In the 1990s, as the Americans who fought in World War II began to die out, the country responded with a wave of reverence and nostalgia for what was rather self-abasingly dubbed "The Greatest Generation." Nothing that Americans have achieved since the defeat of Nazism - and certainly none of our wars - has offered a comparable source of pride. On the contrary, Americans today tend to meet every new geopolitical challenge with an anxiety that we are not quite up to our forefathers' caliber.
If America's effort in World War II remains our ideal of heroism and self-sacrifice, however, how can we even begin to appreciate what the Soviet Union gave in the same cause? Our World War II was a noble crusade, but the Soviets' Great Patriotic War was a brutal fight for sheer survival. If we had rationing, they had starvation. We were outraged by Pearl Harbor; they lost most of their territory west of the Volga River, leaving nearly half of the pre-war population under German occupation. (Imagine all of the United States from the Atlantic to the Mississippi under foreign control.) In all theaters, the United States lost some 300,000 men in combat; the Soviets, around 8.5 million. Of the Soviet men born in 1921, 90% were dead by 1945.
These statistics are well-established, but they have made little impact on the way Americans remember and imagine World War II. Inevitably, we mark the war's turning point at D-Day, not Stalingrad or Kursk; our hearts go out to lonely G.I. Joes, not hungry, sick, underequipped Ivans. But it was the Ivans who did the most, by any objective measure, to defeat Hitler.And when we consider the fate of Red Army troops after the war, their sacrifice becomes a tragedy. After 1945, they went home to live in a dictatorship scarcely less savage than the one they had just conquered. Instead of America's postwar prosperity, the Soviet Union could offer them only a ravaged countryside and burnt-out cities. The Russian wartime experience could not even be freely discussed, since any analysis of the debacle of 1941 could not help but lead to the conclusion that the Soviets' awful sacrifice was yet another tribute paid to the insane cruelty, egotism, and incompetence of Stalin.
Two nicely complementary new books help us understand the Red Army soldier's real experience of the war, so long hidden not just from American consciousness but from Soviet historiography. Indeed, "Ivan's War" (Metropolitan Books, 480 pages, $30), the wide-ranging new study by the British historian Catherine Merridale, is constantly hobbled by the Soviet Union's legacy of censorship, not just official and public but private and voluntary. "Whole areas of soldiers' lives," Ms. Merridale laments, "never found their way into print,including most front-line humor, many impious grievances, and the details of excess and atrocity."
Even during the war, the Stalinist fear of the individual meant the most basic form of self-expression - keeping a diary - was forbidden to soldiers.Letters home were closely censored, of course, as were journalistic accounts. One soldier that Ms. Merridale discusses, Lev Pushkarev, was forbidden to make a collection of soldiers' songs and jokes, whose profanity was deemed incompatible with the Red Army's idealized image. Even today, as Ms. Merridale makes the rounds of veterans' organizations to interview the last remaining front-line soldiers, or frontoviki, she finds them unwilling to discuss anything that might dirty the Red Army's sacred name."I'm not sure I can tell you those," veterans would demur when she asked about soldiers' jokes; it is easy to imagine how much less forthcoming they are about drunkenness, theft, rape, or even simple fear.
Deprived of these natural historical resources, then, "Ivan's War" is forced back onto the few kinds of evidence that do survive: commissars' reports on soldiers' morale, anodyne interviews with 80-year-old veterans. Ms. Merridale resorts to generalization and reasonable assumptions rather than the kind of precise details that make a book like Paul Fussell's "Wartime" such an evocative portrait of American army life. It is a tribute to Ms. Merridale's thoroughness that, despite these handicaps,"Ivan's War"is an impressive work of history, managing to give a sense of the amazing hardships of the frontoviki's experience.
Still, it cannot compete, as an immediate and humanly effective account of Red Army life, with "A Writer at War," (Pantheon, 400 pages, $27.50) the stunning new translation of Vasily Grossman's wartime diaries. Grossman, of course, had the double advantage of being both an eyewitness - he was a front-line correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the official Red Army newspaper, from the beginning of the war to the end - and a great writer. He first became widely known in the West as a kind of dissident: His masterpiece, the panoramic World War II novel "Life and Fate," was completed in 1960, but the Soviets refused to allow it to be published. It did not see the light of day until the 1980s, after a manuscript was smuggled to Switzerland, and was not published in Russia itself until the fall of communism.
Before he became persona non grata, however, Grossman was one of the Soviet Union's most popular writers. Like Ilya Ehrenburg, another Jewish writer who managed to outlive Stalin, Grossman became a national hero as a chronicler of Russia's patriotic war. But while Ehrenburg was known for his ferocious calls for vengeance, Grossman, on the evidence of "A Writer at War," was more like a Soviet Ernie Pyle: a devoted friend of the ordinary Ivan, sharing 748 1435 847 1446his hardships and believing ardently in his mission. Far from a soldierly type himself - this volume's well-chosen photographs show a slight, bespectacled intellectual - Grossman survived four years of brutal work and unremitting danger, clamoring to be allowed into the worst war zones, including besieged Stalingrad.
Yet even Grossman, whose dispatches were eagerly read by millions of soldiers, was not free from official censorship.The key to the power of "A Writer at War" is that it includes not Grossman's published articles but his private notebook entries, where he was free to record the kinds of details Ms. Merridale sorely misses: grumbling and blunders, fear and despair. Antony Beevor, the acclaimed British historian of Stalingrad, notes in his introduction that "if the NKVD secret police had read these notebooks [Grossman] would have disappeared into the Gulag."
Of course, it is exactly those forbidden details that now make Grossman's writing so movingly evocative. Mr. Beevor and his co-editor and translator, Luba Vinogradova, have skillfully provided Grossman's own words with a substantial framing narrative, making it accessible even to readers unfamiliar with the war on the Eastern Front. But it is Grossman's own text, often little more than fragmentary, that gives the book its shocking vividness. Like a great novelist, he makes a random detail or anecdote bear the weight of a tragedy that is impossible to grasp in the abstract.The secret of his technique is revealed in a passage from June 1944:
Sometimes you are so shaken by what you've seen, blood rushes from your heart, and you know that the terrible sight that your eyes have just taken in is going to haunt you and lie heavily on your soul all your life. It is strange that when you sit down to write abut it, you don't find enough room for it on paper. You write about a tank corps, about heavy artillery, but suddenly remember how bees were swarming in a burning village, and a barefooted old Belorussian climbed out of a little trench where he was hiding from shells and took the swarm off a branch. ...
Such human glimpses lift Grossman's war writing far above the usual level of communist propaganda and cliche. In "A Writer at War," we meet a Romanian soldier run over by a tank so that "his face has become a bas-relief"; a Red Army regiment that marches with its mascot, a camel, all the way from Kazakhstan to Berlin; a deserter who is shot but survives, makes his way back to his regiment in his bloodstained underwear, and is shot again. Such details allow Grossman to make his longer, set-piece descriptions - of the inhuman siege of Stalingrad, or the discovery of the concentration camp at Treblinka - overwhelmingly powerful. His combination of passion and detail, of patriotic fervor and journalistic objectivity, makes "A Writer at War" one of the greatest documents of World War II ever published. No one who reads it will ever forget that the Ivans, perhaps even more than the Tommies and the G.I. Joes, deserve the world's awe and gratitude.