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Vasily Grossman: Всё течёт… (Forever Flowing; Everything Flows)

This was Grossman’s last novel, left unfinished at his death. It is substantially shorter than his magnum opus, Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate), and has less plot but far more political commentary. It is damning of much of the Soviet system so it is easy to see why it was never published in the Soviet Union. It starts with a train journey, with one passenger, an old man, clearly unsure of himself. However, we soon meet Nikolay Andreyevich and his wife, Maria Pavlovna (Masha). They are obviously doing well in the post-war, post-Stalin Soviet Union. Nikolay Andreyevich is a biologist and though he has had a reasonable career it has not been as successful as he thinks it should have been. However, he is sympathetic to those of his colleagues, particularly the Jews, who have been driven out of their jobs, in a similar fashion to Viktor Shtrum in Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate). It is soon after the period of the Doctors’ Plot and anti-Semitism remains high. However, much of the story of Nikolay Andreyevich is to give us an introduction to the old man on the train, Nikolay Andreyevich’s cousin, Ivan Grigoryevich. He has just returned from spending twenty-nine years in the Gulag and has now to readjust to life out of prison. Indeed, he himself points out that many long-term prisoners try to stay on in prison where they know the system and the people and will, at least, get something to eat. Ivan Grigoryevich goes to visit Nikolay Andreyevich but declines his assistance (to Masha’s joy). Nikolay Andreyevich feels somewhat guilty that he never wrote to Ivan in prison. Indeed, when Ivan wrote to him, he had an elderly aunt reply. While ruminating on this, Nikolay Andreyevich has some doubts about the Soviet system. When Ivan arrives, they feed him but, to their surprise (and relief), Ivan is soon off and he goes to Leningrad.

In Leningrad he finds a job and a place to stay. His landlady is Anna Sergeyevna, widow of an army sergeant. The sergeant has gone missing but as nothing had been found of him, Anna Sergeyevna is not entitled to a pension, so she works as a cook. She has one son, who is doing military service as a guard in a labour camp. Grossman uses her in two ways. It is she that gives us a horrific account of the Ukraine famine, which left millions dead of starvation. Grossman makes it very clear that Stalin and his henchmen must have been well aware of what was going on and did it deliberately. Anna Sergeyevna tells the story of the horrors of that time, starting with the seven year prison sentence for stealing even a few handfuls of grain from the collective farm and going on to entire villages starving to death. Anna Sergeyevna is a very kind-hearted person and soon she and Ivan are having an affair. He also tells his tale, particularly how all the political prisoners are convinced that they themselves are innocent and a victim of a miscarriage of justice but that everyone else is guilty, not least because they still had faith in the Soviet system.

Grossman has several digressions, in addition to the story of the Ukraine famine. One scene involves four Judases, those who have betrayed others, prompted by his meeting Pinegin, a man who testified against Ivan. In the four Judases scene, we hear each of their cases, including some interrogation, and are asked to judge them. But Grossman also gives us digressions about the fate of women in Soviet prisons, about Stalin’s death, about life in the Butyrka, a Moscow prison, in 1937, where the cells were massively overcrowded because of all the people arrested, particularly with those who had made the Revolution but were now seen as enemies of the people. We learn how Stalin destroyed Soviet science, by getting rid of cosmopolitanism (a codeword for Jews) in science and Grossman’s views on Stalin’s antecedents. In short, it is a novel but it is also a diatribe against the iniquities of the Soviet system. It does make for fascinating reading, though some of the sections are quite gruesome, and you have to wonder why Stalin was, as Grossman puts it, so scared of freedom. It is nowhere near as worthwhile as Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) but still very much worth reading.

Publishing history

First published 1970 by Posev, Frankfurt
First published 1970 in English by Harper & Row