Life and Fate

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Vasily Grossman died of cancer in the Soviet Union in 1964. His novel Life and Fate was composed over a period of ten years, from 1950 to 1960, and is his most ambitious work, but was never published during his lifetime. At the height of the “thaw”—the period of partial de-Stalinization under Nikita Khrushchev—Grossman took his thick manuscript to Vadim Kozhevnikov, editor in chief of the review Znamia (banner), which in the past had published much of his work. For some time nothing was heard from the editorial board; indeed, the board had taken it upon itself to send the manuscript directly to the Lubyanka Prison. (Ironically, the Lubyanka is the setting for some of the events in the second half of the novel.) Grossman’s apartment was visited by the police; it was thoroughly searched for every carbon copy, handwritten script, notes, even old typewriter ribbons. Everything was confiscated. Grossman sought an explanation from the Central Committee, still hoping that the manuscript would be returned. He finally met with one of the committee’s members, the ideologist and theoretician Mikhail Suslov, who told him: “We are not about to discuss with you whether the October Revolution was a good thing. As to your book, it could not be published for three hundred years.” Until his death, Grossman continued to revise sections of the book in his mind, even though he no longer possessed a single page. Indeed, at the time of his death he thought the manuscript was lost forever.

Two microfilms of the text, however, were smuggled from the Lubyanka archives. How this was done is not known—photographing the manuscript would have been a very lengthy process. While Grossman was alive, the KGB certainly wanted to keep evidence that could incriminate or justify the arrest of a famous living author. With Grossman dead, however, the events become less clear. When the dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, he managed to bring the microfilm of the manuscript with him. The Russian text was first published in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1980.

Life and Fate describes in a panoramic manner many of the layers of Soviet society and directly confronts some of its major problems: the prison camps, the lack of individual freedoms and civil rights, the important role of race in that society, the crucial political changes after World War II ended, the evolving ideological role of the 1917 Revolution, and the outlook for the future. The destructive nature of the Soviet past is touched upon, especially the death of millions of peasants during the period of collectivization (this was called the “liquidation of the kulaks,” but kulak was a euphemism for peasant) and the purges that reached their climax in 1937. The totalitarian nature of Soviet society is explored, although not at length; also the key analogy between Germany under National Socialism and the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin is debated. Russians and Germans are presented as “two poles of one magnet”: a character even mentions the historical fact that Stalin’s purges of the 1930’s were carried out in imitation of the earlier Nazi purges, organized by Ernst Röhm, the Sturmabteilung, or SA, leader.

These themes would be enough to make the novel one of the more interesting Soviet products of the postwar period, even though they are not treated in depth and the author’s position often remains ambiguous. All the themes are developed more forcefully by writers properly called dissidents, such as Vladimir Bukovski, Andrei Amalrik, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, or A. V. Antonov-Ovseyenko, or by writers in other Eastern European countries who would use Grossman’s conclusions only as a starting point, for example Leszek Koakowski. There are, however, two other themes, treated in real depth, which represent the greatest strength of Grossman’s novel. First, there is a convincing, highly interesting exploration of the character traits of those who conform and manage to rise to positions of power within the Party hierarchy. Grossman is especially good at describing the numerous political commissars in the book who fought alongside (or behind) the officers of the Red Army and ensured morale as well as correct political thinking among the troops. The portrait of the commissar Getmanov is a minor masterpiece, a three-dimensional incarnation of hypocrisy that ranks with Molière’s Tartuffe.

Second, the novel explores the real meaning—as opposed to the myth—of Stalingrad, and of the Soviet victory as a whole. Grossman had already written a rather conventional novel about the victory at Stalingrad, Za pravoye delo (1952); it was a best-seller, and Life and Fate was to be the second part of a dyptich. It was hoped that it would also be a success, profiting from the new opportunities for publication opened by the twenty-second Party Congress in 1961 and by the example of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962 with Khrushchev’s personal blessing. Grossman knew the battle of Stalingrad well. He had been a war correspondent and had filed many dispatches from near the city during the crucial weeks of the fighting. According to...

(The entire section is 2139 words.)