Three books about Stalin that shed light on Russian history
A few years ago, it seemed like everyone I knew was suddenly thrusting Grossman’s novels on me. Finally cornered, I picked up “Stalingrad”, which I soon pressed on the others. In Minneapolis, my high school speech teacher dug into the book, then his brother in California, then several friends of the teacher. I now support it on all those who remain.
While “life and fate” is generally considered Grossman’s masterpiece, it runs as the second of two volumes. “Stalingrad”, the first, centers on the battle that would become synonymous with the name of this city. (Today it is called Volgograd.)
In 1941, after Hitler turned on his Soviet allies, German forces quickly moved through Belarus and Ukraine before stalling near Moscow. Eighty years ago this summer, they shifted their focus south, attacking Stalingrad. It would be a turning point in the war, as well as one of the bloodiest battles of modern times. Grossman, a Ukrainian-born Jew, was there as a Russian army reporter.
Tolstoyan in its sweep, “Stalingrad” captures the dreamlike days before an invasion, as well as the terror of finally falling under the onslaught. In Grossman’s portrait, everyone matters and nothing seems to be missing. If you want to imagine war through the eyes of a child, or even a camel, this is the book. Grossman’s imaginative sympathy seems boundless, extending to German soldiers as well as Soviet generals.
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and running to over 900 pages, the New York Review Books edition appeared in 2019, bringing “Stalingrad” to English readers for the first time. Many will struggle, like me, with the constant introduction of characters and the usual intricacies of Russian names. A list at the back helps; so are the maps showing the front lines which at one time held the Russian defenders to an extraordinarily narrow strip of land beside the Volga.
Attempting to get the novel into the hands of readers, Grossman encountered multiple obstacles. Several editions were published in the 1950s, all heavily censored. The Chandlers restored deleted passages and endeavored to bring the text closer to Grossman’s intent. Even so, readers may wonder about the phrases praising Stalin’s prowess as a warlord or extolling the wisdom of the people.
Much of Grossman remains unknown, including his precise ideological development. Like many in Eastern Europe, he found himself caught between two regimes. As they advanced through Ukraine, the Nazis murdered the entire Jewish population of Berdichev, Grossman’s hometown, including his mother. His 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 BooksGeoffrey Roberts reveals the Soviet leader as a diligent self-improver (if only) who believed in the transformative power of reading.
While sorting through what was preserved from Stalin’s enormous collection, Roberts encountered an industrious annotator. (In an article reporting on an American claim to “love” the Russian people, Stalin wrote “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, not without threatening their lives.
Lenin’s ideas received Stalin’s unqualified approval. But Roberts found nothing to point to a source for his extraordinary authoritarian violence, concluding that whatever justification there was was Stalin alone.
Anne Applebaum delves into the dark fruits of “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.” Beginning in 1929, Stalin forced millions off their land and into collective farms. The resulting famine killed at least 5 million people, including more than 3 million Ukrainians. Applebaum argues that the destruction was deliberate: eliminating the Ukrainians would help cement Sovietization and regime control over a resource-rich land.
For decades after the 1930s, the Soviets suppressed this story. 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 from 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 flowswith his fearless tale of the famine.
MJ Andersen is an author and journalist.