The Maximalist: On Vasily Grossman
In Everything Flows, no one in Stalin's Soviet Union escapes the regime's corrupting influence. Millions of citizens kept the system in motion, as bureaucrats, avid informants or passive collaborators who turned their backs to the suffering of others. After Stalin's death in 1953 they had to face questions about their past. For Grossman, few would pass the litmus test of moral responsibility.
The story's central figure is Ivan Grigoryevich, a former political prisoner. Released after a lifetime spent in a labor camp, he arrives in Moscow by train from Siberia on an autumn morning, his destination the home of his cousin Nikolay, to whom he has sent a telegram announcing his arrival. Nikolay's wife, Maria, is troubled by the news. A former political convict spells trouble; her husband's career as a scientist might suffer. Nikolay chastises her for saying this, but secretly he shares her worries. Just before Ivan arrives Nikolay is overcome with emotion. He wants to confess to Ivan: to repent for lacking the courage to write to him even one letter after hearing of his arrest, and to detail the many petty and vile aspects of his existence as a state bureaucrat. The three have dinner, and the atmosphere at the table is cold. Rather than confessing, Nikolay gloats about his achievements as a Soviet scientist, addressing his quiet cousin with condescending affection. Ivan declines a halfhearted offer to stay the night; he takes a night train to Leningrad in search of a female friend from his student years who had written to him repeatedly before falling silent. It turns out that she is married. Ivan then travels to an industrial city in the south where he finds a job as a metalworker in a small shop. He lodges with the widow of a sergeant who died in the war.
Grossman's language in the novella is laconic, a far cry from the epic bravado of Life and Fate. A character's vital traits are etched in a few lines. Ivan is introduced on the train to Moscow as a "thin old man" "with gray temples and exhausted eyes," incongruously dressed in a black sateen shirt, with too-short sleeves and "white buttons on the collar and chest that made it look like the shirt of a child." Other passengers think of him as a "gray-haired old peasant," but the narrator's probing gaze establishes Ivan's childlike moral purity.
Grossman's moral stance in Everything Flows is relentless, and not just toward Nikolay. Ivan's story is intercut with a mock trial of four "Judases"—defendants who, acting with different motivations and under different pressures, had denounced other citizens during Stalin's reign. Each man justifies his actions; they are aided by a defense counsel who eloquently postulates their innocence. The narrator uses the pronoun "we" to invite the reader into the moral drama. In the end, Grossman indicts everyone in the room—not just the defendants and their prosecutor but the reader, too, and the narrator: "All the living are guilty." A friend of Grossman's once recalled how the writer had visited the editor of a literary journal that, under intense pressure, had withdrawn its endorsement of Grossman's novel For a Just Cause, from 1952. The editor, with whom Grossman had been on friendly terms, asked him, "What do you expect? That I put my party card on the table for your work?" "Exactly," Grossman replied.
Ivan and the soldier's widow, Anna Sergeevna, become lovers. Ivan is flooded by traumatic memories of his years in Siberia and shares them with Anna. In turn, she confesses her role in the terrible famine she witnessed in Ukraine in the 1930s. She had been a bookkeeper in a newly established collective farm and felt only revulsion toward the coarse, "subhuman" peasants who were being channeled into state farms while zealous party activists deprived them of their grain.
The whole village was howling, without mind, without heart. It was a noise like leaves in the wind, or creaking straw. It made me angry. Why did they have to howl so pitifully? They had ceased to be human—so why were they crying so pitifully? You'd have to be made of stone to carry on eating your ration of bread to the sound of that howling. I used to go out into the fields with my bread ration; I'd stop—and I could still hear them howling. I'd go a bit farther—and it would seem they'd gone silent. Then I'd go farther still—and I could hear it again. Only by then it was from the next village along. It would seem as if, along with the people, the whole earth had begun to howl. "Who's going to hear them?" I'd think. "There's no God."
For Grossman, reared in an atheist society, there was no God, either, but there was humanity as an ideal. The only way to liberate oneself from one's past failings toward society is by coming to terms with them through acts of rigorous self-examination and shared storytelling. The living are indebted to the millions of people who have died at the hands of modern state power; in remembering the dead the living can restore their own humanity.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of Stalin's death, Grossman was one of the earliest, most searching and humane investigators of the totalitarian condition. Compare his psychological insights with the accusatory pen of his near contemporary Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who sought to vilify Communist beliefs rather than understand them. Or recall Anna Akhmatova's famous words, that with the opening of the prison camps "two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back." Readers of Grossman will learn about the gray area of the psyche that lies between the two Russias; they will also learn more about themselves.
