Life and Fate
by Vasily Grossman and translated by Robert Chandler
Life and Fate, a novel set in World War II by Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, is one of our most recommended books on Five Books (including by historians). Modeled on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Grossman brought into it his experience as a journalist, accompanying the Red Army at major battles, including Stalingrad and Berlin. He was also among the first to enter Treblinka and witness firsthand the horrors of the Holocaust. Sadly for Grossman, the book was considered too harmful to be published in his lifetime.
Life and Fate is a long novel. If you want to listen to it as an audiobook, there’s no unabridged version, BUT there is a dramatised version of Life and Fate, starring Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, that lasts a manageable 8 hours.
(Stalingrad is the precursor to Life and Fate, translated into English for the first time in 2019 and also well worth reading)
Recommendations from our site
“Life and Fate…is probably the most important work of fiction about World War II. But, in fact, it is more than just a fiction because it is based on very close reporting from his time with the soldiers. It is a deliberate act of literary homage to Tolstoy as one can see in the title. It is definitely the War and Peace of the 20th century.” Read more...
The best books on World War II
Antony Beevor, Military Historians & Veteran
“It’s the first novel to come out of the 1940s and 50s that attempts a comparative indictment of Hitlerism and Stalinism, the two varieties of totalitarianism that Grossman knew too well.” Read more...
The Best Vasily Grossman Books
Maxim D Shrayer, Literary Scholar
“Vasily Grossman was himself involved in the battle of Stalingrad, but he was also a frontline spectator of the rest of the war. He set out to write the equivalent of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Well, he didn’t quite succeed in doing that, but it is nonetheless an amazing and terrifying account, not simply of the battles, but of the armies fighting them. Not simply the armies, but the regimes. Of course, behind the German army was the Nazi regime, the Holocaust, not just of the Jews but the massacres taking place as the German army advanced, committing mass murder of the civil populations they overran. Not to get rid of the partisans but because they were eliminating the Jews, eliminating Ukrainians and eliminating anyone who was going to get in the way of their conquering these countries. They were joined in that by other nationalities who did their dirty work for them as well. So there is the combination of the nightmare of the mass murders, mass shootings and the nightmare of the front line.” Read more...
Michael Howard, Military Historians & Veteran
“This is a wonderful, rich, melancholic, hopeful book. It’s a bit like Like A Tear in the Ocean: it embeds a piece of history in a well-crafted work of fiction and its characters represent the cornerstones of the period.” Read more...
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Andreas Wesemann, Entrepreneurs & Business People
“It is about the strange interval of freedom during the Second World War in which the Soviet regime had to trust its people because it couldn’t compel their loyalty.” Read more...
The best books on 20th Century Russia
Francis Spufford, Historian
“Tolstoy’s novel was the only book Grossman read during the war, and he read it twice; War and Peace hangs over Grossman’s book as a template and a lodestar, and the measure of Grossman’s achievement is that a comparison between the two books is not grotesque.”
"Good Day, Comrade Shtrum," John Lanchester, London Review of Books, 18 October, 2007
“The KGB immediately destroyed all copies of what Grossman called Life and Fate (Zhizn’ i sud’ba) except for two hidden by his friends, and he died in 1964 without ever seeing his work published.”
"The Russian Masterpiece You've Never Heard of," Leon Aron, Foreign Policy, October 12th 2010
The book, according to the author