Stepping in the Same River Twice: On Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad”

by Alexander McConnell
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For scholars and lovers of Russian culture alike, the translation of Vasily Grossman’s epic World War II novel Stalingrad into English is a literary event of surpassing significance. Made possible by the herculean efforts of husband-and-wife duo Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, who together have now translated most of Grossman’s prose oeuvre, this exhaustive restoration of a work long neglected for its supposed bowdlerization at the hands of Soviet censorship represents a remarkable achievement. Alongside Alexandra Popoff’s recently released biography of Grossman, Stalingrad should provoke a renaissance of critical analysis and appreciation.¹ There has never been a better time for anglophone readers to acquaint themselves with one of twentieth century Europe’s greatest overlooked literary talents. 

Stalingrad is the precursor to Grossman’s better-known Life and Fate, which never saw print during the author’s lifetime. Rejected by censors for its equation of Nazism and Communism, the manuscript of Life and Fate was seized (or as Grossman always insisted, “arrested”) by KGB agents in 1961. Mikhail Suslov, the party’s top ideologist under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, famously told Grossman his novel could not be published in the Soviet Union for “two to three hundred years.” Less than two decades later, however, a Russian-language edition appeared in France, copies of the manuscript having been smuggled out on microfilm. When the first excerpts of Life and Fate finally materialized in the Soviet press during the 1980s, Grossman’s strident criticism of Stalin’s military prowess and open questioning of Soviet moral superiority over the Nazis provoked a minor public sensation. Stalingrad, on the other hand, was published three times in the USSR: first as a serialization in the literary journal Novyi mir in 1952, then twice as a standalone book in 1954 and 1956. The title of each of these versions was For a Just Cause, a phrase from a speech given by foreign minister Viacheslav Molotov on the day of the German invasion. Grossman, however, always intended to call the novel simply Stalingrad, a reflection of his ambition to present a total picture of the battle he had experienced firsthand as a wartime journalist.  

Reinstating the novel’s original title is merely the Chandlers’ most conspicuous departure from precedent in their new translation. Stalingrad has a reputation as the more prosaic of Grossman’s WWII novels; compared with its sequel, the introduction opines, Stalingrad is “less philosophical, but more immediate; it presents us with a richer, more varied human story.” Indeed, Robert Chandler, who translated Life and Fate into English in 1985, admits to having ignored Stalingrad for decades, only becoming convinced of the novel’s merit after reading it at the urging of historian Jochen Hellbeck. Much of this mediocre reputation, it turns out, results from changes Grossman was compelled to make in order to publish his work in the repressive and increasingly antisemitic atmosphere of late Stalinism. According to the Chandlers, Grossman rewrote Stalingrad at least four times between completing the text in 1949 and its first publication in 1952. Moreover, beyond the three published editions, all of which differ from one another in fundamental respects, the Russian literary archives contain no fewer than eleven unpublished manuscript and typescript variations. These archival records testify to the mercurial ideological imperatives and sometimes absurdly minute preoccupations of Soviet censorship, as well as to Grossman’s own evolving conception of his novel’s structure and content. 

Until now, all Russian republications and translations of Stalingrad have derived from the version published in 1956, the most complete and most thoroughly de-Stalinized of the Soviet editions. For this first English translation, however, the Chandlers have undertaken a wholesale revision of the text, reincorporating substantial portions of the third archival version, the earliest legible typescript and source of the novel’s “wittiest, most perceptive, and most unusual passages,” many of which were subsequently excised by Grossman’s editors. Such passages range from a few words to several pages, and while some do contain politically sensitive material—ruminations on the universal nature of truth or emphasis on the Jewish background of central characters like the physicist Viktor Shtrum, a stand-in for the author himself—others were simply turns of phrase judged too florid for the austere literary aesthetic of socialist realism. As often as not, passages cut from the third archival version involve gallows humor or the mention of unseemly conduct (“generals who had farted when a shell exploded”) rather than anything we would recognize today as overtly subversive.  

