An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman: Far from his beloved Moscow, reflecting on the best and worst of humanity

As he connects with Armenian peasants, we are reminded that this ill, suffering man, far from home, is one of the great writers of his time.

In February 1961, KGB officers raided Vasily Grossman’s apartment. They were looking for his unpublished novel Life and Fate. They seized the manuscript, his notes and even the ribbon from his typewriter. But friends had already taken a copy away. It was smuggled to the west and is now widely regarded as one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature.
 
After the raid, Grossman went to Armenia for two months. It is not altogether clear why. He was in the early stages of cancer and his marriage was in trouble. He had a commission to translate an Armenian novel into Russian and presumably he wanted to get away from Moscow. His account of his time there was published posthumously in 1965 in censored form. A complete version is now available for the first time in translation.
 
An Armenian Sketchbook shows Grossman at the end of his life, far from his beloved Moscow, reflecting on the best and worst of humanity. One of the first things that strikes himin Armenia’s capital, Yerevan, is the huge statue of Stalin. “No matter where you are in the city,” he writes, “you can clearly see the titanic bronze marshal.” It is a monument to “the merciless builder of a great and terrible state”. Grossman was writing during the Khrushchev thaw and he is able to discuss crimes such as the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust, but also the Gulag.
 
He encounters an old Armenian whose father “was buried in Siberia, nobody knows where”. Later, he meets “a sweet, asthmatic old man” who was sent to a Siberian camp for 19 years. He then relates his aunt’s life story. “Her husband, an economist, was arrested for no reason in 1937 and died in Kolyma.” Her son, Volodya, “was arrested and then killed in prison by his interrogator”. This is the dark background to Grossman’s extraordinary travelogue. He writes beautifully about the ancient churches and monasteries, the harsh landscapes, the peasant food. He is fascinated by “the spirit of paganism” that lives on in the tiny hillside villages, “in drunken songs and stories from the past”.
 
Grossman starts by reflecting on how different everything is. He reflects on national types. What are Armenians like? He notes how bleak the landscape appears. Then he goes into a small village hut and sees a stove and suddenly he realises that this stove is like every other stove he has seen all over the Soviet Union. He is 3,000 kilometres from Moscow and yet he is “back in village Russia”: “Here in Armenia, I witnessed the extraordinary steadfastness of the Russian stove, the Russian hut, the Russian porch . . .”
 
Then Grossman listens to the peasants and realises how much he has in common with them as they talk about “love for other people, right and wrong, good and evil, faith and lack of faith”. It is not just that Grossman the translator and bespectacled Jewish outsider is at home with these people. He also connects through the values at the heart of his writing. Here, close to Mount Ararat, are people who believe in the very things that animate his novels – decency, compassion, humanity.
 
An Armenian Sketchbook ends with a village wedding. Amid the remote, “stony desolation”, the author feels at home. When a villager proposes a toast to the Jews killed by the Nazis Grossman is tremendously moved. The outsider feels that he belongs. As he connects with these peasants, his writing comes to life and we are reminded that this ill, suffering man, far from home, is one of the great writers of his time, and that these values are at the heart of his greatness. 
An Armenian mother and child from New Malatia, a suburb of the Armenian capital, circa 1955. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

Photo: Getty
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Toys R Us defined my childhood – 6 of the toys I won't forget

Memories of a now-struggling toy shop. 

For my family, visits to Toys R Us usually took place around Christmas time. Since it was invariably freezing, this first meant being wrapped up by fussy parents in the cheapest and scratchiest of woolly hats, gloves and scarves. 

My Toys R Us was on Old Kent Road in south east London. It has a stupidly big car park, and was opposite a sofa-store which changed its name every few years. 

The store itself was as well-lit as a supermarket, but instead of cabbages, the shelves were lined with colourfully-packaged toys. 

On a street with few constants, Toys R Us has remained ever present. Now, though, the firm is filing for bankruptcy in the US and Canada. UK branches will not be affected for now, but the trends behind its demise are international - the growth of online retailers at the expense of traditional toyshops. 

Each year at Toys R Us is different as each is defined by a different set of best-sellers - the toys which defined my childhood are unlikely to define yours.  

Here is a retrospective catalogue of my Toys (and yes, they deserve capitalisation):

1. Beyblades

Perhaps my most treasured toy. Beyblades were in essence glorified spinning tops. 

The hit TV show about them however, made them anything but. 

On the show, teenagers would battle their spinning tops, which for some reason were possessed by ancient magical monsters, against each other. 

These battles on TV would last for multiple (surprisingly emotional) episode arcs. Alas, in the real world battles with friends would be scuppered by the laws of physics and last no longer than 30 seconds. 

Not so with the remote-controlled Beyblade. An electric motor provided an extra minute or so of flight time. 

It was wild. 

2. Furbies

At aged eight years old, I thought Furbies were stupid. I was wise beyond my years.

3. Barbies

Trips to Toys R Us inevitably also meant buying something for my younger sister. I would choose the ugliest looking doll from the shelves to annoy her. She was always annoyed.

4. Talking Buzz Lightyear

A toy which I will always remember as it led me to the epiphany that Santa Claus wasn't real. How did I figure it out? The Christmas tag was written by someone who had the distinctive handwriting of my father. I for one, am not looking forward to Toy Story 4. 

5. Yu-Gi-Oh Cards 

Yu-Gi-Oh was a card game about magical monsters that actually required a lot of strategy. It was cool to like them for a bit. Then we quickly realised that those who were actually good at the game were the losers and should be made fun of.

I was one of those losers. 

6. Tamagotchi

The first birthday present I ever bought my sister (with my hard earned birthday money, no less). She didn't care for it. Who did?

As much as all these playthings, Toys R Us itself has defined a specific part of childhood for millions. But for those growing up in the US however, that may not be the case any longer.