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Vasily Grossman
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler
about the author 


For the main part, I am not a fan of literary museums. The grander ones, especially, tend to leave me cold. Often it is the smallest ones that are most successful in preserving a living connection with the writer they memorialize; I am thinking particularly of two museums in Petersburg – Akhmatova’s apartment in the Fontanka, and the communal apartment where Zoshchenko lived. The simplicity and bareness of these two museums leaves space for the imagination.
During a recent visit to Moscow I met Elena Fyodorovna Kozhichkina, the daughter of Vasily Grossman’s stepson, Fyodor Guber. There is no Grossman museum in Moscow, but she does her best to make up for this by keeping his writing desk, his typewriter, and a large part of his library, in one room of her apartment. I was expecting to see all this, and somehow it did not mean a great deal to me. What took my breath away, however, was the sight of a dozen small animals, moulded from clay, on top of a cupboard. I at once recognized these from one of my favourite chapters of Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows. This was both exciting and disconcerting. As far as I was concerned, these animals lived in the pages of a book – and here they were invading my real world.
It turned out that Ivan Grigoryevich, the hero of Everything Flows, is in many respects a portrait of a real-life figure: Nikolay Mikhailovich Sochevets, the brother of Vasily Grossman’s second wife. Elena Fyodorovna told me his story. After returning to London, I corresponded with her father, Fyodor Guber, who filled in the details.

Vasily Grossman, sitting, and Nikolay Mikhailovich (Grossman’s brother-in-law and the model for Ivan Grigoryevich in EVERYTHING FLOWS), standing – mid- or late- 1950s. Thanks to Fyodor Borisovich Guber for allowing reproduction of this previously unpublished photo.
Vasily Grossman, sitting, and Nikolay Mikhailovich (Grossman’s brother-in-law and the model for Ivan Grigoryevich in EVERYTHING FLOWS), standing – mid- or late- 1950s. Thanks to Fyodor Borisovich Guber for allowing reproduction of this previously unpublished photo.

Olga Mikhailovna (Grossman's wife), Vasily Grossman, Nikolay Mikhailovich (Olga's brother). Late 1950s. Thanks to Fyodor Borisovich Guber for allowing reproduction<BR>of this previously unpublished photo.
Olga Mikhailovna (Grossman's wife), Vasily Grossman, Nikolay Mikhailovich (Olga's brother). Late 1950s. Thanks to Fyodor Borisovich Guber for allowing reproduction of this previously unpublished photo.

Nikolay Mikhailovich’s father was a gifted and successful agronomist. He built himself a house near Sochi and lived there until collectivisation, when he and his large family were deported to Siberia. Nikolay Mikhailovich’s parents and three of his sisters all died in exile, but he himself not only survived but even completed a course in accounting and was so successful in his subsequent work that he received a so-called ‘Excellent Economist’ award. This allowed him to return to Moscow in the mid-1950s.
Like Ivan Grigoryevich, Nikolay Mikhailovich had a gift for modelling animals; Fyodor Guber remembers him visiting Grossman most Sundays, along with other friends, and spending most of the day moulding animals from plasticine. Like Ivan Grigoryevich, Nikolay Mikhailovich discovered this gift as a result of his friendship with a young boy – Sasha, the grandson of his elder sister. Like Ivan Grigoryevich, he had a fine knowledge of history, despite having been arrested before finishing school. His grandniece, Elena Fyodorovna Guber, remembers him as a man of great vitality, someone free of bitterness and who knew how to enjoy life. Fyodor Guber remembers Nikolay Mikhailovich as one of the friends who most regularly came to visit Grossman during his final illness, as he was revising Everything Flows. [Fyodor Guber, Pamyat’ i Pis’ma (Moscow: Probel-2000, 2007) p.111-12]
When I received the first copies of the NYRB Classics edition of our translation of Everything Flows, my first feeling of all was surprise. I felt startled by the small size of the book. I could hardly believe that so many unusual perceptions about so many subjects—marriage, the ‘Russian soul’, Lenin, Stalin’s paranoia, the whole sweep of Russian and Soviet history— could have been compressed into so small a space. The subject matter is mostly dark, but the liveliness of Grossman’s intelligence makes Everything Flows surprisingly heartening, even exhilarating; the book not only extols freedom; it also embodies freedom.
The tone of the book is varied, but most chapters are predominantly either tragic or ironic. Against this background, the account of Aloysha’s delight in Ivan Grigoryevich’s clay animals stands out; it is imbued with an unusually gentle humour, a particular delicacy and sweetness. It is a passage I have several times selected as an exercise for my translation students, and I have always remembered it especially vividly. It was a joy to be met, in Elena Fyodorovna’s apartment, by the clay animals, and I am grateful to her and her father for allowing us to reproduce these photographs of Nikolay Mikhailovich.

