The Nation has a solid overview of Vasily Grossman’s the Road and Everything Flows which are new from the New York Review of Books. I haven’t had a chance to crack Life and Fate yet, but these works sound good too and need to go on my list.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death, Grossman was one of the earliest, most searching and humane investigators of the totalitarian condition. Compare his psychological insights with the accusatory pen of his near contemporary Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who sought to vilify Communist beliefs rather than understand them. Or recall Anna Akhmatova’s famous words, that with the opening of the prison camps “two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back.” Readers of Grossman will learn about the gray area of the psyche that lies between the two Russias; they will also learn more about themselves.
Robert Chandler, the editor of Everything Flows, incorrectly refers to the famine of 1932–33, during which as many as 5 million people perished, as a Ukrainian “terror famine.” The famine resulted from a brutal collectivization campaign that did not target Ukrainians alone but other grain-growing regions of the Soviet Union as well. Grossman pointedly writes about “the death by famine of the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban.” The story of the famine as a uniquely Ukrainian genocide was propagated by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko in an attempt to create a sacrificial founding myth for present-day Ukraine. Grossman would have objected to any attempt to appropriate the history of past suffering for the purposes of aggrandizing state power.
* * *
While chipping away at the Soviet state, Grossman retained his belief in the ideas of humanity and freedom that he claimed were embodied in the original script of the Soviet revolution. He remained convinced that the Soviet soldiers fighting in World War II had heroically sacrificed themselves for the future of humanity. But Grossman was also a writer shaped by a century of Russian thought. He preferred the philosophic views of the “Westernizers” to the “Slavophiles” and their mystical belief in the Russian “soul” as a harbinger of political freedom. As a writer he practiced an aesthetic of critical realism that can be traced to the works of Turgenev and Tolstoy, among other novelists of prerevolutionary Russia. Like them, Grossman judged the merits of a literary work by whether it proved useful to the cause of social progress. A writer’s primary task was to educate and enlighten, to show readers how to tap into their potential and rise up to become moral “personalities” who would lead Russia out of its oppressive past. Crucially, this aesthetic also had a self-reflexive dimension: there was to be no more separation between art and reality, literature and life. Only on the strength of such involvement could the writer claim moral authority. It is for this reason that Everything Flows has such a personal ring and why the narrator exhorts himself as much as he does his characters and readers. It is also why the story of Ivan Grigoryevich and the narrator’s authorial musings become intertwined and fully merge in the end.