Military history


The Withdrawal before Moscow

Stalin did not react to the growing disaster on the Bryansk Front until 5 October. That was the day when a fighter patrol of Red Army aviation spotted a German armoured column, some twelve miles long, advancing on Yukhno. The Stavka, the Red Army general staff headquarters in Moscow, refused to accept this report and a subsequent confirmation. Beria even wanted to arrest the air force officer concerned and accuse him of spreading defeatism, but Stalin finally woke up to the threat to the capital.

There was only one thing which could slow the German advance on Moscow at this stage, and that was the rasputitsa, the season of mud before winter set in for the duration. After a short freeze and snowfall on 6 October, a thaw rapidly followed the next morning. Grossman described the effect.

I don’t think anyone has ever seen such terrible mud. There’s rain, snow, hailstones, a liquid, bottomless swamp, black pastry mixed by thousands and thousands of boots, wheels, caterpillars. And everyone is happy once again. The Germans must get stuck in our hellish autumn, both in the sky and on the ground. At any rate, we have managed to escape from the sack. Tomorrow we will get on to the Tula highway.

A village near Tula. Brick houses. Night. Snow and rain. Everyone is frozen, especially those sitting in the Noah’s Ark: Regimental Commissar Konstantinov, a teacher, and Baru, correspondent of Stalinsky sokol.1 Lysov, Troyanovsky and I are warmer: we are travelling in the Emka. The vehicles stop in the middle of a dark village street. Petlyura, who is a real magician at procuring milk and apples and digging slit trenches, disappears into the night. But just for once he fails. We enter an izba, which is cold and dark, like a grave. In the izba, a seventy-year-old woman is sitting amid the cold and darkness. She is singing songs. She welcomes us merrily and eagerly, like a young person, without grunting or whining, although, apparently, she has all the reasons to complain about her fate.

Her daughter, a factory worker, brought her to this village to stay with her son and went back to Moscow. The son, who is the chairman of the collective farm here, couldn’t allow her to stay in his house because his wife wouldn’t let him. This wife has also forbidden her husband to help his mother, and the old woman is living off what kind people give her. Sometimes the son secretly brings her a little millet or potatoes. The younger son, Vanya, had been working at a plant in Tula. He volunteered. He was fighting near Smolensk, [but] she hasn’t had any letters from him for a month. Vanya is her favourite.

She tells us the whole story in a kindly, calm voice, without any bitterness, resentment, pain or reproach. With a tsarina-like generosity, she gives all that she has to our frozen horde: a dozen logs which would have lasted her for a week, a handful of salt, leaving not a single grain for herself, half a bucket of potatoes. She keeps only a dozen, along with her pillow, a sack stuffed with straw, and her torn blanket. She brings a kerosene lamp. When our drivers want to pour some petrol into it, she does not allow this. ‘You will need this petrol yourselves.’ And she brings a tiny bottle in which she keeps her sacred reserve of kerosene and pours it into the lamp.

Having graced us with warmth, food, light and soft beds, she retires to the cold part of the izba. She sits down there and begins singing.

I went to her and said: ‘Babushka, are you going to sleep here in the darkness, in the cold, on bare wood?’ She just waved me off with her hand. ‘How do you live here alone? Do you have to sleep in the cold and dark here every night?’

‘Ah well, I sit in the dark, sing songs, or tell stories to myself.’ She boiled a cast-iron pot of potatoes, we ate and went to sleep, and she started singing to us in a hoarse voice, like an old man’s.

‘Oh, I used to be so healthy, like a stallion,’ she told me. ‘The Devil came to me last night and gripped my palm with his fingernails. I began to pray: “May God rise again and may His enemies be scattered.” And the Devil paid no attention. Then I began to swear and curse at him and he went away immediately. My Vanya came to me last night. He sat down on a chair and looked at the window. I said to him: “Vanya, Vanya!,” but he didn’t reply.’

If we do win in this terrible, cruel war, it will be because there are such noble hearts in our nation, such righteous people, souls of immense generosity, such old women, mothers of sons who, from their noble simplicity, are now losing their lives for the sake of their nation with the same generosity with which this old woman from Tula has given us all that she had. There is only a handful of them in our land, but they will win.

