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For a different image of freedom, read Stalingrad

In Stalingrad, the cast is always busy doing — fighting, evacuating, marching — whereas in Life and Fate there is much more reflecting.

January 31, 2020 - 3:19pm

Douglas Murray drew attention last week to Vasily Grossman’s huge novel Life and Fate. But it must be mentioned that it is ‘only’ a sequel — to the equally vast Stalingrad, published in English for the first time last year. Reading the prequel gives a slightly different understanding of Grossman’s work.

For years, Stalingrad was dismissed as a propaganda exercise for the Soviet war effort. Indeed, its original title — For a Just Cause — hardly suggests an even hand.

But, in literary terms, I’d say it is a superior piece of writing. Grossman, a journalist, describes the war and the endless Soviet steppe with the benefit of first-hand experience. Take one example of his description of night falling over a landscape soon to be consumed by the Soviet and Nazi war machines:

[A]longside these peaceful signs of the day’s retreating life; the brigand-like cries of owls; the somber hum of night hawk moths; the rustle of yellow-bellied sand boas; the sounds of predators emerging from the burrow, holes, and gullies, from crevices in the dry earth
- Vasily Grossman, Stalingrad

But more importantly, Stalingrad shows how Grossman is not offering a liberal paean to ‘the individual’ (as Murray puts it).

In Stalingrad, the cast is always busy doing — fighting, evacuating, marching — whereas in Life and Fate there is much more reflecting. Victor Shtrum, a scientist at the heart of both novels, spends much of Life and Fate recounting, reliving, and lamenting the passing of the odd space of freedom his friends and family experienced in the samizdat-safety of their kitchens when evacuated from Stalingrad to Kazan.

But it is in Stalingrad that we actually get to experience these little spaces of freedom that somehow crop up in the midst of terror and war. Life and Fate may be the philosophically richer book, but only in reading Stalingrad do you understand why. Grossman made the discovery, (made contemporaneously by René Char) that human freedom exists perhaps only in surreptitious moments of resistance, whether by partisans, soldiers in the field, or wives and husbands in their kitchens. Freedom, for Grossman, is a reckoning with your situation, your fate, and being prepared to tender your life for it.

In this way, the conjunction of ‘life’ and ‘fate’ is freedom. The individual may be guaranteed his ‘eternal and bitter victory’ — but, as we learn in Stalingrad, that’s only because he has fought for it.

Jacob Reynolds is partnerships manager at the Academy of Ideas.


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