Reading Vasily Grossman in 2022: The Burden of History

100 birth anniversary Vasily Grossman, a writer. The first day of issue postmark 11/15/2005 Moscow, Central Post Office.
In the days and weeks following Russia’s February 2022 invasion and military occupation of Ukraine, scholars with expertise on the region weighed in on the ongoing crisis. Their meditations, insights, and professional experiences are collected here as the “Ukrainian Dispatches.”

 

“The burden of history it carries is so overwhelming that most novels would sink under its weight.” This is how Robert Chandler introduces his translation of the novel Everything Flows by Ukraine-born Soviet writer Vasily Grossman. This statement was true in 2009 when Chandler wrote these words, but feels especially important as I reread this translation along with my Soviet history students in the spring of 2022. As Russia’s occupation of Ukraine continues, the burden of history in this novel feels even heavier. As scholars puzzle over whether to call Putin’s rhetoric “fascist” and Israeli politicians bristle at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s references to the Holocaust, in Everything Flows Grossman offers the urgent call to embrace these comparisons, instead of rejecting them.

Everything Flows is a novel of trauma, weaving interconnected stories of the atrocities of Stalinism, including the Terror of the 1930s, the anti-Semitic purges of the early 1950s, life and death in the Gulag, the Holocaust, and the state-engineered starvation of Ukrainians known as the Holodomor. One of the most radical choices Grossman makes is to draw comparisons between these tragedies, rendering all of these events as part of one story. In doing so, Grossman makes the case for finding common ground between Soviet peoples who historically have been pitted against each other: Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews, identities that co-existed within Grossman himself.

And so when Russia began its latest brutal campaign of war and occupation in Ukraine and I found myself re-reading this novel, I started to think of where this war would fit in to Grossman’s story. And all I could see were the devastating similarities between the historic atrocities committed on Ukrainian lands—the Holodomor, the Holocaust, Stalinist purges—and what we are witnessing today.

When images of dead bodies on the streets of Bucha began to circulate, I thought of the chapter Grossman wrote about the Holodomor. After narrating a poignant story about a couple, Vasily and Ganna, who fell in love, got married, had a baby and built a home for themselves, Grossman then shifts perspectives taking on the view of the Soviet authorities who find Vasily, Ganna, and their baby dead of starvation:

The next spring…the representative from the district land office entered the hut, covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief… ‘Two and a child,’ he called out. The brigade leader, standing on this most holy threshold of love…nodded his head and made a mark on a scrap of paper. Back in the fresh air, the representative looked at the white huts and the green orchards and said, ‘Take the corpses away—but don’t bother about this ruin. It’s not worth trying to repair it.’1

How many discoveries like this have been made in Russian-occupied Ukraine? And how many have reacted just as this brigade leader?

As rich and powerful people refuse to speak out against the war, I am reminded of a conversation in the novel between a Jewish scientist, Mandelstam, and his Russian colleague, Nikolay, as Mandelstam fears for himself and his Jewish colleagues during Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges:

Mandelstam was upset…His head in his hands, he lamented about his students, his talented Jewish students, were all being driven out of science. “What are they supposed to do now?” he asked. “Come on now, it’s not as bad as all that,” said Nikolay Andreyevich. “There’ll be work for everyone,” he went on jokingly. “There’ll be bread for all of you—and with a bit of caviar too.” “Heavens!” said Mandelstam. “What’s caviar got to do with it? We’re talking about human dignity!”2

We should acknowledge those who want to speak out about the war in Ukraine but cannot because of devastating consequences. Grossman certainly would have wanted us to have sympathy for their plight and acknowledge the costs of protest for those not in positions of power. But others have the choice. And how many have chosen caviar over human dignity?

Grossman also understood the devastating effects of believing state propaganda. When one character, Anna, recounts her experience with embracing the de-humanizing narratives that accompanied forced collectivization, she does not shy away from comparing her fervor in rounding up those deemed “kulaks” to the Germans who were caught up with Nazi ideology:

When I look back now, I see the liquidation of the kulaks very differently. I’m no longer under a spell. I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings…In order to kill the kulaks, it was necessary to declare that kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans said that Yids are not human beings.3

And in reading this today, I can’t help but think about the rhetoric that de-humanizes Ukrainians and calls for their ethnic cleansing, rhetoric that is now widespread in Russian state media. It is this language that serves as the foundation for the war crimes perpetrated by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. In recounting the story years later to Ivan, a recent Gulag returnee, Anna is no longer under her “spell.” She asks Ivan, “Is it really true that no one will be held to account for it all? That it will all just be forgotten without a trace?” Ivan replies “Grass has grown over it.”4

What does it take to prevent the world from moving on once the grass has grown over the graves?

For Grossman, writing it all down was a step towards accountability. And in doing so, he made the choice to connect tragedies and traumas that have typically been treated separately. These comparisons do not take away from these historical traumas—in fact they do the opposite. The decision to draw these kinds of connections has the potential to force people to recognize one another’s humanity.

When Anna dies shortly after her confession, Ivan laments that they never got to have a final conversation where he could share his story with her. He wanted someone with whom he could share “the burden, and the clarity of understanding.”5 Grossman himself died in 1964 before the novel could be finished, but once it was published, it soon became Grossman’s readers, myself included, who now share with him the burden and clarity of understanding.

As this war drags on in Ukraine, what does that burden mean? It means when those who fought to defeat Nazis tell us what they read in Russian newspapers reminds them of fascism, we should listen to them. When Zelenskyy looks at what is happening in Ukraine and is reminded of the Holocaust, we should listen to him. When Ukrainians tell us that what they have seen is a genocide, we should listen to them. And we should all recognize that in accepting these claims, we are making the choice to recognize that this is not about caviar, but about human dignity.

 

Kathryn David is Mellon Assistant Professor of Russian and East European Studies in the Department of German, Russian & East European Studies at Vanderbilt University

 

Notes

  1. Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, trans. (New York: NYRB Classics, 2009), pp. 141-142.
  2. Ibid., p. 118.
  3. Ibid., p. 120.
  4. Ibid., p. 138.
  5. Ibid., p. 147.

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