In my long march through Russian history and literature, I’ve gotten up to World War Two (and am freshly astonished by Stalin’s pigheaded refusal to believe the Germans were attacking even after months of warnings from all quarters and, on the day itself, reports of cities being bombed and borders overrun). I have thus pulled down from the shelf my volume of Grigory Baklanov, well known for his war novels, and begun his Iyul’ 41 goda (July 1941; Russian text). It’s always a pleasure to be surprised by a writer, and I am having that pleasure now; expecting a well-told tale of the front lines, I’m getting along with it a vivid picture of the repression that preceded the war (he makes you feel exactly what it was like to have a half-deranged man take the stage at a political meeting and have his finger waver in your direction as he’s denouncing “Trotskyists,” or to hear feet tramping up the stairs of your apartment building in the small hours of the morning and wait silently with your wife to find out if they will knock on your door or someone else’s), as well as some very nice writing (“А за окном было уже позднее утро, солнце растопило смолу на стволах сосен, ею сильно пахло в лесном воздухе”: “But beyond the window it was already late morning, the sun was warming the resin on the trunks of the pines, the forest air smelled strongly of it”).

I’m only on the second chapter, but I wanted to pass along this interesting example of pronoun usage in those days. The corps commissar has dropped by the office of the corps commander:

“You’re going to be here?” he asked after a bit [using the familiar ты (ty) ‘you’]. “Then I’ll go.”

This ты was not an expression of full and friendly intimacy between them. It was rather the customary/expected ты. Otherwise it might have looked as though commander and commissar were not united/unified/indivisible.

The original:

– Ты здесь будешь? – спросил он погодя.- Так я поеду.

Это “ты” не было выражением полной душевной близости между ними. Это было скорее полагавшееся “ты”. Иначе могло выглядеть со стороны, что командир и комиссар не едины.

(If anyone has suggestions for must-read Russian WWII novels or stories, I’m all ears.)


  1. Nekrich’s –June 22, 1941– was one of the first books published in the USSR that openly held Stalin responsible for the calamity of that day.
    For his troubles, Nekrich was hounded by critics, forced out of the party and effectively forced to abandon his profession as a historian until he moved to the US in the 1970’s
    Gorodetsky’s –Grand Delusion– is a very good account of the peculiar assumptions and incredible blunders behind Stalin’s failure to understand Hitler’s intentions.

  2. …or to hear feet tramping up the stairs of your apartment building in the small hours of the morning…
    I believe that in Shostakovitch’s Second Violin Concerto there is a passage written to sound like feet tramping upstairs and knocks on the door. He wrote it, in Russian terms, “for the desk drawer” and didn’t publish it until Stalin was dead.

  3. marie-lucie says

    …or to hear feet tramping up the stairs of your apartment building in the small hours of the morning…
    I was too young to realize it at the time, but this was how many French people lived during the German occupation, always expecting the Gestapo.

  4. Baklanov’s work is traditionally classed as ‘lieutenants prose’, the books written by those who where at the front as young junior officers and had first-hand experience of front-line fighting. My favourite by him is ‘His Batallion’ (“Его батальон”). There is a big list of WWII novels and stories, including Baklanov, available to read or download (in Russian) here.
    Konstantin Simonov’s trilogy ‘The Living and the Dead’ should be on the list, because he had extensive first-hand knowledge of how officers thought and behaved and, though loyal communist, he sought to understand and explain what and how went wrong. I also liked his later novella ‘Twenty Days Without War’ (“Двадцать дней без войны”). His Stalingrad essays ‘Days and Nights'(Дни и ночи) are good and based on first-hand knowledge. And of course his war-time poetry is a must – every Russian knows Wait For Me (Жди меня).
    Other novels: Viktor Astafyev’s The Shepherd and the Sheperdess (“Пастух и пастушка”), Boris Vasilyev’s It’s So Quiet Here At Sunrise (“А зори здесь тихие”) and Vasil’ Bykov’s ‘Obelisk’.
    I’d also recommend Ilya Ehrenburg’s war-time essays. His writing was instrumental in whipping up hatred towards the Germans, a major factor in boosting morale, but that same characteristic got E. into trouble when policy radically changed in 1945 as the Red Army advanced into Germany itself.
    Not Russian, but quoting widely from Russian sources, including literary, are Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and Berlin. And A Writer at War (about Vassily Grossman). There is a lot of surprising Russia-related stuff in his D-Day – a Georgian batallion and a cossack cavalry fighting against the Allies on the German side, an account of a German pioneer unit, who brought a Russian truck captured at Stalingrad to do war-work in Normandy etc.

