If I knew a traveler going to Russia who could visit only one landmark, I would recommend Piskarevskoe Cemetery in Saint Petersburg. With mass graves holding the remains of around a half million people, the cemetery conveys a sense of the immensity of Soviet losses during World War 2.
Despite multiple visits to Piskarevskoe Cemetery and numerous other war monuments throughout the former Soviet Union, plus a lot of reading, I know I’ll never fathom the scale of human suffering during World War 2. I don’t think that’s possible.
May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, a celebration of Germany’s capitulation that ended World War 2, so I thought I’d list some of the books (and a movie) that have helped me grasp certain aspects of how World War 2 affected people. I could mention many more, but these are the works that left the strongest impressions.
A favorite story. Andrei Platonov’s short story “Возвращение” (“The Return”) is an eloquent account of one captain’s homecoming after the war. What struck me most about the story is Platonov’s use of ostranenenie, defamiliarization, to show how Ivanov views his family and home after being away. Everything has changed. The story, written in simple language, feels detached yet personal as it contrasts ego and heart, family and military. The end is very emotional. This essay from Katherine Shonk has more analysis.
A favorite short novel. Vera Panova’s Спутники (The Train in English) takes place during World War 2 but it isn’t quite a war novel: there are no battles and very little blood, though it takes place on a hospital train. I’m not exactly sure why I liked the book so much, but its slice-of-life episodes showing people that fate threw together tells a lot about Soviet life, without much propaganda.
Other fiction. Vasilii Aksenov’s trilogy that begins with Generations of Winter (known in Russian as Московская сага) includes many passages about the war that involve historical figures and events… Although only an excerpt of Georgii Vladimov’s dense and controversial Booker Prize-winning novel Генерал и его армия (A General and His Army) is available, online, it’s worth reading, particularly because the page includes historical background... Another post-Soviet novel involving the war is Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator). (Previous post)
Soviet-era novels about the war available in translation include Il’ia Ehrenburg’s Буря (The Storm) and Alexander Fadeyev’s rather propagandistic Молодая гвардия (The Young Guard), which I couldn’t finish. Vasilii Grossman’s classic Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is on my Russian Reading Challenge list for this year.
(Someone Else’s) Favorite nonfiction. I’m not a big nonfiction reader, but my husband, who’s read many, many World War 2 books, highly recommends Peter Duffy’s The Bielski Brothers, about partisans in Belarus. Though the book is not all about World War 2, he also enjoyed In the Lion’s Den, Nechama Tec’s biography of Oswald Rufeisen, a Polish Jew who worked for the Nazis so he could save people. (Brief posts on In the Lion's Den and The Bielski Brothers).
I’m reading Catherine Merridale’s Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, which was widely reviewed in 2006. (New York Times Review One. New York Times Review Two.) It’s packed with information and based on interviews with 200 veterans, but, 75 pages in, I feel only Merridale’s voice, not the soldiers’. I’m hoping that changes because I like Merridale’s attempt to get away from Soviet mythology of the war, a topic I’ve read a lot about.
A favorite movie. Grigorii Chukhrai’s “Баллада о солдате” (“Ballad of a Soldier”) tells the story of a soldier given a 10-day home leave. This deceptively simple black and white movie is a beautiful depiction of some of the ways that war disrupts lives away from the front.
A poem. Konstantin Simonov’s “Жди меня и я вернусь” (“Wait for Me, and I’ll Return”) was one of the most popular poems of World War 2. It inspired a movie.
The “Victory Day” song. This post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the song “День победы” (“Victory Day”). Read its history and lyrics, and download the song here on Wikipedia.