Life and Fate

Life and Fate (Жизнь и судьба), is a 1959 novel by Vasily Grossman, and the author's magnum opus. Technically, it is the second half of the author's conceived two-part book under the same title, but while the first half (the novel For the Right Cause), written during the reign of Joseph Stalin and first published in 1952, expresses loyalty to the regime, Life and Fate sharply criticises Stalinism. Le Monde described it as "the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century."

Vasily Grossman, a Ukrainian Jew, was a prominent Soviet writer for the Soviet military paper, Red Star, Krasnaya Zvezda, as a correspondent in the battle of Stalingrad. He was also a novelist of such books as For a Just Cause and The People are Immortal. He was one of the first journalists to write about the ethnic cleansing of people in Eastern Europe as he was present at many famous battles. Life and Fate was his “piece de resistance” and most defining achievement .

History of the manuscript

Life and Fate, sequel to For a Just Cause that completely overshadows it, was written in the aftermath of Stalin’s death. In the hope that during the “thaw” of Khrushchev it would be published, he submitted it around October of 1960. After Grossman submitted the manuscript for publication to the Znamya magazine, the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks, as well as the typists' copies and even the typewriter ribbons were seized.

With the post-Stalinist Khrushchev Thaw period underway, Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev:

"I ask you to return freedom for my book, I ask that my book be discussed with editors, not the agents of the KGB. What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested... I am not renouncing it... I am requesting freedom for my book."

On July 23, 1962, the Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov told the author that if published, his book could inflict even greater harm to the Soviet Union than Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Suslov notified Grossman that his novel could not be published for at least two hundred years. Both the presumption of the censor and recognition of the work's lasting literary value have been noted in the comment. Grossman even tried to personally appeal to Khrushchev where a clerk Mikhail Suslov told him that Life and Fate would not be published for 250 years.

In 1974, friend Semyon Lipkin got one of the surviving copies put onto microfilm and smuggled it out of the country with the help of satirical writer Vladimir Voinivich and nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. Grossman died in 1964, never seeing his book published in the west [which did not happen until 1980].

As the policy of glasnost was initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev, the novel was finally published on Russian soil in 1988 in the Oktyabr magazine and as a book.

Some critics compared Grossman's war novels with Leo Tolstoy's monumental prose.

Historical Context

Life and Fate takes place during Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, mainly focusing on the Battle of Stalingrad. The German invasion, which started June 22, 1941, had three main spearheads. One was focused on Leningrad in the North West part of the Soviet Union, another targeted Moscow, the capital, and the final spearhead was Stalingrad. When the Germans reached Stalingrad, which is known as Volgograd in modern times, Life and Fate begins. This book begins when Germany laid siege to the city, trying to move through Stalingrad and to the oil fields in the Caucasus Mountains. During Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, one of the main German spearhead was focused on the city of Stalingrad. Throughout the book, there are references of the decaying city and the damage of the aerial bombardments from artillery based around the city. There are also occasions in the Russian novel in which the German barricade is quite noticeable. The characters are suffering from starvation and the lack of clean water.

The characters are, for the most part, historically accurate. The famous characters include Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Many of the characters are simply based on a historical figure, or just a random Russian. The main character, Viktor Shtrum, is a “self portrait” of Grossman himself. But really Shtrum is based on the Jewish physicist Lev Landau, who was dismissed from his job because of the anti-Jewish movement in the Soviet Union. Viktor Shtrum’s opinions and thoughts are really the thoughts and words of Vasily Grossman. Shtrum’s negative thoughts towards communism are Grossman’s opinions.

The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the main turning points in World War II. During the battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets were on the brink of failure when they were forced from the city onto the Volga River. The fierce Soviet counter attack resulted in the capture of the German’s 6th army. The German spearhead was destroyed when Hitler and the Nazis terminated the Moscow spearhead to divert troops to Stalingrad in a rescue mission. After months of fighting, the German 6th division surrendered when Hitler aborted the rescue mission. After the Battle of Stalingrad, the Soviets continued their massive counter attack and forced the Nazis back to Berlin. (map of Stalingrad

In Life and Fate, there are different times when the prison camps are mentioned. Vasily Grossman includes a major part of Life and Fate about a German prison camp, where many characters are on their way to the gas chamber. The characters that were shipped off to Germany were caught leaving one of the countries under Nazi rule. Grossman’s inclusion is historically accurate, since there are records of many Russians in Nazi labor and death camps. Grossman also includes another German concentration camp, where one of Grossman’s main arguments takes place concerning communism and fascism. Grossman takes many pages concerning the prisoners of Russian and German labor and concentration camps, which is necessary for a complete World War II experience.

