Vasili Grossman’s massive novel has rightly been compared with War and Peace. footnote＊ The author himself makes it obvious that Tolstoy’s masterpiece not only inspired him but served as a model for his saga of a great country fighting against enormous odds for its very existence. Both artists chose a canvas of huge dimensions to portray events that shook the world; both also turn a penetrating and compassionate gaze at the strains and stresses, torments, sufferings and longings of innumerable individuals, whose life and fate have been cruelly affected or shattered by those events. While Tolstoy painted his picture of Russia in chiaroscuro, Grossman’s image is one of unrelieved darkness and gloom. In his writings the tradition of Tolstoy mingles with that of Dostoevsky.
Like his master, Grossman was a dissenter: he fell foul of the Soviet authorities during the anti-Jewish campaign of the last year of Stalin’s life. In the early 1960s the manuscript of his novel was seized by the kgb; however, one copy reached the West, where it was published after his death in 1964. footnote1 It is often forgotten that in 1901 Tolstoy was excommunicated by the Synod of the Russian Church, and that many of his disciples and followers were exiled or deported to Siberia. Some of his bitterest attacks on the Romanov dynasty could only be published abroad, yet the West never showed recognition of his merit by awarding him the Nobel Prize.
In Tolstoy’s narrative the heroic defence of the Fatherland reaches its apogée in the spectacular fire of Moscow; in Grossman’s the battle for Stalingrad is the decisive turning-point of the Great Patriotic War. Tolstoy began writing his epic fifty years after the events, bringing to his task the imagination of the artist as well as the conscientiousness of the historian. Grossman, on the other hand, describes contemporary events: he was only in his thirties when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and was already an accomplished (though conformist) novelist.
At the outbreak of hostilities he became the correspondent of the army newspaper The Red Star, reporting on the battle of Stalingrad and on the subsequent march of Soviet troops right into the heart of Germany. The scenes he describes have the immediacy of a reportage; the realistic details add to the sense of utter authenticity; yet he also exercises his imagination to convey that which is behind and beneath the visible. Many a ‘war correspondent’ could evaluate the technical side of the fighting or the tactics of the Soviet high command; many reported on the day-to-day life (if ‘life’ is the right word) in besieged Stalingrad, or on the turning of the tide and the victorious advance westwards, across the spaces turned into desert by the scorched earth policy. But only a writer of Grossman’s enormous talent could depict a society in torment. And it was not only the torment of war.
In Life and Fate, the battle of Stalingrad forms something like the trunk of a huge tree with roots reaching deeply into the Soviet soil; yet the trunk becomes virtually overshadowed by densely growing branches, each representing a different class, different milieu, different layer, different nationality of the extraordinarily variegated Union of Soviet Republics. There was no compelling military reason why Stalingrad should have become the site of the greatest battle of the Second World War. But there were powerful psychological reasons why ‘the city of Stalin’ constituted a challenge to Hitler. Barely a year after the October revolution, the first sparks of the deadly hostility between Trotsky and Stalin were lit in what was then Tsaritsyn. Stalin later had it renamed after himself, as the symbol of his power and his glory. But these did not long outlive Stalin, and in 1961 the city began to appear as Volgograd on the world maps.
The greatest battle of the Second World War began in August 1942 and its fortunes were extraordinary from the outset. By the end of the month the Russians had retreated to the middle of the city’s defensive area. Soon they were pushed right to the Volga, their lines of retreat cut and their supplies ferried across the half-frozen river through heavy German fire. By October the battle was being fought for the sheds of three factories, then for single houses, or what was left of them. This was no longer a battle for a city, but for a heap of ruins, a battle waged from cellars, underground passages, deep craters and caves. ‘Men in padded jackets were scurrying about between the furnaces of the Red October steel works. In the distance you could hear shooting and see brief flashes of light . . . You could hear the tramp of German boots; you could hear orders being shouted out; you could even hear quiet clicks as the Germans reloaded their tommy-guns’ (238). As one climbed in to the mouth of a furnace, which was now the regimental commandpost, one’s ‘hands felt the warmth that still lingered in the fire-bricks’; one also had the impression ‘that the people inside these furnaces— . . . that until recently forged steel—must be very special, must themselves have hearts of steel.’ The fierceness of the battle seemed to defy the basic laws of nature. When the oil-tanks exploded even the river was burning: ‘It seemed impossible to escape from the liquid fire. It leaped up, humming and crackling, from the streams of oil that were filling
The grandeur of this and similar scenes is overwhelming. But Grossman is equally telling in noting the behaviour of soldiers in moments of respite, when they just sit around, sip hot tea, cook kasha, eat sausage, wash their foot-cloth, and talk and dream about wives, home, food and girls. These moments are painfully short, for the shelling and bombing go on, the earth trembles, the dug-outs or the cellars get filled with dust or acrid smoke, and often the caving-in of a roof or walls suddenly interrupts ordinary pursuits.