In the 1980s a group of Soviet computer programmers were commissioned to produce a model of a Third World War. They were disbanded for demanding access to the secret statistics of death and survival in the USSR during the Second World War. Until 1989 (and to a certain extent still to this day), the details of the most destructive and painful events in human history (if we discount Mao’s China for the time being) have been available only in selectively edited versions. Nearly ten million Soviet citizens in uniform and perhaps three times that number of civilians died in Hitler’s war on the East. The physical and moral destruction remains incalculable. A fair number of military histories and memoirs have been published that give us the war as remembered by victorious Russian generals or defeated German soldiers. With the exception of Antony Beevor’s masterpiece Stalingrad, little over the last fifty years has surpassed Alexander Werth’s Russia at War, a graphic and intelligent reportage limited only by the author’s inability and unwillingness to find out or say anything that might detract from the image of the USSR as a noble martyred ally.
A novelist’s imagination, compared with a participant’s memories or a historian’s analysis, seems better able to convey the horrors of war. Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate is unique among Russian war novels in facing up to the despair