'Nothing Has Been Invented': The War Journalism of Boris Polevoy
By Don Heddesheimer
Krushinsky and I had been the first correspondents to visit Oswiecim, then still called by its German name, Auschwitz. We had flown in after our troops and seen this vast death camp virtually still in running order ... By the time Sergei Krushinsky and I reached Birkenau, all the buildings of this fake junction and the gas chambers had been blown up and only a maze of railway tracks remained. An ordinary railway time-table was jutting out of the heaps of smashed concrete: "Train departures to Vienna ... Belgrade ... Paris ... Milan ..." We met a Polish partisan in a railwayman's uniform and square cap who knew Russian. He told us about everything that had been going on here. He showed us the so-called bath house lying in ruins and gray mounds of something resembling charcoal mingled with white stony fragments. This was ash, human ash from the ovens, 'fireplaces," as they were called here. It crackled rather strangely as though it were moaning in pain and begging for retribution." See note: 1
These emotive words, written over twenty years after the war, are those of Soviet journalist Boris Polevoy. See note: 2 Once a celebrated literary figure in the USSR, today Polevoy is known to revisionists as the author of one of the first news reports on Auschwitz after its capture on January 27, 1945. Thanks to the work of Faurisson, Walendy, and others, that story, which appeared in Pravda, the leading newspaper of the Soviet Communist party, on February 2, 1945, is now widely known to differ drastically from the later orthodox account of the camp. Polevoy described how Auschwitz inmates were exterminated, not in gas chambers, but on an electric conveyor belt that electrocuted hundreds of them simultaneously, then dropped their bodies into a flaming blast furnace. He reported enormous mass graves, filled with at least four layers of bodies. Polevoy also described zinc-covered benches fitted with straps for restraining inmates, on which inmates were beaten to death with truncheons manufactured by the Krupp factory in Dresden. See note: 3
Revisionist researchers have concentrated chiefly on the factual discrepancies of Polevoy's report, consistent with their general approach to the extermination literature. Such work is of course vital, but Polevoy's activity as a journalist was not limited to writing on Auschwitz or the Holocaust. As a propagandist Polevoy had few equals in depicting German savagery or in glorifying Soviet heroism. His numerous writings on the war, published in the most influential newspaper of the USSR, not only epitomized Soviet propaganda but also influenced Soviet behavior. The purpose of this article is to acquaint readers with Boris Polevoy, his writings, and certain literary techniques which rendered them effective.
A Life for the Soviet
Few reporters of the Second World War were as accomplished, or as influential, as the Soviet writer Boris Nikolaevich Kampov (1908-1981), who wrote under the pseudonym Boris Polevoy. Polevoy, the son of a physician, although of Jewish heritage, was born "beyond the pale" in Moscow in 1908. As a young writer he showed enough promise to join a select group of Soviet writers under the patronage of Maxim Gorky. See note: 4
It was not until the Second World War that Polevoy became famous throughout the Soviet Union. From the 1939-40 "winter war" with Finland to the fall of Berlin, Polevoy covered the front as a reporter for Pravda, while holding the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Red Army. He served six months on assignment to Stalingrad, and was present when General von Paulus emerged to surrender from his headquarters in a department store basement. Polevoy reported on the Red Army's advance from Kharkov through Bessarabia, across Poland, and into the heart of Germany. When American and Soviet forces met on the Elbe, Polevoy was there, and he visited Hitler's underground bunker in Berlin while fighting still raged in the German capital. See note: 5 Following the Allied victory Polevoy, heading a team of Soviet journalists, reported on the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg as special correspondent for Pravda.
Polevoy's books, articles, and political commentaries gained him an international readership well before the end of the war. He remained influential until his death in 1981, at which time he was secretary of the all-powerful Union of Soviet Writers. During his lifetime, Polevoy was named a Hero of Socialist Labor and awarded the Stalin Prize for literature, three Orders of Lenin, two Red Banners, the Red Star, and the Gold Medal of the World Peace Council. To this day a commercial cargo ship bears his name; See note: 6 an opera has been written about him; See note: 7 and at least one of his admirers still leads a nation: Fidel Castro praised one of Polevoy's books in a meeting with Leonard Brezhnev. See note: 8
Polevoy's mentor Maxim Gorky (Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, 1868-1936), whose pseudonymous last name means bitter, had been a close friend of Lenin. While his attitude toward the Soviet Union was sometimes ambivalent, in his last years he became a committed Communist. Gorky was the USSR's leading authority on the complex relationship between political and literary issues, so important in the history of Russian letters, and was the most important link between pre-revolutionary and Soviet literature. See note: 9
Gorky set out to create a literature that would express the ideals and further the goals of the Bolshevik revolution. He saw "the people," rather than religion, as the only inexhaustible spring of spiritual values. Indeed, Gorky's school of Soviet writers strove to produce a literature that would instill in the masses the kind of loyalty and dedication to the Soviet regime that they had once felt toward religion. "This concept of the people, and the new Communist Russia they belonged to, gave rise to a feeling for the mother country which could lead people to dedicate their lives to it." See note: 10 Gorky elaborated these goals in the 1920s and 1930s, and, put into practice by his many disciples, they exercised a profound influence on Soviet literature in the following decades.
