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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Chronicler of a hellish century

Vasily Grossman’s terrible truth
17 July, 2007 - 00:00

A true artist analyzes and illustrates the tragedies, joys, and sorrows of his era differently from a historian, who collects data, processes it, and arrives at scholarly conclusions. An artist pursues his own creative task of deciphering the “genetic code” of a given epoch, revealing secrets and the ups and downs of people’s life stories, including treacherous acts. A gifted writer starts where a historian completes his painstaking documentary quest. The greater the author’s talent the clearer his panoramic view of the dramatic, great, and terrible 20th century.

The prose works of Vasily Grossman (1905-1964) has a special and lasting ethical importance for us precisely because this outstanding Russian author (whose reputation is still stubbornly called into question by people who refuse to accept his world outlook and analysis of Soviet history), a son of the Jewish people, who was born in Berdychiv, then part of Zhytomyr gubernia, spent his life writing stories that revealed the heartbreaking truth about the tragic lot of the Ukrainian people. In his inexhaustible creativity he provided rich material that provided bitter but truly crucial answers to the eternal questions of existence.

Why did the value of human life become so devalued in the 20th century? Why was freedom of the individual so brutally trampled in the dust of concentration camps? Is life thinkable without freedom? Why are the Nazi and Stalinist ideologies so alike in their hatred of freedom? And last but not least: could Stalin alone have established the harshest tyranny in history, which lasted for several decades, without the millions of voluntary party members and nonaffiliated slaves, fanatics, “fighters on the ideological front,” informers of various types, and those who were simply submissive to fate and the Leader? These “accursed” questions did not give Grossman any peace, for he was a man who had gone through the living hell of Stalingrad — from the first day until the last! — who saw Ukraine unvanquished by Hitler, and who discovered the horrible truth of Treblinka. Grossman later wrote a shocking article about one of the worst concentration camps in the world, entitled “The Hell of Treblinka.” We cannot do without Grossman’s chronicle of the 20th century. After all, his literary legacy is a chronicle; through his unbiased narratives he continued the classical literary traditions of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. If we consider that the painful matters he raised for his contemporaries and descendants are no longer necessary, that they are outdated and archaic, then these questions, ushered out through the door, will return, bursting through the window. They will have a modern form but they will retain their terrifying essence.


Grossman’s novel Forever Flowing (1955-63), first published in West Germany in 1970, starts with a turning point in history, expressed in a short but portentous phrase: “Stalin is dead!” The very fact of his death was something totally unexpected and alien to the very nature of Stalinism. Stalin’s death was unplanned, without instructions from the authorities. He died without being ordered to die personally by Comrade Stalin. There was something dynamic about the freedom and rapidity of his death, something that ran counter to the enigmatic essence of the state — it was “dynamite.”

In the first chapter of the novel we meet a group of passengers on the Moscow-Khabarovsk train as it approaches the capital of the Soviet empire. In one compartment are a young career-oriented and successful economist who works for the Gosplan State Planning Committee of the RSFSR, a district trade union committee instructor, a hard-working foreman (who must submit a financial report to the controlling authority in Moscow), and a middle- aged man. The coarse-looking foreman makes some frank and interesting comments: “The political economy? Is it about collective farmers visiting cities to buy bread from workers?” Then on other daily issues: “You can’t get anywhere under the law in this country; if you want to fulfill your production quota, you must work the way life dictates, on an I- scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch- mine basis. Under the tsar this was known as private initiative; nowadays it means: live and let live; this is what economy is. My reinforced concrete workers spent four months signing payroll sheets as though they were kindergarten nurses until we got the budget subsidy. The law runs counter to life and life has its demands. You carry out your production quota, you must have a pay increase and benefits — but you can serve a ten-year term. The law is against life and life is against the law.” (Does this not sum up the entire history of the Soviet economy?)

This is how the careerist Gosplan economist and the trade union instructor respond to the foreman (Grossman masterfully makes these high-ranking bureaucrats voice some of the ideas Stalin pondered but almost never made public; in them the author lays bare the elements of the long-lasting structures of everyday Stalinism). The economist says about the foreman: “Such characters must also be watched closely. An enemy masked as a ‘brother.’ An unprincipled hardhead.” To which the foreman replies contemptuously: “I have prisoners among my workers, and they call the likes of you scumbags; but there will come a time when they will figure out who built communism and that you did the plowing.”

