WWII in Song

I have written quite a bit about the battle of Stalingrad and its depiction in Grossman’s work. So I thought I would put something a bit different now. It is still war but depicted by someone very different to Grossman. I found this song when I was studying History at school and it made an impression on me then. I find it quite odd that someone would use the Red Army as a subject for a song, but it is also nice when music takes some interest in history. Apparently the song was based on a book by Viktor Muravin called A Diary of Vikenty Angarov. I like the idea that literature or history inspires music. Funnily enough though, the wikipedia page devoted to the album from which the song below is taken, explains that the album itself is a reference to another novel, something of which Mike Scott was unaware of.

Sometimes it seems one can be influenced by something or refer to something of which one is unaware. I wonder whether the band Beirut were aware of what exactly they meant by the title to their album “Gulag Orkestar”. But then, does it really matter? One can go down an endless route of titles, especially as controversial as Joy Division, or perhaps as intellectually challenging as The Fall.

Here is the song that narrates the story of a Red Army soldier. It reminds me of Serezha in  Grossman’s two novels, as he is also a 17 year old boy at war. I chose the clip that includes the lyrics, however, please ignore the exclamation marks, the song obviously aroused a lot of emotion in the person who wrote the lyrics down.

Two Versions of For a Just Cause

I know I have been going on about For a Just Cause a bit, but that is because: 1) I find it really quite an exciting piece of study; 2) very little has been written about the book, especially in English, therefore pretty much everything I write is kind of new, and so I WIN!
So here I want to point out another aspect of the novel that I find really interesting and it has to do with the publication of the novel. There are two main versions of the novel available, one published in 1952 and the other in 1964. This is due to the heavy censorship imposed on the novel, and there are supposedly about 13 versions of the novel in the archives. Grossman spent five years rewriting the novel for publication and it was finally released in 1952. After Stalin’s death and the relative freedom of the press, Grossman rewrote the novel to make it more like his original version and it was published in 1964. (Interestingly, very first version of the novel was called Life and Fate.) There are some significant differences between the two novels, but I have two favourites in particular. One is the depiction of Abarchuk and the other is the story of Dmitrii, Alexandra Vladimirovna’s son and Serezha’s father. 
In Life and Fate Abarchuk is one of the men imprisoned in the Russian labour camp. He is lonely and finds himself longing for his son. Unlike Mostovskoy, Abarchuk is more obviously a broken man, his strength lay in the power to judge others, and in camp he has lost that right and is not the man he used to be. In For a Just Cause 1952 (as I will call it here), Abarchuk isn’t even mentioned by name, he is only referred to as Liudmila’s husband who leaves her soon after their son is born. In For a Just Cause 1964, however, Grossman spends three pages describing Abarchuk. Here we see the character that is depicted in Life and Fate. Abarchuk is truly unlikeable. He and Liudmila marry when they’re in the first year of university and divorce when they are in the third. Abarchuk is a hard worker at the university and is truly devoted to the Party and the Revolutionary cause; he sleeps no more than four-five hours a night. He is judgemental and unforgiving, calling for an expulsion of a female student for using strong perfume during May 1st celebrations. He imagines that his living space with his wife should consist of two desks (one for the husband and one for the wife), a bookshelf, two beds that fold up, and a hidden wardrobe. When Liudmila becomes pregnant she starts buying various items for the future child, which frustrates Abarchuk as he believes she is too bourgeois. They also argue about the boys name, Abarchuk wants to call him October. When Liudmila decides to visit her brother Dmitrii in his summer house, Abarchuk takes the opportunity to clear out the room of all her things and writes her a six page letter explaining in depth why he is leaving her. Meeting her at university months later he stops and asks: “How do you do Comrade Shaposhnikova?” To this Liudmila silently turns and walks away. He also attempts to have Shtrum excluded from the university, as all three characters study in the same institution. 
Dmitrii is another example of a character that gets two very different stories in the two versions of For a Just Cause. In both novels Dmitrii studies at the Sverdlovsk university, and he also takes part in the Civil War, against the Naval Commander Aleksandr Kolchak.He then quickly gets an important position within an unspecified industry. In the 1952 version Dmitrii becomes severely ill with a heart condition but refuses to take time off work, which leads to his death from a heart attack. He is found dead in his office. In the 1964 edition however, Dmitrii is arrested in 1937 on the charge that he is connected to enemies of the people. Even his wife is arrested, whilst in 1952 version she moves from Moscow to the north and then Serezha moves to the Shaposhnikov’s because of his ill health. In the 1964 version Alexandra Vladimirovna manages to get a pass to see her son and the only time the characters see Alexandra Vladimirovna in tears, is when she describes this meeting. Dmitrii is brought to the meeting in a boat (I assume the prison is on the other side of the river?) and the two stand in silence holding hands, looking deeply at each other. After the autumn of 1939 Dmitrii stops answering Alexandra Vladimirovna’s letters, she sends requests to find out about his fate, even travels to Moscow, but to no avail. This is the last mention of Dmitrii, his fate remains unknown and it is only in Life and Fate that Alexandra Vladimirovna hears that he is in a camp and suffering. 
The differences between the two novels are numerous, however, the above two are my favourite. This is because they clearly show how Grossman was rewriting the novels to fit in with the censorship demands. It also very clearly shows the difference in Soviet publishing between the two decades. In 1952 it was impossible to say that Dmitrii was arrested in 1937 and so boldly point out the terror of that year that has become known as The Great Terror. It was also impossible to depict a devoted Communist in such completely unsympathetic light, Abarchuk is so devoted to the cause that he becomes cruel to his wife and child. Grossman almost pokes fun at the notion of this hard-line believer when he suggests that their son should be called October. Although it was common for children to have names related to the Revolution, in this case it is almost comic as Abarchuk becomes a parody of himself.
Without the 1964 version of the novel, Life and Fate  would not make sense, especially the story of Abarchuk. However, Dmitrii’s story is not essential to the two novels, so it is very interesting that Grossman felt that this had to be changed from the 1952 version. It suggests that he wanted to show the effects of 1937, and in that way extend the narrative beyond the war and show the extent of Stalinist terror. The above two are perhaps the most obvious differences that demonstrate the changes that took place in both publishing and in Soviet society during these two decades. Rewriting For a Just Cause Grossman was clearly preparing it to fit in with the sequel that was never published. I would love to read a study of all the versions of the novel (or indeed the versions themselves) to see the changes made during different times, and to see how many of the changes were a preparation for Life and Fate and how many were restorations of past versions. It is always fascinating to see the progress of a novel from inception to publication, but in this case it would also illuminate the inner workings of Soviet censorship. This is one of the many reasons I find this novel so interesting.

