Baptism of Fire
Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union began in the early hours of 22 June 1941. Stalin, refusing to believe that he could be tricked, had rejected more than eighty warnings. Although the Soviet dictator did not collapse until later, he was so disorientated on discovering the truth that the announcement on the wireless at midday was made by his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, in a wooden voice. The people of the Soviet Union proved rather more robust than their leaders. They queued to volunteer for the front.
Vasily Grossman, bespectacled, overweight and leaning on a walking stick, was dejected when the recruiting station turned him down. He should not have been surprised, considering his unimpressive physical state. Grossman was only in his mid-thirties, yet the girls in the next-door apartment called him `uncle'.
Over the next few weeks he tried to get any form of employment he could which was connected with the war. The Soviet authorities, meanwhile, gave little accurate information on what was happening at the front. Nothing was said of the German forces, more than three million strong, dividing the Red Army with armoured thrusts, then capturing hundreds of thousands of prisoners in encirclements. Only the names of towns mentioned in official bulletins revealed how rapidly the enemy was advancing.
Grossman had put off urging his mother to abandon the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine. His second wife, Olga Mikhailovna Guber, convinced him that they had no room for her. Then, before Grossman realised fully what was happening, the German Sixth Army seized Berdichev on 7 July. The enemy had advanced over 350 kilometres in just over two weeks. Grossman's failure to save his mother burdened him for the rest of his life, even after he discovered that she had refused to leave because there was nobody else to look after a niece. Grossman was also extremely concerned about the fate of Ekaterina, or Katya, his daughter by his first wife. He did not know that she had been sent away from Berdichev for the summer.
Desperate to be of some help to the war effort, Grossman badgered the Main Political Department of the Red Army, known by the acronym GLAVPUR, even though he was not a member of the Communist Party. His future editor, David Ortenberg, a commissar with the rank of general, recounted later how he came to work for Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet armed forces which was far more attentively read during the war than any other paper.
I remember how Grossman turned up for the first time at the editorial office. This was in late July. I had dropped in at the Main Political Department and heard that Vasily Grossman had been asking them to send him to the front. All that I knew about this writer was that he had written the novel Stepan Kolchugin about the Donbass.
`Vasily Grossman?' I said. `I've never met him, but I know Stepan Kolchugin. Please send him to Krasnaya Zvezda.'
`Yes, but he has never served in the army. He knows nothing about it. Would he fit in at Krasnaya Zvezda?'
`That's all right,' I said, trying to persuade them. `He knows about people's souls.'
I did not leave them in peace until the People's Commissar signed the order to conscript Vasily Grossman into the Red Army and appoint him to our newspaper. There was one problem. He was given the rank of private, or, as Ilya Ehrenburg liked to joke about both himself and Grossman, `untrained private'. It was impossible to give him an officer's rank or that of a commissar because he was not a Party member. It was equally impossible to make him wear a private's uniform, as he would have had to spend half his time saluting his seniors. All that we could do was to give him the rank of quartermaster. Some of our writers, such as Lev Slavin, Boris Lapin and even, for some time, Konstantin Simonov, were in the same situation. Their green tabs used to cause them a lot of trouble, as the same tabs were worn by medics, and they were always being mistaken for them. Anyway, on 28 July 1941 I signed the order: `Quartermaster of the second rank Vasily Grossman is appointed a special correspondent of Krasnaya Zvezda with a salary of 1,200 roubles per month.'
The next day Grossman reported at the editorial office. He told me that although this appointment was unexpected, he was happy about it. He returned a few days later fully equipped and in an officer's uniform. [His tunic was all wrinkled, his spectacles kept sliding down his nose, and his pistol hung on his unfastened belt like an axe.]
`I am ready to depart for the front today,' he said.
`Today?' I asked. `But can you fire that thing?' I pointed to the pistol hanging at his side.
`And a rifle?'
`No, I can't, either.'
`So how can I allow you to go to the front? Anything can happen there. No, you will have to live at the editorial office for a couple of weeks.'
