Unlike humankind, Russian literature finds it easy to bear quite a lot of reality. The number of Russian-language writers whose work owes a significant part of its impact to the conjoined skills of the journalist and the reporter is great. It could even be argued that the two giants of 19th-century Russian literature, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, never really got going until they wrote books in which pure fiction was tempered with lived experience. Dostoevsky’s prison novel Notes from the House of the Dead displays, in its reworking of his experience of Siberian exile, the first steps of the psychic journey that would lead to Raskolnikov and Alyosha Karamazov. Tolstoy’s Sevastopol Tales draws on his experiences in the Crimean War; writing it provided him with an opportunity to try out material that would come back to form War and Peace. In the 20th century Isaac Babel rode with Budyonny’s men in the Russian Civil War before writing his short-story cycle Red Cavalry. More recently, Svetlana Alexievich’s work is almost pure reportage, journalism raised to the nth power and given novelistic force.
It is in this context that we need to think about the work of Vasily Grossman, in particular Stalingrad, the recently translated prequel to his masterpiece Life and Fate. This grand narrative of the defence of Stalingrad in 1942–3 is a book that straddles art and experience. In Stalingrad,