Before Life and Fate

Before Life and Fate came For a Just Cause. I was recently re-reading the novel again and what I really enjoyed was the description of life in Stalingrad just at the start of war. The novel starts with a meeting in Salzburg between Hitler and Mussolini, moves onto the conscription of Vavilov and only then do we meet the whole Shaposhnikov family. In this way the narrative moves from the events in the world to the effects on the individuals. And it is the relationships between the characters and the history that surrounds them that Grossman depicts so well. After the recent focus on Life and Fate and all the horror of war that it depicts, I have really enjoyed going back to the very beginning. I hope people will be able to read the novel in English soon.Until then, I thought I would summarise the plot of the novel, for those interested in the very beginning.

After introducing the events as they unravel at the hands of people in power, Grossman narrates the impact that this has on normal people. Firstly we are introduced to Vavilov who is drafted and then the Shaposhnikov family, who gather together to say goodbye to Tolia who is on his way to the front. Vavilov is one of the last men in the village to be recruited and was therefore looked down upon, but now the villagers all look at him with compassion and sorrow. He spends his last night chopping wood, hoping to provide all he can for his wife and two children. Vavilov later days in battle in the Stalingrad train station. In Stalingrad, the Shaposhnikov’s gather for what may be their last meeting. This is where the reader is introduced to all the major characters that are at the centre of the two novels (Alexandra Vladimirovna, Marusya, Zhenia, Serezha, Vera, Spiridonov, Mostovskoy, Andreev and Sofya Levinton). Alexandra Vladimirovna is the head of the family (her husband died years ago), she is a chemist and mother of Marusya, Liudmila and Zhenia, as well as her son Dmitrii. Dmitrii is the father of Serzha. After being arrested he has now disappeared in a camp and it is assumed that he is dead. It is during this meeting that Tolia inspires Serezha to join the army, and the next day he is recruited. Alexandra Vladimirovna is devastated, as Serezha is only 17 and has lived with her throughout his childhood (his mother lives in another city and dies while Serezha is at the front). The reader finds out more about Serezha in Life and Fate.

Alexandra Vladimirovna and Sofya Osipovna Levinton are old friends. Sofya Osipovna is head of a surgical department and is depicted as a large woman of whom not only her department, but other doctors are scared of. Despite this, she is also sensitive to the horror around her and often bursts out in tears when describing the young soldiers she has to treat. She works all day and night and rarely sleeps. She and Alexandra Vladimirovna are separated during an air raid in a shelter, after which she is caught by Nazi soldiers together with Mostovskoy.

Marusya is Alexandra Vladimirovna’s middle daughter and is married to the StalGRES power plant engineer Spiridonov. They have the daughter Vera, who works for the military hospital in Stalingrad (they all live with Alexandra Vladimirovna). Marusya is supportive of the Communist regime and reprimands Zhenia for making art that doesn’t support the communist cause. However, Marusya is also shown to be trapped between the Party bureaucracy and her own felings and common sense. She is sent to an orphanage to reprimand the manager for not firing a worker, who has stolen shoes for her son. During the visit she sees a traumatised boy who refuses to speak.  Only one of the workers has been able to get the boy to speak and eat, and it turns out this is the same woman whom Marusya wants to see fired. In the end Marusya is highly confused and is pitied by the very person she had to reprimand. When the battlefront moves to Stalingrad Marusya follows the orphanage on its evacuation, and dies when crossing the Volga.

Spiridonov stays in Stalingrad as he has to keep the StalGRES power plant running. His daughter Vera stays with him. She falls in love with one of her patients, Viktorov, who leaves the hospital soon after his recovery. Vera is another hero of the battle. When the hospital catches fire during one of air raids and she finds the strength to go into the burning hospital and save the soldiers. She is severely injured and is in danger of losing her sight. However, she recovers and stays with her father at StalGRES in Stalingrad. In a touching scene she tells her father that she is pregnant, to which he is silent at first, and then puts his arm around the skinny shoulders of his daughter and says: “Don’t worry, we won’t let anything happen to the little one”.

