I have been studying Russian history lately, and had been running into regular references to a novel titled Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman. It is thought of, and evidently, the author thought of it, as a sort of Tolstoy War and Peace describing life in Russia during the battle of Stalingrad. It centers about a scientist Viktor, his family, and their connections through love or marriage to other communities. I was a bit reticent since I mostly read nonfiction now, but as a kind of break, I decided to give it a chance.
It was when I read
“Then something new entered Krymov's consciousness: he dreamed he was lying in a room with closed blinds, watching a patch of morning sunlight on the wallpaper. This patch crept to the edge of the mirror and then expanded into a rainbow. The boy's heart trembled; the man with greying temples, the man with a heavy pistol hanging at his waist, opened his eyes and looked round.”
that I knew I had a winner.
Grossman takes you into inside views of Russian prisoners of war in German prisons, scientists and their families trying to keep their world together, inside a Russian fighter squadron, the military commanders Yeremenko, Chuykov and Novikov along with intimate views of the lives of soldiers and citizens during this very challenging time. You get to experience an interrogation in the Lubyanka prison, and get to spend time in Pavlov’s house 6/1 with Pavlov’s bunch, including a glimpse of the sniper Zaytsev. And being inside these individual minds you get to hear accounts of their philosophies.
Grossman’s personal story is interesting and relevant. He was a well known author and journalist and worked for the Red Star, experiencing the battle of Stalingrad and the battle of Berlin and evidently was one of the first to document what the Russians discovered in the way of concentration camps as they drove the Germans west.
His first “War and Peace” was titled For a Just Cause and it was written while Stalin was alive in the Soviet realism style, and it towed the party line. But after Stalin died and Kruschev was facilitating a departure from those older ways, Grossman thought that Russia might be ready for a more realistic view of what life was like under the Bolsheviks during the war. Indeed, you get a very powerful impression of what Bolshevik beaurocracy and politics is like. For example, there is one group of scientists that claim that Viktor’s recent discovery cannot be correct because it violates Lenin’s view of the physical world. It appears he was wrong for after he submitted a preliminary manuscript for publication some agents came to his home and confiscated every piece of paper in the place. Grossman died in 1964 poor and never knowing if his book would ever see the light of day, but evidently in the 70s someone smuggled out a microfiche copy of many parts of the manuscript(s). These were then assembled by the translator Chandler and used to complete a translation. According to the translator, what sets this account apart from other dissident voices of Soviet Russia is that this was from an insider. Very little of the book has to do with being Jewish.
Nevertheless there is a very touching letter from Viktor’s mother in a German concentration camp essentially telling him good bye; that she will certainly die soon. Evidently, this is autobigraphical in that it actually happened to Grossman.
This Soviet realist style is new to me but I found it quite pleasant and many times very beautiful and often funny. For example:
““There is one good method, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel. Snuff! You grind up a brick, mix it with snuff and sprinkle it on your underwear. The lice begin sneezing. That makes them jump – and then they bash their heads in against the brick.'
The captain kept such a straight face that it took Darensky some time to realize this was a joke.
During the next few days, he heard at least a dozen stories in a similar vein. The folklore of lice was evidently a rich field of study.”
But for me the most impressive aspect of this work is his portrait of the humans involved.
Being a scientist myself, I found the accounts of the scientist Viktor’s life quite real and plausible. In particular, the simultaneous existence of extremely high intellectual standards with sometimes personal pettiness. But the story of when Viktor says the wrong thing once and his whole life appears to be destroyed, except some miracle of a phone call from Stalin saves him and his life returns to normal. Only then later, there is another side of this same Bolshevik tyranny coin that comes with devastating effect. I wont spell it out but I found it quite universal and powerful.
There is a remarkable scene in the world of Novikov, the Russian tank corps commander, who was to enter the breach that the artillery created when the Soviets began their attempt to encircle, and thus cut off from supplies, Paulus’ 6th Army to the west of Stalingrad. This push was evidently seen as a do or die for the Soviet state against Hitler and Stalin was paying very close attention. It was a turning point in his life and the life of the Soviet state.
The day before the assault you get to experience Novikov listening in on two young Russian soldiers laying on the ground talking about their girfriends with their caps over their faces, kind of like listening to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn by a fishing hole, except here you can feel the very real expectation that tomorrow they may not be alive.
The morning of, you then experience him having his breakfast and going through normal matters all the while feeling that this the most important day in this mans life.
Grossman narrates the effect on the world of an artillery barrage of that size on the mice, on the hawks, on the men, in particular observing the hare chasing the fox. Evidently Novikov held off for 4 minutes after he was supposed to send his tanks in and during this time you can read what is going on in his mind: a kind of dreamworld with his father, his mother, his love, his Russia, his Stalin, Hitler, his ancestors, his soldiers, his legacy….. You can feel people thinking “lost your nerve eh?”
But then Stalin gets on the horn to Yeremenko, the commander at Stalingrad, and says “where the ****** are my tanks?” and so then Yeremenko rings up Novikov and Novikov gives his reasons. Yeremenko tells him to get right to it. So Novikov hangs up the phone and waits another 4 minutes. When he feels the moment is right and the artillery have done their damage he rings up his commander and yells “Beylov, attack!” . And so it is on. Evidently they were successful and suffered few casualties. It was the turning point of the war. He stands there for an extra 4 minutes! Nerves of steel is all I can think.
Finally, this was a truly unique reading/transport experience for me which I both enjoyed and benefited very much from. My only criticism is that it is a bit uneven at times, but given the way it was put together and compared to its other very appealing aspects I think it is nothing.
If you like history and humans I strongly recommend the experience of reading this book. Im pretty sure you wont regret it. I am still reeling from it.