Colonel Ivan Khitrov, our tactical expert and a former army officer, became Grossman's coach. He would take him to one of the shooting ranges of the Moscow garrison and teach him how to shoot.
On 5 August, Ortenberg allowed Grossman to set off for the front. He arranged for him to be accompanied by Pavel Troyanovsky, a correspondent of great experience, and Oleg Knorring, a photographer. Grossman described their departure in some detail.
We are leaving for the Central Front. Political Officer Troyanovsky, camera reporter Knorring, and I are going to Gomel. Troyanovsky, with his thin dark face and big nose, has received the medal `For Achievements in Battle'. He has seen a lot although he isn't old, in fact he is some ten years younger than me. I had at first thought that Troyanovsky was a real soldier, a born fighter, but it turned out that he had started his career in journalism not long ago as a correspondent of Pionerskaya Pravda [the Communist Youth Movement newspaper]. I was told that Knorring is a good photo-journalist. He is tall, a year younger than me. I am older than the other two, but alongside them I am a mere baby in matters of war. They take a perfectly justified pleasure in regaling me with the forthcoming horrors.
We leave tomorrow by train. We will travel in a `soft' railway carriage all the way to Bryansk, and from there by whatever transport God sends our way. We were briefed before our departure by Brigade Commissar Ortenberg. He told us that an advance was about to take place. Our first meeting was at GLAVPUR. Ortenberg had a conversation with me and finally told me that he thought I was an author of children's books. This was a big surprise for me, I had no idea that I had written any books for children. When we were saying goodbye I said to him: `Goodbye, Comrade Boev.' He burst out laughing. `I am not Boev, I am Ortenberg.' Well, I paid him back. I had mistaken him for the chief of the publications department of GLAVPUR.
I have been drinking all day, just as a recruit should. Papa turned up, as well as Kugel, Vadya, Zhenya and Veronichka. Veronichka was looking at me with very sad eyes, as if I were Gastello. I was very touched. The whole family sang songs and had sad conversations. The atmosphere was melancholy and concentrated. I lay alone that night, thinking. I had a lot of things, as well as people, to think about.
The day of our departure is a lovely one, it's hot and rainy. Sunshine and rain alternate suddenly. Pavements and sidewalks are wet. Sometimes they shine and sometimes are slate grey. The air is filled with hot, stifling moisture. A beautiful girl, Marusya, has come to see Troyanovsky off. She works at the editorial offices [of Krasnaya Zvezda], but apparently she is seeing him off on her own initiative, not at the editor's request. Knorring and I are tactful. We avoid looking in their direction.
Then the three of us [go to the platform]. I have so many memories of the Bryansky railway station. It's the station I arrived at when I first came to Moscow. Perhaps my departure from it today is my last. We drink lemonade and eat disgusting cakes in the cafeteria.
Our train pulls out of the station. All the names of stations along the line are familiar. I passed them so many times as a student, going back to Mama, to Berdichev, for my holidays. For the first time in a long while I can catch up on sleep in this `soft' compartment, after all the air raids on Moscow.
[After reaching Bryansk] we spend a night at the railway station. Every corner is filled with Red Army soldiers. Many of them are badly dressed, in rags. They have already been `there'. Abkhazians look the worst. Many of them are barefoot.
We have to sit up all night. German aircraft appear above the station, the sky is humming, there are searchlights everywhere. We all rush to some wasteland as far as possible from the station. Fortunately, the Germans don't bomb us here, they only frighten us. In the morning we listen to a broadcast from Moscow. It is a press conference given by Lozovsky [the head of the Soviet Information Bureau]. Sound was bad, we were listening hungrily. He used a lot of proverbs as usual, but they didn't make our hearts feel any lighter.
We go to the freight station to look for a train. They put us on a hospital train going to Unecha [midway between Bryansk and Gomel]. We board the train, but then suddenly there is panic. Everyone starts running, and firing. It turns out that a German aircraft is machine-gunning the railway station. I myself was caught up in this considerable commotion.
