*Life and Fate

Soviet authorities told author Vasily Grossman that Life and Fate would be published…in 250 years (or 300, depending on the account). They were off by a couple of centuries. It was published in English a mere 25 years after it was finished in 1960 (or 1959). It was re-released in paperback in 2006 and gets a 5 star rating on Amazon.

It is a big book, an epic novel that is an honest account of the second world war under Stalin. Such honesty, even in 1960, was intolerable.

I’ve imagined what it was like to be a writer in the Soviet Union. During Stalin’s reign, all artists, writers, composers, artists, performers, were expected to produce. To be silent was also considered rebellious, an insult to the state and to the Party, whose aims were to be promoted through art. But even an artist willing and eager to promote the Party’s aims had a hard time figuring out what those were. Proclamations were frequent, verbose and hard to decipher. Like an abused child, the artist had to read omens and signs, trying to figure out what Papa Stalin wanted.

It changed on a dime. Folk art, surrealism, didacticism, social realism, comedy, seriousness. What was de rigeur one day, was considered subversive the next.

Stalin only hinted, his hints cryptic, just as he hinted his displeasure with individuals. When he walked out of a theatre performance, the actors, the writer, the director would know their lives were at stake. They would be purged, executed or sent to the gulag. And they would never know precisely why. To be an artist was to dance with insanity.

Would you go insane? Would you just shrivel up and die?

Vasily Grossman wrote the truth anyway. Despite his literary successes in the early years of his career, he died before seeing his major works published:

After he submitted for publication his magnum opus, the novel Life and Fate (Жизнь и судьба, 1959), the KGB raided his apartment. The manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks, as well as the typists’ copies and even the typewriter ribbons were seized.

With the “Thaw period” underway after the death of Stalin, Grossman wrote to Nikita Khrushchev: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested… I am not renouncing it… I am requesting freedom for my book.” The Politburo ideology chief Mikhail Suslov told Grossman that his book could not be published for at least three hundred years…

Life and Fate, as well as his last major novel, Forever Flowing (Все течет, 1961), were considered a threat to the totalitarian regime, and the dissident writer was effectively transformed into a nonperson. Forever Flowing, in particular, is unique in its quiet, unforced, and yet horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state, a work in which Grossman, liberated from worries about censors, spoke honestly about Soviet history. Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964, not knowing whether his novels would ever be read by the public.

It was first published in Switzerland in 1980, due to the courage of his friends:

[P]hysicist Andrei Sakharov secretly photographed draft pages preserved by Semyon Lipkin, and the writer Vladimir Voinovich managed to smuggle the photographic films abroad. Two dissident researchers, professors and writers, Efim Etkind and Shimon Markish retyped the text from the microfilm, with some mistakes and misreadings due to the bad quality.

It was published in English in 1985 and finally in Russian in 1988 and again in 1989. It took twenty-five years, a single generation, for the banned and confiscated manuscript to be published in Grossman’s own country. I believe that he knows.

Take heart, every writer who struggles with doubt, with lies about our true purpose. It is to tell the truth, the truth that only you can tell. And in doing so, you bring light into the world.

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2 thoughts on “*Life and Fate

  1. It is always incredible and horrific to me how many writers have been persecuted over the years of human history for answering that peculiar calling to write their individual truth. I’m so glad his work survived, and lives to tell his tale.

    1. Di, I’ve been planning to read it, but I (cough) am intimidated by the length. I just finished The Birthhouse and am in the midst of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. After that it’s Life and Fate for me.

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