'Nothing Has Been Invented': The War Journalism of Boris Polevoy

Don Heddesheimer

Krushinsky and I had been the first correspondents to visit Oswiecim, then still called by its German name, Auschwitz. We had flown in after our troops and seen this vast death camp virtually still in running order … By the time Sergei Krushinsky and I reached Birkenau, all the buildings of this fake junction and the gas chambers had been blown up and only a maze of railway tracks remained. An ordinary railway time-table was jutting out of the heaps of smashed concrete: “Train departures to Vienna … Belgrade … Paris … Milan …” We met a Polish partisan in a railwayman's uniform and square cap who knew Russian. He told us about everything that had been going on here. He showed us the so-called bath house lying in ruins and gray mounds of something resembling charcoal mingled with white stony fragments. This was ash, human ash from the ovens, 'fireplaces,” as they were called here. It crackled rather strangely as though it were moaning in pain and begging for retribution.” See note: 1

These emotive words, written over twenty years after the war, are those of Soviet journalist Boris Polevoy. See note: 2 Once a celebrated literary figure in the USSR, today Polevoy is known to revisionists as the author of one of the first news reports on Auschwitz after its capture on January 27, 1945. Thanks to the work of Faurisson, Walendy, and others, that story, which appeared in Pravda, the leading newspaper of the Soviet Communist party, on February 2, 1945, is now widely known to differ drastically from the later orthodox account of the camp. Polevoy described how Auschwitz inmates were exterminated, not in gas chambers, but on an electric conveyor belt that electrocuted hundreds of them simultaneously, then dropped their bodies into a flaming blast furnace. He reported enormous mass graves, filled with at least four layers of bodies. Polevoy also described zinc-covered benches fitted with straps for restraining inmates, on which inmates were beaten to death with truncheons manufactured by the Krupp factory in Dresden. See note: 3

Revisionist researchers have concentrated chiefly on the factual discrepancies of Polevoy's report, consistent with their general approach to the extermination literature. Such work is of course vital, but Polevoy's activity as a journalist was not limited to writing on Auschwitz or the Holocaust. As a propagandist Polevoy had few equals in depicting German savagery or in glorifying Soviet heroism. His numerous writings on the war, published in the most influential newspaper of the USSR, not only epitomized Soviet propaganda but also influenced Soviet behavior. The purpose of this article is to acquaint readers with Boris Polevoy, his writings, and certain literary techniques which rendered them effective.

A Life for the Soviet

Few reporters of the Second World War were as accomplished, or as influential, as the Soviet writer Boris Nikolaevich Kampov (1908-1981), who wrote under the pseudonym Boris Polevoy. Polevoy, the son of a physician, although of Jewish heritage, was born “beyond the pale” in Moscow in 1908. As a young writer he showed enough promise to join a select group of Soviet writers under the patronage of Maxim Gorky. See note: 4

It was not until the Second World War that Polevoy became famous throughout the Soviet Union. From the 1939-40 “winter war” with Finland to the fall of Berlin, Polevoy covered the front as a reporter for Pravda, while holding the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Red Army. He served six months on assignment to Stalingrad, and was present when General von Paulus emerged to surrender from his headquarters in a department store basement. Polevoy reported on the Red Army's advance from Kharkov through Bessarabia, across Poland, and into the heart of Germany. When American and Soviet forces met on the Elbe, Polevoy was there, and he visited Hitler's underground bunker in Berlin while fighting still raged in the German capital. See note: 5 Following the Allied victory Polevoy, heading a team of Soviet journalists, reported on the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg as special correspondent for Pravda.

Polevoy's books, articles, and political commentaries gained him an international readership well before the end of the war. He remained influential until his death in 1981, at which time he was secretary of the all-powerful Union of Soviet Writers. During his lifetime, Polevoy was named a Hero of Socialist Labor and awarded the Stalin Prize for literature, three Orders of Lenin, two Red Banners, the Red Star, and the Gold Medal of the World Peace Council. To this day a commercial cargo ship bears his name; See note: 6 an opera has been written about him; See note: 7 and at least one of his admirers still leads a nation: Fidel Castro praised one of Polevoy's books in a meeting with Leonard Brezhnev. See note: 8

Gorky's Influence

Polevoy's mentor Maxim Gorky (Alexei Maximovich Peshkov, 1868-1936), whose pseudonymous last name means bitter, had been a close friend of Lenin. While his attitude toward the Soviet Union was sometimes ambivalent, in his last years he became a committed Communist. Gorky was the USSR's leading authority on the complex relationship between political and literary issues, so important in the history of Russian letters, and was the most important link between pre-revolutionary and Soviet literature. See note: 9

Gorky set out to create a literature that would express the ideals and further the goals of the Bolshevik revolution. He saw “the people,” rather than religion, as the only inexhaustible spring of spiritual values. Indeed, Gorky's school of Soviet writers strove to produce a literature that would instill in the masses the kind of loyalty and dedication to the Soviet regime that they had once felt toward religion. “This concept of the people, and the new Communist Russia they belonged to, gave rise to a feeling for the mother country which could lead people to dedicate their lives to it.” See note: 10 Gorky elaborated these goals in the 1920s and 1930s, and, put into practice by his many disciples, they exercised a profound influence on Soviet literature in the following decades.

