BBC Radio 4’s ambitious eight-hour dramatisation of Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman’s epic masterpiece set during the Battle of Stalingrad.

This powerful work, completed in 1960, charts the fate of both a nation and a family in the turmoil of war. Its comparison of Stalinism with Nazism was considered by Soviet authorities to be so dangerous that the KGB placed the manuscript under arrest and Grossman was informed his book would not be published for at least 200 years.

Having been a household name as one of Russia’s most distinguished war correspondents, Grossman died in 1964 aged only 58 – the banning of his book hastening the end of his life – and he would never know the fate of his masterpiece: smuggled out of the Soviet Union on microfilm, to freedom and eventual publication in the West in 1980. Today it is increasingly hailed as the most important Russian novel of the 20th century.

Viktor, a nuclear physicist, is evacuated with his family from Moscow eastwards to Kazan. It’s October 1942 and the Russians are defending Stalingrad from the ferocious attack of the Germans. Viktor has a revelatory breakthrough in his research but his wife Lyuda learns of the death of her son and her grief drives a wedge between the couple.

Viktor’s mother, Anna, writes him a farewell letter in September 1941. As a Jew in Berdichev, in the Ukraine now occupied by the Nazis, she has been forced into a ghetto and understands what will come next. The letter somehow finds its way to Viktor and is to be a source of strength for him in the days to come.

Evacuated from Moscow to Kuibyshev before the invading German army, Lyuda’s sister, the beautiful Yevgenia (Zhenya), is alone. While she tackles Soviet bureaucracy for the residence permit she needs for food, her ex-husband, the Commissar Nikolai Krymov, is posted into the heart of the battle for Stalingrad, hundreds of miles away.

In a forest in northern Russia, Lenya, a pilot, longs to see his pregnant girlfriend, Vera. She is stranded in Stalingrad with her father, Stepan. Her mother (another sister of Lyuda) has drowned in the Volga. She watches the planes daily, hoping to catch sight of Lenya.