Grossman in Armenia
Grossman in Armenia
Discovering a Different Literary Caucasus in Vasily Grossman's An Armenian Sketchbook
As the Caucasus became part of the Russian Empire, Russian writers, beginning with Pushkin, created a "literary Caucasus." This Caucasus was an exotic "Orient" of adventure, mystery, and romance. However, this "literary Caucasus" changed in Russian literature with the author and era. Vasily Grossman, one of the best-known representatives of Russian literature in the 20th century, presents a Caucasus that is different from the "exotic Orient" in his work, An Armenian Sketchbook (1967). In Grossman's text, the Caucasus is not romanticized. Though his account is written poetically, it is direct and realistic. It is a kind of a narration of an ordinary man who visited Armenia. In this respect, Grossman's Caucasus is unique in Russian literature
* Lilit F. Grigoryan is a graduate student enrolled in the MA program in Russian Translation at Kent State University. She graduated from Yerevan State University in 2007 with a BA in Russian Philology.
* Lilit F. Grigoryan is a graduate student enrolled in the MA program in Russian Translation at Kent State University. She graduated from Yerevan State University in 2007 with a BA in Russian Philology.
There are few people who would not be touched in some way after reading the traveler's accounts of Vasily Semyonovich Grossman, one of the most prominent 20th century Russian writers. Grossman visited Armenia in 1961 and subsequently embodied his impressions and experiences in his work, An Armenian Sketchbook, originally titled Dobro vam (Good to You—a literal translation of the standard Armenian greeting, Barev dzez).
In the text, Grossman does not romanticize the Caucasus. Though his writing is poetic, he presents his observations realistically and directly. The work is also self-reflective. It is about Grossman as much as it is about Armenia or Caucasus. In fact, the reality of Armenia affected the writer's worldview. In the words of one literary analyst:
Not everything was simple and clear in his prose of the last years. It was doubtful about the previous beliefs of optimism of Soviet literature. Among his narrations there were some stories in which internal pain could not find a consolation, and faith did not have support. His obvious, sometimes even most bitter, pages were influenced by the misery he witnessed in the humiliated and powerless life of the people; the pain for millions innocent victims of Stalin's repressions; the suffering until his last days for the tragedy of his native Jewish people; and at last, the difficult fortune of his books. (Bocharov, 296)
An Armenian Sketchbook is a unique work in the greater tradition of Russian literature on the Caucasus. As the Caucasus became part of the Russian Empire, it also became well-known to many Russians for its nature, history, and ethnic diversity. As a border region, it was also known as a place of exile and escape. Runaway serfs, soldiers and Cossacks found refuge in the Caucasian mountains, away from the centers of political power. In fact, the second place for exiles, after Siberia, was the Caucasus.
The area became an attractive and inspiring subject for creative individuals—especially writers. Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Yesenin, Mandelstam and others were captivated by this region. Familiarity with its different peoples and their customs, as well as the historical and natural setting, was reflected in their works.
Earlier writers, like Pushkin, were especially important in creating a "literary Caucasus" for the Russian imagination. The region and its people became romanticized as a place of exotic adventure by Russian writers. The Caucasus became a "Russian Orient" imagined, in the words of Edward Said, as a "place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." (Said, 1) However, such images changed depending on the time and the writer. As scholar Susan Layton writes in her book Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy:
The conquest [of Caucasus] produced a vast literary Caucasus whose chronology is readily delineated. Alexander Pushkin's poem "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" securely fixed the territory on the [Russian] readership's cultural horizon in 1822. At the other end of the temporal framework stands Lev Tolstoy's Hadji Murat, written during 1896 and 1904 and first published in 1912 in a heavily censored form. In between young Pushkin and old Tolstoy, Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky and Mikhail Lermontov dominated the literary Caucasus in the 1830s and 1840s. (Layton, 5-6)
Grossman's work is unique within this broader context of Caucasus depictions in Russia literature. His subject, Armenia, was the setting of two other major travel accounts—Pushkin's Journey to Arzrum (1836) and Mandelstam's Journey to Armenia (1933). In Journey to Arzrum, Pushkin was stunned by the Biblical Mount Ararat where he saw "the hope of regeneration and life" and "both the raven and dove, flying forth, the symbols of punishment and reconciliation." (Pushkin, 50). In his Journey to Armenia, Mandelstam revealed the grace and beauty of Armenia in poetic verse. Mandelstam loved Armenia; for him it was the classical world of the USSR. However, Grossman was not inspired by these earlier accounts. Instead, according to Robert Chandler and Yury Bit-Yunan, "the inspiration for An Armenian Sketchbook came not from literature, but from the circumstances of [Grossman's] own life." (Grossman, viii)
In this respect, Grossman's writing must be placed within the context of his greater life events. During World War II, Grossman worked as a war correspondent and was at the center of all events, leaving traumatic and unforgettable memories. It was Grossman who witnessed the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews first hand. The tragedy of the Holocaust deeply affected Grossman, who with Ilya Ehrenburg, wrote the Black Book on crimes against humanity against Jews. Grossman's mother, Ekaterina Savelevna, was murdered in Grossman's native town of Berdichev in Ukraine by the invading German forces. He was both spiritually and emotionally connected to his mother, and her death had a profound impact on him. He could not forgive himself for his mother's death and felt guilty about the tragedy. The pain was heavy.
Written years later, during the Khrushchev Thaw, Grossman's famous novel, Life and Fate, reflected the terrible reality of the war. It also was intensely critical of Stalinism. The work was banned and confiscated by Soviet authorities. It was a heavy blow for Grossman. He could not bear the heavy fate that befell his book, into which he put so much of himself and his experience. In his letter to the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Grossman wrote:
The fate of the book is separated from me these days. It may be carried out by itself, apart from me, at that time I may not exist… It makes no sense, there is no truth in the current situation – in my physical freedom, – when the book which I devoted whole my life, is in prison, – since I wrote it, I never denied it and will never deny. (Lazarev, 21)
After Life and Fate was banned, Grossman could no longer have his books printed in the USSR. He needed money and therefore accepted an offer to rewrite a bad translation of an Armenian novel. This required going to Soviet Armenia and working with the author Hrachia Kochar (whom Grossman calls "Martirosyan") and the original translator Hasmik Taronyan. Armenia was a kind of "exile" for Grossman, just like other famous writers of the Caucasus experienced before him. The best comparison can be made with Mandelstam because, like Grossman, he also had problems with the Soviet authorities.
After Grossman completed the translation, he wrote about his impressions of Armenia. His writing allowed him to immerse himself into the creative contemplation of the surrounding unfamiliar environment. His travel memoir can be considered to be a lyrical poem in prose. As Soviet writer Lev Slavin rightly noted, it could also be "easily named Declaration of Love to Armenia." (Slavin, 277) At the same time, Grossman's text is a philosophical confession from the writer to the reader about his personal life. When Grossman is not recounting his observations of Armenia, he often digresses into other general subjects, such as his own state of health or his thoughts of life, art, philosophy, or nationalism.
From the first pages of Grossman's text, the reader can see a simple and humble man in the face of the writer, whom no one meets on the platform at the train station. Grossman admits with a slight irony that, before coming to Armenia, he bought a new coat in order to leave a good impression as a decent man. He does not hide the awkward situation of wearing "a warm coat, a cap, and a thick scarf" on a hot day. He recalls sarcastic commentary by his Moscow colleagues, "Well, it's hardly chic, but it'll do for a translator." (Grossman, 19)
There is also a humanism to Grossman's style. In front of the reader there is a simple man with exposed weaknesses and drawbacks, which are inherent to every ordinary person. Grossman tells about a beautiful Armenian girl to whom he is attracted because of her tenderness, femininity, and graceful beauty. Grossman secretly admires her, but also feels somewhat embarrassed because of it.
Arriving in Armenia, the first impression that Grossman has of the country is stone. Stone appears everywhere. This really inspires Grossman. "The first thing I saw in Armenia was stone," he writes, "…and what I took away when I left was a memory of stone." (Grossman, 64) It seemed that everything about Armenia, its people, culture, and history, is suddenly disclosed for Grossman in stone. The cities, streets, orchards, and even people and animals of Armenia appear so close to the mountainous surroundings that they too appear to be made from the stone. The impression, Grossman writes, is inescapable.
Grossman was equally astounded by the diversity among the Armenians. On the streets of Yerevan, he saw "faces with a classic, antique beauty, perfect ovals, with small straight noses and pale-blue almond-shaped eyes." He likewise observed "people with high cheekbones, flattened noses, and slightly slanting eyes; ...people with elongated, sharp faces and huge, sharp, hooked noses; ...people whose hair was so black as to be almost blue, with eyes like coals." In Armenia, he saw the whole scale of Armenia's history within the diversity of its people, explaining "the flattened Mongolian noses, the Assyrian jet-black hair, the pale-blue Greek eyes, and coal-black Persian eyes." (Grossman, 11) Grossman relates this with his earlier experience of diversity among Russians and among Jews. On the latter, like the Armenians, he speaks of a range of differences; of the "black-haired-haired, hook-nosed, snub-nosed, swarthy, blue-eyed, [and] fair-haired... Faces that look Asian, African, Spanish, German, Slav..." (Grossman, 12)
Grossman's senses are further overwhelmed by the distinct look and feel of the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Of Mount Ararat, the Armenian national symbol overlooking the city, Grossman wrote that "with its gentle, tender contours, it seems to grow not out of the earth but out of the sky, as if it has condensed from its white clouds and its deep blue." (Grossman, 24) The space of the city itself is something unique and unrepeatable, according to Grossman:
This city that suddenly arises from nonbeing is a special city; it differs from the city that exists in reality—it is the city of a particular person. Its autumn leaves have their own unique way of rustling; there is something special about the smell of its dust, about the way its young boys fire their slingshots. (Grossman, 21)
Yet, within this city, Grossman also found a sense of universalism. The writer reflects on this while walking along the streets of Armenia's capital. The world in which we live is the same for all, the same universe, the same cities, the same people going about their business. In the city, he sees "its factories, its huge, tall blocks of new apartments for workers, its splendid opera house, its magnificent pink schools, its academic institutions," its "well-supplied shops," and the celebrated manuscript library, the Matenadaran. He witnesses people moving along the city performing their everyday activities: men in suits, women clicking in high heels, and everyday compassion and courtesy, especially for the elderly. This is the universal that at the same time exists in the unique space of Yerevan.
Grossman too finds similar qualities within the country's distinct style of architecture. He is fascinated by the traditional style of ancient structures and churches, in which two main Armenian art symbols—a bushel of grapes and the head of an eagle—are dominant. The architecture of Armenian churches especially attracted Grossman's attention. The Armenian church was simple and natural. In the simplicity, there was a grandiosity, a direct connection to God and all things universal. Yet, it is a universalism that is expressed in a unique Armenian way. During his meeting with the Armenian Catholicos (patriarch), Grossman says that he wished books were as simple and expressive as the ancient churches and that, like in Armenia's churches, he would like God to live in each book as well.
The balance of the unique and universal is also apparent to Grossman even in the local architecture. He presents readers with the environment of ordinary dwellers: lower houses, narrow streets, neighbors living next to one another like a big family, drying laundry on the ropes which stretch from one yard to another. The writer observes that the inner yard is the heart and the soul of everyday life in Yerevan. Though it is "nothing like [the] deserted Russian courtyard," it is a place of social gathering where we "see the city as a living organism." According to Grossman:
The inner yard! What constitutes the kernel, the heart and soul of Yerevan is not its churches or government buildings, not its railway stations, not its theater or its concert hall, nor its three-story palace of a department store. No, what constitutes the soul of Yerevan are its inner courtyards. Flat roofs, long staircases, short flights of steps, little corridors and balconies, terraces of all sizes, plane trees, a fig tree, a climbing vine, a little table, small benches, passages, verandas—everything fits harmoniously together, one thing leading into another, one thing emerging from another. (Grossman, 23)
Though Grossman was not directly influenced by Mandelstam in the writing of his account to Armenia, he still refers to Mandelstam's earlier visit and asks the local people about it. To his surprise, he discovers that nobody in Armenia remembers Mandelstam. The author Martirosyan could not recall Mandelstam's visit, nor could his colleagues whom he telephoned. However, Martirosyan did recall "a thin man with a large nose" who liked to "read some poems." "This," concludes Grossman, "…must have been Mandelstam." Grossman appreciated the late poet's talent and compared the melody of his lyrical poetry with charming music:
Mandelstam's poems are splendid. They are the very essence of poetry: the music of words. Perhaps even a little too much so... But there is an enchanting music in Mandelstam's poems, and some are among the finest poems written in Russian since the death of Blok. (Grossman, 31)
Grossman also writes about another historical figure, Stalin. It was under the "Great Vozhd" that millions were killed as "enemies of the people," including Mandelstam. Grossman writes about the Stalin statue that was once in Victory Park in Yerevan, and that has now been replaced by Mother Armenia. He reflects on the legacy of Stalinism and asks local Armenians about him. Grossman notices that most regard Stalin negatively. "Let the metal used to construct this monument return to its noble primordial condition," one Yerevantsi said. (Grossman, 6) Others referred to "Soso" (a diminutive form of "Iosif" in Georgian) as a "mama dzoglu" ("son of a bitch"). Still others regarded Stalin as "hero" who defeated the Germans, "the Turks' allies." (Grossman, 8-10) These sections were later edited from Grossman's text when published in the USSR. Khrushchev was no longer the leader and discussion on Stalin became controversial and taboo in Soviet society.
The writer-philosopher also reflected on friendship, loyalty, and the centuries-long relationship of the peoples of Russia and Caucasus. Living side by side, they borrowed customs and traditions from one another and lived a peaceful coexistence, sharing everyday problems and concerns. They respected one another’s traditions and helped and supported one another like native brothers. All of them were ordinary people, workers and peasants. Grossman narrates this with deep tenderness and admiration. He also noted that these communications joined professionals of different nationalities around common ideas. These are communications of workers and engineers in plants and factories, communications of Armenian and Russian students and scholars in universities and libraries, and scientists in research laboratories.
Grossman was a master of description. He described details of the rural life of Armenia and peasants in their daily routines and traditions. He illustrated the Armenian lavash baking process so poetically that the reader could easily understand what he meant. The writer was especially interested in folk customs, and in this regard, showed great respect to the local people. For example, he appeared at an Armenian wedding ceremony and showed respect to the wedding customs. Trying not to upset people, he followed all the rituals and rules.
Reading An Armenian Sketchbook, nobody can fail to see Grossman's tenderness towards animals. He sees and feels their inner world and is able to relate this to his own life. He is able to understand and sympathize with them. Grossman mentions a sheep, which instinctively believed that he was going to be killed by a human, and clung to the donkey, seeking protection. He was profoundly impressed by this scene and by the sad eyes of the animal.
His meeting with a sheep does not leave the writer's mind and he reflects on it. He sees an incredible similarity between glances of people and the sheep. They have the same indifferent and alienated eyes. They remind Grossman of the war and of the Holocaust. He recalls all the bitterness of horrible events which have taken away lives of millions of Jews, among them his mother. Nothing can make him forget this. He is certain that it is with these alienated eyes the inhabitants of the ghetto had been looking on their cruel Nazi murderers. Reflecting on the cruelty of mankind, Grossman emphasizes the need for forgiveness:
Oh God, how desperately mankind needs to atone, to beg for forgiveness. How long mankind needs to beg the sheep for forgiveness, to beg sheep not to go on looking at them with a glassy gaze. (Grossman, 37)
There are no limitations for Grossman's humanity and kindness. Like a professional psychologist, he penetrates deep into the humans' souls, trying to decipher their inner thoughts and states of mind:
Attractive was not only Grossman's amazing artistic talent or his discernment that allowed him to comprehend the hidden meaning of the historical processes and the concealed pain of the human heart. Especially attractive was his moral charm and his wise humanity. (Lazarev, 21)
For Grossman, behind each person there are different destinies, joys and sufferings. Every person, everyone's destiny is interesting to this writer. Ordinary people become the main characters of his travelers' sketch.
Grossman wrote about simple people with great pleasure. It is in these people there is charm, sublimity and purity, sought by the human soul. "My love and trust in people increased exponentially. I had moved from the auditorium to the stage," the author wrote. In the Armenians specifically, he finds peculiar and unique people, who for centuries struggled for their freedom. The historical fate, spirit, and power of this small people fascinate Grossman with their diligence, perseverance and kindness. In fact, he calls the Armenians a "people-giant", noting that their work is witness to the courage and fearlessness of the people.
In his traveler's sketchbook, Grossman also devotes an entire separate chapter to Lake Sevan. He had a special talent for describing the scenic and bright nature of the lake. He accurately represented it through his own words and metaphors. Notably, the author is poetic but at the same time, not romantic. He is able to convey the beauty of the lake and express his feelings when he looks at its blue infinity. He sees a similarity between the sky and lake. It is like a piece of sky and it seems as if the birds of heaven should be flying under the lake's surface.
However, Grossman was not passionate about the beauty of the Lake Sevan. He just described what he saw during his journey. Reflecting on environmental concerns from the Soviet-era Sevan irrigation project (since discontinued), he asked a question with light irony—what would paint artists if Sevan dried up? In the end, the writer is a realist:
Nothing came of my meeting with Lake Sevan; it did not enter my soul. What is pure and divine in me did not get the upper hand. As if I were a base animal, with no wings of imagination, all I could think about was Sevan trout. (Grossman, 50)
The truth remains the truth, and the sincerity exposes the reader to the author. Instead of using the usual words in praise of the Sevan's turquoise blue waters—the subject of admiration of Armenians and other visitors—Grossman simply admits that he was interested only in the renowned Armenian trout. He recounts that he failed his parting meeting with the lake: all he could reflect on were the trout.
Lyrical digressions and philosophical interchanges accompany Grossman from beginning to end. From time to time, he addresses the theme of humanity and nature. He pondered the essence and meaning of life on Earth and the relationship between the individual and the surrounding world. He reflected on the beauty of life, which unfortunately not everyone is able to perceive and understand. According to the writer, in order for any pattern to become part of a human soul, it needs to be beautiful as well. Something wonderful and pure at that moment, must be in a human. It is like a shared love, a moment of connection, a meeting of a man and the world in which he is happy and unhappy.
Deep in his essay are Grossman's philosophical thoughts about earthly vanity, impermanence of imaginary forces of life and eternity of peoples’ existence, about the uniqueness of each person, his soul, in front of which the mystery of "all the drums and brass pipes of the state, the wisdom of history, the stones of monuments, the crying words and funeral prayers are contemptible". (Bocharov, 352)
Passing by steep roads on a clear winter day, the writer-philosopher surrenders to reflections on reclusion and suicide. What is suicide? Weakness? Despair? Escape? For Grossman there is no difference between reclusion and suicide. The writer was certain that, in the 20th century, reclusion is impossible since modern hermits do not live in deserts, caves or dark cloisters.
In Grossman's ponderings, we notice a slight hint at his frustration to the insensitivity of the suffering of others. This can be especially seen in his reflections and discussions on the problem of nationalism, which were edited from Soviet-era editions of his book. In fact, the entire fourth chapter, censored by Soviet authorities, is devoted to this subject. The writer-philosopher criticizes "narrow nationalism" and how, when "reactionaries promulgate nationalism, they try to destroy what people share at a deep level; they recognize only what people share at the most superficial level." (Grossman, 15)
For Grossman, a man who experienced terrible pain, and both a personal and national tragedy, he had the right to reproach all those who remained indifferent to the horrific deeds of evildoers; those who took it upon themselves to decide who should live and who should die. Later in the book, Grossman strongly condemns anti-Semitism and "black words about the nation martyred by Hitler." He expresses pain at the fact that contemporary "Soviet lecturers, propagandists, and ideological workers do not speak out against anti-Semitism, as did Korolenko, as did Gorky, as did Lenin." (Grossman, 113)
"After Hitler," wrote Grossman "it has become more important than ever to look at the question of nationalism—of nationalistic contempt and nationalistic arrogance." (Grossman, 14) He concludes that only by "renouncing the idea of their own national superiority" can all nationalities—Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks, and others—move forward and "truly affirm the grandeur and dignity of their own people." (Grossman, 18)
The most impressive part of this book is perhaps the final part—the wedding event, during which an intimate conversation about the deep sorrow and irrecoverable loss of the two peoples—Armenians and Jews—takes place. Even during the fun, people did not forget about the past, did not forget to honor the memory of the innocent victims of human abominations. An Armenian does not make a distinction between the 1915 Genocide and the Holocaust, between the Armenians and the Jews. They share a common tragic fate. Grossman was deeply touched and full of gratitude and wrote:
Never in my life have I bowed to the ground; I have never prostrated myself before anyone. Now, however, I bow to the ground before the Armenian peasants who, during the merriment of a village wedding, spoke publicly about the agony of the Jewish nation under Hitler, about the death camps where Nazis murdered Jewish women and children. I bow to everyone who, silently, sadly, and solemnly, listened to these speeches. Their eyes and faces told me a great deal. (Grossman, 113)
Two years after his trip to Armenia, the heavy seal of destiny affected his health and left its fatal mark. He died of an incurable disease—cancer. An Armenian Sketchbook was his final work. In it, the dying mood of the writer, not yet conscious, is felt. "The anxiety of the human soul is terrible, unquenchable," Grossman says. The author falls into an inexplicable agonizing condition. An unusual sense of loneliness embraces him; he feels lonely and helpless:
I was overcome by mortal anguish. The horror of dying, of the end of life, grew from second to second. There was a terrible sense of lightness about my body–except that it was no longer my body, my only true home, the home of my "I." (Grossman, 78)
Grossman makes philosophical reflections about the beauty of life, regardless of how unbearable it is. Life is still beautiful, and no matter how much people are tired of the world, they do not want to leave it.
All of this leads me to think that this world of contradictions, of typing errors, of passages that are too long and wordy, of arid deserts, of fools, of camp commandants, of mountain peaks colored by the evening sun is a beautiful world. If the world were not so beautiful, the anguish of a dying man would not be so terrible, so incomparably more terrible than any other experience. That is why I feel such emotion, why I weep or feel overjoyed when I read or look at the works of other people who have brought together through love the truth of the eternal world and the truth of their mortal "I." (Grossman, 80)
An Armenian Sketchbook is truly one of the most important works of Grossman, not only for Russian but also for Armenian literature. Further, in addition to this work representing Armenia and the Caucasus realistically to the world, it also provided a unique opportunity to the Armenian people to look at themselves from the outside. With a great responsibility, the writer accomplished this task.
Grossman was a profound thinker, describing the people and country of Armenia with fine sensitivity. He not only assumed the role of observer, but also stepped inside the Armenian reality and conducted his narrative from the bottomless depths of the soul of this proud Caucasus people. Most importantly, his representation was one grounded in reality. It did not romanticize the environment and landscape as an "Orient." Instead, Grossman's Caucasus is presented realistically as part of a greater human experience.
Writer and publicist Grossman acted first of all as a writer—a citizen, for whom it does not matter which peoples' history pages through which he browses. It was more important for him to show the era and a human—the main hero of the era—with his colors, shades, with all the flavor of everyday life, with numerous details, advantages and disadvantages, which form the essence of human existence on earth, its purpose.
It is basic humanity that is at the heart of his work. He disturbed the minds and hearts of readers, subtle and invisible strings, called with a simple word—conscience.
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