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.
As if to underline the desperation, the early chapters of the novel take place in a German POW camp, where captured Russians are identified by colored stripes: red for politicals, black for saboteurs, green for thieves and murderers who, of course, are put in charge, as the kapos. Lilac designates emigres from Fascist Germany. When snow brings a sense of home to the Russians, we can locate the time as likely October of 1942.
Using a POW camp to open, and setting later scenes in Russian labor camps –filled with Germans prisoners and Russian dissidents– allows Grossman to open one of his major themes: prison camps filled with people of all nationalities and political persuasions as allegories of two enormous armed bureaucracies and entire captive populations.
By chapter seven the desperate situation along the Volga is introduced: senior Russian officers are cut off from their troops. The remnants of the Red Army are holding on to small pockets of resistance.
Several chapters more, and the third group of people that will populate the novel is introduced, and along with them themes that are joined with family, even in war time: love and love’s dissolution, loyalty and fear of betrayal. Because of war time, the lack of food, heat, and water, the trek to distant cities, out of the war zone, the indecision about when to return. This is the Shaposhnikova family. Viktor Shtrum, the father, is a groundbreaking nuclear physicist, who nevertheless, comes under suspicion for entertaining incorrect thoughts and attitudes. His wife, Lyudmila and her son, Tolya, by a previous husband, play significant parts. Lyudmila’s sister Zhenya is newly enamored of a tank commander with the Russian Stalingrad forces but is torn by loyalty to her former husband, Krymov, a Communist commissar, and enforcer of Bolshevik standards among the troops, who is caught in the swirling, sickening, play of loyalties.
Competing claims of savage fighting versus military order take place in an isolated part of the Russian lines. Called “House 61” by everyone, the senior officer has strong anarchist tendencies. At his insistence, he is called the “House Manager” instead of the more proper, hierarchic, “Comrade Captain.” Commissar Krymov is sent to investigate. Wounded by the House Manager, as being a pain in the ass and impediment to the actual, desperate fighting, he is transported out and makes his report of un-communist behavior, leading to his own incarceration in the feared Lubyanka prison in Moscow for defaming a now dead Soviet Hero.
Grossman himself was a reporter at the battle and on the banks of the Volga which enter into the novel. During that time, the only book he read was War and Peace. He has said that it was his model for Life and Fate, particularly the use of an extended family to tie our sympathies into the wider battles, events and themes he pursues. He plunges us into times and places that we non-Russians know not much more than those of Tolstoy’s re-creation of Napoleon’s invasion (1812). Life and Fate does not, however, have the pastoral balance and the sweet love confusions of Natasha, nor balls and plumed hats and galloping horses. 1942 wartime Moscow, the remote city of Kuibyshev, and especially Stalingrad, are not, in Grossman’s conception, such beguiling settings for love, though men and women, being such, seek it everywhere. Even in “House 61,” finally crushed by the Germans, a young female radio operator and a raw soldier of her age, find time for feelings. The House Manager, who also has his eye on her, recognizes their bond and sends them out before the final bombardment.
Not only love, of course. The most notable topography of the book is that of the disturbing, murderous, constant rearranging of the cadre that made up the top leadership of the early Communist Party. Reference is made time and again to the Great Terror of 1937 when not only political opposition was cut down, but great swaths of the leadership of the armed forces and scientific establishment. In the POW camp, “Old Bolsheviks” (Leninists) and new, pure, Stalinists, triangulate between each other and their German captors. In the fighting units, men dare to wonder if Stalin is indeed, “the great strategic genius.” Victor Shtrum, bereft of friends and colleagues for having been heard with less than zealous fealty to the current line, and for his inability to control his daughter who questions Stalin publicly, endangering all who know her, is only rescued by a call from Stalin himself, who tells him he is greatly interested in his work on the secrets of the atom. Overnight, Victor is the hero of all. Yet, he disgraces himself, in his own eyes, by yielding to his once-again friends and signing a joint letter of accusation against his old friend and colleague in the laboratory, and husband, as it turns out, of the woman Shtrum loves most in the world.
