Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. 10/10. A very, very great novel, a work of genius, more than comparable to War and Peace or any other of the epics. Only a Russian novel, one feels, could both have such a title and live up to it – what it is about Russian culture that enables it bring forth such rich fruit, so epic in scope, so detailed in description and characterisation and contending with such vast themes of freedom and oppression, life and meaning, love and loss.
While the novel is anchored by the battle of Stalingrad its true preoccupation is freedom – what it is, its importance and the ways it is can be both asserted and destroyed. This is one of the greatest works about freedom. In particular Grossman shows, through the many interweaving stories, how oppression destroys not simply those directly in its path, whether via imprisonment, torture, extermination or war, but also all those who must deform themselves to the monstrosity of the system, who compromise their integrity in order to survive, or their humanity in order to succeed.
This point can be illustrated by two separate strands of the novel (the book is broken into a variety of separate stories joined more or less strongly by common characters and relationships). The first, in terms of space, is fairly minor and enters only once while the second, which revolves around the Shaposhnikov family, is one of the largest of the entire work.
This first ‘thema’, deals with Abarchuk a devout Bolshevik who has been sent to the Gulag. At the end of the secion he regains his moral self-respect by testifying against one of his fellow prisoners (a common criminal) who has been stealing materials even though this makes it practically certain he will be killed by the criminal gang who control the camp. At the very same time Abarchuk is confronted by an old Bolshevik friend who argues that the Bolshevik’s themselves have destroyed freedom (“No repentance can expiate what we have done. I have to say this … Secondly. We didn’t understand freedom. We crushed it. … Thirdly we go through the camp, we go through the taiga, and yet our faith is stronger than anything. But this faith of ours is our weakness – a means of self-preservation.” p.193) Abarchuk cannot accept this and literally runs away, his own reason, his own survival compromised to the need to find meaning and order in a world which is partly his own creation.
In another thema, Viktor Shtrum, a brilliant physicist, is victimized. He endures a titanic struggle to resist compromising himself (by giving a fake confession of errors) and is ostracized. Suddenly restored to favour (he is an export on nuclear physics and receives a personal telephone call from Stalin) he renders all of his prior efforts worthless by cravenly signing a letter provided by the authorities which supports the execution/imprisonment of various other Soviet Scientists (the letter is drafted in response to allegations in the UK and US press about lack of freedom and oppressive nature of the Soviet state). Able to resist when oppressed, once mollycoddled and comfortable he finds himself unable to save his integrity:
But then, no one had threatened him. It would have been all right if he had signed out of a feeling of animal fear. But he hadn’t signed out of fear. He had signed out of an obscure, almost nauseous, feeling of submissiveness. … [p.837]
He had refused to repent when they threw him out of the Institute. How happy, how full of light he had felt. And what joy he had felt in the people he loved! …. But what was he to say now to Marya Ivanovna? … As for his mother, he was afraid even to think of her. He had sinned against her too. He was afraid even to touch that last letter of hers. He realized with sorrow and horror how incapable he was of protecting his own soul. The power that had reduced him to slavery lay inside.
Viktor had been so proud of his courage and uprightness; he had laughed at anyone who had shown signs of weakness and fear. And now he too had betrayed people. He was ashamed of himself; he despised himself. The house he lived in, its light and warmth, had crumbled away; nothing was left but dry quicksand. …
Why had he committed this terrible sin. Everything in the world was insignificant compared to what he had lost. Everything in the world is insignificant compared to the truth and purity of one small man – even the empire stretching from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, even science itself. [p. 839-841]
Madyarov at an Evening Gathering in Kazan
Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity. Even Tolstoy, with his docrtine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant – and his point of departure is not man but God. He wants the idea of goodness to triumph. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing – even murder – to achieve this. [p. 283. It is interesting to see how close these ideas are to those expressed by Isaiah Berlin in relation to the dangers of ‘Monism’.]
The Survival of Freedom
Man innate’s yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future. [p. 216]