At one point the people on the train begin discussing collective farms. The young economist begins condemning the “village lazybones” (the novel takes place in 1954, when tens of millions of people, entire regions of the Soviet Union were starving, like before). He says: “I have seen it with my own eyes; they gather in front of the village council and start scratching their heads. Before the chairman and brigadiers chase them out to work, they will have sweated up a storm. The collective farmers are complaining that they were not paid anything per workday under Stalin and that they are receiving only token money now.”

The trade union inspector agrees with his travel companion: “Friends, why should they be paid, since they cannot supply what they’re supposed to? They should be educated!” The economist, inspired by this support, continues. “That’s the problem! They are Russian people, aren’t they? They’re not national minorities! (This is an excellent stroke to the portrait of Soviet “internationalism” of the Stalinist type, which reveals the essence of that “friendship of the peoples”!) One of them ran up to me, saying he’d been eating linden tree leaves for five years and hasn’t been paid for his workdays since ‘47. They don’t like to work and can’t understand that now everything depends on the people.”

This is a ruthlessly truthful and masterful portrait of the average Soviet government official in Stalin’s time? Or is it only Stalin’s? It would be interesting to follow the life and career of that anonymous Gosplan economist during the period stagnation and perestroika. What are such characters like today, with their arrogance, brutal cynicism, and venomous demagoguery?


There was a fourth passenger in that train compartment. Unlike his three companions whom Grossman identifies only by their position or social status, he is clearly defined as the main hero, Ivan Grigorovich. His destiny, which intersects the fate of his cousin Nikolai Andreevich, creates the “force field” of the novel and of history, which ruthlessly changed and twisted the lives of these two people, and tested their solidity. Here is a complete image of the destiny of a great and enslaved people, where every individual is a part of it (Andrei Platonov said: “Without me the people are incomplete”) and must make a political, and far more importantly, a moral and ethical choice.

Ivan Grigorovich is traveling to Moscow to visit his cousin whom he hasn’t seen for 30 years because of the abyss (above all, a moral one) between these people who are of the same flesh and blood but very different in spirit. Ivan made a choice that determined his subsequent life, probably when he made a speech against the dictatorship when he was a young and promising university student. In his speech he declared that freedom is a blessing to be treasured as much as one’s life; that any restrictions on this freedom are as vicious as blows from an ax that chops off fingers and ears, and that destroying this freedom is tantamount to manslaughter (this was Grossman’s most cherished idea). “After that speech he was expelled from the Komsomol and exiled to Semipalatinsk oblast for three years. Some 30 years have passed since then, and in all these decades Ivan probably hasn’t spent a year out of jail. The last time Nikolai Andreevich saw his cousin was in 1936, shortly before his next arrest, which resulted in 19 years in the camps. His childhood friends and fellow students remembered him, saying, ‘Ivan would be an academician today...Yes, he was special, but unlucky.’ Others said, ‘He was insane.’”

Nikolai Andreevich was not insane, he was thoroughly pragmatic. In his own way, he was aware of such understandable notions as “honor” and “decency” (he never directly reported on anyone, and deep in his heart he could not believe that there were so many “enemies of the people”). He could even run into the wife of a purged comrade and shake hands with her in public instead of turning away, and ask her about her children. On one occasion he refused to provide compromising information about one of his colleagues, who had been arrested on charges of espionage. He also spoke out during dozens of meetings, wrathfully condemning spies and saboteurs, and urging his comrades to be vigilant.

We meet Nikolai Andreevich at the peak of his career, “not a department career, not a ministerial one but a genuinely great success.” A biologist by training, he has been appointed director of an academic institute shortly after Stalin’s death. (The author’s reference to his profession is especially important in the context of Stalin’s harsh purges against Soviet biologists in 1948-53; incidentally, Nikolai Andreevich maintains close contacts with Lysenko, although he secretly scorns him). However, the question is, “What is the price of success?”

