Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Everything Flows

Everything Flows
Vasily Solomonovich Grossman
Left unfinished, last worked on in September 1964
St. Petersburg (Leningrad)

SUMMARY: Everything Flows begins with the reunion of two cousins, Nikolai Andreyevich, Ivan Grigoryevich who have been separated by Ivan’s imprisonment, prompted first by a speech against dictatorship and in defense of freedom, after which he remained imprisoned on and off for the next 30 years, culminating in his most recent eighteen year sentence. Nikolai is a scientist who after several purges of Jewish scientists accused of various crimes against the state, rises up the ranks into the position of the Institute’s Higher Academic Council.

     Upon their reunion, the cousins are off put by each other, as Nikolai remains intimidated by the image of Ivan as he was considered and Ivan disturbed by Nikolai’s non-action in the violence enacted upon his own colleagues and friends. Ivan leaves, embarking on a trip to Leningrad where the woman he had been with, who stopped writing to him in
prison and whom he presumed to be dead, lives. There, he finds lodgings with a widow, Anna Sergeyevna, with whom he begins to fall in love. She narrates to him the process of collectivization and her complicity in the terror famines inflicted upon the Ukrainian peasants, described in grueling detail and with attention to the psychology of the starved and the psychology of the system that
starved them. Anna falls ill soon after and is taken away to the village with her sister, and Ivan, or perhaps Grossman himself, reflect on the history and present state of Russia, its prisons, and its prisoners. Ivan continues speaking to Anna, while he is alone in his room, and then goes on to visit the seaside town where his father’s house had been located, with the novel ending on Ivan’s own reflections on what changed and what remains.


ANALYSIS: Grossman’s prose is elegant, moving, and forceful, a form to fit the content of his own imagination. In between the passages that move the plot forward, he includes reflections on Lenin, Stalin, and different characters Ivan encountered in prison as well as Ivan’s own prison experiences. Rather than a story guided by its temporal directionality, it is more an attempt to get at some truth of what happened, of the history and feeling of the time.

     Around the middle of the novel, it cuts to a play, where informants, denoted Judas I, II, etc. defend themselves against the possibility of being responsible for the death of those upon whom they informed. Complicity runs amok in Everything Flows and morality loses its definition. The flow of the system continues, each individual a mere click of the machine which allows it to follow its course, a click which can be exchanged for another. Grossman focuses heavily on conceptions of freedom in all its forms, compelling the reader to question what
freedom means and when it matters. Grossman seems to argue that the freedom to live and choose as one pleases is most important, and entrenched in that are the freedoms of press and so forth. The utilitarian mechanisms of Soviet rule, designed to achieve the maximum good in whatever terms that was designed, deprived citizens of dignity and freedom. Grossman instead advocates for
nothing as means to any end, but instead the preservation of rights to personhood regardless, and even in spite of, the ends we seek to achieve. Love is also a vital component of the novel, serving as the reckoning force against which even Soviet brutality struggles. Grossman portrays love of family, love of country, love of countrymen, and love of partner as each fraught and turbulent but equally redemptive of both oneself and, we are left to hope, humanity itself.



“But freedom needs to include all of the lives of all of the people. Freedom is the right to sow what you want. It’s the right to make boots or shoes, it’s the right to bake bread from the grain you’ve sown and to sell it or not sell it as you choose. It’s the same whether you’re a locksmith or a steelworker or an artist – freedom is the right to live and work as you wish and not as you’re ordered to. But now there’s no freedom for anyone – whether you write books, whether you sow grain, or whether you make boots” (84)

“The State became the master. The national element moved from the realm of form to the realm of content; it became what was most central and essential, turning the socialist element into a mere wrapping, a verbal husk. An empty shell. Thus was made manifest, with tragic clarity, a sacred law of life. Human freedom stands about everything. There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom” (164)

