Profound humanity and light in life’s darkest decade
Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, like its better-known and more rounded sequel (or second half) Life and Fate, is a vast, panoptic portrayal of the men, women and children whose lives cross and entwine during the Battle of Stalingrad, the city which became the fulcrum of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union after the Nazi’s invasion in June 1941. More than a just retelling of the war, Stalingrad is a meditation on morality, human nature, good and evil, fascism, totalitarianism and life itself. The follow-up Life and Fate spends more time on these abstractions and intangibles, and is the superior book for it. But Stalingrad too is a tome of immense understanding and wisdom, introducing so many characters vital to Life and Fate that they can rightly be seen as two halves of the same book.
Russian novels, hundreds of pages long and heavier than a small child, are obstacles only to the incurious or faint of heart. Nevertheless, at almost 900 pages, Stalingrad is at first glance a formidable endeavour, its sheer heft almost imploring the reader to heave it on top of their pile of ‘one day’ books they will eventually (i.e. never) get round to picking up. This would be an error. Readers of Life and Fate will be all too aware that Stalingrad is simply unmissable. Hesitant newcomers are encouraged to dive in – they will be well rewarded for their courage. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s translation is a masterful achievement that breathes life into Grossman’s titanic story, a story which gives equal attention to the large and small elements of existence that together constitute a life.
Indeed, both Stalingrad and Life and Fate are like Altdorfer’s The Battle on the Issus: a vast landscape of clashing armies blanketed by an ominous sky, but with each detail captured so intricately and with such precision as to convey both the singularity of each actor and also their subordination into the sweeping mass that envelops them. Despite the chaos and hardship, Grossman reveals the warmth and tenderness that humans are capable of under extreme duress, the simple clarity of thought gifted to those whose lives teeter on the edge of an abyss, and how ordinary solidarity, friendship and kindness, far from being indicators of the meek, are the determiners of real humanity.
Such an idea was more than just quixotic wish-thinking for Grossman, a man who grew up and lived in a bleak and dangerous world. A Ukrainian Jew, born in 1905 in the Russian Empire, Grossman lived through the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Civil War that followed it, the nascent years of Soviet power, Stalin’s Terror, Nazi growth, expansion and defeat, the vagaries of Soviet internal censorship and repression, and, of course, the Shoah. To emerge from these and proclaim kindness the ultimate good is an astonishing example of moral fortitude.
It is the more remarkable given the consequences of these events for Grossman. In 1941, his mother was murdered by the Nazis in the Berdychiv ghetto along with tens of thousands of other Jews (represented in Stalingrad and Life and Fate in Viktor Shtrum’s mother Anna Semyonovna). That Grossman gives space to Nazi characters in Stalingrad, some of whom are even sympathetic, testifies to his unshakable belief in the good to be found in human beings, a good that, even buried beneath ideology, exists within us all. But then, without such a generous view, Grossman could not have written either book, which warn us of the pit into which dogma can lead us – a message that too often can register as cliché but one which, once forgotten, is dearly paid for.
As a Red Star reporter, Grossman was present in Stalingrad during its siege. He started writing the novel after Soviet victory in 1943 and it was first serialised in 1952. His manuscript, however, underwent the tortuous and morale-sapping rigmarole of Soviet censorship, with several different editions featuring rewritten parts by Grossman and text omitted by the censors. Worse was in store for Life and Fate, which was, as Grossman memorably put it, ‘arrested’ by the authorities and remained unpublished at Grossman’s death. Grossman also narrowly escaped being swallowed up in Stalin’s anti-Semitic Doctor’s Plot of 1951-53, which some believe would have heralded the second mass-murder of Jews in a decade. Stalin’s heart gave out before he got any further with it, but we should remember the circumstances of Grossman’s life when reading Ikonnikov’s letter in Life and Fate, which acknowledges that ‘private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal’.
All of which – the subject, the length, the themes – might give an impression of po-faced solemnity or stark moral finger-wagging. Though Stalingrad does sometimes bang the drum for Soviet workers, it is in fact far from humourless, and both novels capture the trivialities and frivolities of life that give rise to laughter and which persist even through war (though why should this come as a surprise, as if humour isn’t wedded to life?). Life’s curiosities – ‘“But there’s something about hotel air – it always contains a microbe of student frivolity”’ – are given as much room as the landscape, sky, weather and plant and animal life around Stalingrad. The Volga is almost a character, a silent witness to the mayhem above its banks. It is, like the other details seemingly secondary to the story, the subject of Grossman’s intense but inclusive gaze.
Mixed with these are moments of poetic rhapsody or psychological insight:
People who are very similar often feel a mutual dislike; their similarities engender only envy and ill will… It is the same with understanding; it too does not always bring people closer. Sometimes, one person sees another’s secret failings all too clearly; the second person is aware of this and resents it. Conversely, people sometimes feel grateful and affectionate towards those who do not understand them, who are blind to their weaknesses.
Departing Moscow on a train bound for Kazan, Viktor Shtrum and his fellow passengers are forced to abandon their carriages when a bombing raid begins on Moscow. They stand at the edge of a forest and through the darkness witness the half-seen carnage:
Over the city, swaying anxiously, almost as if it were breathing, hung a pale blue tent of searchlight beams. The trajectories of anti-aircraft shells – coloured threads drawn by an invisible steel needle – embroidered the sky with living patterns of red and green. There were the flashes of exploding shells, and the roar of the guns themselves. Now and again there was a slow, sullen, muted rumble – a high-explosive bomb falling on some Moscow building. And then – rising slowly into the air – something yellow and heavy, like the slow flapping of wings.
Grossman’s novelistic eye is razor sharp, and he is a master of the keys used to unlock the human heart. Scenes that depict man at his darkest are book-ended with vignettes from a family setting the table for dinner, or from the frontline, where stretches of tedium are suddenly disturbed by the most dogged fighting. A person’s character, indeed their whole life, can be discerned in the way Grossman has them light a cigarette, stand to attention, settle on a chair or comb their hair. These idiosyncrasies give the novel and its characters a richness and verisimilitude, reminding us that each person is an individual, with a background, a family, a history.
Stalingrad flits between different characters as the Wehrmacht makes its steady and seemingly inexorable sweep across Eastern Europe and into the Soviet Union. The last third of the novel centres on Stalingrad itself, and the close, hand-to-hand fighting that took place their as Soviet forces dug in amid relentless bombardment. But we are also invited into the lives of farmers, factory workers, nurses, toddlers, pensioners and high-ranking officials; each are given their slice of time, and Grossman, sometimes in just a short passage, illuminates their existence with all their hopes and obsessions, petty or noble. With incredible magnanimity, Grossman enters into the consciousness of Hitler himself, who, sleeping in the New Reich Chancellery, was ‘during these hours of ugly, troubled sleep…closest to being human’.
We should treat with caution novels that are lauded as life-changing, but there is a dignity and depth of feeling to Stalingrad, and especially to Life and Fate, that leave an indelible mark. They are a historical record of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but they are also something else. Through them runs a profound humanity that is deeply moving, affirming the primacy and resolve of ordinary human beings even as their lives are torn and scattered by suffering.
 Grossman, Life and Fate, p. 392
 Grossman, Stalingrad, pgs. 298-99
 Grossman, Stalingrad. pgs. 192-93
 Grossman, Stalingrad. p. 492
Grossman, V. (trans. Chandler, E and Chandler, R) 2019. Stalingrad. London.
Grossman, V. (trans. Chandler, R) 2006. Life and Fate. London.