Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, 1945
Like a handful of other people a decade ago, I felt that I held a samizdat; no one else I knew had ever heard of it. Grossman was referenced and footnoted in Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and Berlin: The Downfall, both bestsellers of the 1990s. I am not an obvious audience for military history, but Antony and I had met on the management committee of the Society of Authors, and it seemed only polite to read each others’ books. From Berlin, I moved on to Life and Fate. It took me three weeks to read it and three weeks to recover from the experience, during which time I could barely breathe. Grossman was a Soviet Jewish journalist who covered the battle of Stalingrad and the liberation of the Treblinka extermination camp. After the war he wrote this epic novel. Life and Fate is a Soviet War and Peace, in which every aspect of society radiates out from the central characters, Viktor Shtrum and his wife Lyudmila. Shtrum is a physicist and member of the academy of sciences; his wife’s first husband has been arrested during the purges; her son is a lieutenant in the army; Viktor’s mother, in the Nazi-occupied sector, is en route to the gas chamber. Dozens more interlinked people endure the war and its impact on ordinary and important lives, including those of Stalin and Hitler.