Vasilii Grossman’s Just Cause

Memorial to Holodomor victims, Kiev

Vasilii Grossman’s Just Cause

Frank Ellis celebrates a defeat for censorship 

Green eyes cut the heart without a knife (Vasilii Grossman)

I. Introduction:  For a Just Cause or Stalingrad?

Outside the circle of people who concern themselves with Grossman’s work it is not widely known that Life and Fate (1980) was the sequel to another long novel on Stalingrad, published in 1952 under the title of Za pravoe delo (For a Just Cause). For a Just Cause begins with the Axis forces about to resume their offensive in 1942 (Case Blue) and ends in mid-September with Paulus’s 6th Army on the verge of capturing Stalingrad. Most of the characters that the reader will encounter in Life and Fate feature in For a Just Cause, and, as in Life and Fate, Grossman explores, and speculates on, all kinds of questions, primary and secondary, relating to the war, the cause of so much trouble with the censors.

For a Just Cause was first submitted to the editorial board of the Soviet journal Novyi mir in 1949, with Grossman’s preferred title, Stalingrad, which is why Robert Chandler has reverted to Grossman’s original title. Over the next three years the manuscript was edited, censored, mutilated and redrafted by Grossman under pressure from various literary figures, including Konstantin Simonov, Alexander Fadeev and Alexander Tvardovskii. In spite of the best efforts of the censors the published versions of For a Just Cause, beginning with the journal version in 1952 which was followed by separate book editions in 1954, 1956, 1959, 1964 and 1989, were not rendered ideologically inert. Reading the journal version – published in 1952 in the last year of Stalin’s life let it be repeated – it is astonishing just how much politically-incorrect material, themes, ideas and Aesopian allegories made it into print. The obvious and inescapable conclusion is that in any of its published versions For a Just Cause was no ordinary novel of the Stalin period; the fact that it had been published at all was highly unusual. That this novel has now been translated into English, albeit with the questionable title of Stalingrad, is very welcome.

Among the Soviet literary establishment, initial responses to the publication of For a Just Cause were favourable but that soon changed as critics, editors and party members denounced Grossman’s novel, taking their cue from an intensification of anti-Jewish measures and propaganda marked by the start of the campaign to unmask “the assassins in white coats”, the Jewish doctors who were, apparently, planning to poison the Soviet leadership at the behest of Western intelligence agencies. One of the rumours doing the rounds was that Stalin was planning a pogrom against Jews which would then be used to justify their mass deportation to Birobidzhan. However, on 5th March 1953, in the middle of the propaganda frenzy directed at Jews, Grossman among them, and on the very day commemorating the Jewish festival of Purim, the Great Father and Benefactor of the Soviet People died.

Stalin, portrait from Stalin Museum, Batumi

After Stalin’s death the attacks on Grossman petered  out, and those who only very recently had abandoned him and joined in his vilification were now rushing to ingratiate themselves with their former victim. In his introduction to the 1990 publication of Life and Fate, Anatolii Bocharov took the view that the publication of For a Just Cause as a separate novel in 1954 marked Grossman’s final triumph over what had befallen him.[1] But I ask: what kind of triumph is possible when an author is praised or attacked according to the demands of a state-controlled literary bureaucracy whose members obey the orders of a cruel and vindictive leader and his lieutenants, and are not guided by any artistic or intellectual criteria, certainly not the truth? This was no victory for Grossman: it was a stay of execution.

Meanwhile, in the West, Grossman’s novel was ignored and after the publication of Life and Fate in 1980 was dismissed as being of no consequence for the sequel. For example, in his introduction to the English translation of Life and Fate, Robert Chandler had stated that For a Just Cause ‘was written in an entirely different spirit and can be best seen as a separate novel that happens to portray many of the same characters’. It was also, he claimed, ‘deadened by its ideological conformity’.[2] As recently as 2010, Timothy Snyder dismissed For a Just Cause as being merely ‘a vast novel of the Battle of Stalingrad, mostly within Stalinist conventions’.[3] Even allowing for Grossman’s collaboration with Ehrenberg on the Chernaia kniga (The Black Book), in which both men sought to document the Holocaust, it is not plausible that Grossman and his novel would have been subjected to such ideological vilification, with the threat of arrest and execution hanging over the author, had the novel been ‘deadened by its ideological conformity’ or had been written ‘mostly within Stalinist conventions’.

In his introduction to Stalingrad, Chandler admits that he followed the lead of people who had dismissed  the novel. That unspecified ‘eminent figures’[4] dismissed For a Just Cause was a poor basis for not reading the novel, and, even worse, passing judgment without having read it. It also reveals a distinct lack of intellectual curiosity, since the supposed gulf between For a Just Cause and Life and Fate would raise – or should have raised – the very obvious question how a Soviet writer could produce a novel ‘deadened by ideological conformity’ and then 8 years later produce something like Life and Fate. How could this happen? What had prompted this huge intellectual and moral disaffection from Soviet power? What were its roots? What does it tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of totalitarian states? Nor did these ‘eminent figures’ dismiss Stalingrad: they dismissed For a Just Cause. There is an object lesson here: when ‘eminent figures’ dismiss a novel or engage in hyperbolical adulation a certain degree of scepticism is in order. In fact, this is one of the main lessons to be derived from the testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh (Life and Fate). Claims to intellectual and moral infallibility made by, and on behalf of, eminent monsters such as Lenin and Stalin and their minions were and remain part of the problem.

The heresies in Life and Fate and Grossman’s freedom essay, Everything Flows did not just emerge from nowhere. They were part of a process that started before 22nd June 1941. From the very beginning of his career which was underway by the 1930s Grossman was a writer who was unable to keep himself within the ideological boundaries of socialist realism and what was tacitly determined to be acceptable at any one time: his restless mind was always leading him into forbidden territory. Grossman’s commitment to truth seeking and the naive assumption that others shared this determination to get to the truth is revealed in a letter to Gorky in which Grossman insists that ‘the truth can never be counter-revolutionary’.[5]

According to Chandler, there are two reasons why Stalingrad (For a Just Cause) has been overshadowed by its sequel: first we are still under the influence of Cold War thinking – who is “we” here? – and second ‘people have been unable to conceive that a novel first published during Stalin’s last years, when his dictatorship was at its most rigid, might deserve our attention’.[6] Chandler is, of course, speaking for himself here. I read For a Just Cause for the first time over thirty years ago during the Cold War and it was obvious that here, despite what Shimon Markish and others said that this was no ordinary novel of the Stalin period. Neither, incidentally, was Viktor Nekrasov’s Vokopakh Stalingrada (In the Trenches of Stalingrad, 1946), and Grossman’s play Esli verit’ Pifagoreitsam (If You Believe the Pythagoreans, 1946) which confirmed that both were members of the awkward squad. Further, the number of people in the West who had actually read For a Just Cause could probably be counted on one hand so the claim that ‘people have been unable to conceive that a novel first published during Stalin’s last years, when his dictatorship was at its most rigid, might deserve our attention’ is misleading. The number of people involved would have been miniscule and since there was no English translation the atmosphere of the Cold War could have no played a role in dismissing the novel.

The novel was translated into German (Für die gerechte Sache) and it would be interesting to ascertain whether the communist censors permitted the Russian original to be translated based on the Russian publication(s) or whether they insisted on additional changes to suit the requirements of the East German regime.  It would also be instructive to compare any German translation published in the Federal Republic with one published in the DDR. Likewise, was Za pravoe delo translated from Russian into Bulgarian, Polish and Czech without interference on the part of their respective censors or were changes made so as to accommodate the specific concerns of the communist leadership in these states? These questions are not mere speculation. The fact that information and uncensored novels were available in one part of the former Soviet imperium was no guarantee that it was available in all the other parts, and in the same condition.

Salient here is whether after so long it is appropriate to change the published Soviet title, For a Just Cause to Stalingrad. For a Just Cause has been in use since 1952 – 68 years – and given the changes made to the manuscript before and after publication and the fact that what is offered in Stalingrad does not end up being a radically transformed novel, bearing little resemblance to For a Just Cause, there is no obvious reason, apart perhaps from marketing – Stalingrad is more attention grabbing – why the original title should not be retained. Where there are differences in versions that are serious but do not amount to more than, say, 25% of the original text, they can be highlighted and examined in footnotes. Since this is not the case, there was, again, no good reason to change the title. It should be noted that Viktor Nekrasov’s novel on Stalingrad, to which reference has already been made, was first published under the title of Stalingrad. Various critics then objected to the title because the focus was very much on the trenches. When published as a book, the title was changed to In the Trenches of Stalingrad and helped, in part, to inspire what Soviet critics later castigated as Remarquism.

Although For a Just Cause was not the original title favoured by Grossman it is not quite as innocent as it might sound. To begin with, there is the wording “a just cause”. This is an allusion to Molotov’s radio address delivered at 1210 hrs on Sunday 22nd June 1941, the day when Molotov and Stalin finally realised that they had been completely outwitted by Hitler. Molotov concludes with the words: “Наше дело правое. Враг будет разбит.  Победа будетза нами”. (“Our cause is a just one. The enemy will be defeated.  Victory will be ours”).

The allusion to Molotov raises the obvious question why Stalin, as vozhd’ (boss), failed to deliver this radio address at such a critical moment and why he delegated the task to his Foreign Minister. One reason was that Molotov’s name was firmly associated with the Non-Aggression Pact and the German foreign minister, von Ribbentrop. Now the Pact was a worthless scrap of paper, so the failure of diplomacy could be shown to be Molotov’s, not Stalin’s. Stalin also applied this deflection-of-guilt approach to General Dmitrii Pavlov, the commander of the Western Special Military District and Western Front who was held responsible for the rapid German advance, arrested in the first week of July 1941 and shot along with other senior officers.  If things got nasty in the Kremlin, Stalin could cast Molotov as the scapegoat, have him shot and save himself. It should also be noted that Stalin made his first radio address on the matter of the invasion only as late as 3rd July 1941, 11 days later, which amounts to clear dereliction of duty in the face of the enemy.  Bear in mind that this was the same leader who had no hesitation in issuing orders, such as №s 270 and 227 (more on which below) providing for the summary execution of thousands of Red Army soldiers on the flimsiest of pretexts.

A second consideration arising from the use of the wording “a just cause” is that it pertains directly to Grossman whose self-imposed mission, his sacred and just cause, was to pay tribute to the fallen and their sacrifice. Grossman, in attempting to discharge this duty, was treated cruelly and unjustly by the members of the editorial board, who, envious of his intellectual independence and fearlessness, took every opportunity to mutilate his manuscript under the pretext of making editorial “suggestions”. When he submitted the manuscript with the original title of Stalingrad, Grossman could not have foreseen the way he would be treated even allowing for the hostility now being directed at Jews. A third consideration arising from the title, For a Just Cause, invites consideration of the matter whether “our cause is a just one” [Molotov]. To whom or to what does “our” pertain? The interests and cause of Stalin and his gangster regime or the altogether different cause and interests of millions of Soviet people fighting for survival, including the Red Army, who, had Stalin not been incompetent and cowardly, might well have been able to prevent or to mitigate the worst effects of the invasion? This question is also implicit in the title of Grossman’s first major wartime publication, Narod bessmerten (The People are Immortal, 1942): the title is an allusion to Tacitus (‘Rulers die; the country lives forever’).  Given that so much of For a Just Cause invites the reader to consider parallels between Hitler’s Germany and the Stalin state, the final title, for these reasons, is Grossman’s revenge and is another factor favouring its retention.

Chandler himself acknowledges that his translation (Stalingrad) ‘is by no means definitive’ [7] in which case the title cannot also be definitive. Moreover, Anatolii Bocharov has pointed out that given the intense ideological pressure to which Grossman was subjected before and after the publication of For a Just Cause in 1952, it is difficult to know which of the dozen variants Grossman himself would have regarded as the final and definitive version.[8] Chandler maintains that the best solution is to follow the 1956 edition of the novel since Grossman was able to reinstate a number of passages that had been omitted in 1952 and 1954 and he made only very small changes when the novel was reissued in 1959 and 1964. Up until now all Russian publications have been based on the 1956 edition. Given that the 1956 edition may be regarded as more or less definitive there is no obvious reason why For a Just Cause cannot remain as the definitive title, since as far as one can tell there is no evidence subsequent to the publication of the journal version in 1952 that Grossman tried to get the novel published under the title he had originally favoured.

