Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman | Book review

Phil Mongredien admires Vasily Grossman's classic novel about life under Stalin

A war correspondent for the Red Army's Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, a witness to the battle of Stalingrad and the first journalist to give an account of the Nazi extermination camps (after visiting Treblinka), Vasily Grossman was ideally placed to write arguably the greatest novel inspired by the second world war. Centring on the varying fortunes of the Shaposhnikov family, via Stalingrad and the Holocaust, Life and Fate sprawls across more than 850 pages and succeeds in portraying a remarkably broad cross-section of life in Stalin's Soviet Union.

But in among the Russian troops heroically driving the Germans out house by house, the soldiers in prisoner-of-war camps, the Jews being led to the gas chambers, and the all-pervading stench of paranoia, Grossman also gives voices to more ambiguous characters, notably Krymov, once a commissar, now banged up in the Lubyanka; Abarchuk, still loyal to the party despite being in a prison camp; and Viktor Shtrum, a physicist. Shtrum is, in fact, Grossman's alter ego: both are secular Jews who only connect with their religious background – amid growing Soviet anti-Semitism – after losing their mothers in the Holocaust. In conversations with his colleagues, Shtrum daringly questions Stalin's leadership and goes so far as to draw comparisons between his brand of communism and fascism.

With such boldly expressed heresy, it's perhaps not surprising that Life and Fate caused a stir upon its completion in 1960.The manuscript was confiscated by the KGB and party ideologist Mikhail Suslov recommended banning it for 200 years. Instead, it was smuggled to the west and published in 1980, deservedly meeting with great acclaim. Grossman, however, never got to see his masterpiece in print, having died in 1964.


Phil Mongredien

The GuardianTramp

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