“Do you know how I forgot everything during the crisis period? I used to imagine that I was holding a lady…” said Ivan Grigoryevich, the hero of Vasily Grossman’s novel ‘Everything Flows‘. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (December 18, 1878 – March 5, 1953) had deported many writers to various Gulags… Ivan was such an author who had to spend three decades in a Gulag. After getting released, he found that the new Russia was unfamiliar to him…
Many consider ‘Everything Flows’ was Grossman’s final testament, written after the Soviet authorities suppressed his masterpiece, ‘Life and Fate’. The main story is simple: Released after 30 years in the Soviet camps, Ivan must struggle to find a place for himself in an unfamiliar world. Grossman wrote the novel while lying in a hospital during his final days. It is to be noted that there is a difference between the Russian literature and the Soviet literature! The Soviet literature emerged as a new branch after the 1917 October Revolution. Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Ivan Bunin and others had popularised the Russian literature at the global stage before the Revolution. However, they were Classical authors. The temper of the Soviet literature was completely different. It was really difficult to pen ‘Mother‘ like Maxim Gorky or ‘The Steel‘ by Nikolai Ostrovsky…
Grossman was the face of protests in post-Revolution era. In 1941, the Nazis killed 30,000 Jews, along with Grossman’s mother. In 1959, he published the novel ‘Life and Fate‘, telling the story of the Nazi aggression in erstwhile Soviet Union. Grossman had spent three-four years in the battlefield during the Second World War as a journalist of the ‘Red Star‘ (or ‘Krasnaya Zvezda‘), the mouthpiece of the Soviet Red Army. He shared his experience with the readers in this novel. In ‘Life and Fate‘, he mentioned that many Red Army Generals behaved like cowards during the Second World War. As expected, Grossman’s view irked the top Soviet political leadership, and the Communists, consequently, made his life miserable in 1952. Had Stalin not passed away in 1953, the novelist might have been in a great trouble. Grossman named the book ‘Stalingrad‘, first. However, Soviet novelist and winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov asked him: “Who gave you the right to write about Stalingrad?” Sholokhov did not expect that a Jew would write about a glorious chapter of the Russian history. However, Grossman was one of them who had experienced the Second World War.
Grossman’s novel was banned in Soviet Union in 1961. The author wrote to Nikita Khrushchev: “What is the point of me being physically free when the book I dedicated my life to is arrested… I am not renouncing it… I am requesting freedom for my book.” However, the Soviet power considered ‘Life and Fate‘ and Grossman’s last major novel, ‘Everything Flows‘ (1961), a threat. Hence, Moscow suppressed these novels and effectively transformed the dissident writer into a nonperson. Grossman died of stomach cancer on September 14, 1964, not knowing whether his major novels would ever be read by the public…
“All the dogs in Russia used to bark throughout the day during the Revolution! Now, they are all silent…” wrote Andrei Platonov in his gloomy symbolic and semi-satirical novel ‘The Foundation Pit‘. With these words, he portrayed the silence observed during Stalin’s regime when the Kremlin used force to suppress the voices raised by the Opposition. In this novel, Platonov talked about a group of workers who had wanted to build a palace for the proletariat in Soviet Union. However, they exhausted their physical and mental strength while digging the foundation of that palace! Unfortunately, poverty, disregard and suffering were Platonov’s only companions at the end, as the Soviet authorities banned his books. He had written the novel in 1930… but, it was published in 1987!
Platonov, a supporter of the October Revolution, published his first novel ‘Chevengur‘ in 1929. In this novel, he wrote that the Communists prepared various plans in the city of Chevengur. However, they managed to carry out only one murder. Then, he had been targetted by the concerned authorities! In 1940, Platonov reviewed a book authored by Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova. Thereafter, Platonov and Akhmatova’s sons were detained and sent to Gulags. Stalin tried his best to stop their pens… but, failed.
Like Grossman, Platonov worked in Red Star as a journalist, too. Grossman requested the Chief Editor of Red Star, David Ortenberg, to allow Platonov to work with him, as Platonov was not capable of self-defence and did not have a social reputation. During this period, Platonov wrote: “We have conquered all the animals, but all the animals have entered into us and reptiles, now, live in our our souls.” He portrayed Stalin’s regime on the basis of his experience. In a key passage from ‘Chevengur‘, an angry peasant says to one of the Bolsheviks: “Very clever. You’ve given us the land, but you take away our every last grain of wheat. Well I hope you choke our land. All us peasants have got left of it is the horizon. Who do you think you’re fooling?”
In 1946, Platonov published his novella ‘The Return‘ in which he told the story of a Russian captain returning from the war. The captain had no feeling of heroism or optimism left in him. Writing such stories was considered as a crime in Stalin’s Soviet. In his ‘Happy Moscow‘, Platonov described the lifestyle of the Russian capital in the 1930s. Commenting on this period, Stalin, once, said: “Living has become better, Comrades. Living has become happier. And when life becomes happier, work becomes more effective.” And, Platonov wanted to show the difference between false propaganda and the harsh reality!
In his story ‘Ivan and Maria‘ (1922), Boris Pilnyak wrote: “I feel that the entire Revolution smells of sexual organs!” He was arrested in 1937, and was shot dead on April 21, 1938. Interestingly, Pilnyak had welcomed the October Revolution in his novel ‘The Naked Year‘ (1920)! However, he used to believe in Personal Liberty. He felt that although the Soviet Union made a steady progress in defence and technology sectors because of the Revolution, the Russians lost their past and roots!
Stalin reportedly advised Mikhail Frunze, a senior Bolshevik leader who had replaced Trotsky at the head of the Red Army, to undergo an operation. And, Frunze died on October 31, 1925 (aged 40) immediately after the same. Interestingly, Pilnyak – in his a strange short story ‘The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon‘ (1926) – narrated the life of a Red Army commander who was ordered by the three who lead to undergo a medical operation, which he did reluctantly. He died on the operating table, the implication being that the three who lead had wanted him dead! Stalin did not forgive Pilnyak. Many believe that Pilnyak’s best known novel ‘Mahogany‘ (1927), which was banned in Russia, irked Stalin and became the cause of his death! In this novel, Pilnyak described the followers of Lenin and Trotsky as the real Communists! And no wonder, he was labelled Anti-Nationalist!
Mikhail Frunze (L) with his wife Sophia in 1917
The authoritarian regime did not honour these writers… however, history has made them immortal!
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