Vasily Grossman is something of a forgotten, unsung, giant of Soviet dissident authors. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine in 1905, Grossman rose to prominence and received national acclaim as a war reporter for Red Star, the official newspaper of the Red Army. Grossman's coverage of the Battle for Stalingrad was popular and well known. In fact, Grossman may have been the first reporter to tell the story of the Holocaust, beginning with his reports subsequent to the liberation of Treblinka in Poland. Prior to the publication (abroad) of Forever Flowing Grossman had seen his other major work, Life & Fate, banned by the KGB. In February 1961, a KGB Colonel, Vladimir Prokopenko came to Grossman's flat not to arrest Grossman but to arrest his novel "Life and Fate". Grossman's manuscripts, carbon copies, notebooks and typewriter ribbons were all seized. These events took contemporaneously with the authorized publication in the USSR of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. An explanation of why Grossman was perceived as more of a threat than Solzhenitsyn can be gleaned from the contents of Forever Flowing. (The story of the eventual publication of Life and Fate is best left to reviewers of that book.)
"Forever Flowing" tells a simple, yet emotionally deep and politically nuanced tale. The story begins with the 1957 return to Moscow of Ivan Grigoryevich after 30 years of forced labor in the Gulag. (1957 marked the year in which the tide of returning prisoners of the Gulag reached its peak.) He arrives at the flat of his cousin, Nikolay Andreyevich. Nikolay, a scientist with less than stellar skills, has reached some measure of success at the laboratory through dint of being a survivor. He reaches the top of his profession only after those of his more talented colleagues are skimmed from the laboratory after purges (Stalin's last campaign - the Doctors Plot - seems to be referenced here) and other typical political campaigns. The meeting in the flat is entirely unsatisfactory for both parties. Nikolay is particularly upset (although he is not capable of figuring out why) as he sees his pale imitation of a life reflected through the prism of his cousin's 30 year journey. Grossman paints a vivid picture of Nikolay, more than a bit jealous that Ivan's light had always shone brighter than his own prior to Ivan's arrest. Nikolay suffers from the guilt of one who was not arrested and who is painfully aware of the choices he made to keep from being arrested. In that sense having Ivan sit across from him at the dinner table disturbs Nikolay no end because Ivan represents a mirror into which Nikolay can see only his own hollow reflection.
Grigoryevich leaves Moscow for his old city of Leningrad, the place where he was first arrested in 1927. There, quite by chance, he runs into the person whose denunciation placed him in jail in the first place. Grossman here embarks on a discourse on the different types and forms of denunciation available to the Soviet citizen. It is a remarkable discourse that shows how many different ways there are to participate in a purge and how many ways there are to legitimize ones participation and/or acquiescence.
From Leningrad Ivan travels to a southern industrial city where he finds work and eventually finds a deep and satisfying love in the person of his landlady, a grieving war widow. That relationship forms the centerpiece of what might be called Grossman's vision that love and freedom are two goals, not mutually exclusive, that form the essence of our shared humanity.
The above summary does not do justice to the power and depth of Grossman's prose. Further, it cannot do justice to the literary and political importance of the work. Since the death of Stalin, the Soviet line had remained relatively firm - Stalin's excesses were the product of a disturbed mind that represented a horrible deviation from the theory and principles of Leninism. The USSR's best path is the one that returned it to the path created by Lenin. Khrushchev first enunciated this line. (Brezhnev never paid it much mind as his own administration marked a step back towards Stalinism in some respects.) Even Gorbachev's perestroika was based on the theory that a return to first-principles, i.e. Leninism, would save the USSR from destruction.
Grossman did not buy into this line and Forever Flowing is noted for a remarkable attack not only on Stalin but on Lenin and Lenin's anti-democratic tendencies that had more in common with Ivan the Terrible than the principles of revolutionary democracy. "All the triumphs of Party and State were bound up with the name of Lenin. But all the cruelty inflicted on the nation also lay - tragically - on Lenin's shoulders." Grossman may have been the first to make this leap and he paid the price for making that leap. (This involves the suppression of his Life & Fate.)
Despite the horrors set out, quietly and without excess rhetoric, Grossman returns to an somewhat optimistic vision of mans search for freedom" "No matter how enormous the skyscrapers, no matter how powerful the cannon, no matter how unlimited the might of the state, no matter how vast its empire, all this was only smoke and mist which would disappear. There remained alive and growing one genuine force alone, consisting of one element only - freedom. To live meant to be a free human being.
Forever Flowing (and Life and Fate) are well worth the time and attention of anyone with an interest in the subject matter.