Grigory Baklanov’s Forever Nineteen and Other Novels

“I was seventeen and finishing high school when the war broke out. We had twenty boys and twenty girls in our class. Almost all the boys went to the front, but I was the only one to return alive. Our city, Voronezh, the ancient Russian city on the steppes, perished under the bombs (…) I came back after the war, in the winter of 1946. None of my family was there. My two older brothers had been killed––one near Moscow in 1941, the other in the Ukraine.

I looked up a former classmate, and she and I went out to the only surviving restaurant in the city. Heavy snow fell outside the windows. I watched it fall across the street into our old apartment through the collapsed roof, onto the smashed beams and floors, through the iron supports of the balcony. My whole life had been spent in this house.

Voronezh has been rebuilt (…), but the city we knew and loved is alive only in our memory. And only in our memory are people who no longer exist still alive and still young. I wanted them to come alive when I wrote this book. I wanted people living now to care about them as friends, as family, as brothers.”

This is a piece from Grigory Baklanov’s introduction to the American edition of his novel Forever Nineteen. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, the novel was described by The New York Times as a “piercing account of a Russian soldier’s experiences during World War II,” which “belongs on a shelf next to, say…Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.” [http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/23/books/children-s-books-history-357189.html].

Grigory Baklanov (born Grigory Friedman) had volunteered for the front in 1941, at 17; he met the end of the war in Austria. He belonged to the generation of young people who faced the full brunt of the German attack on the Eastern Front and of whom only 3% survived.

Unlike Vasily Grossman, who had been a war correspondent, Baklanov had experienced WWII as a soldier and artillery officer. His depiction of the war is more personal than Grossman’s in Stalingrad, and has a different angle: rather than describing famous battles, Baklanov depicts ordinary soldiers’ experiences.

Baklanov debuted in 1959 with the novel The Foothold [An Inch of Land]. Soviet critics relentlessly criticized him for depicting the war from an ordinary soldier’s perspective, a depiction that conflicted with the official propagandist version. Although attacked in his homeland, this novel was swiftly recognized in the West as a genuine work about the war. Published in 36 countries, it brought the writer international fame.

Written as a first person account, The Foothold is a short novel. The events take place on the Eastern Front in spring and summer of 1944. The Allies have already opened a Second Front, and this predetermines the outcome in the war, but not the destinies of young men defending the bridgehead. The novel conveys their love of life and their intense desire to survive. Time in the novel is packed, reflecting the narrator’s calm realization that each minute of his life can be his last. The novel ends with a lyrical scene: the narrator holds a Moldavian boy on his lap and looks at the horizon where a new battle is being fought; he thinks that if he lives to the end of the war, he’d want to have a son.

Baklanov’s anti-Stalinist novel July 1941 is his best work by many accounts. It has never been translated into English. After the initial publication in 1965 July 1941 was suppressed in the USSR for 14 years. In this novel Baklanov broke a major Soviet taboo by depicting insurmountable Soviet losses in 1941 as a direct result of Stalin’s mass purges of the Red Army. Explaining the idea of the novel, Baklanov remarked, “I wrote about the people’s tragedy, and about the greatest crime that resulted in millions of dead, millions captured prisoner––of whom the greatest criminal of all, Stalin, had said, ‘We have no prisoners, we have only traitors.’” In July 1941 the army of General Shcherbatov becomes encircled and perishes at the fault of an incompetent military commander, who is Stalin’s protégé. Like The Foothold, this novel is short, condensed, and memorable.

Baklanov’s other novels (in English translation) include The Moment Between the Past and the Future (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1994). Translated by Catherine Porter, it portrays the end of Brezhnev’s stagnation era, which preceded Gorbachev’s reforms.

During Gorbachev glasnost Baklanov became the editor of Znamya literary magazine and published a number of previously suppressed works, such as Vasily Grossman’s travel account An Armenian Sketchbook and Georgy Vladimov’s novel Faithful Ruslan.

A disclosure: Grigory Baklanov (1923–2009) is my father.

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