Not least among Vasily Grossman’s great achievements as a Soviet writer was his ability to fashion a true art form out of the procrustean genre of socialist realism. His technique was as simple as it was subversive. Rather than employ his characters as monotone metaphors acting in the service of revolutionary fantasy, he made them into variegated people besieged by revolutionary reality. As the protagonist of Everything Flows, Grossman’s third novel, puts it: “The literature that called itself ‘realist’ was as convention-ridden as the bucolic romances of the eighteenth century. The collective farmers, workers, and peasant women of Soviet literature seemed close kin to those elegant, slim villagers and curly-headed shepherdesses in woodland glades, playing on reed pipes and dancing, surrounded by little white lambs with pretty blue ribbons.” Grossman let war, persecution and genocide serve as his backdrop but he was most preoccupied with the fate of ordinary human beings caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Down to the last battlefield commissar, guilt-ridden informant, or NKVD agent, his characters were imbued with a psychological and moral complexity rare for any age, much less a totalitarian one that forced an artistic parade ground upon what Max Eastman once witheringly termed “writers in uniform.”
That Grossman survived the twentieth century is no less remarkable than the fact that he became a great Russian novelist in it. He was born in 1905 in the heavily Jewish town of Berdichev. Originally trained as a chemist, he became a famous World War II correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda, whose articles were read aloud for inspiration in the ranks of the Red Army, with whom he returned in 1943 to witness Ukraine’s “liberation” from Nazi occupation as well as the gruesome discoveries of Babi Yar and Treblinka—and Berdichev. His beloved mother was one of the thirty thousand of Berdichev’s Jewish population slaughtered in Hitler’s abattoir in the Caucasus. It was a devastating personal loss that furnished one of Grossman’s great leitmotifs of maternal nostalgia. He also had the distinction, if the term isn’t obscene in this context, of being the first writer in any language to document the death camps. His article, “The Hell of Treblinka,” written in 1944, was used by the prosecution as testimonial at Nuremberg.
Everything Flows only appeared in the Soviet Union in 1989 after three decades of censorship; Grossman died of stomach cancer before completing the book, which has just been re-translated into English by Robert Chandler. A more pessimistic follow-up to Life and Fate, Grossman’s Tolstoyan masterpiece about World War II, it tells the story of Ivan Grigoryevich, who has just been released from the gulag after serving a thirty year sentence for questioning the legitimacy of dialectical materialism. His manumission is rooted in a simple historical development—Stalin has died—though the climate of paranoia and mutual incrimination persists. Grossman is hyper-attuned to every itch and impulse of a society that has just been allowed to breath a little easier but is by no means free.
Consider how well he describes the competing emotions of guilt and defiance in Ivan Grigoryevich’s cousin Nikolay Andreyevich, who suffers from the Soviet species of survivors’ guilt. His particular case has manifold causes. As a mediocre biologist, his professional fortunes have risen amidst Stalin’s last act of cruelty before dying—the anti-Semitic purge of the sciences in the wake of the fabricated “Doctor’s Plot” which ended the careers and lives of so many brilliant colleagues—and, unlike the rebellious Ivan Grigoryevich, he has mainly kept his head below the parapet:
Yes, his whole life had passed by in obeisance, in a great act of submission, in fear of hunger, torture, and forced labor in Siberia. But there had also been a particularly vile fear—the fear of receiving not black caviar but red caviar, mere salmon caviar, in his weekly parcel of food from the Institute. And this vile ‘caviar’ fear had co-opted his adolescent dreams from the time of War Communism; it had made use of them for its own shameful ends. What mattered was to have no doubt or hesitations; what mattered was to give his vote, to sign his name, without a second thought. Yes, yes, what had nourished his unshakable ideals was two very different fears: fear for his own skin—of being skinned alive—and fear of losing his entitlement to a bit of black caviar.
Communism did not bring about classlessness; it sharpened pre-existing class divisions and fashioned the signed denunciation into the main weapon of warfare. Envy was thus allowed to masquerade as the true power of the powerless. Grossman understood that the genius of a system that inculpates everyone is that it also abolishes moral absolutes and leaves only one arbiter of right and wrong: the state, which can change its mind overnight about the culpability of Jewish doctors, the enmity of the Third Reich and anything else. Ideology is supposed to traffic in historical inevitability. Instead it traffics in caprice.
