Life and Fate Read Along, Part 2 Chapter 34

This post, covering Part 2, Chapter 34 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.

Who has the power to take a life? That is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions any society has to come to terms with. Said another way: who has the power to do legitimized violence — and who do they have the power to do it against? 

In almost every case, we think of this as one person directly inflicting a violence act on another. But as Novikov watches some fresh-faced recruits, he thinks of the perverse military logic they all live under: to lose equipment is shameful and wasteful, but to lose men is a sign of how hard an officer is trying. This line of logic leads him to pose a corollary to the above question. 

“That was the mystery and the tragedy of war,” he thinks, “that one man should have the right to send another to his death. This right rested on the assumption that men were only exposed to fire for the sake of a common cause.” (p. 491)

This, too, is a form of violence, to knowingly order a man to his death. We may find painful logic in how Chuykov slowly sells the lives of Stallingrad’s defenders, using their blood to buy time for a crushing counter-attack. But there are others, as Novikov notes, who may let dozens die simply to avoid a superior’s death. 

Yet Novikov knows plenty of decent, well-liked officers who have nonetheless spent their soldiers’ lives needlessly. “How could one ever make sense of this?” he wonders. (p. 491)