Robert Chandler
January 2010


Chapter 11

Alyosha, Anna Sergeyevna’s nephew, was so short that he looked as if he were only eight years old. He was, however, already twelve; he was in his sixth year at school. After coming home, fetching the water and washing the dishes, he would sit and do his homework.
Sometimes he would look up at Ivan Grigoryevich and say, ‘Could you test me on history, please?’
Once, when Alyosha was preparing for a biology lesson and Ivan Grigoryevich had nothing to do, he began moulding from clay the various animals shown in the textbook: a giraffe, a rhinoceros, a gorilla. Alyosha was dumbfounded – the clay animals were so splendid that he couldn’t take his eyes off them. He couldn’t stop moving them about; at night he arranged them on a chair next to his bed. At dawn, on his way out to go and queue for the milk, the boy saw Ivan Grigoryevich washing his face in the corridor. In an impassioned whisper he said, ‘Ivan Grigoryevich, may I take your animals to school with me?’
‘Please do – they’re yours,’ said Ivan Grigoryevich.
In the evening, Alyosha told Ivan Grigoryevich that the art teacher had said, ‘Please tell your lodger that he really must go and study.’
This was the first time that Anna Sergeyevna had seen Ivan Grigoryevich laugh. She said, ‘Don’t laugh, go and see the woman. Maybe you can make some money at home in the evenings. After all, what kind of life can you have on three hundred and seventy-five roubles a month?’
‘That’s enough for me. What would I do with more?’ said Ivan Grigoryevich. ‘And as for studying, it’s too late now. That’s something I should have done thirty years ago.’ 
But at the same time he was saying to himself, ‘What am I getting so agitated about? –Does this mean I’ve still got some life in me? That I’m not dead yet?’
Once, Ivan Grigoryevich was telling Alyosha about the conquests of Tamburlaine when he noticed that Anna Sergeyevna had put down her sewing and was listening to him intently.
‘You shouldn’t be working in that workshop,’ she said with a smile.
‘I’d be no good anywhere else,’ he said. ‘My knowledge comes from books with half the pages torn out, with no beginning or end.’
Alyosha realised that this must be why Ivan Grigoryevich told stories his own way, while the teachers just ploughed through textbooks.
The little episode with the clay animals did indeed agitate Ivan Grigoryevich… Not that he had any real talent himself – but what a lot of deaths of talented people he had witnessed. Young physicists and historians, specialists in ancient languages, philosophers, musicians, young Russian Swifts and Erasmuses – how many of them he had seen put on their wooden jackets.
Prerevolutionary literature had often lamented the fate of serf actors, musicians and painters. But who was there today to write about the young men and women who had never had the chance to write their books and paint their paintings? The Russian earth is indeed fertile and generous. She gives birth to her own Platos, to her own quick-witted Newtons – but how casually and terribly she devours these children of hers.
Theatres and cinemas made Ivan Grigoryevich feel sad and anxious; it was as if he were being forced to watch the screen or the stage and would never be let out again. Many novels and poems felt like a violent assault, as if the writer were trying to drum something into his head; he found this unbearable. These books seemed to be about a life he had never encountered – a life where there were no barracks, no strict-regime camps, no brigade leaders, no armed guards, no security officers, no system of internal passports, and none of the sufferings, anxieties and passions that made up the lives of everyone around him.
The writers simply dreamed people up. They dreamed up their thoughts and feelings; they dreamed up the rooms they lived in and the trains they travelled in. The literature that called itself ‘realist’ was as convention-ridden as the bucolic romances of the eighteenth century. The collective farmers, workers and peasant women of Soviet literature seemed close kin to those elegant, slim villagers and curly-headed shepherdesses in woodland glades, playing on reed pipes and dancing, surrounded by little white lambs with pretty blue ribbons.
During his years in the camps Ivan Grigoryevich had learned a great deal about human weaknesses. Now he saw that there were more than enough such weaknesses outside the barbed wire as well as behind it… No, suffering did not always purify. In the camps the struggle for an extra mouthful of soup, for an easier work assignment, was unrelenting, and the morally weak stooped to a pitiful level. Sometimes Ivan Grigoryevich tried to guess how people he met now might behave in the camps; it was not difficult to imagine some sleek and haughty figure scavenging about, scraping his spoon round someone else’s empty soup bowl or prowling around the kitchen in search of potato peelings or rotten cabbage leaves.
Ivan Grigoryevich had felt sorry for those who had been crushed by violence, by hunger and cold, by their desperate need for tobacco. He had felt sorry for those who had turned into ‘camp jackals’, always on the lookout for a crumb of bread or a slobbery cigarette butt.
What he had seen in the camps made it easier to understand how people behaved when they were free. What he observed now was the same pitiful weakness, the same cruelty, the same greed and the same terror that he had seen in the camps. People were the same everywhere, and Ivan Grigoryevich pitied them.
