The author of “Life and Fate,” Vasily Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew, was a correspondent for the Soviet military paper Krasnaya Zvezda throughout World War II. He spent approximately 1,000 days on the frontlines, roughly three of the four years of the conflict between the Germans and Soviets. He was one of the first journalists to write about the ethnic cleansing of people in Eastern Europe and he was present at many famous battles as well as at the liberation of Treblinka. Life and Fate was his defining achievement.
Life and Fate, twas written in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. Grossman submitted it around October 1960 for potential publication to the Znamya magazine. At this point, the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies and notebooks, as well as the typists’ copies and even the typewriter ribbon were seized.
“Interweaving a transfixing account of the battle of Stalingrad with the story of a single middle-class family, the Shaposhnikovs, scattered by fortune from Germany to Siberia, Vasily Grossman fashions an immense, intricately detailed tapestry depicting a time of almost unimaginable horror and even stranger hope.
Life and Fate juxtaposes bedrooms and snipers’ nests, scientific laboratories and the Gulag, taking us deep into the hearts and minds of characters ranging from a boy on his way to the gas chambers to Hitler and Stalin themselves.
This novel of unsparing realism and visionary moral intensity is one of the supreme achievements of modern Russian literature.”
On 23 July 1962, the Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov told the author that, if published, his book could inflict even greater harm to the Soviet Union than Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Suslov told Grossman that his novel could not be published for two or three hundred years. ]Suslov’s comment reveals a recognition of the work’s lasting literary value. Grossman tried to appeal against this verdict to Khrushchev personally, to no avail.
In 1974, a friend and a prominent poet Semyon Lipkin got one of the surviving copies put onto microfilm and smuggled it out of the country with the help of nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. Grossman died in 1964, never having seen his book published, which did not happen in the West until 1980.
As the policy of glasnost was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the novel was finally published on Russian soil in 1988.
Some critics have compared Grossman’s war novels, and specifically Life and Fate, with Leo Tolstoy’s monumental work War and Peace.
Chapter 42 of Life and Fate
Sometimes deep in his heart, Anton Khmelkov was appalled by his work. As he lay down in the evening and listened to Trofima Zhuchenko’s laughter, he would be overcome by a cold, heavy fear.
It was Zhuchenko’s job to close the hermetically sealed doors of the gas chamber.
His large strong hands and fingers always looked as though they hadn’t been washed. Khmelkov didn’t even like to take a piece of bread from the same basket as Zhuchenko.
Zhuchenko looked happy and excited as he went out to work in the morning and waited for the column of prisoners from the railway line. But the slow progress of the column seemed to incense him; he would twitch his jaws and make a thin, complaining sound in his throat – like a cat watching sparrows from behind a pane of glass.
Khmelkov found Zhuchenko very disturbing. Not that he himself was above having a few drinks and then going off with one of the women in the queue. There was a little door through which members of the special unit could go into the changing room and pick out a woman.
A man’ s a man after all.
Khmelknov would choose a woman or a girl, take her off to an empty corner, and half an hour later hand her back to the guard. Neither he nor the woman would say anything. Still, he wasn’t in this job for the wine or the women, for gabardine riding breeches or box-calf boots.
Khmelkov had been taken prisoner in uly 1941. He had been beaten over the head and neck with a rifle-butt, he had suffered from dysentery, he had been forced to march through the snow in tattered boots, he had drunk yellow water tainted with fuel oil, he had torn hunks of black, stinking meat from the carcass of a horse, he had eaten potato peelings and rotten swedes.
All he had asked for, all he had wanted, was life itself. He had fought off dozens of deaths – from cold, from hunger, from bloody flux…..he didn’t want to fall to the ground with nine grams of metal in his skull . He didn’t want to swell up till his heart choked in the water rising from his legs.
He wasn’t a criminal – just a hairdresser from the town of Kerchi. No one – neither his relatives, his neighbors, his fellow workers or the friends with whom he drank wine, ate smoked millet and played dominoes had ever thought badly of him.
There was a time when he thought he had nothing whatever in common with Zhuchenko; now though he sometimes thought that the differences between them were insignificant and trifling. What did it matter what the two of them felt? If the job they did was the same, what did it matter if one felt happy and the other felt sad?
What Khmelkov didn’t understand was that it wasn’t Zhuchenko’s greater guilt that made him so disturbing. What was disturbing was that Zhuchenko’s behavior could be explained by some terrible innate depravity – whereas he himself was still a human being. And he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under Fascism, there is an easier option.
“Life and Fate is a daunting undertaking, but for those who finish it the experience is profound. Few novels that set out to change the world succeed; this one merely changed me. By the end of the novel, what you are left with out of the debris of Soviet communism is something so banal it could be written on a greetings card: the individual, often random act of kindness – an old woman who picks up a stone to hurl at a captured German soldier and, for reasons she will never understand, replaces it with a piece of bread. In one brief moment a soldier thoughtfully removes a louse from his girl’s army jacket before kissing her.
For if in the horror of war, you can alleviate suffering through some extraordinary action (volunteering to go to the gas chamber to hold the hand of a child so he won’t have to die alone), how easy might it be to behave with less anger, cynicism, irritation or sneery dismissiveness”?