“Passions of Literature”?

I very rarely read Derrida as I assume I will not understand anything. Many times when I read such complex modern theories I feel a bit like I’m in “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, where I just want to say “It doesn’t make any sense!”  However, the other day I was reading Derrida as one of his essays is called “Fiction and Testimony” – an irresistible combination for me. I came across this quote which I absolutely loved. I think it fits in with the theme of this blog pretty well. Not sure I have made any sense of it yet, but there is something poetic and crazy about it. I like the way it seems to pick up pace towards the end. Derrida is speaking here about the title of the lecture series for which he delivered this paper: “Passions of Literature”.

“No exposition, no discursive form is intrinsically or essentially literary before and outside of the function it is assigned or recognized by a right, that is, a specific intentionality inscribed directly on the social body. The same exposition may be taken to be literary here, in one situation or according to given conventions, and non-literary there. This is the sign that literarity is not an intrinsic property of this or that discursive event. Even where it seems to reside [demeurer], literature remains an unstable function, and it depends on a precarious juridical status. Its passion consists in this – that it receives its determination from something other than itself. Even when it harbors the unconditional right to say anything, including the most savage antinomies, disobedience itself, its status is never assured or guaranteed permanently [à demeure], at home, in the inside of an ‘at home’. This contradiction is its very existence, its ecstatic process. Before coming to writing, literature depends on reading and the right conferred on it by an experience of reading. One can read the same text – which thus never exists ‘in itself’ – as a testimony that is said to be serious and authentic, or as an archive, or as a document, or as a symptom – or as a work of literary fiction, indeed the work of a literary  fiction that simulates all of the positions that we have just enumerated. For literature can say anything, accept anything, receive anything, suffer anything, and simulate everything; it can even feign a trap, the way modern armies know how to set false traps; these traps pass themselves off as real traps and trick the machines designed to detect simulations under even the most sophisticated camouflage.” ( Jacques Derrida “Testimony and Fiction” in Maurice Blanchot The Instant of My Death  and Jacques Derrida Demeure: Fiction and Testimony, (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 28-29)

Yes, I’m not sure where he is going with the army metaphor (or any of it), but I like it nonetheless. I sense a complete love of literature in this passage and that is something I can relate to!

