Graphic Account Of The Ostfront By Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossmann Russian reporter  writer

Vasily Grossman was a Russian war reporter with a difference. Not the usual kowtowing, mill-of-the-run, psychophantic product of the Stalinist system. He was sensitive and called a spade a spade. If he praised the bravery of the Russian soldiers he was brutally frank in describing the nauseating mass rape of German women in the closing stages of WW2.

 His book "A Writer At War" is a must-read. The Eastern front comes alive.

a writer at war antony beevor

For four years Grossman saw everything, from Stalingrad to Berlin, and he set it all down with the sympathy and dispassion of the great novelist that he was—including the fate of his mother, shot by the Germans in the first months of the invasion, which he only learned when his hometown was liberated by the Red Army; and the radical truth of Treblinka, which was razed just before he got there, but which he recreated unbearably and unforgettably by interviewing every survivor and guard he could find.


At the front, when there’s trench warfare, Germans shout every morning: ‘Zhuchkov, surrender.’Zhuchkov answers sullenly: ‘Fuck you.
A joke about how to catch a German. One simply needs to tie a goose by the leg and a German would come out for it. Real life: Red Army soldiers have tied chickens by the leg and let them out into a clearing in the woods, and hid in the bushes. And Germans really did appear when they heard the chickens clucking. They fell right into the trap
German trenches, strong points, officers’ andsoldiers’ bunkers. The enemy has been here.There are French wines and brandy; Greek olives;yellow, carelessly squeezed lemons from their ‘ally’, slavishly-obedient Italy; a jar of jam with a Polish label; a big oval tin of fish preserve –Norway’s tribute; a bucket of honey from Czechoslovakia. And fragments of a Soviet shell are lying amid this fascist feast.

 Soldiers’ bunkers are a different sight: here onewon’t see empty chocolate boxes and unfinished sardines. There are only tins of pressed peas and chunks of bread as heavy as cast iron. Weighing in their palms these loaves that are similar to asphalt in both colour and density, Red Army soldiers grin and say: ‘Well, brother, that’s real bread!
Orel, Orel once again. There are aircraft over it.Trucks. People carry children in their arms.Children sitting on bundles. [There is a constant]rattling noise during the night: the city is on the move. We are in a hotel once again. It is a normal provincial hotel, but now it seems an extremely nice one after all the travelling, because it is such an ordinary, such a peaceful one.

There is a school map of Europe. We go to look at it. We are terrified at how far we have retreated. I am approached in the corridor by a photo-journalist called Redkin whom I’d met at front headquarters. He looks alarmed. ‘The Germans are rushing straight for Orel. There are hundreds of tanks. I had a narrow escape under fire. We must leave immediately, otherwise they’llcatch us here.’ And he tells us how he was sitting in a very quiet rear headquarters having dinner,when suddenly they heard a noise. They looked out the window and saw an NKVD man running past. He was covered in flour. It turned out that he had been driving along a few kilometres away,completely unaware of how close the Germans were, when suddenly a tank turned its turret and fired, hitting the truck in which he was carrying sacks of flour. ‘Tanks are everywhere!’ Redkin got into a car and rushed to Orel. German tanks were advancing along the same road, and there was no resistance. Redkin tells us this news in a frightened, hissing whisper.
Everyone keeps looking up into the sky, but not because they are waiting for the Messiah. They are watching out for German bombers. Suddenly there are shouts: ‘Here they are! They’re coming,they are coming straight for us!’ Dozens of aerial boats are gliding in the sky,slowly and smoothly, in triangular ranks. They are moving towards us. Dozens, hundreds of people climb over the sides of trucks, jump out of cabins,run towards the forest. Everyone is infected with panic, the running crowd is growing bigger every minute. And then everyone hears the shrill voice of a woman: ‘Cowards, cowards, they are just cranes flying over!’ Confusion.
Soon after reaching the Orel–Tula road, Grossman spotted a sign to Yasnaya Polyana, the Tolstoy estate, some twenty kilometres south of Tula. He persuaded his companions that they should visit it. As things turned out, the next visitor after them would be General Guderian, who decided to turn the writer’s home into his headquarters for the assault on Moscow.
The editor [Ortenberg] came to meet us. He was up in arms. ‘Why have you left the headquarters of the Bryansk Front?’‘We were ordered to leave, and we left, after all the other correspondents did.’‘Why didn’t you write anything about the heroic defence of Orel?’‘ Because there was no defence.
When they approach a wood, Germans start firing like madmen and then rush through it at full speed.Germans opening fire. In the evenings they would go to the edge of a wood and open fire with sub-machine guns. Captain Baklan approached to a distance of fifty metres. He lay there watching.They spotted him. Their behaviour reminded him of madmen. They started running about with terrible shouting. Dozens of rockets soared into the air, artillery started firing without aim, machine guns started rattling away, sub-machine guns too.They were firing all over the place, and Baklan lay there watching the Germans in astonishment

