So, the book. The novel begins with Ivan Grigoryevich returns from almost thirty years of imprisonment in Siberia. Each chapter sets up a short episode in Ivan's life or in the life of a person he knows. The episodes evolve into extended stream of consciousness (sometimes) explorations in different aspects of life in the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Mostly, these episodes deal with what a psychiatrist might identify as survivor's guilt. One of the first shows Ivan's cousin realizing that, by saying nothing when fellow scientists were denounced and not denouncing anyone else, it doesn't mean that he was guiltless. Instead, he learns the lesson that Edmund Burke wrote about after the French Revolution: "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
Later in the book, Grossman stages a mock trial of different kinds of informers. One is a person who actually believed that the denunciations were necessary. Another did it for personal gain. The third was afraid not to and named names during an interrogation. The judge and the prosecutor in this Kafka-esque chapter hurl accusations at the three Judases, as Grossman terms them, accusations similar to the ones that Ivan's cousin asked himself. The questions they ask are a lot like the ones we ask now in hindsight. The informers reply:
Your question, for all its seeming surface simplicity, is by no means simple...In actuality, why seek out now those guilty of crimes committed in the Stalinist era? That is like emigrating from the earth to the moon, and then bringing suit over a question of land boundaries on earth...Why are you so determined to expose those like us who are weak? Begin with the state. Try it! After all, our sin is its sin. (80)*This conversation (or whatever the proper term for these episodes is) is repeated in variations for the course of the book. Almost everyone you meet in Forever Flowing is like that. Before Stalin died in 1953, they all did something that they regret, even if it was just not speaking up when the authorities came for a friend or a relative. The only innocents Grossman introduces us to are the ones that were sent out to the camps, like Ivan Grigoryevich.
Another psychological tangle that Grossman attempts to tease apart is the belief among some of these guilty people that some of them believed that the people they denounced really were criminals, that they were helping the state by spying on their friends and family and reporting anything that could possibly be construed as a violation of the rules of the regime. Grossman reports a short conversation between Ivan and another prisoner who still excused the actions of the government:
"When they chop down the forest, the chops fly, but the Party truth remains the truth and it is superior to my misfortune. And," he went on, pointing to himself, "I myself was one of the chips that flew when the forest was cut down."It's a question that I don't think I've seen asked in fiction before. All of the other books I've read that are set during Stalin's reign or immediately after his death just accept the Terror. Sure, Stalin and the psychopaths who set it up and ran the show get the blame. And the people who went along with it get some of the blame for not speaking up and stopping their government. But like I said, none of them ask the question about how it got started in the first place. Grossman does try to answer the question of why Soviet Russia happened, mostly by pointing out that there was no time in Russian history when the majority of people were really free. For centuries, most Russians were serfs. Unlike Europe, Russia didn't have a real middle class develop. They skipped whole stages of political development in their rush to communism. Or, as Grossman phrases it, "It is time for those who would understand Russia to understand that a thousand years of slavery have alone created the mystique of the Russian soul" (217).
And he was nonplussed when Ivan Grigoryevich said to him: "That's where the misfortune lies--in the fact that they're cutting down the forest. Why cut it down?" (105)
The entire experience of reading Forever Flowing is utterly depressing. Even during the thaw after Stalin's death, it was still possible to get shipped across the continent to Kolyma for saying the wrong thing. The most heartbreaking thing in this book is probably when Anna, Ivan's love interest, tells Ivan about what happened during the Holodomor** in the early 1930s. The Holodomor was a state engineered famine in Ukraine that killed millions. Grossman reminds us that the camps and the prisons were not the worst of Stalin's crimes.
In all, I suppose, that this book accomplishes two things. First, I firmly believe that this book is a way for Grossman to take all the angry, guilty, and stressful emotions that were no doubt swirling around in his head and get them down on paper where he could start to deal with them. Second, it's a reminder of a time and a place and a people that are incomprehensible here and now. It is probably one of the best books I've reading about the 1950s in Russia and, yes, I have read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
* All quotations from the 1972 hardcover Harper & Row edition.
** I didn't want to link directly to the Wikipedia article on the Holodomor without putting a warning in front of it. Be warned that this famine was a crime against humanity and reading about the victims breaks my heart. Anyway, here's the link for the curious: Holodomor.