Vasily Grossman has mastered writing and creating arguments against communism, and a great example is when he describes a woman attempting to receive a traveling pass. Throughout the war, Stalin and the communist party did not allow civilians to migrate to other cities. It was difficult to gain a traveling pass because civilians had to go through an exhausting and rigorous process. Censorship and concentration of Russian civilians were essential parts for communist Russia to be successful.

Main Characters

Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum:

Viktor Shtrum is the central figure in Grossman’s novel. Although there is a multitude of characters in Life and Fate, much of the novel’s plot revolves around Shtrum and his family. Shtrum is married to Lyudmila. He works as a nuclear physicist and is a member of the Academy of Sciences. A crucial aspect of Shtrum’s character is his academic work. He is constantly thinking about his exploration of nuclear physics. This obsession with his work is obvious from the very start of the novel through the thoughts of Lyudmila. Lyudmila and Viktor have drawn apart. Lyudmila acknowledges this disconnect, for she realizes that her husband no longer shares his work with her – something that he used to do constantly. Previous to the war, Shtrum’s family had been living in Moscow, yet the city’s evacuation caused them to move into Kazan. Throughout the novel, Shtrum hints at his opposition to the oppressive government. The war also forces Shtrum to come to terms with his Jewish heritage.

Lyudmila Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova:

Lyudmila is married to Viktor Shtrum and has a daughter with him named Nadya. This is her second marriage. She was originally married to Abarchuk, who has been sent to a Russian Labor Camp. In the beginning of the novel, it is clear that Lyudmila and Viktor have drifted apart. Although their estrangement is not expressed openly by each character, it is evident through Lyudmila’s discussion of her eldest son, Tolya, who she had with Abarchuk. Lyudmila discusses how Viktor and his mother, Anna Semyonovna, always showed a preference to Nadya and ignored Tolya. Lyudmila describes this best when she says “Nadya, Nadya, Nadya…Nadya’s got Viktor’s eyes…Nadya’s absent-minded, Nadya’s quick-witted, Nadya’s very thoughtful.” Lyudmila’s separation and apathy towards Viktor and Nadya grow greater after the death of Tolya.

Yevgenia (‘Zhenya’) Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova:

Yevgenia is Lyudmila’s younger sister. She was originally married to Nikolay Grigorevich Krymov, but when the reader is introduced to her in the novel, she is in a relationship with Colonel Pyotr Pavlovich Novikov. After moving to Kuibyshev, Yevgenia lives with an old German woman named Jenny Genrikovna - a woman who had once worked as the Shaposhinikov family’s governess. Yevgenia had a good relationship with this pleasant lady, but after the old woman is taken to the Far North with other Germans living in Kuibyshev, Yevgenia begins to live alone. Although she is a beautiful and charming woman, Yevgenia has much trouble acquiring a residence permit or a ration-card. After many run-ins with Grishin, the head of the passport department, she is finally able to get these documents using societal connections. She receives aid in acquiring official documentation from Liminov, a man of letters, and Lieutenant-Colonel Rizin, her boss at the design office – both of whom are romantically interested in her.

Dementiy Trifonovich Getmanov:

Getmanov is the secretary of an obkom and is appointed commissar to Novikov’s tank corps. He is described as having large and distinct features: “his shaggy, graying head, his broad forehead, and his fleshy nose.” Getmanov is married to Galin Terentyevna. He has two daughters and a young son. His family lives in Ufa, where his comrades take care of them when Getmanov is away. Getmanov comes off as a strong supporter of the party. His prime objective in life is to move up in the party’s hierarchy. Thus, he is very cautious about what he says and what who are associated with him say, because he does not want to offend the party or Stalin in anyway. This is obvious when he is discussing politics with his friends before leaving for the front. When one man discusses how his young son once abused a picture of Stalin, Getmanov is overly critical and says that this behavior, even from a youngster, should not be tolerated. Getmanov is also quite arrogant. He feels insulted at being appointed the commissar to only a tank corps.


