Monday, 26 October 2015

Vasily Grossman: In the War

Before the War, Nikolai Bogachev attended a regular ten-year school, after which he found work at a factory. He had a calm, withdrawn personality. He didn't like going to the movies and rarely socialized with his comrades. At school he was disliked because of his quiet nature and disinterest in participating in volleyball competitions. At the factory Nikolai was respected as a good worker, one who masterfully knew his task, but even here he didn't grow close with any of his comrades. No one visited him, and he never called on anyone either. Immediately after work, he would set off for home. His mother would often brag to her neighbors that her son was so serious, so mature: "He'll come home, have dinner, and will immediately occupy himself with some sort of task or he'll read; and he only reads serious things -- technical literature." But deep in her soul it upset her that Nikolai was so introverted and unsociable. True, she did see and feel his kindness. He always helped her -- he chopped some wood, he brought in the water. Moreover, Nikolai always gave his mother virtually all of his earnings, only leaving himself a little money for the tram and cigarettes.

"You ought to go and pal around with your comrades," She had said more than once.

"Don't feel like it," he would answer. Sometimes he wouldn't answer at all, and simply grin.

When he was called up for military service he bid farewell to his comrades easily and without any fuss. No one saw him off, and only his mother stood on the platform and waved her hand at him. He waved his cap at her a few times and yelled, "Mama, you'd better hide my tools, so they don't rust." She didn't quite hear him over the droning of hundreds of excited voices and it seemed to her that her son had cried out some particularly kind and caring words. On the way home she walked slowly, barely making out the road through her tears, all the while repeating with deep emotion the words that he never said, "Don't stand in the wind without a shawl, you'll catch a cold." It seemed to her that he yelled out this particular phrase when the train began to move.

He ended up in the tank corps. At first Nikolai was homesick and devised his own calendar, on which he marked off not days, but weeks. He counted how many weeks were left until his service would be over: one hundred, ninety-eight, ninety-six. It upset him that the majority of tankers received letters from their former colleagues: the combine operator Krivorotov from Bashkiria, the Leningrader Andreev from his old factory, Diachenko from the tractor drivers in his home village, with whom he used to plow the Ukrainian earth. He was even asked sometimes, "What's this, Bogachev? You don't get letters from anybody?"

He began to feel as if no one would ever befriend him.

"Well, I don't need them," he thought, all the while looking at his calendar. He was managing the work of a tank driver superbly, he learned the ins and outs of the engine, and bravely drove the tank on the most difficult of roads. Major Karpov took him on as the driver of the lead tank. Sometimes in the evening he would discuss tanks with Krivorotov. Krivorotov was a huge, big-headed, long-armed twenty-two year old; he spoke of his tank with a sort of unusual tenderness. It could easily seem to any bystander that this blue-eyed giant was talking about his sweetheart when he declared, "I mean I never saw her once in Bashkiria, my entire boyhood I had no idea what she was like. But the instant I saw her, I liked her terribly. I loved her so much that I just couldn't take it."

Grinning, Bogachev listened to him. He wasn't friends with anyone here and it seemed to him that the tankers were treating him just as his schoolmates once had. "Fine, fine," he thought. "What's it to me? I guess I just have a cold disposition."

He didn't notice how day after day he grew more attached to his comrades. After all, they were together all the time: at dinner, at studies, they slept next to each other. He already knew very well who snored, who muttered some scarcely audible phrases, and who slept as peacefully as a child.

When the battalion was on the move he could tell who was driving this or that tank by the manner they went over obstacles, bypassed ravines, and rolled over young saplings. It was as if the mannerisms of each man were reflected in the movement of the tank. The guile and cautiousness of Dudnikov; the decisiveness and straight-forwardness of Krivorotov.

Once, not long before the war, Bogachev tore up the calendar that displayed his remaining weeks of military service.

"I'm sick of dealing with this nonsense," he thought. It seemed to him that he tore up that calendar because he had begun to forget about home; Bogachev was not used to it anymore. Rarely, he received letters from his mother; she would ask about his health and worry about how he was doing. His replies to her were not very regular, and the letters were very short. He believed that his comrades treated him coldly and did not like him because of his apathetic personality, which didn't have within itself an attachment to people or places.

The war found Nikolai outside of Lvov. In cruel battles he passed through the entire hard path of our army's summer retreat. This entire path was marked with bombed-out German artillery, smashed wagons, trucks, and crosses marking the graves of fallen German soldiers. These were the signposts of the road of our future advances. Bogachev himself put up these signposts, though he didn't know it. It seemed to him that this was the last time he would be driving on the green streets of Ukrainian villages, past the black ripened sunflowers, the white huts with their straw roofs, and the apple and pear orchards. Through the slit in his tank he could see the immaculate Ukrainian land, coniferous and deciduous forests, bright rivers with their vegetation, and unharvested fields. The wheat grains fell rustling upon the grieving land as if they were a heavy rain. Bogachev of course didn't hear this rustling; it was drowned out by the roar of the engine. He didn't hear old women crying as they watched the retreating troops, didn't hear the bitter pleas and questions. The roar of the tank drowned out all sound. But he saw -- saw, Bogachev saw it all. Nikolai's normally calm heart filled up with such pain, such sorrow; the likes of which he had never known before. Here on these Ukrainian fields he felt the bitterness of separation. He didn't speak to anyone about his feelings, didn't tell them to anyone. Day and night he was with his comrades, tankers Andreev, Krivorotov, Bobrov, Shashlo, and Dudnikov. At night they slept next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and he could feel the warmth radiating from them. During the day they rode next to each other in big metal tanks. He didn't know, didn't suspect, how great the force was that united him with these people through the sweat and blood of battle.

