Grossman’s Life and Fate

by Chris Bertram on October 26, 2014

The past year has been one of reading long books. Naguib Mahfouz’s *Cairo Trilogy*, *War and Peace*, and, on the back of the latter Vasily Grossman’s *Life and Fate*. I’m still digesting. Is *Life and Fate* the greatest Russian novel of the past century? I don’t know, and it seems like an invidious question. But great it certainly is. Not so much for the writing — at least in translation Grossman’s prose is, well, prosaic — but for it breadth of vision, its humanism, its psychological insight and for Grossman’s courage in facing up to inconvenient facts about human beings and his own society. Grossman, Soviet war correspondent alongside his rival Ilya Ehrenberg, one-time favoured Soviet writer, seems to have imagined the book might have managed to get published under Khruschev, as *One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich* was. What an absurd hope to have had. *Life and Fate*, was “arrested”, the typescript seized by the KGB. But Grossman had made copies which were smuggled to the West, and the book was finally published in 1980.

At the heart of the novel is Stalingrad, briefly, as he puts it, capital of the world, the focus of a great struggle between two totalitarian powers. Alongside this, and interwoven with it, are the travails of nuclear physicist Victor Shtrum and his extended family, their dealings with a capricious state, their moral dilemmas and psychological adaptations in the face of its cruelties. In the background lurks the memory of the year 1937, knocks on the door in the night and sentences of ten years “without right of correspondence”, meaning, in actuality, a bullet in the head. Right in front is the destruction of European Jews, massacres and deportations by the invading Germans and the imminence of death. And all the time the question occurs, made vivid by Grossman cutting between Soviet POWs in Germany and zeks in Siberia of whether there is any moral difference between these two regimes.

It is hard to know what Grossman’s answer to that question is, exactly. On the one hand, Stalinism and Hitlerism are members of the same species, with similar methods and organization, and similar cruelties and caprices. Grossman manages to affirm this whilst reserving a special horror for the industrialized destruction of the Jews, though even there the exceptional character of Nazism is put in doubt by the treacherous collaboration of the Ukrainian neighbours of Jewish victims and by Stalin’s own turn to Russian-chauvinism and anti-semitism. On the other hand, there is never any doubt in the novel that it is vitally important that the German invader must be beaten and repulsed, even if that redounds to Stalin’s advantage. One way of reading that commitment to victory over the Germans would be a nationalist one, and indeed there are many deliberate echoes of the Great Patriotic War over Napoleon, but there is also a rejection on Grossman’s part of Russian nationalism (and a horror at its resurfacing) and an indentification with a cosmpolitan Soviet identity (including Tatars, Jews, Ukrainian etc) *malgré tout*.

Chance, randomness, and the arbitrary choices of the powerful play a central role in the lives of the poor human beings who are trying to make a life for themselves, and they desperately interpret good news as a sign of their own election, and everybody trys to adapts to the facts of power. Shtrum himself, sidelined by a vicious anti-semitic campaign at the moment of his greatest intellectual success and disowned by his erswhile “friends” is suddenly redeemed by an intervention from on high, and gripped by a mixture of fear and relief, signs a letter of denunciation in turn. Krymov, commissar, Old Bolshevik and former Comintern agent, pathetically hanging on to his sense of identity as a communist,falls into the maw of the secret police because his estranged wife repeats a snippet of conversation to her lover who then drops it into a conversation with an apparatchik. Anything can sink you, it seems. The deserving are imprisoned or die; the undeserving get rewarded.

*Life and Fate* is a long and rambling thing with many interconnected threads, but if there is a centre to it, it is probably contained in the ramblings of Ikonnov-Morzh, a Tolstoyan Christian mystic, who is imprisoned in a German concentration camp with Mostovskoy, and Old Bolshevik. Liss, the Gestapo interrogator, plays with Mostovskoy, teasing him about the similiarities between the two totalitarian systems and then leaves him with a text written by the Tolstoyan. It is a denunciation of the pursuit of the “good” by political and scientific means as inevitably licensing cruelty and egoistic self-deception. To resist this there is nothing but an ineradicable animal kindness that rebels against such projects. Rousseauvian *pitié*, I suppose. The novel contains many instances of these minor kindnesses as the hope for something better once the tanks have gone and Stalinism has thawed. An anti-political vision, but a powerful one. If you haven’t read it, it should go on your list.