Abarchuk is Lyudmila’s first husband. He was arrested in 1937 and sent to a Russian Labor Camp. Abarchuk is a strong supporter of the party. He feels as though he has been wrongly imprisoned, yet does not fault the party for its actions. He believes that such erroneous arrests are justifiable in the large scheme of party stability. Abarchuk works with tools and materials in the camp. He works with a criminal named Barkhatov, who blackmails many people and even kills one of Abarchuk’s friends, Abrasha Rubin. Abarchuk’s actions are shaped by his need of approval by the party. He refuses to even allow Tolya to take his surname, for Abarchuk believes that this might hurt his standing and party image.

Pyotr Lavrentyevich Sokolov:

Sokolov is a mathematician in Viktor’s laboratory. In the beginning of the novel, Sokolov and Viktor are good friends. They love talking about their academic work and often get together at Sokolov’s home to discuss life and politics. As the novel progresses, however, it is evident that Viktor and Marya Ivanovna Sokolova, Sokolov’s wife, have feelings for each other. As Sokolov becomes aware of this, his relationship with Viktor obviously changes. They became even more competitive academically and are less friendly with each other.

Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy:

Mostovskoy is an Old Bolshevik in a German Concentration Camp. He is the first major character that the reader is introduced to and he appears in the very beginning of the novel. Mostovskoy was involved in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and had strong ties to the Bolshevik party. Before his imprisonment, he was exiled in London and Switzerland. Although the living conditions in the camp are horrible, Mostovskoy is reasonable and optimistic. He says that the great mixture of prisoners in the camps, all from different ethnic, political and religious backgrounds, leads to an interesting environment. He can use his knowledge of foreign languages in the camp and he can attempt to understand new perspectives. Those inside the camp, including Mostovskoy, are extremely interested in what is going on in the war. Grossman uses Mostovskoy’s character to reveal the philosophical tension that pervaded Europe during WWII. Mostovskoy is constantly involved in philosophical arguments with fellow prisoners such as Major Yershov and Ikonnikov, a former Tolstoyan.

Sofya Osipovna Levinton:

When the reader first meets Levinton, she is in a train on the way to a German gas chamber. We later find out that she is an army doctor and an old friend of Yevgenia. On the train, Levinton meets a small boy named David. She soon realizes that he has no relatives with him. He was separated from his family before the war and his grandmother died in a Jewish ghetto. Over the course of the novel, Levinton grows to love David as a son. When the Germans offer to sacrifice certain prisoners of value (such as doctors), she does not save herself; rather, she stays with David and heads to the gas chamber to die. This sequence of events in Life and Fate is especially powerful. It demonstrates how human compassion can rise above the atrocities that defined WWII.

Captain Grekov:

Grekov is the ‘house-manager’ in House 6/1 – a Soviet stronghold surrounded by German troops. He is the emotional leader in this house and is highly respected. As a fierce and courageous soldier, he can truly inspire those around him to keep fighting in the direst situations. Tension forms between Krymov and Grekov as the novel progresses, because Grekov desires to act independently. He does not want Krymov to command him or control his actions, even if Krymov is the acting commissar. In this way, Grekov is a stubborn leader.

Nikolay Grigorevich Krymov:

Krymov is Yevgenia’s former husband. He is the commissar - a political functionary - and is in control of the region in which House 6/1 is located. While Krymov seems to be a good communist, he has had a history of run-ins with party officials. Thus, he must watch everything that he does and says. Although Yevgenia claims to be over Krymov, she constantly thinks about him. Later in the novel, Yevgenia and Krymov reunite and rekindle their love. Krymov, however, is soon arrested and interrogated for unclear connections to ‘anti-party’ activity.

Colonel Pyotr Pavlovich Novikov:

Novikov is Yevgenia’s lover and the commanding officer of a Soviet Tank Corps. At the front, Novikov interacts with Getmanov. In many ways, Grossman juxtaposes these two characters in the novel. Novikov’s relationship with Yevgenia is focused on throughout Life and Fate. While he believes that he is getting closer to Yevgenia, the reader realizes that Yevgenia is slowly drifting away from him and growing closer to Krymov, her former husband.

Plot summary

The novel at heart narrates the history of the Shaposhnikov family and the Battle of Stalingrad. It is written in the socialist realist style, which can make it seem odd in parts to western readers.

Life and Fate is a multi-faceted novel, one of ideas being that the Great Patriotic War was the struggle between two comparable totalitarian states. The tragedy of the common people is that they have to fight both the invaders and the totalitarianism of their own state.