Grossman writes that this man’s life “consisted of great obedience and there was no disobedience in it. He spent his life being perfectly obedient, fearful of famine, tortures, and Siberian slavery. There was, however, a special base fear of getting red caviar instead of black. The author explains the destiny of Nikolai Andreevich and people like him (without whom Stalinism would never have existed): “It turns out that the divine and infallible nature of the immortal state not only crushed people; they also protected and consoled them in their feebleness and justified it; the state shouldered the whole burden of responsibility, relieving people of the chimera of conscience.” (Are you aware of the fearful parallel with another European country?)

Thus, in the words of Anna Akhmatova, the two brothers, like “two countries: one an inmate and the other a jailer,” looked each other in the eyes.


The moral visage of Nikolai Andreevich is almost angelic compared to those who made a conscious choice and destroyed their fellow citizens by reporting on them in writing and verbally to the repressive organs. Such people worked with as much zeal as Stalin in 1937 (as well as earlier and considerably later). All of them are branded with the mark of Cain.

Grossman was arguably the first Soviet writer to engage in the difficult and horrendous work of analyzing various types and categories of Stalinist informers and trying to fathom the reasons behind their choices. But he sincerely tried to comprehend rather than condemn or curse them.

Judas No. 1 was “an ordinary man. He drank tea, ate scrambled eggs, was fond of discussing books he’d read with his friends, went to the Moscow Art Theater, and now and then revealed some goodness. True, he was very impressionable and nervous; he was not sure of himself. And the man was under heavy pressure. They not only yelled at him, they also beat him up, did not let him sleep, gave him no water, fed him herring, and threatened him with capital punishment. True, he had done a terrible thing, reporting on an innocent individual. True, the man had not been arrested, but the one he had to lie about to the authorities served twelve years in a prison camp and returned barely alive, broken, and miserable.”

Grossman moves further into the precipice. Judas No. 2: “This one had never spent a day in jail. He was known for his wit and eloquence, but then people who had returned from prison camp, barely alive, said he was an NKVD informer. He had helped kill many people. For years he had had heart-to-heart talks with his friends and then wrote notes and submitted them to the authorities. No confessions had been tortured out of him. He showed resourcefulness and he imperceptibly led his interlocutors to dangerous topics. The two innocent people whom he had falsely accused never made it out of the prison camp; one was shot after being sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Those who did return brought with them medical certificates listing illnesses for which even the strict LTEK commission grants the status of disability, first-grade.”

As a boy he was scared witless when his father, a wealthy man, died of typhus in a concentration camp in 1919, when his aunt and her husband emigrated to Paris, and when his older brother enlisted with the volunteers. Fear had existed in him since childhood. Every day, every minute he and his relatives were aware of their class restrictions and class defect. But then he was captivated by the power of the new world; like a bird, he gazed into the shining, new horizons. He was so eager to be a part of it, to be liked. And then he was initiated. The menacing world needed his intellect and inborn charms. He placed everything on the altar of the Fatherland. He kept losing old friends, all those close, secret, intelligent, and timid people. He was the only one with the little key to them. He understood everything, he cried when he read Chekhov’s short story, “The Bishop.”

There is another Judas, No. 3, a man with a hoarse voice, a pair of quiet, inquisitive eyes, and man who has the confidence that comes with being a “master of his own life.” His service record is spotless; his relatives are lathe operators and poor peasants. In 1937 this man wrote over 200 reports, all of them against “Soviet people, not people from the former regime.” Among his victims were party members, Civil War veterans, and leading activists. He specialized in reporting on fanatical party members, enthusiastically lashing at their eyes with a deadly razor.” The bloody list of his victims includes a poet and songwriter, a factory manager, three newspaper editors, and a philosophy lecturer. Few made it back from the prison camps. For him, 1937 was a time of “victory.” Since then his career was on a steady upward curve, and it was there that he found grace, the most precious essence of the new political order.

However, he knew not what he was doing. “One day,” Grossman writes, “his superiors told him in the name of the party: ‘We’re in trouble! We are surrounded by enemies! They are pretending to be trusted party members, participants in the underground movement and the Civil War, but they are actually enemies of the people, resident agents of foreign intelligence services, agent provocateurs.’ The party was yelling at him, stamping its Stalinist boot: ‘If you show indecisiveness, you will place yourself in the same row with these bastards, and then I will turn you into dust. Remember, you son of a bitch, that black hut where you were born, but I am leading you to the light; respect obedience. The great Stalin orders you: ‘Get them! ‘ No: he never wanted to get even with them on a personal basis. A village Komsomol member, he did not believe in God. Another faith lived in him — faith in the ruthless punishing hand of the great Stalin.