The role of the characters in Soviet novels and long poems, however, like that of the figures in mediaeval art, was to express the ideal of the Church, to proclaim the one true God: man existed not for his own sake but for God’s sake, in order to glorify God and his Church. Some writers, those most adept at passing lies off as truth, took particular pains over the details of the clothes and furniture they described. They then peopled their realistic stage sets with idealized, God-seeking characters.
Neither within nor outside the camps were people willing to admit that everyone had an equal right to freedom. Some of the Right Deviationists believed themselves to be innocent but thought that it had been right to sentence the Left Deviationists. Left and Right Deviationists were alike in their hatred of ‘spies’ – of those who had corresponded with relatives abroad or who simply had Polish, Latvian or German surnames that they had inherited from Russified parents. 
And however much the peasants insisted that they had worked all their lives by the sweat of their brow, the political prisoners refused to believe them: ‘A likely story! Why would the authorities arrest a peasant unless he’s exploiting others?’
Ivan Grigoryevich had once said to a former Red Army commander, his neighbour on the bedboards, ‘You’re a hero of the Civil War. You dedicated your whole life to the ideals of Bolshevism. And now here you are – sentenced for espionage!’
The man had replied, ‘With me they made a mistake. There haven’t been any others – I’m a special case.’
When the camp criminals picked on a new victim and began tormenting or robbing him, the political prisoners did nothing. Some looked the other way; some sat there with blank, unseeing faces; some ran away; others pulled blankets over their heads and pretended to be asleep.
Hundreds of political prisoners – hundreds of zeks – among whom were former soldiers and war heroes, had proved helpless against a small number of common criminals. The latter were a law unto themselves; they, after all, were true Russian patriots – unlike the ‘Fascist’ zeks, who were enemies of the Motherland. The zeks were like dry grains of sand; there was no solidarity between them. 
One man believed that the authorities had got it wrong in his case but that, in general, ‘people aren’t sent to the camps for nothing’.
Others reasoned as follows: ‘When we were free, we thought that people aren’t sent to the camps for nothing. Now, however, we know firsthand that that does happen.’ But they drew no conclusions; they merely sighed submissively.
An emaciated, compulsively twitching former official of the Youth Comintern, an expert in Marxist dialectics, explained to Ivan Grigoryevich that, even though he had committed no crimes against the Party, the security organs had been right to arrest him as a double-dealer and spy; although he himself had done nothing wrong, he belonged to a social stratum that was hostile to the Party, a stratum that spawned whiners and doubters, double-dealers, Trotskyists and ‘opportunists in practice’.
An intelligent man, once an important Party official at the provincial level, said to Ivan Grigoryevich, ‘When a forest is being felled, splinters fly – but the truth of the Party still holds . This truth is more important than my misfortune.’ He then pointed to himself and added, ‘So here I am – one of those splinters.’
He was at a loss for words when Ivan Grigoryevich replied, ‘That’s just it – they’re felling the forest. Why do they need to fell the forest?’
Only very occasionally did Ivan Grigoryevich meet anyone who had actually done anything against the Soviet government.
Former tsarist officers had been sentenced not because they had formed monarchist organizations, but because it was thought that they might form monarchist organizations.
There were Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries in the camps. Most had been arrested after they had ceased their political activities and become ordinary, loyal Soviet citizens. They had been arrested not for opposing the Soviet State but because it was thought possible that they might oppose it.
It was not for actually opposing the collective farms that peasants were sent to the camps. The peasants who were sent to the camps were those who might, under certain conditions, have opposed the collective farms.
People were sent to the camps for entirely innocent criticisms – for disliking the books and plays that had won State prizes or for disliking Soviet wireless sets and fountain pens. Might not such people, under certain conditions, become enemies of the State?
People were sent to the camps for corresponding with aunts or brothers who lived abroad. They were sent to the camps because there was a greater probability of their becoming spies than if they did not have such relatives.
State terror was directed not against those who had committed crimes but against those who, according to the security organs, were more likely to commit crimes.
Quite distinct from these people were those who really had fought against the Soviet government: elderly Socialist Revolutionaries, Mensheviks and anarchists; men who had fought for the independence of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Ukraine; men who had fought under the command of Stepan Bandera.
