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The Maximalist: On Vasily Grossman | The Nation

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The Maximalist: On Vasily Grossman

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In 1961 Vasily Grossman was summoned by Mikhail Suslov, the Soviet Union's ideological commissar, to discuss the fate of a manuscript that the KGB had confiscated from his flat. Suslov told Grossman the manuscript was so incendiary that publication was unthinkable "for another two to three hundred years." The work in question was Life and Fate, Grossman's epic novel about the entangled lives of two Soviet families during World War II. In structure and spirit the novel is reminiscent of War and Peace, and it proved anathema to Soviet authorities because it portrays Stalinist Russia as a totalitarian state, likening it to the fascist Nazi regime.

The Road
By Vasily Grossman.
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Olga Mukovnikova.
Introduction by Robert Chandler with Yury Bit-Yunan.
Buy this book.

Everything Flows
By Vasily Grossman.
Translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Aslanyan.
Introduction by Robert Chandler.
Buy this book.
 

About the Author

Jochen Hellbeck
Jochen Hellbeck, a professor of history at Rutgers University, is the author of Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary...

Also by the Author

Stephen F. Cohen's Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives surveys a political landscape of reform, struggle and reconciliation.

The generation that came of age in Stalin's Russia was torn between perpetual fear and profound emotional investment in the Soviet ideal.

How do we know this? Before KGB agents searched his home, Grossman had entrusted two copies of the manuscript to close friends. One copy was smuggled to the West after the writer's untimely death from cancer in 1964. Translated and published by a Russian émigré press in 1980 and reissued in the NYRB Classics series in 2006, Life and Fate has earned Grossman a worldwide audience. NYRB has followed suit with translations of two more Grossman titles: The Road, a compilation of fiction and nonfiction from the 1930s to the early '60s, and Everything Flows, a short novel brimming with historical reflections that Grossman worked on from 1955 until his death. Masterfully translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, the two volumes reveal a crucial dimension of Grossman's oeuvre to English readers for the first time.

Grossman is often described as a writer who led antithetical lives. There is the celebrated young author of the 1930s and '40s who was repeatedly nominated for a Stalin Prize, and there is the embittered, postwar writer whose manuscripts rarely left the drawer. Some Western critics extol the late Grossman as an anti-Soviet "individual freedom fighter" while regarding many of his prewar works as little more than conventional Soviet set pieces, or puzzles laden with subversive meanings. The Road and Everything Flows, which assemble stories early and late, published and unpublished, suggest a different view: the work is all of a piece, and its author kept exploring the same moral questions while progressively expanding his critical frame of vision. "We [are]," Grossman wrote, "people of the epoch of Fascism." This was in 1955, ten years after the end of the war. The Nazi onslaught opened his eyes to a number of fundamental oppositions: between freedom and oppression, "life" and "fate," the individual and state power. Over time he concluded that these oppositions did not vanish with the defeat of Hitler's Germany but instead could emerge in different forms in different political systems. How might ordinary people meet the challenges of an extraordinary era of violence and the political oppression of the twentieth century? What can—and must—we do as individuals, not just to survive but to preserve our humanity? During the postwar years, Grossman argued that even the Soviet state was a foe of humanity. This made him a heretic in Suslov's eyes. Yet it was Grossman's moral seriousness, anchored by his admiration of the Soviet revolution and its universal ideals of humanity and freedom, that spurred him on.

Grossman died in a Moscow hospital, bitter and alone. He was buried in the Troyekurovskoye cemetery on the city's outskirts after state officials denied his wife's request that he be laid to rest in Novodevichye, the most famous Russian cemetery. If he could have chosen his burial place it might have been, following the story "Eternal Rest," alongside other believers in a world commune. The Soviet century, his life experience suggests, accounted not only for human tragedies, large and small, at the hand of callous state leaders and their willing henchmen; it also produced a luminous writer whose abiding moral concerns derived from Russian literary traditions and the Communist age, and whose questions remain vital after the passing of the Communist state.

* * *

Grossman's first two novels are about the lives of coal miners and revolutionaries. They are socialist realist in style, in harmony with the party line of the 1930s, but as works of fiction they are firmly rooted in fact and imbued with a searching moral voice that would grow more pronounced in his writing over the years, including the pieces he filed during the war as a frontline correspondent for Red Star, the Soviet Army newspaper. Grossman was with the soldiers who retreated through Belorussia and western Russia from the advancing Germans in 1941, and he passed over some of the same terrain when he accompanied the Red Army on its victorious march west, all the way to Berlin. He was embedded with the First Ukrainian Front when, in January 1944, it liberated the city of Berdichev, where he was born in 1905 into a family of secular Jews. His mother was living in Berdichev before the war; the last he had heard from her was a letter of July 1941, written days before the Germans overran the city. Nearly three years later Grossman, drawing on interviews with local residents, pieced together the horrendous details of how most of Berdichev's 30,000 Jews were massacred in September 1941. Grossman learned of a massacre on a much larger scale in the summer of 1944, when the Red Army liberated Treblinka. He interviewed the few surviving victims and other witnesses, and in "The Hell of Treblinka," included in The Road, he wrote with palpable shock of how the Nazis had set up "an executioner's block such as the human race has never seen."

