Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate: so much more than a 20th-century War and Peace

Classic blends taboo-breaking historical research, philosophy and literary innovation

One of the longest and most ambitious novels of the 20th century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (completed 1960) is many things at once. Most simply, it recounts the extraordinarily brutal and heroic defence of Stalingrad in late 1942 and early 1943, which the author had begun to dramatise in the novel’s “prequel” For a Just Cause (first published 1952) and earlier reported on as the longest-serving journalist at the Stalingrad front.

The novel travels between the battle’s several fronts, but also to Moscow and to evacuee life in Kazan and Kuibyshev (now Samara). Those not directly involved in the fighting are drawn into other, potentially lethal battles with Stalinist bureaucracy and restrictions on free speech and research, or with its police and penal system.

Earlier than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag fiction, Grossman’s novel shows the Soviet prison system, from the “sleepless” secret-police headquarters in Moscow to the remote Soviet camps. Yet more scandalously, it compares the Gulag to the Nazi camps and gas chambers, and Soviet ideology to national socialism, concluding that the two totalitarian states were each other’s mirror images, rather than polar opposites. Whence the novel’s deepest political and philosophical meditations on freedom and humanity: how, it asks, could the individual, and individuality itself, survive the “tragedy of the twentieth century”?

Small wonder, then, that none of Grossman’s contemporaries believed that the novel could be published in the Soviet Union. They were proved correct when the manuscript was turned down by the Soviet literary journal Znamia in 1960, and then “arrested” by the KGB the following year. Famously, the party’s then ideological chief Mikhail Suslov forecast that the novel would remain unpublishable for over two centuries, and Grossman’s lobbying of Khrushchev did nothing to alter the verdict.

In the event, the confiscated manuscripts resurfaced in a Russian archive half a century later. Publication proved possible rather sooner, though Grossman died of cancer in 1964, without knowing (or believing) that it would. Manuscripts concealed and microfilmed by Russian friends travelled westwards in the luggage of émigré writers and western diplomats in the second half of the 1970s, leading to publication of the full text in Switzerland in 1980. Its first Russian edition appeared only in 1988 during Gorbachev’s glasnost. The posthumous, foreign (tamizdat) publication of Grossman’s greatest novel, along with several shorter works also unpublished in his lifetime, means that Grossman’s status as one of the greatest 20th-century Russian writers has been recognized belatedly, and still incompletely.

Life and Fate captures key facets of Grossman’s identity as a Jewish, Russian and Soviet writer and intellectual. Born in late 1905, Grossman spent his childhood and youth in Ukraine and Russia (with a short spell in Switzerland), and his formative years straddled the revolutionary divide of 1917. Both his parents were active in left-wing circles, especially his father, who left the family when Grossman was young, but stayed close to his son throughout his life.

Though he resided in Moscow for most of his literary career, Grossman never forgot his roots in the largely Jewish town of Berdichev in Ukraine, where his mother remained until her death (as dramatised in Life and Fate). His study of chemistry in Kiev and Moscow, and his early work as a chemist and engineer in the Donbass, sparked an abiding interest in science and industry, reflected in the central storyline of Life and Fate, about the physicist Viktor Shtrum.

Shtrum’s battles with anti-Semitism in Stalinist academia also reflected another facet of Grossman’s biography. Alongside his contemporary and friend Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman emerged from the 1930s onwards as one of the most prominent Soviet Jewish writers. Both authors were secular and assimilated, yet also profoundly distressed by the Jewish tragedy of the second World War, spurring their leading roles in the short-lived Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Through this organization and their publications, they sought to draw domestic and international attention to the Holocaust, especially on Soviet soil, but came under severe pressure in late Stalinism. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Grossman was forced to abandon The Black Book project on the Holocaust, and to collude in state harassment and repression of Jewish intellectuals, while enduring anti-Semitic attacks himself.

