Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate Review — A Stunning WWII Epic

 

In the first chapter novel, Grossman ponders:

…How could a man be unhappy outside the camp?

And from there, such striking and evocative turns-of-phrase pack the pages of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Today we’ll review his war epic, often dubbed the Soviet War and Peace

Spanning across Russia’s Eastern front, from the encircled Stalingrad to the southernmost steppes, and from there into German death camps and Russian gulags—Life and Fate is a stunning tour de force. It follows the lives of the Shaposhnikov extended family throughout Russia during the later years of World War II, as they’re torn apart by the brutality of war and senseless unpredictability of life in a totalitarian state.

Life and Fate is equal parts inspiring, moving, and devastating. It focuses on life’s ‘impossible complexity’ during a time of dizzying contradictions. Grossman asks: how could the height of rapid modernisation also be the era of such calculated inhumanity? How could the century of Einstein and Planck also be the century of Hitler? How could revolutionary progress in the fields of science, education, and technology coincide with war and the death camps—with such indescribable suffering and death?

As I read, I like to dog-ear each page that contains something gripping, inspiring, or noteworthy. Life and Fate was one of those books that I left with more of its 800-something page corners crinkled than unblemished. And that’s thanks to quotes like this:

Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come—and you don’t even know it.

One thing that always strikes me on reflection is how seamless things appear when you view them from the privilege of retrospect. Not only in my life, but looking at the totality of history too. Looking back, you see things as an object, thinking: of course things worked out the way they did—how could they’ve been different?

But as you experience time first-hand in its all-encompassing immediacy, everything seems a maelstrom—a chaotic collision of thoughts, events, anxieties. A constant series of ifs, buts, and maybes. The lens of the present is clouded, whereas the past always seems so clear. The Russians didn’t know they were going to win the war. They only knew of the unimaginable cost either way.

This novel does an incredible job of painting those feelings of uncertainty. Of breathing life into the struggle of an entire country. If you’ve ever been curious about life in Russia during WWII, here would be a great place to start.

 

A background on Russian novels and Vasily’s Grossman’s life

 

One tip for reading Russian books: don’t worry about remembering all of the names.

They have patronymic surnames that change according to gender, diminutive nicknames for each other that are often entirely different from their true name. Names like Yevgenia ‘Zhenya’ Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova. Yeah… you’re not going to remember that on the first try. But you don’t have to! You’ll remember the most important characters as you get to know them, as page by page their actions and circumstances sink freely into your memory. Don’t be put off, it’s not the big issue it might seem.

Grossman was not only an author but a journalist too. He was a reporter for the Red Army newspaper, posted at Stalingrad and various sections of the Eastern front.  He spent approximately 1,000 days on the front lines, witnessing 3-4 years of conflict and many major battles and retreats.

His work has been used as a first-hand source for historians, and even at the Nuremberg trials; there’s something here for literature and history lovers alike. After the events of Life and Fate, Grossman marched with the Red Army to Berlin and then wrote the first published article about a death camp. Quite a story.

Picture of Soviets raising a Flag over the Reichstag. Vasily Grossman saw this after the events of Life and Fate.
Raising a Flag over the Reichstag, by Yevgeny Khaldei

Grossman trudged through the eye of history’s storm—witnessing earth-shattering events in miniature and interviewing people in the cities and trenches of Russia. And then he converted it all into prose, into a gripping novel.

Life and Fate is incredible journalism and first-hand history, packaged for us readers into the novel format: frenzied Soviet retreats, the famous defence of Stalingrad, the colossal tank battles of Kursk. His prose was plastered over newspapers and played through radios across Russia, devoured by soldiers and citizens alike (while he was still in Stalin’s good books…).

It’s crazy to think that we inhabit the same world; that we inhabit the future of Grossman’s present. And our present moment is the determining past of something yet to come. Can you imagine, seeing the fluidity of history in such stark images before your very eyes? Watching as everything solid in the world melted into the air?

Grossman didn’t have to imagine. He witnessed the last World War and its atrocities as a Russian of Jewish descent. This is what I find to be the most incredible thing about Grossman’s novel: he was writing during what was perhaps the most turbulent period of social, political, and militaristic upheaval of all time—WWII. A time when nothing made sense. Fascism, purges, death, suffering, war. He lived through it, yet found the resolve to synthesise his experiences into an enduring piece of literature.

In a world where survival was a dice rolled each day, Grossman found the space to create art.

Image of Vasily Grossman, author Life and Fate, standing by a crumbling building in 1945 (black & white)
Grossman in 1945, via Wikimedia Commons.

