In Search of an Honest Man


by Vasily Grossman, translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, edited by Robert Chandler and Yuri Bit-Yunan
New York Review Books, 1,053 pp., $27.95 (paper)
Stalingrad, 1942
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Stalingrad, 1942

Since Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate was first published, posthumously, in 1980, it has earned praise as one of the most significant books of our time. Leon Aron called it “the greatest Russian novel of the twentieth century.” Linda Grant wrote in The Guardian that it was the only book that ever changed her worldview: “It took me three weeks to read it and three weeks to recover from the experience, during which time I could barely breathe.”

What makes this book so remarkable? Modeled on Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace, Life and Fate recounts the adventures of soldiers and civilians during the German invasion of the Soviet Union.1 Focusing on the Battle of Stalingrad, it also depicts Russian POWs in a Nazi death camp, a group of Jews on their way to the gas chamber, Nazi officers defending their ideology, and Soviet commissars defending theirs. Like War and Peace, Life and Fate centers on a single family, in this case the Shaposhnikovs. The family matriarch, Alexandra Vladimirovna Shaposhnikova, sets the moral tone for her numerous children and grandchildren. For her, basic decency and family loyalty matter more than ideology. A Jewish physicist, Viktor Shtrum, married to Alexandra Vladimirovna’s daughter Lyudmila, struggles to solve the mysteries of the atomic nucleus without violating Marxist-Leninist metaphysics and while attempting to justify his compromises with the regime. His brother-in-law Nikolai Krymov, formerly married to Lyudmila’s sister Yevgenia, exemplifies the dedicated Bolshevik. Unflinchingly devoted to an ideology demanding mass killing, he himself is eventually arrested, interrogated under torture, and forced to weigh his conscience against his political beliefs.

The conflict between ideology and human decency shapes the novel from start to finish. As Krymov’s faith in Bolshevik cruelty totters, the German officer Bach’s attachment to Nazi cruelty strengthens. The two ideologies confront each other directly when the Bolshevik Mostovskoy, imprisoned in a Nazi camp, argues with the Russian-speaking SS officer Liss, who points out the uncanny parallels between Nazi and Soviet philosophy, ethics, and political practice. Mostovskoy also argues with an old-fashioned humanist, Ikonnikov, who has transcended his former faith in Christianity and Tolstoyanism to arrive at an ethical stance opposed to ideological thinking. If we regard the twentieth century as an age of ideology, we grasp why Life and Fate has struck many readers as so important.

Although it can be read on its own, Life and Fate is actually the second part of a “dilogy.” It continues the story of Grossman’s earlier novel, Stalingrad, which he was forced to publish under the title For a Just Cause, a phrase that Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov had used to describe the Soviet war effort when he announced the German invasion. Robert and Elizabeth Chandler’s new translation of Stalingrad allows us to trace the earlier trajectory of Life and Fate’s many real…

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