In the Donbass, January to March 1942
In January 1942, Grossman was sent to cover operations to the southeast of Kharkov. This appears to have been at his own request. ‘Vasily Grossman persuaded me to send him to the South-Western Front,’ Ortenberg wrote soon afterwards. ‘This is the part of the country that he comes from.’ Grossman, although not born or brought up there, knew the region from his days as a mining engineer in the Donbass. In any case, it was Grossman’s articles during this period which opened Ortenberg’s eyes to his talents. ‘The ruthless truth of war!’ he wrote. ‘Vasily Grossman, whose talent as a writer was developing right in front of our eyes, remained true to it.’
Ortenberg may well have been surprised by Grossman’s request. The other correspondents were keen to stay close to Moscow since everyone expected the key battles to take place on the central axis. Yet it was almost as if Grossman was drawn to the region and the enemy – the German Sixth Army – which would create the defining period of his life: in Stalingrad.
When Field Marshal von Rundstedt demanded permission from OKH, the Army High Command, to pull back to the line of the River Mius, Hitler was outraged at the idea of withdrawal. Rundstedt insisted that it was essential and offered his resignation. Hitler dismissed him and appointed Field Marshal von Reichenau, the commander of the Sixth Army and a convinced Nazi, in his place. Yet Reichenau too insisted on withdrawal to the Mius. Hitler, who flew down to see for himself, discovered to his amazement that even Sepp Dietrich, the commander of the SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, was of the same mind.
Reichenau’s Sixth Army had captured the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. At the end of September 1941, his troops were used to help transport 33,771 Jews to the ravine of Babi Yar outside the city, where they were systematically slaughtered by SS Sonderkommando 4a. The Sixth Army also took Kharkov, and the 38th Army, to which Grossman was attached in that January of 1942, faced them.
Division commander Lazko and his wife Sofya Efimovna.1 Night. The izba is hot. Bukovsky and I enter the house after having spent the long night in the cold, travelling.
They are both extremely hospitable. There is a large assortment of home-made foods: dumplings, pastries, pickles. While we wash the cold away with water, Lazko is holding for us a white canvas towel with Ukrainian embroidery. Polyak is the chief of staff of the division. Before the war he was a high official at the Foreign Ministry. He is a rude and morose man.
Grossman went to watch the attack being prepared on the enemy-occupied village of Zaliman some twenty kilometres south of Svatovo. An earlier reconnaissance mission found that the Germans had pegged out live geese along the sector to act as a warning device. The geese made a great deal of noise.
Night. Snowstorm. Vehicles. Artillery. They are moving in silence. Suddenly a hoarse voice is heard at a road junction: ‘Hey, which is the road to Berlin?’ A roar of laughter.
We are able to watch a German counter-attack from a small hill. They run a few steps and then lie down. A little figure is running about, waving its arms. It’s an officer. A few more steps forward, then they rush back and the figure appears again. Again, several steps forward and more rushing about. The counter-attack failed.
Dreams do come true. As soon as the Germans form up in a group: Bang! Here’s a shell for them. It’s Morozov, the gun-layer. As soon as there’s an accumulation of Germans and one begins to think it would be wonderful to scatter them, then: Bang! A shell! Even we jump up in amazement.
The Red Army loved to vaunt any soldier who demonstrated a particular skill with his weapon, whether a sniper, a champion grenade thrower or a gun-layer like Morozov. They were exalted like Stakhanovite workers and their achievements were often wildly exaggerated in the retelling.
Battle for Zaliman, the second day. It’s very cold. Haze. Artillery is firing, an ear-splitting racket. The regiment of Lieutenant Colonel Elchaninov is fighting for Zaliman. They have brought field guns right into the village and hidden them behind the houses. When they spot a machine gun, they wheel the gun out, fire point-blank and then push it back behind the house.
Problems for the artillery: battle in a village. Everything has got mixed up. One house is ours, another one is theirs.