Zhenia is the youngest daughter and has moved back to her mother’s after leaving her husband Krymov. Nobody in her family understands why she left a man of such a good standing and see her as being whimsical and the black sheep of the family. Zhenia is greatly admired by men and is seen as the beauty of the family. She is also engaged in a romantic relationship with Colonel Novikov, whom she met whilst studying at the Arts Academy. Novikov and Zhenia’s romance is very touching. Years pass since their first meeting and Novikov accidentally sees Zhenia on a train and ends up travelling for miles in the wrong direction, only to spend time with her. He also visits the Shaposhnikov flat when the army is moving through Stalingrad, and awakens everyone in the middle of the night. This is the only meeting between the lovers in For a Just Cause, however, it consolidates their relationship for the future. Novikov has always admired and been in love with Zhenia, so his devotion to her is something that sustains him during the warZhenia on the other hand has a complex relationship to both Novikov, whom she is undoubtedly in love with, and  also spends a lot of time thinking about Krymov, and pondering their failed marriage.

There are a few parallels between Novikov and Krymov. Although they are very different characters, there is some similarity in their thought processes. Both ponder their personal/romantic life as much as the war or communism. Both have a brother that they look up to as someone who has succeeded with their lives, especially in terms of having a family. And obviously, both are in love with Zhenia. Novikov’s brother is depicted separately from Novikov in the book. He works in a mine in one of those villages that sprung up all around the Soviet Union only to provide a space for the  industry. This village is depicted as being part of the war effort and is something that is reinforced by Novikov’s complete devotion to work. Both brothers sacrifice their lives to the war (as do other characters). Colonel Novikov is sent to Moscow to await further instructions. He is also the one who takes a letter to Shtrum from the Shaposhnikov’s, which turns out to be the letter that his mother wrote to him. This letter is passed from person to person until it reaches Shtrum. In Moscow, Novikov is worried that he is neglected by the army, but is eventually sent to the front, which is one of the happiest moments of his life. The same happiness can be detected in Krymov when he is in battle and when he returns to Stalingrad at the end of the novel.

Liudmila Nikolaevna is the oldest daughter of the Shaposhnikov family, and is depicted as more of a mother to Marusya and Zhenia than a sister. She met Abarchuk at university where he was deeply involved in revolutionary and Party matters and thought that she was too bourgeois. After they married and had a son Tolia, Abarchuk left them as he believed that the Party mattered more than Liudmila and his son. Grossman depicts Abarchuk as the most staunch Communist, and so the Shaposhnikov family is even more surprised when he is arrested as an enemy of the people in 1937. At the same university Liudmila meets Viktor Shtrum, whom Abarchuk attempts to have expelled from the university. Liudmila and Viktor marry and have a daughter Nadia, who is a little bit spoilt but a typical 15 year-old. In For a Just Cause the family has already evacuated to Kazan from Moscow. At the beginning of the novel Tolia is only just travelling to the front, while at the end of the novel we see him dying in a heroic battle just outside Stalingrad. He is depicted as a shy young man, however he leads his troop to the outskirts of Stalingrad where the German Army doesn’t expect to see the Russian troops. It is in this battle that he manages a surprise assault on the German forces and is then fatally injured. Throughout the novel Liudmila ponders the fate of her son and it is only the reader that knows what is happening to him.

Although Shtrum is one of the major characters in Life and Fate, he is less present in For a Just Cause. He is summoned to his academy in Moscow for a meeting to discuss whether it is possible to get the metal that he needs for his experiment. During his time in Moscow Shtrum returns to his flat to see it covered in dust and abandoned. Here he spends a lot of time with his neighbour Nina, towards whom he develops some romantic feelings, however, this doesn’t develop into a relationship. Shtrum then goes to his dacha (summer-house) where he reads the letter from his mother, something that the reader is not privy to until Life and Fate. The story of Shtrum ends with his return to Kazan from Chelyabinsk, where he met Krymov’s brother, an engineer at the steel plant that Shtrum was visiting. In Kazan Liudmila and Shtrum are visited by Alexandra Vladimirovna who has escaped Stalingrad at the start of the battle. It is from here that Life and Fate picks up.

This has been a lengthy but not at all exhaustive summary of the main characters and their fates in Za pravoe delo. I imagine it may make some boring reading, however I shall return to the many aspects of the novel in the future. There are so many reasons that this novel is great (and some that make it hard-going) that I really would like to share all the various facets of it. What I think I like most about the novel is that there is a sense of unease or inconsistency (possibly because I know the history of the novel) but there is something that makes it indefinable that I absolutely love and will return to in later posts.

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One thought on “Before Life and Fate

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