Chandler claims that by relying solely on the 1956 edition a great deal of Grossman’s writing from the typescript would be omitted. These passages may well be some of Grossman’s finest but would it, as Chandler claims, be ‘unforgivable’[9] to still leave them out? One way forward would have been to include the omitted passages in bold or some other font type so indicating that they had been omitted. This has the clear advantage of showing what was censored and when, so indicating the changing priorities of the Soviet literary censorship as the ideological climate changed from high Stalinism to the relatively more moderate conditions obtaining after Khrushchev’s partial denunciation of Stalin in 1956.

The other option would have been to include the omitted passages in endnotes or an appendix with full Russian archival references, something which is currently missing: where, for example, is the Russian-language text of the supplements that Chandler has used in the Stalingrad publication? Another advantage to highlighting omitted text or including it in notes or an appendix is that the translators would not succumb to the temptation to second-guess what Grossman would or would not have restored after serialization of the novel in 1952. Text included in this way still makes it possible for readers to read what was earlier omitted  – and enjoy it – but without the assumption that Grossman would have done what the translators have done, had he, Grossman, had the chance.

II.  The Totalitarian State in For a Just Cause (1952-1989) and Stalingrad (2019)

Along with Boris Pasternak’s  Doktor Zhivago (1957), Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s First Circle(1968) and Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975-1976), Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (1987) and the later Everything Flows (1970), Life and Fate is one of the key Russian novels of the twentieth century exploring the essence of the Soviet totalitarian state. Among their obvious Western counterparts would be Ayn Rand’s We, the Living (1936), Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949). Life and Fate and Everything Flows also enhance and illuminate the more formal work of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, Ernst Nolte, Czesław Miłosz, Martin Malia, Richard Pipes, Robert Conquest, and Harry Wu. Grossman’s ideas on the nature of the Soviet state which tacitly and explicitly permeate Life and Fate are the consummation of an intellectual and moral assessment the origins of which predate Life and Fate itself. The theme of the totalitarian state links For a Just Cause, in all its versions, with Life and Fate and Everything Flows, and the chapters and paragraphs added to versions of For a Just Cause after 1952 and material included in Stalingrad reveal an increasing preoccupation on Grossman’s part with the structure and function of the totalitarian state and its impact on the lives of German and Soviet citizens living under such conditions.

Life and Fate and Everything Flows remain Grossman’s foremost examinations of totalitarianism but in For a Just Cause, Grossman successfully captures and deduces many of the key features of the totalitarian state that were first set out in Hannah Arendt’s pioneering study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). Apart from the Soviet agitprop label of ‘fascist’ that was routinely applied to National-Socialist Germany from the early 1930s, Germany was also classified as an ‘imperialist’ state along with Britain and France. Grossman adheres to this conventional ideological labelling in the journal version of For a Just Cause but in the novel publications Germany is additionally classified as a ‘totalitarian’ state.[10] Soviet readers would have been familiar with the use of ‘imperialist’ to classify Western states, but Grossman’s use of ‘totalitarian’ (totalitarnyi) introduces Soviet readers to a new word, a new political classification, one that is potentially threatening since it provides a new frame of reference and a starting point for comparing totalitarian National-Socialist Germany with the Soviet state.

The journal version of For a Just Cause begins with Vavilov’s departure for war (Vavilov is one of Grossman’s soldier heroes). In the subsequent novel versions, the introductory Vavilov chapters are displaced and the novel now begins with a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini in April 1942.

Hitler and Mussolini, at an earlier meeting in August 1941

This summit provides Grossman with the opportunity to summarise Hitler’s success so far. German forces, having withstood the terrible winter of 1941/1942, are now on the threshold of launching another summer offensive. The two new introductory chapters represent Germany and its occupied territories as a combination of the old and modern: ‘In the New Order established by Hitler in the Europe which had been overrun by him, all the forms, different aspects and all the means of violence which had arisen in the course of the  millennial history of the dominion by the few over the many were renewed’.[11] The question that arises here is in what way does the New German Order being imposed throughout continental Europe and expanding to the east fundamentally differ from the policies and practice of the Soviet regime. A Soviet readership in 1954 would not be familiar with all the ways in which the Soviet state anticipated the infrastructure and methods later adopted by National-Socialist Germany but as the Soviet infosphere was increasingly penetrated by Western media, primarily radio from the 1950s onwards, it would have become clearer that the perfection and use of the methods of violence was not exclusively confined to Hitler’s Germany, especially the dominion of the few over the many, which was the very basis of Lenin’s claim to rule over all aspects of Soviet life.

Again, when Grossman attributes ideas to Hitler such as – ‘The Aryan is mankind’s Prometheus’; ‘I have restored to violence its significance as the source of everything great and the mother of order’; ‘We have embarked on the path to ensure the eternal domination of the Aryan Prometheus over all human and earthly beings’[12] – one has to ask in what way these grandiose assertions differ from the Soviet propaganda of the role and future of the working class in Marxism-Leninism. Replace “Aryan” with “Proletariat” or the “New Soviet Man” and there is not much difference. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all revelled in and justified, extreme violence and terror on behalf of Soviet power. On a relatively minor point, what would Soviet readers who had lived through the Great Terror have made of a supplement in the novel in which Grossman notes that Mussolini and Ciano go for a walk in the garden, since ‘there was the danger that in the rooms of the Princes-Bishoprics castle hidden Siemens microphones had been installed by their friend and ally’.[13]

The more detailed analysis of National-Socialist Germany – note in passing that Grossman frequently succumbs to the Soviet propaganda deception “fascist” – which is presented in the post-1952 versions of For a Just Cause and Stalingrad serves two primary functions. To begin with, it is a serious attempt on Grossman’s part to understand the nature of the state that has inflicted so much misery and suffering: how and why did this state arise? What forces propelled it? Following on from that, Grossman’s description of, and commentary on, the nature of the NS-state compels the Soviet reader, and one would assume any Western reader, to consider the affinities of the two states. A potential objection to the assertion that Grossman’s depiction of the NS-state in For a Just Cause and Stalingrad is intended to offer a series of Aesopian parallels with the Stalin state is that one cannot conclude that this was Grossman’s intention: any parallels, it could be argued, are merely coincidental. Yet the strength and pervasiveness of the parallels and the fact that they were played down in the earlier versions of For a Just Cause only to re-emerge in greater force in Life and Fate and in one new instance in Stalingrad – in itself evidence of continuity – suggest, firstly, that any objection based on fortuitousness is implausible, secondly, that the editorial staff and censors themselves recognized the associations and took fright, and, thirdly, that Grossman was deliberately presenting these parallels in a way so that his readership would make the connections as well and so be able to reject or to accept them accordingly. The mere fact of having the opportunity to weigh up Grossman’s analysis would be an act of intellectual rebellion and freedom, a challenge to the cruelly mendacious claims of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.

In the journal version of For a Just Cause (1952), there are scattered hints and allusions to matters such as intellectual and technological progress especially from Chepyzhin, Grossman’s subversive coryphaeus of Soviet science, which are distinctly unorthodox in a Soviet context. Chepyzhin’s views on the advance of scientific knowledge – and how it progresses – offer no support for an orthodox Marxist-Leninist interpretation of  the End of History (upper case obligatory). The nature of scientific discovery is unpredictable and brings with it unpredictable consequences. Change, prompted by war and the pursuit of power, is a constant in human affairs and an implacable obstacle to any doctrine that envisages stasis and the end of conflict in some future, classless and irenical society.

Chepyzhin appears more orthodox when he summarises a long of list of “fascist” crimes: burned villages, death camps, mass executions of prisoners of war and civilians: ‘Who’, he asks, ‘has transformed Europe into one huge concentration camp, and who has driven hundreds of thousands of people into mobile gas killing vans?’[14] However, these indices of oppression and cruelty were not confined to the ‘fascists’. Stalin’s imperium was also ‘one huge concentration camp’. In the 1950s Grossman and his fictional character would not have known that mobile gas killing vans (dushegubki in Russian) were invented in the Lubianka in 1937 at the height of the Great Terror under the supervision of Isai Davidovich Berg, a middle-ranking NKVD official. Mobile gassing vans were developed because execution by shooting was taking too long and clogging up the execution conveyor belt. It was precisely the same factor that prompted Himmler’s killers to experiment with more efficient methods of mass killing, which were used in the Reinhard camps. As far as I am aware, the number of prisoners executed by the NKVD in this manner is not known. And if, according to Chepyzhin, the ‘fascists’ commit their worst crimes in secret, most obviously the Holocaust, the Soviet regime did not exactly publicise the Holodomor in Ukraine. Robert Conquest points out that any reference to the catastrophe led to five years in a labour camp and blaming Soviet power was punishable with a death sentence.[15] The same secrecy applied to the mass execution of Polish prisoners of war in 1940 (only formally and finally admitted in 1991) and the deportations of national minorities. It was only as late as 1990 that declassified documents revealed the NKVD’s pioneering role in mobile gassing. Hitherto, it had always been claimed to be yet another example of unique National-Socialist malevolence.

Grossman’s analysis of the National-Socialist and Soviet states reveals him to be a very astute observer of their respective officials, bureaucracies and ideological fanatics. Consider Abarchuk, Liudmila Shtrum’s first husband and father of her son, Tolia. In a chapter which was added to the novel editions of For a Just Cause (chapter 28, Part I), Abarchuk appears as one of the generation of party functionaries policing the universities to ensure that only those from socially correct origins prosper, excluding or vilifying those with any trace of “Tsarist privilege”, even though he himself is no son of the proletariat. In Stalingrad, the chapter is supplemented still further such that Abarchuk appears as being devoted to the Soviet regime and willing to carry out its bidding in all circumstances. He now resembles one of Dostoevsky’s devils: reason has been vanquished and ideological insanity has possessed his mind; he has lost his “self”.  He tells Liudmila that ‘if he had to choose between a sexual liaison with a bourgeois girl or a human-like monkey, he would not hesitate to choose the monkey’.[16] The full extent of Abarchuk’s fanaticism is revealed in another passage which was omitted from the novel editions of For a Just Cause but included in Stalingrad:

Bourgeois tendencies were, he believed, ineradicable; they were etched in someone’s blood cells and brain cells. If a working class girl married a man of bourgeois origin – even if he had tried to cleanse himself through factory work – their children would be carriers of bourgeois ideology. Even their children’s children would carry a dangerous contagion in the depths of their psyche. When asked what should be done with such people, he would reply sombrely, “First they must be isolated. Once they’ve been removed from social circulation, there’ll be time enough to decide.”[17]

This is an extraordinary passage: bourgeois tendencies are deemed to be innate and genetic in origin so that what Abarchuk and his masters believe to be, or present as, the prosecution of a class war against a class enemy is, in effect, a race war against a race enemy whose class-racial contamination is transmitted to his children. The solution to isolate the enemy socially pending a final decision immediately calls to mind the isolation and ghettoization of Jews in NS-Germany and part of German-occupied Europe prior to extermination. Grossman has constructed an explicit and truly damning parallel – just one of many – between the way the Soviet state exterminated class enemies and the Nazi Final Solution, which is the most likely reason why this passage was not included in any of the versions of For a Just Cause.

Abarchuk’s plans for people infected with ideologically incorrect ‘bourgeois tendencies’ and the deluded views of Krymov who repeats to himself the words from Lenin’s catechism that ‘the teachings of Marx were invincible because they were true’[18] are mutually self- supporting. Both believe in the firing squad as the foundation of the new Soviet Socialist (SS) order. Krymov also defends Abarchuk’s treatment of Shtrum, and one assumes of other students, and confronted with the fact of Abarchuk’s arrest as an enemy of the people tells Shtrum that ‘Our lives are subject to laws that are not simple’[19], dismissing Abarchuk’s treatment of Shtrum as being of no significance. These Soviet laws are not meant to be legal or legislative in any narrow sense of these words. They are deduced from dialectical materialism, the insights of Marx and Lenin and they function on a level way removed from the petty concerns of bourgeois justice. Stalin is their sole interpreter who divines the necessity of genocide in Ukraine and the arrest of the likes of Abarchuk as an enemy of the people. Krymov’s acceptance of Stalin’s diabolical mysticism returns to haunt him in Life and Fate when the same arbitrary, mysterious forces of state terror catch up with him and strike him down.