Robert Chandler, the editor of Everything Flows, incorrectly refers to the famine of 1932–33, during which as many as 5 million people perished, as a Ukrainian "terror famine." The famine resulted from a brutal collectivization campaign that did not target Ukrainians alone but other grain-growing regions of the Soviet Union as well. Grossman pointedly writes about "the death by famine of the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban." The story of the famine as a uniquely Ukrainian genocide was propagated by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in an attempt to create a sacrificial founding myth for present-day Ukraine. Grossman would have objected to any attempt to appropriate the history of past suffering for the purposes of aggrandizing state power.
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Not long after she tells Ivan about the famine, Anna is diagnosed with cancer and dies. In an attempt to maintain a dialogue with her, Ivan jots down thoughts in a notebook about "the truth of Russian life, what it was that linked past and present." His reflections amount to an indictment of ruthless leaders, from Peter the Great to Stalin, who consistently placed the interests of the state over and against human dignity and freedom. In Life and Fate, a doubting old Bolshevik is brought to the verge of heresy when he realizes that in attacking the state "he would have to condemn Lenin...! This was the edge of the abyss." Ivan walks off the edge by squarely attacking Lenin, a revolutionary who knew well the dearth of personal and social freedoms in Russia but who upon coming to power sacrificed the revolutionary agenda of liberation to the cold interests of state power. Turning against the ideas of human dignity that had come to Russia from the West, he built a powerful state apparatus that resurrected in spirit, if not practice, Russian serfdom. The state that should have become a means toward the end of freedom became an end in itself. Stalin would perfect and extend the instruments set into place by his teacher.
While chipping away at the Soviet state, Grossman retained his belief in the ideas of humanity and freedom that he claimed were embodied in the original script of the Soviet revolution. He remained convinced that the Soviet soldiers fighting in World War II had heroically sacrificed themselves for the future of humanity. But Grossman was also a writer shaped by a century of Russian thought. He preferred the philosophic views of the "Westernizers" to the "Slavophiles" and their mystical belief in the Russian "soul" as a harbinger of political freedom. As a writer he practiced an aesthetic of critical realism that can be traced to the works of Turgenev and Tolstoy, among other novelists of prerevolutionary Russia. Like them, Grossman judged the merits of a literary work by whether it proved useful to the cause of social progress. A writer's primary task was to educate and enlighten, to show readers how to tap into their potential and rise up to become moral "personalities" who would lead Russia out of its oppressive past. Crucially, this aesthetic also had a self-reflexive dimension: there was to be no more separation between art and reality, literature and life. Only on the strength of such involvement could the writer claim moral authority. It is for this reason that Everything Flows has such a personal ring and why the narrator exhorts himself as much as he does his characters and readers. It is also why the story of Ivan Grigoryevich and the narrator's authorial musings become intertwined and fully merge in the end.
After Anna's death, Ivan travels to the coastal town on the Black Sea where he had spent his childhood. From the window of the train he absorbs the sight of the green-black waters:
The wind and the sea had been there when the investigator summoned him for interrogations during the night. They had been there while a grave was being dug for a prisoner who had died in transit. They had been there while guard dogs barked beneath the barrack windows and the snow creaked beneath the boots of the guards. The sea was eternal, and the eternity of its freedom seemed to Ivan Grigoryevich to be akin to indifference.
This scene may explain the novella's title. Like the flow of the sea, the human condition is in constant flux. It does not surge inexorably from past oppression to future liberation, nor does it herald the victory of state power, which for all its supremacy is fleeting. Like history, human nature is open-ended; people are capable of doing evil as much as good. Mikhail Suslov had every reason to fear Vasily Grossman; the writer sought to probe the historical fabric and future potential of his society. Perhaps it's because of this stance that his work is finding its way back into print, and much sooner than Suslov predicted.
A muted optimism imbues the closing moments of Ivan Grigoryevich's story, and Vasily Grossman's life. Ivan stands alone beholding the few stones shining white in the dusty grass covering the site of his childhood home. Ivan is "gray-haired, stoop-shouldered, yet still the same as ever, unchanged." The ethically charged last words of the sentence in Russian, vsyo tot-zhe (still the same as ever), echo and subtly invert the title phrase, vsyo techot (everything flows).