Military history


‘The Ruthless Truth of War’

Vasily Grossman wrote to his father early in March about the disorientating effects of that winter of war.

Sometimes it feels that I’ve spent [so much time] travelling around in trucks, sleeping in sheds and half-burned houses, it’s as if I’ve never really lived any other sort of life. Or was that other life only a dream? I have kept moving all through the winter. I’ve seen so much it would be enough for anyone. I’ve become a real soldier, I am sure, my voice has become hoarse from makhorka and the cold, and for some reason the hair on my right temple has gone white.

The following day he wrote again.

Winter has come back to where we are now, the cold is severe . . . And I am longing to warm myself in the sun. I am tired of grabbing my nose the whole time and then my ears – to check whether they are still there, or have fallen off. By the way, I’ve lost sixteen kilos, and this is very good. Do you remember my fat tummy?

On his return to Moscow at the beginning of April, Grossman went to see Ortenberg, who wrote about their conversation soon afterwards. ‘Vasily Grossman came to see me and said without any preamble: “I want to write a novel.” He warned me immediately, before I had a chance to reply: “I will need two months’ leave to write it.” I was not alarmed by this request, as he had obviously expected. There was a relative lull at the front at that moment and I gave my permission.’ Grossman wrote to his father immediately.

I’ve been given leave for two months’ creative work, from 10 April until 10 June. I am overjoyed, I feel just like a schoolboy. Reaching Moscow made a deep impression on me – the city, the streets and boulevards, they are all like the faces of my dear ones.

I have managed to do something to improve my financial affairs: I’ve signed a contract for the publication of a small book of my front essays and stories. I will send you some money today . . . It is very cold in our flat. Zhenni Genrikhovna has become so weak.

I haven’t been anywhere during my stay here. The editor piled lots of work upon me, and I sat working day and night. Actually, this was not so bad, as it is relatively warm in the editorial office, and they’ve been feeding me with kasha there. I’ve become so spoilt by the food at the front.

I will be writing a novel during my stay in Chistopol. I am not so well physically. I am overtired and cough a lot. My insides were frozen when I flew over the front in an open aircraft.

Grossman wasted no time in setting off for Chistopol. There, living again with his wife, he worked long hours on his novel about the disasters of 1941, which he decided to call The People Immortal. This book, drawing heavily on his notes taken at the front, became a huge success among the soldiers of the Red Army. Grossman, a Jewish intellectual from another world, had not just proved his courage at the front, but above all the accuracy and human sympathy of his observation. Yet despite all his hard work, Grossman also yearned to be back at the front. In fact, he wrote to his father from Chistopol on 15 May that he would leave in the first week of June.

Action has started at the front, and I am listening to the radio greedily. There [at the front] lies the answer to all questions and to all fates.

Three days before, Marshal Timoshenko had attacked with 640,000 men south of Kharkov from the Barvenkovo salient. It was to prove a terrible disaster. The Wehrmacht’s Army Group South had been about to launch Operation Fridericus, the preparatory stage before its major summer offensive, Operation Blue, which was to take it to Stalingrad and into the Caucasus. As a result the uninspired Soviet assault found itself surprised between the hammer of Kleist’s First Panzer Army and the anvil of General Paulus’s Sixth Army. Two Soviet armies were surrounded and virtually annihilated in a little over a week. The Germans took nearly a quarter of a million prisoners. Grossman’s enthusiasm for the front appears rapidly to have dissolved, and he returned to work on his novel.

I am doing a great deal of work here [he wrote to his father on 31 May]. It seems to me I’ve never worked so hard in my life . . . The day before yesterday I was reading out to Aseev what I’ve written, and he liked it a great deal.

The sort of Red Army soldier whose courage and resilience Grossman evoked in his novel The People Immortal.

Unfortunately, my leave is running out, and I am very tired. I’ve exhausted myself by writing. However, I’ve received, completely unexpectedly, a super-liberal telegram from my fierce editor, who wrote that he did not mind me extending my leave to continue my work in Chistopol. So probably with his permission I will stay here for an extra seven or ten days. I am writing about the war during the summer and autumn of 1941.

Another thing that I am suffering from is a terrible shortage of money . . . I’ve written to Moscow, to all my publishers, but none of these sons of bitches has sent me a kopeck yet . . .

I often think of Katyusha. I would love to see her . . . She must be so grown up now. I’ve had two letters from her and I felt from those letters that she does not remember me well; they were such cold letters.