As an old Bolshevik, Mostovskoi (and Krymov) has contributed to the creation of a world now ablaze from ideological rivalries and hatreds. Nor is Levinton and the Shaposhnikov clan innocent of any wrongdoing. They worked to bring about the events of 1917; they have benefited from the social and economic upheavals and it is only when the regime starts to turn against them and their circle that they begin to reflect on the nature of the monstrous edifice they have helped to create. Levinton quite rightly taunts Mostovskoi that the New Age has not delivered ‘humanitas’, ‘the brotherhood of man’ and ‘prosperity’:

Well that’s the twentieth century for you and human culture. This is unprecedented savagery. There’s the Hague Convention on the humane methods of waging war, about protecting the civilian population for you. It’s all gone to hell […] Comrade Mostovskoi, you just look at these ruins. What possible faith can there be in the future there. There’s technological progress, but ethics, morality, humanity, no progress at all. This is some kind of Stone Age. Fascism (sic) has given rise to primeval atrocities; it’s a leap back into the past by fifty thousand years.[20]

It might, however, be fruitful for Levinton to take into account that the “fascists”  whom she holds responsible are not entirely to blame for this state of affairs. Lenin, the founder of totalitarianism, and his successor, not Hitler, set the standard for, and magnitude of, the violence, terror and genocide in pursuit of ideological goals which ravaged the twentieth century.

Detailed and lengthy passages in For a Just Cause and Stalingrad depict life in Hitler’s Germany and the New Order, forcefully prompting the reader at the very least to consider whether conditions in Germany and the states under its control as described by Grossman have any relevance for a Soviet reader. In the journal version of For a Just Cause, one of Shtrum’s scientific colleagues, Maksimov, having just returned from a professional visit to Czechoslovakia and Austria, conveys his impressions of life under German occupation:

You can’t talk about this you have to see it. People are frightened of their own shadow. Colleagues at work, the professors are frightened of the students. Everything – the functioning of one’s brain, state of mind, one’s spiritual life, ties with family and friends – are all under fascist supervision. My colleague – we studied together one time – […] implored me not to ask him anything at all. The mere possibility that I might refer to his account and that the Gestapo might figure out who it was, even if I mentioned neither his surname, city of residence nor his university terrified him. Science is dominated by fascism. Its theories are terrible and tomorrow they will be put into practice. Indeed, they have already become practice. There, already, you know they are seriously discussing eugenics and sterilizations. One doctor told me about the murders of the insane and those with tuberculosis. This amounts to the complete darkening of the spirit and mind. Words such as “freedom”, “conscience” and “”compassion” are persecuted, they are forbidden for use with children, or to be written in private correspondence.[21]

The same passage is used in the 1959 novel edition of For a Just Cause (chapter 36, part I). In Stalingrad (chapter 36, part I), however, there are supplements which, I suggest, remove all doubt about the state Grossman has in mind:

Scientific thought is in fetters […] “Don’t ask me anything at all,” he said. “It’s not only my colleagues I’m afraid of. I’m afraid of my own voice. I’m afraid of my own thoughts” […] You can learn more from simple people – from chambermaids and porters, from drivers and footmen. They think they’re anonymous and so they have less to fear from talking to a foreigner. But intellectuals and scientists have lost all capacity for freedom of thought – they’ve lost the right to call themselves human beings.[22]

Apart from the glaring symmetry of the two regimes, there are additional aspects to Maksimov’s visit to German-controlled territory worth noting. Though not inconceivable that a lone Soviet scientist would undertake such a trip, it would be highly unusual and far more likely that Maksimov would have been part of a delegation so that delegation members could maintain mutual surveillance over one another. A lone Soviet scientist who spent any time on territory controlled by the Germans, depending on his value to the state, would always be vulnerable to accusations of treachery and being part of some anti-Soviet Trotskyite conspiracy. The manner and setting in which Maksimov delivers his report to Shtrum and other scientists may well be a true picture of what he has observed but the rage and loss of temper appear affected  – methinks he protests too much – and are designed to impress not so much his immediate interlocutors, one of whom in any case may well be an NKVD informer, but to communicate indirectly to any Soviet agency that might just be interested, relying on their excellent Siemens microphones, that his being outraged by the monstrous policies of “fascism” was evidence that he was a loyal Soviet citizen.

The second aspect lies in its timing. Clues provided by Grossman in Stalingrad suggest that it is in the week leading up to Sunday, 22nd June 1941. Before we are given details of the Maksimov visit Grossman refers to the international situation – speeches by Churchill and Roosevelt and the ‘the laconic statements or denials of Tass (sic) the main Soviet news agency’.[23] The ‘laconic statements or denials of Tass’ is almost certainly an allusion to the infamous TASS communiqué issued on 13th June 1941 the text of which was published in the all-union press the following day in which any rumours of a rift or imminent conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union were vehemently denied. How, Grossman asks, could Stalin and his intelligence agencies have been so comprehensively outwitted and deceived?  Why, a mere week before the start of the German invasion, were there no clues to German intentions? Were they missed? And so on.

The third point to be made is that at the very time when Maksimov is railing against the apparently unique and odious nature of “fascism”, National-Socialist Germany and the Soviet state were still fraternally bound together by the Non-Aggression Pact and their trade agreements. Furthermore, the German and Soviet terror agencies were collaborating with one another in their campaigns to eradicate all vestiges of Polish nationhood forever. By mid- June 1941, for example, the NKVD had carried out the mass execution of Polish prisoners of war, now generally known as the Katyn massacre (spring 1940) and deported approximately 320,000 – 400,000 Poles in four waves. In view of Maksimov’s account of “fascist” control in Czechoslovakia and Austria and the still functioning Non-Aggression Pact Grossman’s use of ‘fascism’, apparently to characterize exclusively German policies, may not be erroneous but may be intended to serve as an overarching term to conflate Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet state, a new hideous mutation.

Forensic examination of victims of the Katyn Massacre

This Nazi-Soviet affinity is hinted at in a later chapter, found in all versions of For a Just Cause, in which Grossman cites the name of David Low, referring to his satirical cartoons. Low did indeed satirize Hitler but Stalin was also a prime target, derided in a cartoon on the Munich crisis (“What, no chair for me?”, 30th September 1938).  Along with Hitler, Stalin took centre stage in Low’s most famous and hard-hitting cartoon which was published in the London Evening Standard on 20th September 1939, three days after the Red Army had invaded Poland from the east. Entitled “Rendezvous”, the cartoon depicts Hitler and Stalin greeting one another over the corpse of Poland. Stalin refers to Hitler as the “bloody assassin of the workers” and Hitler returns the greeting with “the scum of the earth”. The Hitler-Stalin alliance was the subject of another Low cartoon published on 22nd December 1939 under the title “Exchange of Christmas Parcels”.  Some of Low’s specifically anti-Hitler cartoons may well have been republished in Pravda and Krasnaia zvezda but if Grossman had ever seen the famous “Rendezvous” cartoon, or heard about it, his reference to Low’s work was undeniably subversive.

Maksimov’s observations on the nature of the Third Reich, and allegorically of the Soviet state, are more or less replicated by German insiders. When colonel Forster, a German liaison officer, meets Hitler he concludes that notions of good and evil no longer have any meaning for the Führer. There can be ‘no mercy, no pangs of conscience’[24], a point fully grasped by Lenin and Stalin. In order to build “socialism in one country”, Stalin could not possibly be constrained by considerations of “mercy” and “conscience”. He, too, had to jettison outdated notions, to move beyond good and evil,  in order to execute History’s mandate bequeathed to him by Lenin.

Peter Bach, a junior German officer, believing Germany to be on the point of victory, can write in his diary (italicized text was not included in the journal version (1952)):

The categories of good and evil are capable of being mutually reconstructed: they are forms of a single essence; they are not in opposition to one another. They are conventional signs, placed naively in opposition to one another. Today’s crime is the foundation of tomorrow’s virtue. The national drive swallows and in itself incorporates good and evil, freedom and slavery, morality and amorality in a united, Pan-German movement. Perhaps, today, in Stalingrad this mission has found its final and simple solution.[25]

‘Today’s crime is the foundation of tomorrow’s virtue’ is reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s ravings in Crime and Punishment (1866) and is the reasoning used by Lenin and Stalin to justify the extermination of the class enemy, and the essence of the argument deployed by Liss against Mostovskoi in Life and Fate. When Bach writes of a ‘final and simple solution’, he alludes to the mass extermination of all Jews, the Final Solution, die Endlösung. Bach’s name is cleverly chosen by Grossman: what are the forces that have caused Germany to regress from Johann Sebastian Bach to Adolf Hitler? Implicit in this question is, however, an assumption that love of great art, music and literature are in some way inconsistent with terror, totalitarianism and extermination camps or just plain cruelty. The personal tastes of Lenin and Hitler show that this is a false and comforting assumption. And this is nothing new: high culture and killing people are not incompatible. The Meso-Americans created magnificent cities and developed complex calendars but nevertheless tore out the hearts of living humans, including children, and before them, as Victor Hanson has pointed out, the Athenians could enjoy a play by Euripides and then happily vote to kill all the male citizens of Scione.[26]

In a chapter added to the novel editions Grossman describes Hitler’s consolidation of power thus:

He suppressed the revolutionary forces of the German working class, settled scores with the democratic intelligentsia. He silenced all dissenters [inakomysliashchieFE], transforming Germany into an intellectual desert zone, one of deathly silence.

He deceived many of those who opposed him. They took his hysteria for sincerity, his religion of hatred as love of Germany, his lies for truth, the powerful appeal of his biologically-based logic as genius, his rapacious dictatorship for freedom.[27]

In Stalingrad, this passage differs slightly from the one in the 1959 edition of For a Just Cause – ‘of deathly silence’ and ‘his lies for truth’ are missing[28] – and the significance of the Russian word inakomysliashchie is lost when translated as ‘dissent’. While the Russian words inakomyslie and inakomysliashchii can be translated, respectively, as ‘dissent’ and ‘dissenter’, these translations fail fully to convey the religious, philosophical – and in the Soviet era – the ideological associations of the words. In using inakomysliashchii, as opposed to, say criticism (kritika) or critic (kritik) Grossman unites the historical, pre-Soviet use of these words – their association, for example, with campaigns to uncover and to persecute religious heretics – to bear on Hitler’s (read Lenin and Stalin as well) eradication of political opposition. In such a way, Grossman creates continuity in the persecution of heretics in the revolutionary transition from Tsarist Russia to the Soviet state which allegedly came to an abrupt end in 1917.

Grossman’s use of Russian words, rooted in a specific Russian historical-cultural context, inakomysliashchii, for example, to convey an association between Hitler’s Germany and the Lenin-Stalin state, surfaces in Bach’s fears: he worries whether after the war he will be relegated to the ranks of the ‘former people’ (byvshie liudi).[29] The wording ‘former people’ alludes to the title of a short story by Maksim Gorky, Byvshie liudi (Former People), which was published in 1897, and identified a privileged class whose time was past: they are superfluous, and, in that sense, Gorky’s use of byvshie liudi (former people) or byvshii chelovek (former person) has an obvious affinity with the so-called lishnii chelovek (the superfluous man), a staple figure in much nineteenth-century Russian literature who has no outlet for his talents.

More recently, Douglas Smith’s Former People: The Destruction of the Russian Aristocracy (2012) deals with the same themes of loss and dispossession. In the new Soviet state, ‘former people’ applied to those who had served in the Tsarist bureaucracy or Army, who had owned factories and were now dispossessed. The term also applied to the children of ‘former people’, those being persecuted by Abarchuk in the universities. No obvious and identical use of language in the NS state applied to former officers of the Kaiser’s army or bureaucracy and this is why Grossman’s use of the Soviet wording ‘former people’ in the context of life in NS-Germany is significant since although used in a German context in For a Just Cause, Soviet readers would have been familiar with the term and would have made the parallel with the Soviet state. In any case, the wording appears earlier in For a Just Cause: when Shaposhnikovs and guests seem mesmerised by the German advance, Spiridonov comments that the ‘former people’ are looking forward to the arrival of the Germans.[30] Grossman also hints that Abarchuk’s bourgeois origins may have led to his own arrest. During the first five-year plan Liudmila learns that ‘her former [byvshii] husband has been arrested as an enemy of the people’.[31] In this context, ‘former’ is an obvious pun, referring to Abarchuk’s divorced status and his status as a ‘former person’.

