Calling Life and Fate the "greatest Russian novel of the 20th Century" Leon Aron, Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute, approached his analysis of Life and Fate by placing the novel in the canon of glasnost. At an 18 January 2011 Kennan Institute event, Aron argued that the credo of glasnost was Russia's need to come to grips with its Soviet past in order to become a more "moral" state. An ideal way to examine the country's past, he explained, is through its great literary works.

Aron explained that Grossman's inspiration for writing Life and Fate—which takes place during the World War II battle of Stalingrad—stemmed from his experience serving as a war correspondent during World War II. As a reporter for the Red Star in Stalingrad, Grossman witnessed the horrors and the heroism of war firsthand and used his observations to develop the major characters of Life and Fate. The book's literary scope, according to Aron, is remarkable in its magnitude: the story's locations range from Germany to Siberia; the characters range from rank-and-file soldiers to those in Hitler and Stalin's headquarters. Grossman was also inspired by Anton Chekov's works in writing Life and Fate. Grossman extolled Chekov as Russian literature's "democrat" because of his ability to endow all of his characters, no matter how small, human dignity by the attention he paid them.

The Russian experience in World War II—as the general setting for the many storylines in Life and Fate—allowed Grossman to demonstrate the importance of human freedom and dignity, central themes of the novel. For example, Aron noted that platoon of Soviet soldiers holding out against hourly Nazi onslaughts in "House 6/1" exercised freedom of choice: to die rather than retreat. "It was freedom that was the key to the Stalingrad miracle," Aron quoted Grossman, adding that "the freedom was not just from the Nazi slavery, it was from the indignity" of the Stalinist totalitarian state.

In his efforts to publish Life and Fate Grossman, too, consciously acted as a free man. Aron explained that even at the height of Khrushchev's cultural thaw this was a dangerous decision. "To save and maintain this inner independence, this spiritual freedom," Aron emphasized, "was for Grossman the fundamental condition of a proper human existence. There was no doctrine or public yearning to which this freedom and this dignity could be sacrificed."

Aron concluded his discussion of Grossman's novel by affirming its continuing relevance. "I believe that so long as the world struggles daily to guard its humanity by resisting the temptation to tailor, compromise or surrender outright this hectic and taxing freedom of moral choice … Life and Fate will continue to dazzle and to inspire us. I think it is as powerful today and it is as unerring a moral guide and an affirmation of the moral imperative of freedom" as it was when it was published over fifty years ago."

By Amy Shannon Liedy
Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute


  • Leon Aron

    Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies, American Enterprise Institute