In this book, Boris Polevoi gives a first-hand account of an exploit performed by Hero of the Soviet Union Alexei Maresyev, called Meresyev in the story.
1941. Soviet fighter-pilot Alexei Maresyev is shot down by the enemy. For eleven days, his legs shattered, hungry, half-frozen, and tortured by terrible pain, he crawls through the enemy rear. In hospital both his legs are amputated. Mustering all his strength, he doggedly trains his disobedient body and regains his flying skill. Back in the ranks, he flights till the end of the war. The title of Hero of the Soviet Union is conferred upon him for his military feats.
In A Story About a Real Man, Boris Polevoi shows that, outstanding though it was, Maresyev’s patriotic exploit is characteristic of the Soviet man, of Soviet people in general.
Of the many other characters in the book, the reader will remember and like Commissar Vorobyov, a big-hearted man whose will to live and to encourage others to do the same was boundless; Dr. Vasily Vasilyevich; modest Anyuta, who was a loyal friend.
. . Did we, young people of all countries, go through the hardships of war, risk our lives and spend the most years of our youth with a rifle in our hands only to be wrested from peaceful work and sent to the trenches again? No, a thousand times no. . . .
There is no more honourable, nobler and loftier purpose than the fight for peace. It is the sacred duty of every young man and woman, of every war veteran.
In the person of Soviet youth, the young generation of all countries have a staunch comrade and friend for the common fight for peace.
Excerpt from speech at War and Peace Congress, Paris, April 1949
I was born in Moscow on March 17, 1908, but I grew up in the town of Tver, which has been renamed Kalinin. That is why I still consider myself a native of Kalinin.
My father, a barrister-at-law, died of tuberculosis in 1916. I scarcely remember him, but judging from the fine library of classical Russian and foreign literature that he had put together, he must have been a progressive and widely-read man for his day. After my father's death, my mother, who was a doctor, went to work in a factory hospital, and we moved to the houses belonging to the huge Morozov Textile Mill.
There I spent my childhood and youth.
We lived in the so-called "houses for employees," but I had friends among the workers' children and went to school with them. My mother was often too busy at the hospital to give me any of her time, and so I spent most of the day with my friends in the workers' "bedrooms," as the hostels were called at that time, and on the outskirts of the settlements. In general, I was not a bad pupil, but I did not have any particular enthusiasm. My spare time was divided between the Tmaka, a grimy little factory stream, and the books from my father's library. My busy mother tried to direct my reading and recommended her favourite authors. I remember that the first books I read included works by Gogol, Chekhov, Nekrasov and Pomyalovsky. I liked Gorky best of all. When my father and mother were students they worshipped him, and the family library contained almost all of his pre-revolutionary works.
Nature study was another of my childhood hobbies. From about the 4th class I was a "leading figure" in the young naturalists' circle, and was active at the town and republican young naturalists' conferences. At home I always had an animal or a bird: a falcon that appeared in the factory yard from somewhere and broke its wing against the wires; a baby rook that fell out of its nest and was saved from the cat; a hedgehog, or a grass-snake that I kept in a special box on the window-sill between the double frames.
Tverskaya Pravda, a gubernia newspaper, was published in our town. A big worker-correspondents' organization was set up at the factory in the 1920's and a branch editorial office was opened in the pump-house. We boys were awed by the men entering or coming out of the doors of that small brick building. They were worker-correspondents! They wrote for the newspaper. A fitter, who was the chairman of this organization, became one of the most popular men at the factory.
It must have been in those far-off days that I first found myself drawn to journalism, which I thought was extremely interesting, very important and, as it seemed to me then, a little mysterious.
My first item was printed in Tverskaya Pravda when I was in the 6th class. As I remember it now, it had seven lines and was about the visit S. D. Drozhzhin, the well-known peasant-poet, paid to our school. It was given an inconspicuous place on the back page and did not carry a byline. But I knew who wrote it and kept that number of the newspaper until it virtually fell apart in my pocket. That was the first of my regular contributions to Tverskaya Pravda. In the beginning I wrote about all sorts of shortcomings in the town, then I passed on to more serious themes and, finally, when I became better known in the newspaper, I began to get assignments to write features and sketches about the life of the town, the factories and plants.
I continued going to school, finished it and enrolled in the Industrial College, where I studied chemistry and made quantitative and qualitative analyses. But at the bottom of my heart I was already yearning for the editorial offices with their smell of printer's ink, and during commercial classes I secretly wrote a sketch or a feature on a theme that had nothing to do with what the school-master was saying. In that way I gradually became associated with the glorious profession of a journalist, which to this day I regard as the most interesting and most fascinating of all literary specialities.
