Life and Fate Read Along, Part 1 Chapter 58

This post, covering Part 1, Chapter 58, is part of The Slavic Literature Pod’s chapter a day read along of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. Learn more about our project here.

Katya remains at her post in house 6/1, adapting quickly to its wartime-social mores as she  — and we — learn more about the soldiers there. As we have spoken about previously, each man’s treatment of her (regardless of whether that’s genuine or affected disinterest, barely disguised attraction, etc.) cannot help but reveal themselves. Both she and we quickly take their measure. 

That element is one to continue tracking and is worth mentioning — but here I would like to redirect our attention to an incident at the opening of the chapter. The spotter team watching a German battalion in a not-so-far-away part of Stalingrad sees soldiers tying a woman and child to a pair of posts, apparently with the intent of burning the pair alive. In despair and horror, they intercede in the only way they can: hastening the execution by way of artillery barrage. 

Later, their scout Klimov slips quietly into the city to speak with a civilian and learn the pair’s fate — burned to death by the Nazi forces, or obliterated by Soviet bombardment. But his civilian contact can no longer tell him. He comes “to find that the old woman’s dwelling had just been destroyed by a Russian bomb. There was nothing left of the old woman, her granddaughter or the goat …” (p. 248)

It can be easy to think of Stalingrad solely in terms of the armies trading blows to control it. And it is all too easy to forget that these battles were not happening in empty streets, that Soviet evacuations left potentially half a million people in the city-cum-battlefield. 

Those who remained were subjected to lawless and wanton brutality, or were apt to die crushed or vaporized in their own homes by a mistake of artillery targeting. Grossman does not let us turn our eyes from this uncomfortable aspect of the war.