In this third post on Life and Fate, I will develop some of the ideas in the last on the usefulness of Vasily Grossman’s novel to military professionals. In this post, I will focus on the character of Novikov, a Russian colonel and tank corps commander. Novikov is a representative, recognizable, and deeply human figure. He is a man of action whose inner life fuels and sometimes impedes his efforts as a commander. His feelings, thoughts, and actions are such for modern military officers to ponder, and they offer insights into the nature of victory and defeat in war.
Like most soldiers going to war, Novikov carries with him into battle an accumulation, often amounting to a burden, of memory and desire. As soldier-philosopher J. Glenn Gray noted, war is both love’s ally and foe. Novikov is actually roused to feelings of arrogant anger by his thoughts of his beloved Zhenya. His power to command the beautiful Zhenya’s love inspires in him a belief in his own invincibility on the battlefield. The reality, in both cases, turns out to be much more complex. His love for Zhenya is probably hopeless, and the victory he achieves will be equivocal.
The novel provides considerable insight into Novikov’s thoughts as a commander, perhaps his frustrations in particular. Novikov is often resentful of the uneducated and militarily illiterate political commissars and their interference. He observes that his senior commanders don’t get upset about casualties, but about lost time and equipment, the abandoning of positions (even when this is necessary or unavoidable.) He also recognizes that the war is wearing him down. He’s drinking and swearing more, becoming violent and short-tempered. Novikov’s finest moment, his personal victory, may be when, in defiance from pressure above, he delays an advance in order to give the artillery barrage time to take effect on German positions. The narrator observes that-
“There is one right even more important than the right to send men to their death without thinking: the right to think twice before you send men to their death. Novikov carried out this responsibility to the full.”
Novikov’s attack succeeds beyond expectation. He responds to his political commissar’s florid praise by telling him that he had not possessed the prescience being attributed to him, but had entirely misjudged how the brigade commanders would perform once the attack started. Later, however, success seems to go to his head, and Novikov finds himself succumbing to the “fever” to have his units be first to enter the Ukraine, and to the unaccustomed desire to make others jealous of him. Finally, he openly defies the commissars ignorant prodding to push exhausted men beyond their limits for he sake of nominal objectives. For defying the commissar, he may be robbed of the honors of his victory, or worse.
The Soviet victory too is in some ways hollow. The moment of transcendence, of “love and …humility” granted to the victorious soldiers is fleeting and largely forgotten. The Tolstoyan freedom of the battlefield is replaced by the “political vigilance” of the commissars. Officers and men engage in drunken bickering. Grossman (perhaps for the sake of the censor) pleads with the reader to remember these men at their best, but the victors, who have warded off the terrible evil of Nazism, must settle for the bittersweet victory of the restoration of another corrupt and dehumanizing order.
The novel ends with a scene of a returning Russian officer being reunited with his wife and child just as the long Russian winter in finally giving way to spring. This is the moment that all soldiers dream of. The family seems to lose its individual identity in the final passages, standing for the generations that had survived the terrible war, enjoying in respite the pleasures of nature and family that are left to them with the return of peace. Maybe a kind of victory has been won, after all.