The regal generosity of this pauper has shaken all of us. In the morning we leave her all our supplies, and our drivers, in a frenzy of kindness, loot the whole area and bring her so much firewood and potatoes that she will be able to last till spring on them. ‘What an old woman,’ Petlyura says when we set off, and shakes his head.

Soon after reaching the Orel–Tula road, Grossman spotted a sign to Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate, some twenty kilometres south of Tula. He persuaded his companions that they should visit it. As things turned out, the next visitor after them would be General Guderian, who decided to turn the writer’s home into his headquarters for the assault on Moscow.

Yasnaya Polyana. I suggested we take a look at it. The Emka turned off the panic-stricken highway, and the Noah’s Ark followed. One could see the green roofs and white walls of the houses amid the curly gold of the autumnal park. The gate. Chekhov, when he first came here, only managed to walk up to this gate and then turned away, intimidated by the thought that he would meet Tolstoy in a few minutes. He walked back to the station and returned to Moscow. The road leading to the house is paved by countless red, orange and yellow leaves. This is so beautiful. The more lovely the surroundings, the sadder one feels in times like these.

There’s an angry, pre-departure confusion in the house. Piles of boxes. Bare walls. Suddenly I feel with a terrible intensity that this place has turned into Lysye Gory, which the old and sick Prince is about to leave.2 Everything has combined to produce an entirely new image, the events that occurred a century ago and those happening today, and what the book tells with such strength and truthfulness about the old Prince Bolkonsky now seems to refer to the old Count Tolstoy himself and has become inseparable from reality.

Meeting with Sofya Andreevna.3 She is calm and depressed. [She] says that the secretary of the local Party Committee has promised to provide her with railway carriages to evacuate the museum, but she isn’t sure that it is still possible, now that the Germans are so close and are advancing so fast. We talk about Moscow and friends who have passed away, and then we remain silent for a while thinking of their unfortunate fate. Then we discuss the theme that everyone is now talking about with pain, bewilderment and sorrow: the retreat.

Tolstoy’s grave. Roar of fighters over it, humming of explosions and the majestic calm autumn. It is so hard. I have seldom felt such pain.

Tula, seized with that deadly fever, the tormenting, terrible fever we’ve seen in Gomel, Chernigov, Glukhov, Orel and Bolkhov. Is this really happening to Tula? Complete confusion. An officer finds me in the Voentorg military canteen. He asks me to come to the OBKOM. A representative of the Stavka who is there at the moment would like to find out from me where the headquarters of the Bryansk Front is at the moment, as he needs to send units there. Fragments of divisions are arriving. They say that only part of the 50th Army has managed to escape the encirclement. Where is Petrov, and Shlyapin? Where is Valya, the girl nurse who played dominoes with us and wound up the gramophone to play ‘The Little Blue Shawl’?

The streets are filled with people, they are walking on pavements and in the road and still there isn’t enough room. Everyone is dragging bundles, baskets and suitcases. At the hotel where we are given a room we run into all the other correspondents. Krylov with whom we had bolted from the Central Front is here too. The correspondents have already made themselves at home in the hotel. Some have embarked on blitz affairs.

We say goodbye to our travelling companion, the teacher whose face cream and collars we used to clean our boots. This night our truck performs the function of Noah’s Ark for the last time: we give a lift to the railway station to the families of people from the Tula office of the newspaper,4 with their belongings. Petlyura is angry: ‘We should have made them pay.’ But Seryozha Vasiliev, who drives the Noah’s Ark, is against it. He is a wonderfully kind, sweet and modest fellow.

Suddenly during the night, a conversation with Moscow on a direct line. Order to go to Moscow. Violent, irrational joy. Sleepless night.

In the battered Emka, the two-hundred-kilometre journey due north from Tula to the Soviet Capital may well have taken them most of the day.

Moscow. Barricades at the outer approaches, and also closer in, particularly around the suburbs, as well as in the city itself.

