I recently spent three weeks in France with students (it was wonderful, thank you!) Normally when I go on this trip, I bring a large variety of books on my Kindle, so I’ll have something to read for any occasion. This time, I decided to try something different: just a couple of very long books, something I knew I’d really be able to burrow into during my airplane rides and my spare time, such as it was.
Life and Fate, by Vasily Grossman, is a monumental novel. Grossman wrote it in 1960, but it takes place during the second World War, mostly in Russia, and partly in Germany as well. It’s broken into three parts, each of which looks at the fate of the large Shapashnikov family and the people they care about; the siege of Stalingrad; and life in the camps — either Russian prisoner-of-war camps, or German death camps.
There’s a huge, sprawling cast of characters in this book, but Viktor Shtrum stands out as one of the most important. Viktor is a theoretical nuclear physicist, obsessed with his work. The evacuation of Stalingrad has sent him, his family, and his colleagues to Kazan, and this upset has made him more aware than ever of the overwhelming effect of Stalinist policy and practice on his science. With his wife Lyudmila Shapashnikova and his daughter Nadya at home, he must navigate the weight of terror: are his findings Stalinist enough? Do they have an application for the State? Did he make a careless statement in front of the wrong person — something that will mean a permanent loss of funding and staff, or even exile for his entire family? Will his fierce devotion to his science mean torture and death? Shtrum is Jewish, and in the early 1940s he is just beginning to sense that Jews — even educated, scientific Jews who work for the government — may have a bad time of it in Communist Russia.
Though there aren’t many people having a good time of it, to be honest. Grossman follows the wanderings of Viktor Shtrum’s extended family and their many lives and fates: Lyudmila’s son Tolya from her first marriage, who dies in the siege of Stalingrad; her first husband Abarchuk, who has been taken to the gulag for his political opinions; Lyudmila’s sister Yevgenia, who is trying and failing to get a housing permit; their family friend Sofya Levinton, a doctor who is arrested and taken to a German death camp hand in hand with a little abandoned boy. We see soldiers at the front, starving and fighting and trying to keep Stalingrad protected from a huge wave of Germans. We see them again later, attacking the Germans in a giant, invincible pincer movement, triumphant at last — and paying the cost.
Grossman posits through his characters the radical idea that Communism and Fascism are mirror images of each other. He shows how the blind devotion of the people to Stalin and to the Party has excused “servility, treachery, submissiveness, cruelty” as the “birthmarks of capitalism.” They all believe that you don’t get arrested if you haven’t done anything, until it happens to them. He references many crimes on both sides committed through idealism, and he writes a long dialogue between a Nazi officer and a devotedly Communist prisoner of war, Mostovskoy, in which the officer tries to convince his prisoner that the two totalitarian states are nearly identical.
To build Socialism in one country, one must destroy the peasants’ freedom … Stalin didn’t shilly-shally — he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the German National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews.
(Naturally, this point of view was not at all popular in 1960, in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. When Grossman submitted it for publication, the KGB raided his apartment, and took not only the manuscript and carbon copies, but even the typewriter ribbons it had been typed with.)
Grossman’s theory is that human kindness — tiny acts of kindness, meaningless kindness, kindness even between enemies — is the only thing that can stand up to the crushing power of totalitarianism. Because Communism and Fascism only concern themselves with the good of the State and the masses, individual relationships go unnoticed and can survive even dire conditions. Some of the most deeply touching passages in the book are about these little kindnesses: Sofya leading little David into the gas chamber so he won’t be alone; Viktor Shtrum’s mother’s last letter to him; Lyudmila distributing gifts to the surgeons who failed to save her son. There is a thread in the book that relates this idea to Viktor Shtrum’s science: Newtonian and Euclidean science, he says, were about individual acts. Today’s science of quantum mechanics and string theory is a science of aggregates. This matches up with our tendency toward totalitarianism, in which only the good of the masses matters. But if human kindness can survive even these horrors, then we will win in the end.
Personally, I’m not so sure. Human kindness and decency is easy to stamp out in the camps and the gas chambers; personal dignity goes by the wayside when people are trying to survive. This isn’t judgment. I would certainly act that way myself if I didn’t give up in the first ten minutes. I prefer an ethics that says: I know people will go very low, but even at their lowest they are still worthy of love and respect and forgiveness.
In the end of Life and Fate — a novel that is by anyone’s standards very sad indeed — Grossman gives us a tiny taste of hope. An anonymous couple with a child steps out of the rubble to start a new life in the countryside. Life goes on, in fact; and human kindness and decency have survived, at least in this one granular instance. After 900 pages of fear, death, starvation, grim humor, longing, and the sharp critique of Stalin’s Russia, is this secondary Eden compelling? It might not be in theory, but it’s a breath of air we never thought we’d taste again, and it’s a bewilderingly lovely ending for a very dark book.
I read several reviews that compare Life and Fate to War and Peace, and of course the surface comparisons to Tolstoy are obvious. I believe that Grossman himself, however, would prefer a comparison to Chekhov:
Just try and remember all Chekhov’s different heroes! Probably only Balzac has ever brought such a mass of different people into the consciousness of society. No- not even Balzac. Just think! Doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, landlords, shopkeepers, industrialists, nannies, lackeys, students […] Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness — with people of every estate, every class, every age… More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people — as a Russian democrat. He said — and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy — he said that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings — and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers.
And this is the true purpose of Grossman’s book, even more than the theorizing about human kindness or Stalinism. He wants to write about a vast array of people, Russians and Ukrainians and scientists and grandmothers and small children and generals and prostitutes and clerks, because they are first and foremost human beings. This is what makes his book so well worth reading, and what’s made me keep thinking about it for weeks after I finished it. It’s a fairly major enterprise, but you won’t regret it: the people in its pages will engage and welcome you.