Sunday, September 04, 2011

Through Chekhov's Eyes. Grossman's Season on BBC.

Read the Russian version of this post here.

BBC Radio 4 opens Vassily Grossman's season today (19:45 GMT) with a reading of one of his Stalingrad reports 'Through Chekhov's Eyes'.

Chekhov here is a Russian sniper who killed 256 nazi soldiers and officers at Stalingrad. Grossman, who later wrote the great war novel Life and Fate, was a correspondent for the Red Star, the army newspaper. He spent months in Stalingrad. The Chekhov article is based on Grossman's first-hand observations when sitting together with the famous sniper in his hideout. In 1942 Chekhov was 19. 

Chekhov survived Stalingrad, but was seriously wounded in 1944 – he lost a foot.  After the war he quarelled with authorities over his living conditions, he didn't even have a room of his own, not to speak of a flat or a house. In 1965, when the 20th anniversary of the Victory was widely celebrated in Russia, Chekhov was 'rediscovered' by another famous war writer Sergei Smirnov and became a hero again.

Konstantin Simonov, the writer famous for his war trilogy The Living and the Dead, wrote once that he couldn't understand the sniper psychology. To kill a man in a general combat, yes, but to hunt down a human, keep him in sights and shoot down, sometimes seeing the face, no, he couldn't comprehend that. In the first Soviet novel about Stalingrad, Days and Nights, which came out while the war was still on, Simonov doesn't say a word about the Stalingrad snipers.

To Grossman they were heroes.

Here is an excerpt from the Radio 4 introduction to the three-episode reading:
 'I wanted to become the sort of man who destroys the enemy with his own hands' [said Chekhov]. The cult of the sniper emerged spontaneously during the Stalingrad conflict. The 'Stalingrad Academy of street fighting' became a new kind of war where every floor, every building, every block became its own front line. Here a sniper could extract a terrible and personal vengeance upon the German invaders who had forced the Soviets to the very banks of the river Volga. Encouraged by their commanders, lionized by journalists like Grossman, the sniper became a heroic symbol of steely determination. Here Grossman delivers a portrait both intimate and heroic of a young man transformed by war amidst the ruined city.

The story is read by Elliot Levey, translation is by Jim Riordan.

Radio 4 is to broadcast in September a play based on Grossman's great epic Life and Fate with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union, smuggled out to the West and published in 1985 in Robert Chandler's translation.

Grossman's article and a biography of Anatoly Chekhov (in Russian) is here. The BBC programme web page is here and here. Tetradki posts about Life and Fate are here and here

The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates with Jude Law and Ed Harris is based on the story of the duel between a German ace sniper and a top Russian sniper Vassili Zaitsev. Here is a video:


Steven Lubman said...

This is one of those weird coincidences, but I just got the disc of Enemy at the gates to see, I've never seen it before.

Alexander Anichkin said...

oh, lucky you - the first time! When I saw it I was absolutely thrilled. Apart from a few ridiculous scenes (general shoots himself behind a curtain amidst a pile of vodka bottles! - there was no bottled vodka at the front - and in front of a row of officers) it is excellently done and very convincing.

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