These clashes with the Soviet authorities underpin the novel’s reflections on the moral and personal costs of complicity with state power. Neither Grossman’s reluctant signing of a letter in support of Stalinist repression, nor his reputation as a budding “red Tolstoy”, could protect his novel For a Just Cause from years of bruising censorship before its publication in 1952, whereupon it almost immediately suffered a backlash from the Stalinist authorities and Soviet press. The experience left Grossman agonisingly aware of the precarity of Soviet critical acclaim and fame, yet he persisted in writing, and later defending, its audacious sequel.

While minor works and translations were published in the early 1960s, his final years were largely characterised by unpublished writing (including works written “for the desk drawer”, such as his last major opus, Forever Flowing, also later smuggled and published abroad), and by unequal battles with Soviet officialdom. This has led some to term this once celebrated Soviet writer a “dissident” by the time of his 1964 death.

Like the author himself, Grossman’s writings are hard to categorise. They comprise journalism and essays, historical and philosophical reflection, epic and modernist narratives, vast novels, and elegant short stories. Life and Fate, which he saw as his life’s work, combines many of these narrative approaches, but is rooted in eyewitness testimony, gathered over years of reporting on Soviet fighting and Nazi atrocities. There was nothing unusual in this emergence from journalism into literature. The lines between the two had been blurred since the revolution, as Soviet authors blended fact and fiction in writing about the Civil War, and later the industrialisation and collectivisation of the late 1920s and 1930s.

In the latter period, Grossman made his name through journalism, short stories (notably In the Town of Berdichev, 1934) and a long first novel, Stepan Kolchugin, serialised from the late 1930s and drawing heavily on his work as a mining engineer. By the time of this novelistic debut, the state literary doctrine of Socialist Realism was already insisting that Soviet writers “show reality in its revolutionary development”, which in practice meant substituting an optimistic projection of progress towards communism for empirical observation. Yet there was not long to adjust to these requirements before the outbreak of the second World War.

Alongside better-known contemporaries, such as Ehrenburg, Konstantin Simonov and Aleksandr Tvardovsky, Grossman signed up to be a war correspondent soon after Operation Barbarossa began on June 22nd, 1941. Deeply embedded with Soviet troops (unlike Ehrenburg, who was kept further from the front), Grossman followed the chaotic defeats and retreats of 1941-2, stayed in Stalingrad for much of the battle, and then travelled all the way to Berlin where he witnessed the final victory in May 1945. Throughout, his war sketches appeared in the Soviet press, especially the army newspaper Red Star (whose editor, David Ortenberg, was a valuable patron, especially for Jewish war correspondents).

His novel The People are Immortal (1942) became one of the first and most enduringly popular Soviet war novels. This wartime writing brought him fame on an entirely different scale to that of the 1930s. Evocative, compassionate and patriotic, it was exactly what the Soviet war effort needed, certainly in the early war, when Stalin himself conceded that “we will not rouse the people to victory with Marxism-Leninism alone”.

His war prose struck a delicate balance between emotional and psychological authenticity, and a genuine belief in the patriotism and heroism of the Soviet soldier and the people (narod) as a whole. Indeed, this belief permeated all his writing about Stalingrad, constituting his key justification for trying to publish both For a Just Cause and Life and Fate.

Alongside this wartime tolerance for greater emotional and psychological complexity, the Soviet authorities briefly sanctioned investigation of Nazi atrocities. Though his admiration for the Soviet soldier and the heroism of victory ran deep, Grossman felt an even more profound ethical imperative to communicate to the Soviet, and international, audience the horror of the Holocaust.

By the time that he visited liberated Nazi camps and published The Hell of Treblinka (1944), later used in the Nuremberg trials, he was aware that his mother had died in the near-extermination of the Jewish population of Berdichev, in September 1941. He had also gathered evidence of mass killings of Jews on work assignments in Belorussia and Ukraine. His resulting commitment to capturing the mass and individual tragedies of the Holocaust was hardly satisfied in the short interval in the late war when the theme was permitted. Nonetheless, that time provided opportunities to visit sites of atrocities and interview dozens of witnesses, furnishing key material for the abortive Black Book project and for Life and Fate’s depiction of massacres of Soviet Jews, Nazi POW camps and gas chambers.