The autobiographical aspect of the novel

 

Fiction is always autobiographical to some degree. The author always writes themselves in either consciously or subconsciously. And Life and Fate is no exception. For Grossman, though, it was very conscious. He had some stories to tell. Many of the deaths in the novel mirror deaths Grossman witnessed and grieved. 

In one instance, a grenade falls at the feet of Major Byerozkin but miraculously fails to explode. Turns out, this is something that happened to Grossman himself!

Also in the novel, the Russian-Jewish scientist Viktor Shtrum learns about the death of his mother as we read her last letter. She sends it from a Jewish ghetto in Ukraine before she was murdered by a Nazi death squad. In what is perhaps one of the most emotional excerpts I’ve ever read, she writes:

I’ve realised now that hope almost never goes together with reason… It seems that nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto… blindly rebelling against the terrible fact that we must all perish without trace.

Don’t imagine Vitenka, that your mother’s a strong woman. I’m weak. I’m afraid of pain and I’m terrified to sit down in a dentist’s chair…

After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won’t be here, we will have vanished—just as Aztecs once vanished.

Once I send [this letter] off, I will have left you for ever…

You have been my joy… I’ve remembered everything…

Well, enfin… Always be happy with those you love…

How can I finish this letter?…

Live, live, live for ever…

Mama.

Sorry—I quoted very liberally there, but I didn’t want to lose the letter’s power. I’ll give you a second to dry your eyes.

This letter, tragically, reflects the death of Grossman’s real mother. Hope wasn’t enough. What other passage could you think of to rival the poignancy, the sheer humanness in these words?

The agonising tragedy of a woman, understanding slowly, seeing her death is coming; realising that this would be her last link with her only son—and that soon she’d be gone forever. 

And through her words, she represents millions of lives lost during the war. I’ve re-read it many times.

Picture of Vasily Grossman, author of Life and Fate, with his mother
Grossman (Left) and his mother Ekaterina Savelyevna

Vasily Grossman’s writing style

 

It’s not always expressive writing that draws you in as you read Life and Fate, though. Often it moves on with the simplest of descriptions, using plain language. No, it’s the overall subject matter that makes it gripping. From life in the encircled and mostly-obliterated house 6/1, where every soldier’s breath mocks death, to the child named David’s narrative that shockingly leads into the gas chamber of Auschwitz itself.

The novel takes the reader to places almost beyond the scope of imagination.

It’s not a book you can tear through, turning pages without thinking—nor does it aim to be. It’s literature that makes you stop, empathise, and think.

How easily death annihilated people.

How hard it is to go on living.

There’s no poetry in these words stylistically, is there? It’s not like Primo Levi. No, it’s the unashamed directness, the raw truth of his words, that makes Grossman captivating. Perhaps he felt he shouldn’t plant flowery language where it didn’t need to grow. Does brutal struggle and chaos need any overwriting? As Adorno wrote, ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. *

Grossman directly addresses the difficultly of describing tragedy:

How can one convey the feelings of a man pressing his wife’s hand for the last time? How can one describe that last, quick look at a beloved face?

Isn’t it terrifying, thinking of how each life before death—each Ukrainian farmer, each child of Auschwitz, each soldier in the trenches—struggled on, endowed with the same consciousness as you and me? That everyone has their own fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams that they clung to? And then, to go on, to apply that understanding, that empathy, to the grand scale of disaster during this period—across all of life, all of history. It brings such crushing clarity to it all in a way that’s almost too much to bear.

Grossman captures this exact feeling in Sofya Levinton’s story on her journey to Auschwitz. Sitting, crammed into the back of a windowless vehicle, she…

Suddenly realised with absolute clarity that all this was really happening to her…

‘Who am I? In the end, who am I?’ Sofya Osipovna wondered. ‘The short, snotty little girl afraid of her father and grandmother? The stout hot-tempered woman with tabs of rank on her collar? Or this mangy, lice-ridden creature?

Grossman does not venture to answer such a question. Instead, he’ll drop in phrases such as:

Fascism anihilated tens of millions of people.

That’s the whole sentence, given its own line, and only tangentially linked to the text around it. The book is sombre in tone and possesses great directness; Grossman didn’t dance around what he wanted to say. What more could he say? Can anyone say?

Picture of Vasily Grossman at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1945
Grossman at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1945. Picture owned by Fedor Guber

One of the books most memorable passages finds Grossman painting a picture of a soldier in Ukraine, crawling from hut to hut, emaciated—dying. The sense of overwhelming brutality of Soviet life and the suffering of WWII is conveyed in this book is like no other I’ve read. You can viscerally feel Grossman attempting to get to grips with it himself as you turn the pages.