Gorky urged his apprentices to study and learn from the great Russian writers of the past. In one recorded counsel to Polevoy, Gorky, commenting in 1928 on one of the younger writer's manuscripts (probably "The Forge Shop"), wrote that "just as a lathe worker shapes wood or metal, the literary man must know his material: language and words." See note: 11
Reportage in Red
During the war Polevoy wrote diary-like accounts of his activities as Pravda correspondent with the Red Army. His reports on his own experiences and on his interviews with soldiers and civilians reliably followed the Soviet line. Polevoy portrayed the German invaders as technologically advanced barbarians who had assaulted the peaceful USSR treacherously and without provocation, unleashing a struggle between good, personified by the Soviet peoples, and the evil of Nazi "fascism." What made Polevoy's writing stand out, however, was not rote propaganda abstractions, but the impact of particular, tangible, and often ordinary details that lent both credibility and emotion to his words.
Typical of this genre of Polevoy's reportage was "Regimental Colors," See note: 12 which was published in England in 1945, but had certainly appeared in the Soviet Union before that. It describes how eight survivors of a Red Army tank regiment that had been decimated in battle saved their unit's standard, then fought on behind the lines as partisans. Nazis from the Gestapo captured three of the Soviet tankers turned guerrillas, and interrogated them to no avail. After stripping the Soviet heroes to expose them to the full fury of the frigid Russian winter, the fiendish Nazis poured cold water over the Soviets until they were frozen into statues. The secret they went to their terrible deaths to conceal? Where they had hidden their regimental colors. The Nazis then went to work on the peasants. Polevoy assures his readers that the Germans "burned their bodies with soldering irons, drove nails into their arms and legs and lopped off their ears, sliced their noses and gouged out their eyes," but the peasants too went to their deaths rather than reveal the banner's whereabouts. And the regimental flag was never captured: a lovely young collective farm girl had wrapped it in clean linen and wound it around her body. She wore it day and night until the arrival of its rightful bearers, the Red Army.
"A Copy of Pravda" See note: 13 recapitulates that simple story of Red loyalty and heroism in defense of Soviet ideals, as objectified in the regimental banner, against Nazi savagery. But Polevoy tells his Pravda tale with a twist that reminds of his aim, as Gorky's disciple, to transform the religious fervor of the people into a burning dedication to the Communist regime. Writing of how fervently the leading party newspaper was esteemed by Soviet readers under German occupation, Polevoy writes, quoting one of them:
There are all kinds of legends current in our village about this paper. It is said that the Germans threw it in the fire but it didn't burn; then they tried to drown it in the river but it wouldn't drown. So they became furious, crumpled it, pushed it into a shell and fired the shell, but the paper wasn't lost and now there are thousands of them.
Thus, in Polevoy's telling, a solitary copy of Pravda proves indestructible, and even (metaphorically) capable of multiplying independently and indefinitely. The irony of the single most influential newspaper of the world's leading force for dialectical materialism behaving like a prop in a fairy tale was probably lost on a good many of Polevoy's readers.
Polevoy could conjure up the mawkish as well as supernatural in the service of Soviet propaganda. One of his dispatches from the battle of Berlin was entitled "Front Line at the Eisenstrasse" (which he described as an avenue lined with old beech trees that ran through no man's land). He reported that a curly haired German girl, no more than two or three years old, wandered out between the two front lines, lost and crying. She was rescued by a Soviet soldier -- but no sooner than he had performed that heroic act, he was cut down by an SS man's bullet (a statue commemorating this alleged incident still stands in eastern Berlin). The absence of an Eisenstrasse in Berlin was remedied some thirty years later when the Communist East German authorities decided that Polevoy meant "Elsenstrasse," and that the "l" on the street sign must have been hit by a bullet so that it looked like an "i." See note: 14 Whatever the truth of this suspicious story, it stands the actual conduct of Soviet troops toward German civilians on its head.
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…
In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.
In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.
When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…
One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …