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Forever Flowing ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (38)

    ...there is no higher happiness than to be able to crawl on one's stomach, out of the camp, blind,
    one's legs amputated, and to die in freedom, even if only ten yards from the cursed barbed wire.
            -Vasily Grossman

An interesting phenomenon occurs in all human societies, they manufacture myths in order to explain their origins and history and to establish their place in the cosmos.  The central myth of the latter day Soviet Union was that Lenin had lead a true Communist Revolution, but that Stalin had corrupted it and turned it away from its righteous origins.  (There is a beautiful ironic parallel here to Man in the Garden of eden and, indeed, communism is essentially a form of religion.)  This mass delusion enabled Soviet society to cling to the apparition of an idyllic past and hope for a return to unsullied first principles which would see the Marxist Utopia come to fruition.  Everything was going to be alright, Stalin had just gotten them off track...  In his great account of the demise of the USSR, Lenin's Tomb : The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, David Remnick makes a pretty convincing case for the proposition that Gorbachev was completely unprepared, when he allowed Glasnost and Perestroika, for the withering assault that dissidents proceeded to launch against Lenin.  And that this destruction of the final prop holding up the whole rotten Communist edifice was what truly caused the final demise of the system.  As in the fairy tale, it turned out that the Emperor had no clothes and all it took was a slight loosening of totalitarian controls for honest men and women to let him know.

Vasily Grossman, meanwhile, had spoken truth to power long before the reins were loosened.  His plays and novels earned him the undying enmity of Party apparatchiks and drove him to silence, but this great posthumous novel, which he actually completed the year before he died only to have it seized by the KGB, was finally published in the West in 1970 after being smuggled out of the USSR on microfilm and, long before it was fashionable, served as a stirring indictment of the entire Communist era, but it is especially remarkable for laying the blame for the whole disaster right at Lenin's feet.

Forever Flowing tells the story of Ivan Grigoryevich, a political prisoner, who is released upon Stalin's death.  In the first section of the novel he returns home to family, friends and an ex-wife, none of whom welcome his return.  In the first place, he has been banished from their memories:

    He had disappeared from people's consciousness, from hot and cold hearts; his existence was
    clandestine; and as the years passed, those who had known him recalled him to mind with ever
    greater difficulty. Time worked its way, without haste, conscientiously.  The individual was first
    stricken from the scene of actual day-to-day life and migrated into people's memory; then lost his
    place in their memory as well and disappeared into the subconscious; finally, he put in an
    appearance on the surface only very rarely, and, when he did, caused fright by his sudden
    momentary presence.

But more importantly, for them he is a painful reminder of the compromises that they were willing to make in order to survive.  As an initial matter they had to convince themselves that the victims of the Gulag were guilty:

    But it was said that they had confessed.  And if they were innocent but had confessed anyway, that
    implied another crime--a crime against them more monstrous than the one of which they were
    accused.  Even to think about this was frightening.  It took bravery to doubt their guilt--because
    then the real criminals were the leaders of the socialist state.  In that case, the real criminal was

Then there were the personal betrayals, everything from simple failure to help to actual denunciations.  A returning prisoner dredged up all these unpleasant memories.  And so, Ivan Grigoryevich moves to a southern city and takes up residence in the home of a widow, Anna Sergeyevna.

In the second section of the book, as they fall in love, they share their memories of the brutalities that they have witnessed as it turns out that she was a first hand observer of the liquidation of the kulaks and the forced famine in the Ukraine.  Where Stalin was the villain of the first part of the book, in this section it is made clear that he simply inherited a system that Lenin had designed and Grossman makes it clear that the collectivization and the holocaust that ensued were not unplanned and unforeseeable, but systematic and intentional--the ultimate expression of the Leninist will to power.  These painful reminiscences lead to a groping attempt to come to terms with the nature of the Soviet state and the evils it has committed.  At one point she recalls:

    I asked you how the Germans could kill Jewish children in gas chambers, how they could go on
    living after that.  Could it be that there will be no retribution, either from God or from other
    people? And you said:  only one form of retribution is visited upon an executioner--the fact that he
    looks upon his victim as something other than a human being and thereby ceases to be a human
    being himself, and thereby executes himself as a human being.  He is his own executioner.  While
    the man who has been done in, has been executed, remains a human being for all eternity, no matter
    how he has been murdered.

Even as Ivan and Anna finally find love, he discovers that she is dying of cancer.  But even after her death, his dialogues with her continue, as he seeks to understand all that has befallen them and Russia.  Finally, just as in the camps, he is sustained by hope:

    ...the only thing still left alive in me was my faith: the history of human beings is the history of
    freedom, from less to more; the history of all life, from the amoeba to the human race, is the
    history of freedom, the transition from less freedom to more freedom; yes, and life itself is freedom

The novel ends with him returning to his childhood home.  Nothing is left of the house, but Ivan:  "He stood there--gray, bent and changeless."

This is a great novel, part history of the Soviet era, part love story, the two unified by the struggle of individuals for freedom and dignity.  There is always a danger that, as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, not to mention Red China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc., recede into history's shadows, we will forget just how evil they truly were.  Books like this one must live on to remind us of the horrors these coercive utopians perpetrated and to keep us ever vigilant against the enemies of freedom.


Grade: (A+)


Vasily Grossman Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Vasily Grossman
-EXCERPT: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate: from Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century by Alexandra Popoff (Alexandra Popoff, Yale University Press Blog)
    -ESSAY: No Straight Path From Dogma to Dissent (Benjamin Ivry, July 10, 2012, The Forward)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Tolstoy's Heir: Vasily Grossman's 'Life and Fate' is an unflinching chronicle of the Battle of Stalingrad (JOSEPH EPSTEIN, May 5, 2007, Wall Street Journal)
    Life and death in the Red Army: a review of A WRITER AT WAR: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941�1945, Anthony Beevor and Lucy Vinogradova, translators and editors (Omer Bartov, Times of London)
    -PROFILE: UNDER SIEGE: A beloved Soviet writer’s path to dissent. (KEITH GESSEN, 2006-03-06, The New Yorker)

Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW: (reviewed by Tom Palmer, Laissez Faire Books)
    -Ukrainian Weekly on the Great Famine of 1932-33
    -REVIEW: of LIFE AND FATE By Vasily Grossman Translated by Robert Chandler (Ronald Hingley, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman and translated by Robert Chandler (Josef Skvorecky, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLACK BOOK Edited by Ilya Ehren-burg and Vasily Grossman (Richard F. Shepard, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE BLACK BOOK Edited by Ilya Ehren- burg and Vasily Grossman (Walter Goodman, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BONES OF BERDICHEV The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman By John Garrard and Carol Garrard (David M. Bethea, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BONES OF BERDICHEV The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman By John Garrard and Carol Garrard. (Robert Conquest, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of THE BONES OF BERDICHEV The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman By John Garrard and Carol Garrard. (Mindszenty Report)
    -REVIEW: of THE BONES OF BERDICHEV The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman By John Garrard and Carol Garrard (Foreign Affairs)
    -REVIEW: of The Passing of an Illusion by Francois Furet   (Jeffrey Herf, Front Page)
    -And they all confessed ...   (Gudrun Persson, Art Bin)