Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Vasily Grossman's Russia

"Russia has always evolved in a peculiar way;  what has evolved has been the degree of non-freedom."

"So, is the Russian soul still as enigmatic as ever?  No, there is no enigma.  Was there ever an enigma?  What enigma can there be in slavery?"

"Russia was no longer drinking in the spirit of freedom from the West.  Instead the West was gazing in fascination at this Russian spectacle--of modernization through non-freedom."

"...amid Russia's tragic vastness..."

"It is time for the students and diviners of Russia to understand that the mystique of the Russian soul is simply the result of a thousand years of slavery."

"What hope is there for Russia is even her great prophets were unable to distinguish freedom from slavery?"

Vasily Grossman's short, unfinished novel, Everything Flows, is a nice little compendium of Soviet criminality.  I'm always amazed to see that novelists are often so much better than historians at capturing the essence of a complicated and multifaceted historical subject.  Watching my first episode of Downtown Abbey last night, I was reminded of fiction's myriad advantages over nonfiction.  In the space of one hour of television, we're exposed to a complicated and evolving world in which complex class relations are played out against the backdrop of the fading legacy of the Boer War, the tragedy of the Titanic, the advent of electricity, and so much more.  And the exciting specificity of Britain in 1912 is rendered perfectly clear only when encapsulated in the life trajectories of individual people who don't yet expect World War I.

At any rate, Grossman's novel isn't so very far from traditional history, but perhaps Soviet history inherently conflates the boundaries between fact and fiction.  As Will Rogers once wrote, "Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, is true."  If this true about Russia in general, how much more true is it about Russia in the twentieth century?  After all, the typical Soviet citizen was exposed directly or indirectly to dozens of competing horrors.  I often reflect on this quintessential aspect of the Soviet experience.  If you were unlucky enough to be born at the turn of the century in Russia, you might very well know people who had been killed in World War I, persecuted during the Revolution or Civil War, deported (for being a kulak or for some other reason), subjected to forced collectivization and man-made famine, subjected to state-sponsored antisemitism, or locked away in a gulag for many decades.  Grossman's talent is for helping us to understand that Soviet men and women grappled with whole constellations of horrors, not having the historian's privilege of addressing each of these discreetly, one at a time, in a series of well-received if dry monographs.

Grossman's fictive take on Soviet history also benefits from his ability to enter into the realm of philosophy without compunction.  According to Grossman, Stalinism can't really be blamed on Stalin.  Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, tongue in cheek, that people always get what they deserve.  Without impugning the innocent, Grossman argues that Russia's long disregard for liberty led to a call for the one man who could produce and deliver cruelty.  "It seemed as if Stalin was constructing the Russian State--the State founded by Lenin--in his own image and likeness.  In reality, however, it was the other way around.  Stalin's image was the likeness of the Russian Stat--which is why he became Tsar."  But on the level of the individual, Grossman also has an explanation for Stalinism.  Why did so many people collaborate with the regime?  He doesn't favor easy blame.  He explains that most Soviet citizens had been traumatized or terrorized into behaving the way they did.  Did somebody spy on his neighbor in order to earn his daily bread?  Had he not himself barely survived a famine only a few years previously.  Did somebody persecute a fellow communist?  Perhaps so.  But who can say whether the persecutor wasn't himself terrified of being uncovered as the son of a bourgeois or the child of a kulak?  The point is that the misery of Russia fed on itself.  Almost everybody was implicated in Stalinism.

According to Grossman, one of the saddest aspects of Russia's slavery was that the slaves were forced to play act at being free.  As we know, Soviet citizens constantly engaged in a replica of free activities.  Stalin produced his Constitution, and on paper this constitution looked as good as anything else in the world, or better.  People voted, made resolutions, participated in local government and union functions.  But all of this meant nothing.  As Grossman writes, "It was like the way savages, after getting their hands on the most delicate of sextants and chronometers, use them as jewelry."


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