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[No Comment]

Grossman – Russia’s Freedom Deficit



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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.

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