“Everything Flows” by Vasily Grossman

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There are several paradoxes of Soviet society that are raised in the novel Everything Flows. Grossman makes the case that freedom and suffering were somehow connected forces that were unbreakable from one another during the Khrushchev years. Was it possible for the Soviet state to truly embrace a changing free society, or are the Soviet people somehow predisposed to have what Grossman refers to as a Russian slave-soul? The Soviet Union grappled with many issues during de-Stalinization, many of which Grossman highlights in Everything Flows. The very concept of a free and truthful society seemed to be unattainable, given the history of the Russian revolution and the negative impacts of the Stalin years. Because of these hardships, the Soviet Union continued to pervert the truth in common life long after the death of Stalin. In a way, an honest and free society came at the cost of inflicting suffering upon others. While most countries in the world understand the relationship of sacrifice in defense of freedom, the Soviet state during the years of de-Stalinization truly believed that freedom was only attainable if there existed an enemy who sought to make it unattainable. This dynamic and intertwined relationship between freedom and suffering seemed to be a difficult issue that Soviet citizens wrestled with in many areas of society.

Though the end of the novel seems like a very different story than the first half, there is a thread that seems to connect them. The concept of freedom and the expense of a chosen party who must suffer seemed to be inescapable for the Soviet society. Grossman points out that the love for the people that stemmed from the Russian Revolution also coexisted with a need to destroy enemies and allies if their principles differed even slightly.1

At every turn, no matter the course of events, the Soviet people seemed to yearn for an enemy to destroy. Following the events of World War II, the Communist Party under Stalin turned to perceived enemies of the state. It was as if liberty would never be achieved without some measure of suffering. Perhaps Grossman is right by stating that Russia’s original leaders and prophets were unable to distinguish slavery from freedom.2 It is altogether possible that he is an idealist though. He is placing the cause on what he refers to as the Russian slave-soul, but one could argue that after much suffering and hardship the Soviet people were merely disposed to violence. When someone is immersed in violent atrocities and told that a continuing revolutionary event is necessary for survival, it is conceivable that those people would merely be likely to inflict atrocities or simply look the other way when such violence was inflicted. If this is the case, then Grossman is most certainly correct in saying that the brutality of the Stalin regime reached far back to the days of Russian serfdom.3

The cruelness that existed in the Soviet states before Stalin is not the only factor in understanding the relationship during the Khrushchev years between freedom and suffering. While it is true that Khrushchev no longer punished people in gulags or merely put them to death, as Stalin did, a new kind of suffering was born under his leadership. The state of the Soviet Union under Stalin was a state created without the existence of freedom.4 The very nature of freedom was a dark cloud that seemed to evade Stalin and his regime. This cloud hung over every citizen in the same way. The longing for freedom seemed to be the goal for all Russians. It gave them the direction for their revolutionary state, but gaining that freedom appeared to make most members of society uneasy. Ivan Grigoryevich’s story is proof of this. He was initially expelled from the university and exiled for merely declaring that freedom was important and that it must not be limited.5 Although this sentencing was during the Stalin years, with Nikolai last seeing him in 1936, the effects of his release seemed to weigh on both he and Nikolai. Nikolai saw Ivan as guilty, but he was not alone in these ideals. In Chapter 7, Grossman writes that there are no innocent people in the state, and everyone is guilty.6 This sentiment is reflected in the way that Nikolai treats Ivan upon returning. All of this while Ivan desired at times to return to the gulag camps, even wanting to say to his former imprisoned comrades that freedom was terrifying.7 This fear or disdain for limitless freedom can be seen throughout Ivan and Nikolai’s interactions, but it is more prominent in the way that Ivan perceives the world when he is released.

While Ivan is observing the society around him, he sees that free people in the Soviet state are no different than those in the camps and he feels sorry for them. Their propensity to inflict cruelty and terror onto others, and the almost driving need to be oppressed in some way made him simultaneously empathetic and angry at times.8 The interdependent relationship between freedom and suffering in Soviet society is most apparent in the way that an intelligence officer describes the felling of trees to Ivan. He says that splinters must fly when felling a forest, to which Ivan responds that felling the forest is unnecessary in the first place.9 But to Soviet citizens during the Khrushchev years, felling the forest of Stalin seemed to be entirely necessary. It would come at a cost, but like the tandem relationship of suffering and perceived freedom during the Stalin years, the liberation of Stalinist principles would create hardship and terror for certain groups. It was perceived that these groups would have to be targeted in order to bring down the cult of Stalin. Khrushchev would target different facets of society from modern art to music, but these were considered necessary casualties if the liberty of the Soviet people was to be achieved. In this belief existed the primary issues of Soviet society displayed through Grossman’s novel. In Grossman’s view, the Soviet people were continually playing a game of tug of war with freedom and suffering. As one is pulled the other must fall, but it is incomprehensible as to why they must be conjoined in the first place. In the dream with his mother, it is said that as the executioner ceases to look at his victim as human, he executes himself, or at least the human part of himself.10 So too, in this way, did Grossman portray the Soviet citizen throughout the novel. Every sacrifice by a member of society required him to give up either a piece of himself or the freedom of another, continually encircling the notion of freedom and suffering as interwoven necessities.

  1. Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows (New York, NY: New York Review of Books, 2009), 168.
  2. Ibid., 185.
  3. Ibid., 191.
  4. Ibid., 192.
  5. Ibid., 34.
  6. Ibid., 68.
  7. Ibid., 76.
  8. Ibid., 88.
  9. Ibid., 90.
  10. Ibid., 119.

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