The abolition of absolute morality is not what ranks as Grossman’s most lasting insight; it is his more controversial one about the moral equivalence between Hitlerism and Stalinism. Only the polemics of Partisan Review from the 1930s and '40s compete with the intellectual sophistication Grossman brought to bear on this wrought and by no means settled comparison. (Among leftists in the 1930s and 1940s this was perhaps the most sensitive question of all. Friendships were ended by the suggestion of such an analogy.) We understand at once why Life and Fate, which Grossman finished in 1959, stood no chance of being published in Russia even during the Khrushchevite cultural “thaw” (the book itself was “arrested” and only smuggled to the West in microfilm samizdat years later by Vladimir Voinivich.) In one scene, a Nazi Obersturmbannfuhrer attempts to ingratiate himself with an Old Bolshevik prisoner-of-war by telling him the truth: “A red workers’ flag flies over our People’s State too. We too call people to national Achievement, to Unity and Labour. We say, ‘The Party expresses the dream of the German worker’; you say, ‘Nationalism! Labour!’ You know as well as we do that nationalism is the most powerful force of our century. Nationalism is the soul of our epoch. And ‘Socialism in One Country’ is the supreme expression of nationalism.”
In Grossman’s hands, this is not the Devil’s grand inquisition so much as the morbid cunning of history, a theme he amplified more poignantly in Everything Flows by implicitly comparing the Holocaust to another state-perpetrated atrocity: the Holomodor, or Ukrainian Terror Fame of 1932-1933, which claimed the lives of three to five million peasants. Grossman equates the destruction of “kulaks” with the destruction of European Jewry, again putting his own thoughts into the mouth of a former accomplice to evil. This time it’s the penitent and fatally ill Anna Sergeyevna, in whose lodgings and sexual embrace Ivan Grigoryevich will ultimately find comfort. Anna was a chairman of a collective farm during Stalin’s starvation genocide and her confession about the events that took place is widely cited for its almost journalistic quality. Robert Conquest, author of the pathfinding history of the Terror Famine, The Harvest of Sorrow, has repeatedly referred to the following passage for its subtextual resonance with the Shoah:
They convinced themselves that the kulaks
were evil, that it was best not to even touch them...
The kulaks’ towels were unclean, their children were
disgusting, their young women were worse than lice.
The activists looked on those who were being
dispossessed as if they were cattle, or swine... They
were not even human beings; goodness knows what
they were—some kind of beasts, I suppose.
Where Grossman doesn’t traffic to grim verisimilitude in Everything Flows, he does traffic in abstract disquisition. The most experimental section of the novel is its ending. Like Koestler’s Rubashov, alone and pensive in his cell, Grossman’s Ivan Grigoryevich postulates his own theory of revolutionary contradiction. How did a movement intended to free mankind end up doing the opposite? The answer lies in the black soil of Russia herself—and in the ironies of an Asiatic feudalism with a peculiar tropism toward Western Enlightenment. Lenin, in this accounting, inhabits the role of radical prophet and reactionary czar combined: “Did he ever imagine that what his revolution would liberate was Russian slavery itself—that his revolution would enable Russian slavery to spread beyond the confines of Russia, to become a torch lighting a new path for humanity?” Stalinism was not the natural culmination of Marxism; it was natural culmination of the Russian tradition, a manic-depressive affair capable of producing a Pushkin as well as a Nechayev.
Grossman’s argument here has also been endorsed by serious scholarship, particularly by great Russo-Hungarian scholar Tibor Szamuely, who observed that state ownership of the means of production actually began under Peter the Great and that popular revolts, when they were waged at all in pre-modern Russia, were nearly always waged on behalf of authority. The famed Decembrist uprising—a romantic myth that fired young Alexander Herzen into liberal action—was more like a palace coup that only got as far as it did because the leading conspirators lied to their soldiers and told them that the plot to overthrow Czar Nicolas I was for the purpose of installing his younger brother Constantine in the throne. The rallying cry, “Long live Constantine! Long live the Constitution!” these rank-and-file revolutionaries thought, referred to Constantine and his wife. (Having never encountered the word Constitution before, they assumed it was a woman's name.) This is the tragicomic past Grossman has in mind when he writes of the Russian “slave-soul.”
It is not to everyone’s taste to read a novel that abandons an already thin plotline for a series of philosophical and historical reflections. (Chandler is not quite right in his introduction to say that Grossman would have loathed postmodernism; he was a forerunner of the anti-totalitarian category we now associate with Milan Kundera.) But how could the Lenin who re-read War and Peace and sat rapturous for Appassionata also be the Lenin who ordered a search of Georgy Plekhanov’s apartment even as the godfather of Russian Marxism lay dying? Nabokov once termed this personal-political dichotomy in Lenin the “pail of milk of human kindness with a dead rat floating at the bottom.” Grossman, in turn, answers:
This kind of person is like a surgeon in a hospital ward. His interest in the patients and their families his jokes, the arguments he takes part in, his struggles on behalf of homeless children, and his concern for workers who have reached the age of retirement—all of this is unimportant, trifling, a mere husk. His soul lies in his surgeon’s knife.
This could be Chekhov at his allegorical best, though not even that master storyteller anticipated that the ward in which all of his country’s madmen would eventually hold sway was fated to be the Kremlin itself.
Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that researches the UK media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East.