The war in For a Just Cause

Some of the best and also the most tedious (for me) parts of For a Just Cause are concerned with the war. War is a constant theme in the novel, it is its very subject, however, at the start of the novel the front hasn’t moved to Stalingrad yet and war is distant. There is a great concern among all the characters about the events at the front and whether the war will reach Stalingrad. In this sense it is much like the beginning of War and Peace that starts with a discussion of politics and the progress of the Napoleonic war. In For a Just Cause the conversation is a lot more sensitive, the characters express half thoughts, showing how fear of war becomes almost unspeakable. Also, perhaps it is the conflict between the silence/fear that permeated the Soviet society and the relative freedom of the war years: the characters find themselves trapped between two different realities. The belief in the Soviet army and the “just cause” of Communism is mixed with the fear of the power of the German forces.

So, the first two-thirds of the novel are concerned with the war moving towards Stalingrad and the preparations for the possible battle, and the last third depicts the actual battle within Stalingrad. One of my favourite early passages is of Vera and Viktorov in the hospital.

Vera returns to her duty after the family gathering (described in the previous post) and looks over the city. To me this is one of the most potent descriptions of a city before the war. Vera leans on the window sill of the hospital and looks over the city, which is enveloped in an aura of death. The moon shines with a cold deathly light over the covered and dusty windows of houses. They no longer emit the warm light of a family home but now reflect the cold and brutal light of the moon. This light is fragile and one only has to look in another direction for all to be bathed in deathly darkness. The fresh air of Volga mixes with the stale air of the hospital, sometimes it wins over this air and sometimes it seemes as if the whole city is enveloped in the smell of carbolic acid and the clouds are cotton pads. Vera stands there and listens to the dying men in the hospital and sees new injured men enter. Here, by the window, Vera feels she is part of two worlds. One that consists of the beautiful stars, the fresh air and water of the Volga, and is timeless. The other world is filled with the smell of cigarettes and people dying, the boring forms she has to fill in and the arguments at home. These two worlds collide as Viktorov approaches her and everything seems united into one. It is this description of death everywhere and the love that is born at this moment that makes this scene so moving. Vera’s thoughts are both beautiful and also childishly deep, the mundane mixes with the real threat of war and death. Out of this presence of death life is born as well (as we find out at the end of the novel). It is this mixture of the grand and epic and the small and particular that I love in Grossman. This is what makes the war real to the reader.

The other aspect of war in For a Just Cause  is the one I found most tedious. This is purely due to my lack of interest in (and knowledge of) military matters. As the front moves to Stalingrad, Grossman depicts the exact movements of the various battalions. Some move across the Volga to the city and some retreat from the Don back to Stalingrad. This is all (in my mind) meticulously documented, and is something that is for me hard to understand. All the various numbers and names of Colonels and Sergeants are hard to follow. However, this is all saved by the fact that Grossman follows these battalions into war. As the German army approaches and starts to bomb Stalingrad, the descriptions turn to the individuals and the personal experience of war. Because Grossman explains the movement of all the various troops, and then return to the same troops it becomes clearer to the reader how many lives were sacrificed during the war. Many of the characters Grossman depicts die during these early battles in Stalingrad. One example is the battle that takes place in the Train Station, which is very engaging. The reader has followed these characters for some time and they all are murdered during this battle (including Kovalev who accompanies Tolia to the family party earlier in the novel).

There is a very potent depiction of a female Senior Sergeant Lena Gnatyuk, who receives a parcel from the United States, as part of some form of charity. As she stands there covered in mud and dried blood she opens a parcel of silk stockings, a woollen patterned cardigan, a dress and some perfume. The uselessness of the items in the parcel seems offensive, but more than that, it is painful. Lena feels how she will never experience all that a young beautiful girl should, she will never wear that dress and go to dances. The contrast between the feminine content of the parcel and her masculine uniform and dirty appearance is painful not only to her but also to the soldiers watching her unwrap the parcel. She throws all the contents in the corner declaring their uselessness to her, and hours later she is killed by a German bomb. Whilst searching the shelter after the raid, a German soldier finds the package that Lena threw into the corner and is pleased with the find that he will send to his wife back home. It is through small episodes such as this, that Grossman depicts the brutality of war.

