top of page
  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Philosophical Themes From Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate


Introduction - The Arrest of Life and Fate

Soviet writer Vasily Grossman should have known that the dreaded knock on his door was coming. The manuscript for his sprawling 900-page novel Life and Fate had landed on the censors’ desk, and they were not happy. As a famous Red Army war correspondent, he was expected to concoct a rousing patriotic novel that glorified Stalin, the Party, and the brave soldiers who fought heroically against Hitler's minions. His earlier book, For a Just Cause (1952), was heavily censored, with the final product not straying from the party line. Given the rampant anti-semitism and renewed repression of Stalin's later years, this is understandable.

The sequel, Life and Fate, should have been an easy repeat for both the author and authorities. But Grossman didn’t take the easy way this time. After Stalin's death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, Grossman felt he had more editorial leeway to write what he really thought. He was wrong. Freedom of expression was still virtually non-existent, even after Stalin’s death. The difference was that the post-Stalin authorities were less willing to torture and kill critics, though to be honest, they found other effective ways of shutting them up.

Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945

Everything published had to suffer through a tedious, line-by-line examination to make sure no ideological errors were present in the text. If any were identified, the author either had to remove or rewrite the offending passage. This often involved an extended back and forth between author and censor that turned any original text into a mutilated stump of itself by the time it was approved.

This was the case even among authors consciously trying to tow the party line. Nevertheless, Grossman meant to test the boundaries of what could be published now that Stalinism was openly denounced by Soviet leadership.

And test them he did!

The draft of Life and Fate submitted to the censors was a damning critique of the entire Soviet system, its corruption, incompetence, and murderous policies that had ruined tens of millions of lives since the Revolution. This was not something that the authorities could accept. Once the censors at the Central Committee’s Department of Culture read the manuscript, they determined that Life and Fate would never see the light of day. It simply crossed too many lines and challenged too many ideological dogmas.

State Portrait of Stalin by Isaak Brodsky - 1933

Ostensibly, Life and Fate is an epic tale of the Red Army’s heroic victory at Stalingrad, but mostly from the perspective of average people. The combat scenes depicted ring true because of Grossman’s firsthand experiences working as a frontline correspondent for the entire war, from the disastrous retreats of 1941 all the way to the victorious storming of Berlin in 1945. Grossman witnessed it all.

Along the way, he riveted audiences with firsthand accounts of the brutal fighting at Stalingrad. This makes him, by the way, an invaluable source for a poorly-documented chapter of the Second World War. He was also one of the first to write about the extinction of Ukraine’s Jews, something he noticed with dismay as he advance with the Red Army into Ukraine in 1943 and 1944. The Jews were there and now they were gone. Grossman found that the truth hit close to home, as his own mother had been one of the victims. Later, in Poland, his disturbing account of what happened at Treblinka was used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. After all this, Grossman had seen too much to write just another piece of pro-state propaganda. Nothing would have been easier.

While everyone could agree that the Nazis committed horrendous crimes against humanity, Grossman saw that the Soviet Union under Stalin hadn’t done much better in the human rights department, and arguably even worse.

Stalin’s forced collectivization had starved millions to fill wildly unrealistic quotas after a policy of dekulakization dramatically reduced the available farmland and the expertise needed to cultivate it. (Note: kulaks were prosperous peasants. Stalin believed that collectivization of agriculture could not happen until they were destroyed as a class) The Great Terror of 1937-1938 indiscriminately condemned around 830,000 educated, dedicated, and largely innocent Soviet citizens to death or to the gulags for imaginary crimes (Kotkin 305).

And let’s not forget the criminal negligence in the months before Hitler invaded in June 1941. This cost millions of lives in the first months of the war alone. As Grossman’s characters in Life and Fate repeatedly mused, they were only fighting so deep in Russian territory, backed up to the banks of the Volga, because of the regime’s incompetence.

Unlike so much Soviet literature of this time, Life and Fate focused on the plight of average people caught up in a war of annihilation between two very similar totalitarian regimes. It doesn’t glorify the Party and the Great Leader, Stalin. No, it condemns them, either explicitly or implicitly; this was Grossman’s grave error; this was why the KGB came to confiscate his novel. Stalin may have been dead, but the apparatus of repression that he had constructed over a quarter-century remained firmly in place.

And so on a wintery day in Moscow in early 1961, the KGB came a-knocking. Grossman’s daughter-in-law was told by the nanny that “some very bad people are at the door.” Those “very bad men” had a warrant to confiscate all copies of Life and Fate. Grossman was understandably rattled. After somehow surviving the purges of the 1930s, he understood that nothing good ever happened when the State's secret police showed up. Determined not to make a bad situation worse, he cooperated with the agents in their search, handing over the manuscript in his possession and telling the agents where to find the others.

Grossman and the three KGB agents spent the rest of the afternoon shuttling around Moscow gathering those other drafts; one was held by his cousin and a couple more held by two of Grossman’s typists. Once the agents were satisfied they had all the copies, they thoughtfully drove Grossman home.

He was free to go. That was it. No arrest. No torture. Nothing. This was Khrushchev's "thaw," after all.

For such an act of intellectual theft, the whole thing was done rather cordially, matter-of-factly, with no violence or even any overt threat of violence. After forty years of Soviet rule, every citizen understood that the threat of violence no longer needed to be stated; it was implied. Everyone knew, and Grossman did too, that resistance was futile when the KGB came for a visit.

So what specifically made Life and Fate so dangerous? What ideological lines did Grossman cross? Shockingly many. However, when you think of dissident Soviet authors, Vasily Grossman is probably not the first name that comes to mind. Alexander Solzhinitsyn maybe? Boris Pasternak, perhaps? But probably not Grossman.

Grossman committed one other major ideological sin with his magnum opus: He focused on the Holocaust, a taboo subject in the Soviet Union after the war. His mother's death in the Berdichev massacre forced Grossman to reckon with his Jewish identity for the first time. But there was enormous resistance to discussing the Holocaust after the war, especially in Stalin’s later years when anti-semitism returned in force. The official Soviet narrative was that everyone had suffered equally during the war and that highlighting one group's suffering diminished everyone else's.

