Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life & Fate (1959) has been hailed as the Soviet War & Peace. Set during the Nazi siege of Stalingrad, it powerfully depicts the past century’s two evil engines of destruction – Soviet communism and German fascism.

In this online seminar, led by Professor Flagg Taylor, fellows will engage in close study of the novel to understand the nature of “ideological tyranny” or “totalitarianism” and its effects on the human person and human relations. What enabled human beings to carry out horrific crimes against their fellow man? Why did human beings suffer rule by ideological lies for so long, and what kept them open to the truth? What are we to make of the relationship between totalitarianism and the foundational principles of liberal modernity? In reflecting on these and other questions, fellows will consider more general themes that resonate throughout a broad tradition in political philosophy: tyranny, justice, and political responsibility.

Flagg Taylor on the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia


Flagg Taylor

Flagg Taylor is an Associate Professor of Government at Skidmore College, and serves on the Academic Council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. He is editor most recently of The Long Night of the Watchman: Essays by Václav Benda, 1977–1989. He is currently writing a book on Czech dissent in the 1970s and 1980s and hosts The Enduring Interest podcast.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session


  • Life & Fate, Part I, Chs. 1–38 (pp. 19–174)

Discussion Questions:

  1. How are relationships changing in the Shaposhnikov/Shtrum family as a result of the war?
  2. What does Viktor’s mother choose to tell him about life in the Jewish ghetto?
  3. What is Yevgenia’s life like in Kuibyshev? Who are some of her fellow tenants?
  4. What do we learn about Lyudmila from her trip to see her son?


  • Life & Fate, Part I, Chs. 39–71 (pp. 174–322)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Sofya Levinton learns the difference between “life and existence.” Explain this distinction.
  2. What is Arbachuk’s relation to the Communist idea?
  3. What is Viktor’s relationship like with Karimov and Madyarov? What is the significance of their discussion of Russian literature?
  4. What is the nature of the tension between Mostovskoy and Chernetsov?


  • Life & Fate, Part II, Chs. 1–27 (pp. 325–470)

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is Novikov different from Getmanov and Nyeudobnov?
    How does Viktor’s new discovery change his outlook and behavior?
  2. What is Mostovskoy’s conversation with Liss so unsettling for him?
  3. Who is Shishakov and what’s the source of the tension between him and Viktor?


  • Life & Fate, Part II, Chs. 28–63 (pp. 471–611)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is Krymov suddenly being treated differently by the people around him? Does Krymov himself have an answer to this?
  2. According to Liss what are the different categories of leaders that emerge in Nazi Germany?
  3. How does Grossman choose to portray the systematic murder of the Jews by the Nazis?
  4. What is this questionnaire that Viktor and others at the Institute must fill out? How does Viktor react to it?


  • Life & Fate, Part III, Chs. 1–30 (pp. 615–728)

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Krymov react to his arrest?
    What does Grossman emphasize in these chapters on the meaning of Stalingrad?
  2. How does Krymov’s arrest affect Yevgenia and her relationship to Novikov?
  3. How does Viktor’s denunciation affect his marriage?


  • Life & Fate, Part III, Chs. 31–61 (pp. 729–871)

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Grossman portray the conclusion of the Battle of Stalingrad?
  2. What is Krymov’s attitude toward signing a statement of confession?
  3. How does Grossman want us to think about Viktor and his evolution over the course of the novel?
  4. Why does Grossman conclude the novel the way he does? We conclude with relatively minor characters (Spiridonov, Vera, and in the final chapter the characters are not even named.


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