Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate was first published in the Soviet Union 30 years ago—24 years after its author’s death and 27 years after the KGB seized the manuscript for its subversive content. Fortunately, the book had been smuggled out of the country in the 1970s and made its way to Western audiences. Among the once-forbidden subjects of this sweeping tale of Stalinism and World War II are the Holocaust and Soviet anti-Semitism. As a journalist, Grossman had reported extensively on the first and as a Jew he had experienced the second, which claimed the lives of his mother and other family members. Jacob Howland revisits the book and its moral and philosophical message:
Physics . . . furnishes a rich fund of images in Life and Fate. Viktor Shtrum, the book’s central character, struggles to work out the mathematics of the disintegration of atomic nuclei; Grossman’s narrative, densely populated with characters displaced by enormous acts of aggression, simultaneously records a kind of massive nuclear reaction.
Like energized, destabilized atoms, individuals violently collide, clump together, split apart, and experience various degrees of psychological fission. A kindly German governess is denounced by a Russian neighbor who covets her room. A Jewish doctor in a Ukrainian town occupied by the Wehrmacht finds her door smashed and women arguing over her furniture. . . . A Jewish commissar is made to “frown, twitch, and turn away” on seeing the look of a Jewish airman he has publicly reprimanded for “nationalist prejudices” when he defends himself against anti-Semitism. A comrade of Trotsky’s learns in the Lubyanka prison “how a man could be split apart” by the state he had helped to found. . . .
The Soviet victory [in World War II] meant that the peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe would be liberated from ideological tyranny. Yet the final defeat of Hitler cut off only one of the monster’s two heads—and anyway, both grew back. [The battle of] Stalingrad also saved Stalin, which meant that the peoples of Eastern Europe and the northern half of the Korean peninsula would be shoveled into the maw of Communism. And it fed an ugly Russian nationalism that picked out fresh targets of state oppression, including Tatars and Jews—the very people Vladimir Putin would blame for alleged interference in the 2016 election, dismissing them as “not even Russian . . . just with Russian passports.” . . .
When Viktor returns to Moscow, he is persecuted by detractors who regard his theoretical [scientific] work as an anti-Soviet piece of “talmudic abstraction,” and his Jewish laboratory assistants are fired. In Stalingrad, the victorious state’s cannibalization of the victorious people commences while the guns are still hot.