A decade later, Grossman put his journalistic skills to new use, interviewing friends who had returned from the Gulag and relatives of deceased prisoners, albeit in strict secrecy. These testimonies were essential to the novel’s depiction of the Soviet camps, providing an authentic picture of a world that he never witnessed up close, even though many family members and friends were victims of Stalinist repression.

Although his extensive experience of journalism and what we might term oral history was formative and fundamental, Grossman was also a profoundly literary writer, in constant dialogue with Russian and world literature. He transformed and transcended his factual material through lifelong, eclectic reading of literature, history, philosophy and science. This was true even of his journalism, which distilled psychological depth and quasi-universal truths from its eyewitness portraits.

The Stalingrad diptych, and Forever Flowing, were more ambitious in scope and form, and increasingly radical in their political and philosophical arguments. All blend eyewitness testimony and real-life prototypes with historical overviews, and philosophical and political analysis. Although Forever Flowing, arguably unfinished at the time of his death, is his most fragmentary and modernist work, the Stalingrad diptych also sweeps its reader back and forth, between microscopic portraits of military and domestic life and panoramic overviews of world history and human nature.

Grossman sought to capture the scale and the ethical and literary challenge of unprecedented human suffering, while rooting the drama of Stalingrad and Stalinism in the timeless struggle for humanity and the individual soul.

Although the two Stalingrad novels are inextricably connected, the historical and philosophical breadth and depth of Life and Fate far outstrip Grossman’s achievement in For a Just Cause. The same is true of its much broader dialogue with texts and authors including the Bible, ancient philosophers, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and, of course, Tolstoy, whose War and Peace was one of Grossman’s favourite and most frequently reread books. However, to call Life and Fate a 20th-century War and Peace hardly does justice to its startling blend of taboo-breaking historical investigation, profound philosophical thought, and literary innovation. The challenges to humanity were immeasurably greater in the era of total war, atomic science and totalitarian ideology than in Tolstoy’s time. Grossman sought to capture the scale and the ethical and literary challenge of unprecedented human suffering, while rooting the drama of Stalingrad and Stalinism in the timeless struggle for humanity and the individual soul.

*

Life and Fate, like its prequel, is arranged around a single family, the Shaposhnikovs: three generations of women, and their husbands, lovers, children, friends and colleagues. The family radiates out, spoke-like, across the Soviet front and rear, from Stalingrad to the Russian provinces, the Gulag, and the Holocaust in Ukraine. It is a device consciously borrowed from Tolstoy, resulting in a cast of several hundred named characters, and used to similar effect. Ultimately, this panorama of Soviet life, like Tolstoy’s reflections on Russia in the Napoleonic wars, reflects on individual and collective identity and belonging, and on freedom and unfreedom (albeit largely state-constrained, rather than divine determinism). Like its prequel, Life and Fate roams into enemy territory too. This time, however, it shows not just the Nazi elite’s decision-making, but also the horrific concentration camps that result. The novel’s nuanced portraits of ordinary Germans, including low-ranking soldiers and everyday perpetrators, are yet another innovation.

Although Life and Fate progresses from August 1942 to the aftermath of the victory in Stalingrad in spring 1943, it is not a linear history. Instead, it is made up of blocks of chapters, each concerning a key protagonist and their network in a particular location. While more than half the chapters are set in Stalingrad (including over a dozen embedded with German troops), over 50 dramatise life in the rear, and almost the same number play out in Soviet or Nazi prisons and camps. The narrative thus switches repeatedly between military and civilian, Soviet and German, unfree and (ostensibly) free, life and death.

