In 1954, thirty-year-old engineer Capt. Boris Vasilyev left the army to become a writer. He had a whole war behind him: he had volunteered for service at the age of 17, been seriously wounded, studied at an armored warfare academy and worked as a tank tester. This solid life experience would help Vasilyev in his literary career — especially since he started it with his play “Tank Troops,” which was almost autobiographical.
Yet this was not to be the first of his works to see the light of day.
Renamed “Officers,” his play “Tank Troops” was banned after two performances and not published in Theatre magazine. The young dramatist’s new plays were only performed in military command theatres; he wrote screenplays for films that did not become landmarks of Soviet cinematography, while he did other work on the side — writing newsreel stories and jokes for the TV show “KVN” (Russian initials for the full title, “Club of the Happy and Inventive”).
Vasilyev’s first book, published in 1968, was, in fact, scripts he had written for “KVN.”
In the summer of 1969, Yunost magazine published his story “The Dawns Here Are Quiet” — a poignant tale of the resistance that a platoon of young female anti-aircraft troops and their sergeant put up against German saboteurs. Vasilyev’s debut proved to be a sensation. People were reading his story, discussing it and recommending it. It was clear that a new and striking talent had joined the ranks of “lieutenants’ prose.”
“Vasilyev belonged to a generation of writers who rethought the role of war writing in Russian literature and in people’s consciousness. This trend was called ‘lieutenant’s prose’ and included Vasil Bykov, Yury Bondarev, Konstantin Vorobyov and other authors,” says Dmitry Bak, a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and director of the State Literary Museum. “Thanks to them, the war was seen in a new light: not just as a feat of the Soviet people, not just an event of global scale and significance.
“These works depicted the Great Patriotic War from the point of view of people right at the center of events — with the soldiers in their trenches [and] the people who took responsibility for the lives of these soldiers. In the works of the ‘lieutenants,’ combat actions of only local significance take on a universal scale when they feature the lives of people,” says Bak.
The story was filmed by Stanislav Rostotsky just three years later; it was also successfully staged at the Taganka Theatre in a Yury Lyubimov production and made into the subject of an opera. Both the book and the film are ranked among the most important works about World War II. The film based on the story enjoyed huge success in China, where, in 2005, the author was involved in the creation of a 16-episode series that was watched by more than 400 million people.