Life and Fate Read Along, Part 3 Chapter 41

This post, covering Part 3, Chapter 41 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.

In Chapter 40 of Life and Fate, Grossman depicts how easy it is for a life to fall off the rails. A good job, good pay, good benefits — these can all be easily snatched away. Small matters of bureaucracy can become completely insurmountable. 

But throughout this novel, we have also seen how easily the system works for those who hold favor. Exceptions are made, doors are opened. Things work for them. These characters have often been the most righteous about the Soviet system — after all, it all seems to go well for them. 

So, after much uncertainty and fear, the other shoe finally drops for Viktor. Only the expected arrest never comes. Instead Stalin phones to ask the theoretical physicist about his work; After a short conversation, he wishes Viktor well in his research and hangs up. 

It is a completely ordinary call. Yet — as the chapter notes — Stalin does not do ordinary things. He may do things perceived as ordinary; but Stalin’s actions are always extraordinary. Through him, everything in the Soviet system works. 

Stalin commands not only the direction of the state, but also commands who it works particularly well for.  “If Stalin gave a man a quick smile,” the narrator tells us, “his life would be transformed overnight; he would suddenly rise up out of outer darkness to be greeted with power, fame and showers of honours.” (p. 761)

This reversal of fortune is so momentous that it seems bizarre to Viktor and Lyudmila that they should still be in the same living room, surrounded by the same furniture. “It was enough to drive one insane. Hadn’t their whole lives been turned upside down? Wasn’t a new destiny now awaiting them?” (p. 760)

Viktor’s confidence in his work is reignited. After all, the narrator reminds us, all his American counterparts have seemingly vanished. The implication is strong that he and his colleagues already suspect the truth: the Americans are making a new kind of bomb. Years before the end of World War II, nuclear physicists are already building humanity’s next self-directed Sword of Damocles. 

Of course, Viktor assures himself that he can’t stand a bootlicker. After all — Stalin! Even now Viktor can’t help but think of his objections to the man. But it is nice to finally be recognized…and it would be satisfying to see Shishakov kowtow to him. 

He almost immediately shreds himself of prejudices about the Soviet Union. His happiness becomes commensurate with Stalin’s power. At the same time, though, he thinks, “[i]t was as though he were saying goodbye to that pure, childish, almost religious love of science and its magic…” (p. 765)