‘Everything Flows’ by Vasily Grossman (1964) – 208 pages
Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Anna Aslanyan
After World War II, reporter Vasily Grossman gave one of the first eyewitness accounts of the atrocities and conditions at the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka. His account was used as evidence for the prosecution at the Nuremburg war crime trials after the war. Later Grossman’s faith in the Soviet Union itself was severely shaken by Josef Stalin’s harsh dictatorship and anti-Semitism. So who was there better than Vasily Grossman to track the brutal failure of the Communist Soviet Union in a novel?
It is all there in ‘Everything Flows’, the state-induced famine in the Ukraine, neighbors denouncing their neighbors who are then separated from their families and sent off to Siberia, women taken away from their husbands and children, relocated to Siberia, and made to live in barracks in forced-labor camps. Those who denounced others were rewarded with all the good things in life, while millions of people were displaced and their lives virtually destroyed.
At one point in ‘Everything Flows’ one of the characters asks the question “How could the Germans send Jewish children to die in the gas chambers?” His answer to that question is I believe one of the most powerful of all.
“From looking at his victim as other than human, he ceases to be human himself.”
It is much easier to mistreat other people, if you have been persuaded that these others are less than human. However in this dehumanizing process, you become less than human yourself.
‘Everything Flows’ is an extremely powerful book. It was written in 1962 shortly before Vasily Grossman’s death, but it was not allowed to be published until 1984. After it was published, the Soviet Union had to give up any pretense that Communism was a form of government that was in any way good for the people, and Communism quickly fell thereafter. You may see this as an over-simplified view of the publishing of ‘Everything Flows’ but read the book first.
‘Everything Flows’ is obviously lacking and inadequate as fiction, but it is the best, most honest, diagnosis of what went wrong with Communism in the Soviet Union I have ever read. About two-thirds of the way through ‘Everything Flows’, Grossman abandons all pretense to fiction and writes a strong polemic about Lenin and Stalin and the Soviet state. It covers the same territory for the Soviet Union as Lianke Yan’s masterpiece ‘The Four Books’ covers for Red China, but the two novels are not that similar at all. Whereas ‘The Four Books’ is allegorical, ‘Everything Flows’ is a passionate argument.
“In order to make the State all-powerful, freedom had to be killed in all facets of life. It was not only in politics and public activity that freedom was overcome. Freedom was overcome everywhere, from the realm of agriculture – the peasants’ right to sow freely and harvest freely – to the realms of poetry and philosophy. It is the same whether we are talking about shoemaking, the choice of reading matter, or moving from one apartment to another; in every sphere of life freedom was overcome.
Freedom, after all, is life; in order to kill freedom, Stalin had to kill life.”