Plume 10.26.14 at 9:49 pm


As a followup, you should read The Bones of Berdichev, by John Gordon Garrard, Carol Garrard

The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman

Really excellent.


Anderson 10.27.14 at 12:19 am

Thanks for the post. Helps Grossman move up
2 notches in the Anderson Top 25 Books to Read Next poll.


Kirillov 10.27.14 at 1:12 pm

Wrote my MA on Grossman – glad to see he is finally getting the attention he deserves.


Sasha Clarkson 10.27.14 at 9:06 pm

Wow – ordered it.

It seems to have many echoes of my mother’s family’s very varied experiences. She was born and raised in Kiev of mixed Ukrainian/Russo-German parentage. Her grandfather was one of those arrested in 1937 and sentenced to ten years “without right of correspondence”. Her uncle Kolya, already in the Navy, fought and survived Stalingrad, living until December 1999. His first cousin Woldemar was in the Wehrmacht and killed at the age of 18 during the first wave of Barbarossa. Mum’s Aunt Lydia, married a Jew, joined the resistance against the Germans and was captured and shot by the SS in 1944, together with a ten-year-old war orphan she and her husband had adopted. Her husband evaded capture and survived several decades. Kolya’s first wife was Jewish too, and she also survived in Kiev until the late 1990s.

Other female members of the family became Volksdeutsche (applying for German citizenship). They weren’t Jewish, but with a name like Weinberg it seemed like a good idea. When the Germans retreated, they left too. My grandmother, a doctor, finished the war working in a hospital in Halle an der Saale. After the war these survivors, including my 17 year old mother, moved west, narrowly avoiding being compulsorily repatriated to the Soviet Union and a certain bad end. My mother was sponsored as a refugee by an English Quaker Doctor’s family, and lived with them for a year before getting a job in London as a hospital cleaner. She ended up as a teacher/lecturer. My grandmother lived in Switzerland, in a Rudolph Steiner community, for several years until she became ill with cancer. She then got permission, on compassionate grounds, to come and live with my parents for her last few months.

I have no idea what happened to my Ukrainian grandfather as my grandparents divorced in 1929 and had no further contact. My mother understood he’d remarried after the divorce and had at least one son. When we went to Kiev in the 1990s, I’d look at people in the street or on the bus and wonder whether we were related.

I’m fortunate to have letters, documents and photographs going back to the nineteenth century, including an 1869 Prussian passport “Königreich Preußen, Norddeutsche Bund”, and a bilingual contract from slightly later with the Imperial Theatre (now Marinsky) in St Petersburg belonging to my great-great grandfather. I also have a photo, taken in 1904, of my great-great-great-grandfather, one Joseph Grünfeld, born in 1816 in Mitau in the Duchy of Courland, then part of the Russian Empire, but now Jelgava in Latvia. He died in 1912.

It’s worth remembering too, that for many people WWII was the second or even third time their world had been turned upside down. In Ukraine, WWI ended with civil war as well as revolution. Many died of starvation, then or a few years later in the forced collectivisations. A snapshot of life Kiev in the civil war is given by Bulgakov’s ‘White Guard’. The Turbins were probably not unlike my grandmother’s family. My grandfather on the other hand was a Petlyura soldier of very poor peasant origin, though he later became a doctor too thanks to expanded opportunities afforded by the new Soviet order.


Zb 10.27.14 at 9:22 pm

It must have taken vast courage and toughness to imagine and write his mother’s fate in the death camps. A huge book, broad and deep.


Chris Bertram 10.27.14 at 9:55 pm

Thanks for sharing that Sasha.


Greg Koos 10.28.14 at 2:16 am

Thanks for the suggestion on,Cairo Trilogy, War and Peace, I will read it. I am very interested in contrasting it to Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy (NYRB) which presents Egypt 1942-43 from the perspective of the officials of a failing British imperial state.


Hogan 10.28.14 at 2:34 am

I read Life and Fate as a follow-up to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (he’s a fan). It helped very much to bring my emotional set back up from “we should all die horribly” to my normal “yeah, people suck,” and I will always be grateful.


