Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2012

Sensational Snippets: Life and Fate (1959), by Vasily Grossman translated by Robert Chandler

As part of my Year of Russian Reading, I have begun Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s magnum opus which was ‘arrested’ by the KGB in 1961.  It was the book that was arrested, not its author, because he was the highly esteemed Soviet journalist who had documented the Battle of Stalingrad, and the first to document the horrors of Nazism when Treblinka was liberated.  So the Soviets were careful not to make a martyr of him.

Grossman was allowed to go on writing, but Life and Fate was stuck in the censor’s office.  Beyond the USSR nobody knew about him or his work, so there were no campaigns for freedom of speech on his behalf as there were for other dissident writers, and he died in 1964 with the novel unpublished.  But a copy had been smuggled out on microfilm, and in 1980 it was translated by Robert Chandler.  It was recently reissued under the Vintage Classics imprint as part of its Orange Inheritance Series, chosen by Orange Prize for Fiction winner Linda Grant as the book she thought was timeless, relevant and important enough to pass onto the next generation.

In the introduction by Grant, a passionate advocate for this book to be more widely known, it is explained why the Soviets feared this book:  It does not have a ‘big’ idea, proclaiming some ideal or -ism or theory, but rather to the contrary.  It celebrates the ordinary, ‘for human life in all its perplexing, muddled, contradictory and infuriating variety.’   This absorbing story exploring the human face of the Battle of Stalingrad and the triumph over fascism shows that the Soviet system was every bit as totalitarian and had the same preoccupation with dominating the individual in the interests of the collective.

In this passage, Grossman introduces Getmanov, a rising star in the Party, and secretary of the party committee of the province, the obkom.  He is visiting his family, safely evacuated from German-occupied territory in Ufa.   He is a powerful man.

His word could decide the fate of a head of a university department, an engineer, a bank manager, a chairman of a trade union, a collective farm or a theatrical production.

But Grossman is a little anxious, for he had expected to be appointed to something more important than mere commissar of a tank corps.  After all, he is admirably qualified:

He had not taken part in the Civil War.  He had not been hunted by the police and had never been exiled to Siberia at the decree of a Tsarist court.  At conferences and congresses he had usually read his reports from a written text.  Even though he had not written these texts himself, he read these reports well, expressively and without hesitation.  Admittedly this was by no means difficult to read – they were printed in large type, double-spaced and with the name of Stalin aways in red.  As a young man Getmanov had been intelligent and disciplined; he had intended to study at the Mechanical Institute but had been recruited for work in the security organs.  (p86)

He makes enquiries to satisfy himself that he does indeed have the confidence of the Party.

The confidence of the party! Getmanov knew the immense meaning of these words.  His whole life – which contained no great books, famous discoveries or military victories – was one sustained, intense, unsleeping labour.  The supreme meaning of this labour lay in the fact that it was done at the demand of the Party and for the sake of the Party.  The supreme reward for this labour was to be granted the confidence of the Party.

The labour of those who enjoy the confidence of the Party is imperceptible.  But it is a vast labour – one must expend one’s mind and soul generously, keeping nothing back.  The power of a Party leader does not require the talent of a scientist or the gift of a writer.  It is something higher than any talent or gift.  Getmanov’s guiding word was anxiously awaited by hundreds of singers, writers and scientific researchers – though Getmanov himself was not only unable to sing, play the piano or direct a theatrical production, but incapable even of truly understanding a work of science, poetry, music or painting … The power of his word lay in the fact that the Party had entrusted him with its own interests in the area of art and culture.  (p86-7)

In the wake of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, Grossman thought he could get away with writing like this, but Khrushchev’s demise meant otherwise…

Update: see my review here.

Author: Vasily Grossman
Title: Life and Fate
Translated by Robert Chandler
Publisher: Vintage, 2011
ISBN: 9780099560630
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.

Fishpond: Life and Fate


  1. I have it on my bookshelf but as yet unread. Having just finished a book yesterday, this seems the perfect choice.


    • Hello Tom, and welcome:)
      I see from your GoodReads bookshelf that you have read some very interesting books, and that you voted War and Peace your best book ever. So I think you will like this one, and I hope to see it rate a good number of stars on your page!


  2. I read this about a year ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. BBC Radio 4 did a dramatization of it at about the same time–highly recommended if you ever see it available for download or listening.


    • Hello, Dwight, that sounds most interesting! I shall have a bit of a hunt around on iTunes to see if they have podcasted it. It would make an amazing film too, I wonder if anyone has plans for that…


  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Friends have been telling me to read Grossman:-


  4. the radio version of this in uk last year was brilliant so well done ,hope you enjoy the rest of it ,all the best stu


  5. Dears,
    There’s a translation of Life and Fate by Robert Chandler; 1985, 2006 and also published by Vintage. I am reading it. How is that Vintage pubblished the same book by another translater (Robert Chapman) in 2011?


    • Thank you for bringing my attention to this mistake, I shall fix it now. This was a book that I read and blogged while I was overseas, and must have been a bit hasty.


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