The last Days of Sevastopol. By Boris Voyetekhov. Alfred A. Knopf. $2.50. Mother Russia. By Maurice Hindus. Doubleday, Doran and Company. $3.50.
There is one kind of book that makes a commentator feel superfluous and ridiculous. It is not a book of imaginative literature. It is not a book of knowledge. It is a book like “The Last Days of Sevastopol.” It is impossible to be critical about it. One might as well be critical about a thunderstorm. It is impossible to praise it. One might as well praise a thunderstorm. It would be unfair to quote a single one of the frightful, gruesome, or pathetic incidents with which the entire book prickles. Every one of these incidents is due the reader, to be encountered by him, of a sudden, page by page. The only impression left for the commentator is that the book is none too short. Another hundred pages, and the fearfulness and awesomeness would wither. As it stands, the book clings in toto to the memory.
Throughout the roar of enemy projectiles and the screech of enemy bombs, sounds one note, one sentiment, never lost, It is best expressed in the words of a Russian captain: “The last and the present annihilation of Sevastopol was and is utterly complete because of a stubbornness of its defenders that is not like anything else that has happened since the idea of attack and defence came into people’s minds.” Let us recall that a little more than a year ago this thing happened. The Russians were outnumbered ten to one, and prodigiously outnumbered in planes and tanks. Reinforcements and supplies could come only by sea—a sea infested with German mines, warships, and planes. But for eight months, in a town which had been fortified to withstand attack from the sea, the Russians resisted the German-Rumanian army in its advance toward the Caucasus. Voyetek-hov, as a reporter, was there at the end—the last three weeks. “Not one battery fell into the enemy’s hands. One by one, as they exhausted their ammunition or were disabled, they blew themselves up. Only for the wounded was there a way out. . . . They were taken down to the sea and under fire put in sea planes, submarines, or barges and were taken to the ‘Big Land.’ As they lay on beaches with tears streaming down their faces, they bade farewell to those who stayed behind. . . . The last regiments of the Sevastopol defence were dying like heroes and killing hundreds of the enemy. Forced to the sea, they continued to fire their automatic rifles until they ran out of shot. Then they hurled their rifles away and swam and swam until they sank and drowned.”
In this book, horror and heroism are fused. Which is which? In war you can’t have the one without the other.
So much for the fact. What accounts for the stand at Sevastopol? When the German columns began to roll across the Dnieper, Americans, press-fed for a generation that Russia was pandemonium, were betting that resistance would collapse in a matter of weeks. What accounts for the stand at Sevastopol (or Stalingrad) ? Solidarity. Soviet solidarity. Nation-wide solidarity, not cleft by murderous warfare between economic classes, by the gulf between the privileged and the underprivileged, by fiendish race animosities.
And what accounts for the solidarity? The one thesis of “Mother Russia” is that those three Five-Year Plans— furnishing past occasions for us to bet on the losing side— forged the unity which built the Russian wall. “The Plans have supplied the sole means of saving the Russian people from the most ruthless subjugation any nation has ever known and from large-scale physical extermination. . . . Only now in the light of Russia’s stupendous resistance does the world begin to appreciate the epochal momentous-ness of the three Plans, which have given Russia a new industry, a new agriculture, a new mentality, a new patriotism, a new energy, a new skill . . . a new discipline and new sense of organization.”
Let us recall that the Plans began in 1928, and that the Third Plan was broken up by the war itself in June, 1941. It is the new Russia that Hindus is revealing, not the Russia that he first visited in 1923. It is the Russia that has become stabilized, not the Russia of the first ten years of the revolution. Between 1928 and 1941 this new Russia was built—by those Plans. “The coming of the Plans put an end to confusion and uncertainty. . . . At galloping speed the Soviets proceeded to industrialize the Country and to collectivize the land.” And the solid foundation of industry and agriculture led to a solid foundation in all the other aspects of culture—to a glorification of the family, for example, to nation-wide education, to the enormous amount of attention devoted to children, to the lifting of woman to full equality. Those two basic institutions of the Plans— the factory and the collective farm—were not just factories and farms; they were political, social, educational, medical, recreational, artistic institutions.
Is there any wonder, now, that the Germans didn’t get through? “Except invalids,” says Hindus, “there are few non-combatants,” Is there any wonder about that? It adds, also, to a Russian’s patriotism to know that in his new Russia no foreigner holds a mortgage on any Russian enterprise whatsoever. It adds to know that “not a Russian gun, shell, hand grenade that goes to the front but comes from a government manufacturing plant.” The Russian patriot doesn’t have to think about what individuals are “making out of it.” “To the man in the Army the food he has been receiving, the one hundred grams of vodka that is his daily ration during the winter months, the clothes he is wearing, the weapons with which he is fighting, all come from government shops, warehouses, factories; all have been manufactured under a system of collectivized control, with no middleman or contractor or politician deriving personal gain from any of the transactions.” The word “people” in Russian (narod) used to mean the peasant. It now means all the people.
“Mother Russia” is an abundant, copious sort of book-rich as the corn land around Bloomington, Illinois, or the wheat land in the Ukraine. One page contains about as much print as two ordinary pages. It is really an 800-page book. But tiresome? Not a paragraph. It is the mellowest and most inspired of the several Hindus books on Russia. One would not remove a sentence.
In a previous book—”Hitler Cannot Conquer Russia”— Hindus prophesied what has since come true. In “Mother Russia” he says that the dissolution of the Comintern would be a good move—to instill faith in Russia’s allies. The Comintern is now dissolved. As a matter of fact, Russia, for some time, has liquidated Trotskyism, or “world revolution,” and is ruled by Stalinism, or “socialism in one country.” Really, there seems to be little else for us to do except to inaugurate a genuine second front.