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Everything Flows. Vasily Grossman. A Review.

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Everything Flows. Vasily Grossman. Translated by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler with Anna  Aslanyan. Harvill Secker. 2010.

The author of Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, gains in stature every year. That monumental novel has the energy and depth to cover the siege of Stalingrad, the Soviet fightback against the Nazi invaders, the Shoah, and does not shirk from describing Stalin’s terror. Begun with these events still fresh in his mind, the manuscript (completed in 1960)  remained confiscated by the KGB and the work was unpublished until the 1980s. Translations appeared in the same decade. But, as Robert Chandler notes in the Introduction to a new translation of  Everything Flows, “Grossman’s reputation grew onlyslowly.” His journalism, first-hand, patriotic, reports of the Soviet army’s progress, A Writer at War,  appeared in English in 2006. These pieces reminded us that the author was an eye-witness to the events he fictionalised.  Now, Everything Flows introduces us further to the moral and political foundation on which Grossman’s work rests.

The present unfinished novel (begun in 1955, and worked onuntil his death in 1964) is an indictment against the Soviet “State without freedom”. It follows the path of Ivan Griegoryevich, newly released from the Gulag. He has survived three decades in the camps, a rare ‘guilty’ inmate who had, as a student, “declared that freedom is as important a good as life itself.”

Ivan returns to a world where the State had been ready for a last lurch into frenzied repression. Only a short while before it was rumoured, in the wake of the ‘Doctors’ Plot’ that a wave of pogroms would sweep the country and the Jews would be deported to Siberia and Turkmenistan, to work on the construction of the Turkem canal through the Kara-Kum desert. Where people had made their compromises with the State, and those who would greet Ivan are rarely untouched by Stalinism or morally untainted. This remains a county where liberty has yet to be won. Griegoryevich, changed by his years of suffering, strains to find a tolerable niche in the post-Stalin land. he cannot step in the same social river twice.

The flood of Ivan’s camp memories inundates Everything Flows. The horrific, detailed, account of camp life remains startling. During his years there Ivan observes the imprisoned population that had swollen with people who might  oppose Stalin. He is familiar with causal cruelty, impossible workloads, starvation, and killing. Ivan has witnessed everything. The caste of common criminals who oppress the atomised ‘political’ zeks sentenced under Article 58 for “counter-revolutionary activity” further poisons their lives. Readers of Solzhenitsyn are aware of the bleak landscape. The Green Procurer in Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales describes in parallel to Grossman how conditions in the same Koylma  from the late 1920s onwards had got harsher and harsher. Yet would even the most pessimistic agree that, “neither within nor outside the camps were people willing to admit that everyone had an equal right to freedom”? (Page 93)

Informing the Terror.

Everyone knows about the Terror, though few are at all willing to more than allude to it, at least in the presence of Ivan.  But, who, he/the author, reflects, is guilty of its crimes? Who will be held responsible? Should it just be the State? Or Stalin? All of the public ‘organs’ needed individuals to carry out their wishes? They required, first of all, people willing to herd the victims into their folds.

Grossman presents one of the most profound explorations of  informers and denouncers ever written. Seeking information against enemies, real, potential, or imagined, provided by individuals encouraged, forced, or bribed, to play this role, is as long-standing as politics itself. Use of the ‘delator’ (the Latin for informer – Imperial Rome was probably the first recorded systematic political use of informing) was well established – though periodically repressed. But the USSR under Stalin was not just an Emperor with a “passion for unmasking enemies” but a State. That is one, according to Stalin, which is a  “dictatorship of the proletariat”, “unrestricted by law and based on force.” (The Foundations of Leninism)

In “the beginning was the  word..”(Page 61) One end of the chain there two people chatting,  next an activist speaking. At the other end are crazed eyes, damaged  kidneys, skull pierced by a bullet, “gangrenous, pus-oozing toes  gnawed by the frost of the taiga, scurvy-ridden corpses in a log hut  that served as the camp morgue.”(Ibid)

Who then are the agents of the Stalinist Logos? There is the Judas 1, who buckles  under, who “behaved badly under interrogation”. He slanders a  man, who is not arrested, and ends up serving twelve years of forced  labour to return “barely alive, a broken man, a pauper “on his  last legs”. A Judas ll took the initiative, out of anxiety about  his tainted class background. “Enchanted by the new world” he  offers “his all on the alter of the fatherland.” There is Judas  lll, one of “life’s masters” who has pushed his way up from the bottom to become a true believer. He is filled with loathing for the  old Bolsheviks who hesitate to embrace the new order.  “Stamping in  its Stalinist boots, the Party had shouted at him, ‘If you show the  least indecision, you will prove that you are no different from these  degenerates –and I will grind you to dust.”(Page 66)  Judas IV  simply considered informing and denouncing as a way of replacing his  former poverty with position and property. He is a ready volunteer, who inverts Kant’s rule to treat human beings as ends in themselves:  “a man, and mankind as a whole, is simply a means to be employed in  the course of his never-ending hunt for objects.”(Page 68)