Grossman hoped to use fiction to tell some uncomfortable truths. When he wrote Life and Fate, he wrote it knowing that it would have to pass muster with the censors. A noticeable narrative device used by him was to use minor, socially marginal characters to express the harshest critiques. This allowed him to distance himself from those views, at least a little. The novel’s main characters are then exposed to and influenced by what these marginal truth-tellers characters say.

Thus, we get the historian Madyarov’s seditious rant about the lack of freedom and the government’s colossal mistakes that had brought it to the brink of defeat. We get to read the final letter of Anna Shtrum smuggled out to her son, Victor, before she’s marched out of town and murdered by Nazi death squads for nothing more than being a Jew. Finally, we get Grossman’s philosophy of kindness as told by the “holy fool” Ikonnikov.



Madyarov's Rant - On the Logic of Truth

The historian Leonid Madyarov appears only briefly in the novel during some evening chats held in Pyotr Sokolov’s kitchen. The gathering consists of several members of the local intelligentsia, including the mathematician Sokolov and his colleague Victor Shtrum, a nuclear physicist and one of the main characters of Life and Fate. Both Pyotr and Victor live and work in Kazan after evacuating Moscow in the early months of the war. They have a lot of time to sit around and talk while the battle of Stalingrad rages to the south.

Madyarov is willing to speak his mind, something that Shtrum finds invigorating. One night, he launches an extended critique of Soviet communism’s errors and how those had resulted in the calamities of the war's first year.

First, he laments the military purges between 1936-1939 and how those had decimated the Red Army’s leadership. No wonder, he exclaims, the country was fighting for its life 1700 kilometers deep in its own territory among Stalingrad's ruins. No wonder the Red Army had reeled from defeat to defeat in the first 18 months of the war. Stalin’s purges had decapitated the officer corps in the crucial years leading to Barbarossa, leaving it dangerously vulnerable to the battle-hardened veterans of the Wehrmacht.

Historian Stephen Kotkin has the numbers to back up Madyarov’s claims. The toll taken by Stalin’s purges, especially in the higher ranks, is staggering.

Kotkin writes: “out of approximately 144,000 officers, some 33,000 were removed in 1937–38, and Stalin ordered or incited the irreversible arrest of around 9,500 and the execution of perhaps 7,000 of them. Of the 767 most high-ranking commanders, at least 503—and by some accounts more than 600—were executed or imprisoned. And among the highest rungs of 186 commanders of divisions, the carnage took 154, as well as 8 of the 9 admirals, 13 of the army’s 15 full generals, and 3 of its 5 marshals. What great power has ever executed 90 percent of its top military officers? What regime, in doing so, could expect to survive?”

Indeed, and what regime even deserves to survive a culling on such a scale? The vast majority of these arrests and executions were based on fabricated evidence of fictional plots that only existed in Stalin’s paranoid imagination. There really was no vast right-wing conspiracy fomenting in the ranks aiming to topple Stalin.

Stalin’s paranoia purged his military of its most experienced leaders, chief among them the well-respected Marshal Tukhachevsky, who was arrested, tried, and then had his brains blown out in an NKVD prison basement entirely on made-up charges. Of the Red Army's senior leaders, he was the one his Wehrmacht counterparts respected the most.

Marshal Tukhachevsky in 1936

When Operation Barbarossa kicked off, those purged officers were no longer around to fight back. Instead, a large portion of the Red Army’s professional expertise had gone up in the smoke of the NKVD crematoriums around Moscow.

Between June 1941 and June 1942, the Red Army lost a staggering 7,878,137 men, and that’s not even factoring in civilian deaths in German-occupied territories (Liedke 178). By way of comparison, total US casualties (KIA, WIA) in the Second World War were a little over a million, including 407,316 deaths, and with almost no civilian casualties.

Madyarov was merely pointing out what by then must have been painfully evident to anyone who saw through the official crap that the government fed the population. Referring back to the Red Army purges before the war, he says that “All these men would have been fighting against Fascism today. They’d have sacrificed their lives gladly. Why did they have to be killed?”

Why indeed?

But Madyarov is just getting started. He has a more philosophical point to make.

He argues that the needs of the State and those of the people are irreconcilable. Stalin-as-State dictates what matters and doesn’t matter. He alone decides who the State's enemies are and how they should be punished. If those officers were traitors, or even suspected of being traitors, then they needed to be dealt with accordingly. This was the totalitarian calculus: when in doubt, cull them out. Average citizens must adjust to being a lesser priority in the service of some abstract greater Good (more on that later), which again is wholly defined by the State.

“Stalin doesn’t build what people need – he builds what the State needs. It’s the State, not the people, that needs heavy industry. And as for the White Sea canal – that’s no use to anyone. The needs of the State are one pole; people’s needs are the other pole. These two poles are irreconcilable.”

That’s true, and it gets at a fundamental flaw, one could say, the fatal flaw, of Soviet communism. The State’s needs were never those that took the welfare of average citizens into account. Citizens were slaves, sometimes quite literally; they were disposable cogs in a vast machine that subordinated their needs to those of the State as dictated by the Party.

The State could build up its heavy industry to meet ambitious five-year plans and produce vast quantities of war materials to wage war. If you do not factor in the human cost, the Soviet Union did these things quite well. In fact, Stalin’s totalitarian system that prioritized the needs of the State seemed vindicated when Red Army troops stormed Berlin in 1945 and took control of eastern Europe.

Soviet Propaganda Poster circa the 1930s "Thanks to beloved Stalin for a happy childhood!"

And yet, to its dying day, the Soviet Union could not keep the store shelves filled with basic consumer products or provide adequate housing for its citizens. Though it had millions of hectares of land ideally suited for agriculture, the State could not produce enough food to feed its population because it insisted on the ideologically driven (and thus idiotic) policy of collectivization over incentivizing farmers to produce higher yields. Moreover, the State could build more tanks and fighters than Nazi Germany, and it could even outpace the USA in producing weapons by the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it could not improve the well-being of its citizens. That didn’t matter enough. Power for power's sake mattered.

