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On 'Stalingrad' and Stalin, The Boston Sunday Globe

Joseph Stalin in Moscow on Dec. 8, 1941.AP

May 29, 2022

Repressive states tend to like their authors best when they are safely dead. Joseph Stalin admired Nikolai Gogol but criticized him as a reactionary. During World War II, to boost morale, Stalin’s regime exalted Tolstoy. “War and Peace” was read obsessively by Soviet generals and even summarized for soldiers.

Unfortunately for Vladimir Putin, Vasily Grossman is dead but not safely. His novel “Stalingrad” succeeds like nothing I can think of at conveying what it is like to be invaded. Only in Grossman’s account, it is the Russians who are under siege — and not the ones now mutilating Ukraine. “Stalingrad” throws the shame of Putin’s aggression into painfully high relief.

A few years ago, it seemed that everyone I knew was suddenly pressing Grossman’s novels on me. Finally cornered, I picked up “Stalingrad,” which soon I was pressing on others. In Minneapolis, my high school speech teacher dug into the book, then his brother in California, then several of the teacher’s friends. I now press it on anyone who is left.

While “Life and Fate” is generally considered Grossman’s masterpiece, it functions as the second of two volumes. “Stalingrad,” the first, centers on the battle that would become synonymous with that city’s name. (Today it is called Volgograd.)

In 1941, after Hitler turned against his Soviet allies, German forces moved swiftly through Belarus and Ukraine before stalling near Moscow. Eighty years ago this summer, they shifted their focus southward, attacking Stalingrad. It would prove a turning point in the war, as well as one of the bloodiest battles in modern times. Grossman, a Ukrainian-born Jew, was there as a Russian army journalist.

Tolstoyan in its sweep, “Stalingrad” captures the dream-like days that precede an invasion, as well as the terror of finally falling under assault. In Grossman’s portrait, everyone counts, and nothing feels missed. If you wish to imagine war through a child’s eyes, or even a camel’s, this is the book. Grossman’s imaginative sympathy seems limitless, extending to German soldiers as well as Soviet generals.

Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and running more than 900 pages, the New York Review Books edition appeared in 2019, bringing “Stalingrad” to English readers for the first time. Many will struggle, as I did, with the constant introduction of characters, and the usual intricacies of Russian names. A list in the back helps; so do maps showing front lines that at one point held Russian defenders to an extraordinarily narrow strip of land beside the Volga River.

Attempting to get the novel into readers’ hands, Grossman encountered multiple obstacles. Several editions were published in the 1950s, all heavily censored. The Chandlers have restored deleted passages, and labored to bring the text closer to Grossman’s intent. Even so, readers may wonder about sentences praising Stalin’s prowess as a wartime leader, or extolling the wisdom of the people.

Much about Grossman remains unknown, including his precise ideological development. Like many in eastern Europe, he found himself stranded between two regimes. On their advance through Ukraine, the Nazis murdered the entire Jewish population of Grossman’s native Berdichev, including his mother. Her death haunts the pages of his novels.

Grossman’s wartime dispatches attracted a wide audience that almost certainly included Stalin. In “Stalin’s Library: A Dictator and His Books,” Geoffrey Roberts reveals the Soviet leader as a diligent self-improver (if only) who believed in the transformative power of reading.

Sorting through what has been preserved of Stalin’s massive collection, Roberts encountered an industrious annotator. (In an article noting an American claim to “love” the Russian people, Stalin had written “ha ha.”) The dictator’s immersion in military history seems to have served him well. He pushed his over-matched forces at Stalingrad to an unlikely victory, though not without threatening their lives.

Lenin’s ideas drew Stalin’s unstinting approval. But Roberts could find nothing indicating a source for his extraordinary authoritarian violence, concluding that whatever rationale existed was Stalin’s alone.

Anne Applebaum delves into the grim fruits in “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.” Beginning in 1929, Stalin forced millions off their land and onto collective farms. The resulting famine killed at least 5 million, including more than 3 million Ukrainians. Applebaum argues that the destruction was deliberate: eliminating the Ukrainians would help cement Sovietization, and the regime’s control over a resource-rich land.

For decades after the 1930s, the Soviets suppressed this history. The famine was not mentioned, and records were destroyed. Ukrainians whispered their stories within the family, telling of soldiers who stole every ounce of food from their homes.

Stalin, meanwhile, dined well, until the day in 1953 when he fell to a stroke in his private library. Vasily Grossman died in 1964, years before “Life and Fate” was finally published, and before he could finish his novel “Everything Flows,” with its fearless account of the famine.

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