Talking to a woman: ‘There were forty Germans walking – I even shut my eyes, ah, my God – straight into the village, and when I opened my eyes, some of them were lying on the ground, and some were running back.’ (That was gun-layer Morozov.)
How Zaliman was taken. We leaped in when the Germans were regrouping. Some units had already left and others hadn’t replaced them. We lost only three men wounded. Had we chosen a different way we would have lost thousands. The Germans had wire fences, log bunkers, concrete pillboxes, trenches and dugouts. There were even fireplaces in the bunkers tiled like those in houses. Company reconnaissance had provided detailed reports about the pillboxes. When our troops took Zaliman, these reports proved totally accurate, almost as if we had built the pillboxes ourselves.
Grossman picked up on the ‘fireplaces in the bunkers tiled like those in houses’, because Red Army soldiers were frequently amazed at how German troops often tried to make their defensive positions so homely. It seemed so sedentary and civilian in an army which believed in martial qualities and Blitzkrieg. Grossman joined the commander and staff of the regiment which had carried out the attack.
At the regimental command post. The izba has been stripped bare. The Germans had taken everything away. Chairs, beds, brooms, stools. Colonel Pesochin is fat and big. He looks like a member of the intelligentsia, but people say that he punches his subordinates in the face with his fist. He has hit the editor of the divisional newspaper.
Divisional Commissar Snitser is fat, big. They are making fun of one another all the time and constantly muffle each other up, button up each other’s collars. There are jokes the whole time. German heavy artillery is firing. ‘Why don’t you destroy it?’
‘It’s hard to grasp it,’ comes the jovial answer.
‘Of course it’s easier to grasp women.’
Grossman took down a number of these bantering exchanges of heavy military humour.
‘You are growing fatter all the time, Major Kostyukov.’
‘I am competing with my chief, Comrade Divisional Commander.’
‘I am sure you are going to win this competition.’
‘No. My weight stabilised in 1936.’
‘Everyone is fat in your regiment.’
‘It would be too great an honour to the Germans to lose weight because of them.’
Dinner at regimental headquarters. ‘Cook, how long has it taken you to make such tiny pelmeni?’
‘I began making them when he [a German aircraft] was diving down at us. The serpent wouldn’t let me finish my pelmeni.’
A captain runs in while we are having dinner. ‘May I report, up to three hundred [enemy] sub-machine-gunners have been sighted.’
Snitser, pouring the vodka: ‘Ha-ha-ha! Divide that by ten.’
Pesochin punches commissars and divisional commissar Serafim Snitser punches his own politruks [political officers]. Each of them has his own chain of command of punching. They are both huge, massive men, with fat, meaty fists. Actions have been brought against both of them in the Army Party Commission, but they aren’t deterred. They give promises, but are unable to keep them, like drunkards. They blow their top every time. Spitser punched a tankist yesterday in an argument about ‘trophies’ [i.e. loot].
Grossman, despite such depressing relics of the Red Army at its most unenlightened, was optimistic about the new mood developing.
The spirit of the army – a great, subtle force. It is a reality.
He compared this change with the stiff new measures introduced for the Wehrmacht (even though these were no more ruthless than the sanctions meted out by the NKVD’s Special Departments attached to Soviet formations).
Hitler’s address to the troops: ‘Not a step back from the captured territory.’ The order had been read out and people were forced to sign. ‘A death sentence was read out to us, and we signed it,’ the [German] prisoners say.
Grossman was evidently allowed by Lieutenant Colonel Elchaninov to see the regiment’s records over the previous months. As well as examples of Soviet heroism, Grossman noted down ‘extraordinary events’, which was the official euphemism for cowardice, desertion, treason, anti-Soviet activities and all other crimes which carried the death penalty. Grossman was clearly fascinated by military phraseology and the bizarre juxtaposition of observations. His own notes, however, were far more dangerous, for they recorded many incidents of desertion and insubordination. If any of his notebooks had been discovered by the ‘Special Detachments’, the NKVD military agents of counter-intelligence which were reformed as SMERSh in the spring of 1943, he would have been in very serious trouble.