We all had a luxurious shave [at a barber’s] on Serpukhovskaya Square. The public was kind and gentle, asking us to go first, asking about the war. Without going home we went straight to the editorial office [of Krasnaya Zvezda].

The editor [Ortenberg] came to meet us. He was up in arms. ‘Why have you left the headquarters of the Bryansk Front?’

‘We were ordered to leave, and we left, after all the other correspondents did.’

‘Why didn’t you write anything about the heroic defence of Orel?’

‘Because there was no defence.’

‘That’s all. You may go. At six o’clock tomorrow morning you – Grossman, Troyanovsky, Lysov – will return straight to the front.’

People say that [Ortenberg] is a good editor. Perhaps he is. But how come this small-town man who hasn’t even completed his secondary school education is as ambitious and arrogant towards his juniors as a Roman patrician? After all the months we’ve spent at the front he hasn’t even asked his subordinates, if only out of politeness, how they feel and whether their health is all right.

Ortenberg later felt uneasy at the way he had behaved. This is how he recorded the events of 7 October.

The morning and evening reports from the Sovinformburo recounted the same things as at the beginning of the month: hard battles with the enemy everywhere. Nothing on the situation at the Western and Bryansk fronts. And Orel has already fallen. I learned this at the Stavka.

Our correspondents at the Bryansk Front, Pavel Troyanovsky and Vasily Grossman, who had arrived back from the area of Orel, confirmed this, too. I saw their Emka – dented all over by shell fragments. Staff from the editorial office had gathered round the car. They were examining it, shaking their heads, as if saying: ‘Look at what these fellows have just been through! They are lucky to have got out alive.’

After they had spent enough time with their friends by the Emka, Grossman and Troyanovsky came to talk to me and told me about the disaster at the front. I listened attentively to what they had to say, but couldn’t refrain from harsh words. Of course, the newspaper couldn’t publish their report about the breakthrough at the Bryansk Front and the capture of Orel before the official confirmation came. We thought, however, that any battle, even a disastrous one for us, reveals the true heroes and feats, about which one should and must write!

I told Grossman and Troyanovsky point-blank: ‘We don’t need your shot-up Emka. We need material for the newspaper. Go back to the front!’ This was probably unfair. I want to make no excuses even now when I know for sure that the special correspondents had achieved a miraculous escape from the enemy’s encirclement. I had to, when looking into the lost and worried faces of these men, who were in fact brave, even courageous, to find some other words for them, to be nicer. But let us remember that time! One could not indulge in sentiment.

Grossman and Troyanovsky left at once for the I Guards Rifle Corps of Major-General D.D. Lelyushenko, which had succeeded on that very day in stopping the enemy near Mtsensk. And my remark about the shot-up Emka started circulating around the lobbies at the editorial office and even our correspondents’ offices at the front.

Despite Ortenberg’s order to return to the front early the next morning, Grossman managed a fleeting visit to his father that night.

I spent some time at home [with] Papa and Zhenni Genrikhovna.5 I spoke to Papa about my biggest worry, but I don’t need to write about it. It is in my heart day and night. Is she alive? No, she isn’t! I know, I feel this.

Part of Lelyushenko’s I Guards Rifle Corps of two rifle divisions and two tank brigades had been airlifted to the area of Orel on Stalin’s personal order to halt the German breakthrough.6 Mtsensk, where the T-34s of the 4th Tank Brigade under Colonel Katukov counter-attacked, is fifty kilometres north-east of Orel on the road to Tula and Moscow. Both Lelyushenko and Katukov would become famous commanders of Guards Tank Armies in the assault on Berlin four years later.

We set off in the morning along the same highway by which we had returned to Moscow yesterday. Everyone at the editorial office was indignant, complaining (in a whisper of course) that the editor hadn’t allowed us even one day’s rest. And the main thing is that [this hasty mission] is foolish.

We rushed without respite through Serpukhov and Tula. Terrible weather. We were lying in the back of the truck, huddled against each other. Night came, but we went racing on. In Moscow we had been given the name of the settlement where the headquarters of the tank corps is situated: Starukhino. We drove and drove without rest. The radiator began to boil over, so we stopped the vehicle. The road was completely empty, we had driven dozens of kilometres without seeing a single vehicle.