Gorky urged his apprentices to study and learn from the great Russian writers of the past. In one recorded counsel to Polevoy, Gorky, commenting in 1928 on one of the younger writer's manuscripts (probably “The Forge Shop"), wrote that “just as a lathe worker shapes wood or metal, the literary man must know his material: language and words.” See note: 11

Reportage in Red

During the war Polevoy wrote diary-like accounts of his activities as Pravda correspondent with the Red Army. His reports on his own experiences and on his interviews with soldiers and civilians reliably followed the Soviet line. Polevoy portrayed the German invaders as technologically advanced barbarians who had assaulted the peaceful USSR treacherously and without provocation, unleashing a struggle between good, personified by the Soviet peoples, and the evil of Nazi “fascism.” What made Polevoy's writing stand out, however, was not rote propaganda abstractions, but the impact of particular, tangible, and often ordinary details that lent both credibility and emotion to his words.

Typical of this genre of Polevoy's reportage was “Regimental Colors,” See note: 12 which was published in England in 1945, but had certainly appeared in the Soviet Union before that. It describes how eight survivors of a Red Army tank regiment that had been decimated in battle saved their unit's standard, then fought on behind the lines as partisans. Nazis from the Gestapo captured three of the Soviet tankers turned guerrillas, and interrogated them to no avail. After stripping the Soviet heroes to expose them to the full fury of the frigid Russian winter, the fiendish Nazis poured cold water over the Soviets until they were frozen into statues. The secret they went to their terrible deaths to conceal? Where they had hidden their regimental colors. The Nazis then went to work on the peasants. Polevoy assures his readers that the Germans “burned their bodies with soldering irons, drove nails into their arms and legs and lopped off their ears, sliced their noses and gouged out their eyes,” but the peasants too went to their deaths rather than reveal the banner's whereabouts. And the regimental flag was never captured: a lovely young collective farm girl had wrapped it in clean linen and wound it around her body. She wore it day and night until the arrival of its rightful bearers, the Red Army.

"A Copy of Pravda” See note: 13 recapitulates that simple story of Red loyalty and heroism in defense of Soviet ideals, as objectified in the regimental banner, against Nazi savagery. But Polevoy tells his Pravda tale with a twist that reminds of his aim, as Gorky's disciple, to transform the religious fervor of the people into a burning dedication to the Communist regime. Writing of how fervently the leading party newspaper was esteemed by Soviet readers under German occupation, Polevoy writes, quoting one of them:

There are all kinds of legends current in our village about this paper. It is said that the Germans threw it in the fire but it didn't burn; then they tried to drown it in the river but it wouldn't drown. So they became furious, crumpled it, pushed it into a shell and fired the shell, but the paper wasn't lost and now there are thousands of them.

Thus, in Polevoy's telling, a solitary copy of Pravda proves indestructible, and even (metaphorically) capable of multiplying independently and indefinitely. The irony of the single most influential newspaper of the world's leading force for dialectical materialism behaving like a prop in a fairy tale was probably lost on a good many of Polevoy's readers.

Polevoy could conjure up the mawkish as well as supernatural in the service of Soviet propaganda. One of his dispatches from the battle of Berlin was entitled “Front Line at the Eisenstrasse” (which he described as an avenue lined with old beech trees that ran through no man's land). He reported that a curly haired German girl, no more than two or three years old, wandered out between the two front lines, lost and crying. She was rescued by a Soviet soldier — but no sooner than he had performed that heroic act, he was cut down by an SS man's bullet (a statue commemorating this alleged incident still stands in eastern Berlin). The absence of an Eisenstrasse in Berlin was remedied some thirty years later when the Communist East German authorities decided that Polevoy meant “Elsenstrasse,” and that the “l” on the street sign must have been hit by a bullet so that it looked like an “i.” See note: 14 Whatever the truth of this suspicious story, it stands the actual conduct of Soviet troops toward German civilians on its head.

