Life and Fate

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate
translated by Robert Chandler
(New York: Vintage, 2006)
First published: 1980

What was at stake was the fate of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Rumania.
What was at stake was the fate of the Russian peasants and workers, the freedom of Russian thought, literature and science.
Stalin was moved. At the moment the future power of the State had merged with his will.
His greatness and genius did not exist independently of the greatness of the State and the armed forces. Only if the State was victorious would his scientific and philosophical works remain an object of study and admiration for millions of people.
He was connected to Yeremenko.
‘What’s up, then?’ said Stalin abruptly. ‘Have the tanks gone in yet?’
Sensing the irritation in Stalin’s voice, Yeremenko quickly put out his cigarette.
‘No, comrade Stalin. Tolbukhin’s just finishing the softening-up barrage. The infantry have cleared the front line, but the tanks haven’t yet entered the breach.’
Stalin cursed loudly and put down the receiver. Yeremenko relit his cigarette and telephoned the commander of the 51st Army. ‘Why haven’t the tanks gone in yet?’

Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, which explores the role of freedom, individual conscience, and authorial power in the USSR and Nazi Germany, was written in 1961 but banned and ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities. Grossman, who had been lauded for his fiction written at the Battle of Stalingrad during World War 2 and for his post-war novel For a Just Cause (1953), was ruined. Life and Fate would not be printed in the Soviet Union until the 1980s.

The image of Stalin’s wartime telephone would have been familiar to Soviet readers. In the canonical story of the war, which painted the disastrous first years of the Second World War as a brilliant plan to entrap the German armies at Stalingrad, a godlike Stalin deftly controls the strategic outcome of the Second World War by phoning in orders from his office. In Grossman’s version, Soviet soldiers and officers win the war and achieve their greatest feats, particularly at Stalingrad, when cut off from Soviet power. Whenever a phone rings, intruding into private spaces, Soviet language and Soviet force threaten to obliterate individual freedom: the protagonist, Viktor Shtrum, is forced to denounce a colleague to save his own skin (an event drawn from the life of the author, who was also forced to make such denunciations); young heroes are divided and killed; the stories of Stalin’s omnipotence, and the death of millions in the war as a necessary precursor to victory, are confirmed.

In the excerpt, an all-powerful Stalin catalyzes the counterattack at Stalingrad that would win the war by sending his tank regiments onto the attack. However, Stalin’s telephone call to his commander, Yeremenko, jolts into action a series of events that will end in the moral and physical deaths of several of the novel’s heroes. Grossman paints Stalin as a crude egoist who wields enormous power, but whose telephone promises not Soviet utopias and glorious martyrdom, but senseless loss as Soviet power crushes individuals.

by Ian Garner