This short article is a summary of a presentation which I gave at the Media, War and Conflict 5th anniversary conference at Royal Holloway University of London in April. It has just been published in Palmarium magazine, here. Well done to those City University London students involved in putting it together. Over the next few weeks, I will be working on a longer article about the work of Politkovskaya and Grossman.
In Moscow in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, told his Russian counterpart, Boris Yeltsin, ‘the cold war obscured our ability to fully appreciate’ what the Soviet Union had suffered between 1941 and 1945.
The same is to an extent true of the work of Vassily Grossman, although that is changing. Anthony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova’s 2006 translation of his journalism and notebooks, collected as A writer at war, has brought his writing to a wider audience.
Anna Politkovskaya is known in some circles in the west, but not widely enough. Yet the work of these two journalists in its wider context has much to tell us about Russia – and by extension, the world – in the second half of the last century, and the beginning of this.
They tell us not only about wars in their time, but show techniques which seem to exemplify first-rate reporting.
In their edition of his work, Beevor and Vinogradova call Grossman ‘the most perceptive and honest eyewitness of the Soviet frontlines between 1941 and 1945’. He was famous too as a novelist. Stalin’s refusal to permit publication of his book Life and Fate puts Grossman in a long line of Russian writers who clashed with the political authorities.
Among his many achievements as a reporter, his coverage of the Battle of Stalingrad stands out. Victory for the Red Army here was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. As Eric Hobsbawm put it, ‘From Stalingrad on, everyone knew that the defeat of Germany was only a question of time.’
Grossman got in close. He gained the trust of the troops. Take his conversation with a sniper, Anatoly Chekhov, who tells Grossman, ‘When I first got the rifle, I couldn’t bring myself to kill a living being.’ Soon Chekov finds the strength to pull the trigger. ‘Then I remembered our people and started killing them without mercy.’
Grossman’s career touches on so many eternal issues for the reporting of conflict:impartiality; patriotism; conflict with political power. We’ll never know what Grossman would have made of the end of the USSR. He died in 1964, never having seen his masterpiece in print.
Victory over Nazi Germany is remembered in Russia today as the Soviet Union’s greatest achievement. The collapse of the USSR led to more conflict. On the territory of the former Soviet Union, Chechnya was the worst. Two wars between Russian Federal forces and separatists from 1994 and 2000 kill in excess of 100,000 people – the vast majority civilians.
The centre of Grozny, Chechnya’s main city, soon looked like Stalingrad after German bombardment. This was a kind of civil war, but also one between a regular army, and groups of irregular fighters. It is hard sometimes to tell civilian from combatant – a frequent feature of armed conflict today.
Anna Politkovskaya proves herself a peerless chronicler. Her reportage of daily events is vivid; her analysis unsparing.
‘The only thing the methods of this war accomplish is to recruit new terrorists and resistance fighters, and to rouse hatred, calling for bloody revenge,’ she concludes in A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya.
Politkovskaya herself died a violent death – gunned down in the entrance way to her Moscow apartment. Her killing was almost certainly related to her work.
Journalism is often thought of as transitory, and disposable. The work of Grossman and Politkovskaya has an enduring relevance.