IN ONE OF THE FIRST REVIEWS that followed the 1988 Oktyabr publication, leading Soviet literary critic Vladimir Lakshin compared reading Life and Fate to standing in a dense crowd inside an immense, airy temple, listening to the echoes of hundreds of conversations. Twenty years later, Harvard University's Stephen Greenblatt would call the book a "stupendous twentieth-century heir" to War and Peace. Indeed, the novel is teeming with at least two dozen main characters and scores of secondary ones. Although centered on the Battle of Stalingrad between fall 1942 and winter 1943, which Grossman covered as a reporter for the main military newspaper, Red Star, the narrative spans almost the entire Eurasian continent, from the prisoner-of-war camps in Poland and Germany to the Gulag camps in eastern Siberia, from Moscow in the north to the ghettos and the ravines with the remains of the Ukrainian Jews in the south, from the soldiers in the trenches to Hitler's "field headquarters" somewhere "on the border of East Prussia and Lithuania" and Stalin in the Kremlin. (In the chilling Stalin pages, Grossman has the desperate "Supreme Commander" imagine that the Red Army's catastrophic defeats in 1941 and 1942 were retribution for all those he had killed or starved to death, and then exult in the Stalingrad triumph as his ultimate and eternal vindication.)
Consciously Tolstoy-like in its sweep, Life and Fate was also inspired by that great Russian observer of everyday life and "ordinary people," Anton Chekhov, who was Grossman's favorite writer. In a passionate soliloquy delivered by one of his characters, Grossman extols Chekhov as the "first democrat" among Russian writers for his "millions of characters" and his attention to each of them. They were unique human beings (lyudi) to Chekhov, Grossman continues, every one of them: lyudi first -- and only then "priests, Russians, shopkeepers, Tatars, workers." Chekhov was the "standard-bearer … of a real Russian democracy, Russian freedom, and Russian human dignity." To recover and maintain this Chekhovian freedom, "to be different, unique, to live, feel, and think in one's own, separate way," was the sole objective of and justification for "human associations," Grossman writes in Life and Fate. Sometimes, he continues, instead of a means for strengthening a human community, "race, party, and state" become the end. "Nyet, nyet, nyet! The sole, true, and eternal objective of the struggle for life is a human being, his humble particularity, his right to this particularity."
There was no doctrine, Grossman believed, to which this freedom and dignity could be sacrificed:
I saw the unflinching force of the idea of public good, born in my country. I saw it first in the universal collectivization. I saw it in [the Great Purge of] 1937. I saw how, in the name of an ideal as beautiful and humane as that of Christianity, people were annihilated. I have seen villages dying of starvation; I have seen peasant children dying in Siberian snow; I have seen trains carrying to Siberia hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow and Leningrad, from all the cities of Russia -- men and women declared enemies of the great and bright idea of public good. This idea was beautiful and great, and it has mercilessly killed some, disfigured the lives of others; it has torn wives from husbands and children from fathers.
It was in the ruthless casualness with which individual freedom was sacrificed to the state's ideology that Grossman found the key parallel between Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany, which he juxtaposes throughout the book. Even at the height of Khrushchev's thaw, a Russian commentator recalled a quarter-century later, this comparison was "beyond the pale," "mortally dangerous," and, to the censors, among the most terrifying of the novel's many heresies. (Grossman was also almost certainly the first Soviet writer to apply the adjective "totalitarian" to Stalin's Soviet Union -- in a manuscript submitted for publication in the Soviet Union!) For Grossman, the betrayal of the nascent Russian freedom in 1917 by the Bolshevik Revolution was Soviet Russia's original and inexpiable sin. Dying in a Gulag camp somewhere above the Arctic Circle, an Old Bolshevik confesses to a comrade and a fellow prisoner: "I don't want to say it; it is like a torture to say it.… But this is my last revolutionary duty, and I will do it.… We have made a mistake.… We did not understand liberty. We crushed it.… Without liberty, there is no proletarian revolution."
Yet to Grossman the spirit of freedom was inextinguishable. A Red Star correspondent from the first to the last day of the Stalingrad battle, Grossman witnessed the "miracle of Stalingrad" during which the Red Army, its regiments sometimes reduced to "dozens of soldiers," its positions incessantly bombed and shelled, beat back Nazi troops and tanks. "Stalingrad had a soul," Grossman concludes. "Its soul was freedom."