February 9, 2023
“Save me a fragment of violent foam, save me a rifle, save a plow for me and let them place it at my grave with a red ear of grain from your soil, that it be known, if there be any doubt, that I died loving you and you loved me, and if I did not fight in your waist I leave in your honor this dark grenade, this song of love for Stalingrad” - Pablo Neruda
For many men my age, Call of Duty was among the video games that captured our generation. One of my earliest video game experiences was playing Call of Duty: Finest Hour, based on WWII, divided into three campaigns: American in the Western Front, British in North Africa, and the Soviet Eastern Front.
Of all three, the Soviet campaign was the most intriguing at the outset. Even at my young age, the American and British sides of the war had been covered ad nauseam in popular culture, even on the History Channel. But the Eastern front? It was different, it was unfamiliar, it was intriguing. Curiosity meant I wanted to see what it was like, even if only in video game form, to take part in this historical moment.
Even in a more recent game like Call of Duty: Vanguard, Paulina Petrova, a Soviet sniper in Stalingrad, had the most interesting story and was the only character with some depth that I felt an affinity with in an otherwise inconsistent game.
There is something about the battle of Stalingrad, and the overall struggle of the peoples of the Soviet Union against Nazism, at one point on the brink of defeat and catastrophe, to overturning it all into resistance and victory, that remains inspiring and worthy of respect. It was the battle of Stalingrad, on the western bank of the Volga River, that heralded one of the “turning points” that helped decide the outcome of the war and foretold the eventual defeat and downfall of Hitler’s Third Reich.
Vasily Grossman’s masterpiece, Stalingrad, among the great works of the 20th century, is a worthy novelization of this monumental event. Grossman begins his magisterial novel with a meeting between Hitler and Mussolini on April 29, 1942, in which they discuss the progress of Operation Barbarossa, launched a year earlier on the Eastern front, commencing the bloodiest, most savage, and most industrialized conflict in the history of warfare.
One hundred fifty divisions of three million German men with 3,000 tanks, 7,000 artillery pieces, and 2,500 aircraft were deployed to pulverize the Soviet Union. Simply put, it was the largest invading force ever organized. “Never,” Grossman noted, “had so much artillery, so many tank and infantry divisions, so many bomber and fighter aircraft been brought together.”
For the Nazis, Operation Barbarossa was no ordinary war; it was meant to be a war of annihilation. An apocalyptic race war waged against their bête noires: the Slavic Untermensch and the “Judeo-Bolsheviks.” Among the aspirations of Barbarossa was to create a German-based colonial empire in the East. The Generalplan Ost (General Plan for the East) was the Nazis’ strategy for the “racial reconstruction” of Eastern Europe, namely, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and the subsequent colonization and enslavement of central and eastern Europe by Germans. It was these “apocalyptic” conditions that also made the Holocaust possible and provided the cover for the Nazis to execute it. Thus, it may be said that Operation Barbarossa was also the most industrialized colonial war ever.
The Red Army had certainly been taken by surprise by the Axis invasion. Stalin refused to heed intelligence warnings of the imminent invasion and weakened the army by beheading its leadership during the Great Terror. As the Germans ploughed their way through the Soviet Union, the Red Army had been forced to retreat deep into Soviet Russia, at the cost of millions of lives and several humiliating defeats and losses. One of these was the retreat from Kiev, about which Grossman heartbreakingly described the sense of shame felt:
“Old men stared at them glassily, as if hoping for some miracle. Nothing in the world, it seemed, could be more terrible than the wrinkled, yet childishly helpless faces of these old men, each alone in the crowd. The Red Army soldiers were all gripped by a tight silence. They knew, with an absolute, physical clarity, that every step they took to the east brought the still unseen Germans closer.”
That is until the battle of Moscow in December 1941, when the Nazi advance was halted and experienced its first setback. But it was at Stalingrad in late 1942-43 that Nazi Germany experienced its first major and humiliating defeat on the Eastern front.
The sheer scale and brutality of the battle—the largest of the Second World War and probably in all of human history—is still almost unfathomable. Well over two million men were involved in the battle on both sides, and the majority of them perished. Both sides claimed multi-ethnic armies. Legions of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Armenians, Kazakhs, and others fought under the banner of the hammer and sickle, while Germans, Italians, Romanians, and Hungarians comprised the Axis invaders. As for deaths, conservative estimates put the Soviet military dead at 479,000, but it’s likely twice as high. The Wehrmacht lost an estimated 500,000 men.
With Stalingrad—alongside Life and Fate—Grossman no doubt produced a work inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace in a 20th-century context. Unlike Tolstoy, in his monumental account of the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, Grossman does not focus on the aristocracy or the generals. The protagonists are ordinary people, a mixture of characters representing the breadth of Soviet society in all of its social, political, and psychological contradictions, its different layers, and manifold shades of character and personality.