Tyrone Slothrop 10.28.14 at 2:43 am

A superb book. It’s been quite some time that I read it, but two story arcs that particularly standout in the mnemonic shrine are those of the grieving mother travelling down the cold and bitter lengths of the Volga in search of her wounded son, and the Kremlin-ordained turn against the Jewish Element, which forces Viktor Shtrum into his oscillating posturings of indignant outrage at the baseless charges and humble resignation towards asking forgiveness from the suddenly hostile power aligned against him. Not penned in soaring, lyrical prose, but yet superb in its indelible delineation of the most brutal theatre of the Second World War…


Tyrone Slothrop 10.28.14 at 2:51 am

Another in that vein which is well worth reading—might perhaps even top Grossman’s epic—is Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge. The same war, the same corrupted socialist unfolding, but a more cosmic vision underlying the whole.


Doug 10.28.14 at 7:08 am

For a briefer introduction to Grossman, I can recommend A Writer at War, which collects shorter pieces and has good contextual commentary by the editors. His prosaic prose is a contrast to the inflated official rhetoric of the period.

Just as a brief addition to Sasha’s comment, people in what is now western Ukraine not only got civil war after the armistice in 1918, they got war with Poland as well.


Chris Bertram 10.28.14 at 7:27 am

Thanks for the Serge mention, Tyrone. My thoughts turned to S’il est minuit dans le siècle a few times when reading Life and Fate.


jeer9 10.28.14 at 3:13 pm

Grossman’s novel is spectacular (though hard to put above Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle or Cancer Ward) – and Mahfouz’s trilogy is pretty damn amazing as well.


Wallace Stevens 10.28.14 at 4:44 pm

I too recently read “Life and Fate,” but I have mixed feelings about it. It is an important work and one well worth reading for the light it sheds on Soviet society in that horrible time. I would highly recommend it. At the same time I did not think that its many story lines cohered that well esthetically. It is more than just a record–it has, in places, literary merit as well. But it is not the “War and Peace” that Grossman was so clearly trying to emulate. There are many beautifully rendered and compelling characters and episodes–some of which people have described above. But as a whole I found the book lacking. It is not the flat, “prosaic” prose that put me off. I liked the contrast between the restrained, subdued style and the often horrific events described. It is the lack of development of some of the characters, the arcs that never complete that I didn’t like. But still, not a book to miss by any means.

One part that I will never forget is the discussion between two Bolshevik prisoners in the gulag. One is remains a true believer, and the other is disillusioned. I don’t have the book at hand right now, so I am paraphrasing, but the essence of the discussion is as follows. The true believer chastises the other for cursing the Party: when the Party lifted you up, you supported it; now when it has cast you down, you criticize it. (The arguments are right out of the book of Job!) “But you know we are both innocent!” the other protests. The other replies that, in the context of History, the pitiless God of the Bolsheviks, what do their two lives matter? The Party may be wrong in individual cases, but “on average,” which is all that matters to History, the Party is always right.


PGD 10.28.14 at 9:17 pm

“It is more than just a record–it has, in places, literary merit as well. ”

I thought it had really significant literary merit, despite the lack of writers-workshop/MFA type ‘soaring prose’. There are numerous extremely vivid set pieces and the plot is compelling. He has a really deep, detailed knowledge of events and life on the eastern front of the war which pays off for the reader. Although it has its flaws, I’m not sure if all things considered there’s a better novel to come out of WWII — although given how many novels in other languages I haven’t read I’m probably not the best guide to that.


partisan 10.31.14 at 8:59 pm

Here is a dissent which originally appeared on

Suppressed in the early sixties, translated into English in the mid-eighties, and published under Gorbachev’s rule, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is the most famous Russian novel of the Second World war. Historians such as Richard Overy, Catherine Merridale and Robert Conquest have praised it for its realistic account of Soviet life and its courage in Stalinism. Reviewers from Italy to France to Britain praised Grossman and compared him to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

Now as Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, to be even compared to Tolstoy is no small achievement, so saying that Grossman does not meet this standard is hardly a damning criticism. Grossman, during the war a prominent journalist and later a novelists, was understandably horrified at the infinite cruelties and callousness of the Stalinist regime. That he is unsparing of the interrogations, the deportations, the tortures, the bureaucratic spite and viciousness, the way that political correctness encouraged cowardice and despair does credit to his courage. But courage is not enough, and one should beware those who believe it is a substitute for art. To say, as George Steiner, that Solzhenitsyn and Grossman “eclipse almost all that passes for serious fiction in the West today,” is unfair. These subjects are powerful and moving is true, but beside the point. How could such they not be? Grossman must do more, and ultimately he does not do it.