The Soviet zeks looked on these men as their enemies. At the same time they could not help admiring men who had been imprisoned for an actual reason.
In one strict-regime camp, Ivan Grigoryevich met an adolescent schoolboy, Boria Romashkin, who had been sentenced to ten years. Boria really had written posters accusing the State of executing innocent people; he really had typed them out on a typewriter; he really had stuck them up at night on the walls of buildings in Moscow. Boria told Ivan Grigoryevich that during the investigation, dozens of KGB officers – amongst them several generals – had come to see him, all of them curious about this young lad who had been arrested for a genuine reason. In the camp too, Boria was famous. Everybody knew about him; prisoners from neighbouring camps asked about him. When Ivan Grigoryevich was sent 800 kilometres to a new camp, he heard talk of Boria Romashkin the very first evening – his story had travelled all over Kolyma.
There was one surprising thing: people sentenced for a genuine reason, for active opposition to the Soviet state, believed that all political zeks were innocent – and that they should all of them, without exception, be freed. But those who had been framed, those who had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges – these millions of people tended to believe that only they themselves should be pardoned. They attempted to prove that all the falsely accused ‘spies’, ‘kulaks’ and ‘saboteurs’ were indeed guilty; they attempted to justify the brutality of the State.
There was one profound difference between people living in the camps and people living in freedom. People in the camps remained loyal to the time that had given birth to them. Different epochs of Russian life lived on in the thoughts, in the psychological makeup of each person. There were men who had taken part in the Civil War, with their own favourite songs, heroes and books; there were ‘Greens’; there were followers of Petlyura with the still-raging passions of their time, with their own songs, poems and mannerisms. There were Comintern workers from the 1920s, with their own particular earnest enthusiasm, with their characteristic vocabulary and philosophy, with their particular demeanour and ways of pronouncing words. There were men who were really very old indeed – monarchists, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries – and who preserved within them a whole world of ideas, literary heroes and rules of conduct from some forty or fifty years ago.
In a ragged, cough-ridden old man you could instantly recognize a noble, though degraded and weak-willed, officer from a Guards regiment, and in the no less ragged man lying beside him on the bedboards, his face covered with the same grey stubble – an unrepentant Social Democrat. And in a stooped figure with a cushy job as a medical orderly you could glimpse a man who had been the commissar of an armoured train during the Civil War.
Elderly people living in freedom, on the other hand, were not marked by any such inimitable signs of their past. In them the past had been erased. They found it easy to adopt new ways of thinking and feeling and lived their lives in accordance with the present day; their vocabulary and thoughts, their passions, even their sincerest desires all changed submissively and compliantly, in tune with the course of events and the will of their superiors.
What is the reason for this difference? Is it that a man becomes frozen in the camps, as if under anaesthetic?
When he had been in the camps, Ivan Grigoryevich had constantly sensed people’s natural longing to escape beyond the barbed wire, to return to their wives and children. But after his release, he sometimes met other former zeks – and their submissive hypocrisy, their fear of their own thoughts, their dread of being re-arrested were so overwhelming that they seemed more truly and thoroughly imprisoned than when they had been doing forced labour.
Leaving the camp, working as a free labourer, living with his nearest and dearest, such a man would sometimes doom himself to a higher power of imprisonment, a more complete and profound imprisonment than anything he had been subjected to behind the barbed wire.
Nevertheless, in the torment, in the dirt and murk of camp life, it was freedom that was the light and strength of the prisoners’ souls. Freedom was immortal.
In this small southern town, in the home of the widow of Sergeant Mikhalyov, Ivan Grigoryevich began to develop a broader, deeper understanding of the nature of freedom.
People’s small, everyday struggles, the efforts made by workers to earn an extra rouble by moonlighting, the peasants’ natural desire to fight for some of the bread and potatoes they had themselves grown – all this represented not only the wish for a more comfortable life, not only the wish to feed and clothe one’s children well. The struggle for the right to make boots, to knit a cardigan, to sow what one wants to sow – all this was a manifestation of man’s natural and indestructible aspiration towards freedom. This aspiration was, he knew, no less indestructible in the souls of the zeks. On either side of the barbed wire freedom seemed immortal.
After work one evening he began making a mental list of items of camp vocabulary. There was, O God, a camp word for every letter of the alphabet. And you could write whole articles, narrative poems and novels about each of them.