Just because the writing is often stark doesn’t mean it’s not vivid, though. Plainness can often be very vivid, and Grossman was skilled at writing effortlessly universal descriptions. In one scene Zhenya Shaposhnikova queues to hand over a parcel of food for ex-husband Krymov, who’s being interrogated in the Lubyanka KGB headquarters. She suddenly, beautifully, notes how a person’s back can reveal everything:

She never realised a human back could be so expressive, could so vividly reflect a person’s state of mind. People had a peculiar way of craning their necks; their backs, with their raised, tense shoulders, seemed to be crying, to be sobbing, and screaming.

Or this scene, where two Russian soldiers idle around on a field, laughing and smoking before an imminent offensive:

They were obviously close friends; you could tell from their certainty that whatever happened to one was of equal interest to the other.

Can’t you just imagine it—calling someone’s name, and seeing two heads turn rather than one, because the first is so familiar, so entangled with the second? These effortless descriptions of life that are so subtle you don’t even notice they’re universal. These frequent observations have always jumped out of me in Russian classics, and I enjoy them greatly.

 

How was the novel received?

 

Unsurprisingly, it’s a miracle that Life and Fate was ever published.

Grossman was antifascist and anti-Stalinist. His work had an almost journalistic quality, and this honesty meant that Life and Fate was confiscated by the KGB and only smuggled out to the West in 1980.

Grossman submitted the book for publishing in the Soviet Union under Krushchev, but was famously told by Politburo ideology chief Suslov that his work could ‘not be published for two or three hundred years’.

Even after being smuggled into the West, it had to be translated and wasn’t made public  until 1985—going relatively unnoticed under the shadow of writers such as Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn. Only recently is it gaining traction, with critics taking a keen interest and Penguin publishing a beautiful new cover in 2017 as part of their Vintage Classic Russians Series:

Penguin's new cover of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate
Life and Fate is growing more popular—so much so that Penguin’s recently released a new vintage publishing and Life and Fate cover, which can be bought here or the version I read here

But I’m thankful that it was published! Life and Fate is one of the most essential books of its century; it’s somehow panoramic yet minutely detailed and richly alive, all at once.

 

On Grossman’s vivd characters and journalistic approach

 

Despite the enormity of Life and Fate’s historical backdrop, it truly feels like his characters shine through.

This was likely down to his journalistic approach. He knew people from all walks of life and was able to capture incredible scale and range in the novel. He was said to have an extraordinary talent for interviewing—he didn’t take notes, just spoke to people and remembered it all.

The book reads as if Grossman took people witnessing history unfold around them—from the perspective of their own interior lives and struggles—rather than taking grand events and then populating them with characters. It’s a nuanced but key distinction, and it’s highly reminiscent of the way Tolstoy wrote such rich characters. Perhaps not quite to the same quality; Tolstoy wrote of pure realism, where his protagonists grew of their individual will, to their own ends—embodying György Lukács’ brilliant quote: ‘no writer is a true realist if he can direct the evolution of his own characters at will.’

But Grossman was not a realist writer. Life and Fate is more a historical novel that was heavily inspired by, and structured around, Tolstoyan realism—and its commitment to rich, three-dimensional characters. Grossman navigates the senselessness of his era by focusing on the interior lives of the honest, gripping people within it. And through their lives, he mirrors the smothered reflection of Stalinist Russia—trying desperately make sense of a senseless world.

In Grossman’s own words, he simply wrote the truth, and ‘wrote this truth out of love and pity for people, out of faith in people.’

In a beautiful passage in the German camp, the Russian preacher Ikonnikov lays down his tools and refuses to be a part of constructing gas chambers. He instead declares his departing realisation: that humanity’s hope lies in the ‘senseless kindness’ of everyday people.

Critics have often said that Ikonnikov’s words stand in for Grossman’s own philosophy. As you read Ikonnikov’s speech, the tone shifts. The words ring out loudly, the sentences gaining urgency—becoming alive, singing; you inch your head closer into the book, intently, to read quicker, more closely. The way Grossman writes Ikonnikov’s letter reads as a painstakingly crafted outpouring—in a soul-crying-out kind of way—suggesting that Ikonnikov acts as a mouthpiece for Grossman. Here’s what he has to say:

There is every day human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil!

The end of this letter is amazing, and I’ve saved it for this review’s imminent conclusion.