Tverskaya Pravda of those days was a lively, go-getting newspaper. It was able to take timely notice, catch arid "put over" everything new, interesting and good that socialist life was daily engendering in factories and in the countryside. Work in the press taught me to observe life with great attention, to try and understand the things that were going on around me, and to write only when I had a good grasp of the subject. I devoted my holidays to the newspaper, endeavouring to utilize that time as fully as possible for observations.
The image of Gorky, whose books I loved to read ever since boyhood, illumined my path like a beacon. I learned to observe life from him. One summer, after arranging with the newspaper that I would write a series of articles about Tver lumberjacks and rafters, I went to Selizharovo Uyezd, Tver Gubernia. There I got a job in a lumber camp, rafted timber and later was the third oarsman on a raft. I went down the Volga, from its sources to my native town and lower to Rybinsk, where my journey came to a safe end when the rafts were moored to the timber pier.
In the meantime, the newspaper carried my series of articles — "Rafting" — which I wrote at night by the fire near the hut in the middle of our raft.
Next summer, a rural newspaper, Tverskaya Derevnya, gave me the assignment of writing a series of articles showing how socialism was entering the life of the pre-collective-farm village. I took a job as a librarian in the village of Mishkino, deep in Tver "Karelia," from where I reported on rural life and on the first shoots of collective labour.
My first book of feature articles was published in 1927. Friends from Smena, a Komsomol newspaper I was working for at that time, sent it to Maxim Gorky in Sorrento without my knowledge.
When I learned about it, I was horrified. I thought it was sacrilege to make a great writer read my immature and, as I was already quite aware, mediocre "work." You can imagine how surprised I was to receive a bulky packet bearing foreign stamps and my name and address written in a large and clear hand.
On six pages of foolscap, Gorky reviewed my immature composition with the greatest attention and indulgence, advised that I should work hard to improve, and learn from the masters how to polish my style much as a "lathe operator polishes metal." That letter from the great writer was of tremendous value to me. I pondered over every word he wrote, striving to draw a correct and useful conclusion. Gorky helped me to realize that journalism and literature are extremely complicated, difficult fields that require as much, if not more, study than any other profession. I realized that a "by the way" attitude to journalism would lead to nowhere, that you had to put your heart and soul into it in order to have any hope of becoming a worthy representative of the Bolshevik press.
By that time I had graduated college and was working at the dyeing-and-finishing or, as it was popularly known, the "print" mill of the Proletarka Factory in Tver. Soon I became an active worker-correspondent. The factory and my public duties in the shop left me with hardly any time for the newspaper work that I had grown so fond of. Yet it drew me ever deeper into its orbit. At last, after long reflection, I left the factory and joined the staff of Smena.
Smena had an able body of writers, many of whom later became top-ranking journalists. We were very busy at the newspaper. It had a modest budget, which was quite out of proportion to the six or eight pages published twice a week. For that reason, most of the work was done gratis by enthusiastic young worker-correspondents. The initiative displayed by our newspaper was commended several times by Pravda. I was with Smena, and then, when it closed down, with Proletarskaya Pravda, the Kalinin regional newspaper, right until the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War. I wrote features and articles devoted to light literature and criticism and headed the industrial and cultural departments.
I was a member of the Young Communist League from 1930 and in 1940 I joined the Communist Party. I owe the great school of the Communist Party everything that subsequently allowed me to become a writer.
Parallel with my newspaper work, I wrote stories but, remembering Gorky's advice, I published only a few in the newspaper and In Our Day, our regional almanac. In 1939, I published my first narrative, Hot Shop, in the magazine Oktyabr.
In that book, I tried to summarize my observations of the socialist emulation movement that was starting at the industrial enterprises in Kalinin, and of the way daring innovation was springing up. I had been a witness of it all and had reported it in my newspaper. Whatever success that book scored was chiefly due to the remarkable events it is dedicated to and to the people it describes. I have to admit that both the subject-line and the heroes were drawn from reality, so much so that old-timers at the Kalinin carriage-building works were quick to recognize their comrades in the book. The whole thing ended by the prototype of the hero inviting me to his wedding. The bride was the prototype of my heroine. The guests at the wedding poked fun at me, saying the hero and the heroine had to complete the work of the author by continuing his narrative and giving it a happy, though stereotyped, ending.
Long experience as a newspaperman helped me to write my first narrative. But I gained my most valuable experience as a literary worker beginning with the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War, when I became a Pravda war correspondent.