Life and Fate was written in the years after the Second World War, so Madyarov’s observation about the State’s freedom-suffocating dominance nicely foreshadowed the Cold War’s end a few decades later. What is the State, after all, but people? When the State separates itself from the needs of the people and takes on a self-perpetuating life of its own, it can become hostile and irreconcilable to human flourishing (and no, I’m not implying some correlation between the monstrous Soviet “State” and our own imperfect one that we’ve all become so dissatisfied with – not even close). If the State exists for its own sake rather than the basic needs of its citizens, then it will seek to perpetuate reality-defying lies to sustain itself.

At the end of Madyarov’s monolog, Victor Shtrum pushes back a little, even though he admits that he finds much sense in the historian’s comments. Shtrum plays devil’s advocate, arguing that maybe the interests of the State and the people do coincide. After all, during a winner-take-all world war against Nazi Germany, the people benefited from all those advances in heavy industry and the achievements of five-year plans. Those provided the wherewithal to equip the Red Army and repel the invaders. If it had not done so, Germany would have almost certainly prevailed, much like it had against Russia in the First World War.

The chapter ends here, and the conversation moves on.

But the reader is left thinking, ‘Well, Victor, yes, that’s true, but what about after the war?’ Since Grossman wrote Life and Fate after 1945, we have an answer to that question. Even if Shtrum was correct that the interests of the State and the people had temporarily united to fight a common enemy, the State had no intention of relinquishing control after the war. No, it would be back to the State’s needs over the individual’s once again. Only now, the State had a new foe in the capitalist USA to justify its dominance. The State always needed to find new enemies, foreign and domestic, to justify itself. Madyarov knew this would be the case.

“Their [the Party] job is to exhort us to make sacrifices. You know: first we had to make preparations for the war; now it’s “everything for the Front”; and after the war we’ll be called upon to remedy the consequences of the war.”

And so on, it would never end, one crisis leading to another, fabricated by a State that needed a constant state of emergency to justify its repression. But repression is just one tool in the totalitarian toolbox. A monopoly on information (propaganda) and the targeted use of culture to promote ideological goals represented softer forms of control that turned citizens into supporters. The State doesn’t need to liquidate its citizens if they are docile consumers of an officially-sanctioned version of reality. That said, the Soviet security apparatus still felt the need to liquidate millions of loyal and innocent people anyway.

Just in case, I guess.

On this note, Madyarov shifts gears and talks about how the State sanctions only those cultural figures that promote its agenda. Moreover, the State coops art for its own purposes. Socialist Realism’s purpose is to serve and glorify the State, in contrast to the decadent artists of the West who celebrate the individual. But Madyarov then makes a comparison that seems counterintuitive but is interesting nonetheless. He says the differences between the two schools of art – officially sanctioned Socialist Realism and individually-created Western Art - are superficial. He compares the two and finds that they are the same when you get right down to it.

First, Socialist Realism serves the State.

“It’s a mirror: when the Party and the Government ask, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” it replies, “You – Party, You – Government, You – State, you’re the fairest of them all!”

On the other hand, western art is egotistical.

“While the decadents’ answer to this question is, “Me, Me, Me, I’m the fairest of them all.”

But wait, they are really one and the same when you get down to it.

“Not so very different. Socialist Realism is the affirmation of the uniqueness and superiority of the State; the decadent movement is the affirmation of the uniqueness and superiority of the individual. The form may be different, but the essence is one and the same – ecstatic wonder at one’s own superiority. The perfect State has no time for any others that differ from it. And the decadent personality is profoundly indifferent to all other personalities except two; with one of these it makes refined conversation, with the other it exchanges kisses and caresses. It may seem that the decadents with their individualism are fighting on behalf of man. Not a bit of it. The decadent are indifferent to man – and so is the State. Where’s the divide?’”

In other words, the State and the decadent individualist of the West only care about their own egotistical versions of the truth: Me! Me! Me! Both are selfishly hostile to a genuinely humane humanism that takes the well-being of other people as they are and not as they should be. Implied here is that the State is a kind of intersubjective supra-organism, with an ego, wants, and desires that take priority over everything else.

Madyarov believed that traditional Russian concepts of humanity and freedom have “… always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity.” Tolstoy did so, though gently. Lenin’s harder-edged version of Marxism did as well. And Stalin’s even more so. The result was human suffering on a vast scale, with the original intentions – freedom, humanism, and a better future – leading to the opposites – slavery, oppression, and mass murder – all from the fanatical pursuit of an idea that could never be achieved because men like Lenin did not truly understand what real Russian democracy would have to look like to thrive.

Madyarov felt that only in the writing of Chekhov do we find the aborted promise of a genuinely humanistic Russian democracy that accepts average Russians with all their quirky foibles as a starting and ending point for a philosophy of the Good Enough. So much of the rest of Russian culture came laced with the poison of utopian aspirations and unattainable ideas of the Good. Madyarov believed that only Chekhov had understood this.

“Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history – the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. From Avakum to Lenin, our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity.”

Ah, what would a truly free and democratic Russia look like? Madyarov dreams of having access to a free and open press without the constant barrage of State-run media feeding the populace nothing but transparent lies and distortions. He wants to think for himself, judge information for himself, and not be told what to think and how to think it. Imagine that!

He fantasizes: “You go into a bookshop and buy a book. You read historians, economists, philosophers and political correspondents from America, England and France. You can work out for yourself where these writers are mistaken – you’re allowed out onto the street without your nanny.”

He wants, in other words, what we in the West today have in abundance and take for granted: personal freedom and the ability to think freely. For all the recent talk of cancel culture, book banning, and press bias, we are immersed in choice and have an almost unlimited array of perspectives to draw upon that can help us think things through on our own terms. Or, like many, choose not to.

In a way, this makes it conceptually difficult for the modern Western reader to understand the iron grip that the Soviet Union attempted to maintain on the thoughts of its citizens. We tend to grasp at false equivalences instead. Again, because the needs of the State came before the people, the State could dictate which thoughts were acceptable, which were subversive, and which were worthy of punishment.

You might be tempted right now to make a false equivalence - "We do the same!" - but don't. It's not the same. Not even close. Our epistemological reality is light years away from what Grossman had to endure, though it's important to remember that they exist in the same universe of human social possibility.