Life and Fate is a sprawling account of life on the eastern front, with countless plotlines taking place simultaneously all across Russia and Eastern Europe. Although each story has a linear progression, the events are not necessarily presented in chronological order. Grossman will, for example, introduce a character, then ignore that character for hundreds of pages, and then return to recount events that took place the very next day. Thus, it is difficult to synopsize the novel, but the plot can be boiled down to three basic plotlines: the Shtrum/Shapashnikov family, the siege of Stalingrad, and life in the camps of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Although Life and Fate is divided into three parts, all of these plotlines are featured in every section.

Viktor Shtrum is a brilliant physicist who, with his wife, Lyudmila, and daughter, Nadya, has been evacuated from Moscow to Kazan. He is experiencing great difficulty with his work, as well as with his family. He then receives a letter from his mother from inside a Jewish ghetto informing him that she is soon to be killed by the Germans. Lyudmila, meanwhile, goes to visit her son from her first marriage, Tolya, in an army hospital, but he dies before her arrival. When she returns to Kazan, she is extremely detached and seems to still be expecting Tolya’s return. Viktor finds himself engaging in anti-soviet conversations at his colleague, Sokolov’s house, partly to impress Sokolov’s wife, Marya (Lyudmila’s only friend). He consistently compares political situations to physics, and remarks that fascism and Stalinism are not so different. He later regrets these discussions out of fear that he will be denounced, an indecision that plagues his decision-making throughout the novel. Suddenly, Viktor makes a huge mathematical breakthrough, solving the issues that had hindered his experiments. Viktor’s colleagues are slow to respond, but eventually people come to accept the genius of his discovery. After moving back to Moscow, however, the higher-ups begin to criticize his discoveries as being anti-Leninist and attacking his Jewish identity. Viktor, however, refuses to publicly repent and is forced to resign. He fears that he will be arrested, but then receives a call from Stalin himself (presumably because Stalin had sensed the military importance of nuclear research) that completely, and immediately reverses his fortune. Later, he signs a letter denouncing two innocent men and is subsequently racked by guilt. The last details about Viktor regard his unconsummated affair with Marya.

The events recounted at Stalingrad center on Yevghenia Shapashnikova (Lyudmila’s sister), Krymov (her former husband), and Novikov (her lover). After reconnecting with Novikov, Yevghenia evacuates to Kuibyshev. Novikov, the commander of a Soviet tank corps, meets General Nyeudobnov and Political Commissar Getmanov, both of whom are party hacks. Together they begin planning the counter-assault on Stalingrad. Novikov delays the start of the assault for fear of unnecessarily sacrificing his men. Getmanov later denounces Novikov and he is summoned for trial, even though the tank attack was a complete success. Meanwhile, Krymov, a Political Commissar, is sent to investigate House 6/I, where a tiny group of soldiers have held back the Germans for weeks, even though they are completely surrounded and cut off from all supplies. Grekov, the commanding officer, refuses to send reports to HQ, and is disdainful of Krymov’s rhetoric. He later wounds Krymov in his sleep, causing him to be evacuated from the house. Soon after, House 6/I is completely leveled by German bombs. Krymov, a staunch communist, is then accused of being a traitor (this was standard for Russian soldiers who had been trapped behind enemy lines) and is sent to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow, where he is beaten and forced to confess. Yevghenia decides not to marry Novikov and goes to Moscow to try and visit Krymov. He receives a package from her and realizes that he still loves her but may never be released from prison.

The sections that take place in the camps have few recurring characters, with the exception of Mostovskoy, an Old Bolshevik who takes part in a plot to rebel against the Germans, but is dismayed by the prevailing lack of faith in Communism. His interrogator, Liss, asserts that Fascism and Communism are two sides of the same coin, which upsets Mostovskoy greatly. He is later killed by the Germans for his part in the uprising. In one scene, Sturmbannführer Liss tells old Bolshevik Mostovsky, a Nazi concentration camp inmate, that both Stalin and Hitler are the leaders of qualitatively new formation: "When we look at each other's faces, we see not only a hated face; we see the mirror reflection. ... Don't you recognize yourself, your [strong] will in us?". Grossman also focuses on Sofya Levinton, a Jewish woman on her way to a Nazi extermination camp.