Grossman suffers the vices of a journalist. His writing resembles romantic magazine cliches (“His love for Marya Ivanova was the deepest truth of his soul. How could it have given birth to so many lies?”) The sententious title, all too reminiscent of War and Peace, does not help. Passages are suffused with rhetoric (“No, whatever life holds in store…they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man’s eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that every have been or will be.”) and the comments about freedom are particularly hollow. (“Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom?” “Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed.”) Behind the suppressed liberal, a middlebrow is waiting to come out.

Grossman writes at one point of how in totalitarian countries a small minority is able to bully or brainwash the rest of the country. This point has two flaws: it is a simplistic description of how modern terror works and Grossman does not bring it aesthetically to life. True, there are some stirring passages as the protagonist Viktor Shtrum finds all his colleagues at the scientific institute he works with drop away from him once he is criticized for supporting modern physics. But Grossman cannot portray the mind of an Anti-Semite or a Stalinist torturer. This failure is particularly damaging when one considers that Russian literature has no shortage of profound portraits of this sort of corrupt mindset (Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Chekhov, Tolstoy, even Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert). While it is true that Hitler was not the product of a primordial German anti-semitism, Grossman’s picture of the Holocaust where almost none of the perpetrators are actually anti-Semites, just cogs in an automatic system, is seriously misleading. (One thinks of Omer Bartov’s Hitler’s Army in contrast).

Stalinism per se seems to be a caste separate from the population. This is misleading because it does not deal sufficiently with the internalization of Stalinism among the Soviet population. Viktor Shtrum seems surprisingly calm and composed towards the Germans who murdered his mother because she was a Jew. What is really odd is that most of the rest of the Soviet characters feel the same way. On both sides there is stoicism, a sense of comradely duty, thoughts about loved ones. There is not on the German side violent racist loathing towards the enemy. Likewise, there is surprisingly little rage, indignation, heartbroken grief and anger or lust for vengeance on the Soviet side, though God knows there was no lack of provocation from the Germans. It would have been very easy, indeed one would think it unavoidable, to show reasonably decent Russians consumed with rage against the Germans. But that would complicate Grossman’s picture of evil flowing down from a totalitarian state. It also says something that the Communists never win an argument in this book. (When a Russian prisoner of Tolstoyan pacifist opinions speaks of redeeming the world with acts of spontaneous kindness, no one actually points out that a lot more is needed to stop the Nazis.)

A comparison to Aharon Appelfeld’s novels, or Gunter Grass’s The Danzig Trilogy, or This way to the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen, shows Grossman’s weakness as a writer of character. He assumes that most people are like himself. (Consider the failure in his portraits of Hitler and Stalin). And so there are endless scenes of people thinking about their loved ones, because Grossman cannot provide much more. They are endless scenes of women portrayed as the objects of men’s affections, rarely as subjects, and certainly without the depth of other writers. (One notices that in Stalingrad the German soldiers have love affairs with Russian girls. They do not rape them). Strikingly, Grossman’s characters are overwhelmingly Russian. Although the Soviet Union was a multinational state, other nationalities are usually only mentioned as reminders of Soviet persecution. In the end one is reminded that whereas Dostoyevsky could convince a reader that it is just and humane for Dimitri Karamazov to suffer the punishment for a murder that was actually committed by someone else, Vasily Grossman is unable to bring many of his liberal good wishes to life.


Ze Kraggash 10.31.14 at 10:26 pm

Yeah, as I remember, Grossman is definitely lacking je ne sais quoi. Stylistically, standard socrealism.


Sasha Clarkson 11.01.14 at 11:43 am

“The Party may be wrong in individual cases, but “on average,” which is all that matters to History, the Party is always right.”

This has echoes of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon”; the main protagonist, Rubashov, was inspired by Bukharin, whose trial, together with the other “Trotskyite-rightist-deviationists” is described in Fitzroy Maclean’s wonderful autobiographical epic “Eastern Approaches”. As a British diplomat, Maclean was an official witness and, like Koestler, attempted to understand the psychology of the defendants. The comparison with Job is very apt in some cases, though others had guilty secrets which were used to blackmail cooperation with the show-trial.

Maclean’s book is well worth reading for its breadth as well as depth.

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