Monthly Archives: October 2012

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman

So I went straight into another Russian book. Life and Fate is a novel by the WW2 journalist Vasily Grossman. It was very readable, and seemed to be in the tradition of 20th dissident literature with similarities to Solzhenitsyn. But, I’m not sure they can have influenced by each other since their books were suppressed. The novel follows a group of people around the battle of Stalingrad in 1942/1943.

The history of the book is interesting. Grossman was an establishment figure, in contrast to e.g. Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov (disidents touched by their Gulag experiences). And yet it seems very outspoken in it’s anti-Stalin approach. As it was finished the book was suppressed (despite the Khrushchev thaw). Supposedly the book itself was arrested (even the ribbons from Grossman’s typewriter were removed). He was told by Suslov that it could not be published for 200-300 years.

It has many interesting themes, such as the moral equivalence of the Nazi and Stalinist states and their ethics, the appalling suffering of Jews from the Nazi’s, also the encouraging of anti-Semitism by the Soviet system. One theme was collaboration or resistance to a repressive system, posing the dilemma between personal comfort and personal integrity. And, of course, the arbitrary nature of totalitarian repression. One thing that impressed me was the Victor Shtrum character who is supposed to be based on Grossman. He is not completely the most sympathetic person with many weaknesses. That impressed me, and shows what must have been some turmoil that Grossman felt inside.

Grossman’s disillusion with the Soviet system comes across very strongly.. Of course, this did not necessarily come in 1942, probably it came later (when the book was written). This shows real moral courage

The introduction by Robert Chandler is really worth reading. This might be best introduction I’ve ever read, it made me want to read more that he’s written.

I should probably re-read War and Peace, with which Life and Fate can be compared.

Molotov’s Secret Lantern: Uncovering Russia’s Secret History by Rachel Polonsky

It was completely inevitable that I would read a book with this title. In fact I heard a review on Radio 4 and marked it out, but for some reason never got it. Back in August I got an email from Amazon listing books about Russia, I had most of them, but not this, and so I bought it. Just showing the value of that type of marketing.

It is an interesting book, and hard to completely pigeonhole into one category, it can be read on many levels. Russian political and cultural history, history of the Soviet nomenklatura, travelogue, architectural description of Moscow, etc… Really just an incredible amount of material, she is probably an interesting person to walk through Moscow with.

But the theme that came through the most was the love of books it promotes. It had many good quotes/ideas about books. One I remember is the story of Alexander Men who used to say that books found their way to him, like relatives and friends arriving at a birthday celebration. I like this idea.

I would have liked notes and pictures.

Finally, I’m sorry about the business with the fake review from Orlando Figes, it is obviously not something he can remember with pride, and while it perhaps helped with publicity for the book, it is not really the point about the book.