Through depicting, sometimes tediously, the movements of the troops and soldiers in these troops, Grossman actually manages to create an impression of the scale of loss during the war. Every soldier he depicts is accompanied by a small episode that makes him/her very human to reader. Having made the soldiers real to the reader Grossman then kills them, including Tolia Shaposhnikov. By luring the reader into the private life and emotions of the soldiers and them killing then off, Grossman shows the reader the unbearable and brutal losses of the war. In this sense the passages that I find so tedious become absolutely vital in order to understand the battle of Stalingrad. Sometimes, even reading comes with boring chores or “musts” that prove to be worth the effort.

Before Life and Fate

Before Life and Fate came For a Just Cause. I was recently re-reading the novel again and what I really enjoyed was the description of life in Stalingrad just at the start of war. The novel starts with a meeting in Salzburg between Hitler and Mussolini, moves onto the conscription of Vavilov and only then do we meet the whole Shaposhnikov family. In this way the narrative moves from the events in the world to the effects on the individuals. And it is the relationships between the characters and the history that surrounds them that Grossman depicts so well. After the recent focus on Life and Fate and all the horror of war that it depicts, I have really enjoyed going back to the very beginning. I hope people will be able to read the novel in English soon.Until then, I thought I would summarise the plot of the novel, for those interested in the very beginning.

After introducing the events as they unravel at the hands of people in power, Grossman narrates the impact that this has on normal people. Firstly we are introduced to Vavilov who is drafted and then the Shaposhnikov family, who gather together to say goodbye to Tolia who is on his way to the front. Vavilov is one of the last men in the village to be recruited and was therefore looked down upon, but now the villagers all look at him with compassion and sorrow. He spends his last night chopping wood, hoping to provide all he can for his wife and two children. Vavilov later days in battle in the Stalingrad train station. In Stalingrad, the Shaposhnikov’s gather for what may be their last meeting. This is where the reader is introduced to all the major characters that are at the centre of the two novels (Alexandra Vladimirovna, Marusya, Zhenia, Serezha, Vera, Spiridonov, Mostovskoy, Andreev and Sofya Levinton). Alexandra Vladimirovna is the head of the family (her husband died years ago), she is a chemist and mother of Marusya, Liudmila and Zhenia, as well as her son Dmitrii. Dmitrii is the father of Serzha. After being arrested he has now disappeared in a camp and it is assumed that he is dead. It is during this meeting that Tolia inspires Serezha to join the army, and the next day he is recruited. Alexandra Vladimirovna is devastated, as Serezha is only 17 and has lived with her throughout his childhood (his mother lives in another city and dies while Serezha is at the front). The reader finds out more about Serezha in Life and Fate.

Alexandra Vladimirovna and Sofya Osipovna Levinton are old friends. Sofya Osipovna is head of a surgical department and is depicted as a large woman of whom not only her department, but other doctors are scared of. Despite this, she is also sensitive to the horror around her and often bursts out in tears when describing the young soldiers she has to treat. She works all day and night and rarely sleeps. She and Alexandra Vladimirovna are separated during an air raid in a shelter, after which she is caught by Nazi soldiers together with Mostovskoy.

Marusya is Alexandra Vladimirovna’s middle daughter and is married to the StalGRES power plant engineer Spiridonov. They have the daughter Vera, who works for the military hospital in Stalingrad (they all live with Alexandra Vladimirovna). Marusya is supportive of the Communist regime and reprimands Zhenia for making art that doesn’t support the communist cause. However, Marusya is also shown to be trapped between the Party bureaucracy and her own felings and common sense. She is sent to an orphanage to reprimand the manager for not firing a worker, who has stolen shoes for her son. During the visit she sees a traumatised boy who refuses to speak.  Only one of the workers has been able to get the boy to speak and eat, and it turns out this is the same woman whom Marusya wants to see fired. In the end Marusya is highly confused and is pitied by the very person she had to reprimand. When the battlefront moves to Stalingrad Marusya follows the orphanage on its evacuation, and dies when crossing the Volga.

Spiridonov stays in Stalingrad as he has to keep the StalGRES power plant running. His daughter Vera stays with him. She falls in love with one of her patients, Viktorov, who leaves the hospital soon after his recovery. Vera is another hero of the battle. When the hospital catches fire during one of air raids and she finds the strength to go into the burning hospital and save the soldiers. She is severely injured and is in danger of losing her sight. However, she recovers and stays with her father at StalGRES in Stalingrad. In a touching scene she tells her father that she is pregnant, to which he is silent at first, and then puts his arm around the skinny shoulders of his daughter and says: “Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to the little one”.