Arest (Arrest), Barak (Barrack) … all the way through to Yushka (a kind of watery soup) and Zona (the entire territory of the camp). A vast world with its own language, its own economy and its own moral code. Yes, one could fill whole shelves with books about it – even more than with the countless volumes of Gorky’s History of Factories and Mills.
There would be many areas of subject matter. One would be the story of prisoners’ transports: how they were organized, the journey itself, how the prisoners were guarded… To one of today’s prisoners the transports of the 1920s seem unbelievably naive and cosy. A compartment in a passenger train, a philosophically inclined guard who offers you pies to eat… The first timid buds of the world of the camps, a chick barely emerged from the egg, a bygone age…
Compare all that with a transport on its way to Krasnoyarsk today: a mobile prison city, made up of sixty four-axle goods wagons; tiny barred windows; three tiers of bedboards; store wagons; kitchen wagons; wagons for the guard dogs that roam round the train when it stops; carriages for the guards themselves… And the boss of the entire transport, surrounded like a fairy-tale pasha by whoring concubines and fawning cooks. And the inspections and headcounts… A supervisor climbs into the wagon while the other guards stand by the open doors, pointing their submachine guns at the zeks huddled together in one end of the wagon. The supervisor orders the zeks, one at a time, to the other end of the wagon – and however fast they move, he always manages to give them a blow with his stick, either on the arse or on the head.
And not long ago, after the Great Patriotic War, steel combs were installed underneath the tail wagon of each train. If a zek managed to dismantle the floorboards and throw himself prone between the rails, this comb would seize him, yank him up and hurl him underneath the wheels – no use, by then, to man or beast. And in case someone broke through the ceiling and climbed up onto the roof of a wagon, searchlights were installed on each train. From the locomotive to the very last wagon, their sharp beams pierced through the darkness – and if there was a man on the roof, the machine gun looking down the train knew only too well what to do. Yes, everything continues to evolve. The transport’s economic system had also continued to perfect itself; there was surplus product everywhere. The guard officers were by then enjoying real comfort in the headquarters car; they and their men were receiving additional rations, levied from those intended for the dogs and the zeks, as well as being paid a large displacement allowance in consideration of the 60 days it took the transport to reach the camps of eastern Siberia. And each wagon saw its own economic processes, its own internal circulation of goods, its own harsh reality compounded of primitive accumulation and attendant pauperisation. Yes, everything flows, everything changes, it is impossible to step twice into the same transport.
But who can describe the despair of this journey, this journey that took men from their wives? Who can describe the nighttime confessions to the accompaniment of the creaks of the wagons and the iron clickety-clack of their wheels? Who can describe people’s submissiveness and trustfulness in the course of this slow plunge into the abyss of the camps? Who can describe the zeks’ letters – the letters the zeks threw from the dark of the goods wagons into the dark of the great mailbox of the Russian steppe, and that sometimes, unbelievably, reached their destination?
In the train everything is unfamiliar. You have yet to develop camp habits. Your body is not exhausted, your mind is not dazed by the many concerns of camp life. Your heart is raw and bleeding. Everything is strange and terrible: the half-dark, the creaking, the rough boards, the hysterical twitching thieves, the quartzlike stare of the guards.
Ivan remembered a young boy being lifted up to the little window. He shouted out, ‘Grandad, Grandad, where are they taking us?’
And everyone in the goods wagon heard an old man reply in a cracked, drawn-out voice, ‘To Siberia, dear child, to forced labour.’
And Ivan Grigoryevich suddenly said to himself, ‘Did all this really happen to me? Has this been my journey, my fate? It was with those transports that my road began. And now it has reached its end.’
These camp memories kept flooding back. There were no links between them, and this chaotic quality was painful and tormenting. But he felt, he knew that it was possible to make sense of this chaos, that this was not beyond him. His journey through the camps was now over and it was time to see clearly, time to discern the laws of this chaos of suffering where guilt was juxtaposed with holy innocence, where false confessions to crimes lived alongside fanatical loyalty to the Party, where senseless absurdity – the murder of millions of innocent and loyal people – masqueraded as cast-iron logic.


* People sentenced to a term in a labour camp were known as zeks. The word zek is an abbreviated form of the word zaklyuchenny, meaning ‘someone who has been confined’.
The best dictionary of camp language, Jacques Rossi’s invaluable The Gulag Handbook runs to 610 pages. (RC)

© Copyright  Robert Chandler, translation from Russian, introduction.
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