Grossman also continually stresses the importance of freedom and human uniqueness, how ‘what constitutes the freedom, the soul of an individual life, is its uniqueness’. Despite being a sombre book about one of the darkest periods in history, it’s also inspiring. One second it’ll shock you to your core. The next, it’ll fill you with a grand and warm sense of what makes us humans, well, human. He continues:

Life only becomes happiness, is only endowed with freedom and meaning when someone exists as a whole world that has never been repeated in all eternity. Only then can they experience the joy of freedom and kindess, finding in others what they have already found in themselves.

Isn’t that what we’re all searching for? To be free—to express and live a whole, unique world within our time on this earth? Yet so many had their chances snatched away.

Grossman grieves for them all, yet never loses hope in the ultimate kindness and redeemability of humanity.

Are you still with me?

Do you remember that emaciated, dying soldier we spoke about earlier? Well, people turned him away as he hobbled and crawled from hut to hut. No surprise, after Soviet collectivization in Ukraine: the horrors of Holodomor in 1932-33.

But one old, lonesome woman takes pity on the soldier. She nurses the dying Russian to health, even though she barely has enough for herself—even though it barely makes sense for her to do so.

Robert Chandler, the talented translator of my version of Life of Fate, had this to say in the foreword:

Grossman witnessed many terrible things. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most human and humane of writers. His novels are lit by brilliant flashes of humour and he shows love and understanding towards almost all his characters, Russians and Germans alike.

And he’s completely right. Life and Fate looks at ‘the forgotten people during an unforgettable time’ in Grossman’s own words. People who are pitiful, heroic, loving, or cruel—but all vividly believable. From the neurotic but sympathetic thoughts of Viktor Shtrum, to the smiling veneer that hides the evil of commissar Getmanov. There are interesting scenes written from Stalin and Hitler’s perspectives, but they are a mere few pages each. Mainly, it’s a book about people during WWII—a portrait of life in motion.

Life and Fate made me grapple with and visualise the everyday lives of those during one of the most staggering eras of history.

And to remember that history is not just history—dates, figures, arrows of troop movements on a map—it’s people’s unresolvable struggles and iron-willed commitment to survival. Within each of those lives contains a multitude; millions of individuals, each living through their own unique stories of hardship, giving up their lives—voluntarily or involuntarily. It’s so important to remember those unforgettably forgotten.

Picture of Red Army soldier in Stalingrad waving the red flag in 1943
Red Army soldier in Stalingrad 1943

To conclude

 

The book is incredibly moving. I found myself having to put it down often, gazing away into the middle distance. It intersperses grand philosophising and scientific theories while capturing the lives of everyday people during the time. And isn’t that what great, epic literature of this kind is about? Would it truly be a Russian great, if it didn’t wrestle with the meaning of life? Maybe not.

This review has gone on for a lot longer than I intended, and yet I feel that I’ve only scratched the surface. I’m finding it difficult to form any sort of conclusion on a book so grand, with such depth. But I’ll try.

Ultimately, Grossman grapples with a nonsensical and horrifying time by emphasizing the meaning of life as existing in everyday acts of kindness. It’s very Tolstoyan in that sense, but in a completely different time and circumstance—interestingly, Grossman said that the only book he could stomach reading during his time at the front was War and Peace. It must have given him not only an escape, but also the strength to keep writing and reporting.

Grossman witnessed one of the darkest and shocking periods of humanity. He captures that decaying, shrieking emptiness and the depths of despair and terror; the spiritual crisis of a country, a society, a world.

And yet, in the end, you feel inspired. It sounds twisted just writing that, after talking about all of this horror. But it’s true. Grossman found a way to inspire, without underplaying the horror of war and genocide. To enshrine individuality and freedom in a time that tried to destroy it. To find a way, somehow, for goodness—for humanity—to navigate all of the inhumanity.

I hope that I’ve done justice by this book and not misrepresented anything he tried to say.

Tragically, Grossman died in 1964, without knowing if his life’s work would ever see the light of day.

Should you read this book? Well, that’s up to you. I will say this: this book affected me as no other has before.

I’ll end this meditation on Life and Fate with the lines I promised earlier. The end of Ikonnikov’s letter, which pops up in my mind often, sporadically and without warning:

This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

Thanks for taking the time to read. If you enjoyed this literature post, be sure to check out my others here!

Endnotes:

* There’s a lot more to Adorno’s quote than the way I used it, to be honest. Adorno was talking more about how the totality of society came to produce the conditions needed for world wars and death camps. But that’s beyond the scope of this review.

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