The Two Stalingrads

Putin’s Russia is not the only heir to the Soviet heroics of the Second World War.

A picture shows the Motherland Calls statue at the Mamayev Kurgan World War Two Memorial complex in Russia's southern city of Volgograd.
Kirill Kudriavtsev / AFP / Getty

In 2016, two years after Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas, I was invited to the Kyiv Suvorov Military School to present the Ukrainian edition of my novel set in Afghanistan. The auditorium was mostly filled with fresh-faced cadets and their instructors, some of whom had recently returned from fighting in the east. After an hour’s discussion, the cadets filed back to their barracks. Then, out of the dark recesses of the auditorium, three men in their mid-50s approached me.

They each had a thick neck, cropped hair, and a thigh-length black leather jacket. One spoke rapidly with my interpreter. When he took something from his pocket and reached for me, I flinched. But he was already holding my lapel as he pushed a pin through it. My interpreter explained that these three men were Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Because I was a veteran of the American Afghan War, they wanted to present me with a lapel pin from the Union of Veterans of Afghanistan as a gesture of friendship. All three of them wore the same pin.

After the event, my interpreter told me that veterans of the Soviet war existed in a cultural limbo in Ukraine, which was why these men so appreciated any public discussion about Afghanistan. They had served in the Soviet military, which—adjacent as it was to the modern-day Russian military—made their service suspect to many younger Ukrainians. However, when they’d fought in the Soviet military, they’d done so as Ukrainians. The Soviet military legacy—in Afghanistan but even more importantly in the Second World War—wasn’t simply a Russian one but a Ukrainian one.

Last week marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle for Stalingrad, the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, which turned the tide of the Second World War. To mark the occasion, President Vladimir Putin traveled to Stalingrad, now called Volgograd. In a televised speech, he said, “The legacy of generations, values and traditions—this is all what makes Russia different, what makes us strong and confident in ourselves, in our righteousness and in our victory.” What he neglected to mention was that the victory at Stalingrad over the Nazis and fascism wasn’t simply a Russian victory; it was a Ukrainian one too.

After I met those Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, my interpreter recommended I read the work of Vasily Grossman, a Ukrainian Soviet Jew born outside Kyiv. Grossman was at Stalingrad and became perhaps the greatest chronicler of the Soviet experience in the Second World War. Although he was Ukrainian, he wrote in Russian and died in Moscow.

Grossman authored several novels about the Second World War, but the interplay among Ukrainian, Russian, and Soviet identities and narratives is most prominently on display in his 1942 book, The People Immortal. Told through a series of interconnected vignettes, the book chronicles the Red Army’s retreat through Ukraine in the months after the German invasion on June 22, 1941:

Dust hangs over Ukraine and Belorussia; it swirls over the Soviet earth. At night, the dark August sky reddens from the sinister glow of burning villages … Old men, women and children in villages and hamlets wave the retreating soldiers on their way, offering them curd cheese pies, cucumbers and glasses of milk. The old women weep and weep, searching amid thousands of grim, dusty, exhausted faces for the face of a son. And they hold out the little white bundles with their gifts of food, “Take this, love. You are all my own sons. Every one of you has a place in my heart.”

In the pages that follow, calamity piles on calamity as the assembled cast—soldiers, political commissars, and civilians alike—absorb the brunt of Hitler’s invasion. The place names read as if they were taken from today’s headlines: Kharkiv, Dnipro, Chernihiv.

The drumbeat of military disasters in The People Immortal would make for intolerably dark reading if not for our knowledge that this string of Soviet military defeats is simply a prelude to the victory at Stalingrad and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany. From the first page, we know the ending, and it is a triumphant one. The book derives its momentum because the reader is situated within a well-understood narrative. However, when reading The People Immortal through the lens of Russia’s current war against Ukraine, there is no clear ending to place the reader at ease.

Putin has repeatedly justified his invasion of Ukraine under the pretense of de-Nazification. Grossman’s descriptions of the Nazi military machine, however, are disturbingly reminiscent of today’s Russian-invasion force. Sergey Bogariov, one of the Soviet commissars in the novel, describes the Nazi invaders as follows: “Every realm of German creative thought has been rendered sterile. The Fascists are powerless to create; they cannot write books or compose music or poetry. They are stagnant—they are a swamp. They have brought only one new element to world history and politics: shameless brigandry and organized atrocity!”

Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of Ukrainian cities from Mariupol to Kherson certainly feels like “shameless brigandry and organized atrocity.” Grossman’s recounting of the relentless Nazi bombing of civilians reads like a dispatch from Bakhmut, which the Ukrainians are defending much as their Soviet forebearers once defended Stalingrad. Tragically, the societal sterility that Grossman associates with fascism is applicable to Russia today. Putin’s war has made Russia a pariah, relegating its historically vibrant culture to the margins.

Many Ukrainians—both before and after February 24, 2022—have been suspicious of any narrative that places blame for Russia’s aggression solely on Putin and does not extend that blame to the Russian people who have enabled him. Russia has a history of paternalistic attitudes toward Ukraine, attitudes that persist and have contributed to the current war. The two countries remain closely bound, though, despite their distinct identities. It’s impossible for either Russia or Ukraine to claim sole ownership of the heroic narrative of Soviet resistance in the Second World War. Grossman’s work proves only how inextricably linked both national identities are to the Soviet narrative legacy, one that Russia has weaponized against Ukraine even as Ukrainians are displaying the mettle of their Soviet predecessors in battles fought on the same ground where Nazis and Soviets clashed 80 years ago.

Grossman published The People Immortal in serialized form in Red Star, the official newspaper of the Soviet Ministry of Defense. It was received with general acclaim both at home and abroad as the first book on the Soviet military experience against the Germans. Grossman, who eventually became the Soviet Union’s preeminent war correspondent, steers away from criticism of the Stalinist regime. In the hands of a lesser writer, Grossman’s tales of heroism, of the solidarity between regular soldiers and political commissars, and his romanticized descriptions of Soviet life under Stalin, would be sentimental, except Grossman is self-aware to a fault. He understands that, like the infantrymen and tankers he describes, he’s a soldier, too, only stories are his weapon.

As a storyteller, he has much in common with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has also demonstrated a preternatural understanding of the importance of narrative in war. Zelensky, like Grossman, has taken a side and is a participant in the events, but as storytellers, neither hides his biases and both can be subversive. The world will long remember Zelensky’s publicized response to the Biden administration’s offer of an evacuation: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Grossman is often subversive, perhaps no more so than in his book’s title, The People Immortal, which, as its chapters unfold, begins to ask: Who are the immortal people?

It would be the Soviets, except the Soviets no longer exist as a people. A passage in the book’s final pages seems to answer the question for today’s readers:

The wind whistled over the fields. Two men appeared from where the fires were starting to die out … Blood was seeping through their clothes. They were taking slow, heavy steps, each supporting the other. Where it flowed down onto the ground, the blood of the two men mixed together. They were brothers; nothing in life or death could now separate them.