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Vasily Grossman: Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate)

In 1954, Grossmann published a novel based on his war experiences, called За правое дело [For a Just Cause]. This novel, based on Grossman’s experiences as a war reporter in Stalingrad, had considerable success in the Soviet Union, not least because it more or less toed the party line. It was not translated into English till 2019. In 1959, he completed Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) and submitted it for publication. However, things had changed. Though Stalin had died, Grossman had become more aware of his Jewishness, something he had previously been quite unenthusiastic about. This book was far less pro-Soviet, raised the issue of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in a far more striking way and was not afraid to have Soviet characters who were seriously flawed. After submitting the manuscript, his flat was raided and the KGB confiscated manuscripts, notes and even typewriter ribbons and carbons. He was never to see his book again and he died in 1964 of stomach cancer, not knowing whether his book would ever be published. Fortunately, Vladimir Voinovich was able to smuggle a microfilm of the book out of the Soviet union and it was published in Switzerland in 1980.

The book has been hailed as Grossman’s magnum opus and one of the foremost novels to come out of Russia and rightly so. Though perhaps it is not as great as War and Peace, with which it has been compared, Grossman tells a first-class story of a varied cast of characters in the Soviet Union around the time of the Battle of Stalingrad. There are several plots which Grossman tells us a few pages at a time. We start with a collection of characters in a German concentration camp. There are the old Bolsheviks, particularly Mostovskoy, who remains rigorously faithful to the Bolshevik creed. However, there are, apparently, fifty-six different nationalities, from a US colonel who resolutely sticks to English to an Italian priest, from a Chinese student of physics to a Spanish soldier. The prisoners had been divided into three categories – politicals, saboteurs and common criminals. The camp was essentially run by the criminals, not by the German officials, who generally kept away from the prisoners. We will see, of course, see the camp turned into an extermination camp, with gas ovens built to kill the Jews. We also get a glimpse of a Russian labour camp, no doubt with a comparison being made between the two types of camp.

The second main plot involves the Battle of Stalingrad. (It is interesting to compare this Soviet viewpoint of the Battle, with the German one, albeit written by a US national writing in French, in Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones).) At the beginning of the novel, the Germans are battering the Soviets, who are holding out, but barely. We see the grim reality, such as oil tanks exploding, the Volga catching fire and soldiers burned alive. We also follow the fate of House 6/1, a building under almost continual attack by the Germans but which, somehow, manages to hold out, thereby stalling a German advance through the city. The house is under the command of Grekov, an officer who resolutely refuses to obey the rules, e.g. not filing reports and ignoring specific orders, but who is admired by his men (and one woman – the radio operator). We also follow the stories of many individuals, both the commanding officers and the ordinary men. Two of the men are linked to people in the third main plot. Krymov, a political commissar who has not risen as high in the Soviet hierarchy as he hoped, is the ex-husband of Yevgenia Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova, whose sister we will meet later on. It is he who is sent to House 6/1 to deal with Grekov, a task at which he fails. His career will take a sudden and rapid downturn. Colonel Novikov is currently engaged to Yevgenia. He is the blunt-speaking commander of a tank corps and he and his corps will play a major role in repulsing the Germans.

The other main plot concerns Viktor Shtrum, who is married to Lyudmila Nikolaevna, sister of Yevgenia and daughter of Alexandra Vladimirovna, an old style, pre-Communist populist. Viktor is a nuclear physicist and allegedly based on Grossman himself. He is liberal in his views, supports his staff, even at risk to his own career, and is a victim of anti-Semitism. His rise, fall and rise are one of the key themes of the book. Viktor represents Grossman in one other key way. He portrays the humanist viewpoint. As Grossman points out in this book, the key theme is not necessarily the fight between the Germans and the Soviet Union but the struggle between the Soviet state and the Soviet people. The characters Grossman clearly admires are those that, often with difficulty and at risk to their careers, wellbeing and, in some cases, lives, show concern for individuals, particularly those individuals who are weaker or in distress. As Grossman points out, support for humanity is a far greater imperative than support for a particular group, whether it is a political or national(ist) group.

Of course, as a Jew and both a witness to and a victim of virulent anti-Semitism, Grossman does show how the Jews suffered not just at the hands of the Germans but also at the hands of the Russians. We do see Jews sent to the gas chambers by the Germans, when they are captured by the advancing German armies (as happened to Grossman’s mother in real life). However, we also see Jews who are victims under the Soviet system, from gratuitous anti-Semitic slurs to loss of or denial of employment (as happens to some of Viktor’s Jewish colleagues) to imprisonment, deportation and death. There are considerable disputes even now as to how many deaths Stalin was responsible for as concerns Soviet citizens and even more disputes as to the exact number of Jews killed. However, there is no doubt that large numbers died and many others suffered considerable discrimination. Grossman certainly brings this to the fore but also mentions the Kalmyks, Balkars, Chechens and Crimean Tartars as some of the peoples who suffered under Stalin purely because of their race.

This is a brilliant if somewhat grim book. It is not, as some have said, quite of the stature of War and Peace, not least because it is perhaps too polemical to be a really great novel. However, as a wonderful portrayal of the Battle of Stalingrad, of the terrible things that the Soviet state under Stalin did to the Soviet people and a plea for a humanistic approach to life rather than a structured, nationalistic approach, it is clearly up there with Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago) as one of the great twentieth century Russian novels.

Publishing history

First published 1980 by L’Âge d’homme
First published 1985 in English by Collins Harvill