No Comment, Quotation — October 23, 2010, 4:52 am

Grossman – Russia’s Freedom Deficit

ilya_repin_unexpected_visitors

? ??? ???? ?? ????????? ? ?????? ? ???????? ???????????? ???????????.
????????? ??????? ? ?????????? ?????? ????????? ??? ???????, ? ??????
???????? ? ???????? ???. ??????? ???????? ??????, ?????? ?????, ?????????,
?????, ?????? ?? ?????????, ??? ??? ???? ?????, ????????. ????? ??????? ???
???????? ?????????????? ??????????, – ?? ?????????? ?? ???????? ???????, ??
????? ??????????? ?? ????????… ?????? ????? ?????? ???????? ?? ?????? ???
????? ???????. ? ?? ????????? ???? ?????? ??????? ? ????????? ???????
??????, ? ???????? ???????, ? ????? ??????, ? ???????, ????????????? ???????
?????? ? ?????, ? ??????, ??????????? ????, ? ???? ?????????, ?
??????????… ???? ?????? ?? ?????? ?????? ?? ?????? ??? – ???????.

That morning he had awoken in the train to a sense of irredeemable loneliness. The evening with his cousin had filled him with bitterness, and Moscow had seemed crushing and deafening. The vast tall buildings, the heavy traffic, the traffic lights, the crowds walking along the sidewalks—everything had seemed strange and alien. The whole city had seemed like a single great mechanism, schooled to freeze on the red light and to start moving again on the green… During the thousand years of her history, Russia had seen many great things. During the Soviet period the country had seen global military victories, vast construction sites, whole new cities, dams across the Dnieper and the Volga, canals joining different seas. The country had seen mighty tractors and skyscrapers… There was only one thing Russia had not seen during this thousand years: Freedom.

Vasily Grossman, ??ë ????? (Everything Flows), ch. 5 (1961)(R. & E. Chandler, A. Aslanyan transls.)


It would be foolish to suppose that freedom is a commodity which some countries have and others lack, in the fashion of recent American political rhetoric. Yet it is undeniable that freedom is more highly valued in some societies and downplayed in others. Vasily Grossman’s writings give us a fascinating engagement with this subject, and a penetrating case study for Russia. I flagged Leon Aron’s wonderful essay about Life and Fate early in the week, but another, and possibly even more easily accessible work, available in a smart new translation, is Everything Flows. In it we confront a more limited choice of characters, principally a successful research scientist who belongs to the privileged elite of Soviet society, but chafes with discontent about the limits imposed by it, and his cousin, a just-released political prisoner, whose detached musings about Soviet society in the period just following on the death of Stalin include the paragraph above.

The scene he portrays above, the political prisoner suddenly and unexpectedly returned home, has been a constant of Russian cultural and political life for several centuries, as Ilya Repin’s wonderful painting makes plain. A just-released prisoner, his emaciated face partially obscured, clad in the rough coat of the Siberian camps, looks out of place in the home of relatives, filled with light, warmth and comforts to which he has grown unaccustomed. The immediate issue is his reintegration, but as an outsider, he casts a critical, questioning glance at the society to which he has returned. He asks a question laden with immense irony: just how free is this society into which I have been released?

Grossman gives us an inventory of the modern freedoms and the limitations that go with them. The nomenklatura’s freedom to have a weekly shipment of food inaccessible to others (it must contain beluga caviar, the anxious recipient thinks, and not that absurd salmon roe called caviar). But this freedom that comes at the cost of heightened control of thought and expression—through a powerful regime of self-censorship. Grossman recounts the role played by Lenin and Stalin and their contemptuous relationship with freedom. He looks at the golden age of Russian literature, at Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and others. They present a distinctive Russian character, they glorify it, but where in their portrait is an appreciation of freedom? Grossman gives us a nauseating portrait of the mass starvation in Ukraine that was an essential element in the formation of the Soviet state; he portrays a culture of denunciations, moral compromise and petty corruption. He catalogues the mighty projects that were the state’s glory: “the White Sea canal, the arctic mines, the railways constructed north of the Arctic Circle, the vast factories hidden in the Siberian taiga, the superpowerful hydroelectric power stations deep in the wilderness.” Were these in fact triumphs, and not evidence of a new culture of slavery? “Implacable cruelty, a contempt for freedom—the holy of holies of the Russian Revolution.”

But Grossman insists that no state and no system of oppression can finally extirpate the human quest for freedom. It will always rise again to the surface. And so he ends his gruesome tale with a vision of hope, a faith in the capacity of the human subject to right itself. He ends with a memory of Circassians who lived once peacefully in forests above the Black Sea, in orchards of fruit and among magnificent mountains. He wonders about a day when they will return. “For a moment it seemed to him as if an improbably bright light, brighter than any light he had ever seen, had flooded the whole earth.”

What, one wonders, would Grossman think of Moscow today? He would no doubt first be astonished at the measure of personal freedom that has arrived. He would marvel at the wealth and material comfort of the New Russians, who drive expensive German cars, wear designer clothing, and vacation at fashionable European resorts—and even the less successful, who visit the beach resorts of Turkey. He would be comforted by the book stores filled with titles once suppressed, including the works of Vasily Grossman. He would take pleasure in watching television, radio and reading newspapers with some measure of satire and criticism of authority. He would celebrate considerable progress. And he would probably also, over time, have something to say about a culture which is too easily satisfied with this and does not demand more. A precious measure of freedom has come to Russia, fifty years after Grossman wrote Everything Flows, but the hunger for more is strangely wanting.


Listen to Sergei Prokofiev’s Zdravitsa (a “toast” to Comrad Stalin), Op. 85 (1939) in a performance by the Symphony Capella Orchestra and Choir of Russia under the direction of Gennadi Rozhdestvensky here.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Iowa

The Queen and I

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Article
We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years.”
Photograph (detail) by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Amount by which the number of government jobs in the U.S. exceeds the number of manufacturing jobs:

5,129,000

The sound of mice being clicked may induce seizures in house cats.

In Turlock, California, nearly 3,500 samples of bull semen were stolen from the back of a truck.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today