On a handful of occasions, the reader is lifted out of the world of the novel altogether and plunged into philosophical and political reflections on the eponymous life and fate: another Tolstoyan feature. These frequent journeys between the novel’s worlds, and between dramatised narrative and analytical commentary, encourage the reader to seek out connections other than chronology. It turns out that the real battle is not Stalingrad, nor even the Soviet-Nazi war. Rather, every major character is engaged in a struggle to preserve their integrity and freedom.

That said, the core of the novel is the second half of the battle of Stalingrad, when the tide gradually turned towards Soviet attack, in late 1942, and then victory early the next year. Grossman had witnessed up close and reported on the fighting of these (and earlier) months of the battle. The bloody and brutal fighting, often over tiny territories, remained fresh in his mind when he started writing Life and Fate. Vivid portrayals of the loss of life and desperate heroism of ordinary Soviet soldiers are at the very heart of the novel. At times, such as the burning of oil tanks on the Volga or the encirclement of Nazi troops in late 1942, they verge on the apocalyptic.

These lives and deaths in combat are shaped by decisions taken at every level of the military hierarchy, by real-life Generals Chuykov, Yeremenko and Krylov, Stalin himself, and fictionalised officers. The latter are some of the most sympathetic characters in the novel. The unpretentious Colonel Novikov embodies qualities prized by Grossman: the insistence on care for his men and clear-headed planning despite reckless orders from on high. In the climactic display of this innate trait, Novikov bravely defies the command to advance early, putting himself on the wrong side of Commissar Getmanov and General Nyeudobnov.

Other exemplars of humane military relations include the Gulag returnee Lieutenant-Colonel Darensky, who anchors the scenes set in the Kalmyk steppe before joining the winter offensive, and Major Byerozkin. These commanders respect their soldiers’ ethnic and class differences while binding them into a genuine and effective fighting collective. Their ability to mobilise and inspire their men to extraordinary feats contrasts with the dull dogmatism and barely concealed chauvinism of their commissars. Byerozkin’s survival, and his reunion with his wife and child in the novel’s last chapter, sound a final note of hope that such values, along with family relations, might survive the violence of the times.

The novel's central paradox is that in defeating fascism in the name of freedom, Stalin's Soviet Union took on (even) more traits of its opponent: chauvinism; anti-Semitism; and, ultimately, totalitarianism.

Were this the extent of the author’s ambitions, it seems unlikely that the Soviet authorities would have reacted so strongly to the manuscript of Life and Fate. By the late 1950s, Soviet war literature had become much more tolerant of the depiction of rank-and-file soldiers and junior officers, not least because these might evade vexed questions around the role of Stalin or his generals. This formed part of an overall recasting of war memory as popular sacrifice that generated the late Soviet war cult, still thriving today.

However, Grossman also returned to writing about Stalingrad with the knowledge of what this turn toward victory had come to mean for the Soviet Union and the world. While the battle symbolized the dawning defeat of Nazism, the nature of the victory was less clear. Indeed, the novel's central paradox is that in defeating fascism in the name of freedom, Stalin's Soviet Union took on (even) more traits of its opponent: chauvinism; anti-Semitism; and, ultimately, totalitarianism. In this sense, the battle of Stalingrad was not a Manichean battle of free and unfree, as its Soviet combatants believed, but a battle for world supremacy between two freedom-denying powers. On neither side did the individual, or individuality itself, stand much chance.

This transformation of the raw facts of conflict into a historical and philosophical comparison explains the insistence on moving outside Stalingrad so often and in so many different directions. However, these key themes of freedom and autonomy are rooted in the battle itself. Of particular importance are the scenes set in house 6/1, one of the last Soviet strongholds in the city centre in autumn 1942 (when it was known as Pavlov’s house). Much mythologised in journalism and literature of the time, the house in the novel embodies the spirit of freedom that secured the victory in Stalingrad, but was just as surely extinguished by that triumph.