By resurrecting the vivid imagery and transgressive language of Grossman’s earliest drafts, the Chandlers’ translation gives the lie to any assertion that Stalingrad lacks the verve of its more celebrated sequel. In addition to standard footnotes, the afterword includes more than two dozen pages of chapter-by-chapter annotations documenting significant differences between the various published and unpublished variations, enabling readers (or at least those willing to wade through such addenda) to get a sense of how editorial intervention, both Soviet and otherwise, has shaped the novel’s development. The resulting text masterfully reconciles archival evidence of Grossman’s authorial intentions with the published record. It is as close as we will likely come to a definitive edition of Stalingrad

Like any novel about Russia of a certain length, Stalingrad will inevitably be compared to War and Peace, and there are obvious similarities between the two narratives: both take place during a cataclysmic military conflict, center on sprawling fictional families whose lives intersect with historical figures, and oscillate between quotidian details and extended philosophical digressions. Nor are these similarities coincidental. As the introduction explains, Grossman consciously positioned his saga as the Soviet counterpart to Tolstoy’s account of the Napoleonic Wars. “During the whole war,” Grossman subsequently recalled, “the only book that I read was War and Peace, which I read twice.” Unlike Tolstoy, however, Grossman actually lived through the war he wrote about, a point the author makes explicit in one of several direct references to War and Peace scattered throughout Stalingrad: “It was all very well for Tolstoy—he wrote his great and splendid book decades after 1812, when the pain felt by every heart had faded and only what was wise and bright was remembered.” 

Donna Tussing Orwin has suggested that the fictional narrative of War and Peace “demonstrates both the necessity of human freedom and, paradoxically, the extent to which history and its actors must be determined; its digressions argue for each of these fundamental imperatives in different places without explaining how the two can coexist.”² This same tension lies at the heart of Stalingrad and is expressed through the novel’s central symbolic device, rivers and flowing water, which appear repeatedly as metaphors for the continuous motion of individuals, armies, and nations in tandem with or against the current of history. Grossman compares both the Soviet and German forces at various points to bodies of water: the Nazis are a “stinking stream” attempting to undermine the “deep ocean” of Soviet unity, while the war itself is “like some great sea where ever river had its source.” Playing off Tolstoy, who depicts French troops pouring into Moscow “like water into sand,” Grossman writes, “The boundless river of the Soviet people’s anger and grief had not been left to drain into the sand. The will of the people, the will of the Party and state had transformed it into a river of iron and steel and it was now flowing back, from east to west.” Later, echoing a famous line from The Communist Manifesto (“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”), he describes the first German bombs falling on Stalingrad: “Water was flowing everywhere. […] Everything most immovable—everything made of stone and iron—had become fluid; everything into which people had instilled the power and idea of movement—trams, cars, buses, locomotives—had come to a stop.” 

The image of flowing water seems to have struck Grossman early on; in an essay addressed to his fellow Soviet writers from June 1945, only six months after the war ended, he wrote, “Do we understand that it is we who, more resolutely than anyone, must now enter into battle against the forces of forgetfulness, against the slow and implacable flow of the river of time?” Recourse to such grandiloquent language was no doubt a consequence of repeat readings of War and Peace, the first epilogue to which proclaims, “Though the surface of the sea of history seemed motionless, the movement of humanity went on as unceasingly as the flow of time.” But Grossman’s particular fascination with flowing water appears to have been inspired less by Tolstoy than Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher to whom the maxim panta rhei (“Everything flows”) is usually attributed. Grossman made these words the title of his final and most openly anti-Soviet novel, completed in 1963 after the suppression of Life and Fate, and they appear in Stalingrad via the internal monologue of Colonel Pyotr Novikov: “Heraclitus said, ‘Everything flows, everything changes.’ The Germans had rephrased this: ‘We can go around everything, we can flow around everything.’” 

In Heraclitus’ thinking, the paradoxical nature of the river—always the same body of water, but forever flowing and shifting—symbolizes the unity of opposing forces that characterizes reality. His best-known aphorism, “No man steps into the same river twice,” encapsulates this philosophy of constant change, and it too appears in Stalingrad, tempered by a statement of its inadequacy to the revolutionary conditions of Soviet power: 

“Everything had, of course, always been changing and flowing. Even before the Revolution it had been impossible for one man to step into the same river twice—but in those days the river had flowed very slowly, its banks had never looked any different and Heraclitus’s revelation had seemed strange and obscure. Was there anyone at all in Soviet Russia who would feel surprised by the revelation that had so struck the Greek philosopher? This truth had moved from the realm of philosophical speculation to that of common experience […].” 

Here Grossman introduces an element of historical contingency to Heraclitus: no man steps in the same river twice, but the river flows unevenly and appears differently depending on one’s vantage point. Constant change neither precludes nor guarantees progress: ultimately, it is human action that determines the course and character of human events. As Marx declared in 1852, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”³

In Stalingrad, Heraclitus’ river serves not as a logical terminus, but rather the metaphorical starting point for a Tolstoyan meditation on temporality and the role of individuals in the historical process. Recounting the exploits of Aleksandr Rodimtsev, a real-life colonel decorated for his unit’s heroism at a crucial moment during the battle, Grossman at first accentuates the unconscious, deterministic dimension of human action: “During the hours that Rodimtsev had been out of contact with his division, the life of thousands of men, like water seeking the easiest path downhill, had followed its own, entirely natural course.” A few pages after this, however, we learn of the colonel’s ability to direct the flow of this human stream: “All the human activity round about at once began to change direction. Rodimtsev had put in place the first stones of a dam intended to divert his men’s energies down a different channel.” 