Germans were camping in this izba just six hours ago. Their papers, bags, helmets are still on the table. The izbas that they had set on fire are still smouldering. Their bodies smashed by Soviet steel are lying around in the snow. And women,feeling that the nightmare of the last days is over at last, suddenly exclaim through sobs: ‘You are our dear ones, you are back at last!’‘

Well, this is how it was [one of the women recounted]. The Germans came. They knocked at the door, crowded into the house, and stood by the stove like sick dogs, their teeth chattering, shaking, putting their hands right into the stove,and their hands were red like raw meat. “Light the stove, light it!” they shouted as their teeth chattered. Well, as soon as they got warmer, they began to scratch themselves. It was awful to watch, and funny. Like dogs, scratching themselves with their paws. Lice had started moving again on their bodies because of the warmth.


The retaking of Zaliman and other villages made Grossman think even more about life for those under German occupation. Rumours from the other sides of the lines concerned everyone.Girls in the occupied villages put on rags and rub ash on their faces.This was to avoid the attention of German soldiers.

German women took the same precautions in 1945 in the hope of escaping rape at the hands of the Red Army. Yet Grossman, like many, was sometimes misled into ascribing the worst of motives to those under enemy occupation. Six beautiful girls from Zaliman went away together with Germans.

This could well have been malicious gossip. The most attractive girls were often seized for service in Wehrmacht brothels, a fate far worse even than gang rape, since it was on a permanent basis and the young women had to pretend to enjoy it or face severe punishment.


The izba is crowded with dozens of people.There’s confusion, the headquarters is in the process of setting itself up. A beautiful girl is therein an overcoat which is too big for her, a big ushanka [fur hat] which keeps falling over her eyes, and huge valenki  [felt boots], but one can tell there is a sweet, slim girl underneath all this ugly grey stuff. She is standing there looking lost,not knowing where she can sit down. She is holding a red handbag in her hands. This lady’s handbag, which has seen better days, looks stunningly sad in these grey military surroundings. A soldier slaps her on the back jokingly, but with full force. Suddenly she begins to cry. ‘Forgive me, Lidochka,’ the soldier says to her. ‘I’m a miner, I’ve got heavy hands.’

Grossman was so deeply affected by the genuine spirit of sacrifice among ordinary soldiers and front-line officers that he became quite emotional on the subject. 

"At war, a Russian man puts on a white shirt. He may live in sin, but he dies like a saint. At the front[there is] a purity of thought and soul, a kind of monastic austerity.The rear [the civilian part of the country] lives by different laws and it would never be able to merge morally with the front. Its law is life, and the struggle for survival. We Russians don’t know how to live like saints, we only know how to die like saints. The front [represents] the holiness of Russian death, the rear is the sin of Russian life. At the front, there is patience and resignation,submission to unthinkable hardships. This is the patience of a strong people. This is the patience of a great army. The greatness of the Russian soul is incredible."

A terrifying crossing. Fear. The ferry is full of vehicles, carts, hundreds of people crowded together, and it gets stuck. A Ju-88 drops a bomb from high above. A huge spout of water, upright,bluish-white in colour. The feeling of fear. Thereisn’t a single machine gun at the crossing, not a single little anti-aircraft gun. The quiet, clear Volga is terrifying like a scaffold.The city of Stalingrad, the last days of August,beginning of September, after the fire. Crossing the river to Stalingrad. At the start, for courage, we drink a huge amount of apple wine at a collective farm on the left bank.Messers are howling over the Volga, there is haze and smoke over it, smoke canisters are burned constantly to camouflage the crossing.

It was General Chuikov who coined the phrase the Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting. Chuikov’s idea was to keep the Germans constantly engaged. He ordered his troops to site their trenches as close to the enemy as possible, because that would make it harder for the Luftwaffe, which enjoyed air supremacy by day, to distinguish between the two opposing forces. Chuikov boasted to Grossman: "During air raids our soldiers and Germans ran towards each other to hide in the same holes.[The Germans] could not strike our front line with their air attacks. At the Red October plant they demolished a fresh division of their own."