There was another comrade, Judas No. 4, a philistine, greedy for things, fanatical about “acquiring sofa-beds, buckwheat, Polish sideboards, construction materials in short supply, imported manufactured goods. His fanaticism equaled that of Giordano Bruno and Andrei Zheliabov. Grossman writes that he is the “creator of a categorical imperative that runs counter to Kant’s.” To him, man and humanity have always been a tool in his hunt for things. He is a volunteer. He was not threatened or forced; he became a willing informer. In his secret reports he sees an advantage, because by filing these reports he can obtain material benefits or avenge the wrongs done to him.


The topic of the Great Catastrophe, the Holodomor of 1932-33, could not leave Grossman indifferent. In his view, the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants, thoroughly and cold-bloodedly engineered by the Stalinist regime, was the same kind of crime against humanity, born of a misanthropic ideology and practice, as the death of millions of Jews in the Nazi death camps. A separate chapter in Forever Flowing, one of the strongest in the novel, is devoted to the Holodomor. The author recounts the story of this apocalyptic period through the character of Hanna Serhiivna, a middle-aged woman whom the main hero meets after being released from the prison camp and who becomes his close friend. She was a model activist during the collectivization campaign, who thought that the kulaks were monsters in human form. Now, almost 30 years after that abominable tragedy, she is painfully eager to learn the truth.

At the time, says Hanna Serhiivna, we thought that no one’s lot was worse than that of a kulak. We were wrong, because then the ax fell. All of us in the countryside suffered, old and young alike. It was execution by famine. As an activist, I was sent to Ukraine to strengthen a collective farm. I was told that here the spirit of private ownership was stronger than in the RSFSR. I didn’t have to travel far because we were on the border of Ukraine. It was less than a three-hour car ride. The place looked nice, and I was appointed accountant of the collective farm council. I coped well with everything. I kept the books in my head.

What was it like? After the kulaks were eliminated, productivity dropped. Then it was time to gather our first collective farm harvest. The procurement quotas were sent from Moscow, everything was done according to the center- to-region-region-to-center procedure. But the procurement quotas we received could not have been carried out even in a decade. Of course, Moscow expected the best results from Ukraine, continues Hanna Serhiivna, and later the greatest wrath fell on us. Naturally, we couldn’t meet their procurement quotas; there were smaller sowed areas and lower harvest yields. Where could we get that ocean of grain? They decided that we were concealing it (today we have documents indicating that Stalin was very well aware of the situation with the grain supplies from Ukraine — I. S.) and that all those surviving kulaks and village lazybones were to blame; even though the kulaks had been liquidated, the kulak spirit remained.

Who authorized this mass murder? I often think: wasn’t it Stalin? I think that as long as Russia has existed, there was never such an order. None of the tsars, not even the Tatar and German occupiers ever issued such an order. Then the order came to kill the peasants in Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban, to kill them together with their small children by starvation. They searched for grain as though for bombs and machineguns. They pierced the ground with bayonets and ramrods, ransacked every cellar, and tore up floorboards. They also searched every vegetable garden. Cartwheels creaked day and night; dust hung everywhere; there were no granaries, so they just dumped the grain and placed sentries next to it. By the time winter arrived, the grain had become damp and then rotted; the Soviet government failed to provide tarpaulin to cover the grain produced by the blood and sweat of the peasants. When they were bringing grain from other villages, dust was everywhere — the village, the fields, even the moon. One man went mad and started yelling: “We’re on fire! The sky’s on fire! The land’s on fire!” The sky wasn’t on fire. Our life was.

Hanna then asks the most important question (which still today is being answered in an ambiguous fashion, to put it mildly): “Who confiscated that grain?” The author answers: “It was mostly taken away by our own people, members of the RVK revolutionary military councils, and district party and Komsomol members, by the militia, the NKVD, even by the army. I noticed a soldier mobilized from Moscow; he wasn’t very active and wanted to leave...And just like during the dekulakization campaign, people became crazy and brutish.”

