In this "News&Stories" magazine, Alexander Kluge talks to playwright Heiner Müller and Russian writer and former tank commander Daniil A. Granin. Granin's contributions are conveyed by a translator.
The conversation revolves around the city of Leningrad aka St. Petersburg, wartime in Russia, the work of young soldier and later tank commander Granin, as well as his role in the GDR.
For Granin, Leningrad is an exceptional, harmonious city, built by architects from many different countries: "Leningrad is beauty" (Granin).
Granin is critical of the renaming of Leningrad, since two generations of people have lived in the city since, and have already emancipated themselves from the name Lenin: the city of Leningrad, including its name, exists for itself.
There is some disagreement over the origin of the (former and current) name of St. Petersburg: Granin claims the name was chosen "in honor of Saint Peter," while Kluge disagrees and connects the name to the founder of the city: "The West sees it as a glorification of Peter the Great" (Müller).
Asked about the day of Leningrad's liberation, Granin admits that he cannot remember; at that point, he was not stationed on the front-line in Leningrad anymore, but in tank school, as commander of a division of "Josef Stalin Tanks." On the way across Estonia and East Prussia, he had command over nine tanks.
When the war began, Granin was 21 years old and immediately enlisted. He built tanks in the Kirov factory, but at first was not accepted in the army. Eventually he succeeded in joining the militia. This division was sent to the front and immediately got bombarded: "It was a division made up of volunteers, they weren't trained military. We didn't have any weapons, we only got bottles with inflammable material" (Granin).
Despite the lack of training and weapons, and tragic losses, they managed to hold the Germans back for a long time – something made possible only by deep socialist conviction and a collective belief in solidarity, according to Granin: "as soon as there was contact with us, everyone would understand that you can't fight against proletarians."
The fight over Leningrad was fierce and long: the city was besieged for over 900 days by German soldiers. One German strategy was to "starve" the city, a plan that was averted by the "Route of Life" across Ladoga Lake. "How the Leningrad frontline could even persist is still absolutely inexplicable to me."
Maybe there is a "moral explanation," Granin continues. During the battle before the city, "we always felt like Leningrad stood behind us" (Granin).
It elevated them and made them proud to defend this beautiful city with its "white nights" and the unique architecture: "If it had been any other city … we wouldn't have been able to take it."
Granin particularly remembers an incident in a Russian forest: Two patrols tracked a forest path and ran into each other at a crossroads. Both groups jumped into the ditches on opposite sides of the road, except for a young German soldier who jumped into the wrong ditch: Both Germans and Soviets started laughing. After that, they could not shoot at each other and simply moved on in different directions.
According to Müller, Granin was an important figure in the GDR and was compared to both Heinrich Böll and Hans Werner Richter. "He was something like a moral authority, provided an ethical critique of the system that wouldn't have been possible in the GDR yet."
Criticism could only be voiced in "a roundabout way" (Kluge), for example by working with Soviet "materials." Due to the arrogance of the GDR functionaries towards the Soviets, "it wasn't that noticeable" (Müller).