After Unecha, we travelled in a freight car. The weather was wonderful, but my travel companions said this was bad, and I realised this myself. There were black holes and craters from bombs everywhere along the railway. One could see trees broken by explosions. In the fields there were thousands of peasants, men and women, digging anti-tank ditches.
We watch the sky nervously and decided to jump off the train if the worst came to the worst. It was moving quite slowly. The moment we arrived in Novozybkov there was an air raid. A bomb fell by the station forecourt. This train wasn't going any further. We lay on the green grass, waiting and enjoying the warmth and grass around us, but we still kept glancing up at the sky. What if a German [aircraft] turned up all of a sudden?
We jump to our feet in the middle of the night. There is a hospital train going to Gomel. We take hold of the handrails when the train is already moving. We hang on the steps, knock at the door, pleading with them to let us at least on to the platform of the freight car. Suddenly a woman looks out and shouts: `Jump off this second! It is forbidden to travel on hospital trains!' The woman is a doctor whose calling is to relieve people's suffering. `Excuse us, but the train is moving at full speed, how are we to jump off?' There are five of us holding on to the handrails, we are all officers and all we are asking for is to be allowed to stand on the covered platform. She starts kicking us with her great boot, silently and with extraordinary force. She punches us on the hands with her fist, trying to make us let go of the handrails. Things are looking bad: if one lets go, that would be the end. Fortunately, it dawns on us that we aren't on a Moscow tram, and switch from the defensive to the attack. A few seconds later, the covered platform is ours, and the bitch with the rank of doctor is screaming in a frightened way and disappears very quickly. This is our first taste of fighting.
We arrive in Gomel. The train stops very far from the railway station, so we have a painful walk along the track in the dark. One has to crawl under the carriages to cross railways. I bang my forehead on them and stumble; my damned suitcase turns out to be extremely heavy.
Finally we reach the station building. It is completely destroyed. We utter `Ahs' and `Ohs' looking at the ruins. A railway worker who is passing reassures us by saying that the station had been demolished just before the invasion in order to build a bigger and better one.
Gomel! What sadness there is in this quiet green town, in these sweet public gardens, in its old people sitting on the benches, in sweet girls walking along the streets. Children are playing in the piles of sand brought here to extinguish incendiary bombs ... Any minute a huge cloud may cover the sun, a storm may whip up sand and dust, and whirl them about. The Germans are less than fifty kilometres away.
Gomel welcomes us with an air-raid warning. Locals say that the custom here is to sound the alarm when there are no German aircraft around and, on the contrary, to sound the all-clear as soon as bombing starts.
Bombing of Gomel. A cow, howling bombs, fire, women ... The strong smell of perfume - from a pharmacy hit in the bombardment - blocked out the stench of burning, just for a moment.
The picture of burning Gomel in the eyes of a wounded cow.
The colours of smoke. Typesetters had to set their newspaper by the light of burning buildings.
We stay the night with a tyro journalist. His articles aren't going to join a Golden Treasury of Literature. I've seen them in the Front newspaper. They are complete rubbish, with stories such as `Ivan Pupkin has killed five Germans with a spoon'.
We went to meet the editor, regimental commissar Nosov, who kept us waiting for a good two hours. We had to sit in a dark corridor, and when finally we saw this tsar-like person and spoke with him for a couple minutes, I realised that this comrade was, to put it mildly, not particularly bright and that his conversation wasn't worth even a two-minute wait.
The headquarters of the Central Front was the first port of call for Grossman, Troyanovsky and Knorring. The Central Front, commanded by General Andrei Yeremenko, had been set up hurriedly following the collapse of the Western Front at the end of June. The Western Front's unfortunate commander, General D.G. Pavlov, was made the chief scapegoat for Stalin's refusal to prepare for war. In characteristic Stalinist fashion, Pavlov, the commander of Soviet tank forces during the Spanish Civil War, was accused of treason and executed.
Excerpted from A Writer at War by Vasily Grossman edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. Copyright © 2007 by Vasily Grossman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.