Polevoy's most successful and widely sold book was A Story about a Real Man. See note: 15 It became the basis of an opera by Prokofiev, was made into a popular Soviet motion picture, and gained Polevoy the Stalin Prize in 1951. Written shortly after the war, this semi-documentary “non-fiction” novel's protagonist was Alexei, a Soviet pilot who had been shot down in combat behind enemy lines and lost both his feet to gangrene before being rescued by partisans. While being treated in a Moscow hospital, he was inspired by a comrade who had also been wounded, Commissar Vorobyov. The commissar told Alexei of socialist heroes who had overcome similar difficulties and gone on to hold important positions in the party. Vorobyov used his influence to enable Alexei's rehabilitation and return to the front. Fitted with artificial feet, Alexei learned to walk, and just as important, to fly again. Reassigned to his old unit, he returned to combat. In the book's climactic episode, Alexei wins a dogfight with a pilot from the Richthofen squadron: it is the German flier who flinches, not the Soviet man of steel.

A Story about a Real Man has been translated into many different languages, and inspired Communists around the world. A Soviet literary magazine reported handwritten copies of it made by North Vietnamese soldiers, and there exists a copy said to have been pierced by a bullet and stained with the blood of a Greek partisan. See note: 16 Unfortunately for Polevoy's bona fides, the great popularity and resultant scrutiny of A Story about a Real Man aroused a burning desire among its readers to find out more about Alexei and Commissar Vorobyov. While Polevoy was able to produce a pilot who had lost his feet, he eventually had to admit that Commissar Vorobyov existed only in the author's imagination. See note: 17

Verisimilitude and Chicken Soup

Many of Polevoy's accounts begin with such words as, “Nothing has been invented,” or “All of the people in this book really lived,” or “There is nothing imaginary in this book.” In straightforward works of fiction, such statements would be seen as literary devices. In Polevoy's reportage and non-fiction books, his assurances that he is telling the unembroidered truth set the tone for his development, in concrete and realistic terms, of his accounts of persons met and things witnessed or heard. Polevoy tells readers how, where, and when he met his narratives' heroes, whether real or invented. He sets his scenes with prosaic exactitude. What comes next, whether an over-the-top atrocity story, a miraculous tale of Red courage, or an invented commissar, becomes believable because it seems to have evolved naturally from the ordinary and specific details that led up to it. In these writings of Polevoy, Commissar Vorobyov, a copy of Pravda, the regimental flag for which Germans torture and Soviets die, the nonexistent Berlin street where a Red Army man gave his life to save a small German girl, and the human ash that crackles as though moaning in pain and pleading for revenge at Auschwitz all function as markers of verisimilitude even as they convey a highly emotional message.

Polevoy carefully shapes and develops his narratives to maximize the emotional involvement of his readers. Take his use of a simple bowl of chicken soup. While most people are vaguely aware that chicken soup comes from chickens, wherever there is chicken soup, there is a story of the life and death of a chicken. In A Story about a Real Man, the hero Alexei, behind enemy lines and unable to walk, is given chicken soup by an old woman in a village.Polevoy weaves in a moving tale: the Germans have shot her whole family, all except for one chicken. The chicken hid up in the loft whenever the Germans came, and was therefore nicknamed Partisanka by the villagers. To feed Alexei chicken soup, the old woman must kill Partisanka. Thus the giving of chicken soup to a soldier becomes the occasion of a sacrifice, if not a sacrament.

Atrocity Tales

Seen in the above light, the accounts by Polevoy — and many other propagandists — of German atrocities become rather more transparent. For instance, it is not enough for Polevoy to write that the Germans requisitioned the University of Kharkov. He reported that they turned the buildings into a breeding ground for pigs, covering the parquet floors with straw and droppings. See note: 18 In the same “Soviet war correspondent's notebook” that contains the Kharkov tale, Polevoy describes a school in Moldavia which the Germans took over and converted into a stable, amusing themselves in the schoolyard by setting up a shooting gallery, playing soccer with the school's globes, “drinking the alcohol out of jars containing zoological specimens and roasting pork on a fire fed by school books.” See note: 19

Needless to say, Polevoy was in his element at Nuremberg, where libellous lies of the same kind as he churned out for the Soviet public were given the seal of authenticity by the Allied judges. He was one of the most eminent writers of an entire corps of Soviet journalists, which included the notorious Ilya Ehrenburg. His later book The Final Reckoning: Nuremberg Diaries, based on his notes from the trial, contain harrowing descriptions, crafted with loving care, of such discredited evidence against the Germans as “human soap” and a head claimed to have been shrunken and turned into a curio in a concentration camp.

Note the consistency of Polevoy's technique in describing the head:

A human head was standing on an elegant marble base under a bell-glass. Yes, a human head with long, swept back hair, shrunk in some incomprehensible way to the size of a large fist. It was apparently one of the ornaments and knickknacks made by some of the monstrous “craftsmen” in a concentration camp, which were then presented as souvenirs to distinguished visitors by the camp chief. The prisoner who caught the gentleman — or lady — visitor's eye was killed, the brain and crushed bones of the head were extracted by some technique through the neck, the head was shrunken by some process, stuffed and mounted as a statuette or ornament. See note: 20

And see how he breathes life into the faded soap and skin lies:

On the Prosecutor's instructions, all the sheets were removed from the display stands and tables. We saw a display of human skin in various stages of processing: freshly flayed, cleaned of flesh, tanned and, finally, furnished leather articles — elegant ladies' shoes, handbags, briefcases, blotting pads and even jackets. Boxes of different kinds of soap were also lying on the tables: ordinary soap, household soap, baby soap, industrial soap and fragrant toilet soap in attractive colorful wrappings.” See note: 21

The Nuremberg Trials: Final Reckoning is a very readable book, and certainly captures much of the spirit of the trials. As Polevoy wrote in a brief introduction, however, a key motive in his writing it over twenty years after Nuremberg was to combat a resurgence of revisionism: “Recently, however, books have begun to appear in the West whose authors have attempted to cast doubt on the justice meted out by the International Military Tribunal, and have even declared the trial a historical mistake.” See note: 22

'Check Up on Me'

Young Boris Nikaelovich Kampov may have chosen the pen name of Boris Polevoy to evoke the classical nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Polevoi. Nikolai Polevoi wrote fiction based on famous historical events, changing and distorting facts to fit his story. In the introduction to An Oath at the Holy Sepulcher, an historical novel by Nikolai Polevoi first published in 1832, the earlier classical Polevoi provides this imaginary dialogue between the reader and the author:

Reader: Should we believe everything you will tell us? You speak of a true story, but perhaps, all this will turn out to be fiction.

Nikolai Polevoi: What is the problem? Check [up on] me. See note: 23

Advice to be heeded from the original Polevoi: for it applies not only to the writings of the Communist journalist and novelist who adopted his name, but also to many another chronicler of war — past, present, and future.

Notes

1. Boris Polevoi, The Final Reckoning: Nuremberg Diaries (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), pp. 113, 161.

2. Sometimes transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet to English as Polevoi or Polowej.

3. http://www.fpp.co.uk/Auschwitz/docs/Pravda020245.html

4. Vadim Kozhevnikov, “In Memoriam, Boris Polevoy,” in Soviet Literature, Nov.1981, pp. 189-191.

5. Boris Polevoi, Final Reckoning, dust jacket notes.

6. Boris Polevoy, a ship owned by the Metz Container Line, which maintains offices in Beirut, Montreal, Egypt, Romania, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. http:www.metz.ca/boris.htm

7. David Finko, That Song, one-act opera after Boris Polevoy. Finko, a Russian-Jewish emigre, has taught music at several American universities, including Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Texas.

8. "Conversation with Comrade Fidel, February 20, 1974” at: http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/cb/cuba/castro/1974/19740220

9. Irwin Weil, Gorky, His Literary Development and Influence on Soviet Intellectual Life (New York: Random House, 1966).

10. Otto Hoetzsch, The Evolution of Russia (London: Thames and Hudson,1966), pp. 196-7.

11. Weil, Gorky, p.116.

12. Boris Polevoi, To the Last Breath (New York: Hutchinson and Co., 1945). Should the reader wonder, this book has been classified as non-fiction by the Library of Congress.

13. Ibid., p. 46.

14. S. Dangulov, “Boris Polevoy: New Works,” Soviet Literature, Feb. 1980.

15. Boris Polevoi, A Story about a Real Man, first published in English in 1952 by Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow. Reprinted in 1970 by Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut.

16. Soviet Literature, vol. 4 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1968), pp. 152-6.

17. Ibid., p. 154.

18. Boris Polevoi, From Belgorod to the Carpathians: From a Soviet War Correspondent's Notebook (New York: Hutchinson and Company Ltd., 1945). This is a war diary that covers the period August 1943 to April 1944.

19. Ibid., p. 144.

20. Final Reckoning, p. 112.

21. Ibid., p. 112.

22. Ibid., p. 53.

23. Dan Ungurianu, “Fact and Fiction in the Romantic Historical Novel,” The Russian Review, July 1998, pp. 380-4.


About the author

Don Heddesheimer's study of American Jewish reactions to the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist consolidation of power in Russia, “Der erste Holocaust anno 1914-1927,” appeared in the Vierteljahreshefte für freie Geschichtsforschung (3, no. 2 [June 1999]) and may be read at the VffG page of the website: www.vho.org


Bibliographic information
Author: Don Heddesheimer
Title: 'Nothing has been invented' — The War Journalism of Boris Polevoy
Source: The Journal for Historical Review
Date: January/February 2002
Issue: Volume 21 number 1
Location: page 23
ISSN: 0195-6752
Attribution: "Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, PO Box 2739, Newport Beach, CA 92659, USA.”
Please send a copy of all reprints to the Editor.