July 01, 2019


A downed German Messerschmidt BF109. Colorization by Olga Shirnina (read below about her images).

This is a short excerpt from the first-ever English translation (by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler) of Grossman’s epic novel of the turning point in World War II. The second part of Grossman’s story, Life and Fate, is widely considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

Darensky woke shortly before dawn. He listened for a moment – the rumble of guns and the hum of planes had not stopped. Usually the hour before dawn is war’s quiet hour – the time when night’s darkness and fear draw to an end, when sentries doze off, when the severely wounded stop screaming and at last close their eyes. It is the time when fever subsides and sweat comes out on the skin, when birds begin to stir, when sleeping babies stretch towards the breast of their sleeping mothers. It is the last hour of sleep, when soldiers cease to feel the hard, lumpy ground beneath them and pull their greatcoats over their heads, unaware of the white film of frost now covering their buttons and belt buckles.

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But there was no longer any such thing as a quiet hour. In the darkness before dawn planes were still humming and troops still passing by. There was the rumble of heavy vehicles and the sound of artillery fire and exploding bombs in the distance.

Unsettled by all this, Darensky got ready to go on his way. By the time he had shaved, washed, brushed his teeth and filed his nails, it was already light.

He went out into the yard. The driver was still asleep, his head on the corner of the seat and his bare feet poking out of the window. Darensky knocked on the windscreen. The driver did not wake up, so Darensky sounded the horn.

“Time we were off,” he said, as his numb driver began to stir. “Get the pickup out on the road.”
Darensky walked past the slit trench, where the old man and his family were sleeping on straw, covered by sheepskin coats. He went on into the vegetable garden.

In the distance, through a lattice of yellowing leaves, he could see the gleam of the Volga. The rays of the rising sun, now just clear of the horizon, ran almost parallel to the ground. The clouds had turned pink. Only a few – not yet caught by the sun – remained a cold ashy grey. The high cliffs of the west bank had emerged from the dark, and the patches of limestone shone like fresh snow.

Each minute brought more light. Not far away was a dense flock of sheep, some white, some black. They were bleating quietly, stirring up thin clouds of pink dust as they moved over the tawny, hummocky ground.

Their shepherd had a large staff on his shoulder and his cloak billowed behind him.

It was a moving sight. In the low sun’s broad rays, the sheep looked like small boulders moving between the hummocks, and the shepherd with his staff and cloak might have been drawn by Gustave Doré.

Then the flock drew nearer, and Darensky saw that the shepherd’s cloak was a tarpaulin and his heavy staff was an anti-tank rifle. He was walking along the edge of the road, and the sheep were nothing to do with him.

Darensky returned to the pickup.

“Ready now?” he asked. The lieutenant, a timid, skinny young man, said, “The major’s not here yet, comrade Lieutenant Colonel.”

“Where is he?” “He went off to find some milk for breakfast. It seems the cow here’s not milking.”

“I don’t believe it!” said Darensky. “Milk and cows – I don’t believe it. When every minute’s precious!” He paced silently about the yard for several minutes, then burst out, “How much longer will I have to wait for your dairyman?”

“He’ll be back any moment,” the lieutenant said guiltily. He had rolled himself a cigarette, but he threw it onto the ground. “Which way did he go?”

“Over there,” said the lieutenant. “Permission to look for him?”

“Don’t bother,” said Darensky.

He now felt crosser than ever with the major. Like many irritable people, he often vented his frustration and anger almost at random, on whoever happened to be present.

And when Berozkin appeared with a watermelon under one arm and a litre bottle filled with milk, Darensky almost choked with rage.

“Ah, comrade Lieutenant Colonel,” said Berozkin, placing the watermelon on the passenger seat, “did you sleep well? I’ve brought us some milk – fresh from the cow!”

Darensky glared at him, then said with cold fury, ‘Just look at yourself – you look more like a pedlar than a commander. It’s because of pedlars and petty traders like you that we were routed in 1941. Here we are, not far from Stalingrad. Every minute counts – and you wander about the village bargaining for milk!”