One only has to read how Grossman populates the city of Stalingrad just as the Germans are closing in. If they’re 200 km away, we drop in on a Shaposhnikov family party and then we follow the surgeon, Vera, through her routine at the local hospital. We follow the family matriarch, Alexandra Vladimirovna, as she goes about her work of testing pollution at industrial sites. Everyone is waiting for the inevitable cataclysm. Everyone in the city is a participant in this monumental historical drama unfolding before them. Underlying Stalingrad is a profound sympathy for the traumas Soviet society had endured, not just in the war, but also the Great Terror and famines of the 1930s. This is why Grossman can be penetrating, occasionally scathing, but never crudely judgmental of his characters.
One could also read Grossman’s searing account of the Soviet defense of Stalingrad’s railway station. The description of the encircled and outnumbered Soviet soldiers, facing certain death, fighting to the last man in a last-ditch attempt to gain time for reinforcements to enter the city, is even more extraordinary. Some of the folk discourse in the West about the Soviets’ role in WWII, informed by the awful Enemy at The Gates film and popular historians like Antony Beevor, have fed into myths about the battle of Stalingrad: that Soviet soldiers only fought out of fear of Stalin lest they be executed on the spot, or that they were callously chucking men into the meatgrinder in their droves. Much of this is based on Cold War era anti-communist prejudices and the fact that until the ‘90s, when the Soviet archives were opened, the Western history of the Eastern Front was often outright a product of Nazi revisionism, commissioning glorified memoirs by Nazi generals and using them uncritically as primary sources. Recent accounts, however, are thankfully more balanced.
Nonetheless, even Nazi sources noted the Soviets’ adamantine determination to resist occupation. Historian Jochen Hellbeck quotes from the official SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps from October 29, 1942, on the kind of courage and sacrifice that comes through in Grossman’s narrative: “The Bolshevists attack until total exhaustion, and defend themselves until the physical extermination of the last man and weapon … Sometimes the individual will fight beyond the point considered humanly possible.” That they would fight in such a way was unthinkable to the Germans—the Bolsheviks were of another “race,” a “baser, dim-witted humanity” unable “to recognize the meaning and value of life”—unlike their German aggressors. At the end of the battle for the railway station, Grossman describes a German soldier touching the bodies of the Soviet troops “with the toes of his elegant boots … wondering if they might contain some secret. What, he wanted to know, was the hidden source of the grim, monstrous obstinacy of these men now lying dead on the ground?”
The memory of WWII still has a power over current political discourse, and the Soviet Union’s role is still debated, driving nationalist narratives both in the West and Russia. Some will denigrate the Soviet Union’s role in the defeat of Nazism because of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which partitioned Poland for the sake of raison d’état and compromised Western communist parties. This criticism is certainly warranted, but it is also true that the Soviet Union paid the majority of the butcher’s bill and played a significant role in crippling the back of the Nazi war machine, in spite of Stalin. Similarly, Russian nationalists and those of a “tankie” disposition will omit the American Lend-Lease that was crucial in keeping the Soviet army alive, especially in the darkest days of the battle of Stalingrad.
This legacy is even more contested with the Russo-Ukrainian war. Both sides claim to be anti-fascists and tag the other side as fascists. It’s common for pro-Russian propagandists to say that “Russia defeated the Nazis” and “Ukraine sided with the Nazis.” When in fact, it was the Soviet Union, a force comprised of many nationalities, that pulverized the Nazi war machine on the Eastern Front. There’s also the mistake of equating the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) with “Ukraine.” There were around 200,000 Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazi occupation. Seven million Ukrainians, in contrast, served in the Red Army. It shouldn’t be forgotten that Ukraine was also among the most affected by the Nazi occupation, losing 16% of its population, the most of any of the Soviet Republics aside from Belarus. To omit this is like extolling the British and French effort in WWII while omitting the crucial labor of their colonized subjects.
Stalingrad is less a glorification of Stalin or of the Party, but a testament to the struggle, suffering, and resistance of the peoples of the Soviet Union, distinct from the regime that ruled them, which should be respected, even honored, not to glorify war, or whitewash the Soviet Union, but to esteem solidarity and collective resistance.
The greatest strength of Stalingrad is that Grossman never isolates the individual from society and the historical process but rather shows the profound, complex, and not always direct, interconnection between the decisive social and political events of the time and the personal lives of individuals. People are treated as agents, not objects of history; they are participants, not mere spectators. If Stalingrad can remind us of anything, it is that progress for a better future relies upon the collective ability of humans to transform society. As Grossman put it himself, “And here, perhaps, lies humanity’s greatest hope: great deeds can be accomplished by simple, ordinary people.”