Socialist Worker

Life and Fate: How Vasily Grossman found hope out of horror

by Weyman Bennett
Issue No. 2270

Life and Fate is one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Now, the BBC have dramatised the 871-page book and brought it to the airwaves.

When Vasily Grossman finished his book, in the USSR in 1959, the Stalinist regime tried to destroy it.

Life and Fate demonstrated too much of the dying embers of the 1917 October Revolution.

It is a miracle that we are able to enjoy it today—the book was “arrested” by the KGB secret police. It was only published in 1980 after it was smuggled to the West.

The story is a masterpiece. It captures with a majestic grasp the struggle against Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941, told through the lives of ordinary people.

It is a brilliant story of 160 lives wrapped up in a broad sweep of history and intertwined personal experiences.

And here it is given the full-star treatment, starring David Tennant and Kenneth Branagh.

Grossman was born in 1905. He was Jewish by birth, although not particularly religious.

He volunteered for the front in 1941 and became a reporter for the military’s Red Star newspaper.

Here he captured real life, threaded through with cheerful descriptions, bringing ordinary Russians to life. Their aspirations and loves truly come across both in Grossman’s novel and his news reports.

Grossman was also the first reporter to arrive at an extermination camp, namely Treblinka.

He captures the full horror of the Holocaust, including the murder of his mother, who was killed alongside tens of thousands of Jews in the Ukrainian city of Berdychiv. The author’s voice appears again and again throughout Life and Fate.

It was author Maxim Gorky who originally convinced Grossman to write short stories. Grossman was committed to developing characters in a way that would reveal their true humanity.

Life and Fate tackles the tragedy of Stalin’s purges as he destroyed the country’s revolutionary tradition. It also tackles the massive growth of anti-Semitism in Russia during that period of reaction.

These 13 enjoyable episodes of the radio serial catch some of the mood of the novel.

The acting is carried out with real heart and expertise, and brings to life some of the multiple characters carefully sculpted by Grossman.

He portrays the life-and-death struggle that took place in Stalingrad, and his own yearning for freedom in an unfree world.

And it shows the stifling effect of Stalinism—while giving glimpses of the hope and the ideals of 1917.

I can heartily recommend listening to Life and Fate but with one major caveat—for an even richer experience, read the book as well.

Life and Fate is on BBC Radio 4 until 25 September. All the episodes are available on the BBC website: The novel is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 020 7637 1848 or

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Tue 20 Sep 2011, 18:04 BST
Issue No. 2270
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