Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1980)

Last year I decided not to read Russian authors. I had good reasons, and not just anti-Russian ones, the biggest was to concentrate on Ukrainian perspective, not only on the present conflict, but on history and culture as well. It went beyond that. I also read up on Ukrainian perspective on Polish history, although admittedly I was moving in that direction for years. I’m just not a Polish nationalist I was in my early teens. Then I deepened my perspective in another direction as well, and thanks to Twitter! Mixed within discussions there, discussions on Russian colonialism and Russian attempts to subjugate Ukraine not only on political level, but to negate the existence of Ukrainians as a nation with distinct culture, are voices of other victims or Russian imperialism. The ones that caught my attention the most are from Caucasus, and increasingly from Central Asia, from all the “-stans” I’m ashamed to admit I know very little about. Big slaughters of indigenous peoples that somehow are rarely mentioned by vocal anti-imperialists around the world, cultural genocides, brutal policy of destroying all things local and enforcing those coming from the Moscovite centre. There was a genocide of Qazaqs that killed even bigger part of that nation that Holodomor killed of Ukrainians, and it happened a few years earlier. And many genocides before, in Tsarist times. The current war gives strength to many people all around to remember that, and to move away from russkiy mir. One of the great symbols might be Yurts of Invincibility funded by Qazaqs in Ukraine, and the fact that Qazaqstan moves away from the Cyrillic alphabet and is going to start to use the Latin one. It took decades after the fall of the Soviet Empire, and favourable geopolitical situation, to move beyond simply drawing the borders, now the post-Soviet world wants to de-russify. That’s hugely important and must be supported.

Not an easy thing to do when most of the Western people that know anything about these parts of the world learn about them through Russian perspective. Russian books, visits to Moscow and Saint-Petersburg… and even if they see the brutality and injustice, they are often unable to see that it’s not something internal to an essentially Russian world (with some regional differences), but a colonial, imperial endeavour of the biggest old-style empire left. One great, self-aware text about that from an American specializing in Russian lit I found recently in The New Yorker, by Elif Batuman.

In short, if you’re capable of understanding that Ireland, and even Scotland – aren’t England, please understand that Russia is not as big as its borders might suggest, and definitely have no justification for further expansion.

But that’s too long and I haven’t even started my introduction to the book of the day. I give you:

Author: Vasily Grossman
Title: Life and Fate
Pages: 912

Watch a 4-minute introduction by Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, they did an 8-hour audio dramatisation for BBC a decade ago…

Nice, and shows how important the book is to draw such high-profile artists. But notice how Branagh speaks about Russia/Russians clearly missing what is so visible in the book (maybe he only read the abridged version they prepared for the show ;)? ) – that it’s not just the Russians. Tsarist Empire, Soviet Union and the Russian Federation are the prisons of many nations, and one of these nations stands above the others. To forget that is a huge faux pas. Just the other today I listened on the Times Radio to a high ranking British official, very pro-Ukrainian, who mentioned how Russians lost 27 millions people in World War II. They did not, that’s the point. 20 to 27 million Soviet subjects died, perhaps around half of that Russian. As a percentage of population, Belarus was hit the most, Ukraine in the second place. Stop with the Russo-centric view!

So why I read this book now, when I bought it over 10 years ago and I wasn’t supposed to read any Russians during the war? To begin with, author isn’t a typical Russian. From Jewish family, born in Ukraine, and his Jewishness (in a specific, Russo-Jewish cultural sense, he wasn’t religious) shows in the book, allowing him to see the typical Russian chauvinism that was there even during Stalin years.

I actually think this might be something any modern communist should read. Written by a staunch anti-nazi who actually was in Stalingrad and isn’t a conservative nationalist, like Solzhenitsyn. And the biggest theme that appears delicately early in the novel, to sound louder and louder and dominate its message is the parallel character of the two big XX century totalitarianisms. Two parties, with their all-encompassing ideologies, their brutality targeted both inside and outside of their borders.

Nationalism isn’t a characteristic Grossman assigns solely to Germans. Among Soviet characters we have Jews, Tatars, Kalmyks and they are by no means equally treated by the increasingly Russian Soviet Union. There was anti-Semitism there, a lot of it, and first signs of the after-war wave of persecutions can be seen in the novel. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, true, but that did not stop Stalin from launching anti-Semitic campaign soon after.

The novel itself is a solid epic, offering multiple points of view, mostly from the Soviet side, but also German, several interwoven stories of fight and civilian life on both sides of the front, including occupation and Shoah. Grossman’s mother was killed by the Germans in one of the countless massacres and it’s believed he felt guilty for not being able to evacuate her. This makes chapters dedicated to the genocide of the Jews even more powerful and heartbreaking.

