If Vasily Grossman‘s great novel, Life and Fate (1980) lacks many millions of readers to catch Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), it is due more to the hundred year head start by the latter and a notable lack of romantic nostalgia in the former, than to a difference in acuity and sweep.  Written in the 1950s but confiscated in the USSR after being submitted for publication –not only the manuscripts but the typewriter ribbons with which it was written– Life and Fate did not reach a reading public until a smuggled manuscript was published in France, in 1980, sixteen years after Grossman had died in 1964.  It was not until 1988, during Gorbachev’s glasnost, that Russians in his homeland could read it. 

For all its impressive length, and detail, the novel-time is only about eight months, with relevant memories, and life stories extending it back several years.  At its opening, the battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943) has been underway for some weeks.  The German armies had invaded Russia a year earlier, and while the northern forces were stalled at Moscow, the southern units were advancing through the Ukraine towards the Volga River, and the oil fields of the Caucasus beyond.  The defense of Stalingrad was, therefore, the defense of the entire country. In the west, the Allies landings in North Africa had begun  in early November of 1942, three months after the German assault on Stalingrad; taking Sicily back from the Germans was almost a year away, six months after the citizens and Soviet army had turned the German advance into defeat.  The defense of Stalingrad might be said, and many have said it, to have been the defense of the entire Western coalition. 

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