In the evenings I sit under the apple tree which is now in blossom, and I look at the lit windows of the house. It is so peaceful and quiet here. This amazes me. There’s a general called Ignatiev who once said that correspondents are the bravest people in war, because they have to leave the rear for the front so many times. And this moment is the most unpleasant one, this change from nightingales to aircraft.

I’ve had a card from the Migration Department, saying that Mama is not on the lists of those evacuated. I knew that she hadn’t managed to escape, but still my heart shrank when I read those typed lines.

It appears that Grossman did not need the extra time Ortenberg had allowed him. He delivered the manuscript on 11 June and wrote to his father the following day.

Things seem to be going well with my novel. The editor read it yesterday and approved it passionately. He summoned me at night and embraced me. He said lots of flattering things and promised to publish it in Krasnaya Zvezda without any cuts. And the novel is quite long . . . I am anxious about how the readers will receive it . . . By the way, the publication of the novel should greatly improve my financial affairs. I hope you’ll be able to see this for yourself in the very near future. This makes me pleased. You must have grown so skinny, my poor man.

At the same time, he wrote to his wife in Chistopol saying much the same as he had written to his father, but added, with touching pride:

I am a key person at the editorial office now. The editor summons me ten times a day. I sleep there in the office, as the proofs are read until two or three in the morning.

Ortenberg himself wrote: ‘[After] precisely two months, Vasily Semyonovich brought me The People Immortal, a manuscript which was about two hundred pages long. I read it, so to speak, without putting it down. Nothing of the sort had been written since the war began. We decided to publish it without delay. The first chapter was sent to the typesetters. When the three-column page was ready, I started proofreading it. Grossman was standing by my side watching my movements jealously. He feared that I would make unnecessary corrections.’

On 14 July, Grossman wrote in great excitement to his father.

Krasnaya Zvezda started serialising my novel today . . . I wired you 400 roubles the day before yesterday! I will be in Moscow for another three weeks or a month, while the newspaper serialises the novel.

On 12 August, Ortenberg wrote: ‘Today we published the final chapter of the novel The People Immortal by Vasily Grossman. It was serialised over eighteen issues of the newspaper, and after each one the interest of the readers increased. For eighteen days, and even nights, I stood with the writer by my desk proofreading one chapter after another in order to publish it in the next issue. There were no conflicts with Vasily Semyonovich. Only the end of the novel caused heated discussions: the main character, I. Babadzhanyan, gets killed. When I was reading the manuscript and when I was reading the proofed version of the final chapter, I kept asking the writer whether it wasn’t possible to resurrect the main character, of whom the reader had grown so fond? Vasily Semyonovich replied: “We have to follow the ruthless truth of war.”’

In fact, Grossman was to face acute embarrassment, the sort that any novelist dreads, even though it had been unusual to give the main character in the novel his real name as well as identity. Babadzhanyan had not been killed, as Grossman had been told. But this future general of tank troops forgave the novelist for his fictional death.

In Moscow, meanwhile, few seemed to have had any idea of the disaster taking place in the south as Hitler’s armies advanced on the Don and drove towards the Caucasus. Grossman’s letter to his wife on 22 July showed that even those coming back to Moscow from the region appeared oblivious to the dangers.

Yesterday Kostya Bukovsky returned from Stalingrad by air, and I gave a ‘reception’. We drank and sang songs . . . Tvardovsky read a wonderful chapter from his new work [‘Vasily Tyorkin’]. Everyone was moved to tears.1

Just over three weeks later, on 19 August, Grossman wrote to his father.

I am leaving for the front in a couple of days. Your parental heart would have rejoiced if you could see how I was welcomed by the Red Army after the novel was published. My God, I was so proud of myself and so touched. And it was received so well at every level, from the top to the bottom of the army. My dear, my situation is better than ever now. I have success and recognition, but there is a heavy, heavy feeling in my soul. My passionate desire is to help all my dear ones, to assemble you all in one place. I am tormented by the thought about Mama’s fate . . .

I’ve had a letter from Vadya’s son Yura. He is at the front, a lieutenant. He has fought in many battles and has been wounded.

Grossman’s young cousin, Yura Benash, was about to be sent to Stalingrad, which is where Grossman himself was bound.

1 Tvardovsky (see note p.63) was best known as the author of ‘Vasily Tyorkin’, the story of a fictional peasant soldier, a real optimist who always manages to survive. He had begun life in Tvardovsky’s newspaper column during the Russian-Finnish War. The character became a folk hero during the Great Patriotic War and won Tvardovsky another Stalin Prize in 1946.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!