The work of the novel does not stop here. A friend of Zhenya’s is sent on a closed train, with others, to the gas chambers. Hitler, himself, appears, in a quiet, misty woods, gnawing over, not the loss of Stalingrad, but “that Stalin had gained the upper hand.” Stalin, too, thinks of those around him, of Churchill and Roosevelt, “who always first discussed everything between themselves,” who “saw him as an Asian potentate, not as a European leader.” Even as people stood in their thousands to cheer him, “he always had the impression that people were laughing at him behind his back.”
While our attention is captured by the scenes of war and prison camps, deprivations, prolonged savage questioning — reminiscent of Arthur Koestler’s 1940 Darkness at Noon— the fear of betrayal, everywhere, another deception runs as counterpoint through the novel. Viktor Shtrum, betrayed by his colleagues, is betraying his wife. He loves Marya Ivanovna, wife of Sokolov, his colleague, and she feels the same for him.
“What lay between them was true and natural, they were no more responsible for it than a man is responsible for the light of day — and yet this truth inevitably engendered insincerity, deceit and cruelty towards those dearest to them, It was in their power to avoid deceit and cruelty; all they had to do was renounce this clear and natural light.”
Though their love is unconsummated, consisting only of walks after dark and sitting on park benches, no hand holding or embracing, only a kiss on the hand, it is the dominant fact of their lives. Even in war time, during the most dangerous times imaginable, love entraps us in its roots.
Yet, in the gloom of betrayal and fear and decapitations, and burned out factories and homes Grossman holds on to one enduring belief. Even in the worst times there is “this kindness, this stupid kindness … what is most truly human in a human being.” He tells a small story about an old Russian woman who, on seeing a German prisoner, recently engaged in killing her friends and neighbors, approaches him with severe determination. We can imagine what she wants to do. Yet, when she gets within striking distance she holds out a dry piece of bread, pitying a starving, beaten man. Revealing, as Grossman puts it, “this senseless, pathetic kindness … scattered throughout life like atoms of radium.”
Life and Fate, was long suppressed; its moral and physical hellscape not for Soviet eyes. It’s forerunner, originally called Stalingrad, but published as For a Just Cause, in 1952, after months of wrangling with editors and Soviet authorities to iron out the ideologically incorrect wrinkles, was, with its more uplifting story of hope and belief in the strength of communism and the Soviet state, more celebrated. It was a best seller in Russia and is now available in a new translation and reconstructive editing by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler available, as is Life and Fate, from New York Review Books. (For an informative review see Gary Saul Morrison here.) For a shorter look at the man and writing, a compilation of short stories, journalism, essays and letters by Grossman is available as The Road.
Robert and Elizabeth Chandler have done a wonder of translation, in the three mentioned books, and several others. Not only is the labor itself immense, the flow for English language readers is natural and compelling, no awkward reproductions of Russian syntax or, seemingly, smuggled glosses of unfamiliar events or ideas.
Life and Fate is one of the increasingly available war novels which, following WWI, portray not only the fighting, and not only glorious assaults, but the full experience of war. For the men in command the decisions, the breakdown of supplies, the possibility of defeat; for the soldiers, the biting cold, the lack of food, the fear of mutilation more than the fear of death; for the civilians, the loss of a son or a husband, the deprivation, the destruction of homes, their own injury and death, and in the special case of the USSR, the constant fear of being fingered as disloyal or brought in for questioning by those who in many cases knew you as well as you did yourself. The list is long but Theodore Plevier’s Stalingrad (1948), The Stalin Front (1955) and Payback (1956) by Gert Ledig, Heinrich Boll, in The Train Was on Time (1949) and The Silent Angel, (1992), Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing (2006,) Soldiers Alive (1945) by Ishikawa Tatsuzō and Zone of Emptiness (1952) Hiroshi Noma, both Japanese, are all serious examples. The U.S. war in Vietnam, and then in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced multiple dozens of war novels that go beyond man-in-combat rewarded by victory, adulation and the love of a woman.
There is also an excellent 12 part Russian TV series, created from the novel, also called Life and Fate/ Zhizn i sudba. It was available on Amazon Prime until mid-May, 2021, and has been available as a DVD to purchase. It is certainly worth putting on a “To Watch” list somewhere like JustWatch.