Suddenly a Red Army soldier steps out from behind a birch tree and asks in a husky voice: ‘Where are you going?’

‘To Starukhino,’ we reply.

‘Are you off your heads?’ It turns out that the Germans have been there since yesterday. ‘I am the sentry and this is the front line here. Go back quickly, before the Germans see you. They’re just over there.’ Naturally, we turn back. Had the radiator not boiled over, it would have been the end of our careers as journalists.

We look for the headquarters in the terrible darkness and terrible mud. Eventually we find it. It is hot and stuffy in a small izba filled with blue smoke. After the fourteen-hour drive we immediately feel sleepy in the warm room. We are dropping off, but there’s no time. We start asking officers different questions, reading political reports, doing all this as if in a daze.

At dawn, having had no rest, we boarded the truck and returned to Moscow. Deadlines remained unrelenting. We arrived at the editorial office in the evening . . . We chain-smoked all the time to keep awake, and drank tea. We got the story down, as journalists say, and submitted our copy. The editor didn’t publish a single line.

Whatever the frustrations of journalistic life, Grossman was not deterred from his persistent note-taking, whether for novels or articles.

In some villages – for example, the village of Krasnoye – the Germans built concrete pillboxes concealed inside houses. They destroyed one of the walls of a house, pushed a field gun in and built a concrete wall.

When they approach a wood, Germans start firing like madmen and then rush through it at full speed.

Germans opening fire. In the evenings they would go to the edge of a wood and open fire with sub-machine guns. Captain Baklan approached to a distance of fifty metres. He lay there watching. They spotted him. Their behaviour reminded him of madmen. They started running about with terrible shouting. Dozens of rockets soared into the air, artillery started firing without aim, machine guns started rattling away, sub-machine guns too. They were firing all over the place, and Baklan lay there watching the Germans in astonishment.

Grossman, perhaps tiring slightly of journalism, seems to have longed to convey his thoughts and feelings about the war in fictional form. At this stage, when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life, his ideas were very close to that of the Party line. It was only at Stalingrad, a year later, that his view of the Stalinist regime began to change. This outline, may well have formed part of the idea for The People Immortal, his novel written and published the following year:

Sketch for a short story: ‘Notes of signals officer Egorov.’ Idea of the story: a young, jovial Soviet man is full of interest and curiosity when he goes to the war. In the flames of war, seeing the suffering of people, having himself suffered some personal, severe losses, he turns into a hardened, stern warrior, full of hatred for the oppressor of his people. The main theme of the story is hatred, irreconcilability. In this story, we want broadly to show the army and the fighting people, our generals, officers, soldiers, collective farmers, workers, our towns and villages, conducting the great defence. Its inner idea: the iron characters of the Soviet people, whose only fate can be victory, having become hardened in the flames of burning towns, in villages destroyed by Germans.

Egorov was probably the prototype for Ignatiev in the novel, a happy-go-lucky character turned avenger.

It’s a fact, Comrade Commissar,’ he said, ‘it’s as if I’ve become a different person in this war: only now have I seen Russia as she really is. Honestly, I mean it. You walk along and you get to feel so sorry for every river and every bit of woodland that your heart aches . . . I thought can it really be true that this little tree will go to the Germans?’

It is very hard to track Grossman’s exact movements during this period. The Soviet defenders were fortunate with the weather. Frosts and then sudden thaws turning earth roads into churned-up swamps delayed the German Army’s advance. On 14 October, the 10th Panzer Division and the SS Das Reich reached the old battlefield of Borodino, 120 kilometres west of Moscow. Meanwhile, the 1st Panzer Division had seized Kalinin on the Volga northwest of the capital, and to the south Guderian’s tanks had advanced round Tula. On 15 October, foreign embassies were told to prepare to abandon Moscow and leave for Kuibyshev. Panic gripped the capital. Grossman, like other war correspondents, was desperate for any examples of German demoralisation which could bring hope to readers rather than despair.