Whereas in Gorky’s story ‘former people’ referred to those who would no longer play the decisive role in Russia’s future, such wording acquires a far more sinister significance when used by the Soviet terror apparatus. ‘Former people’ were, for example, recognized by the NKVD as a specific category of ‘enemies of the people’, and in 1935-1936 the NKVD mounted Operation Former People in which, among others, Russian nobles and former Tsarist officers were arrested and deported. Once a class enemy, forever a class enemy or as the North Vietnamese communists would say of those from dubious class backgrounds who tried to ingratiate themselves with the cadres: ‘No matter how hard you try to shed your horns, you will always remain a water buffalo’.[32]

A ‘former person’ is no longer considered to be a person either because he has been ideologically relegated to the ranks of sub-humans, the living dead, pending physical extermination by shooting, or because he is being worked to death in some forced-labour camp, or because he has already ceased to exist, having been shot in some cellar and his body cast into an unmarked pit or gassed to death in one of Berg’s vans. When the Soviet terror apparatus characterises whole strata as ‘former people’ – they are no longer Soviet citizens – it provides itself with grounds for killing them: if you are already numbered among the living dead, you are essentially dead and so the final act of killing merely serves to confirm that the victim has always been a ‘former person’ – dead that is – from the moment he was designated as such.

‘Former people’, ‘kulak’, ‘rightist’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ were all designations that dehumanised and demonised those identified by the Soviet regime as enemies, preparing the way for them to be exterminated or worked to death at the discretion of the NKVD.  Gorky may not be responsible for the way in which the NKVD sovietized and applied his language but he played his role in sanitizing the Soviet regime. In Everything Flows, Grossman criticises him for having written the propaganda tract, The History of Mills and Factories. Furthermore, against the background of NKVD terror, mass arrests, forced labour and genocide, Gorky’s well known line – “Man, that’s a word that evokes pride!” – is an obscene deception, no different in essence from the sign bearing the words Arbeit macht frei that taunted arrivals in Auschwitz. Grossman satirizes Gorky’s line in Everything Flows, so confirming his break with the writer to whom he turned for assistance at the start of his career.

III.  The Holodomor and Holocaust in For a Just Cause/Stalingrad


In the surge of ideological and physical oppression that obtained after 1945, various hints and allusions to the fate of Jews were all that was available to Grossman. As for the Soviet-perpetrated genocide in Ukraine, the Holodomor, resulting in six million dead, that preceded the Holocaust by a decade, Grossman had to proceed with extreme caution, if only because the official Soviet position – the same applied to Katyn – was one of complete denial: there was no party-executed genocide-by-starvation and six million Ukrainians did not perish. In Life and Fate there are various plot lines that are based on the Ukrainian genocide and it features in the testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh. In Everything Flows, Grossman casts all caution aside confirming not just the fact of genocide, but the nature of the mass extermination of the Ukrainian peasants carried out on Stalin’s orders by his willing executioners.

Yet for all the ideological barriers and the physical dangers, Grossman manages to insert a fragmented picture of life on the kolkhoz (collective farm) in For a Just Cause and Stalingrad which is far from consistent with Soviet portrayals of rural harmony and plenty. There is no sense at all that the peasants under the benevolent gaze of party officials have built a better life. Vavilov might utter the occasional politically-correct comment but his life is one of hard, unremitting labour for little reward, exploitation by corrupt officials, accompanied by food and material shortages. Alongside the material deprivation there is also a spiritual emptiness, a sense of loss, that no amount of agitprop and Stakhanovite quota-smashing can overcome. This becomes evident when one compares a passage describing Vavilov’s life in his village in the journal edition with what was published in the later novel editions (italicised text was omitted from the journal version):

And he involuntarily glanced at the hill outside the village, overgrown with elder and mountain ash where the few crosses which had sunk into the ground were visible. He was suddenly aware of overwhelming guilt both before his children and before his deceased mother: now there would be no time to right the cross on her grave..’[33]

This sense of guilt does not sit at all easily with the collective farm worker who apparently celebrates the collective farms. In 1942, when he is conscripted, Vavilov is 45 years old.  He has, therefore, survived the mass dispossessions and the genocide (1929-1933), avoided deportation and was old enough to have known and grasped the nature of the calamity. So, what role did Vavilov play in collectivization and the party’s war against the rural culture, its religion and folkways? On a personal level this guilt touches on three themes which resonate throughout Grossman’s writing: maternal love, the transience and fragility of human existence and dispossession. Vavilov’s pondering those neglected crosses and the passing of an old way of life anticipates an episode in Everything Flows when Ivan, as a little boy, dreams about the dispossession of the Circassians by the Russians in the nineteenth century. All that remains of this culture and its people are ‘buckled plum trees, pears, cherry trees, which returned to the forest, but there were no peaches or apricots – their short time had passed’ […] ‘and in the scattered graveyards, darkened coffin plates could be seen, half of their length sunk into the ground’.[34]

Nothing is forever – everything flows – and in three monstrous years of genocidal terror Stalin’s killers – “dizzy with success” – exterminated millions and wiped out a way of life in order to expedite the Final Solution of the Peasant Question. The neglected crosses on the hill – why has Vavilov allowed his mother’s grave to fall into neglect? – are like the scene of a crime, witnesses to what happened. To right the cross and clear the trees is to clear away the debris: to confront the past. This is the nature of the guilt that tears at Vavilov’s wounded soul when he confronts this Soviet Golgotha.

Food “requisition”, Novo Krasne, Odessa, 1932

Other aspects to these introductory Vavilov chapters expose Soviet agitprop about the joys of life on the collective farm as mendacious and emphasize widespread and deep-rooted corruption and incompetence. Of the collective farm chairman Grossman notes: ‘He held the view that the main thing in life was not work but the ability to deal with people: he said one thing and did another’,[35]  (an allusion to the fickle editorial board of Novyi mir perhaps). In Grossman’s portrait of the collective farm chairman, details which were not included in the journal version, we see a type that is ubiquitous in For a Just Cause, and one that clearly anticipates Osipov, Neudobnov and Getmanov in Life and Fate.

In the novel editions, an older collective farm worker with memories of Tsarist Russia, recalls that ‘during Tsarist times there was famine [golod] and it occurs now’, and then expresses outright hostility to the collective farms: ‘but in general everything would be fine, were it not for the collective farms’.[36] The significant point here is not so much the hostility to the collective farms, which could be explained away by the fact that the worker was embittered (justifiably?) but his reference to famine. Famines most certainly did occur in Tsarist times but Tsarist officials and landowners did not use famine as a weapon, and every effort was made to bring relief to the peasantry, whereas in the early 1930s grain was seized by the state and food denied the peasantry in order to exterminate resistance to Soviet power.

Grossman intensifies this comparison of the Tsarist and Soviet periods with the glaring contradiction between the assertion that famine is also a facet of Soviet life (caused by the state and its imposition of collectivization), and the claim that life would be fine were it not for the collective farms. In other words, were there no collective farms there would have been no Soviet­-orchestrated famines. This dissonance is lost in Chandler’s translation since the peasant’s comments on the collective farms are not included and the Russian word golodis translated not as famine but as ‘hunger’.[37] Clearly, hunger is a feature of a famine but hunger can exist without famine. In Life and Fate, in a clear reference to the Holodomor, Grossman distinguishes between shortages of food and hunger (beskormitsa) and famine (golod). In the Soviet context golod  (Russian) and holod (Ukrainian) was man-made and deliberate, yet even translating golod as famine does not do justice to what occurred, which is why the genocide is referred to in Ukrainian as the Holodomor. The addition of mor (slaughter or wholesale death) indicates that this was the work of human agency not something caused by drought, crop diseases or a plague of locusts.

An unusual incident involving a vagrant also suggests that things are not quite what they are supposed to be on the Soviet collective farm. Vavilov is taken away by the police, by men ‘in yellow leather coats’, and forced to explain why he allowed some stranger to sleep in his shed. The fact that the police go directly to the shed to apprehend this vagrant implies the presence of an informer, a cuckoo, in this bucolic collective-farm nest. This incident was added to the novel and its implications would not have been lost on people who had lived through the 1930s.

The retreat towards Stalingrad in the late summer of 1942 takes the Red Army through areas devastated by collectivization and the Holodomor, affording Grossman an opportunity to allude to the consequences. Local hospitality is generous, food and drink aplenty, but cannot gloss over the resentment towards Krymov, the retreating representative of Soviet power, addressed mockingly as ‘comrade nachal’nik’ (chief). If Krymov had believed the party’s justification for collectivization and accepted that it was largely welcomed, he now learns first-hand what happened to the peasants:

In 1930 the people hereabouts drank solid for two weeks and slaughtered all the pigs. A pair of wealthy peasants went out of their mind. One of the old men – the first owner, kept back eight horses, and four casual labourers worked for him in the winter and summer – drank two litres of spirit, went off into the steppe, lay down in the snow and fell asleep. His body was found in the morning, with the burst bottle beside him, there was spirit in the bottle. The frost was so severe that even the spirit froze.[38]

In For a Just Cause, Grossman also manages to insert a reference to the deportation of kulaks. Was Krymov aware of this, accepting that it was necessary, or  had he decided not to know about it? By the ideological criteria of the party the old peasant that taunts Krymov and Semenov, ramming home the facts of collectivization may well be an ‘an accursed kulak’[39], as Semenov calls him, which will satisfy the Soviet censors, but that says nothing about the nature of the disaster that was inflicted because of Stalin’s policies.  In the context of these policies the truth is undoubtedly ‘counter-revolutionary’, an ‘enemy of the people’.

Whereas in Life and Fate Krymov falls prey to the forces he has served, Semenov is last seen in For a Just Cause when captured by the Germans along with Mostovskoi and Levinton when they blunder into a German patrol at Stalingrad. He reappears in Life and Fate, sharing the fate of millions of other Red Army prisoners in German captivity (the Höllenqual/the torments or agony of hell). Transported to the Ukraine and eventually left to die by the Germans, Semenov is saved by a remarkable Ukrainian woman, Christia Chuniak, the widow of an ‘accursed kulak’ who perished in the Holodomor. In her care, he recovers from his extreme ordeal by hunger and learns of the true nature of collectivization, so having his mind finally purged of party lies.

The actions of Christa Chuniak – she is based on a person of the same name referred to in Grossman’s wartime diaries – are the practical expression of the testament of Ikonnikov-Morzh with its author’s emphasis on spontaneous and unsolicited goodness and complete rejection of all forms of wholesale social engineering. There are other examples in both For a Just Cause and in Life and Fate, so binding the two novels on this all-important theme in Grossman’s work. The scene in For a Just Cause where the Ukrainian boy, Grisha Serpokryl, traumatised by the loss of his parents, and apparently struck dumb, finds his voice in response to warm words from Klara Sokolova, the cleaning woman, could be one from the Gospels: ‘My little child, no one pities thee, no one needs thee’[40] The same spontaneous warmth, features in sister Terent’eva’s last words to Tolia, who succumbs to his wounds in Life and Fate: ‘Dear little one, thou, our little flower, whither hast thou departed from us?’[41] The women utter their words after kneeling in an expression of profound piety. These are not the words and gestures of women corrupted by Soviet atheism: this is old Russia, Mother Russia, abused and slandered, but offering succour to her sons in their time of dire peril. Loyalty to those one loves even after they have been arrested is also a manifestation of goodness. In For a Just Cause, Alexandra Shaposhnikova visits her son in a labour camp – now declared an ‘enemy of the people’ – a defiant and dignified assertion of maternal love, and in Life and Fate, Major Ershov, at great personal risk, refuses to renounce his family, deported as dispossessed kulaks in 1930, visiting them in the forced-labour settlement.