As Grossman moves into Part Three of the novel, he writes with an increasingly analytic style and abandons many of the characters that he has created. The only plotlines that achieve real closure are those whose protagonists perish during the war. All of these characters, he seems to say, are part of a larger, ongoing story—that of Russia, and of mankind. The final chapter solidifies this notion of universality; the author introduces an entirely new set of characters who remain totally anonymous.

Grossman describes the type of Communist party functionaries, who blindly follow the party line and constitute the base for the oppressive regime. One such political worker (политработник), Sagaidak, maintained that entire families and villages intentionally starved themselves to death during the collectivisation in the USSR.

Major Themes

Theme on Jewish Identity and Holocaust

Throughout Life and Fate, it becomes obvious that a portion of his epic novel’s thesis is about his Jewish identity. Viktor Shtrum is in part a reflection of Grossman’s own character. There are many overlaps between Shtrum’s life and Grossman’s life, such as Grossman’s and Shtrum’s mother’s death in the Holocaust; both seem to find a place in their Jewish identity that was not present before the war. Grossman was one of the first to write about the Holocaust in 1944, seeing first hand that Eastern Europe was empty of Jews; Jewish acquaintances he came to check up on were in mass graves, their houses empty. His article on the camp Treblinka was even used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. Raised as a secular Jew, it becomes clear that Shtrum discovers part of his identity through the suffering he encounters.

Grossman’s idea of humanity and human goodness:

One the most important topics that Life and Fate discusses is the nature of humanity—more specifically, the nature of human good. Grossman addresses this theme directly in Ch. 15 of Part II, where he uses Ikonnikov’s letter to provide his own unique perspective on humanity. He first asks whether a good common to all man exists, and then proceeds to describe how the ideal of good has changed for different races and religions. Grossman criticizes Christianity especially, deeming its attempt to create universal good through peace and love responsible for many of the world’s most horrific events. “This doctrine caused more suffering than all of the crimes of people who did evil for its own sake,” he writes (406). Grossman then inquires as to the very nature of life—is it that life itself is evil? And although he provides multiple examples of such evil, Grossman does believe that life itself has some good in it: “Yes, as well as this terrible Good…there is everyday human kindness” (407). But it’s not so simple, for “after despairing of finding Good either in God or in Nature, I began to despair even of kindness...[Grossman then resolves that] 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 kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” (410). Here, Grossman offers an alternative to despair: the idea that, despite such great evil, humanity and good will be the ultimate victors. Simple, often unnoticed, human kindness forms the basis for Grossman’s theory, which is to say that despite great evil, small acts of charity reflect the idea that good is both alive and unconquerable no matter what. No matter how great the evil may be, this basic “kernel” of good is a key part of human nature and can never be crushed.

It is thus clear that, despite his acknowledgement of the world’s great evil, Grossman believes humanity to be fundamentally good. If mankind is stripped down to its very core, all that will remain is this invincible kernel; therefore, it is this kernel (and perhaps this kernel alone) that is responsible for the basic goodness of humanity.

Stalin’s distortion of reality and values:

One of Stalin’s most frightening achievements during the period of his rule was his total distortion of the Russian reality: he replaced an ethical world—one which, at the very least, contained morals and values—with a perverted religion advocating faith in solely the will of the Party. As Ian Buruma writes in his New York Review of Books article entitled Master of Fear, Simon Sebag Montefiore [the author of the book Buruma is reviewing] “sees Stalin less as a gangster boss than as a malevolent priest of a sinister cult” (Buruma). Buruma then informs the reader that “when Stalin was about to order the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in The Great Terror of 1937, he said the following to some of his oldest collaborators who were about to be swept away in the purges: ‘Maybe it can be explained by the fact that you lost faith.’ Here, writes Montefiore, ‘was the essence of the religious frenzy of the coming slaughter.’” (Buruma). Thus, Stalin dramatically changed the reality of the U.S.S.R. from a world in which common good, kindness, and humanity were at least alive, if not prevalent, to a world in which only devotion to the Party mattered.