His notebooks – at least one and probably two are missing – contain little about his experiences in November, when General Georgi Zhukov ground down the German attacks, while preparing a great counter-offensive with fresh troops brought in from Siberia and the Far East. Stalin was finally convinced, partly by Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy in Tokyo, but mainly by signals intercepts, that Japan was going to attack the United States Navy in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor, and not the Soviet Union.

In mid-November, Grossman was allowed back to Moscow, but he was distraught to find that he had missed his father by a day. His wife, along with the families of many members of the Writers’ Union, had been evacuated to Chistopol.

My dear and good [Father], I was mortally upset when I arrived in Moscow and didn’t find you there. I arrived the day after you left for Kuibyshev. My dear one, we shall see each other again, remember this. I hope for it and believe it . . . Lyusya is working hard at the collective farm [in Chistopol]. She’s become as thin as a rail. It is likely that I will leave for the front soon, perhaps for the Southern Front.

In the end Grossman may have met up with his father in Kuibyshev, because, according to Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman stayed with him there for a short time. ‘We were given an apartment at that moment, and we put up Grossman and Gabrilovich. Endless conversations went on into the night, and during the day we sat there writing. Vasily Semyonovich [Grossman] had been in Kuibyshev for two weeks, when an order came from the editor of Krasnaya Zvezda for him to fly to the Southern Front. He had told me a lot about confusion and about resistance, that some units were standing firm, that grain was not being harvested. He told me about Yasnaya Polyana. It was then that he started his novel The People Immortal, and when I read it later, many of its pages seemed to me very familiar. He found himself as a writer during the war. His pre-war books were nothing more than searching for his theme and language. He was a true internationalist and reproached me frequently for saying “Germans” instead of “Hitler’s men” when describing the atrocities of the occupiers.’ Ehrenburg was persuaded that it was Grossman’s all-embracing world view which made the xenophobic Stalin hate him.

It appears that Grossman went not to the Southern Front itself, but just north of it, to the 21st Army with the South-Western Front. The situation in the south was as volatile as round Moscow. On 19 November, Field Marshal von Kleist’s First Panzer Group broke through to Rostov-on-Don, the entrance to the Caucasus. But his armoured divisions were soon forced to pull back as a result of Marshal Timoshenko’s counter-attacks, harsh frosts for which the German troops were not prepared and overextended supply lines. Hitler was furious, because it was the first German retreat of the war. The Soviet press reported surprisingly little. Perhaps Stalin did not want to admit that the Germans had got as far as Rostov.

On the South-Western Front, Grossman was attached to the headquarters of the 1st Guards Rifle Division commanded by General Russiyanov.7 None of his notebooks covering this journey remain. In any case, he missed one of the most dramatic moments in Moscow’s history. The Kalinin Front to the north of the city launched its counter-attack on 5 December through snow more than a metre deep. The ground really was as hard as iron, and the Germans had to light fires under their armoured vehicles before they could start the engines. The Western Front attacked just afterwards. The rapid German retreat saved the Wehrmacht from disaster, but the Soviet capital was saved.

Although it was hard to distinguish at the time, this was the turning point of the war in the sense that the Wehrmacht stood no further chance of winning. And the United States, which was to supply the Red Army with the trucks and jeeps it needed for rapid advances in 1943 and 1944, had just entered the war. In the euphoria of the counter-attack round Moscow, Grossman sensed a new mood in Soviet ranks.

Grossman returned to Moscow on 17 December, and three days later Ortenberg remarked on his method of working. ‘Vasily Grossman has returned . . . He did not manage to submit the article for the next issue of the newspaper, and we didn’t ask him to hurry up. We knew how he worked. Although he had taught himself to write in any conditions, however bad, in a bunker by a wick lamp, in a field, lying in bed or in an izba stuffed with people, he always wrote slowly, persistently giving all of his strength to this process.’ That same day, 20 December, Grossman took the chance to catch up on his own correspondence. He wrote to a friend, M.M. Shkapskaya.