Key characters and concerns coalesce around this tiny territory in a way that is typical of the novel, helping to signal its fundamental importance. The innocent young recruit Seryozha Shaposhnikov admires this microcosm, so anathema to the Nazi and Soviet states warring outside its walls. Inside it, the charismatic Captain Grekov presides over a non-hierarchical collective and encourages a freedom of expression that is startling, yet refreshing to new arrivals. Yevgenia Shaposhnikova’s first husband, Commissar Krymov, is sent to the house to try to “establish Bolshevik order”. Though more politically “conscious” than his young nephew, he too derives a sense of relief and ease from the freedom that the house exudes. It intensifies the feelings of liberation that had descended as soon as he entered Stalingrad.

If Life and Fate vividly captures the potential of this island of freedom, it is also grimly certain of its demise. Virtually all its combatants are slaughtered in the eventual takeover, and those pulled into its orbit do not escape unscathed either. Krymov’s glimpses of freedom are overshadowed by his arrest and interrogation on returning from the house. The political and ethical crisis triggered by his (literally) bruising encounters with the NKVD dominate the third and final volume of the novel.

Only Viktor Shtrum’s anguished navigation of Stalinist academia matches the density of the psychological prose of Krymov’s journey through the Lubyanka, and through his crisis of Bolshevik faith. These scenes are amongst the most detailed evocations of secret-police operations in Soviet literature or samizdat of the time, while his former wife’s attempts to discover his fate are as harrowing as the family trauma in Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem or Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna (both also unpublishable until glasnost).

Krymov’s fate epitomizes how war victory heralds the rejection of the revolution’s promise of freedom. Too late, he realises that his commitment to revolutionary ideals has put him and his generation of the party fatally out of kilter with the era: he is a “stepson of the time”, now doomed to captivity or worse.

Viewing them as part of a battle over freedom, as the narrator encourages us to do, the novel’s battle scenes link to other, “non-war” scenes at a deeper level. The physicist Viktor Shtrum, whose storyline had been highly censored in For a Just Cause, is not just related to many of the characters in Stalingrad; he confronts the same dilemmas of autonomy and integrity as them, but on the home front, in the world of Stalinist science. Indeed, like Krymov, he places himself in a filial relationship to his times, fated to suffer their political and social pressures and contradictions.

Like the Soviet Union itself, Shtrum appears headed for liberation towards the end of the battle of Stalingrad, when a phone call from Stalin himself green-lights his research and halts harassment by academic colleagues in Kazan and Moscow. However, this “freedom” comes at a high price: his signature is demanded for a petition persecuting other Jewish colleagues, in a reflection of events in Grossman’s life during Stalin’s post-war anti-Semitic campaign against “cosmopolitans”.

Throughout the novel, Shtrum feels anguish at failing to speak the full truth about politics or science, though he manages it more than most, joining in with friends’ debates about the Gulag and collectivisation. At this climactic moment of ethical choice, however, his instinctive fear of persecution overrides his longing for freedom and autonomy.

Even before this capitulation, Shtrum’s dreams of a completely free science appear naïve. In fact, as shown in gruesome detail in scenes of gas chamber planning, science is always exploited and corrupted by dictatorships. Even seemingly “pure” scientific research is beset with ethical dilemmas, as becomes apparent in a key debate between Shtrum and his mentor Dmitry Chepyzhin. Creative, seemingly independent researchers still risk adopting too lofty a perspective on human existence, or failing to understand how their discoveries might go awry in the hands of man: “what if he transforms the whole world into a galactic concentration camp?”, asks Shtrum. Through these unresolved debates, Grossman anticipates later thinking about the connections between modernity, scientific progress and atrocity.

So rich and complex is Shtrum’s storyline that it was extracted for a stand-alone theatre production of Life and Fate by Lev Dodin’s Maly Theatre in St Petersburg in 2007. In the novel, Shtrum’s psychological and moral distress is rendered in dense inner monologues, which recall Dostoevsky while anticipating Yury Trifonov’s late Soviet prose. In this memorable portrayal, Grossman was undoubtedly writing what he knew, but many other major protagonists are “doubters” too, their uncertainty a key indication of their “pure souls”. This is captured in a vigorous debate on literature involving Shtrum and his scientist colleagues. Although their criticisms of Tolstoy appear gently ironic, in the context of this most Tolstoyan novel, the praise for Chekhov’s tolerance for human fallibility is no accident.