Sometimes people ask me if my work at the newspaper hampers my literary activities, seeing that a newspaperman is always on the go, that he has to cover the assignments given him by his newspaper, that reporting is always urgent work and has to be done regardless of the mood you are in and that the story must necessarily fit into a set number of lines.
I do not resent questions such as these. They only make me smile. It was my work in the communist press that showed me the road to literature and, what is most important, taught me to pick out the new, truly communist features in the characters of my fellow-men. As a Pravda war correspondent, I was constantly on the major sectors of the great front line, where the destiny of my socialist motherland was being decided. That provided me with invaluable material.
Today, it is quite widely known that the heroes of A Story About a Real Man and We — Soviet People are real, living men and women, most of whom appear under their own or' slightly modified names. The idea of writing these books was born in the editorial offices of Pravda. It happened like this. In February 1942, the newspaper carried a story headed Exploit of Matvei Kuzmin. That story, which I wrote hurriedly right after I returned from Kuzmin's funeral, describes an 80-year-old collective farmer from the Rassvet Flax-Growing Collective Farm, who repeated the exploit of Ivan Susanin. The story was raw and badly presented. As soon as I returned to Moscow from the front, I was called by the editor-in-chief, who told me that my write-up of this outstanding exploit was much too hasty and done in the style of a cub reporter.
"It could have been made into a beautiful story," he reproached me and, with his habit of generalizing everything, added: "I have said it to other war correspondents and I am saying it to you: make detailed notes of all the outstanding feats you hear of or see performed by our people. That is your civil duty. More, it is your duty as a member of the Party. Just think: in this war the Soviet people are displaying a courage that surpasses the courage of all the heroes of ancient, medieval and modern history. And to prevent these exploits from being forgotten and to allow our people to learn now or later how their fellow-citizens fought fascism and triumphed, you must write everything down."
So I got myself a thick notebook with a cardboard binding and began to write down all the interesting examples of heroism I came across, not forgetting to mention the exact places where the feats were performed and the civil address of the men and women concerned or of the witnesses.
Meanwhile, my work as a war correspondent kept me moving from one sector of the war to another, from the front to "partisan territory," where intrepid task groups were harassing the enemy's rear from bases in forests, and then again to the front lines in Stalingrad, the Kursk Salient, Korsun-Shevchenkovsky, the Vistula, the Neisse, and the Spree. And everywhere I witnessed heroism which outdid the exploits of the popular heroes of the past — Ivan Susanin, Marfa Kozhina, the Sevastopol sailor Koshka, and many others whose images history and literature have preserved for us.
Altogether I made sixty-five such notes. One of them which tells of an unusual meeting with airman Guards Senior Lieutenant Alexei Maresyev in an airfield near Orel, when that city was being stormed, developed into the book A Story About a Real Man. Of the others, I selected twenty-four, which I thought were the most important and typical and revealed the heart of the Soviet man. These I used for the stories in the volume entitled We — Soviet People.
Today, after the war, I am following up this tradition of writing about what I see. In The Return, a short story, I strove to describe in artistic form a real episode from the life of a famous Moscow steelmaker. The novel Gold is based on an incident whose finale took place during the offensive of the troops of the Kalinin Front at the beginning of 1942. I think there is nothing extraordinary about this authenticity. Our socialist life, which is changing continually in its forward movement, daily, hourly lays bare before a writer unusually interesting, simple and yet remarkable subjects. Inspired by the unfading ideas of communism, Soviet people are attaining heights of labour and military valour and performing deeds in the name of their country that defy even the most fervid imagination. And what an endless variety of characters our Soviet reality unfolds to the writer!
Newspaper work constantly brings me into contact with the most interesting people of our day and permits me to observe their lives and work. Journalism sharpens the eye and the ear. So far as I am concerned, facts brought out from life make up for any lack of artistic imagination.
My heroes continue the narration, as it were, with the lives they continue to lead outside the pages of my books. I saw Alexei Maresyev in Warsaw, where we met not as the hero and the writer of a book, but as Soviet delegates to the Second World Peace Congress; Malik Gabdulin, the hero of the story The Birth of an Epic, is now the head of the Institute of Literature of the Kazakh Academy of Sciences; Ulyana Belogrud, the Poltava peasant woman who saved the banner of a tank regiment (the story Regimental Banner), received a high award after the war for her successes in growing sugar-beet.
A writer experiences double joy as he observes the happy lives of these people which are full of teeming activity and creation.
There is great happiness in being a writer of the Land of Socialism!