A Russian Classic: “Life and Fate,” by Vasily Grossman

Vasily Grossman’s brilliant novel, Life and Fate, is in many ways a twentieth-century homage to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Set during World War II, it has a cast of hundreds of characters, who suffer the perils of war and fascism, whether they are civilians or in the military.  Some characters quote Tolstoy and discuss his philosophical teachings.  Another finds War and Peace so vibrant that he is convinced Tolstoy took part in the Napoleonic wars, though Tolstoy was not yet born then.  Grossman deftly moves from scenes of civilian life to military life.

This robust, well-written novel moves very fast, but it can be disturbing.  Grossman explicitly describes the atrocities of 1940s warfare, where all is confusion: a  man is shot, then buried under loose soil because the  ground is frozen, then gets out of the grave and shows up back at the barracks, looking like death:  he dies.  Then there are problems with some of the military officers:  bureaucrats with no military experience are assigned to high office and responsible for many deaths, because they think it is glorious to move the troops forward, though waiting a few hours would save hundreds of Russian lives.

Perhaps my favorite character is Colonel Novikov, the bright, thoughtful, quick-tempered commanding officer of a tank corps. After the Russians win the battle of Stalingrad, he argues with Getmanov, a bureaucrat and Stalinist spy who has been appointed commissar.  In their contretemps, Getmanov urges Novikov to command the troops to go forward, so they will be the first on Ukrainian soil.  Novikov finally shouts that he, not Getmenov, is in charge, and that his men have not slept in 70 hours. They will have a 10-hour break before they leave.  

Vasily Grossman, a war correspondent and a chronicler of Russian lives, grimly describes the the details of life under the Stalinist regime.  There are the constant denunciations, which, however trivial, end in the torture and often the murder of those denounced. There is the dehumanization of men and women in Russian camps, which are policed by the prisoners themselves, often by criminals, who agree to build gas chambers for extra rations, and kill anyone who refuses.   Then  there are the civilians who often live in a single small room in an apartment and slowly starve because they cannot afford to buy food, while another family in the next room has plenty.  Only a few still have their own apartment and a dacha, though those can be taken away at any time.

Grossman is especially effective in illustrating his humanity to struggling mankind. He movingly compares the fascist regime to an electronic machine which “can carry out mathematical calculations, remember historical facts, play chess and translate books from one language to another.”  The machine of the future will do these things better than man, and go on to appreciate music and compose poetry, he speculates.

Can it be compared to man?  Will it surpass him?

Childhood memories… tears of happiness… the bitterness of parting… love of freedom… feelings of pity for a sick puppy…  nervousness… a mother’s tenderness… thoughts of death… sadness… friendship… love of the weak… sudden hope… a fortunate guess… melancholy… unreasoning joy… sudden embarrassment…

The machine will be able to create all of these things.  But the surface of the whole earth will be too small to accommodate this machine – this machine whose dimensions and weight will slowly increase as it attempts to reproduce the peculiarities and soul of an average, inconspicuous human being. 

Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.

Alas! Is it here?

Life and Fate was finished in 1960, but confiscated by the KBG.  Fortunately, Grossman had two other copies.  The book was finally published in 1980, 16 years after Grossman’s death.  The brilliant English translation by Robert Chandler has been published by Vintage classics, NYRB Classics, and Everyman’s Library.  

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