Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Vasily Grossman, Everything Flows & the Holodomor

Some time ago I read Vasily Grossman's A Writer at War 1941-1945, a book of extraordinary reportage from the Red Army front line. So when I saw Everything Flows in the bookshop, I bought it.

Written between 1955 and Grossman's death in 1964, but first published (in the Soviet Union) in 1989, it is part fictional story of a man just released, after many years, from the Gulag and part political essay about the Russian soul, about the Russian experience of serfdom, about Lenin as begetter of Stalin.

There are two chapters (14 and 15) which provide a detailed, precise and harrowing account of the artificial famine (the Holodomor) which killed millions in Ukraine in 1932 - 33. The narrative is written as if from the knowledge of a (female) eye-witness. I was astonished that Grossman knew so much about something which in the Soviet Union of the Khruschev years was still barely acknowledged. But then I discovered from the biographical notice that Grossman, who I had previously thought of as a Russian Jew, was in fact a Ukrainian Jew from Berdichev (its Jewish community was finally exterminated in 1941). And I guess as a major figure in Soviet literary life, people told him things.

Though there is ongoing and highly charged debate about the Holodomor (see the Wikipedia entry for example), these two chapters by Grossman astonished me as evocations of what it is like to die of starvation and in pinpointing details of what was involved in engineering it or allowing it to happen. I felt these chapters deserve to be read.

When I got to the end of the book and read the Afterword by Grossman's daughter, I found her saying "I have always thought that the two chapters about the famine...are the most powerful in all Grossman's work" (page 288). So now you have two recommendations.

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