For a while he drove the tank of Lieutenant Kriuchkin. In one battle their tank was next to Andreev's. Five German tanks came out from behind a knoll and stopped to wait. Bogachev really didn't feel like retreating and became elated when Kriuchkin popped out of the hatch and loudly and joyfully cried to his neighbor, "Hey, Andreev, let's both hit 'em!"

"Let's hit 'em," replied Andreev.

Two tanks rode towards five. During the attack German shrapnel hit Kriuchkin in the chest. He died instantly. His blood poured all over the inside of the tank, giving color to the cold, dark metal. When he emerged from the tank, Bogachev was soaked in blood. The tankers were bereaved over the death of Kriuchkin. There were many talks and reminiscences of the Lieutenant's fearlessness. When Red Army men were digging Kriuchkin's grave Bogachev approached one of them and took away his shovel. He dug silently for a long time and finally said to the troops, "What are you guys digging for? I'll dig it myself."

After Kriuchkin's death Bogachev became Andreev's driver. They saw action virtually every day. There was nothing on this Earth more thrilling and at the same time difficult, than this life.

On a dark autumn evening the tanks were supporting a cavalry charge. The rain was pouring and it was very muddy. Andreev's tank rode with a half-open hatch. Horrible mud encompassed the tank, but it kept crawling further and further forward, the strained motor whining all the while. An unexpectedly heavy hit shook the walls of the tank. It seemed to Bogachev as though he was sitting inside a buzzing, vibrating guitar that someone was pummeling with their fists. He suffocated from the terrible richness of the sound. Then all of a sudden it became very quiet except for the bubbling, whistling, and ringing that continued in his ears. His comrades called out to him. He heard their voices but didn't answer. They dragged him out of the tank. He tried to stand up but fell down into the mud. His legs had gone numb from the impact of the hit. His comrades carried him for several kilometers across the sticky mud.

"Bogachev, Bogachev," they called to him, "well, how are you?"

"Fine, its nothing," he replied.

There was only one thing on his mind: "I'm a goner." It seemed perfectly clear to him that he would never return to his battalion. Suddenly, a strong and passionate thought took hold of him. Would he really never see these people, his fellow tankers, again? He began to fill up with a previously unknown feeling.

"My friends, my comrades," he muttered. "Why are you fellows going so fast? Slow down a bit," he cried.

"Does it hurt?"

"Yeah, it hurts, slow down a bit."

But it didn't hurt; he couldn't feel his numb legs. He was terrified, really terrified, to be separated from these people forever, and wanted this sad path to last a little longer. After all, they were next to him, carrying him on their arms, his dear, true friends. They wheezed and quietly argued, stumbling through the mud asking, "Does it hurt, Bogachev?" For the first time in his life he felt the great feeling of friendship, and he felt delighted, joyful, and infinitely sad.

He spent about three months in the hospital. After the horrible stress of battle, after the endless roaring of the tank, it seemed strange to be lying in a calm bed in a quiet, white hospital ward. Thoughts of his fellow tankers nagged at him for hours. "Have they really forgotten about me?" In order to remind them he wrote letters, however it was impossible to mail them. The brigade's address was constantly changing. He wrote a long letter to his mother in which he asked about her health, asked her to describe the streets of his hometown, and inquired about his old factory. His letter included the phrase "Don't stand in the wind without a shawl, you'll catch a cold!"

Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and mutter, "Well, it's clear that the tankers don't remember me. They're probably sitting in the tank with a new driver who's cracking them up with his jokes." Would he really never be able to return to his battalion?

He did return. This happened just recently. Strength once again returned to his legs and he walked back to his battalion. He was passing through a snowy field and everything seemed so odd to him. Everything was painted white. White tanks, white trucks, white artillery haulers.

"Interesting," he thought, "what's the best speed to go over snow this deep?"

He was very tired but didn't stop to rest. He was in a hurry. With a growing feeling of anxiety he walked along the streets of the village. It scared him that there was not a single familiar face. He entered the cabin where a command center had been set up. All strangers, all unfamiliar faces. He looked around for a few moments. What was this? He experienced the terrible feeling of a person who has returned to his home to find a stranger at the door asking, "Who are you looking for?" In these few moments he measured the depth and strength of his love.

A quartermaster paging through a ledger at the table looked up at him.

"Is Major Karpov here?" asked Bogachev licking his lips.

"And what do you need Major Karpov for?" asked the quartermaster. He looked at a half-open door and jumped up.

Major Karpov stood at the door.


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