In Donbas Province in Eastern Ukraine, a few miles from the contact line where Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian Separatists have been fighting since February 2014, is an insane asylum. Shelled. Destroyed. It is rubble. I went there on a cold March day, thinking of the great Soviet writer Vasily Grossman.
There’s a certain novelty to rubble in Europe. It’s brutal. Regrettable. People are dying and here we are in the 21st century. I can’t quite believe it. I am a child of the Cold War and the idea of actual conflict in Europe isn’t so much an idea as the waking nightmare of a childhood animated by the Clash and 42-kiloton ICBMs.
Yet the asylum is rubble.
If the word of our local driver is to be believed, at least one hundred died. It’s hard to imagine any less. 152mm artillery shells. 82mm mortar rounds. Great starbursts have erupted through the masonry. On the steps, my friend, the Russian expert Michael Denner, finds tomorrow’s menu. An entire room is filled with discarded clothes, wadded and hardened, by a single stiletto heel, red as cherry beneath the dust.
Everywhere I look I sense Grossman.
Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, west of Kiev, in what was then part of the Russian Empire. Trained as an engineer in Donbas Province, much of which is now under the control of pro-Russian forces, he began publishing fiction in the ’30s. But it wasn’t until the war began and Grossman became a correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda that he began producing something transcendent. He witnessed the great battles of the Eastern Front, recorded the liberation of Treblinka, and after the war, he wrote his masterpiece, Life and Fate.
It is a baggy, meandering book, too long by half. Built around the yearlong battle of Stalingrad, it is a 20th century War and Peace written by a man who, though he was many things, was never Tolstoy. Yet it contains such flashes of life as lived, life as suffered and celebrated, and, ultimately, lost, that wading through its nearly 900 pages is a small price.
Robert Chandler, one of his earliest English translators, described it as “the most complete portrait of Stalinist Russia we have or are ever likely to have,” and while that statement is certainly far reaching, it doesn’t reach far enough. The same translator calls Life and Fate a book motivated “by the spirit of senseless, irrational kindness.” That seems more to the point.
“A soul can live in torment for years and years, even decades, as it slowly, stone by stone, builds a mound over a grave; as it moves toward the apprehension of eternal loss and bows down before reality.” Yes, it is about eternal loss.
“Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goosenecks—this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear forever under the earth.” So it’s about what will disappear forever. But it is also about honey-cakes and marriage customs. Not only the suffering, but the joy that gives suffering its context, the goodness that allows human beings to go on in the face of everything else. Which is to say it is a book about life and fate, a book about everything that is meaningful, everything that is human, everything that the state cannot control.
The State knew it immediately. The chief Party ideologist told Grossman that the book couldn’t be published for at least two hundred years. KGB agents confiscated not just the manuscript and notes, but the ribbons of Grossman’s typewriter. Strangely enough, Grossman was never charged with anything. Which means they arrested not the man but the book. It was the book that was deemed dangerous, this living testament of heroism and stupidity and what it is like to live with the guns of the Nazis in front of you when you run forward and the guns of the Cheka behind you, should you ever turn. A million people could die—at Stalingrad a million people did die—yet the book would bear witness. The book was both memory and indictment and had to disappear.
Yet it didn’t disappear. Pages were smuggled to the west where they were published first in Switzerland in 1980 and then everywhere. Grossman had long since died of stomach cancer, the pain of it matched only by the pain of the loss of his manuscript. He was, as Robert Chandler notes, depressed and suffering, maybe he was already dead. When they took his book, “They strangled me in a doorway,” he told a friend.
In the town of Slaviask in Donbas Province, we ride with a security advisor through fields stripped of sunflowers, here and there rectangles of tilled black earth, the occasional field of pale green cover crop. Much of the land has been burned—controlled burns, it has nothing to do with the war. But knowing such makes the husky char of smoke no less ominous.
We came from Kiev on the overnight train, a Soviet relic of wood paneling and diesel. But not without its charms. The cheerful queue for the car’s single bathroom, the mothering babushkas making a pet of my friend the photojournalist Pete Duval. At least until one decided he had crushed her hat.
We arrived in Slaviask at dawn, passing through the fog but more like passing through time. Grossman died in 1964, around the same time the train probably went into service.
Slaviask is a town of stray dogs and abandoned buildings, random piles of masonry, a church with a bright golden dome and a hotel with a bowling alley and an excellent bar.
The town sits roughly equidistant between the towns of Donetsk and Luhansk, the central strongholds of the pro-Russian separatists, and while the war has been called frozen there are moments it thaws and flares with a frightening rapidity. This happened last in early February when heavy fighting killed more than a dozen Ukrainian soldiers and civilians. On March 23, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who had defected to Ukraine, was assassinated on the streets of Kiev. It’s what has come to be known as a “hybrid war,” but it’s still a war, and since 2014 nearly ten thousand men, women, and children have died.