8 October . Kravtsov in the 3rd Mortar Company constantly tried to stop for rest on the march without his superior’s permission, thus putting his company in danger.
13 October. Red Army soldier Matrosov distinguished himself on a mounted reconnaissance mission. He got killed. One of our squads surrendered to the enemy, under the slogan ‘Down with Soviet government’.
19 October. Red Army soldier shot in the 8th Company for collaborating in a desertion to the enemy.2
24 October. Squad Commander Marchenko isn’t certain of the Red Army winning. He says: ‘Hitler is going to push us back to Siberia.’
15 November. Machine-gunner declared: ‘Comrade Stalin’s report gave me more strength.’ Red Army soldier Oska declared: ‘I give you my word, Comrade Stalin, I’ll go on fighting the enemy as long as my heart beats.’
At the meetings conducted by commissars or ‘politruks’, soldiers were told of heroic acts and encouraged to come up with slogans and suitable declarations themselves.
PolitrukGlyanko broke into the village Kupchinovka, shouting ‘Ura!’
Horse driver Klochko was captured by Germans. They led him to a house where [Soviet] soldiers were stationed. When he approached the entrance, Klochko shouted: ‘Corporal! Germans!’
‘I request the execution of the two Germans who have personally killed a soldier from the 9th Rifle Company, Comrade Gorelov.’
Red Army soldier Pilyugin said: ‘General Frost is happy to help us. Boys are dying in the [German] army, too.’
Red Army soldier Ryaboshtan declared: ‘I am going to dig a trench right now and no enemy fire will force me to retreat from here.’
Red Army soldier from the 9th Company Kozyrev said: ‘It is hard to surrender one’s own land. If only we could advance soon.’
Red Army soldier Zhurba: ‘Death is better than fascist captivity.’
Some soldiers, on the other hand, were dangerously naive in their complaints. They risked being handed over to the Special Department as defeatists and enemy agitators.
Red Army soldier Manyuk stated: ‘We won’t get any rest at all if we are on duty every day.’
Red Army soldier Burak refused to accept a sub-machine gun: he says he’s got bad eyes. Company Commander Kovalenko swore at him with obscene language.
Grossman noted many examples of soldiers and even officers expressing their religious belief. It is not clear, however, whether soldiers had been told of Stalin’s recognition of the Orthodox Church in the hour of the Motherland’s crisis.
Red Army soldier Golyaperov declared: ‘I will only take the oath if there is a cross [to swear on].’
The Special Department arrested an ex-deserter, soldier Manzhulya, who has come back of his own accord.
Manzhulya, even though he had returned voluntarily, and may simply have been a straggler, rather than a deserter, probably faced a firing squad or service in a shtrafbat, or punishment battalion, which virtually guaranteed death, since they were forced to undertake the most hazardous tasks, including, on some occasions, marching across minefields ahead of attacking troops.3
‘The political-moral state of the troops is good. Deserter Toropov was shot in front of [his company].’
Dr Dolenko. Her husband went off with the partisans, and she went away with the Germans.
Such a stark contrast between the heroic and the despicable begs many questions. Dr Dolenko, a Ukrainian to judge by the name, may have simply wanted to rejoin her family behind German lines, but that was treason in Soviet eyes.
As in all armies, the delivery of letters from home was an important factor in morale.
There is a widespread opinion among soldiers that the field post isn’t functioning well.
In the Red Army, even more than in any other, the consumption of alcohol presented the greatest threat to discipline, as it loosened tongues dangerously.
Red Army soldier Kazakov said to his platoon commander: ‘My rifle has been loaded for a long time waiting to shoot you.’
