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Part of illustration by Katrin Stenmark.

Reviews The relativity of suffering. One of the last century’s greatest realists at work

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds issue 1, 2013, pp 40-41
Published on balticworlds.com on maj 17, 2013

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When I reviewed Wendy Z. Goldman’s Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia (BW, vol. V:1) about Stalinist mass terror at the local level, in factories and party committees, I returned to Vasily Grossman’s unparalleled polemic in the form of fiction Everything Flows, the natural and necessary sequel to Life and Fate, his novel about World War II and the confrontation between two major twentieth-century ideological systems, Nazism and communism.

Grossman (1905—1964) had of course been one of the devoted, politically correct journalists in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. As a war correspondent, he covered the Red Army’s battles and slow progress westward after the appalling setback that dealt such a vicious blow to the Jewish population of the old Russian Empire, his own people. He wrote an early exposé, an on-the-spot report, from a German death camp; his short stories of the years of ruin, when all of Eastern Europe seemed on the brink of destruction, are gripping literature and profound works of art.

The Road, a volume of collected works, presents Grossman writ small. Laconic, suggestive, with large, meaningful points between the lines. Grossman’s prose is light, like a butterfly. The subjects of the first suite are the birth of the young Soviet state and its struggle to survive. Especially striking is the prominent place of women in the social life depicted — including women in leading positions. The story about the young political commissar who, quartered in a Jewish home as the Russian-Polish war raged (1919—1921), gives birth after the infant’s father had fallen in battle and leaves her newborn behind when the Red Guards go on the counter-offensive, is unforgettable — as a document of the times, and as art.

The second section is framed by the Second World War and the Jewish plight under Nazi occupation. A provincial teacher who meets his cruel fate never having lost his illusions seems to me the embodiment of the lot of an entire people. Although some of the later short stories allude to Nazism and the hatred of Jews, the most powerful among them are a couple that provide glimpses into the Soviet human soul. “Mama” for instance, based on the authentic and proven story of the adoption of an orphan by the NKVD boss Nikolai Yezhov and his wife, and the girl’s unglamorous adventures after the execution of her father and the suicide (in reality) of her mother. The terror of the epoch resides in glances and gestures, not physical torture and bloodletting. Grossman’s rage becomes most palpable when he holds back; he has no need to display it.

In an appendix to the book, “the girl” was allowed, in 2010, the year of publication, to give her version of the brief time she spent in the Yezhov family. To her, this prince of the Terror, who ultimately became its victim, was a loving and caring adult who made sure the child was given everything she needed. She went so far as to try, without success, to have her adoptive father rehabilitated as a prisoner of the system. She also suffered for his sake, although actually only in that she was sent back to an orphanage and could not choose a profession in the music world, as she would have preferred.

Suffering is relative.

Grossman lost his own mother to the ravages of German SS troops in his home city and he felt guilty to the end of his days for not having done more to get his mother out in time. Two letters to his mother, written long after her murder, are elegiac in a manner otherwise unlike this writer. When he is close to death, he can unleash, as in a few lovely graveyard meditations written shortly before his own passing, his sense of humor and his quiet irony; in this story there is an almost ribald passage about bearded “private priests” with long, red noses who will, in exchange for a glass of vodka or, even better, several, agree to hold a funeral oration for the chief mourners — drunkards of a kind who would otherwise be consigned to parasitism, as the society would later condemn one Joseph Brodsky.

One long text in The Road differs from all the others. The war correspondent Vasily Grossman was one of the first to write about a concentration camp after having been on site and making personal observations. His article about Treblinka is an indictment. The bombast (otherwise absent from Grossman’s prose) is there to soothe indescribable anguish. Sharply, piercingly, the writer reconstructs the industrial killing; he characterizes a few of the murderers and when he imagines the innocent victims he becomes painfully physical.

“Hell in Treblinka” was written in the heat of the moment and there was of course a rush to get out the information after the Soviet Army’s liberation of this piece of Polish ground. The camp had by then already been destroyed by the German murderers. Unfortunately, Grossman’s estimations of the number of dead are wildly exaggerated. He reports three million murdered in this camp alone; the actual figure is well under eight hundred thousand — a horrific figure in its own right. But the error reminds us that war reportage (like biased testimony) is a shaky foundation for establishing historical truth. Propaganda is a mighty force that does not always have any relationship to the facts. However, the editor and translator Robert Chandler has appended exemplary notes to the Treblinka article, as well as to the rest of the selections, which are based on the most recent literature in the field.