  5. j. del col says

    –A Writer at War– contains numerous selections from Grossman’s wartime reportage, too. A fine book.

  6. Thanks! I love Simonov’s poetry, and I’ll put his trilogy on my list. Grossman is already there.

  7. Does Russian have an “officious” 2nd person pronoun in between the familiar and polite, like Romanian dumneata lit. ‘thy [familiar/singular] lordship’ (vs. dumneavoastra lit. ‘your [polite/plural] lordship’? Dumneata was the first taught and most common 2nd person pronoun in the Romanian dialogs I memorized in Army language school in 1969-70. I rarely heard it while in Romania, but it made an appropriate appearance during an officious TV interview staged in the film 12:08 East of Bucharest.

  8. Bill Walderman says

    “I believe that in Shostakovitch’s Second Violin Concerto there is a passage written to sound like feet tramping upstairs and knocks on the door.”
    The Eighth Quartet has the knock on the door.

  9. On the subject of the repressions of the 30s, I’d like to share an anecdote I read recently: it’s from Im Land der zornigen Winde, a Swiss ethnographer interviewing the Tuvan poet/novelist Galsan Tschinag. Galsan says that in those years, in Mongolia, 28,000 “counterrevolutionaries” were shot, out of a total population of 600,000.

    Viele waren verhaftet und zur Erschießungsstelle gefühurt worden. Aus unserer Ecke ist nur ein einziger von dort lebendig zurückgekehrt. Das war Aktschygyl, ein bestechend kluger Mensch, ein Volksdichter und ein Schurke auch…. Dieser Mensch hat überlebt, allein weil er so gerissen war und aus dem Stegreif Verse machen konnte. Er ist reingegangen in die Jurte, wo das Revolutionäre Tribunal saß, ist auf die Knie gefallen und hat angefangen, die Jurte und das Tribunal zu lobpreisen, hat stundenlang in Versen geredet, die Jurte gelobt, den Teppich, worauf die Richter saßen, die Richter selbst, die neue Zeit und diese Ordnung, hat weiter Lenin, Marx genannt, und dann — das ist der Gipfel — hat er gesagt: «Also bin ich ein schlechter Mensch, habe die Erschießung verdient, weil ich, in dieser schrecklich schönen Zeit lebend, ein rückständiger Viehzüchter geblieben bin. Weil ich nur ein Viehzüchter geblieben bin!» Man hat ihm zugehört. «Wenn es nur das ist, daß Sie ein Viehzüchter geblieben sind. Wir haben gedacht, Sie seien ein Spion Japans.» So wurden damals alle genannt: Spione des Feindes. Die Menschen wußten natürlich night, was Japan war, wo es lag. Aber alle wurden als japanische Spione abgeknallt. Das Revolutionäre Tribunal hat den Stegreifdichter entlassen, und er kam zurück.

  10. There is a museum commemorating the victims of the oppression in the middle of Ulaanbaatar.

  11. In Shostakovitch’s Second Violin Concerto there is a passage written to sound like feet tramping upstairs and knocks on the door.”
    The Eighth Quartet has the knock on the door.
    I think it’s in both. He often recycled things; you can also find something similar (less blatant) here in the String Quartet No. 7 (at about 9 minutes in).
    Incidentally, you can watch as well as hear the whole of the first violin concerto performed by David Oistrach here

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