This worldview is reflected in Ch. 40 of Part I, when Grossman describes Abarchuk and his love for Stalinism. “He [Abarchuk] had repeated, ‘You don’t get arrested for nothing,’ believing that only a tiny minority, himself among them, had been arrested by mistake. As for everyone else—they had deserved their sentences. The sword of justice was chastising the enemies of the Revolution. He had seen servility, treachery, submissiveness, cruelty…And he had referred to all this as ‘the birthmarks of capitalism,’ believing that these marks were borne by people of the past…His faith was unshakable, his devotion to the Party infinite” (179). As the text indicates, Abarchuk is incapable of understanding the reality of his situation—that he has been wrongly imprisoned and will suffer in spite of his innocence, as has happened to so many others. Abarchuk is so completely immersed in the aura of the Party and so dedicated to the Stalinist religion that he cannot see the ethical violations occurring all around him. He is a reflection of the “religious frenzy” of Stalinism; the prisoner simply refuses to comprehend his situation and instead chooses to focus on his faith and devotion to the Party (Buruma).

Therefore, Abarchuk and his mentality are, at this point in the book, Grossman’s representations of the archetypical Party member and the dream-world in which he lives. Abarchuk’s situation is easy enough to understand: he has been arrested for a crime that he did not commit, and regardless of his guilt, he will be punished. Instead of understanding and accepting this, however, Abarchuk remains faithful to the Party and truly believes that he has been imprisoned by mistake. Thus, despite being presented with an excellent cause to abandon the Party, Abarchuk maintains his faith—no better allegory can be found for Stalin’s iron grip on Russia’s reality. The Party’s ethical violations are endless, and Abarchuk is getting a small taste of Stalinist injustice during his period in captivity. Nevertheless, he refuses to accept the actual reality of his situation, and instead chooses to remain faithful to the present system—a system which he still believes with all his heart to be correct. No better evidence can be found in Life and Fate for Joseph Stalin’s perversion of the reality, values, and very humanity of mankind.

Life Goes On:

At the end of Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman presents the reader with the broadest concept of his novel: the idea that, despite war, genocide, suffering beyond the realm of imagination, and utter destruction, life goes on. This idea is depicted in the last few lines of the book, as Grossman writes, “Somehow you could sense spring more vividly in this cool forest than on the sunlit plain. And there was a deeper sadness in this silence than in the silence of autumn. In it you could hear both a lament for the dead and the furious joy of life itself. It was still cold and dark, but soon the doors and shutters would be flung open. Soon the house would be filled with the tears and laughter of children, with the hurried steps of a loved woman and the measured gait of the master of the house. They stood there, holding their bags, in silence.” (871). All through Life and Fate, Grossman has painted gritty pictures of war, death, and suffering. He has shown us the loss of hope, destruction, and total fatigue. Indeed, the author references these scenes as he describes the sadness in the silence of the forest—the “lament for the dead”—and the “still cold and dark” house (871). Grossman, however, does not conclude the book with these thoughts. He turns instead to the future, and future hope. The author describes a family scene, with a husband, wife, and children, in addition to the flinging open of doors and shutters—an act symbolic of moving on and reclaiming one’s life. Therefore, Grossman wants the reader to come away Life and Fate with an appreciation for the darkness of WWII, but also an understanding of the cyclical nature of life. We may suffer, but, in the end, life always goes on; happiness and peace return eventually.


As a Soviet physicist, the main character of the novel, Viktor Shtrum, offers an irregular view of the Soviet system. Science, in the novel, plays the role of a calming constant, the last remnant of rationality in a world of chaos. Despite Stalin’s alterations and manipulations of societal and human truths, he cannot deny the plausibility of physics. For this reason, Viktor is affected by both the disrupted world of his personal life and the soothing world of mathematics. He finds that his two lives begin to split inexplicably as he becomes more and more pressured from both sides. As his anxiety over his dysfunctional formula eats away at him, he realizes that he can no longer discuss such things openly with his wife. And vice-versa, as his friendship with his partner, Sokolov, is threatened by Viktor’s anti-Party feelings and temper, his work also suffers.

In Chapter 17 of Part One, Viktor discourses on the new jumps made in physics during the forties and fifties. He remarks that the stability of science previously falsely represented the universe. Instead, he wonders at the newfound bending, stretching, and flattening of space. “The world was no longer Euclidean, its geometrical nature no longer composed of masses and their speeds.” (Grossman 79) While this discovered chaos may at first seem to contradict the sanctity of reason, it actually strengthens it. With this realization, Viktor learns that the political and social chaos Russia is undergoing in fact fits right in with the fundamental laws of the universe. This is why science was such a key field under the Soviet regimes.

