Content Warning: Genocide, Holodomor, Famine, Stalinism
Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman is a 1964 historiographical fiction about the wake left behind after Stalinism. The novel follows Ivan Grigoryevich, released from a gulag where he was interred as a political prisoner after Stalin’s death in 1953 as he revisits old relatives, friends, and lovers. Interspersed with Ivan’s narrative are lengthy essays, short stories, and oral histories relating to Russian history on topics such as collectivisation, the deportation of Kulaks, the experiences of the gulags, aspects of Lenin and Stalin’s characters, personality cults, the great purges of 1936 and 1937, culpability for informing on innocent people, and the genocide by artificial famine of up to seven million Ukrainian civilians. When Grossman started writing the novel in 1954 these were very fresh wounds, the novel took him ten years to write, I imagine that process to be fraught with difficulties and anxieties about representing these events to the best of his abilities, indeed he was still putting the finishing touches on the novel days before his death from stomach cancer in 1964. Sadly, both Everything Flows and the earlier Life and Fate (about the battle of Stalingrad, considered by many to be his magnum opus) were suppressed by the KGB upon publication due to the danger that they posed to the stability of Soviet society, Grossman was told that his novels would not be published for another two or three hundred years. Translators Robert and Elizabeth Chandler are doing a great service to the literary world and Grossman’s legacy as an author in their crusade to translate his works. Their translation itself is engaging and enjoyable to read in a way that few translators of Russian fiction ever are, the prose retains lyricism and flow, there is none of the rigidity of a Constance Garnet or the often-detrimental zealous fidelity or literalism to texts in a Pevear and Volokhonsky.
What Everything Flows truly excels at as a novel is a sense of perspective. This is a novel about reckoning with an awful past, about remembering in the absence of testimony and the presence of active censorship. The novel reads like a ‘last testament’ or a ‘final word’ on the period of Stalinism, at long last rendering lucid a history intentionally obfuscated or worse, destroyed, by a malicious regime. To clarify, Grossman does not make a devil of Marxism by falling into the trap of conflating Marx’s thought with the totalitarian Stalinist or Leninist state. Early in the novel, Ivan visits his cousin Nikolai Andreyevich, whom he hasn’t seen in 30 years. Nikolai is a successful Biologist, and as his story unfolds, it becomes clear that he did nothing to stop the demotion, arrests, and deportations of his colleges. To be clear, Nikolai did not actively participate in denunciations of his colleagues, but he did stand by while it was happening, benefitting off the absences created in the academic hierarchy to advance his career. Ivan’s re-entry to Nikolai’s life forces him to re-evaluate his culpability and involvement in Stalin’s Purges, Ivan’s very presence in Moscow is an affront to Nikolai’s relatively comfortable life. Nikolai states:
I had a Hard time under Yagoda, and I had a hard time under Yezhov. But now that Beria and Abakumov and Ryumin and Merkulov and Kobulov are no longer, I’m well and truly back on my feet. The main thing is that I sleep peacefully – I no longer expect visitors in the night. And the same, of course, goes for others. And now, now one can’t help thinking that those cruel times were not in vain. A new life has been born, and we can all do our best to participate in it. (pg. 45)
Which is something of a self-deception, or even hypocrisy, given he is talking to a survivor of the gulags who endured sufferings that Nikolai can only imagine. But here’s the thing… Grossman posits this attitude, this very self-deception, as necessary to cope with the sheer awfulness of this history, to maintain some amount of hope for the future. The alternative is confronting nihilism, destruction, cruelty on a cosmic scale. Ivan, who witnessed the horrors of the period, has no such luxury, he can maintain a vague hope that something of his former life remains, and search for those ruins, but the possibility is likely that his search will be fruitless there will be nothing to find, which is the tragedy at the core of the novel. Stalinism did this to people.
Undeniably the centrepiece to the book is the oral history relating Anna Sergeyevna’s (Ivan’s lover’s) experience as an activist in the artificial famines in the Ukraine in 1932. Here the ideological fervour and idealism of a young communist to root out ‘parasites’ and Kulaks slowly declines into a full awareness of the terrible power states have over their people, as grain is confiscated from peasants for not meeting the demands of unreasonable five-year plans. Grossman’s treatment of the Holodomor from the perspective of one of its unwilling perpetrators is beautifully realised, as the slow decline into starvation of entire families, villages, peoples, is chronicled. Everything Flows is worth reading for this passage alone, which had me on the verge of tears multiple times. Anna expresses a deep remorse:
And nothing remains of all that. Where can the life have gone? And that suffering, the terrible suffering? Can there really be nothing left? Is it really true that nobody will be held to account for it all? That it will all just be forgotten without at a trace? (pg. 148)
In reclaiming this lost history, Everything Flows is at once beautiful, illuminating, and tremendously sad. It is a book depicting events in history which often go ignored in our contemporary imagination, such as the horrors of collectivisation or the Holodomor, which is recognised by 35 countries (Australia included) as an act of genocide (Russia, of course, does not recognise the Holodomor). As the sites of Gulags in Siberia rot into the snow, as the people who could tell us about these things die, it is incredibly important to reach back into history and remember these sufferings.
Words by Eamonn Kelly