“Wherever slavery exists in the world, it gives birth to souls of the same kind. What hope is there for Russia if even her great prophets were unable to distinguish freedom from slavery? What hope is there for Russia if her geniuses see submissive slavery as the expression of the meek, bright beauty of her soul? What hope is there for Russia if Lenin, the man who did most to transform her, did not destroy but only strengthened the tie between Russian progress and Russian non-freedom? When will we see the day of a free, human, Russian soul? When will this day dawn? Or will it never dawn?” (185)


BIOGRAPHY: Vasily Grossman was born Iosif Solomonovich Grossman in Berdichev, Ukraine on December 12, 1905. Berdichev was home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish populations, and Grossman was himself born into an emancipated Jewish family. It was amongst the first towns in which Jewish people were systematically murdered by the German SS when in 1941, 20,000 of the city’s 30,000 Jews were killed. His mother would be amongst these. As a young man, Grossman was a supporter of the Russian revolution of 1915, and his father was himself a social democratic and Menshevik who participated in the Russian Revolution of 1905. His literary career began while he was a student at Moscow State University, where he studied chemical engineering between 1924 and 1929. He was married to Anna Petrovna Matsuk in 1928 and two years later had a daughter, Yekaterina. He then moved to Eastern Ukrainian city of Donbass and worked as a chemistry teacher and inspector at a medical institute and coal mine respectively, until 1932 when he quit, returned to Moscow, and became a full-time writer. His wife did not accompany him, and so they divorced and he began an affair with Olga Mikhailovna Guber, the wife of his friend Boris Guber. In 1032 he wrote the short story “In the Town of Berdichev” to critical acclaim from writers such as Maksim Gorky and Mikhail Bulgakov. In 1936, Olga Guber divorced her husband and married Grossman, but was arrested in 1937 for refusing to denounce Boris Guber prior to his arrest in the Great Purge. After Grossman petitioned for her release on the grounds that she was no longer married to Boris Guber, she was released.

     After the death of his mother and most Jews in his home city, Grossman began his career as a war reporter for the Red Star newspaper of the Red Army documenting the Battle of Moscow, Battle of Stalingrad, Battle of Kursk, and Battle of Berlin. This might have been an attempt to redeem himself from what he understood as his failure to save his mother from the massacre, as it was later discovered that he wrote to her on the ninth anniversary of her death, “I have tried…hundreds of times, to imagine how you died, how you walked to meet your death. I tried to imagine the person who killed you. He was the last person to see you. I know you were thinking about me… during all that time.” In 1943, German would be amongst the first of the Red Army Units to liberate Ukraine. He went on to collect first-person accounts of the early stages of the Holocaust after the Red Army liberated two Nazi concentration camps. His interviews of escaped inmates, 40 survivors, and local peasants from one of these camps, Treblinka located north-west of Warsaw, documented the horrific methods of murder and torture employed at the camp. The 1944 article “Hell of Treblinka” would later be used as evidence during the Nuremberg Trials and was the first article ever written about a Nazi concentration camp.

     Grossman began to stray from Soviet party lines during the process of documenting the atrocities of life under Hitler, as he rejected the belief that all had suffered equally. He worked from 1943 to 1946 on the Black Book, a documentary meant to describe the genocide of Jewish people on Soviet and Polish soil. Such an account was considered dangerous, for it would have implied the degree to which Soviets themselves were complicit in the atrocities that affected jews more than anyone else. In 1948, all Soviet copies of the project had been eliminated. By 1952, when he intended to publish another war novel (the prior one had been unanimously voted by ultimately rejected by Stalin himself for the Stalin prize), most of the other members of the Jewish
anti-fascist committee he worked with on the Black book had been murdered or imprisoned. His next two novels, For a Just Cause and Everything Flows were not published till the late 1980s, for they both documented the age of Stalinist suppression and violence. The former he attempted to publish in October 1960, but the manuscripts were deemed so dangerous that KGB officers came in February 1961 and confiscated all copies of the manuscript. In spite of this, he continued to hope for both works to be published, and continued working on other works until his death of stomach cancer on September 14, 1964. It was the 23rd anniversary of the massacre in Berdichev.

This page has tags: