Ikonnikov’s fierce conclusion is that there are no transcendent schemes for which people should be sacrificed. These ideals are delusions. “Those who most wish for the good of humanity are unable to diminish evil by one jot.”
There are echoes here of the sclerotic cruelties, mass killing and frightened conformity of Putin’s Russia, which makes Life and Fate especially compelling now. But Grossman’s portrait is timelessly relevant. Tolstoy refused to describe War and Peace as either novel or history; it explained an era. Grossman does the same, illuminating why people are moved to savagery or sacrifice.