The Man from Stalingrad

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964)

Vasily Grossman (1905-1964)

Over the last year, I have been participating in a European History Meetup Group that, for a while anyway, turned into a Russian history group. We did readings and discussions on Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Stalin’s purges beginning in 1937, and two sessions on the Russian contribution to the Second World War.

Vasily Grossman was a loyal supporter of Stalin and, as such, served as a war correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda, the official Red Army newspaper. He was in Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and Berlin during the battles for those cities; and he provided eyewitness accounts of the liberation of the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka.

Only toward the end of Stalin’s rule, when the dictator began to persecute the Russian Jews, did Grossman begin to rue his former attachment to the State. His great 900-page novel, Life and Fate, shows the actual change of mind taking place.

His extended Jewish family of Shaposhnikov women and their in-laws both suffer and are rewarded for their contributions to the State. Mostly, though, they suffer. Even the heroic tank commander, Nikolov, who leads the first Soviet armored units into the Ukraine, ends the book with an order to report to the stavka (General Staff) in Moscow. His scientist/academician, Viktor Shtrum, receives a congratulatory call from Stalin just when he thinks he is about to be arrested and interrogated—but then he is pressured into signing a statement that two physicians he respects were responsible for murdering the writer Maxim Gorky.

Stalin gives with one hand and takes away with the other. At the end of the Siege of Stalingrad, Grandma Shaposhnikov walks through the ruins and ponders:

And here she was, an old woman now, living and hoping, keeping faith, afraid of evil, full of anxiety for the living and an equal concern for the dead; here she was, looking at the ruins of her home, admiring the spring sky without knowing that she was admiring it, wondering why the future of those she loved was so obscure and the past so full of mistakes, not realizing that this very obscurity and unhappiness concealed a strange hope and clarity, not realizing that in the depths of her soul she already knew the meaning of both her own life and the lives of her nearest and dearest, not realizing that even though neither she herself nor any of them could tell what was in store, even though they all knew only too well that fate alone has the power to pardon and to chastise, to raise up to glory and to plunge into need, to reduce a man to labour-camp dust, nevertheless neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State, nor the glory and infamy of battle has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings. No, whatever life holds in store—hard-won glory, poverty and despair, or death in a labour camp—they will live as human beings and die as human beings, the same as those who have already perished; and in this alone lies man’s eternal and bitter victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be …

Life and Fate is one of the great novels of twentieth century Russia, on a par with (and perhaps even a little bit better than) Anatoli Rybakov’s Arbat trilogy (Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Ashes and Dust).

As I wrote in my review of the book for Goodreads.Com:

I rather doubt that most readers will have the sitzfleisch to attack either Grossman or Rybakov. Unless one is somewhat familiar with the history and with Russian character names and patronymics, one is not likely to stray too far from the tried and true and excessively familiar. But, know this, there are rewards for those who do.

For an interesting perspective on Grossman, check out this site from the Jewish Daily Forward.