Under Stalin, free thought was oppressed and discouraged. Therefore, Viktor’s work as a physicist was increasingly difficult under the watchful eye of Stalin. During much of the novel, Viktor finds himself at a loss for the solution to a problem concerning an atomic phenomenon. The point as which he finally figures it out, however, is a point when he has just thoroughly slandered Stalinism and Soviet society. This goes to show that Grossman believed that true freedom of thought was entirely impossible in anyone who accepted Stalin as their leader.

Reality of War

Grossman, in many chapter involving Seryozha Shaposhnikov and Novikov, portrays the stark difference between life on the battlefield and in the cities. In chapter sixty of part one, Seryozha is introduced among the war-hardened soldiers of the surrounded House 6/1. Here, Grossman offers an interpretation of war that compares it to an all-engrossing haze. “When a man is plunged up to his neck into the cauldron of war, he is quite unable to look at his life and understand anything.” (Grossman 255) This statement sets up the book to be looked at from two different perspectives: those whose lives are entirely immersed in war, and those who either straddle or are more distanced from it.

In his writing, Grossman gives a very distinct feeling to war scenes that is absent from chapters devoted to city-life and totalitarian rule. Battles are imbued with an intense feeling of isolation, from government, politics, and bureaucracy. Instead, they focus on the thoughts of the human, the individual who is participating. Thoughts of family, lovers, friends, and home become the centerpiece of these violent sections. In House 6/1, even in their vulnerable position, everyone becomes infatuated with the one woman present and ‘gossip’ reigns. By setting this up, the author seeks to separate the true meaning of the war from the ideologies that supposedly govern it. In addition, their feelings and emotions that are directed towards their relations become a flurry of unrelated thoughts, brought on by the chaos of war.

In domestic settings, however, the focus becomes entirely on meaning behind the war, political ideologies, and largely abstractions. Aside from the direct personal relationships and casualties experienced, conversation in cities often concerns the war as an abstraction, not as an experience. In this way, there is a stark difference in perception in and out of Stalingrad. As Grossman paints it, war completely devours those involved, becoming in many ways an alternative reality irreconcilable with their former reality. There is an increased amount of freedom, lacking the constraints of Russian bureaucracy, but also an increased risk of death. It poses different daily questions to the individuals involved, asking them how they should spend and survive their day instead of asking if it’s worth it to do so.

Grossman's Views on Totalitarianism

The impact of totalitarianism on society was another major theme in Grossman’s novel. The battle of Stalingrad was between two totalitarian governments. One was the Fascist Nazis, who were the clear antagonists throughout the novel. The other group was the Communist Russians. Grossman could not blatantly speak out against Communism when writing Life and Fate, but he was able to conceal his beliefs about Communism through his characters and by drawing similarities to fascism.

Many of the characters in Grossman’s novel are directly affected by totalitarianism. The character Abarchuk is a devoted Communist who ends up in a work camp. He tells himself that he is only there because it is where he can most help the Communist Party, but it is clear that he is just another victim of an unjust government. The character Krymov is another who has done nothing wrong yet still is detained. He is charged with treason after his ex-wife’s lover reports on him. The protagonist of the novel, Viktor Shtrum, is a rebel throughout much of the novel. He does his work for the furthering of science, not to help the Soviet cause. He also refuses to go to work until the Soviet leaders give him adequate staff. But a simple call from Stalin puts him right back to work and he even signs a letter denouncing any claims that the Soviet government imprisons people based on political beliefs.

Grossman appears to view totalitarianism as the same as fascism. He dedicates entire chapters comparing the two. One way this is done is through a dialogue a Nazi Concentration Camp prisoner has with his S.S. interrogator. Instead of actually interrogating his prisoner, Mostovsky, the S.S. officer Liss attempts to show Mostovsky the similarities between Communism and Fascism. Liss claims that the Nazis learned from Stalin like that “To build Socialism in One County, 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”. Through Mostovsky, Grossman shows how similar all totalitarian governments are and how blind people must be not to realize it.

There are some chapters where Grossman is even more candid in his views on totalitarianism. He declares that “Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crimes committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism”. But many of the characters in Life and Fate commit crimes and imprison people in the name of Communism or Stalin. Grossman also references events that happened in Russia such as uprisings in Berlin, Hungary and Siberia during the 1950s in his criticism of totalitarianism.


  1. Tolstoy Studies Journal: Ellis, Frank. Concepts of War in L.N. Tolstoy and V.S. Grossman. Volume II, 1989, pp. 101-108

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