The successive campaigns of covert and overt anti-Semitism which ensued after 1945, signalled, among other things, by the suppression of The Black Book, the murder of prominent Jewish intellectuals, and culminating in the so-called Doctor’s plot (delo vrachei) immediately before Stalin’s death in 1953, imposed severe restrictions on Grossman’s ability to examine the Holocaust in For a Just Cause. Material published in Stalingrad shows that Grossman nevertheless exploited various ruses to draw attention to the fate of Jews in the German-occupied territories. Note, for example, the following passage taken from For a Just Cause (1952), which refers to a letter Shtrum received from his mother:

In March of 1941 she described the spring in one of her letters: it had become unusually warm for the time of year. The storks had arrived, many of them had always lived in these parts. On the day of their arrival there was a marked deterioration in the weather and, almost as if they sensed the onset of something malevolent, they huddled up together for the night in the park on the edge of the town. In the night there was a snowstorm and the storks perished in large numbers. Many of them, half-dead and overcome with panic, staggered onto the highway. The birds lay there numb with cold. His mother’s letter was strange, full of alarm.[42]

Now consider the supplemented extract in Stalingrad:

The storks arrived – there have always been a lot of them round here. But the day they came, the weather changed for the worse. In the evening, as if sensing the approach of misfortune, the storks all huddled together in a bog on the outskirts of the town, not far from the tannery. And then, that night, there was a terrible snowstorm. Dozens of the storks perished. Many staggered out onto the highway, dazed and half-dead, as if seeking help from mankind. Some were run over by trucks. The local boys beat others to death in the morning, perhaps for fun, perhaps wanting to put an end to their misery. The milk woman said there were frozen birds  all along the road, their beaks half-open and their eyes glazed over.[43]

Grossman intends, I conclude, that this passage be interpreted allegorically, as the fate awaiting Berdichev’s Jews. The reference to the tannery is significant since this is where the German persecutors tortured Jews, making them jump into pits full of toxic tanning waste, an incident referred to by Grossman in his essay, Ubiistvo evreev v Berdicheve (The Murder of the Jews in Berdichev).[44] Storks concentrating together for security in the face of danger depicts the natural reaction of threatened animals and people. For the storks it is a bog on the outskirts of the town, away from their normal breeding sites; for the hapless Jews of Berdichev it is the forced and squalid spatial concentration in Iatki, described by Grossman as ‘the  most run-down part of the town, along unpaved streets, with its permanent pools of water’, ‘old hovels’ ‘where the yards were overgrown with weeds, refuse, piles of junk and manure’.[45] This is the physical and symbolic ostracism of Berdichev’s Jews, confirming that they have never been accepted, and have always been regarded as perennial outsiders. The image of local boys beating exhausted and freezing storks to death evokes the participation of the local population in the plundering and beating to death of Jews who were unable to drag themselves to the execution pits.

It may be unrelated and coincidental but in 1948, Solomon Mikhoels, perhaps the leading Jewish cultural figure in the Soviet Union, was clubbed to death by members of State Security. His body was then left on a street in Minsk. The official explanation was that he had been run over by a lorry. After Stalin’s death, Sergei Ogol’tsov, the senior NKGB-MGB official who oversaw the murder, was investigated on the charge of having organised Mikhoels’s murder but the charges were dropped and he was released on the orders of the Central Committee of the CPSU.

Earlier in Stalingrad, Grossman resorted to the simile of a clubbed bird to describe Vera’s first encounter with the wounded pilot, Viktorov. His ‘long thin neck’ and ‘touching look in his eyes’ remind her of a turkey that she had seen clubbed to death: ‘Its thin neck was curved back, its beak was open and its eyes were starting to glaze over’.[46] In Everything Flows, the children dying of starvation in the party-planned and party-executed genocide (Holodomor) are described as having thin necks like those of storks.[47]. The omen of slaughter represented by the storks dying of human agency is reinforced still further in the same letter to Shtrum. The single sentence paragraph in the journal – ‘His mother’s letter was strange, full of alarm’ – gives way to ‘She now thought that war was inevitable. Every time she turned on the radio, it was with trepidation’.[48] In view of the fact that the Soviet media provided no hint whatsoever of any likely war between Germany and the Soviet Union, the TASS communiqué of 13th June 1941 being the most notorious example of denial, then Shtrum’s mother must have been listening to Western radio stations, most likely London, since France was now under German occupation. Grossman’s point though is clear enough: if an old Jewish woman could read the runes, why was Stalin not taking the necessary counter measures, having been gripped by a sense of impending disaster and urgency?

This passage highlights a curiosity of human nature in the face of danger: Shtrum’s mother is undeceived by the silence of the Soviet media on German-Soviet relations and clearly perceives the strong likelihood of war, yet she is unable to perceive the acute and direct personal danger to her posed by the people among whom she lives, people she believes have always accepted her. It is only in her last letter to Shtrum – the full text of which is finally revealed in Life and Fate – that she is brought face to face with the overwhelming fact and sense of existential betrayal, her Ukrainian neighbours turning against her, which is made all the more psychologically shattering by its being so unexpected, as is so often the case.

In For a Just Cause and Stalingrad, Grossman provides other clues to the unfolding Jewish Catastrophe. In Kiev, in 1941, Krymov, now abandoning the city with the Red Army, asks the way to the Kreshchatik and is told: ‘You must go back to Babi Yar (sic), then past the Jewish cemetery’.[49] The juxtaposition of Babii Iar and the Jewish cemetery draws attention to the massacre of Jews that took place at Babii Iar over 29th-30th September 1941 in which 34,000 Jews were shot: Babii Iar is Kiev’s new Jewish cemetery. There is another reference to the mass murder of Jews towards the end of Stalingrad. A German soldier, Stumpfe, recalls taking part in an operation to liquidate a shtetl bemoaning the lack of plunder unlike that available to the Einsatzgruppen  – his brother in the SS among them – ‘carrying out liquidations in Odessa, Kiev or Warsaw!’[50] Stumpfe’s lust for material possessions plundered from Jewish victims and the corpses of Red Army soldiers inspires revulsion not merely because of any lack of respect for the victims but because he is almost totally dehumanised. Worse still, his descent into depravity is a process to which he has subjected himself. He is responsible for his own degradation: he heard Hitler’s call and obeyed; he could easily have turned away. The name – Stumpfe – is also apposite. In German it suggests “dull” and “obtuse” and used in the German  idiom – Stumpf und Stiel ausrotten (‘to eradicate something root and branch’) – it brands Stumpfe with the extermination policies of the NS-regime

IV. Lacunae and Shortcomings in Grossman’s War

The restoration of censored text to Stalingrad does not provide a complete picture of the war on the Eastern front. Stalin’s catastrophic failure to recognize the German threat and a detailed examination of the Non-Aggression Pact are certainly hinted at but are not examined in detail. The main obstacles were editorial boards and the Soviet censorship. These lacunae do not massively detract from For a Just Cause or Stalingrad. However, their presence means that certain aspects of the war will not be clear to the English reader unless he has at least a modest familiarity with some of the generally less well known features of the Soviet conduct of the war. The matters in question would be desertion, okruzhenie(encirclement), Stalin’s Order № 270 (16th August 1941) and Order № 227 (28th July 1942), the scale of executions carried out by the NKVD, and blocking detachments. Two additional themes which arise in Life and Fate – or rather should arise – are the Red Army soldiers who allowed themselves to be conscripted as Hilfswillige by the Germans and the promotion of the fake sniper duel between Vasilii Zaitsev and the German sniper, Major Konings. In Berlin, in 1945, Grossman is also noticeably silent on the mass rape terror which was inflicted on German girls and women by the Red Army. That, as Chandler acknowledges, Grossman had access to a wealth of military reports is important for trying to explain why Grossman went along with the Zaitsev/Konings duel, writes nothing about Stalin’s orders, the level of Soviet desertions, and Hilfswillige.

Furthermore, it was doubtful that Grossman was entirely ignorant of the mass deportation of the Volga Germans in August-September 1941, a total of 479,841, 26,245 of whom were deported from the Stalingrad oblast’, but clear enough that the censors would not permit anything to be published.[51] Grossman was, however, wily and resourceful. In the journal edition we encounter a discussion among industrial managers on the difficulties of meeting production targets:

One of your party organizers paid a visit and told me things: so I hear that your workers [rabochie] froze in their improvised shelters and even in their barracks during the winter. But you don’t stint on yourself. You look well enough to me.[52]

In the later novel editions this passage was supplemented with the following wording: ‘You’ve got men who were swollen with hunger, and there was one case when some national minority [natsmen] suffering from scurvy, dropped dead in the workshop’.[53]

This is a highly significant addition by Grossman since it points to yet another aspect of the Soviet totalitarian state that along with the Holodomor does not receive anything like the attention it should. Natsmen is a typical Soviet portmanteau word derived from natsional’noe men’shistvo (national minority) and refers to various non-Russian ethnic groups, such as Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechen-Ingush, Balkar and Karachaev – there are many others – who because they were deemed likely to collaborate with the Germans (in the case of the Volga Germans, deported in August-September 1941), and in the case of some members of other ethnic groups who actually did collaborate with the invaders, were deported en masse from 1943 onwards. Large numbers perished during terrible journeys to Siberia in unheated cattle trucks. Survivors were forced to live in improvised huts and shelters. In the deportation settlements they died in large numbers from bronchitis, tuberculosis, typhus, scurvy, starvation and exposure to cold, as well as from the physical demands of slave labour, work-related accidents, and loss of will to live.

Scene from deportation of the Chechen-Ingush

The mass deportation of Soviet national minorities completely undermines the sickly-sweet propaganda on the theme of Soviet multi-ethnic solidarity to which even Grossman was not entirely immune. Before, during and after the war the natsmeny were regarded with suspicion and not trusted. There is a clear German parallel. On the presence of Volksdeutschein the German Army, Grossman writes that ‘In general the Volksdeutsche were not considered to be Germans: there was an order not to trust them too much, and keep an eye on their behaviour’[54]: and Grossman would have known that the various natsmeny were in the same position in the Red Army.

V. Sunday, 22nd June 1941

Grossman attributes German success in 1941 to the fact that Germany’s divisions were fully mobilized and were merely waiting for the signal to launch the invasion. True enough, but this conspicuously evades the question why Soviet counter measures were not taken in good time: so once again we are back to Stalin’s failures. The dangers of allowing a potential enemy to build up forces on a common border was one that had been exhaustively studied by Georgii Isserson in Novye formy bor’by (Opyt issledovaniia sovremennykh voin), New Forms of Combat (An Essay Researching Modern Wars, 1940). In this painstaking study of the German campaign in Poland, Isserson was able to demonstrate that a large part of German success against the Poles arose from the fact that their build-up of large forces on the German-Polish border had passed unnoticed by the Poles – or was not taken seriously enough – and that Hitler was now in a position to order the attack at a time of his choosing, having dispensed with the conventional preliminaries of a declaration of war followed by mobilization of forces. What happened to Poland on 1st September 1939 was a dress rehearsal for what was unleashed on 22nd June 1941.  Published in the summer of 1940, Isserson’s book was yet another warning to Stalin that went unheeded. A pertinent question here is whether Grossman had read Isserson’s book.

In the journal and novel editions of For a Just Cause and in Stalingrad, Grossman also lays much of the blame for the disaster of 1941 on the absence of a second front in the West (an impossible task for Britain still fighting alone in June 1941), the commentary being particularly strident and sneering in the journal version. The more strident comments were later omitted from the novel editions but the claim that German success was due to the absence of a Second Front remained only to be clearly contradicted by text added in Stalingrad in which Grossman notes the entry of America into the war in December 1941 and ‘England, no longer under immediate threat, went on rapidly increasing its production of armaments’.[55] Given these circumstances, the Western Allies could not possibly have mounted a Second Front in 1941 or 1942. There was, in any case, no alliance in June 1941.

Thus, accusations that the absence of a Second Front could in any way account for German success and Red Army failures in 1941-1942 were agitprop. In subsequent novel editions of For a Just Cause Grossman continues, however, to cite the absence of a Second Front as the cause of German success: ‘In the summer campaign of 1942, Hitler, exploiting the absence of a Second Front, concentrated 179 divisions from a general number of 256 then available to Germany, on the Soviet-German front’[56], whereas the wording ‘the absence of a Second Front’ is omitted from Stalingrad,[57] the claim at the start of the chapter that the absence of a Second Front was decisive remains, so creating a textual inconsistency. This highlights the dangers of reinserting text that had been earlier removed at the behest of the censors (or of Grossman’s own volition), without assessing its impact on text already present. In order to avoid these inconsistencies occurring in the main text previously omitted material, if reinserted, should be inserted in a footnote with an appropriate explanation.