It is still too early to be looking at your son’s fate in such a dark light, he is probably alive and healthy. And the post is so bad now. There are lots of people here who cannot get in touch with their families. I am living well here, and it is interesting. I am in good spirits, the situation at the front is good, very good even . . . By the way, I very nearly lost the chance to contact my relatives ever again: I found myself under attack from five Junkers and had a narrow escape climbing out of the house which they destroyed with a bomb and machine-gun fire. Of course, you shouldn’t write to Chistopol about this.

Chistopol was where his wife, Olga Mikhailovna Guber, was staying. He wrote to her too, but naturally omitted to recount his narrow escape from the air attack.

There are very nice people around me. By the way, Tvardovsky8 is here too. He is a good chap. Could you tell his wife that he looks extremely well and everything is absolutely fine with him? I came back from the front three days ago and now I am writing. I have seen a lot. Everything is very different to how it was in the summer. There are lots of broken German vehicles on the roads and in the steppe, lots of abandoned guns, hundreds of German corpses, helmets and weapons are lying everywhere. We are advancing!

Grossman, like many Russians at this time, was convinced by the sudden turnaround in December, that the Germans, suffering so badly in their thin uniforms from the vicious winter, were collapsing under the weight of the Soviet general offensive launched by Stalin after the counter-attacks either side of Moscow. His last article for Krasnaya Zvezda to be published that year bore the title ‘Accursed and Derided’.

When marching into European capitals, they tried to look impressive, these fascist frontoviki. And it was the same men who entered this Russian village one morning. There were shawls over these soldiers’ heads. Some were wearing women’s bonnets under their black helmets and women’s knitted pantaloons. Many soldiers were dragging sledges loaded with quilts, pillows, bags with food, or old buckets.

A soldier with an old woman in a newly liberated village near Moscow. The village had been occupied for about two months.

Germans were camping in this izba just six hours ago. Their papers, bags, helmets are still on the table. The izbas that they had set on fire are still smouldering. Their bodies smashed by Soviet steel are lying around in the snow. And women, feeling that the nightmare of the last days is over at last, suddenly exclaim through sobs: ‘You are our dear ones, you are back at last!’

‘Well, this is how it was [one of the women recounted]. The Germans came. They knocked at the door, crowded into the house, and stood by the stove like sick dogs, their teeth chattering, shaking, putting their hands right into the stove, and their hands were red like raw meat. “Light the stove, light it!” they shouted as their teeth chattered. Well, as soon as they got warmer, they began to scratch themselves. It was awful to watch, and funny. Like dogs, scratching themselves with their paws. Lice had started moving again on their bodies because of the warmth.’

1 Stalin’s Falcon, a Red Army Aviation newspaper.

2 Prince Bolkonsky in War and Peace had to leave his house of Lysye Gory on the approach of Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

3 Leo Tolstoy’s granddaughter.

4 Presumably Krasnaya Zvezda.

5 Zhenni Genrikhovna, the family’s Volga German nanny, appeared in her own guise and under her own name in Life and Fate. She was fortunate not to have been arrested as a spy in Moscow during the panic of October 1941 as she still spoke a broken Russian with a heavy German accent.

6 LXI Guards Rifle Corps was formed on 27 September as part of the Stavka Reserve. It consisted of 5th Guards Rifle Division, 6th Guards Rifle Division, 4th Tank Brigade and 11th Tank Brigade. The Corps headquarters then became the basis for 5th Army.

7 The 1st Guards Rifle Division had been formed on 18 September from the 100th Rifle Division, which had been badly mauled in the retreat from Minsk and Smolensk, and then the counterattack at Elyna, where it won its Guards designation. Lt. Gen. I.N. Russiyanov later commanded I Guards Mechanised Corps in Operation Little Saturn in December 1942 during the latter stages of the Stalingrad campaign.

8 Tvardovsky, Aleksandr Trifonich (1910–1971), poet and later editor of the literary journal Novy Mir, 1950–4 and 1958–70, in which he published Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward. Tvardovsky came originally from a village near Smolensk. His father, a kulak, suffered deportation under Stalin. Tvardovsky, however, had just won a Stalin Prize for his long poem Strana Muraviya (The Land of Muraviya), about a kulak who sets off on a quixotic journey to find somewhere in Russia where there were no collective farms, but finally returns home to a collective farm and happiness.

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