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 They were looking for his unpublished novel Life and Fate.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

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage