Zola’s La terre & the USSR

April 20, 2010

I am closing in on the conclusion of Zola’s epic of peasant life in the 1860’s, La terre.  Mother Earth is the Good Earth, but everything else is pretty much shit.  Well, even shit ain’t so bad.

The plot recalls King Lear in that Old Fouan, the farmer who makes a gift of his land to his children in return for a pension when he can’t work it anymore ends up homeless, impoverished, and scorned by family and neighbors.  He recalls that he couldn’t wait for his own father to die either, so it’s only natural that his children want him to “peg out” as they call it.  His own sister, La Grande, a demonic crone in her eighties who at the end of life lives only for thinking up ways to make her relatives miserable, takes pleasure in slamming her door on Fouan as a sort of final “I told you so!”  But then she disowned her daughter for marrying for love, watched her granddaughter work herself to death to support her physically and mentally crippled brother, and then took the grandson in as her personal slave.  Zola is not sentimental about peasants, in case you were wondering.

During one of the less tragic episodes, there is a political election roiling the community.  There is an impromptu debate between a well-heeled factory owner and a local farmer:  the industrialist wants free trade, cheap imported grain to lower prices, make it easier for his workers to eat on low wages, and assure his profits.  The farmer wants protection to keep prices high on his grain brought to market:

The two of them, the farmer and the industrialist, the protectionist and the free-trader, stared each other in the face, one with a sly, good-humoured chuckle, the other with blunt hostility.  This was the modern form of warfare, the confrontation which faces us today, in the economic struggle for existence.

“We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers,” said Monsier Rochefontaine.

“But first of all,” insisted Hourdequin, “you must make sure that the peasant has enough to eat.”

We’ll force the peasant to feed the workers.   There’s an irony for you.  The bourgeois industrialist is looking out for the welfare of his workers, and threatening the peasant.  Flash forward sixty years to the USSR under Joe Stalin.  What do we see?  The vozhd, the great strongman, leader of the industrial workers state going to war against the peasant, the kulak. Why?  To feed the workers in the cities.  The tangled historical logic of it all!  The result was the great famine in the Ukraine, as bolshevik instruments of terror requisitioned grain at riflepoint and left the peasants to starve.  And starve they did, by the millions.

Meanwhile, back on the plain of Beauce, France, the peasants shovel their steaming piles of manure onto the fields – from filth comes life, a theme that appears in the strangest places in Zola – and marvel that in Paris, this valuable nutrient is totally wasted in the sewers!  Hugo began a chapter-long discussion of the Paris sewers in his novel Les miserables with the declaration:

Paris throws five millions a year into the sea. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? day and night. With what object? without any object. With what thought? without thinking of it. For what return? for nothing. By means of what organ? by means of its intestine. What is its intestine? its sewer . . . Science, after long experiment, now knows that the most fertilizing and the most effective of manures is that of man . . . A sewer is a mistake.

The peasants move on, as their parents did, and their parents did, and theirs, back for centuries.  No need to move too quickly.

And as I was waiting at the corner to cross the street next to the World Trade Center site, right where the giant trucks move in and out of a sliding gate, a husky woman in construction worker’s clothes announced that a dump truck was ready to come out – the pedestrians would all have to wait.  “I’ve got another one coming out!” she shouted at the top of her loud voice.  I thought, that’s not the voice of a peasant.  Why would a peasant yell with such energy just to announce something she announces several times a day, day in, day out, year in, year out?  Something that’s such a routine part of the job.  Why waste the energy?  No, that’s the voice of an American worker, filled with comittment to her job, maybe with optimism and pride in her role.  I thought, “I’m with the peasant!”  Maybe I’m just reading too damn much…

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Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.