All have reasons to  collaborate, initiate, and to excuse themselves; all have victims,  most of whom would never be able to contradict them. In this vein  there is enough in Grossman’s pages to furnish a library of commenatories on the  subject of this “human obscenity”, and its flourishing under the  Stalinist state.

Two extremely powerful chapters deal with the  Ukrainian famine. A moment of happiness in Ivan’s life, as he meets  Anna Sergeyevna, is overshadowed by her account of ‘dekulkisation’  in 1929 – 1930. To her Lenin and Stalin said that The kulaks are  not human beings” (page 129) After the killings and deportations,  the collective-farms failed. The Plan was unfulfilled. Grain began to  be confiscated, famine arrived: starvation swept the countryside.  Every morning the dead were taken away, “I saw one cart, it was  stacked with the bodies of children. ..They looked thin and long –  faces like dead birdies, sharp little beaks..Some were still making  cheeping noises: their little heads were like ripe ears of grain,
bending the thin stalks of their necks…” (Page 145)

The description of the peasants’ misery is too  heart-rending to cite further. Blood Lands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010) by Timothy Snyder gives in documented  detail the facts of the Ukrainian holocaust that are painfully written out here.

Lenin, Stalin and the Servile ‘Russian Soul’.

Everything Flows concludes  in its present, uncompleted form, with essays on Lenin and Stalin.

The former is judged severely,  “Lenin’s intolerance, his forcefulness, his intransigence in the  face of disagreement, his contempt for freedom, the fanaticism of his  faith, his cruelty towards his enemies – all the qualities that  brought victory to his cause were born and forged in the  thousand-year-old depths of Russian slavery. That is why his victory  served the cause of non-freedom. And in the meantime other aspects of  Lenin, the traits that have charmed millions, the traits of a kind,  modest Russian working intellectual did not cease to exist – but they  existed immaterially, without significance.”(Page 197)

The ‘two-sides’ of Lenin, the  factionalist, the hardened leader, and the sensitive intellectual  with a warm private life, could be developed further. But Grossman  charges Russian national character with the worst side of Lenin. This  is much more contentious:  “The Russian slave soul is manifest in  Lenin’s revolution, in Lenin’s passionate embrace of Western  revolutionary teachings, in Lenin’s fanaticism, in Lenin’s  violence and in the victories of the Leninist state.”(Page 199) As for Stalin, “This fusion of  party and State found its expression in the person of Stalin. In the  mind and will of Stalin, the State expressed its own mind and will.”  (P 205) “It was Stalin – who was both a European Marxist and an  Asian despot – who gave true expression to the nature of Soviet  statehood. What was embodied in Lenin was a Russian national  principle; what was embodied in Stalin was a statehood that was both  Russian and Soviet.”(Page 205) “Stalin united within him all the  most ruthless traits of slave Russia.”(Page 206)  “In this  country, huge factories, artificial seas, canals, and hydroelectric  power stations do not serve people; they serve a State without  freedom.”(Page 207)  “skilfully employing the vocabulary of  revolution while living by the laws of tribal vengeance..”(Ibid)

There is just one-side to Stalin, that  which fitted the ‘national principle’ of slavery. All of the  Caucasian, ‘Asiatic’ tyrant, come down to the burgeoning Soviet  ‘Statehood’. It’s as if there had never been  resistance to Stalinism from the Soviet and anti-Soviet people. We  are less than sure that this fits with Grossman’s own description  of the camp inmates who, if only a minority were actual opponents of  Stalin, numbered a great quantity of potential enemies of the  Despot, and still, in their bones nurtured the sense of freedom that  Ivan Griegoryevich stood up for. That is those in the villages who  were “overcome with joy”, and those in the Gulag who “rejoiced”  at Stalin’s death.

These are very definitely not the last words to be said on Lenin, Stalin, the Stalinist terror, and  the Soviet State or its ultimate collapse.

Lenin’s ‘cruelty’?  “Western Revolutionary teachings”?  The Russian ‘slave soul’?

Perhaps not.  But, after such sadness, piercingly conveyed, can one reply to Grossman’s judgements  with  ease?

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Written by Andrew Coates

May 10, 2011 at 11:09 am

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