VI. Okruzhenie (Encirclement) & Okruzhentsy (Encirclement-Escapees)

Why, in the Soviet scheme of things, was encirclement (okruzhenie) such a controversial issue? In essence, it was because the Soviet security apparatus, the Special Section (Osobyi otdel) of the NKVD strove to maintain complete ideological and physical surveillance over all Red Army units at all times in order to prevent or to eradicate what it saw as the dangers of counter-revolutionary sabotage, espionage and conspiracies, a policy which was first initiated by Feliks Dzerzhinskii’s Cheka, the forerunner of the NKVD. Red Army units or groups of stragglers which have been separated from their main formations in the chaos of battle or were part of a Soviet unit that had been encircled by a German formation are no longer under NKVD surveillance. As far as the NKVD (and then later SMERSH) are concerned this posed an enormous security risk since a unit returning to Soviet lines could potentially be used by the German intelligence agencies as a device to infiltrate agents. The NKVD and SMERSH solution was to regard all soldiers returning to Soviet lines, having broken out of, or having evaded, German encirclement and capture, as suspect.

To this end, all encirclement-returners or encirclement-escapees, referred to in Russian as okruzhentsy (nominative plural) or okruzhenets (nominative singular) were subjected to a process of serial interrogations, known as filtration (fil’tratsiia). Those that satisfied the NKVD interrogators were sent to a Red Army unit, though retaining the mark of okruzhenetsin perpetuity. Those who could not demonstrate their innocence – the burden was always on the okruzhenets to demonstrate loyalty to the regime – could face various sanctions ranging from execution to time in a forced-labour camp, to service in a penal unit. No other army in WWII treated its soldiers in this way. NKVD suspicions also applied to civilians who had lived under German occupation and to so-called Ostarbeiter, Soviet citizens who had been forcibly conscripted and deported to work in Germany, and who, at the end of the war, were subjected to filtration. Against this background, the fact that Semenov, Mostovskoi and Sof’ia Levinton drove straight into a German checkpoint in Stalingrad, having lost their way, would have been unequivocally construed by the NKVD as desertion to the enemy.

In For a Just Cause, the theme of okruzhenie first surfaces when the Shaposhnikovs and guests are discussing the relentless German advance towards the Don and Stalingrad. Lieutenant Kovalev, a guest, tries to set the record straight (italicised text was added to the novel):

So all kinds of judgements are made: why are we retreating?  It’s all well and good judging! All of you are defending the Motherland, and what we do is of minor importance: we just do the fighting. And what’s this like? You take a break in a defensive position, and during the night the enemy has covered a straight forty kilometres to the east. What does one say then, eh? I’ve seen these pen pushers: the slightest hint of anything untoward and they run off to the rear. I’d like to see them, those that point the finger at us, if they ended up in encirclement. The soldier on the front line knows what’s going on. I want the real truth to be known!  Starving soldiers and commanders manage to break out of encirclement and these pen pushers point the finger, and that lot would have joined the Polizei.[58]

Polizei, often transliterated from the German into Russian as Polizai, refers to formations raised by the German occupation forces comprising collaborators. These formations, with their local knowledge, were used by the Germans in anti-partisan operations, and to maintain surveillance on behalf of their German masters over the local population.

Krymov’s breakout from German encirclement and eastwards retreat from Kiev in 1941 is altogether more inspiring, and for that reason not entirely convincing. An obvious point is where exactly Krymov, a professional Soviet propagandist and COMINTERN ideologue, not a regular Red Army soldier, has acquired the necessary military expertise of modern war, and why any regular Red Army officer should defer to him in military matters. After the disastrous performance of the Red Army against the Finns in the Winter War (1939-1940), the institution of military commissars was abolished only to be re-established on 16th July 1941 as the Red Army was falling apart under German pressure. Just over a year later, at the height of the defensive phase of the Stalingrad battle, the institution of military commissars was finally abolished (9th October 1942). Krymov and the soldiers with him are aware of Hitler’s Commissar Order providing for the execution of military commissars and political instructors yet Grossman is silent on the promulgation of Order № 270. If Grossman was aware of the Commissar Order there is no obvious reason why he could have been unaware of Order № 270 and the mass desertions. That he was aware is, in fact, confirmed in Alexandra Popoff’s recent biography of Grossman. She notes that as a war correspondent Grossman had access to divisional war diaries and that he even made copies of official reports dealing with matters of morale and desertion, a very risky thing to do.[59] In other words, Grossman was well aware of Stalin’s orders and the role played by the Special Sections of the NKVD in implementing them.

On the long march back to Red Army lines through German-occupied territory, Krymov and his men do indeed experience hunger and exhaustion. Having returned, they are merely redeployed. There are no interrogations or filtration whatsoever and no interest is shown in Krymov’s experiences in encirclement and there are no suspicions of treachery (in Life and Fate Krymov mentions that he was asked questions). Comparison of the journal version of For a Just Cause with the later novel editions and Stalingrad does, however, reveal a small but significant difference in the way Grossman treats this theme. Krymov is summoned to see the front commander and while waiting he encounters a general in blue breeches (worn by the NKVD) who appears well disposed towards him, but nevertheless refers to him as the ‘Kiev okruzhenets[60]. In subsequent novel editions of For a Just Cause and in Stalingrad, Grossman now introduces an element of hostility, the wording ‘Kiev okruzhenets’ is supplemented with the adverb brezglivo (sneeringly, contemptuously).  In the novel editions of For a Just Cause and Stalingrad Krymov, having had his feat dismissed with contempt by this anonymous general, is summoned to Eremenko, the Front Commander who praises his achievement: ‘Well done, that man from Kiev [kievlianin], who managed to bring through 200 men with their weapons, Petrov told me’.[61]

Evident here are two very different responses to the fact of okruzhenie: a hostile one from an anonymous figure who may be a senior NKVD official, emphasized by his use of the distinctly pejorative word, okruzhenets, the official NKVD term; and that from Eremenko who praises not the okruzhenets from Kiev but ‘that man from Kiev’ for his achievement. Grossman’s simple yet deft use of language outflanks the censors, bringing out a marked difference in attitudes: for the NKVD the okruzhentsy are objects of intense suspicion and contempt; whereas for at least some in the Red Army they are to be applauded for their determination and success in having returned to Soviet lines. Eremenko’s position on encirclement is clear enough: it is an occupational hazard of modern war, not evidence of treachery, something grasped by Grossman’s dedicated military professionals, Darenskii and Novikov. One final point needs to be made on Krymov’s escape from okruzhenie. It is a plotline used by Grossman to provide some explicit and implicit insights into the fate of very large numbers of Red Army units in 1941, and to a lesser degree in 1942. Though based on real examples, Krymov’s escape is a fictional account and for that reason should not have been included in the Timeline of Stalingrad.[62]

VII.  Order № 227 (28th July 1942) ‘Ni shagu nazad!’ (‘Not a Step Backwards!’) & ‘Za Volgoi zemli dlia nas ne bylo’ (‘Beyond the Volga there was no Land for us’)

Orders №s 270 and 227 were issued by Stalin at critical moments in the war when the Red Army appeared to be on the brink of collapse.  In August 1941 it looked as if the Germans were unstoppably on their way to capturing Moscow. In July 1942, it looked as if Stalingrad would fall and German armies in the Caucasus would seize the oil at Baku. In any major novel dealing with Stalingrad and purporting to be historically accurate the question that has to be addressed is whether Order № 227 played a decisive role in hardening Red Army resistance or whether it hampered the conduct of the defence, even encouraging desertion.

According to Chandler ‘he [Grossman] insists that the Red Army’s absolute determination not to retreat any further arose spontaneously among the rank-and-file soldiers at the same time as Stalin issued his draconian ‘Not a Step Back’ Order of 28 July 1942’.[63] Just like that? At the same time? So why did the Red Army continue to retreat to Stalingrad? Grossman himself would have been far more convincing on this matter had he tackled Order № 227 and its purpose and effects head on in Life and Fate. There are indirect references to Order № 227 in For a Just Cause but nothing explicit. The absence of this theme in For a Just Cause can be attributed to a flat refusal on the part of the censors to allow it, yet there are no explicit references to Order № 227 in the most recently published collection (1989) of Grossman’s diaries, though it is possible that any detailed notes by Grossman on Orders №s 270 and 227, and the rape terror in Berlin, were not included and will be published at some stage, possibly in 2020 to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII.

In Life and Fate, the assessment of Stalin’s order is entirely negative.  Darenskii and another officer discuss the harmful effects of rigid bureaucratic thinking on the conduct of military operations, and Darenskii asks the other officer whether he has heard of the order “Not a Step Backwards”, and then proceeds to cite an example of how it interferes with tactical decisions:

So the Germans are hammering away at hundreds of our men, and it’s necessary to withdraw them behind the hill to the reverse slope, so that they’ll be safe. There’s nothing to be lost tactically, and the equipment will be saved as well.  But then you’ve got this order “Not a Step Backwards” and so the men are left there under enemy fire, the equipment is destroyed and the men are all killed.[64]

Darenskii’s companion cites another example, relating that in 1941 (sic) two colonels were dispatched from Moscow to check on the implementation of the “Not a Step Backwards Order” in his unit, at the very moment when it was retreating as rapidly as possible from Gomel, so providing all the necessary evidence. Since Stalin’s “Not a Step Backwards Order” was issued in 1942, the 1941 Order is most likely Order № 270 which was issued in August 1941. Darenskii’s point is, in any case, not fundamentally changed by the mistaken chronology. Both orders impeded tactical decision-making, since Red Army commanders had to contend not merely with Stalin’s ill-conceived orders but with his militarily-illiterate ideological watch dogs, the military commissars, who could refuse to endorse any tactically sensible withdrawal for fear of violating their master’s will. As a consequence lives and equipment were lost. That party organisations were to be the main disseminators and interpreters of Order № 270 is indicated by the fact that the primary recipients of the Order were party organisations not the Red Army. FSB archivists claim that Order № 270 ‘played a positive role in raising the combat effectiveness of the troops’.[65] One year later, Stalin was compelled to issue Order № 227, another harsh order, which, according to the FSB, ‘played a large role in raising the steadfastness of Soviet troops…’.[66]  The effects of Order № 270 were obviously not long-lasting.

What did the Germans make of Order № 227? A report drawn up by the intelligence officer at the headquarters of 94th Infantry Division, dated 4th August 1942, reveals that the Germans very soon became aware of the existence of Order № 227. On 31st July 1942, the Malaia Martynovka settlement was captured by German Infantry Regiment 267, part of 94th Infantry Division. Various secret Soviet documents, among them most likely a copy of Order № 227, were recovered from the body of the military commissar of the operational section at Soviet 51st Army. He had gone forward to examine the situation and was killed. These captured documents reveal the disastrous effects of Stalin’s Order on the conduct of Red Army operations. Malaia Martynovka was defended by the Soviet 302 Rifle Division commanded by a Colonel Zubkov. In a radio message to the commander of 51st Army, Zubkov reported that two of his regiments had suffered 40%-60% losses. Replacement units had proved unreliable, trying to withdraw without firing a single shot. Blocking detachments were deployed (provided for in Order № 227) but, as Zubkov acknowledged, this measure led merely to losses without any concrete success (in other words, opening fire on retreating Red Army soldiers failed to stop the unauthorised withdrawal). With the fall of Malaia Martynovka, Colonel Zubkov requested permission to withdraw and to abandon the settlement of Probuzhdenie. He received the following message from Brigade Commissar Chalesov, a member of the Military Council at 51st Army: ‘To the divisional commander: if you abandon Probuzhdenie, you will be shot. Withdrawal out of question. Chalesov’. Having received this message, Zubkov shot himself.[67]

An author who is quite willing to investigate explicit parallels between National-Socialist Germany and the Lenin-Stalin state in Life and Fate, having, it should be noted, made all kinds of Aesopian allusions to the kinship of both states in For a Just Cause – in journal and novel formats – would be unlikely to be deterred from cross-examining two of Stalin’s most vicious and vindictive Orders in detail. I can detect no plausible basis for Chandler’s claim that ‘Grossman also sees Stalin’s Order [Order № 227] as crucial; he sees Stalin as giving voice to the soldiers’ patriotism and so reinforcing it’.[68] Had Grossman held the view imputed to him by Chandler then it would be reasonable to find some examination of Stalin’s Orders in his prose if only to make the point that Comrade Stalin, Red Army soldiers, and even Grossman, were singing from the same hymn sheet.