Hanna cites a concrete example of this turn to animal savagery: “Hrytsko Saienko, a militiaman married a local girl. He would come to celebrate during holidays. He danced the waltz and tango well, he sang Ukrainian folk songs. But then a very old man came up to him and said, ‘Hrytsko, you and your people are killing us...this is worse than murder! Why is the government of the workers and peasants doing this to us peasants? None of the tsars did this.’ Hrytsko responded by pushing him away and then washed his hands in a drinking well, telling the onlookers, ‘How can I take a spoon after touching that parasite’s mug?’”

Today there is a widespread view that the “occupiers” (sometimes called “non-Ukrainians”) engineered and carried out the Holodomor. Accordingly, the blame is shifted from the Stalinist regime, with its cannibalistic, misanthropic essence, to representatives of certain nationalities. But in Grossman’s main literary work, the novel Life and Fate we find a horrendous Ukrainian character named Sahaidak, who is the editor of a regional newspaper in Soviet Ukraine. “The famine during the years of all-out collectivization occurred because the kulaks maliciously buried grain and maliciously refused to eat bread, which made their bodies swell; to spite the state, entire villages died, including children and old people.” What are we supposed to do about characters like this Sahaidak (Grossman did not invent this character), without whom that terror by famine would never have taken place — just as in the case of Hitler, who would have never been able to set up that terrible network of concentration camps without millions of informants, hangmen, and hirelings?

In 1933 Hetmaniv, another character in Life and Fate, is mobilized for work in the security organs. He soon becomes the bodyguard of the regional party committee secretary. After 1937 he is appointed regional party committee secretary, the ruler of the oblast. The party trusted him. Sometimes there were harsh sacrifices that Hetmaniv engineered in the name of the party spirit. At such times there were no fellow countrymen, no teachers from his youth; and no love or compassion. Hetmaniv’s final word was eagerly heard by hundreds of gifted researchers, singers, and writers, although he was unable to appreciate works of science, literature, music, or artists. With a single word he could decide the fate of the head of a university faculty, an engineer, bank manager, shop steward, chairman of a collective farm, and stage director.

Chapter 14 of Forever Flowing, which is almost entirely devoted to the Holodomor, gives one the shivers, unless the reader is a totally heartless individual. Grossman describes the horror of that time. Mothers looked at their starving children and began screaming in sheer agony. They screamed as though a poisonous snake had crawled into their homes. The name of that snake was famine and death.

Mass starvation spread throughout the countryside. Children were the first to die, followed by elderly and middle- aged villagers. Peasants began to escape, but the railroad stations were surrounded by soldiers and every warehouse was searched. Every road had army and NKVD checkpoints. Yet people managed to reach Kyiv, crawling through fields, marshlands, and forests. In the capital people were going about their business, hurrying to work, back home, and going to the movies. Streetcars were plying their routes, and in the middle of all this were starving people — children, men, and women. They were actually crawling. There was no one to help them. They lay there dying, begging, but no longer able to eat.

It was as though these people had never lived, but they had: they fell in love, got married, divorced, celebrated their daughters’ weddings, fought in drunken brawls, received guests, and baked bread. They worked hard and sang songs. Their children went to school, and now and then they enjoyed movies provided by mobile projectionists.

Nothing was left. Will no one be held responsible for their horrific torments? Will everything be forgotten without a trace?

* * *

Obviously, there is little to add to these simple and terrible facts born of wrath and lasting pain for the innocent victims, these lines written by the great humanist Vasily Grossman. This gifted writer of the 20th century knew something few of his colleagues did: that the lack of freedom is tantamount to death; it kills physically as well as morally; sometimes millions of people. The lack of freedom under totalitarianism was the cause of the Holodomor and the living hell of Treblinka. Grossman constantly draws logical parallels between the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism. Grossman fought in the Second World War, including at the Battle of Stalingrad. He formulated a very important lesson for us: “The victory at Stalingrad determined the outcome of the war, but the silent confrontation between the victorious people and the victorious state continued. Man’s destiny and his freedom depend upon this confrontation.”