Equally significant is the fact that Yevgenia Shaposhnikova, one of the most sympathetic female characters, is described as “Hamlet-like”. Almost from the start, she cannot decide whether she loves her first husband, Krymov, more than her more recent lover, Novikov. This is no mere love intrigue: the men represent two very different Soviet types, with distinct ideas about the relationship between politics and identity. Krymov is an ideologue, even a dogmatist, at least before his arrest; Novikov is as uninterested in ideology as it is possible to be. The free-thinking Yevgenia ought to prefer the latter, but she chooses Krymov instead, despite the dangers posed by association with an “enemy of the people”.

For Krymov himself, and Bolshevik relatives and friends of the Shaposhnikovs such as Abarchuk and Mostovskoy, doubt is the first step towards emancipation from their ideologically blinkered existence. However, their potential mental freedom is constrained by physical incarceration or death in Nazi or Soviet camps. Characters who survive to the end, such as Shtrum or the family elder Alexandra Shaposhnikova, are left struggling to withstand titanic forces. However, it seems enough to vow, as Shtrum does in memory of his mother, to “struggle for his right to be pure and kind”.

This sacrosanct importance of the unique individual and their personal ethical code is precisely what totalitarian dictatorships and universalizing ideologies ignore, and attempt to crush. While “the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness”, such regimes are far from unique themselves, despite their claims to exceptionalism. Key to Grossman’s realization of this similarity was his experience of Stalinist anti-Semitism, during and after his attempts to document Nazi anti-Jewish atrocities. In Life and Fate, these events are transposed into the scientific world, and, importantly, moved back into wartime. This anachronism heightens the irony of the coincidence of rising Soviet anti-Semitism with the dawning defeat of the architects of the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, the novel’s portrayal of Nazi atrocities far outstrips even the brutal scenes of the Lubyanka and Gulag. Scenes set in the gas chambers and the burial pits of Berdichev push at the limits of language as they seek to capture how “fascism annihilated tens of millions of people”. While the Holocaust was briefly mentionable in Soviet journalism and film of the mid-1940s before the late Stalinist anti-Semitic campaigns, the theme remained acutely sensitive in the post-Stalin era: attempts to publish poetry, prose and music about the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar, for example, would still prove controversial in the 1960s. Before them, Life and Fate broached this near-taboo subject, and confronted the aesthetic and ethical dilemmas of narrating catastrophe.

One such narrative is the long letter sent by Viktor Shtrum’s mother Anna from Berdichev, which had been only alluded to in For a Just Cause, and was rooted in Grossman’s agonising loss of communication with his mother during the early war. The full text of the missive in Life and Fate testifies to the growing persecution of Anna’s friends and neighbours in the ghetto, and her dawning realization of her own fate. Fragments of the events of September 1941, pieced together by the author’s subsequent research in the region, appear later in the novel. They climax in the horrific story of a survivor who climbs out of the burial pit and returns to the town, half-crazed by what she has seen.

Meanwhile, the story of the Shaposhnikovs’ friend Sofya Levinton unfolds over several blocks of chapters, as she moves in a convoy of Jews towards the concentration camps, and then to death in the gas chambers. Anna’s narrative had only anticipated (and never quite believed in) her own demise, but Sofya’s story is a relentless, almost unbearable chronicle of mounting horror, despair, and mass death. State violence here seems to overwhelm the possibility of individual resistance, or even individuality itself: on the way to the camps, the narrator confirms that “the most fundamental change in people at this time was a weakening of their sense of individual identity; their sense of fate grew correspondingly stronger”.

Both women, however, also find evidence of humanity. Anna draws her son’s attention to acts of generosity in the ghetto, helping to steer his path through his own future. Meanwhile, Sofya, who unlike Anna has no children of her own, provides maternal comfort to a small boy, David, as he dies alongside her in the chamber: Grossman had already explored this theme of maternal kindness and grace in the midst of atrocity in perhaps his finest essay, The Sistine Madonna (written 1955 but unpublished in his lifetime). In Life and Fate, a host of other Jewish victims are also vividly individualised, even as all are subjected to extermination.

Less brutal, but no less terrifying, are the scenes of decision-making on the final solution and design of the camps and their technology of extermination. These anticipate Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil”, not least in using Eichmann as a key example (along with several other Nazi leaders). Together with the snapshots of the cynical behaviour of rank-and-file employees of the camps, these portraits powerfully evoke the moral vacuum pervading the Nazi hierarchy. It is these officials’ fundamental inhumanity that binds them to the desiccated world of the camps: sinister, geometric barracks symbolize the erasure of “the peculiarities and individuality of life” from the first page of the novel onwards.

This stronger condemnation of Nazism, fuelled by the author’s grief at the fate of his family and thousands of others in the Holocaust on Soviet soil, is nonetheless largely eclipsed by relentless comparisons of the two regimes. Most explicit are the narrator’s periodic analyses of their inhuman essence: as he explains, “totalitarian social systems” founded on “specious universality” and “state nationalism”, often coupled with anti-Semitism and relentless violence, have “proved able to paralyse the human spirit throughout whole continents”.

The Old Bolshevik prisoner of war Mostovskoy’s discussion of the two regimes with the SS officer Liss starkly dramatises these comparisons. Though far from sympathetic, Liss runs rings around Mostovskoy’s refusal to abandon the Soviet truism of the incompatibility of Nazism and socialism. Mostovskoy’s agitation belies his instinctive recognition of his adversary’s provocative claim that “what you really hate is yourselves – yourselves in us”.

Tellingly, after the conversation, the Russian finally consents to read the manifesto of “senseless kindness” by his fellow prisoner Ikonnikov, who has previously been imprisoned by both Soviet and Nazi regimes. Ikonnikov’s claim that the two regimes are each other’s doubles reinforces Liss’s argument, though his kindness represents the opposite of Liss’s cynicism. Elsewhere, these complex similarities are reinforced through juxtapositions and implicit parallels between aspects of the two regimes: their prison camps; their leaders, trapped in their cults and delusions; the chauvinism of their ideologies; and, most fundamentally, their callous disregard for human life.

Despite the titular pairing of life and fate, the novel does not conclude that the two forces are equal. Mass death and human misery stalk its pages, as defining features of the age of total war and totalitarian dictatorships. Being born into such times often appears a cruel twist of fate; surviving them, a matter of chance, or deliberate moral compromise. Yet, for all the oppressive weight of forces bearing down on the individual, a fundamental optimism about humanity prevails. In such a brutal age, “senseless kindness” could never be universal or ubiquitous. However, its appearances, often at the least expected moments, remind us of what is unpredictably and irreducibly human. Tellingly, Yuri Possokhov’s 2020 adaptation of the novel for the English National Ballet took “senseless kindness” as its title, and central theme.

It is thus by attending to the complexities of the individual soul and the smallest scale of human existence that one can start to question the totalising visions of communism and national socialism. Life and Fate is not, as its Soviet accusers claimed, only a “slander” on the Soviet system. Nor, despite Grossman’s deep hatred of fascism, is it solely a condemnation of Nazism. Nor even, as Suslov alleged, does it simply equate Stalinism with fascism. Rather, it opposes ideology per se, debunking the claims of any regime purporting to represent, or perfect, humans in the aggregate. Instead, it insists on the uniqueness of the individual, and invests in their difficult but important struggle against the dehumanising forces of fate and state.

As Grossman wrote on the back of one of the manuscripts of Life and Fate: "still, people remained people . . . they would not allow freedom to die".
The Everyman's Libraryedition of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler, with this introduction by Polly Jones is out now.

Read More

Recommended