Zhenia is the youngest daughter and has moved back to her mother’s after leaving her husband Krymov. Nobody in her family understands why she left a man of such a good standing and see her as being whimsical and the black sheep of the family. Zhenia is greatly admired by men and is seen as the beauty of the family. She is also engaged in a romantic relationship with Colonel Novikov, whom she met whilst studying at the Arts Academy. Novikov and Zhenia’s romance is very touching. Years pass since their first meeting and Novikov accidentally sees Zhenia on a train and ends up travelling for miles in the wrong direction, only to spend time with her. He also visits the Shaposhnikov flat when the army is moving through Stalingrad, and awakens everyone in the middle of the night. This is the only meeting between the lovers in For a Just Cause, however, it consolidates their relationship for the future. Novikov has always admired and been in love with Zhenia, so his devotion to her is something that sustains him during the warZhenia on the other hand has a complex relationship to both Novikov, whom she is undoubtedly in love with, and  also spends a lot of time thinking about Krymov, and pondering their failed marriage.

There are a few parallels between Novikov and Krymov. Although they are very different characters, there is some similarity in their thought processes. Both ponder their personal/romantic life as much as the war or communism. Both have a brother that they look up to as someone who has succeeded with their lives, especially in terms of having a family. And obviously, both are in love with Zhenia. Novikov’s brother is depicted separately from Novikov in the book. He works in a mine in one of those villages that sprung up all around the Soviet Union only to provide a space for the  industry. This village is depicted as being part of the war effort and is something that is reinforced by Novikov’s complete devotion to work. Both brothers sacrifice their lives to the war (as do other characters). Colonel Novikov is sent to Moscow to await further instructions. He is also the one who takes a letter to Shtrum from the Shaposhnikov’s, which turns out to be the letter that his mother wrote to him. This letter is passed from person to person until it reaches Shtrum. In Moscow, Novikov is worried that he is neglected by the army, but is eventually sent to the front, which is one of the happiest moments of his life. The same happiness can be detected in Krymov when he is in battle and when he returns to Stalingrad at the end of the novel.

Liudmila Nikolaevna is the oldest daughter of the Shaposhnikov family, and is depicted as more of a mother to Marusya and Zhenia than a sister. She met Abarchuk at university where he was deeply involved in revolutionary and Party matters and thought that she was too bourgeois. After they married and had a son Tolia, Abarchuk left them as he believed that the Party mattered more than Liudmila and his son. Grossman depicts Abarchuk as the most staunch Communist, and so the Shaposhnikov family is even more surprised when he is arrested as an enemy of the people in 1937. At the same university Liudmila meets Viktor Shtrum, whom Abarchuk attempts to have expelled from the university. Liudmila and Viktor marry and have a daughter Nadia, who is a little bit spoilt but a typical 15 year-old. In For a Just Cause the family has already evacuated to Kazan from Moscow. At the beginning of the novel Tolia is only just travelling to the front, while at the end of the novel we see him dying in a heroic battle just outside Stalingrad. He is depicted as a shy young man, however he leads his troop to the outskirts of Stalingrad where the German Army doesn’t expect to see the Russian troops. It is in this battle that he manages a surprise assault on the German forces and is then fatally injured. Throughout the novel Liudmila ponders the fate of her son and it is only the reader that knows what is happening to him.

Although Shtrum is one of the major characters in Life and Fate, he is less present in For a Just Cause. He is summoned to his academy in Moscow for a meeting to discuss whether it is possible to get the metal that he needs for his experiment. During his time in Moscow Shtrum returns to his flat to see it covered in dust and abandoned. Here he spends a lot of time with his neighbour Nina, towards whom he develops some romantic feelings, however, this doesn’t develop into a relationship. Shtrum then goes to his dacha (summer-house) where he reads the letter from his mother, something that the reader is not privy to until Life and Fate. The story of Shtrum ends with his return to Kazan from Chelyabinsk, where he met Krymov’s brother, an engineer at the steel plant that Shtrum was visiting. In Kazan Liudmila and Shtrum are visited by Alexandra Vladimirovna who has escaped Stalingrad at the start of the battle. It is from here that Life and Fate picks up.

This has been a lengthy but not at all exhaustive summary of the main characters and their fates in Za pravoe delo. I imagine it may make some boring reading, however I shall return to the many aspects of the novel in the future. There are so many reasons that this novel is great (and some that make it hard-going) that I really would like to share all the various facets of it. What I think I like most about the novel is that there is a sense of unease or inconsistency (possibly because I know the history of the novel) but there is something that makes it indefinable that I absolutely love and will return to in later posts.