One of the most striking passages of this sort, part of a chapter omitted in 1952 and 1954, compares influential historical figures to experienced swimmers: 

“[A]t first, they appear to be swimming against the current, but, as they swim on, it becomes clear that the opposing forces were mere eddies and backwaters. With perseverance, they get the better of these surface currents. Their own strength and the deepest, most powerful current then join together and the swimmer is able to move freely and powerfully. […] A swimmer of this kind, able to distinguish between the false and the real, between the surface eddies and the mainstream of history, is no mere splinter of wood. He is, of course, moved by the currents, but he decides for himself which to fight and which to follow.” 

Per Grossman, the Nazis’ hubris lies is the belief that they constitute the motive force of historical development—that they are the river itself (“We can go around everything, we can flow around everything”). Fascism can thus be understood as a fundamentally naturalistic ideology, in that it aims “to subordinate all human life to rules similar in their soulless, senseless and cruel uniformity to those that govern dead, inanimate nature, the laying down of sediments on the seabed or the erosion of mountain ranges.” The Soviets, by contrast, understand themselves to be a human force, separate from—and hence able to intervene into—the natural flow of reality. Like the swimmer who moves along with the current, they draw strength from the river’s limitless energies, and in doing so channel this energy towards decisive action. 

Grossman literalizes this divergence in attitudes towards the metaphorical river of history through his characterization of the two armies’ relationship with the Volga River, an important symbol in Russian folklore sometimes referred to as Volga-Matushka (Mother Volga). As far as the Germans are concerned, the Volga represents little more than a strategic objective, the last hurdle to be cleared before taking the city of Stalingrad on its eastern bank (“the Volga meant victory!”). For the thousands of retreating Soviet soldiers who bathe in its mighty waters, however, the Volga becomes the site of a “mass baptism before the terrible battle for freedom” comparable in significance to Prince Vladimir’s tenth-century Christianization of Kievan Rus’. In Grossman’s telling, this holy communion between the Volga and the Red Army is what ultimately stymies the Nazi advance: “Should future historians wish to understand the turning point of this war, they need only come to this shore.” Later, in a more tactical mood, he makes a similar argument: “The river may have looked like a dividing line, but in reality it marked a perfect joint, welding together the two halves of the Soviet forces, uniting the firepower of the east bank with the west bank’s unflagging courage. The Volga enabled gunners and foot soldiers to cooperate with unusual effectiveness.”

As both literary motif and literal geographic marker, therefore, the river demarcates a sharp boundary between Soviet Communism and Nazi Fascism. The broader critique that Grossman advances in Life and Fate of both ideologies as “totalitarianism” is largely absent here, save for a few ambiguous passages his editors were careful to remove. Stalingrad remains a Soviet epic through and through, a fact that does not detract from the novel’s moving depictions of individual suffering and the dehumanizing effects of war. Amidst sweeping battle scenes and historical theorizing, Grossman never abandons his stalwart commitment to the dignity of ordinary people. “With the fragility of human life now so apparent,” he writes towards the conclusion of Stalingrad, “the value of every individual emerged more clearly than ever.” 

Isaiah Berlin famously divided authors into two broad groups: hedgehogs, for whom everything circles back to a single, all-encompassing idea, and foxes, who pursue diverse, even contradictory ends in their writing.⁴ Like his literary paragon Tolstoy, whom Berlin argues was “by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog,” Vasily Grossman defies neat categorization as either an orthodox or dissident Soviet writer. Blessed with the talents and tendencies of a fox, he lived, worked, and died in a country where all writers were expected to be hedgehogs of a very particular sort. His work endures as a humanist testament to the Soviet cause, and to all the injustices that such a seemingly just cause was made to serve. 

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References:

  1. Alexandra Popoff, Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300222784/vasily-grossman-and-soviet-century
  2. Donna Tussing Orwin, “Introduction” in Tolstoy On War: Narrative Art and Historical Truth in “War and Peace” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 1. https://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/9780801478178/tolstoy-on-war/
  3. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm
  4. Isaiah Berlin, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” (1953): https://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/crag/files/2016/06/the_hedgehog_and_the_fox-berlin.pdf

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This article was originally published in Cleveland Review of Books, a regionally focused journal of criticism, on Nov 26, 2019.

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