Anyway, Sokolov, in whose kitchen the conversation is taking place, has heard enough of this treasonous talk. He’s perfectly fine with the way things are and doesn’t want to listen to any criticisms. He was also arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for several months in 1937, so whatever subversive pluck he had before then was forever beaten out of him by his interrogators, leaving behind a cowed and servile conformist. He angrily puts an end to Madyarov’s tea time dissidence.

“Sokolov banged on the table and said: ‘That’s enough! I absolutely insist that you bring this conversation to an end.’”

But Madyarov's points are made, and they linger for the rest of the book in Victor Shtrum’s troubled mind. The truth of something, once you see it clearly for the first time, is an uncanny thing. You can’t unsee it. You can’t unthink it. You can't go back to before. You can no longer deny its existence. It’s there, like a seed planted in your mind, to grow and blossom or wither and die. The choice, the responsibility, is now yours.

Gateway to Hell by Alfred Kubin - 1900


Anna Shtrum’s Testimony – On How the Holocaust Began

“I am leaving today to go to Berdichev. I have heard that all of the Jews of the town have been killed, and that the town itself is almost totally destroyed and is virtually empty. I feel sick at heart.” (Grossman's letter to his father - Garrard 286)

On 7 July 1941, the 11th Panzer Division arrived at Grossman’s hometown, Berdichev, Ukraine, a strategic railhead about 175 kilometers to the southwest of Kyiv and a prime target for German panzers looking to shore up supply lines before they plunged deeper into Ukraine. Berdichev was also home to one of eastern Europe’s largest Jewish communities, with 30,000 Jews calling the city home. Finally, after ten days of heavy fighting, the Wehrmacht took the city by storm. Then things got bad.

Soon after, SS troops arrived and began herding the Jews into the nearby Yakti ghetto. This was only a temporary solution before a much more final one. As the front moved further to the east, the SS planned the large-scale liquidation of Berdichev’s Jews. But murder on such a scale needed some prep work. Red Army POWs began digging massive ditches a few miles outside of town. Rumors swirled in the ghetto about the purpose of those pits, that they were meant to be the mass graves of Berdichev’s Jews. Those rumors turned out to be true.

When it happened, it happened fast and without warning. On 15 September 1941, almost 20,000 of Berdichev’s Jews were marched to the pits, lined up at its edge, and shot. As far as we know, this was the first large-scale mass killing of the Final Solution. This was only the beginning of a campaign to exterminate the Soviet Union’s Jews. Berdichev became the template for genocide during the first year of the war.

Pogrom by Lasar Segall - 1937

During the actual killings in Berdichev, the SS had the Luftwaffe fly in circles overhead to drown out the screams and the sound of machine-gun fire as the killers murdered thousands of men, women, and children with industrial efficiency (Gerard 73).

The Germans threw young children and the elderly into the pits to save ammunition; there, they died by suffocating under the mass of bodies. At night, the Polizei (Ukrainian auxiliaries who assisted with the massacre) guarded the edges of the pits to club or bayonet those who tried to crawl out and escape. Few succeeded.

One of Berdichev’s victims was Grossman’s mother, Ekaterina Savelievna, who could not escape before the Germans arrived. What had her last moments been like? Did she suffer? No one knows. Why hadn’t Grossman tried harder to evacuate her from Berdichev in those early weeks of the war when escape was still possible? Her death and the circumstances behind it haunted Grossman until his dying day.

As Grossman advanced with the resurgent Red Army into Ukraine after the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, what struck him more than anything was the complete absence of Jews. Town after town with thriving pre-war Jewish communities were now ghost towns. Where did they all go? What soon became apparent was that they had been exterminated. Grossman first tackled this issue in an extraordinary article, “Ukraine without Jews,” one of the first documentary accounts of the Holocaust in Ukraine.

There are no Jews in the Ukraine. Nowhere – Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, Yagotin – in none of the cities, hundreds of towns, or thousands of villages will you see the black, tear-filled eyes of little girls; you will not hear the pained voice of an old woman; you will not see the dark face of a hungry baby. All is silence. Everything is still. A whole people has been brutally murdered. (VG Writer at War 251)

Berdichev was no different. The town’s Jews, and Grossman’s mother too, were lying in pits out by the airfield. Grossman biographers John and Carol Gerrard highlight a ghoulish fact from the Soviet Extraordinary Commission report discussing the massacre and the unique problems that arise when burying so many unembalmed human bodies in one place.

“When a corpse that has not been embalmed decomposes, the body's gases build up. Three times the earth split, and a bloody fluid discharged by the exploding bodies spilled out of the pits and ran over the fields, flowing in huge, streaky pools. Three times the Germans forced the Ukrainian Polizei to heap up new hills of earth, to recover the mounds and seal in the bleeding bodies. According to the eyewitnesses who gave their testimony to the Soviet Extraordinary Commission in April 1944, the earth on these pits continued to move for three days (Gerard 467-8).

Grossman’s worst fears were confirmed when he arrived at Berdichev in early 1944. He interviewed the few survivors and did his best to reconstruct the events leading to his mother’s death in September 1941. A fictionalized account of these events made it into Life and Fate as told by two Jewish characters: Anna Shtrum, a local surgeon and mother of Victor Shtrum and a proxy for Grossman’s own mother, and Natasha Karavik, a simple-minded young girl and a proxy for his own cousin, Natasha, who had died in the same massacre as his mother. From Anna, we get a description of the events leading up to the liquidation of the ghetto. From Natasha, we get an account of the actual killings at the pits and their immediate aftermath. Both versions were heavily influenced by the interviews Grossman conducted with survivors and so are a fictionalized reconstruction of actual events.

Anna’s tale begins thus:

“Vitya, I’m certain this letter will reach you, even though I’m now behind the German front line, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish ghetto. I won’t receive your answer, though; I won’t be here to receive it. I want you to know about my last days. Like that, it will be easier for me to die.”

So opens one of the most moving chapters of Life and Fate. What’s striking about Anna’s account is not the Nazi's anti-semitism - that was expected, after all - but the hatred of neighbors and how they gleefully participated in their destruction.