I believe you all know who won the battle of Stalingrad. Here we have some of the best descriptions of how it looked, for soldiers, commanders and civilians hiding in the cellars. Roaring guns, diving bombers, heroism, cowardice and dirt. It’s good and would make it an interesting read, but that’s not all the novel is. A thorough depiction of all the classes of a very hierarchical Soviet society, some insight into Germans under the Nazi regime, that in turn was not fully conservative, but in some ways also revolutionary. This face of the regime isn’t as often discussed, but it’s quite well researched, some long-blocked social changes happened under Hitler during his short reign.

Life and Fate is an interesting point of view, from someone from the Soviet side of the wall seeing the similarities and differences. That is why I think this 1986 Harper Collins cover is the best:

A German helmet and a Soviet one, between them a cage, in it a lonely human being. That’s Central and Eastern Europe of the 30-ties and 40-ties!

I would have to spend a long time talking about the characters and plot points, so I’ll just assure you they are many and varied, epic history and personal stories, hate, love, life, death… details about Soviet life you might not be familiar with, if you’re not from around here, and such a broad, deep view on the eastern part of the war. It will serve you better than some dry history of army movements and stats and it instantly became one of my favourite books about the Second World War!

The last interesting thing is, the other amazing book I read lately is also about the Second World War, but a non-fiction written from a totally different perspective. Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte, an Italian upper-class war correspondent with access to high level Nazi officials… at the same time an oppositionist at heart, and a superb writer. But that is another story, and probably not my next review, I need to explore other topics 😉

14 thoughts on “Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate (1980)

    1. piotrek

      Thanks :⁠-⁠) There are some fighters in this book just as badass as any Space Marine, and some ironic commissars also ;⁠-⁠) And yesterday’s trip Biden made to Kyiv was quite heroic also, I’d say our side if the world is where the interesting things happen right now!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. 40K borrowed a lot from current and events of yesteryear… would not be surprised if commissars were modeled after certain EU regiments. I am a bit out of touch with world news at the moment, its not doing well for my skin at this point

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ll have to give it a try. Not sure if I started it years ago (a copy borrowed from you, btw – and I did return it! ;)) or whether I’m remebering a different book alltogether. I’m pretty certain I’d be very satisfied after finishing it, but I imagine it would take me a while to get through those nearly 1000 pages. One day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      It’s definitely not a modern, quick read… it’s a solid, multi-layered novel. You already know the context, regional and historical, I think it would be most rewarding to someone not from Eastern Europe who wants to know more about the real Soviet Union and the war from eastern perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your stance is very discriminatory. What Russian authors who lived hundreds of years ago got to do with the present war? Has Pushkin started the war or Tolstoy supplied the tanks? You don’t read Russian authors now because of anti-Russian stance! Ooops!!!, you read and liked my post – unfollow me and don’t read and like MY blog posts by all means because, you know what?, I AM Russian. It is on my About Page. I don’t care if you delete this comment either.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Why would I delete the comment? It’s part of discussion, and you ask some valid questions, although ones I believe I addressed in several posts on the issue.

      I don’t condemn every living Russian just for being Russian. I condemn Russian imperialism, and colonialism, in all its aspects and I choose to look at it from victims’ perspective. That means listening to Central Asians, Ukrainians and others, before their oppressors. And admitting, that the current war is not just about Putin, but some very worrying aspects of the Russian culture.

      I follow Maksym Eristavi on social media, and he linked an interesting text on the issue just today: , this is what I’m talking about. I also read multiple accounts from people from countries that gained independence after the fall of Soviet Union, how they discovered their roots, move away from Russian language and culture to appreciate their heritage.

      So, after the first wave of anger at the latest Russian invasion subsided, I decided that total boycott isn’t the way, but that I need to change the proportions. Russian authors are already famous, partially because of the sheer size of your country and its influence on history. Literary canon is in parts politics, sadly. I just want to learn more about the others and their perspective. But I might read some Sorokin in the near future.

      One author I used to respect is Wiktor Jerofiejew. He’s definitely anti-Putin and left Russia soon after this phase of the war against Ukraine started. I read an interview with him soon after that. And he was so concentrated on his own suffering, outraged Finnish border guards had him wait at the border crossing more than at the war his nation started. And in such a moment agreeing with Dostoyevsky that the West is decadent and destined to fall… wow. That, and many other voices from Russian opposition, convinced me it’s much more than just the ruling clique.

      Liked by 1 person

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