. Grossman wished for those who had perished anonymously to be remembered, and he emphasizes the bravery and suffering of people rather than the strategic genius of their supreme leader. He also wished his novel to speak to the ordinary soldier who had fought and survived. There are passages on Nazism, including Hitler’s contempt for the lives of his soldiers, which are coded attacks on Stalinism. There are references to the existence of punishment battalions and of dissatisfaction with the regime and allusions to taboo subjects such as the Holocaust. One of the main characters, Victor Shtrum, is recognizably Jewish, at a time when Jews were being purged from Soviet public life and executed.

Within months of its publication in late 1952, with antisemitic frenzy peaking, Stalingrad was being publicly denounced. Grossman would probably have been arrested and executed had Stalin not died in early 1953.


The obvious template for both Stalingrad and Life and Fate is War and Peace. Grossman said that Tolstoy’s novel was the only book he could read during the war, and he read it twice. It was also serialized on Soviet radio and broadcast in order to inspire patriotic resolve. Grossman, like Tolstoy, employs real political and military figures along with his fictional characters, and repeatedly inserts didactic — sometimes bombastic — authorial commentaries on the course of events.

A less obvious presence is that of Dostoyevsky. In 1945, Grossman submitted a proposal to the state literary publisher for a first Soviet biography of that writer and the product, he wrote, “of my many years studying Dostoyevsky […] an ingenious artist who created […] a new type of novel, revered worldwide.” The project was rejected; Dostoyevsky was taboo, having articulated too well the idea that violence is an ineffective means for achieving a noble end.

Grossman’s most Dostoyevskian passages in Stalingrad would land him in trouble. Victor Shtrum, a physicist, takes an evening walk with his colleague and superior, Chepyzhin, who asks how fascism has managed to turn the Germans into a nation capable of violent atrocities — “Where have so many evil people come from?” What about their civilization, their working classes? Shtrum gives the Party line: Hitler has hijacked the state with his capitalist and bourgeois accomplices. Chepyzhin rejects the explanation that good and evil are class-based. They reside in every individual:

There is a great deal in all of us that is false, coarse and primitive, an unholy mixture of stuff usually kept under wraps. Many people living in ordinary social conditions have no idea of the cellars and basements of their own being. But there has been a catastrophe — and vermin of every kind have escaped from the cellars.

Chepyzhin maintains that the individual’s instinct for goodness and justice will not allow a permanent victory by the dark side, but Shtrum concludes the conversation by pointing out (in passages added in the 1954 and 1956 editions) that this merely repeats the same error: “According to your theory, revolutionary struggle cannot change society. It cannot raise human beings to a higher level.” But look around, says Shtrum, at all we have achieved; when we defeat fascism we will reorganize German society on revolutionary principles.

On February 2, 1953, an editorial meeting took place at the Novy Mir literary journal, attended by writers, critics, and military officials. Stalingrad was denounced for its “historical-philosophical” speculations. Six weeks later, Alexander Fadeyev, the chairman of the Writers’ Union, denounced the “reactionary, idealist, anti-Leninist philosophy” expressed by Chepyzhin.


If revolutionary struggle cannot change society, Socialist Realism is decorative tinsel hanging on the barbed wire of a concentration camp, and everything said about the Germans in Stalingrad must be true of the Soviet side also.

The moral nature of man is constant, argues Chepyzhin, in his controversial discussion with Shtrum, in the same way that the material basis of reality is constant and a scientist or engineer must work within certain limitations in harnessing its energy:

One of the proofs of the indestructibility of this spiritual energy is the fact that even the most evil of the fascist leaders feel obliged to pose as the champions of justice and the greater good. They commit their greatest crimes in secret. […] These leaders don’t have the power to openly proclaim their central amoral principle — that the freedom of a favored person, race or state is to be achieved through the bloody negation of the freedom of other persons, races or states.

Grossman knew something about this paradox — that a dictatorship attempts to commit its worst crimes at a remove from public view, to hide them and deny them. In 1943, when he reached Babi Yar in Kyiv, where over 100,000 civilians had been shot, he found that the Germans had been exhuming the corpses and trying to dispose of the evidence. Something similar occurred at Treblinka, where the extermination camp was shut down ahead of the Red Army’s advance and attempts were made to disguise its nature.

Even when the political ends justify the means, their violence is too repugnant to mention openly. We are back with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, who has discovered a moral justification for one murder, makes a principle of overcoming his own reluctance to transgress, and is immediately assailed by the complexity of his lies. The only way out is to confess.

In 1956, Alexander Fadeyev, Stalingrad’s denouncer three years earlier, shot himself in the heart. He left a suicide note that condemned the Stalinists for physically exterminating the country’s finest writers; of course, as head of the Writer’s Union, Fadeyev had been an accessory to the crime.


Complicity with crimes and the lies that covered them — this was to become Grossman’s great theme in his final works, Life and Fate and Everything Flows. But it is barely stirring in Stalingrad, where he is still in the grip of the censor. Grossman knew the truth. The purges and deportations had killed close friends and relatives. He had seen the emaciated peasants crawling into Kyiv in 1931 and dying on the streets, and he knew the regime was deliberately killing millions in the countryside — he later described it as the same as putting Jewish children in the gas chambers.

Stalingrad is a vast, ambitious book, in terms of characters and action and drama, and there is much fine writing in the descriptions of the city under aerial bombardment and during the fighting. Grossman had enough personal experience of the front to be able to create a gripping narrative. But if we have any interest at all in the novel’s relationship to historical truth, this is not enough; Boris Pasternak commented that only about 60 pages of the whole work struck him as genuine: “How could this happen to a man with [Grossman’s] wit and talent?”

Stalingrad is in fact two stories, and the more gripping story is that of Grossman’s struggle to tell the truth.

Pasternak retained his artistic purity by publishing Doctor Zhivago abroad and was offered the Nobel Prize in 1958; at home, he was expelled from the Writers’ Union, and his novel was banned.

Grossman wrote Life and Fate under Khrushchev’s “thaw.” Stalin’s death had created new possibilities for expression, but it was unclear how far they would evolve or if the political process would suddenly reverse. Grossman did not want to publish abroad, to be a celebrity in the West and unread at home. Life and Fate was a deeply personal testament but one he hoped would address the traumas of the previous decades and contribute to the healing of his society. After the book was submitted for publication in 1960, the KGB raided Grossman’s apartment and confiscated his papers. Grossman died in 1964, and Life and Fate was not published in the Soviet Union until the very end of the Soviet era.

Life and Fate is not the visceral, ground-level hell of Soviet reality we find in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, or Józef Czapski’s Inhuman Land, but its entire vision and structure do away with Stalingrad’s positing of the Great Patriotic War as a struggle between good and evil. To consider Stalingrad and Life and Fate a diptych is misleading — at the level of meaning they are incompatible. Life and Fate was the rewriting of Stalingrad, the unpublishable truth after the published untruth. Finally, we have the full story.


Some material in this essay appeared earlier in The Irish Times.


Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest.

LARB Contributor

Philip Ó Ceallaigh is short story writer as well as a translator. In 2006, he won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His two short story collections, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse and The Pleasant Light of Day, were short-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He lives in Bucharest. [Photograph by Johannes Kruse.]


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