The Man from Stalingrad

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964)

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964)

Over the last year, I have been participating in a European History Meetup Group that, for a while anyway, turned into a Russian history group. We did readings and discussions on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Stalin’s purges beginning in 1937, and two sessions on the Russian contribution to the Second World War.

Vasily Grossman was a loyal supporter of Stalin and, as such, served as a war correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda, the official Red Army newspaper. He was in Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin during the battles for those cities; and he provided eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka.

Only toward the end of Stalin’s rule, when the dictator began to persecute the Russian Jews, did Grossman begin to rue his former attachment to the State. His great 900-page novel, Life and Fate, shows the actual change of mind taking place.

His extended Jewish family of Shaposhnikov women and their in-laws both suffer and are rewarded for their contributions to the State. Mostly, though, they suffer. Even the heroic tank commander, Nikolov, who leads the first Soviet armored units into the Ukraine, ends the book with an order to report to the stavka (General Staff) in Moscow. His scientist/academician, Viktor Shtrum, receives a congratulatory call from Stalin just when he thinks he is about to be arrested and interrogated—but then he is pressured into signing a statement that two physicians he respects were responsible for murdering the writer Maxim Gorky.

Stalin gives with one hand and takes away with the other. At the end of the Siege of Stalingrad, Grandma Shaposhnikov walks through the ruins and ponders:

And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing that she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that fate alone has the power to pardon and to chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory and infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings. No, whatever life holds in store—hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour camp—they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man’s eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be …

Life and Fate is one of the great novels of twentieth century Russia, on a par with (and perhaps even a little bit better than) Anatoli Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy (Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Ashes and Dust).

As I wrote in my review of the book for Goodreads.Com:

I rather doubt that most readers will have the sitzfleisch to attack either Grossman or Rybakov. Unless one is somewhat familiar with the history and with Russian character names and patronymics, one is not likely to stray too far from the tried and true and excessively familiar. But, know this, there are rewards for those who do.

For an interesting perspective on Grossman, check out this site from the Jewish Daily Forward.

Hugging the Enemy

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

General Vasily Chuikov, Commander of the 62nd Army at Stalingrad

We know a whole lot more about Field Marshal Friedrich Wilhelm Ernst Paulus, who commanded the German 6th Army besieging Stalingrad, than we know about General Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, who fought the German war machine to a draw by his creative leadership of the Soviet 62nd Army. Part of the reason is that we have letters from Paulus and his staff describing the horrors of the siege of Stalingrad, letters that were to give Hitler and Goebbels fits as they tried to devise their own myth as to what really happened on the banks of the Volga.

What really happened was one of Stalin’s generals, who lived in a society where candid comments in private letters were used by the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) as evidence of disloyalty to Stalin. Whatever Chuikov may have thought, it was what he did that made him one of Stalin’s favorite generals.

Both Hitler and Stalin had issued contradictory clear-cut orders regarding Stalingrad. Hitler insisted that the Wehrmacht capture the city at all cost, and that surrender was not an option. Stalin, on the other hand, issued equally clear-cut orders that the city must be held at all costs, and that surrender was not an option.

For almost six months, Chuikov invented a new kind of urban warfare in which the idea was to “hug the enemy.” By staying close to the Germans, Chuikov prevented the aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in that it turned out to be as dangerous to the Nazis as to the Red Army. By this time, much of the city was rubble. Chuikov ingeniously hid artillery and tanks in the ruins, and used small squads of six to eight men, supplemented by sharpshooters, to attack pockets of Wehrmacht troops. Extensive use was made of hand grenades and Molotov Cocktails.

Frequently, burnt-out tanks became bases for these squads, as the men were protected by the wrecked tank above their heads. The following is a quote from Chuikov:

The Germans underestimated our artillery. And they underestimated the effectiveness of our infantry against their tanks. This battle showed that tanks forced to operate in narrow quarters are of limited value; they’re just guns without mobility. In such conditions nothing can take the place of small groups of infantry, properly armed, and fighting with utmost determination. I don’t mean barricade street fighting—there was little of that—but groups converting every building into a fortress and fighting for it floor by floor and even room by room. Such defenders cannot be driven out either by tanks or planes. The Germans dropped over a million bombs on us but they did not dislodge our infantry from its decisive positions. On the other hand, tanks can be destroyed from buildings used as fortresses.

For five months, Chuikov fought the Germans to a draw. During this time, Marshal Georgi Zhukov formulated his Operation Uranus, which led to the encirclement and surrender of Paulus’s 6th Army.

Even as his men were out of ammunition and close to starving to death and being eaten alive by lice and other vermin, Hitler prevented them from surrendering. As it became obvious to the Fuehrer that Stalingrad was lost to him, he preferred the German people to think that the 6th Army committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Russians. In the end, the 90,000 men who remained did surrender. Total German casualties were between 500,000 and 850,000 killed, wounded or captured.

Chuikov later led one of the armies converging on Berlin, where he accepted surrender of the city from General Helmuth Weidling. After the war, in 1955, he was made a Field Marshal by Khrushchev and eventually served as a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Even under a tyrant such as Stalin, it is possible to find heroism and innovation such as Chuikov’s. Because we tend to see World War Two as mostly a Anglo-American alliance, we have suppressed any knowledge of the awful 3,000-mile front that was the war in Russia, called by them the Great Patriotic War. They earned their victory … the hard way.