For example, she overhears a conversation from some of those neighbors, ‘Well, that’s the end of the Jews. Thank God for that!’

Another neighbor tells Anna that she’s taking her apartment. Jews now have no rights and are therefore fair game. The neighbor tells her, “You’re outside the law now!”

And then,

“‘Anna Semyonovna, I’m moving into your room. Can you clear your things out by this evening?’ ‘Very well, I’ll move into your room then.’ ‘No, you’re [Anna] moving into the little room behind the kitchen.’

I refused. There isn’t even a stove there, or a window.

I went to the surgery. When I came back, I found the door of my room had been smashed in and all my things piled in the little room. My neighbor just said: ‘I’ve kept the settee for myself. There’s no room for it where you are now.’”

It gets worse. Anna then goes to work at the hospital and is fired. When asking for her backpay, the Director tells her to write Stalin and ask him to send the money.“ Stalin can pay you whatever you earned under the Soviet regime. Write to him in Moscow.” The sarcasm, of course, was the fact that the Germans, not Stalin, were now calling the shots and nobody, not even Stalin himself, could help Anna now.

She and the other local Jews were allowed to take 15 kilos in personal items before moving into a cramped ghetto. Even amongst all this inhumanity, tiny bits of kindness emerge from the most unexpected places. One of Anna’s former patients, a gruff and callous local non-Jewish man named Shchukin, carries her belongings to the ghetto, gives her some money, and then meets her at the ghetto fence every week to give her some bread. With nothing expected in return, with no ulterior motive, his kindness is in stark contrast to the plundering opportunists – her former non-Jewish colleagues and neighbors - Anna has encountered so far during the occupation. Grossman highlights here that not everyone was set on taking advantage of the Jews’ misfortune, though all too many were. Some common decency could still be found in the most unexpected places.

A German officer points his gun at a woman and her child, Ivangorod, Ukraine, 1942

And note one other thing: the “former colleagues and neighbors” were primarily Ukrainians. Of course, Grossman wrote with Soviet censors in mind. He knew that singling out any specific ethnic group in the Soviet Union as having collaborated with the Nazis was a non-starter. Official Soviet policy after the war was to downplay the sufferings of particular demographics. This also translated into ignoring any crimes perpetrated against them by fellow citizens. The idea was that all Soviet citizens had suffered under the fascists and everyone had contributed to ultimate victory in the Great Patriotic War.

No other narrative would do. Another explanation for the widespread Ukrainian collaboration was the misplaced belief that the Jews were responsible for their many misfortunes during Stalin’s early years. Official propaganda effectively deflected the blame from the government to the Jews. Thus, the Jews, not Stalin and his henchmen, orchestrated the Ukrainian famine that killed millions. It was the Jews who stole from simple Ukrainians during the years of forced collectivization. Now was a time of reckoning, a settling of accounts, when Ukrainians could get revenge on the Jews.

This was all bullshit, of course, the Jews had nothing to do with the Ukrainians’ misfortunes. Ukraine and Russia had a thriving pogrom culture that long predated the Revolution. Pogroms devastated Jewish communities in Ukraine in 1821, 1881-1884, and 1903-1906, resulting in the destruction of Jewish property, the rape of Jewish women, and thousands of murders. What Grossman discovered in the aftermath of the German occupation was an uncomfortable truth that some of Europe’s most rabid anti-semites were in his own country.

In other words, Hitler found ready and willing accomplices for the destruction of the European Jews. This is often forgotten about the Holocaust: Hitler didn’t manufacture anti-semitism out of thin air. No, he found it already flourishing in Europe. His troops did not commit these war crimes all by themselves. No again. They had a lot of enthusiastic help, finding rabidly anti-semitic populations already primed for murder when they arrived. The ultimate blame must still lie with the Nazis, of course, but let's not pretend they did it all by themselves.

On The back of the photograph is inscribed "The last Jew in Vinnitsa" - 1942

Anna Shtrum’s letter breaks off just before the Polizei come to liquidate the ghetto and march everyone to the pits outside of town. By now, she knows what's going to happen. Shchukin’s father-in-law told how some Jews had been taken out into the nearby forest with their luggage. All day long, he heard screaming and gunshots. That night, none of them returned.

Perhaps it was too much to write about his own mother’s murder, even a fictionalized version. In any case, Grossman picks up the story after Anna’s with the story of Natasha Karasik, a simple-minded girl, in what was a short and brutal conclusion to his fictionalized account of the Berdichev massacre.

Natasha was the shy and unassuming daughter of an old doctor arrested and executed in Stalin’s purges of 1937. She’s not deemed to have any valuable skills and was therefore marched off in the August heat to the burial pits outside of town.

Then they had walked towards the airfield in the stifling heat of their last August day. As they walked past the dusty apple trees by the roadside, they had prayed, torn their clothes and uttered their last piercing cries. Natasha herself had remained quite silent.

She would never have thought that blood could be so strikingly red. When there was a momentary silence amid the shooting, screaming and groaning, she heard the murmur of flowing blood; it was like a stream, flowing over white bodies instead of white stones.

The quiet crackle of machine-gun fire and the gentle, exhausted face of the executioner – he had waited patiently as she walked timidly to the edge of the pit – had hardly seemed frightening at all . . . Later, during the night, she had wrung out her wet shirt and walked back to the town. The dead don’t rise from the grave – so she must have been alive.

Natasha/Lazarus stumbled back into a world gone mad. A celebration was taking place in the town square. The vermin, the pox, the Jews are gone! She hears a band was playing one of her favorite waltzes in the town square. Under the moonlight, soldiers dance with local girls. Everyone’s laughing and having a good time. It's as if out of a dream. So much joy! So much happiness! And all because the Jews were finally gone. It's macabre.

Simple Natasha hid in the shadows, participating vicariously in this mockery of life celebrating such a grim milestone of death. Grossman ends the chapter here. We never learn Natasha’s fate or hear from her again. In the actual massacre, his niece, the real Natasha on whom this fictional Natasha was based, died in the pits that day.