Germans sitting in one of the buildings were resisting so stubbornly that they had to be blown up together with the heavy walls of the building.Under a fierce fire from the German defenders who could sense their own death, six sappers carried up by hand ten poods of explosive and blew up the building. And when I imagine for a moment this picture – Sapper Lieutenant Chermakov, Sergeants Dubovy and Bugaev and Sappers Klimenko, Zhukhov and Messereshvili crawling under fire along the destroyed walls,each with 1.5 poods of death, when I picture to myself their sweaty, dirty faces, their shabby army shirts, when I remember how Sergeant Dubov shouted: ‘Hey, sappers, don’t be scared!’ And Zhukhov answered, twisting his mouth and spitting dust out: ‘There’s no time to be scared now. We should have been before!’ – I feel a great pride for them.

When one enters a bunker and the underground quarters of officers and soldiers, one feels again an ardent wish to retain for ever in one’s memory the remarkable traits of this unique life. The lamps and the chimney made from artillery shell cases,cups made of brass shell bases standing on tables near crystal glasses. Next to an anti-tank grenade sits a china ashtray on which is written‘Wife, don’t make your husband angry’. There is a huge dull electric bulb in the commander-in-chief’sbunker, and a smile from Chuikov, who says: ‘Yes,and a chandelier. Aren’t we living in a city?’ And this volume of Shakespeare in General Gurov’sunderground office . . . All these samovars and gramophones, blue family sugar bowls and round mirrors in wooden frames on the clay walls of basements. All this everyday life, with peaceful household things rescued from the burning buildings.

He also interviewed a teacher who had been raped by a German officer.

Teacher (I decided not to ask her name and surname). At night, an officer, helped by his orderly, raped her. She was holding a six-month-old baby in her arms. He fired at the floor, threatening to kill the baby. The orderly went away and locked the door. Some of our prisoners of war were in the next room. She cried out and called, but there was dead silence in the next room.



A German soldier wounded in the legs is sitting on a low sandy bank of the Beresina by the route into the burning and destroyed Bobruisk. He raises his head and looks up at the tank columns moving across the bridge, at the artillery. A Red Army soldier comes up to him, takes some water from the river in a tin and gives it to him to drink. Icouldn’t help thinking, what would this German have done in the summer of 1941, when panzer columns of their troops were moving east across this bridge, if he had seen one of our soldiers with wounded legs sitting here on the sandy bank.

Revenge killings were unsurprising after the appalling anti-partisan war waged in Belarus by the Germans and their auxiliaries, whom the Red Army often referred to generically as

.A partisan, a small man, has killed two Germans with a stake. He had pleaded with the guards of the column to give him these Germans. He had convinced himself that they were the ones who had killed his daughter Olya and his sons, his two boys. He broke all their bones, and smashed their skulls, and while he was beating them, he was crying and shouting: ‘Here you are – for Olya Here you are – for Kolya!’ When they were dead,he propped the bodies up against a tree stump and continued to beat them.

Grossman soon found that the behaviour of Red Army troops changed on foreign soil. He still tried to idealise front-line troops, while putting all the blame on rear units,such as supply and transport. In fact, the tank troops whom he so idealised were often the worst looters and rapists.The front-line soldiers advance by day and night in fire, holy and pure. The rear soldiers who follow them rape, drink, loot and rob. Two hundred and fifty of our girls were working at the Focke-Wulf plant. Germans had brought them from Voroshilovgrad, Kharkov and Kiev. According to the chief of the army political department, these girls have no clothes, are lice-infested and swollen from hunger. And according to what a man from the army newspaper said, these girls had been clean and well dressed, until our soldiers came and robbed them blind and took their watches. Liberated Soviet girls often complain about being raped by our soldiers. One girl said to me, crying: ‘He was an old man, older than my father."

A German woman dressed in black, with dead lips, is speaking in a barely audible rustling voice.She has brought with her a teenage girl with black, velvety bruises on her neck and face, a swollen eye, with terrible bruises on her hands.This girl was raped by a soldier from the signals company with army headquarters. He is also here,pink-cheeked, fat-faced, sleepy. The commandant is interrogating him without much enthusiasm.Horrifying things are happening to German women. An educated German whose wife has received ‘new visitors’ – Red Army soldiers – is explaining with expressive gestures and broken Russian words, that she has already been raped by ten men today. The lady is present.Women’s screams are heard from open windows. 
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