|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The horrors of Stalinism
Vasily Grossman, Vintage Books, 2011, £8-99
Reviewed by Dylan Murphy
EVERYTHING FLOWS is Vasily Grossman’s last novel. It remained unfinished at his death in 1964. While it is only a quarter of the length of his epic war novel Life and Fate, Everything Flows is much broader in scope. Grossman deals with a wide variety of issues that cover life in Stalinist Russia from the 1930s to the 1950s.
The central story is about the struggle of a fifty-year-old man, Ivan Grigoryevich, to settle into normal life after thirty years in the Siberian labour camps. This story is skilfully interwoven with chapters about life for women in the prison camps, Moscow’s prisons in 1937, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, and the role of Lenin and Stalin in creating the Soviet state.
Grossman uses Ivan and various characters in the story to try and explain the different motives of people for their passive or active participation in the Stalinist terror of the late 1930s. This led to the imprisonment of millions of Soviet citizens in labour camps and the deaths of several millions more.
Ivan visits his cousin at his apartment in Moscow. His cousin, Nikolay Andreyivich, is a scientist whose career had blossomed during the late thirties’ terror and its revival in the early fifties. This is due to his willingness to go along with the government’s persecution of ‘enemies of the state’. He recalls one meeting at work where he voted in favour of a resolution calling for the death penalty of Rykov and Bukharin, who were Old Bolsheviks. Grossman himself shared this sense of moral humiliation. He signed a declaration of support for the show trials of Old Bolsheviks who were accused of ‘Trotskyist-fascist’ treason in the late 1930s.
As Grossman points out, the majority of people in the Soviet Union passively acquiesced with the terror out of fear. However, there was a minority of people who did refuse to collaborate in any shape or form. The members of the Left Opposition, who followed Trotsky’s ideas, were arrested in their thousands and sent to labour camps in Siberia. Not only did they refuse to collaborate in any way, they continued their protests in the labour camps.
The novel moves to the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 which led to the deaths of several million peasants. Ivan Grigoryevich has a dream in which he calls out to his mother. Ivan’s landlady comes to console him. She proceeds to describe the different events that lead up to this man-made famine.
During 1931-33 the Stalinist government tried to force the peasant farmers to join the state organised collective farms. The peasants resisted this crude attempt at coercion and the amount of land under cultivation shrank and so did the crop yield. Meanwhile the authorities sent troops into the villages to confiscate grain and even the seed fund from the peasants. The consequences were catastrophic as it led to a terrible famine that killed several million.
The most moving chapter of the book is a mere four pages where Grossman describes the death of one peasant family from starvation. It is incredibly sad and told through the husband’s eyes who gives every crumb of food to his wife and son and so dies first. As he is dying he feels a sense of despair, "as he looked at his wife, already disfigured by the dropsy of death, and at his dying son".
Grossman’s description of the Ukrainian famine, which is a lesser known chapter of the Stalinist terror, is incredibly powerful and captures the fear and suffering of that period. The Ukrainian famine was caused by the abrupt shift in Stalin’s political and economic policies when he decided to impose the forced collectivisation of agriculture upon the millions of peasants in the Ukraine. By late 1927 Stalin had defeated the Left Opposition, led by Trotsky, within the Russian Communist Party. In a bid to consolidate his grip on power Stalin used this ultra-left turn in economic policy as a platform to attack the policies of the Right Opposition. They were expelled from the Communist Party leaving Stalin as the unopposed head of the Soviet state.
Having described the horrors of the Stalinist terror Grossman devotes the last section of the novel to trying to explain how the Stalinist dictatorship came into being. He argues at length that Lenin was driven by a fanatical desire for power and was tragically destined to merely continue the thousand-year-old tradition of progress and slavery that had existed in Russia. But Grossman’s pessimistic analysis of Bolshevism as a mere continuation of the age -old Russian tradition of slavery is mistaken.
The Stalinist dictatorship that developed in the late 1920s and 1930s was not a continuation of Russian slavery. It was rooted in the political and economic circumstances at the end of world war one. Capitalism broke at its weakest link and the Bolsheviks took power in October 1917. The Bolsheviks based their whole strategy on the concept of the revolution in Russia spreading to the economically more advanced countries of Western Europe. Lenin and Trotsky knew that if the revolution was confined to economically backward Russia then it could not survive as a democratic workers’ and peasants’ state.
Tragically, the post-war revolutionary wave ebbed away leaving the young workers’ state in Russia isolated. This isolation paved the way for the gradual emergence of a state bureaucracy that rationed out the meagre resources of the state in its favour. It led to the destruction of the workers’ democracy that prevailed in the Communist Party, trade unions and the soviets. Once entrenched this bureaucracy saw Stalin as its saviour and he became its instrument for wiping out all real and imagined opponents of its privileges. Hence the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.
Grossman’s novel does us all a great service in describing the horrors of the terror and offers a unique insight into this turbulent period of history. It is unfortunate that he never lived to finish this last great work.