Red Army soldier Evsteev refused to go to his post claiming that he was wet. On 20 October he left his post without permission, abandoning the machine-gun crew. He went to the 7th Company, where he said to the soldiers: ‘Commanders taunt us, drink the last drop of our blood, and stuff their faces with food.’ During a conversation with the politruk, he started arguing, declared that ‘the time will soon come when we’ll raise you too on our bayonets’. The politruk shot him with his pistol.
Throughout the war, the chief obsession of many members of the Red Army was to obtain alcohol or anything which even looked like alcohol.
Deputy platoon commander Anokhin and Corporal Matyukhin drank the contents of bottles with anti-yperite liquid [an antidote for chemical warfare attacks]. The deputy platoon commander died immediately. The corporal died on the way [to hospital].
Grossman noted examples of the tortured language of official military reports.
Podus, chief of pharmacy, performs plunder of spirits from the pharmacy, diluting the remaining spirits with water.
Alcohol also played a large part in matters of lust and love, perhaps partly because it released minds from the deep sexual repression of the Stalinist era, when the slightest hint of eroticism was deemed ‘anti-Party’.
Lieutenant Boginava abandoned his platoon during the night, went to a girl called Marusya, who refused to have anything to do with him. Boginava told her that she should marry him, and threatened to shoot her.
There was in some quarters a genuinely high-minded attitude to culture, even if it was generally directed by political officers at hatred of the enemy and love of the Soviet Union.
A string orchestra is functioning in the 1st Machine-Gun Company . . . Red Army soldiers organise concerts and performances in their battalions. The play In the Farmstead Fyodorovka has been staged . . . A lecture on philosophy was organised for officers.
A musical ensemble of Red Army soldiers . . . ‘A concert given by the ensemble is a well-aimed shot at fascism.’ The ensemble has been going for about two months. They learn songs with the soldiers, [such as] ‘Oi, there was a man shouting at the side of the road’. Kalisty, who works at the tribunal, sings: ‘Oh, Dnepr, Dnepr, you flow far away, and your water is as clear as tears.’ When it is being sung, not only do their listeners cry, but so do the singers themselves. Soldier members of the ensemble – infantrymen, artillerists, tankists – are badly dressed, and one of them suffers from frostbite. They come under fire, as they usually give concerts just before battles. In one village, Dubrova, participants ran in dashes, one by one, to the place where the concert was going to take place in the forest. An old woman came out, Vasilisa Nechivoloda, and danced with Kotlyarov to the accordeon music. She is seventy-five. After the concert she said: ‘Thank you, sons, live many, many years, beat the fascists.’
An informal troop concert.
Villagers were not always so welcoming.
The owner of the accommodation where the 6th Company is billeted is hostile towards the soldiers – she pours ash into their tea, and fills the house with smoke.
Artillery regiment commanded by Major Ivanov. When the cold weather began in earnest, artillery guns were cleaned of grease and the working parts smeared with spindle oil. Groups of tank destroyers were organised and training is being carried out. InPolitrukMalyshev’s battery there’s a wonderful choir. They built and organised a banya entirely through their own efforts.
From the latest political report: ‘In the battle for the village of Zaliman, a wounded Red Army soldier entered the backyard of citizen Yakimenko. Galya Yakimenko was going to give him medical aid. A German fascist broke into the yard and shot both the soldier and Galya and tried to shoot Yakimenko’s fourteen-year-old son. A neighbour, old man Semyon Belyavtsev, grabbed a stick and hit the fascist on the head. Soldier Petrov rushed up and shot the German.’
In almost all Soviet units, there was a very high casualty rate through firearm accidents.
Junior Lieutenant Evdokimov (born 1922, education ten classes, member of Komsomol) wounded Junior Lieutenant Zorin in the stomach. This was an accident, yet Junior Lieutenant Evdokimov committed suicide afterwards.
Soviet hyperbole grossly inflated enemy casualties.
