Ground Level Portraits of the Red Army

In the TLS, Omer Bartov reviews two newly published books on the Red Army, including the war diaries of the novelist Vasily Grossman.

Not all understanding [of the Soviet Union] is derived from documents newly salvaged from the archives. Some of the sources for understanding the tragedy and glory of Russia’s war have been waiting to be “discovered” and employed for decades, yet in a sense they were always available. This is the case of the two magnificent books under review here. Vasily Grossman completed his novel Life and Fate in 1960, but Mikhail Suslov, chief of the Cultural Section of the Central Committee, decided that it would not be published for at least 200 years, and the KGB seized all copies it could lay its hands on.

Life and Fate is finally being recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of the twentieth century. But it had to be smuggled to Switzerland and only gradually came to be known by an international readership. It was finally published in Russia after the fall of Communism. An extraordinary combination of a sprawling nineteenth-century Russian novel and a Soviet social-realist depiction of simple men’s discovery of their capacity for heroism and sacrifice, the book was based on Grossman’s own experience at the front as a correspondent for the Red Army’s official paper, Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). Thanks to Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, the notebooks on which Grossman based much of his novel, written during his time at the front – where he spent most of the war years – are now available in an excellent English translation.