The more Grossman learned about what had happened to Ukraine’s Jews, the more questions he had. These were basic questions about human nature that would echo later at Adolf Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. How could people go to their deaths with such docile obedience? He learned the victims sometimes politely waited in queues all day for their turn to lie down in the pit and take a bullet in the back of the head. How could they go so quietly into the night?

Moreover, what made otherwise decent people turn into enthusiastic looters and executioners? Remember, local volunteers stood watch at the edge of the pit and finished off any stragglers attempting to crawl away to safety. Was human nature so malleable that anyone could be made to do anything in the right circumstances? And if this was the case, if murderer and murdered were infinitely interchangeable roles depending on the historical circumstances, then we were all screwed, because that meant the only ingredient required to turn the world into a giant abattoir was the right ideology, surgically applied just right, to convince people to kill with wild abandon or be killed with bovine docility.

Grossman believed that such extreme circumstances only occurred after careful psychological preparation by a totalitarian regime holding monopolies on power and information. The latter allowed targeted propaganda campaigns to be waged that stirred pre-existing hatreds. A small minority of calculating bad actors orchestrate everything. They create the villain, the plot, the conspiracy; they manufacture the damning evidence of the crimes and then spin the drama to its illogical conclusion.

Done well, it's really quite convincing to the average person. Meanwhile, the majority go along after having their minds infected by this propaganda. On the receiving end, another small minority – the propaganda campaign's target, the scapegoats – suffer death or imprisonment accordingly. The human instinct of self-preservation means they’ll remain obedient all the way to the end, hoping against hope for some mercy, some reprieve, or that they'll wake up and it was all a bad dream.

Into the Unknown by Alfred Kubin - 1900

The State’s monopoly on power compels obedience. Grossman understood that hope feeds the death machine. Whether they be class enemy kulaks under Stalin or race enemy Jews under Hitler, the victims hold the hope almost to the last moment that they simply need to obey, no matter what, to regain acceptance back into the social compact. They didn't realize that the game was rigged all along, that their destruction was a foregone conclusion from the very start.

Furthermore, the perpetrators engage in a frenzy of plunder and rape and murder with the State’s approval. They are also obeying the authorities, engaged in a warped civic duty as defined by a State whose hold on reality leaves only two options: do what the State wants – i.e., be a perpetrator – or resist and go up in puffs of crematorium smoke. It’s a choice, but not a real one. No true freedom exists in such a totalitarian society.

“And it wasn’t merely tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions of people who were the obedient witnesses of this slaughter of the innocent. Nor were they merely obedient witnesses: when ordered to, they gave their support to this slaughter, voting in favor of it amid a hubbub of voices. There was something unexpected in the degree of their obedience”

Grossman breaks it down to his own either/or duality. Either human nature is so malleable that it can be shaped and formed in any way the State wants, like clay, or there is some innate yearning for freedom in human nature that will strive to manifest itself, no matter how malevolent the ideology.

If this last part is the case – and Grossman does believe it is so – then a totalitarian ideology can destroy and murder and ruin and condemn people to Siberian gulags, it can do all of those things and appear invincible to those helpless souls being ground to dust, but in the end, it is still doomed because it's an abomination against our human nature’s fundamental yearning for freedom. That freedom might be suppressed but never wholly eradicated.

He concludes, “Man’s innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future.”

This gets to the final philosophical discussion from Life and Fate that I want to look at, Grossman’s thoughts on kindness. A yearning for freedom is all fine and good, but what signs of flickering hope can one find when lost in the darkness of a system so abhorrent to human flourishing?

Grossman had some ideas.

Metro by Alexander Labas - 1935


Ikonnikov’s Sermon on Kindness

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness.”

Grossman was Jewish but not religious. In fact, he had always distanced himself from the Yiddish community of his hometown Berdichev. His identity as a Jew only emerged after learning the truth of the Holocaust and his mother’s death in it. Nevertheless, I find something resembling a Tolstoyan metaphysic in his writing about the nature of good and evil. It's not religious, per se, but approaches what I might call a pared-down mysticism. That should come as no surprise since Tolstoy was one of Grossman’s favorite writers. During the battle of Stalingrad, War and Peace was the novel he carried.

As often in Life and Fate, Grossman uses a marginal character, here a “holy fool” named Ikonnikov, to express views he knew would be hard to get past the Soviet censors.

Good? But what is Good?”

- Comrade Mostovskoy to Ikonnikov

We first meet Ikonnikov as a POW in a German concentration camp. He’s a self-described Tolstoyan who has seen a lot of humanity's dark side. He chats with Mostovskoy, an old Bolshevik and committed communist in the camp, about how he had witnessed the murder of 20,000 Jews (the very same massacre, we may presume, of Anna Shtrum and Natasha Karavik described above). Somehow, Ikonnikov survived to tell the tale, though at a great psychological cost. His frantic efforts at convincing the local population to give the Jews sanctuary had been for naught. No one helped and they all died anyway. Rocked to the core by the horror he’s seen, both the crimes committed and the callous complicity to those crimes, he wrestles with the classic question of evil.

Ikonnikov wonders - as many have before - if God is truly good and all-powerful, how in the hell could this happen? He concludes that murder on such a scale can only mean that no God exists. We're all alone in an indifferent universe.

It’s as simple as that.

“On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed – women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.”

And that’s not all. Even before watching the massacre, poor Ikonnikov had seen even more of humanity at its worst, this time from his own countrymen. In the early 1930s, he lived through Stalin’s forced collectivization, which had resulted in millions of deaths. Peasant farmers starved because the State had confiscated all the grain for the cities. He saw empty villages depopulated by this manmade famine and wondered how this could be so.

Requisitioning by Ivan Vladimirov

Ikonnikov comes across as a good, decent man in a world that resembles a hellscape. In modern parlance, he's suffered significant psychological trauma. Think of an older, harder, version of Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, if Myshkin had somehow survived Stalinism and the Second World War, and you’ll have a rough sketch of Ikonnikov’s character: an inherently good man ground down by the evil around him.

In different circumstances, he might have lived out his life as a kind and gentle teacher, maybe on a peasant commune. He was a sensitive and compassionate soul. And like the historian Madyarov discussed above, he stands out in Life and Fate as the rare example of someone who has not morally compromised themself down into little bits and pieces to get by in a system fueled by alienation and mistrust. As we'll see, he’ll stand true to his principles, no matter the cost. Few others do in this novel.

