Ivan Grigoryevich has just been released after 30 years in the GULag. He is set free after Stalin’s death – if one can call it “freedom” what a former political prisoner experiences in a just slightly changed country that is still run by the basically same dictatorial regime and totalitarian ideology. Ivan Grigoryevich comes back to a life that is physically and morally still devastated by war and terror.
The brilliant novel Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman, based on the fate of Grossman’s brother-in-law, describes the destroyed, almost extinguished life of a man that – like many millions of others – fell victim to the great purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union, after his release from a slave labor camp in the Kolyma region in the Far North East of Siberia.
We follow Ivan during his train ride to Moscow, listening to the conversations of some typical representatives of the “new” society, a society which is alien and repelling for Ivan.
We meet his cousin with wife, his only relative, who – although not a bad person – made many compromises and committed small acts of treachery in the past in order to make the career he (and his ambitious wife) felt he was entitled to have.
We meet the person who decades ago denounced Ivan (which meant death or long term imprisonment as a slave worker in the GULag; in the case of a death sentence, the families were usually informed that the convicted was being sentenced to “ten years without right of correspondence”).
We see Ivan in front of the house where his big love is living, a woman that long ago stopped to send letters to the prisoner, either because she thought that Ivan is dead or because she simply moved on with her life.
Ivan feels that all these people have got nothing to do with him anymore. But how to live and for what purpose? And how to make sense of this wasted life since the decades that are missing will not come back?
With a little bit of luck, Ivan finds a job in a workshop where he is accepted despite his past. (By the way a bit similar to the workshop in Kharkov in which my father used to work for many years during the Stalin era.)
And he finds against all odds love: he meets the widow Anna and experiences for the first time in his life a form of warmth and tenderness that was unknown to him. But Ivan’s and Anna’s happiness lasts only for a short while…As Anna puts it:
“Happiness doesn’t seem to be our fate in this world.”
Everything flows is an extremely touching novel. It contains many scences that leave their mark on the reader for a very long time.
There is for example the scene when Anna describes how she as a young party activist participated in the so-called “dekulakisation”, i.e. the forced expulsion of the so-called kulaks (usually small landowners) to remote and uninhabited areas, which meant for hundreds of thousands of them death by starvation.
Or the few pages that describe the fate of a gentle, meek, family of Ukrainian farmers in the early 1930s, who – like their whole village and thousands of villages in the Ukraine – became a victim of the so-called Holodomor, the probably biggest man-made killing by starvation in history. (The grain, including the seeds, that the OGPU, Stalin’s ruthless secret police extorted from the farmers was exported – with the money, Stalin bought machinery that should help to modernize the Soviet Union fast. At the same time 5-8 millions of potential “enemies” of the system “disappeared” by starvation and cannibalism.)
The novel contains also a mock trial that sheds a light on the absurdity of the great purge which sent dozens of millions of people to the camps; and chapters that try to explain the nature of the Soviet system by the character of its leaders, especially Lenin. An interesting thought is Grossman’s explanation that progress and slavery in Russia were always combined: periods of great progress (like under Peter the Great or Katharina) were always periods where individual freedom was even more reduced than before – a model which also Stalin seemed to have in mind when he made himself a “Red” Czar that was aiming to exterminate freedom completely in his empire.
Stylistically and regarding its composition the novel is slightly uneven. Grossman was still working on the book when he died, so what we have as readers is not the version that Grossman would have considered as ready for publishing. Anyway, it was obvious that he couldn’t have published this book during his lifetime. Too open is his criticism not only against Stalinism but against the roots of the Soviet system as a whole. Still, despite this unevenness, it is a great and extremely impressive achievement.
Grossman is not condemning anyone that denounced his neighbor, or who was a political activist that participated in what he or she later recognized as monstrous crimes, or who in order to protect his/her own family stopped social contacts with the family members of someone that was arrested. He is particularly sympathetic with the women who became a victim of Stalinism; their fate was frequently even worse than that of the men. He tries to understand why it all happened.
Many Russian authors have written about the GULag (and about its Czarist predecessors in the 19th century). In the West, mainly the books of Alexander Solzhenitsyn about the GULag are known and read; A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a great story, but unfortunately Solzhenitsyn’s other works are too frequently marred by his reactionary, anti-semitic prejudices and rhetoric.
To me, the beautiful novels of Vasily Grossman and the breathtaking stories of Varlam Shalamov about the GULag, are far more important and worth reading.
Vasily Grossman: Everything Flows, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, with Anna Aslanyan, Vintage, London 2011
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