Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Everything Flows - Vasily Grossman

' State terror was directed not against those who had committed crimes but against those who, according to the security organs, were more likely to commit crimes'. pg 96.

 ' But the evil committed by the honest people were no less than the evil committed by the bad people '. pg 126.

' Only one judgement is passed on the executioner. He ceases to be a human being. Though looking on his victims as less than humans, he becomes his own executioner. He executes the human being inside himself. But the victim no matter what the executioner does to kill him remains a human being forever'. pg 128.

 '....the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery'. pg 198.

Vasily Grossman in Everything Flows.

Vasily Semyonovich Grossman was born in Berdychiv, Ukraine, in 1905. His parent were emancipated Jews and his name Yossya was turned into the Russian Vasya ( a diminutive of Vasily ) by a Russian nanny. It was while studying at the Moscow State University that he started to write short stories. He continued to write even when employed in the Donets Basin as an engineer. In the mid-1930's he left his job and turned his hand to full time writing. By 1936 he had published numerous short stories and a novel.

 When Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 Grossman was exempt from front service but none the less became a war correspondent ( his mother was murdered by the Germans in the same year alongside 20-30,000 other Jews in the Berdychiv Ghetto ). During the next four years he was accredited with spending more than 1,000 days in the front lines reporting for the popular Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda ( Red Star ). He covered the major battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk, and finally Berlin. He was also one of the first to write about the German death camps as early as 1943, particularly Treblinka and Majdenak. His article The Hell of Treblinka was published in 1944 and used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.

Outside of Schwerin, Germany, 1945.
 During the war he managed to have a novel published The People are Immortal. His writings saw him become a national hero. After the war he was to publish a novel Stalingrad  in 1950 that was based on his own experiences during the battle. He participated in the Black Book, a project of the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee that documented the Holocaust. It was the post war suppression of this group and Stalin's growing anti-semitism that shook his faith in the State. He began to question his loyalty as the the Soviet censors ordered changes to the groups text to downplay the anti-Jewish character of the atrocities and the role of Ukrainians who worked for the Germans. In 1948 the the project was scrapped completely.

 It was after this that he began to openly criticise collectivisation and political repression by the regime. In 1959 he wrote his 'piece de resistance ' Life and Fate about the battle of Stalingrad. It heavily criticised Stalin, and whilst he was never arrested his apartment was searched by the KGB and his manuscripts were confiscated after he submitted it for publication. They were so thorough they even took the ribbon out of his typewriter!! The Politburo's ideology chief told Grossman the novel could be published for 2-300 years! It was his last major novel.

 Everything Flows was written in 1961 and considered a threat to the regime as well. Like Life and Fate it was suppressed and Grossman became a virtual non-person. He died in 1964 of stomach cancer not knowing whether his two major novels would ever be read. But thanks to fellow dissidents his manuscripts were copied and smuggled out the USSR. The pages were photographed from surviving drafts and was retyped containing many spelling errors and mis-readings due to the poor quality of the photos.. But as it was Life and Fate was still published in Switzerland in 1980. It wasn't published in the USSR until 1989 under the Glasnost era of Mikhail Gorbachev. Then further original manuscripts were uncovered and the edition was revised and re-published in 1989. Like Life and Fate Everything Flows underwent similar treatment and was also published in the USSR in 1989.

 Life and Fate is considered by many to be semi-biographical in nature. The character Viktor Shtrum is according to Robert Chandler the novel's English translator '  a portrait of the author himself'. I have actually got a copy of the novel here to read, but at over 600 pages I thought I read Everything Flows first. At only 226 pages it is relatively short and I managed to finish it in two nights. But don't fool yourself into thinking that a short novel can have nothing to say, because this is one of the most devastating novels on inhumanity you will ever read.

 The novel is noted for its quiet, unforced, and quite horrifying condemnation of the Soviet totalitarian state. Funnily enough when you look at the era he wrote this in his banishment and non-person status enabled him to write such a work without fear of reprisal. Right throughout he writes with honesty on Soviet history. In 226 pages he encompasses life in the Gulags, the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33 in which scholars are still debating the number of deaths involved. Suffice to say they ran into the millions and many consider it as great a crime as the Holocaust.

 He looks at the life of Lenin and lays the blame of the Stalin era on his shoulders more so than on Stalin's. But he goes back even further pointing out Russia for 1000 years was a country that was all but a slave state. In essence he is saying that the then current climate was a situation of Russia's own making. The saddest thing was the so-called denunciations the population were encouraged to engage in. For no other reason than petty mindedness. Grossman looks at all the types of characters who denounced their families, friends, and neighbours. It is very similar in nature to what happened in Germany under the Nazi's. He quietly exposes that there wasn't one type of person involved, or anyone rational behind their actions. They lived in a climate of utter control and fear that drove them to such actions. It is just so sad that totally innocent people, in their millions, died under such a regime.

 And this is Grossman's point regarding the totalitarian state. Communism was meant to be the liberator of  the people. And yet the very people it was meant to help were the very ones who suffered the most. In one chapter Grossman writes of villages and peasants in the Ukraine who died in their millions simply because the state didn't believe that that years wheat crop had failed. The state went in and confiscated the next years wheat seeds and took anything else edible in the process. Apparently the dust clouds from all the wagons taking away this booty were huge and could be seen for miles around. What is even more appalling was those who came in quickly became aware that the crop had failed and yet were indifferent to the peasants fate as they had their orders. In other words if the Party said the peasants lied and were holding back grain then they were. So much for communism being for the workers or even ' the people '!!

 I liked this novel immensely. In only 200 + pages Grossman has written a quietly damning indictment on the Stalinist Soviet Union. The incredible power of the book is how so understated Grossman writes and describes the events. With so much horror around him one would think he would be full of hatred and venom. But the opposite is true. With incredible subtly Grossman conveys to the reader how the Party had crushed the life and will out of the people. They quite honestly couldn't resist. The sad thing is that millions went to their deaths completely innocent of any wrong doing. Their only crime was the State's mania for thinking that anyone at all was a potential criminal, and hence dangerous. It was absurd thinking.

 If you have an interest in 20th Century history, or in particular Soviet history, then Vasily Grossman's novel is required reading. It is quite simply a soul destroying read that quietly takes the reader into a very sad period of history. The deaths of the millions just boggles the mind. I found it almost beyond comprehension. I have read reviews that found this a depressing read. Personally if a reader feels this way then they fail to see Grossman's point. The point being one of indifference. Indifference to the unnecessary death and suffering of millions for a system that was touted as the saviour of the those suppressed for generations.

 For me this is one of the saddest most emotionally powerful novels I have ever read. It is beautifully translated and reads very well in English. At times though the translation felt a bit too clean and clinical. I would have liked to have felt some ' Russian-ness ' in the text. It is a slight thing really because overall this is a must read novel. Honestly, we of today's generation have just got no comprehension of what the 20th Century produced in Stalin. But Stalin's crimes were only a precursor of Hitler's to come.

 Highly, highly recommended. It is an easy read and one that will destroy your emotions in the process.

1 comment:

  1. Great author! I just read, "Treblinka, " by him.