Ikonnikov is thus a fiction, an idealized version of someone that hardly ever exists in a totalitarian society, like a flower growing naturally in the Antarctic. And even if he did, he wouldn’t last long. That’s the case here. Ikonnikov’s decency comes across as naïve and simple-minded, and yet we’re left wondering if this “holy fool” isn’t actually a saint of some sort.

That said, this was not an age of virtue but iron. What was needed in this new world was not powerless decency like Ikonnikov's, but hardness, like Comrade Mostovskoy, Lenin, Beria, and Stalin, the man of steel himself. The will and the power to impose one’s will on society are all that matter for iron-hearted men like the Bolsheviks. They decide what is real and what is an illusion, even if those realities are illusions themselves. No matter, even illusions can be nourished with power and sustained through violence, at least for a time. Might makes right is a cliché, it is true, but it’s accurate in this sense. If one has absolute power, one can shape minds, and if one can shape minds, one can try to alter the very fabric of social reality. For men like Stalin, this is real power and real power gets to define right and wrong.

Ikonnikov understood how this might warp any definition of good. Good became what was best for the Party, Comrade Stalin, and the greater glory of the Revolution. That, and nothing more. Everything and everyone else became fuel for the machine they created. However, any discussion of goodness on these terms becomes an exercise in sophistry.

These Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist master sophists did not realize that their utopian goal could never be achieved. They never understood, perhaps they were not intellectually equipped to understand, that their socialist utopia must forever shimmer faintly in the distance, always out of reach, like a mirage, and that only through barbwire and bullets and basement torture chambers could this illusion be maintained.

I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia – men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble – yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers.

Ikonnikov argues that the Bolsheviks weren’t even the first to preach good and practice evil like this. That modus operandi has a long and enduring tradition. His own experiences had taught him something about the sham of utopian communism and its professed goodness. Unlike many committed ideologues who constantly quote Lenin and Marx, Ikonnikov can still think for himself.

What he concludes is heresy. If there’s no God, as he concluded after the massacre of the Jews, then the idea of any capital "G" Good is relative; it’s a product of the human mind. My good can be your evil and yours can be mine. Today’s good was yesterday’s evil and vice versa. It’s the same as it ever was, and we haven’t progressed one bit in defining more clearly what is universally good or evil. But still, we try.

The Good of early communitarian Christianity became a Catholic Good of rules and dogmas, then a Muslim Good of unthinking submission, then a Protestant Good of self-loathing, then a Marxist Good of class struggle, and a Leninist Good of world revolution. So many Goods, each professing to be, finally, the one authentic version to take us to the promised land, and yet all ended up intolerant and willing to commit atrocities. In the end, they only ended up making another damn facsimile of all that came before but this time on an industrial scale.

And so it goes, always, the human tendency to take an idea and universalize it, to create one overarching worldview to cover every contingency before then imposing it on the world by sword or rifle. Yet, force is not always needed. Many enslave themselves without a second thought. People want simpler answers to what Grossman referred to as “the mire of life.”

Real life is messy and contradictory. It doesn't come with a checklist for every contingency. Peddlers of grand theories will tell you otherwise; they'll claim to have cracked the code and figured it out, just make a few common-sense changes to society and then all will be better. It's so easy! No big deal, unless, that is, they get in the way. And they always get in the way. They are those who don't see it our way. They are those who would stay wallowing in the mire. This will not do! They must be dealt with, one way or another. If they can't see the truth, if they will not submit to the new order, then we will have to deal with them, one way or another.

Heretics, dissenters to any single definition of the Good end up burning in bonfires. They are ground to dust in the dungeons of the Inquisition or in the basements of NKVD prisons. The pure and refreshing water of whatever original beautiful idea of the Good that existed in the minds of teachers like Christ or the Buddha or Socrates eventually hardens over time into a dogmatic concrete that is used to bludgeon anyone bold enough to question the status quo.

Yet, the need to impose an idea through violence and maintain it through coercion is a tacit admission that it’s not universal at all. Grossman understood this. Once violence becomes necessary, whatever was supposed to be so good for us gets exposed as nothing more than another subjective interpretation masquerading as objective truth. Thus evil emerges from good, with violence begetting violence and suffering following close behind, all in the name of some idiotic abstract Good.

Ikonnikov wrote, “People began to realize how much blood had been spilled in the name of a petty, doubtful good, in the name of the struggle of this petty good against what it believed to be evil. Sometimes the very concept of good became a scourge, a greater evil than evil itself.

It wasn’t just religion either, but philosophy and ideology that sought to define and then impose ideas of the Good. Marx, Lenin, and even Hitler himself acted on radically different definitions of what was good for society. Ikonnikov wants to tell us that everything he'd seen, the death, famine, purges, and genocide, were all done in the name of some greater Good.

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good. And so the good of a sect, class, nation or State assumes a specious universality in order to justify its struggle against an apparent evil.

So, what then? Is there any hope? After all, when good tries to scale up by becoming systemic, it becomes evil. No one specific idea can fit everyone. Is good merely what’s good for me and mine, and to hell with the rest? Grossman believed that life doesn’t allow for such clean geometries regarding moral questions. Life is diverse, it’s manifold, and any ethics must remain circumstantial by taking that into account. Bask in the mire, in other words.

But that's unsatisfying. There must be something more.

There is, but it's not much.

According to Ikonnikov, the only thing that can really be called Good is the simple, uncalculating, and untheoretical kindness that people show one another. If freedom is a fundamental human trait, as Grossman argued, then the “sacred kernel of kindness” is what proves that all is not lost. Even in the direst of circumstances, our instincts nudge us toward kindness.

While this may seem like just another theory of the Good doomed to go bad, an idea equally vulnerable to bad actors and misapplication, it’s both something more and less than that.

“The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother. The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.”