Everything Flows was written after the post-Stalinist authorities had obstructed the publication of Life and Fate. Grossman continued working as a writer for the Soviet press, but none of his literary works could be published until a couple of decades after his death, when the generation of leaders who were molded politically and professionally during the Stalin era were leaving the stage. Robert Chandler may be right in his suspicion that Grossman might have fallen victim to the repression in connection with the hysterical campaign against cosmopolitanism and the so-called Doctors’ Plot (a way of eliminating the still-vigorous Jewish element in Soviet society) if not for the sudden death in March 1953 of the holder of ultimate power, Joseph Stalin.

The posthumously published book is structured in scenes. In one of the first, the foreground is taken by the problem of the anti-Jewish purges within the Soviet intelligentsia. Sympathizers won honor and admiration that would not otherwise have been theirs. The protagonist of Everything Flows, Ivan Grigoryevich, has just been released from the gulag after twenty years. He arrives in Moscow and visits his cousin, who has achieved career success and a place in the scientific academy through profiting by the persecution of Jewish colleagues. Grigoryevich had himself been a promising scientist who made criminal statements during his student years and was shipped away to serve hard labor. All the characters are prematurely gray. Who lives in the greatest distress, the free or the imprisoned, remains an unanswered question. Who is without guilt? The prisoners who squeal under painful interrogation? And is he who voluntarily informs not also a victim of the torture afflicted upon the entire society by the state and its institutions?

Few works of 20th century fiction can measure up to Everything Flows when it comes to questions of morality. It is not an indictment; it is a coming to terms — with, among other things, the writer’s own experience, the writer’s own possible complicity. Like a good reporter, Grossman has gathered material from camp life in outer Siberia, the mass famine in Ukraine in the early years of the 1930s, the torture in the interrogation cells, the many layers of Glanz und Elend in the life of society. The present is the time just before Khrushchev’s thaw, the many amnesties and returns after Stalin’s death (quite a few, as we know, preferred to stay in their places of exile, as they had nowhere to return to). But the past is always present, in monologs, in dialogs, in fictional legal settlements. Who, then, has any right to pass judgment in such a society? Are not the judge, the prosecutor, public opinion also tainted, and in some sense guilty? Ivan Grigoryevich’s first love betrayed him when he was taken away, and married someone else; his second and last love — the woman who allows him to board with her while he performs his lowly job as a metal worker — feels that she too has betrayed others when, as a young party activist, she stood helpless before the outrages and cruel mismanagement during the forced collectivizations. Her long, night-time confessions, sitting on the edge of the bed, have a realism that surpasses the descriptions of Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, which is no small praise. And naturally, for this otherwise would not have been a great and tragic Russian book, this woman is also taken from him, by lung cancer.

The discussion in the final chapter of Lenin’s ominous role in Russian modernization, his encapsulation in the thousand-year Russian history of serfdom and subjection is — I was about to say, as sharp as a knife. Because if there is something that has characterized our time, according to Grossman, it is that particular instrument, the surgeon’s knife, that is “the 20th century’s true theoretician, its greatest philosophical leader”. Through his ascetic nature, Lenin could persist in a modernization project that precluded all thoughts of individual freedom. He never argued to persuade, but always to bully. He had sacrificed himself for the revolution (exhausted and paralyzed, he died at 54), and thus the sacrifices of others were not more worthy than his. In this way, Bolshevism became a kind of philosophy of decline: “This was not nourishment for the healthy. It was a narcotic for failures, for the sick and the weak, for the backward and beaten.” Is this simply a lack of civility? “In Russia, there is virtually no such thing as manners,” wrote Nikolai Leskov long before (in A Decayed Family).

“Lenin’s synthesis of non-freedom and socialism”, Grossman writes in a wholly unexpected turn, “stupefied the world more than the discovery of nuclear energy.”

Everything Flows is a voyage of discovery to a barbarism that Grossman refuses to attribute to the realm of necessity. People must become accustomed to choosing, in the midst of their despair: choosing their inclinations, their time, their work, their friends. That is the way out of slavery. And it will demand sacrifice. But that is not the business of this book.≈

+ Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows, Editor and translator: , Robert Chandler, New York, New York Review of Books 2009, 253 pages

+ Vasily Grossman, The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, Editor and translator: , Robert Chandler, New York, New York Review of Books 2010, 373 pages