It is difficult to pick up a thick volume titled Life and Fate, learn that it includes a great many characters and is about a war between Russia and another European country – and not think of War and Peace. Even the title alone, at least to an English ear, sounds like a parody – and perhaps not only of War and Peace, but of long Russian novels in general. In spite of this, the relationship between Grossman and Tolstoy is not as one might think.
Grossman’s daughter, Yekaterina Korotkova, and other writers of memoirs agree that the writer Grossman loved most of all was Anton Chekhov. And in Life and Fate (Part I, chapter 64), Leonid Madyarov, a fictional historian, pays Chekhov a long and eloquent tribute: “Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness – with people of every estate, every class, every age… More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people – as a Russian democrat. He said – and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy – that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! […] Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history – the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. […] Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant – and his point of departure is not man but God.”
There is no doubt that Madyarov is giving voice to Grossman’s own beliefs and that Madyarov’s misgivings about Tolstoy are also Grossman’s. On the other hand, War and Peace was clearly of immense importance to Grossman both during the war itself and during the following fifteen years, while he was writing the two novels that constitute his Stalingrad dilogy: first Stalingrad (also titled For a Just Cause) and then Life and Fate. Grossman himself wrote, ‘During the whole war, the only book that I read was War and Peace, which I read twice.’ And Grossman’s daughter Yekaterina Korotkova concludes a brief summary of her volume of memoirs with the words: ‘I remember a letter of his from Stalingrad: “Bombers. Shelling. Hellish thunder. It’s impossible to read.” And then, unexpectedly: “It’s impossible to read anything except War and Peace.”’
Leo Tolstoy has probably never been read as widely and attentively as in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. War and Peace was broadcast at length on the radio. According to Lydia Ginzburg, many people during the Blockade of Leningrad read it as a guide to how they should conduct themselves. And the historian Jochen Hellbeck has written, “Chuikov revealed that he gauged his own performance based on Tolstoy’s generals; General Rodimtsev reported reading the novel three times. The People’s Commissariat for Education printed brochures with instructions on how to make War and Peace —notorious for its length and complicated plot—accessible for soldiers.” The authorities did, of course, have every reason to promote the novel. Tolstoy was seen as a forerunner of Soviet socialist realism and the novel’s implications for the outcome of the war were obviously positive.
After the Soviet victory, the Soviet literary and political establishment wanted someone to memorialize the war; they wanted a Red Tolstoy, a Soviet War and Peace. Vasily Grossman was ready to take on this challenge. His Stalingrad dilogy is still more ambitious in scope than Tolstoy’s novel. But Grossman understood only too well that he lived in a very different world and that he could not simply copy Tolstoy.
Firstly, he needed to question Tolstoy. The following paragraphs are from his account, in Stalingrad of Commissar Krymov’s visit in late 1941 to Yasnaya Polyana:
The storm that had flung open every door in Russia, that had driven people out of their warm homes and onto black autumn roads, sparing neither peaceful city apartments, nor village huts, nor hamlets deep in the forest, had treated Lev Tolstoy’s home no less harshly. It too was preparing to leave, in rain and snow, along with the entire country, the entire people. Yasnaya Polyana was a living, suffering Russian home – one of thousand upon thousand of such homes. With absolute clarity, Krymov saw in his mind Bald Hills and the old, sick Prince. The present merged with the past; the events of today were one with what Tolstoy, in his novel, had described with such truth and power that it had become the supreme reality of a war that had run its course one hundred and thirty years before.
[…] And then Tolstoy’s granddaughter Sofya Andreyevna came out of the house, calm, downcast, shivering a little in spite of the coat thrown over her shoulders. Once again Krymov did not know whether this was Princess Maria, going out for a last walk around the garden before the French arrived, or whether it was Lev Tolstoy’s elderly granddaughter scrupulously fulfilling the demands of her fate: applying all her heart and soul, as she prepared to leave, to checking the accuracy of her grandfather’s account of the princess’s earlier departure from this same house.
Secondly, Grossman is aware that the atrocities of the Second World War are infinitely more terrible than anything imagined by Tolstoy:
Krymov looked at the wounded who had fallen to the ground, with their grim, tormented faces and wondered if these foot soldiers would ever enter the pages of books. This was not a sight for those who wanted to clothe the war in fine robes… He remembered a night-time conversation with an elderly soldier whose face he had been unable to see. They had been lying in a gully, with only a greatcoat for covering. Authors of future books had better not listen to conversations like that. It was all very well for Tolstoy to write his great and splendid book decades after 1812, when the pain felt in every heart had faded and only what was wise and bright was still remembered.
Grossman repeatedly emphasizes how impossible it is to find words for the horror of what his heroes have witnessed. He writes of Major Berozkin, one of the most positive figures in the entire novel, “He himself had fought in the summer of 1941 in the forests of western Belorussia and Ukraine. He had survived the black horror of the very first days of the war; he knew everything and had seen everything. When other men told stories about the war, this modest major listened with a polite smile. “Oh, my brothers,” he would think to himself. “I’ve seen things that cannot be spoken about, that no one will ever write down.”
More important still, Grossman was well aware that his position as an artist is very different from Tolstoy’s. Tolstoy was free to write as he pleased. Grossman had battled with censors throughout his career. Much of what he wrote in the 1930s was bowdlerized. And from 1943 to 1946, along with Ilya Ehrenburg, he had worked for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee on The Black Book, a collection of eye-witness accounts of the Shoah on Soviet and Polish soil. The Black Book was ready for production in 1946, but it was never published. Admitting that Jews constituted the overwhelming majority of those shot by the Nazis would have entailed admitting that members of other Soviet nationalities had been accomplices in the genocide; in any case, Stalin appears to have understood that antisemitism was a force he could exploit in order to unite the majority of the population behind his regime. Grossman’s mother had been shot at Berdichev. And he himself had written the first published account of Treblinka. What he must have felt when The Black Book was aborted is hard to imagine.
On the surface,Grossman’s Stalingrad dilogy has much in common with War and Peace. Both novels are structured around the lives of the members of a single extended family. Both are divided between accounts of military and civilian life. Both include the author’s general reflections on history, politics and philosophy. There is, however, a fundamental difference. For all his appearance of being an omniscient and dispassionate narrator, Grossman’s dilogy is more personal than War and Peace. Grossman, unlike Tolstoy, lived through the war he describes and his mother’s death was a source of deep pain to him for the rest of his life. The last letter written by Viktor Shtrum’s mother lies at the centre of both novels; its journey from hand to hand, and across the front line, is described in great detail in Stalingrad – even though we do not actually read the letter until we come to Life and Fate. It can, perhaps, be seen as a deep hole around which the dilogy is constructed. In Viktor Shtrum’s words, “this letter’s like an open grave.”
Robert Chandler is the author of a short biography of Alexander Pushkin. His translations include a number of works by Vasily Grossman and Andrey Platonov. He has also compiled three anthologies for Penguin Classics: of Russian short stories, of Russian magic tales and, with Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, THE PENGUIN BOOK OF RUSSIAN POETRY. His co-translation (together with his wife Elizabeth) of Vasily Grossman’s STALINGRAD will be published by NYRB Classics in June.
 Vasily Grossman, A Writer at War, ed. Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova (Harvill Press, 2005) p. xiii.
 E. V. Korotkova-Grossman, Vospominaniya (Moscow, 2014), p. 4.
 Jochen Hellbeck, Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich (Public Affairs, 2015)
 This paragraph is from the earliest surviving typescript of Stalingrad (RGALI, 1710 – 1 – 22, p. 5)
 Stalingrad, Part III, chapter 5