Grossman's war stories describe the racial hubris of the invaders, the callous blows and insults the Germans visited upon the helpless Soviet population and the vile instincts aroused in those citizens who began to collaborate with the occupation forces. But the writer's real interest was in determining how the Nazi onslaught could be countered and overcome. He found answers in Stalingrad, the city on the Volga where he was sent in August 1942 to cover the unfolding battle that, as many at the time believed, would decide the fate of Russia. Grossman was one of few observers who repeatedly crossed the Volga in September and October, passing from Soviet army command on the left bank into the demolished city, where a few thousand exhausted and poorly equipped Soviet troops clung to a strip of urban rubble in the face of nine attacking German divisions. Grossman's dispatches from Stalingrad adopt the perspective of these defenders, whom he interviewed at great length before sitting down to write. He portrays them as decidedly simple people with commonplace thoughts, yet in Stalingrad they met their historical challenge as they confronted fascism, the "antithesis to humanity." They rose above themselves, releasing their most precious human essence. Grossman had their example in mind when he wrote in Life and Fate of the birth of freedom in the ruins of Stalingrad. The Stalingraders were freedom fighters in an additional sense. As Grossman confided to a friend at the time, in words he did not dare record in his diary, let alone publish, their selfless actions would set an example and inspire others, cleansing away the guilt incurred by Soviet society at large during the 1930s, when people aided Stalin's campaign of terror or looked the other way.

Grossman believed that the spirit of liberation he witnessed in Stalingrad would be sweeping and far-reaching. He noted in his account of Treblinka that Himmler visited the death camp just weeks after the German rout at Stalingrad and ordered the bodies of the dead to be exhumed and burned. By defeating the Germans far away on the Volga, Grossman suggested, the Red Army soldiers of Stalingrad had "stopped Himmler from keeping the secret of Treblinka." Grossman underscores this connection in "The Hell of Treblinka" by pointedly referring to the green ribbon of the Defense of Stalingrad medal pinned to the chest of a Soviet officer in the liberated camp, whom he watched recording page upon page of testimony from the murderers. There was more than a trace of Soviet Marxism in Grossman's view of history as coming to fruition in a dialectical struggle between humanity and its antithesis, between good and evil.

Grossman's hopes for liberation were dashed as soon as the war ended. As he wrote in Life and Fate, the moment human freedom overcame Nazi inhumanity a new force ascended and claimed the spoils of victory for itself. A feeling of liberation had sprung up spontaneously among Soviet soldiers, imparting self-reliance and a sense of community and purpose, and the Soviet state made quick work of subduing it. In Life and Fate, some of the soldiers and scientists who valiantly fought the Germans are sent to labor camps; many others suffer moral deaths working as petty bureaucrats or ambitious nuclear scientists who fabricate new technologies of mass killing. The state did not just suppress people by force: it also exerted its power by "comfort[ing] them in their weakness," storing away the "chimera of their conscience." In Grossman's wartime stories it is the fascist state alone that exploits people's moral failings; after the war the writer widened his lens to indict the Soviet totalitarian regime, and beyond it the other nations battling for global supremacy in the cold war, violating the interests of humanity. In "Abel (August 6)," a story inexplicably left out of the present collection, Grossman shows the corrosive impact of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima on the crew of the Enola Gay.

The universe of Grossman's late stories is composed of various shades of darkness. Even if, in the twentieth century, humans couldn't escape their fate, by which Grossman meant their fatedness, to live and often die at the hands of state violence, they could honor a moral obligation to cultivate their humanity. Grossman illustrates this poignantly in a story from the early '60s that revisits the years of the war. "In Kislovodsk" tells of a doctor who is the head physician of a government sanitarium in a Caucasian spa town. A worldly and elegant man, drawn to a life of comfort and content with himself, the doctor sees no point in being evacuated from the advancing Germans, opting instead to wait them out. Nothing happens during the initial weeks of the occupation, but then a German officer visits the doctor and orders him to surrender to the Gestapo the Red Army wounded convalescing in the sanitarium. The German's visit interferes with the doctor's social calendar—he and his wife have made plans to attend the theater. That night, they dress in their best evening clothes. After a sumptuous supper at home, with wine, caviar and dancing, they proceed to kiss their porcelain cups and stroke their mahogany furniture. "Then, in a harsh voice, she said, 'And now poison me, like a mad dog—and yourself too!'" The couple's action overrides and redeems the petty corruptions of the soul that had accumulated over a lifetime.

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.

* * *

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).

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