Particularly damning for Chandler’s claims are declassified NKVD reports published in Stalingradskaia epopeia: Materialy NKVD SSSR i voennoi tsenzury iz Tsentral’nogo arkhiva FSB RF (The Stalingrad Epic: Documents of the NKVD USSR and the Military Censorship from the Central Archive of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, 2000). Using its informer networks in the Red Army – the mere existence of these networks reveals a great deal about the relationship between Stalin’s terror apparatus and the soldiers at the front – the NKVD went to great lengths to ascertain reactions among Red Army soldiers to the promulgation of various landmark orders and decrees. Responses from Red Army soldiers to Order № 227 were overwhelmingly hostile. The fact that Order № 227 was exclusively disseminated orally to front-line units and not published during the war – it was finally declassified and published only as late as 1988 – indicates that Stalin did not see this Order as an expression of sentiments widespread among Red Army soldiers but as a last desperate attempt to stop the retreat, using the most brutal and desperate methods, and one to remain hidden from the enemy, hence the security precautions.

In the novel editions of For a Just Cause, many of the references to Stalin which were present in the journal version (1952) have been removed. Typically, where Stalin was named in the journal as being responsible for some decision, ‘Stalin’ is replaced by wording such as the ‘Supreme Command’. Order № 227 is referred to indirectly in chapter 62, part I of the journal version of For a Just Cause, but the chapter was omitted from the subsequent novel editions:

– Read this, comrade commissar, – he said and withdrew a piece of rice paper folded in two from his map case.  It was an order of Stalin’s. Krymov read the harsh words which were addressed to the retreating army.They burned in their bluntness, calling for a bitter struggle. With a shattering directness, they spoke of mortal danger, they announced that any further retreat would spell doom, and that means there is no greater crime in the world than retreat: the fate of the country and its people, the fate of the world, would be decided in the days ahead. There was not only sadness and anger in these words, there was also faith in victory…

– Well, it has been said, – uttered Krymov and took the order in both hands and handed it to the brigade commander. It seemed to him that the alarm bell was booming.[69]

This chapter is unusually short and suggests to me that it may have been added under pressure from the editorial board and was dropped after Stalin’s death. The most likely reason this reference to Stalin’s Order was removed after the 1952 publication was that Grossman did not want to include references to the Order at all because he could not countenance the possibility that such an Order, along with executions, blocking detachments and the NKVD terror apparatus could have played any role in stiffening resistance, since he saw the source of this resistance as being derived from deep patriotic roots that had nothing to do with Stalin. Consistent with this interpretation is the fact that the following sentence, included in the journal edition of For a Just Cause – ‘Stalin ordered the command to take not a single step backwards’[70] – was also omitted from the novel editions of For a Just Cause and is not included in Stalingrad. Thus when Chandler writes about this omitted chapter (62, Part I) that ‘There is little doubt that Grossman would have wanted to reinstate it’[71], firstly, no such degree of certainty exists and cannot be deduced from the various versions of For a Just Cause and, secondly, this highlights the danger of translators insisting that they know what the author would have done – they do not know – and what omitted text would be included which had earlier been deemed ideologically suitable or unsuitable by the censors. If Grossman had wanted to reinstate this chapter, so as to make the point about Order № 227 which Chandler claims he wanted to make, then it or its main message could easily have been accommodated in Life and Fate. There is nothing.

In a brief state-of-the-nation chapter (chapter 11, Part III), against the background of the Germans closing in on Stalingrad, Grossman records that the party propagandists are being pushed to one side:

And at this time, the men manning artillery and those with anti-tank guns and heavy machine guns on their backs, the people working in the factories and fields, without any help from agitators, grasped this simple truth: the war had reached the Volga, and the steppes of Kazakhstan started on the other side. This truth, like all great truths, was unusually simple, and understood by all.[72

This passage is also found in the journal version, though the wording ‘without any help from agitators’ is omitted.[73] In 1952, Grossman was probably unable to get hostile remarks about agitators and commissars past the censors. In Stalingrad, the redundancy of the agitators is explicit: ‘There was no need for political instructors and commissars to give speeches’.[74] Note, however, that some two hundred pages later – the time is now the end of September 1942 – Krymov is deployed to 62nd Army to give lectures and talks which although inconsistent with his now being something of a lishnii chelovek, is essential for narrative continuity since it prepares the way for the showdown between Grekov and him in Life and Fate.[75] Grossman’s playing down the role of the commissars at this stage in For a Just Cause also serves to weaken the status – at least in Grossman’s eyes – of Order № 227, since the main enforcers of Stalin’s orders were the NKVD and the military commissars, and in Stalingrad the party district committee (obkom).

In fact, the Krymov/Grekov encounter in Life and Fate offers no support at all for any positive role played by Order № 227 and the NKVD.  That Grekov, like the peasant woman in For a Just Cause, addresses Krymov with the mocking ‘Comrade nachal’nik’, sets the tone for what ensues. Grekov and his men want an end to state oppression, the abolition of the hated collective farms, and the freedom to lead their lives in their own way, whereas Krymov, still under the spell of Lenin, merely wants the defeat of the Germans so that the full power of Stalin state can be restored. The idea that Grekov and his men in house 6/1 are in some way motivated to fight by Order № 227 is grotesque: it would taint the real cause for which they fight, and undermine Grossman’s novel. Order № 227 is merely a device to save the regime, a manifestation of the same totalitarianism that imposed the collective farms, implemented genocide and has enslaved Russia.

That Order № 227 supposedly reflected some kind of new found unity shared by Stalin, party and soldiers is tested and undermined when Eremenko turns up at the offices of Ivan Priakhin the party secretary of the Stalingrad obkom. Priakhin, it turns out, has been planning ahead, making arrangements to evacuate the obkom across the Volga. One of his staff briefs him on the preparations so far (italicized text was added to the novel edition):

Did Zhilkin get everything sorted out?

Yes, and I must say the place is marvellous, a long way from the railway line. Zhilkin says that he didn’t see a single German plane.

And the countryside, what’s it like?

It stretches for fucking miles, I mean, excuse me, there’s lots of it. Well, of course, this is the Transvolga region. It’s 60 kilometres to the Volga. There’s a pond. Zhilkin says the water is clean and there’s a small fruit orchard. I made some enquiries: the apple yield is higher than average. Of course, a reserve battalion is deployed in the vicinity and they’ve had a go at some of them. When you give the word, we can move everybody out.[76]

At this critical juncture, the priorities are clear enough. Decoded: the location is sufficiently remote from the railway line so it will be unlikely to attract the attention of the Luftwaffe and be bombed; that it is 60 kilometres from the Volga in the Transvolga region means, contrary to the other slogan being disseminated along with “Not a Step Backwards!” –  “Beyond the Volga there was no Land for us” – that there is plenty of land (at least for members of the party); there’s a pond so we can fish and no shortage of apples, although there is the minor inconvenience of a reserve battalion in the vicinity (but they can protect us). When subsequent to this insightful exchange Eremenko appears and asks Priakhin whether he has moved his family out of Stalingrad, Priakhin’s evasive reply hides his real intentions: ‘The obkom is getting ready to send many families across the Volga, including mine’.[77]  Implied here is, naturally, that the members of the obkom will remain and share the fate of the city. Indeed, Priakhin has already told Eremenko: ‘For us Bolsheviks, while we are alive, there are no final defensive lines. The last defensive line is when our heart ceases to beat’.[78]  This is all very moving and full of martial ardour, indicating that Priakhin and his obkom Spartans have totally internalised the spirit of Order № 227: not a step backwards; 60 kilometres instead (the relocation east of the Volga is confirmed in Life and Fate).

Grossman’s use of dates also strongly militates against the position that he was in some way supportive of Order № 227. In For a Just Cause and Stalingrad, he establishes a chronological framework for the characters and events, fictional and historical, which he describes by citing specific dates. Thus: 11th February 1941 (the date of Aristov’s posting); 13th June 1941 (an allusion to the TASS communiqué); 15th June 1941 (Shtrum and family at their dacha); 22nd June 1941 (Molotov’s speech on the day of the German invasion); 3rd July 1941 (Stalin’s eventual all-union radio address); 7th November 1941 (Krymov on Red Square); 12th November 1941 (Krymov joins the South-Western Front);  29th April 1942 (the meeting between Hitler and Mussolini); 10th July 1942 (62nd Army deployed to the Don bend); 5th August 1942 (Krymov’s brigade withdrawn to Stalingrad); August 1942 (arrival of Eremenko); 20th August (Pavel Andreev visits Alexandra Shaposhnikova);  second half of August 1942 (10th Rifle Division NKVD assumes internal security duties); 23rd August 1942 (German armoured columns cross the Don-Volga mezhdurech’e and reach the northern suburbs of Stalingrad); 23rd August 1942 (massed air raid carried out on Stalingrad by Luftwaffe); 25th August 1942 (Germans advance on city); 10th September 1942 (Germans push home their attack); 15th September 1942 (Rodimtsev’s division crosses the Volga); 18th September 1942 (Eremenko orders a counter attack); and end of September 1942 (Krymov deployed to give propaganda talks).  Among these dates, many of them landmark moments, the absence of any specific reference to Order № 227 or the earlier Order № 270 is very conspicuous, underlining the role of the censor in For a Just Cause and hostility on Grossman’s part in Life and Fate.

Grossman’s digressions on nature, and the suffering of animals, insects, birds and snakes, even the agony of the Russian lands, also evoke a source of resistance in which there is no place for Stalin’s orders.  Russian, Belorussian, Ukrainian – not Soviet – strength stems from the land, the steppe, marshes, balki, forests, kurgany and above all the mighty rivers, the Dnieper, the Don and Volga and their many and substantial tributaries. The German invaders have unleashed primeval forces against themselves. Note, for example, the following extract from a report prepared at German 6th Army headquarters, dated 15th October 1942:

It has been ascertained by Army hygiene specialists that the small black creatures noted in yesterday’s interim report at XIV Pz.K, which were allegedly dropped from planes, have turned out to be Springschwänze, a type of local insect which has been thrown to the surface in great numbers on this position as a result of the bomb attacks.[79]

Amid the slaughter of Stalingrad there is something quite unreal about this item in a German report, yet in a curious way it serves as a metaphor of something primordially pagan, even sinister, as if the Germans in violating the Russian lands have awoken entities that should have been left well alone.

Orders № 270 and № 227 created a disciplinary regime which during the second half of 1941 and in the late summer of 1942 made it much easier for the NKVD to execute Red Army soldiers with only the merest pretence of any kind of due process. Grossman does not avoid the execution theme in For a Just Cause or Stalingrad but instances of executions appear isolated. In For a Just Cause, Petrov confirms three death sentences, among them an old woman for distributing German propaganda leaflets (October 1941). In Stalingrad, the  number rises to six. At Stalingrad, Grossman shows Chuikov confirming the death sentence of two commanders who relocated their headquarters to relative safety in violation of Order № 227. No sooner has Chuikov signed these death warrants than he replaces the greatcoat on his sleeping adjutant crying out to his mother in his sleep. Chuikov, the hard man of Stalingrad, stifles a sob and exits his bunker. This scene is a long way removed from the image of a commander who had a reputation for zealous application of Order № 227.

John Erickson attributed a figure of 13,500 executions carried out on Chuikov’s orders, though warning that the figure was unconfirmed. Is such a number plausible? Execution data cited by the Russian historian, V. S. Khristoforov, show that between 1st June 1941 and 10th October 1941, 10,201 Red Army soldiers were executed for various offences.  Over the 3.5 month period from 22nd June 1941 to 10th October 1941 this would mean an average 2,914 executions per month.[80] If this rate of execution had been the norm on the Stalingrad and Don Fronts over the period from 1st August 1942 to 1st January 1943 this would imply a total of 14,570 executions, higher than the 13,500 attributed to Chuikov but on both Fronts. Bearing this in mind, and taking into account the provisions of Order № 227, and a critical situation which encouraged utter ruthlessness and disregard for anything like due process, 13,500 executions attributed to Chuikov is not only plausible but may understate the total number of executions on both Fronts. Another consideration is whether Red Army soldiers executed on the basis of Stalin’s orders were registered as combat losses – bezvozvratnye poteri in Soviet jargon – or were completely discounted.