Kindness is strongest when done “privately,” “thoughtlessly,” and “senselessly.” Notice the adverbs Grossman uses. Kindness happens without pretense, calculation, or motive. Call this Ikonnikov’s (or Grossman's) metaphysic of the Good. It’s something that simply manifests itself outside of and despite religions and ideologies. Even in the worst of times, when it seems that the evil of good intentions gone bad causes enormous suffering, what he calls “pathetic acts of kindness” will flash like fireflies in the darkness.

Moreover, blind, stupid acts of kindness, done for no logical reason, often for contradictory reasons like those examples cited above, prove that people have at least some small bit of innate goodness that no ideology can entirely destroy. This kindness has no real power; it doesn’t scale up well, the instant it tries, it vanishes, nor does it have any will beyond the blind urge to show compassion in the face of suffering.

This leads Ikonnikov to doubt its efficacy, and well he should. Sure, kindness for its own sake is beautiful, like a snowflake, but it’s weak and “as powerless as dew.”

Kindness? Is this really it?

Today I can see the true power of evil. The heavens are empty. Man is alone on Earth. How can the flame of evil be put out? With small drops of living dew, with human kindness? No, not even the waters of all the clouds and seas can extinguish that flame – let alone a handful of dew gathered drop by drop from the time of the Gospels to the iron present.

Evil is here to stay. It cannot be eradicated through the imposition of some universal idea.

But then he gets to his main point: the paradox of kindness. It’s worth reading in full so you can judge for yourself.

My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it.

Grossman articulates here a recurring theme in Russian literature: the idea that the simple, uncultivated goodness of the common people is the foundation of any authentic human morality. No surprise, but this was one of Tolstoy's themes.

That’s Ikonnikov’s theory of kindness and its role in human affairs. You see, kindness is also hope. It shows that even in the worst of times, and for no good reasons, people will still show kindness to each other. And even if kindness has no real power to transform the world as any coherent universal ideology, it can never be destroyed. Indestructibility is its strength; meekness is its virtue. It just is, always and forevermore.

The darkest times come and go like a hurricane - Stalin and Hitler die and their henchmen too - and the sunshine of kindness emerges again on its own terms, that is to say, it grows naturally out of the cracks in that ideological concrete that must inevitably appear over time. It was there all along, a seed that endures, unlike the storm. Life flourishes like a fragile flower, through freedom it grows out of those cracks, and the dew of human kindness nourishes it.

And what became of this "feeble" spirit, this soft-hearted holy fool? What fate did Grossman give this remarkable character?

We learn later that he was executed for refusing to work on the construction of an extermination camp (L&F 531).

Of course he did.

State Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from Shutterstock


Final Thoughts - Grossman Won

After the KGB left with the manuscripts, Grossman was devastated. He slid into depression when he realized that a decade’s work might never see the light of day. His masterpiece now sat in the prison of a KGB safe, too dangerous to see the light of day. After the “arrest” of his novel, he became a non-person during his last years, ostracized by the government and its conformist lackeys in the Soviet Writer’s Union. The former celebrity war correspondent was forgotten, both in east and west. His earlier books were pulled from the shelves and he was never mentioned again in the Soviet press. It must have been little comfort to have Life and Fates damning thesis so brutally confirmed by reality.

In any case, Grossman’s time on this earth was nearing an end. By 1962, the stomach cancer that eventually killed him two years later was already evident. He used his remaining time to write Everything Flows, an even more damning condemnation of the Soviet Union’s early decades. At this point, Grossman understood he was writing for posterity and so pulled no punches. Let posterity judge him, not the damned censors.

And that’s exactly what happened, though not immediately. Grossman died of his cancer in September 1964 on the 23rd anniversary of his mother’s death. He was cremated and then quietly forgotten. That was that. The State had won. It had controlled the narrative once again. It had dictated its version of reality. Or so it seemed.

In fact, the KGB did not confiscate every copy of Life and Fate. Grossman had outmaneuvered them by squirreling away two other copies with close friends he trusted wouldn’t betray him. His trust was well-placed.

After his death, a small band of friends and admirers like Semyon Lipkin and Yakateria Zabolotskaya, as well as his daughter, Katya, put themselves at great personal risk to smuggle the novel abroad where it could finally be published. This only happened with the help of Soviet dissident Andrey Sakharov, who helped make a more transportable copy of the novel on microfilm. This was later smuggled to Switzerland, where it was published in 1980 to relatively little fanfare.

Life and Fate was finally out in the world, free of the government censors who wanted to silence his voice. It became available in the Soviet Union in 1988 as a result of Gorbachev’s Glasnost. After a slow start, the novel’s prestige has slowly risen in the West. Today it’s considered one of the great critiques of the Soviet Union, while also being an entertaining war novel.

Like all great works of literature, Grossman’s themes resonate across space and time, they continue telling truths about our human condition that we should not forget. Life and Fate is such a work of art, unlike the volumes of forgotten trash published during the Soviet era by government hacks willing to trade away their artistic voices for a slightly bigger apartment and a modest pension. Who are they now? Forgotten. Meanwhile, Grossman’s writing is read by millions today, and I suspect will be read by many millions more in the future.

Though he didn’t live to see it, Grossman had won. Through the kindness (kindness!) of a few brave friends and their dedication to artistic freedom, and his too, Life and Fate survived because of the very themes it preached; it outlived one of history’s most abhorrent regimes and remains a warning to posterity that what happened in the Soviet Union is still within the realm of the humanly possible, while also offering hope that humanity’s better traits can endure and triumph in the end.


Supplementary Material


Works Cited

Garrard, John, and Carol Garrard. The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. Pen & Sword Military, 2012.

Grossman, Vasilij. Life and Fate. Translated by Robert Chandler, New York Review Books, 2006.

Grossman, Vasiliĭ. The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays. Edited by Robert Chandler, New York Review Books, 2010.

Grossman, Vasily. A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945. Edited by Antony (. Beevor and Luba Vinogradova, Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2006.

Kotkin, Stephen. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1928-1941. Penguin, 2018.

Liedtke, Gregory P. Enduring the Whirlwind The German Army and the Russo-German War, 1941–1943: An Analysis of Replacement Capabilities and Force Maintenance. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2013.

POPOFF, ALEXANDRA. Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century. Yale University Press, 2019.



Falls Church, VA

February 2022


bottom of page