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Book Lover’s Corner: War and Peace for the 20th century

Updated: Aug 9, 2023

Life and Fate is a 1959 novel by Vasily Grossman, who was a Ukrainian Jew and correspondent for a Soviet military paper during World War II. He was one of the first journalists to write about ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe and was present at many famous battles including the Battle of Stalingrad. Life and Fate was his magnus opus.

What is remarkable is that the manuscript survived Stalin’s Russia at all. Grossman submitted it in 1960 for potential publication to a magazine. At this point, the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies and notebooks, as well as the typists' copies and even the typewriter ribbons, were seized.

In 1962, the Politburo told the author that, if published, his book could inflict even greater harm to the Soviet Union than Doctor Zhivago. Grossman was told that his novel could not be published for two or three hundred years. He tried to appeal against this verdict to Khrushchev personally but to no avail. In 1974, a friend got one of the surviving copies put onto microfilm and smuggled it out of the country with the help of nuclear scientist Andrei Sakharov. Grossman died in 1964, never having seen the publication of his book. It was not published in the West until 1980.

As a result of glasnost, the novel finally appeared in the Soviet Union in 1988. Some critics have compared Grossman's war novels, and specifically Life and Fate, with Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Its graphic depiction of war in all its horrors as it affects Russians, Germans and Jews do not make it an easy read but ploughing through its 850 pages is well worth the effort.

Unlike War and Peace, Life and Fate mainly deals with the experiences of ordinary soldiers and civilians caught up in events beyond their control. It is considered one of the greatest books on the subject published in the 20th century.

Review by Ann Englander



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