Both For a Just Cause and Stalingrad refer to the deployment of an NKVD division but not to its role in setting up blocking detachments or executions. According to Grossman, the division has a full complement of men, all regulars, is well armed and trained but without combat experience.[81] In Stalingrad a Colonel Sytin – the name suggests well fed – is referred to as the ‘commandant of the Stalingrad fortified area’[82], without any reference to the NKVD, whereas in For a Just Cause Sytin is indicated as ‘commander of the division of internal troops’[83], which at Stalingrad was the NKVD’s 10th Rifle Division commanded by a colonel Alexander Saraev. A scene in For Just Cause and Stalingrad but not included in the journal is important for indirectly dealing with the matter of who or what is actually in charge at Stalingrad: Beria’s NKVD or the Red Army. Sytin informs Eremenko that approximately 200 German troops armed with sub-machine guns have been seen close to front headquarters. Eremenko’s response is to order Sytin to report back with a precise number, an impossible task given that the enemy soldiers will be advancing in tactical bounds. An estimate of 200 is perfectly reasonable. The whole point of this exchange is not that Eremenko needs to know whether there are 190, 195 or 200 Germans in the area: it is an assertion of authority, making it clear that he, Eremenko, the senior Red Army commander, is in charge, not the NKVD, and that tactical considerations take priority, not ideological vendettas. It also lends weight to Eremenko’s stance on the matter of okruzhentsy which diverges from that of the NKVD.

VIII. The Luftwaffe Air Raid on Stalingrad, Sunday, 23rd August 1942, 40,000 Killed?

On Sunday, 23rd August 1942, Stalingrad was subjected to a well- planned and devastating air raid by the Luftwaffe. The aim, as in previous large raids of this kind carried out by the Luftwaffe on Warsaw, French Army positions in and around the Maas in May 1940, Gomel and Minsk, was to disrupt command and control, cause mass panic among civilians so that German land forces would encounter little organised resistance when trying to capture a strongpoint. Citing Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: The Red Army 1939-1945 (2005),  Chandler gives a figure of 40,000 people killed on the first day and night of the Stalingrad bombing.[84] Merridale’s sources are Alexander Werth, Russia at War (1964)[85] and Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (1998).[86] Given Werth’s reliance on Soviet wartime figures, the figure of 40,000 killed in 24 hours is not reliable.  By way of comparison consider the number of Germans killed in the Anglo-American raid on Dresden (Operation Thunderclap). A study of all the evidence commissioned by the German administrative authority in Dresden concluded that the number of people killed in the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was in the region of 25,000.[87] By the end of WWII the techniques of carpet bombing pioneered by the RAF were far more deadly than those available to Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV in August 1942.  Apart from anything else, the payload capacity of the Lancaster four-engine bomber ensured that the destruction was greater. Bearing in mind the technical limitations of the German bombing fleet in 1942 a death toll of 40,000 in Stalingrad in one raid is unlikely. The 40,000 estimate cited by Beevor – without any indication of the source of this figure – is not for just one day and night but for the week beginning 23rd August 1942.  An aggregated death toll of 40,000 over a 7-day period is more plausible, assuming the Luftwaffe could maintain the intensity of the bombing.

Avro Lancaster, Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-45

IX. Conclusion 

In 2019, possibly in an attempt to reverse, and to compensate for, his earlier cavalier and unfounded dismissal of For a Just Cause, Chandler now takes the view that ‘Stalingrad is one of the great novels of the last century’[88], though without clarifying whether this refers exclusively to Stalingrad or is to include For a Just Cause. For a Just Cause is certainly in a different league from most of what was published during the Stalin years but it is an evolutionary and transitional novel. The author of For a Just Cause resembles the snake which he depicts writhing and struggling to change its skin, watched by mesmerised Red Army soldiers. For a Just Cause is part of the process leading to Life and Fate and Everything Flows, but the old skin has to be shed in order to complete the metamorphosis. Nevertheless, published at a time when Stalin was becoming even more dangerously unpredictable and vindictive, the journal version of For a Just Cause (1952) abounds in unorthodox and heretical views, one reason why Grossman’s boldness and independence inspired so much envy and resentment. The dissonant voice is even louder in the novel editions, and some of the omitted passages, now included in Stalingrad, merely confirm the subversive nature of For a Just Cause. Thus, the view, always profoundly wrong in my opinion, that the author of For a Just Cause and Life and Fate had nothing in common, that these were two unrelated novels, can now be put aside for good. 

Marc Chagall

© Frank Ellis, 2020, All Rights Reserved


[1] Anatolii Bocharov, ‘Po stradnomu puti’, Zhizn’ i sud’ba, Sovetskii pisatel’, Moscow, 1990, p.10 (pp.3-11
[2] Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1985), The Harvill Press, London, 1995, ‘Translator’s Introduction’ (pp.7-16), p.9
[3]  Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, The Bodley Head, London, 2010, p.367
[4] Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, edited by Robert Chandler and Yury Bit-Yunan, Harvill Secker London, 2019, p.xi
[5] Stalingrad, p.xxi
[6] Stalingrad, p.xi
[7] Stalingrad, p.xxv
[8] Bocharov, ‘Po stradnomu puti’, p.11
[9] Stalingrad, p.901
[10] Vasilii Grossman, Za pravoe delo, Voennoe izdatel’stvo, Moscow, 1959, p.448 & Stalingrad, p.489
[11] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.7 & Stalingrad, p.3
[12] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.12 & Stalingrad, p.
[13] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.11 & Stalingrad, p.7
[14] For a Just Cause, 1959, p. 201 & Stalingrad, p. 216
[15] Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (2000), W. W. Norton & Company, New York and London, 2001, p.96
[16] Stalingrad, p.148
[17] Stalingrad, p.149
[18]Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.126, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.247 & Stalingrad, p.266
[19] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.148 & Stalingrad, p.153
[20] Novyi mir,  9, 1952, p.15, Za pravoe delo, 1959, pp.534-535 & Stalingrad, p.579
[21] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.88, Za pravoe delo, 1959, pp.175-176 & Stalingrad, p.185
[22] Stalingrad, p.185
[23] Stalingrad, p.184
[24] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.464 & Stalingrad, p.503
[25] Novyi mir, 10, 1952, p.149, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.748 & Stalingrad, pp.790-791
[26] Victor Davis Hanson,  A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War (2005) Methuen, London, 2007, p.101
[27] For a Just Cause, 1959, p.475, Stalingrad, p.515
[28] Stalingrad, p.515
[29] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.201 & Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.468, Stalingrad, p.508
[30] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.20,  Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.48 & Stalingrad, p.48
[31] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.147 & Stalingrad, p.153).
[32] Max Hastings, Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975, William Collins, London, 2018, p.105
[33] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.4, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.18 & Stalingrad, p. 14
[34] Vasilii Grossman, Vse techet (1970), Possev-Verlag, 2nd edition,1974, p.48
[35] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.22 & Stalingrad, p.19
[36] For a Just Cause, 1959, p.20
[37] Stalingrad, p.16
[38] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.117, Za pravoe delo, 1959,  p.325 & Stalingrad, p.353
[39] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.117, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.326. In the novel edition of Za pravoe delo ‘accursed’ is omitted. In Stalingrad the old peasant is not referred to as a kulak.
[40] Za pravoe delo, p.400 & Stalingrad, p.434
[41] Zhizn’ i sud’ba, 1990, p.109
[42] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.87
[43] Stalingrad, p.183
[44] Il’ia Erenburg and Vasilii Grossman, eds., Chernaia kniga, volume 1, Zaporozh’e, 1991, p.28
[45] Chernaia kniga, p.29
[46] Stalingrad, p.69
[47] Vse techet, p.127
[48] Stalingrad, p.183
[49] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.119, Stalingrad, p.230, Stalingrad, p.249
[50] Stalingrad, p.800 & p.801
[51] For full details of this deportation see Frank Ellis, Barbarossa 1941: Reframing Hitler’s Invasion of Stalin’s Soviet Empire, University of Press Kansas, Lawrence Kansas, 2015, pp.295-297
[52] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.96
[53] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.291 & Stalingrad, p.314
[54] Novyi mir, 10, 1952, p.151, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.750 & Stalingrad, p.793
[55] Stalingrad, p.280
[56] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.260
[57] Stalingrad, p.280
[58] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.22 and Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.50, Stalingrad, p.50
[59] Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2019, pp.129-130
[60] Novyi mir, 7, 1952, p.122
[61] For a Just Cause, 1959, p.240 & Stalingrad, p.260
[62] Stalingrad, p.893
[63] Stalingrad, p.xx, emphasis in the original
[64] Life and Fate, p.29
[65] Organy gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR v Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voine: Sbornik dokumentov, Tom vtoroi, kniga 1, Nachalo 22 iiunia – 31 avgusta 1941 goda, izdatel’stvo “Rus’”, Moscow, 2000, p.486
[66] Organy gosudarstvennoi bezopasnosti SSSR v Velikoi Otechestvennoi Voine: Sbornik dokumentov, Tom tretii, kniga 2, Ot oborony k nastupleniiu 1 iiulia – 31 dekabria 1942 goda, izdatel’stvo “Rus’”, Moscow, 2003, p.80
[67] Bericht über die Kampfhandlungen bei Mal. Martynowka am 31.7.42 und die Auswirkung des Stalin-Befehls vom 28.7.42 nach russ. Beutepapieren, 3. August 1942, BA-MA, RH 26-94/65
[68] Stalingrad, p.xx
[69] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.121
[70] Novyi mir, 9, 1952, p.109
[71] Stalingrad, p.902
[72] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.655
[73] Novyi mir, 9, 1952, p.90
[74] Stalingrad, p.693
[75] Novyi mir, 10, 1952, p.199, Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.830 & Stalingrad, p.877
[76] Za pravoe delo, 1959,p.402, emphasis added
[77] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.404
[78] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.404
[79] BA-MA, RH 20-6/225/63
[80] See Frank Ellis, The Stalingrad Cauldron: Inside the Encirclement and Destruction of the 6th Army, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence Kansas, 2013, pp.387-388
[81] Novyi mir, 8, 1952, p.174,  Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.420 & Stalingrad, p.459
[82] Stalingrad,p.718
[83] Za pravoe delo, 1959, p.678
[84] Stalingrad, p.956
[85] Alexander Werth, Russia at War (1964), Pan Books Ltd, London, 1965. The figure of 40,000 dead is cited by Werth on page 405, not  pp.448-449 as given by Merridale
[86] Antony Beevor, Stalingrad (1998), Penguin, London, 1999, pp.104-106
[87] Landeshauptstadt Dresden, Abschlussbericht der Historikerkommission zu den Luftangriffen auf Dresden zwischen den 13. und 15. Februar 1945(2010), p.67.
[88] Stalingrad, p.xi

Dr Frank Ellis is a military historian

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2 Responses to Vasilii Grossman’s Just Cause

  1. David Ashton says:

    Estimates of the total deaths that can be attributed to Stalin, Hitler or Pol Pot must all be subject to reasonable criteria of definition and evidence. My view is that statistical exaggerations exist in both popular supposition and even established historical record, and should be revised though without simultaneously reducing the horror and evil in each case; in fact, cleaning the narratives of fiction and exaggeration reinforces credibility – and also condemnation. The ideological “character” of Nazi and Communist democides was different. However, I do not see that what Steven Rosefielde calls the “red” holocaust should not have a modest “memorial & education centre” somewhere; I wish James Bartholomew success in this UK venture.

    As a footnote curiosity: Google “Stalin’s Death & Purim”. Then compare the odd coincidence of the “Ten Sons of Haman” hanged at Nuremberg; e.g. Rachel Avraham, “Incredible Parallels between the Purim Story & the Nazi Trials”, online. Deuteronomy 32.35.

  2. The great irony of Stalin’s behaviour after the brutal ending of the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact was that Stalin, after the shock of the German invasion, reached for the patriotism flag to wave thus in effect overturning internationalist Soviet ideology. The desperation of the situation also created freedom of a sort. After the war the patriotic tap had to put back in the bottle, something easier said than. .

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