Perhaps it is inevitable that Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman has been compared to Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. There are obvious parallels. Tolstoy wrote a lengthy book on the unsuccessful Napoleonic invasion of Russia, while Grossman wrote a lengthy book on the unsuccessful Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Both works also deal with central philosophical issues, especially causality and meaning of history and man’s freedom, or lack of it. Both authors also clustered their numerous characters around a central family. But these obvious parallels are not enough to pronounce, as some have done, that Grossman is a “Soviet Tolstoy” and his epic “the great Russian novel of the twentieth century.” Besides, even the most laudatory critics have not proclaimed Life and Fate “the greatest novel ever written.” John Galsworthy, E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, and others have used such superlatives to describe War and Peace. Nonetheless, Life and Fate surely is a good historical novel, and perhaps a great one. It also must be seen as a courageous witness to the ugly similarities of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism.

The setting for the action of Life and Fate is late 1942 and the spring of 1943. The focus is Stalingrad, although Siberia, Moscow, a German POW camp, and the German front are woven into the setting as well. Grossman does not focus on Stalin and Hitler and the key generals of the Stalingrad siege. Instead, he’s concerned with a tank commander, a scientist, a commissar, and a variety of other seemingly lesser mortals. Tolstoy sought to debunk the “great man” theory of history and the idea that writers, whom he called “scribblers,” determine history. He focused on Napoleon, leader of France and the French army, and General Kutuzov, the apparently bungling military leader who used to fall asleep during key staff meetings, but who knew his limits and rallied his army to victory.

Tolstoy’s sense of scale was greater than Grossman’s. War and Peace spans events from 1805 to 1812. Although Napoleon’s attack on Moscow was in many respects successful, as the city was burnt to the ground and the Russian army retreated, it is not Moscow that is the focus of Tolstoy’s piece. Rather, it is the whole process of conflict between the armies, from the Battle of Austerlitz, to Borodino, to the series of skirmishes after the pillage of Moscow that all led to the French retreat. Indeed, Tolstoy goes out of his way to belittle the idea that there was one decisive battle. He points instead to the will of the Russians and their army to destroy their own cities, or let the French do it, rather than let the French defeat them. He also shows that the Russian army, after retreating four months across the breadth of European Russia, simply refused to capitulate.

In Stalingrad it seems the situation was different. Stalin drew a line before the city with his name and ordered that it be held at all costs. The battle seemed decisive when the Soviets persevered and mounted their effective counterattack and encircled the Sixth Army of Field Marshall von Paulus. And yet, what actually happened is not too clear, despite all the ensuing propaganda.

One of the interesting characters in Life and Fate that illustrates the falsehood of the accepted Soviet view of Stalingrad is Captain Grekov. He holds Stalin and the Communist Party in utter contempt. He defends a key house, virtually surrounded by the Germans. In this oasis of freedom, cut off from political commissars, Captain Grekov, without the trappings of rank, wages effective warfare against the invaders. Stalin’s order means nothing to him and his men, who simply fight to defend Russia.

Grossman’s battle descriptions are excellent. He served in World War II as a correspondent and spent much time at the front. He knows his subject and was, perhaps after Ilya Ehrenburg, the best-known journalist in the Soviet Union in the war years. Tolstoy, on the other hand, wrote War and Peace after having served as an officer in the early 1850’s in campaigns in the Caucasus and in the Crimean War of 1854-1856. Therefore, his battle scenes are every bit as good as Grossman’s, while his grasp of the overall conduct of war and of the disposition of troops is far superior.

One of the central characters of Life and Fate is a theoretical nuclear physicist, Victor Shtruni. Shtrum is Jewish and has little regard for Marxist- Stalinist thought as the key to new discoveries in physics. During a wave of anti-Semitism, he is harshly judged by his colleagues and appears destined for arrest, just after a major scientific breakthrough. How could his coworkers honor a man whose physics is politically unacceptable? After all, Shtrum even admires Einstein! Then comes, out of the blue, a solicitous call from Stalin. This changes the attitude of his peers, as well as his own disposition towards the leader whom he had previously loathed. It is a very interesting rendering of the tensions that affect scientists and other intellectuals in the Soviet system. Without good science, the war machine and the economy die. Political leaders, most of all, cannot do without science and its sturdy son, technology.

Grossman had his own experience to draw upon in describing this tension between intellectual rigor and political conformity. In fact, Stalin’s death in 1953 precluded a possible trip to Siberia for Grossman himself, a Jew who fell into disrepute as anti-Semitism became rampant in the USSR. It should be noted that all copies of Life and Fate were confiscated by the KGB in 1961, after the manuscript was submitted for publication. How the microfilm of the manuscript reached the West in the late 1970’s is not clear, although the exiled writer Vladimir Voinovich played a major role in this apparent breach of security.

Another important character in Grossman’s epic is Sofya Levington. She is a Soviet Jewish doctor in a German camp in occupied territory. From her we learn the thoughts and feelings of an educated woman as she is rounded up and eventually herded naked into the gas chamber with other men, women, and children. This was the fate of Grossman’s own mother. He was with the Russian troops when they saw the death camps and filed the first reports of that aspect of hell. His portrait of Sofya Levington and her fate is rich in detail and emotion. Stalin’s outright anti-Semitism, which becomes publicly evident in the postwar years, is examined by Grossman as far back as 1942-43, illustrating the basic similarity of the two totalitarianisms.

Grossman’s characters, however, are not as hfehke as Tolstoy’s. Count Bezukhov, Prince Andrew Bolkonski, Dolokhov, “the beautiful Helena,” and all the others, even very minor characters, are so real that we want to know what happened to them after the events covered by the story. Tolstoy tries to satisfy this desire with two epilogues, but we still want to know more. This cannot be said of Grossman’s characters.

And what of Grossman’s philosophy? He believes in freedom and kindness. Evil is often brought about by persons who believe in their ideas of good. So Stalin and the Communists, and Hitler and the Nazis, each according to their notions of good, inflict their concepts on the world. Grossman also attacks religions as being guilty of the same fault. In this, he distinguishes between the founders of religions and their institutional descendants. For him, good is typified by irrational and spontaneous acts of kindness. Grossman dramatically illustrates this belief with a vivid scene in which a Russian woman offers a cup to a defeated German soldier surrounded by angry Russian citizens in their destroyed neighborhood.

Tolstoy, for his part, reveals his philosophy of history in greater detail in War and Peace. It is a combination of Christian mysticism and fatalism which has more depth and texture than the ideas of Grossman. Grossman himself is conscious of Tolstoy’s vision to which he refers throughout the book. Indeed, the character Ikonnikov, who plays the Russian fool in a German concentration camp, typifies much of Tolstoy’s thinking. Grossman’s perspective, nonetheless, is more social and less historical and mystic than Tolstoy’s. Given the era in which he lived and his experience, perhaps this more modest and down-to-earth view is to be expected.

Life and Fate is not as overpowering as War and Peace and does not overshadow Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, and others. Nonetheless, it is a significant work which helps us to understand the experiences of those who lived in the Soviet Union during and after World War II.


[Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman; New York: Harper & Row]