We ride around examining battle damage done by shrapnel and small arms fire and the deeper craters of artillery shells. In a forest of pine and birch, Ukrainian tanks and multiple-launch rocket systems sit in hardened bunkers. We ride around a bit more and then head back to the Hotel Taler for beer.
War, it is agreed around the table, has its own momentum. Money is being made. Crisis means a large regional investment from the E.U., the U.S., a constellation of NGOs.
But why are people still killing each other?
It’s the question I keep asking and no one seems capable of answering.
We all shrug and when the waitress returns order another round.
The next day we ride out to the TV tower near the Donbas Ceramics factory where Separatists and Ukrainian forces fought as close to a pitched battle as this war has seen. A concrete wall is punched with holes, the rebar a weave of frayed wires. An Italian journalist and his translator died on a road that is mostly patched, though we are again reminded that it takes a fine eye to distinguish between automatic fire and poor maintenance. Our advisor, a consultant to a number of NGOs working in the region, specializes in “post-impact analysis” and guesses at what is war and what is poverty.
We get out and walk along what had been the contact line.
When the wind picks up we get back in the car and drive to Kramatorsk for lunch. Everyone agrees the ribeye looks good. The waitress brings beer. A few Ukrainian soldiers slouch in a corner banquette, laughing and checking their phones.
It’s that sort of war.
It was different, of course, for Grossman. To read Life and Fate and his journalism assembled in A Writer at War is to enter the burning house, the charnel house, the slaughterhouse—there is really no end to the descriptors—that was the Eastern Front in the ’40s. Both books are ghost stories, lost worlds populated by lost souls, the dead and their closet kin: the soon to be dead.
Grossman was an engineer in a region that produces, or produced, at least, coal and salt. Now it seems ripe for destination tourism specializing in what Pete calls “ruin porn”: abandoned mine camps and brick factories, a forgotten amusement park in no need for an apocalypse.
To the west of Donbas is the Ukrainian breadbasket. “Kiev feeds Moscow” was the old saw, and it was true. They fed Moscow, and during the worst of Stalin’s collectivization fed Moscow at the expense of their own bellies. From 1932 to 1933 a human-induced famine killed between seven and ten million Ukrainians. Grossman was still a young man then, hungry, we must imagine, but alive, and that alone seems worth noting.
During his career (or was it a holy calling, as much recording angel as war correspondent?) he witnessed every major battle—Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, Berlin. He was there for the liberation of Treblinka. He lived. He wrote it down.
In 2006, the New York Review of Books reissued Life and Fate and in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Kiev, I see the cover image blown up to a blurry grace of shadow and light. Men jump from a hole blasted in the brick wall of a building that looks very much like the rubble of the asylum outside Slaviask.
All day we’ve been listening to the music of Kate Tempest, her song “Europe is Lost” on repeat.
Jail him, she whispers, he’s the criminal.
Everyone agrees it’s a stupid little war, the dead coming at a trickle, but coming nonetheless. We all know this. But who is the criminal?
There are multiple stories. There is the story about Russian aggression, about little green men who look very much like Russian marines or perhaps Russian Spetsnaz crossing from the Russian Federation to occupy airports and administrative buildings. But surely they aren’t Russian marines or Russian Spetsnaz—just ask them.
There’s another story about Western aggression, about the E.U. and U.S. support of the Euromaidan movement that overthrew the corrupt but democratically-elected Victor Yanukovych when he began to drift away from the west and into the gravitational field of Vladimir Putin. But the west would never openly support any movement against a democratically-elected head of state—just ask them.
A third story, the one we keep hearing throughout the eastern regions, is really no story at all. They are anecdotes of confusion, anger, and fear. Barks of suffering. Why the hell did the Separatists take up arms in the first place? And why the hell did the Ukrainian military respond with such overwhelming force, bombing and shelling when those arms were so pathetically meager? Could someone tell me what it is exactly that we, the citizens of Donbas, have done to deserve this?
Grossman would have been readily at home in such a world of violent muddle. The decisions made by the far-away that result in the deaths of the right-here. Still, it isn’t 1942. It’s 2017.
On the second floor of the destroyed asylum I find a black bra, the cups twisted. I find a child’s toothbrush. Everywhere is dust. Deep in the forest, Ukrainian fighting vehicles sit ready to move. Across the contact line Separatist forces do the same. Everyone is waiting, though for what no one can say. There is the constant possibility of a new Separatist offensive to retake Slaviask, and it occurs to me that whether it happens or not there is still more to be destroyed. Houses to raze, needlessly. Men, women, and children to die, senselessly.
It isn’t Stalingrad. It isn’t even Sarajevo. But as Grossman understood, it is a war, again, and that is enough.
Mark Powell is the author of Small Treasons, published by Simon & Schuster in June, as well as four previous novels. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and in 2014 was a Fulbright Fellow to Slovakia. In 2009 he received the Chaffin Award for contributions to Appalachian literature. He holds degrees from Yale Divinity School, the University of South Carolina, and the Citadel. He lives in the mountains of North Carolina where he teaches at Appalachian State University.
Photo courtesy of Pete Duval.