Grim but compassionate story of wartime Russia

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Girls to the Front, by Vladimir Kornilov. Topsfield, Mass.: Quartet/Merrimack. ISBN 0-7043-2479-2. 120 pp. $13.95. In the summer of 1941, with German tank divisions rolling toward Moscow at breakneck speed, Russians braced themselves for a last-ditch defense of the motherland. Literally last-ditch: Any citizen capable of wielding a pick or shovel was rushed off toward the retreating Soviet Army and told to dig -- fast. ``Girls to the Front'' tells the story of a brigade of women volunteers sent out on just such a trench-digging assignment from the capital.

The mission is not a success. Military engineers who are supposed to direct the digging never show up. Food supplies are not issued. The train sent to take the women back to Moscow is put out of commission by German bombers. As the digging proceeds, author Vladimir Kornilov captures the sense of confusion and dread as German planes fly overhead unchallenged and a losing battle rages just beyond the horizon.

While not defeatist, the mood is grim. Captain Gavrilov, given the irksome duty of commanding 300 women, goes about his task listlessly, obsessed by thoughts of his wife and two sons now in captured territory. When he tells an old villager, ``We've got to dig, Granddad,'' the words are ominous: It seems clear that the trenches, if they are used at all, will serve as graves for Russian soldiers.

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In the Soviet Union, the ``Great Patriotic War'' is a sacred theme, and there is only one way to treat it. Soldiers and citizens alike must be portrayed as resolute, calm, selfless, and superhumanly heroic. Mr. Kornilov, however, is not terribly interested in propaganda-poster heroism; nor does he depict the Soviet Army as the flaming sword of an infallible Communist Party. Because of its ``incorrect'' version of events, ``Girls to the Front'' was pulled from publication in Russia in 1971. The author's subsequent dissident activities make it unlikely that Soviet readers will ever see the book.

Kornilov prefers to deal with actual human beings, to focus on the small moments of communication, self-discovery, and compassion that are enriched by impending catastrophe. Fourteen-year-old Gozhka has his first serious conversation with a girl. Under enemy fire, timid, put-upon Liya finds that she has unexpected reserves of courage. Throughout this slim volume the author's interest remains personal, his approach almost naturalistic.

Ironically, Kornilov may turn out to be a better Marxist than the Soviet censors. He gives us the salty conversation of uneducated Russians, the thoughts and feelings of the average citizen in the face of unthinkably painful events. His is a war waged by workers and peasants, who prevail ``because their fatigue, and submissiveness, and anger had reached such a peak that [their] strength could last (and did last!) for years and years.'' This is the heroism of the common man: the power to endure and do what has to be done. It was sufficient to break the back of Nazi Germany.

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