‘Comrade Myshkovsky fought like a hero and killed up to a platoon of fascists with his machine-gun fire. He himself died from wounds.’
‘Malomed, Naum Moiseevich, fought bravely together with his platoon and captured enemy weapons. Malomed was killed. Mortar-gunner Sivokon smashed the enemy without mercy. Regimental Commander Comrade Avakov was buried at 1500 hours. He died like a hero. All the unit said goodbye to their commander. There were also local people at the funeral.’
‘Politruk Usachev pelted Germans with grenades and started a bayonet attack. Usachev died like a hero.’
Listening to the reports from the battlefield, Pesochin [the divisional commander] says in a melodious voice: ‘Oh, my God.’
The retaking of Zaliman and other villages made Grossman think even more about life for those under German occupation. Rumours from the other sides of the lines concerned everyone.
Girls in the occupied villages put on rags and rub ash on their faces.
This was to avoid the attention of German soldiers.
German women took the same precautions in 1945 in the hope of escaping rape at the hands of the Red Army. Yet Grossman, like many, was sometimes misled into ascribing the worst of motives to those under enemy occupation.
Six beautiful girls from Zaliman went away together with Germans.
This could well have been malicious gossip. The most attractive girls were often seized for service in Wehrmacht brothels, a fate far worse even than gang rape, since it was on a permanent basis and the young women had to pretend to enjoy it or face severe punishment.
For most civilians caught up in the fighting, survival was all that mattered. But sometimes a young peasant could be too clever for his own good.
A boy had tracked down the Germans. Late at night, he recounted everything to the commander, who was in his izba. ‘Give me some vodka, I am cold,’ he said in a husky voice. The regimental commander, who was having supper, started fussing about the boy: ‘Vanya, Vanya, have some chicken.’ The boy had some vodka and chicken. Then his mother turned up and gave him a good whipping. It transpired that he had made everything up.
Grossman was fed snippets by the political officers to help him with his articles. Many came from interrogations of German prisoners and captured letters and documents, but not all were reliable.
From a German soldier’s letter: ‘Don’t worry and don’t be sad. Because the sooner I’ll be under the earth the more suffering I will spare myself.’
It is possible that the latter sentence became common among depressed German soldiers, yet these very words turn up in a suspiciously large number of letters which the Soviet authorities claim to have intercepted, but never in collections of letters from the front assembled back in Germany. Political officers, having heard the phrase, may well have claimed to have found it in other letters. Grossman then quotes another frequently repeated example which needs also to be treated with caution.
‘Often we think: “Well, now Russia is bound to capitulate,” but of course these illiterate people are too stupid to understand this.’
From a letter: ‘Situation with food isn’t bad. Yesterday we killed a pig, 150kg for seven men. We melted 30kg of fat.’
From a letter: ‘We boil dumplings. At first we had too much flour in them, then too much potato. In all, we made 47 dumplings. Enough for the three of us. Now I am boiling cabbage and apples. I don’t know what they’ll taste like, but at least we don’t have food coupons. We get everything from the population. There’s no time to write, we cook all the time. It is so nice in the army. The four of us have slaughtered a piggy for ourselves. I found lots of honey here, just what I need.’
A letter from a German girl: ‘I am going insane gradually, come back, my love. I hope you will survive, because the war would be lost for me if you don’t. Goodbye, my treasure, goodbye. Mizzi.’
Hitler’s address to his troops, (recorded from the words of a captured German). ‘My soldiers! I demand that you don’t take a single step back from the conquered territory for which you have paid with your blood. Let the fires in Russian villages light the roads for our reserves coming up and inspire cheerfulness. My soldiers, I have done everything for you. It is your turn now to do what you can for me.’
1 Major-General Grigorii Semenovich Lazko (1903– ).
2 Any soldier who failed to denounce and to shoot down comrades who attempted to desert was treated as an accomplice.
3 According to Russian military sources, 422,700 men died in punishment units during the war.