The blood mounted to Berozkin’s tanned face, turning it darker still. After a few seconds, he replied quietly, “I apologize, comrade Lieutenant Colonel. Our lieutenant was coughing all night. I thought some fresh milk would do him good.”

“All right,” said Darensky, now embarrassed. “But let’s be off now!”

Darensky was afraid of Stalingrad. He thought he was making his way to the front too slowly, but what really troubled him was that he would be there extremely soon.

Darensky glanced at the major. Until now, what irritated him had been the man’s imperturbable calm – but now he looked tense and shocked. His jaw had dropped, and there was a bewildered, almost crazed look in his eyes. Involuntarily, Darensky looked around: what had the major just seen? Were they about to encounter something terrible? Had German parachutists landed this side of the Volga?
But the road, gashed by wheels and tank tracks, was empty. All Darensky could see was some refugees, trudging along past the huts.

“Tamara! Tamara!” called Berozkin – and a young woman in shoes held together with string, with a bag over her shoulders, suddenly froze. Beside her stood a little girl who looked about five years old. She too was carrying a bag, sewn from a pillowcase.

Berozkin walked towards them, still holding the bottle of milk.

The woman stared at the commander coming towards her with a bottle of milk, then cried out, “Ivan! Vanya! My darling Vanya!”

And this cry was so frightening, so charged with complaint, horror, grief, reproach and happiness that everyone who heard it flinched, as if from a burn or some other sudden physical pain.

The woman ran forward and flung her arms around Berozkin’s neck, her body racked by silent sobs. And the little girl in sandals stood beside her, gazing wide-eyed at the bottle of milk in the large, bronzed, big-veined hand of her father.

Darensky realized that he too was shaking. He never spoke about this meeting to anyone. But even thirty years later, when he was a lonely old man, he felt the same anguish as at this moment – as when he saw this man and woman first look at each other, as he saw in their eyes all the savage grief and homeless happiness of those terrible years.

It was then, he came to believe, that he first truly took in all the bitterness of the war – standing in the sands beyond the Volga and hearing a homeless, dust-covered woman with beautiful eyes and the thin shoulders of an adolescent girl say, in a loud voice, to a broad-faced forty-year-old major, “Our Slava’s dead. I failed him.”

Berozkin led the woman and the little girl to the hut. Then he came out again, went up to Darensky and said, “Excuse me, comrade Lieutenant Colonel, I’m holding you up. Please go on your way without me. I’ve just found my family.” “We’ll wait,” said Darensky. He went to the pickup and said to the supplies officer, “If this were my truck, I tell you I’d take this woman to Kamyshin, even if it meant throwing out the other passengers.”

“No,” said the supplies officer. “I have a mission to carry out, and these two could be talking all day and all night. A good-looking young woman, a major who’s got what it takes, and it’s a year since they last saw each other. They’ve got more than enough to keep them busy.” He winked at the silent driver and at the young lieutenant, who was looking at Darensky with profound admiration, and began to laugh. His laughter was the abrupt, staccato laughter of a professional teller of jokes.

Darensky realized that it would indeed be better if they went on their way. There was, after all, nothing he could do for the major. “All right,” he said, “start the engine. I’ll fetch my things.”

From Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman. Used with the permission of the publisher. Copyright © 2019 Robert Chandler.

Fighting on the front lines at Stalingrad.
Stalingrad Scenes

Graphic artist Olga Shirnina takes old black and white images and colorizes them with careful precision and astonishing artistry. By adding natural colors, she infuses the images and our historic memories with new immediacy, helping viewers at this distant remove to better sense what it must have been like to be in that place, in that time. More of Olga’s images can be experienced online at bit.ly/rl-shirnina

The center of Stalingrad in the winter of 1943, after it was reclaimed by Soviet forces.



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An excerpt from a forthcoming translation of Grossman's monumental novel.

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