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The Secret of Nationalism: Vasily Grossman's Armenian Sketchbook

In 1962, the great novelist of the USSR took a fateful trip to Armenia. This is the story of what he discovered.

May 16, 2017  |  by Liel Leibovitz

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Vasily Grossman reporting for Krasnaya Zvezda ("The Red Star") in Schwerin, Germany in 1945.

The Vasily Grossman boarding the train from Moscow to Yerevan in 1962 was not a happy man. A year earlier, Soviet censors had blocked the publication of Life and Fate, a heartbreaking epic of the battle of Stalingrad. It was a masterpiece, but one suggesting that the Great Patriotic War was no more than a bitter struggle between two repressive totalitarian regimes, Nazism and Stalinism, each just as ruinous as the other and both equally at odds with humanity. Three KGB officers had raided Grossman’s apartment, confiscating not only his manuscript but also his typewriter ribbons and carbon copy sheets.


Seeing his life’s work locked up deeply unsettled Grossman. Desperate, he appealed directly to the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “I am physically free, but the book to which I have dedicated my life is in jail,” he wrote to Nikita Khrushchev. “But it is I who wrote it, and I have not repudiated and am not repudiating it… I continue to believe that I have written the truth and that I wrote it loving, empathizing with, and believing in the people. I ask for freedom for my book.”

Freedom was not an option, but a free trip was. As a consolation prize, Grossman was offered a train ticket to Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, and a commission to adapt a novel by the Armenian writer Hrachya Kochar, The Children of the Large House. Grossman realized the commission was busywork; a Russian adaptation of that same novel had been published five years earlier. Still, short on cash and low in spirit, Grossman accepted the offer. He did not know that after a few months in Armenia, he would write another book. It would be titled Dobro Vam – the Russian translation of the Armenian greeting barev dzez – literally good to you. It would be his last. And Soviet authorities would again censor it, waiting until Grossman died of stomach cancer in 1964 to publish his final testament with entire chapters missing.

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Armenian Sketchbook, the 2013 republication translated into English by Robert Chandler, restores Grossman’s complete journey in its original, uncensored form, and gives us a glimpse into a master at his best. The book is short, but it contains multitudes, lending the same weight of moral urgency to the author’s observations of life in the Armenian countryside as it does to his frequent — and hilarious — attempts to find a public restroom and relieve himself of unbearable urges. Any author as attentive to the bladder as he is to the heart is always a pleasure to read. Still, the author’s mood is troubled, and even Armenia’s beauties can’t cure him of his malaise.


What strikes Grossman from the beginning, what offends his cosmopolitan spirit, is the nationalism he encounters everywhere he goes. All around Yerevan, perfectly intelligent men and women speak of their great mountain Ararat, where Noah’s Ark landed, and boast of Armenia’s poets and architects as being history’s finest. The praise they again and again heap on their nation and its native sons drives Grossman to mount his defense, a full-throated hymn of universal brotherhood:


“What matters is the need to move from the rigidity of national stereotypes towards something more truly human; what matters is to discover the riches of human hearts and souls; what matters is the human content of poetry and science, the universal charm and beauty of architecture; what matters is human courage and nobility….” And so on. 


It’s not too hard to understand why the Jewish intellectual who had been one of the first eyewitnesses to the Holocaust — his article, The Hell of Treblinka, was filed as evidence by the prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials — would find all forms of national pride troublesome. Considering the atrocities committed in the name of Hitler’s toxic ideology, wasn’t a categorical rejection of nationalism called for? And wasn’t the best antidote to benighted chauvinism the sweeping and benevolent spirit of universal brotherhood?


Grossman’s mind may insist on one answer. But his eyes, the all-seeing eyes of a great novelist, contemplate another. 

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Vasily Grossman in Garni, Armenia, 1962.

It begins with a seventy-five-year-old layabout named Andreas. A faithful soldier of General Andranik, Andreas never stopped fighting the good war. He was not one for life’s workaday tragedies; he beat his wife routinely, but when she died he refused to bury her. “He kept on embracing her,” Grossman writes, “kissing her, trying to sit his dear dead friend at the table, to give her something to eat. Nobody dared say anything to the old madman who refused to believe that his wife was dead.”


When his village finally decides to remove the gilded statue of Stalin that had towered over its square for decades, Andreas’s refusal to believe turns violent, and he attacks anyone attempting to tear the bronzed tyrant from the ground. Grossman immediately understands why: decades earlier, Andreas had seen the Turks murder his family and raze his home. And in his mind, “Stalin was the man who had defeated the Germans. And the Germans were the Turks’ allies. It followed that the statue of Stalin had been destroyed by Turkish agents. And the Turks had killed Armenian women and children.”


The howling mad peasant touches the sophisticated Muscovite to the core, and the reason for that, one senses, has more to it than mere human empathy. Grossman never pities Andreas the way a lesser writer might. He understands that even though the man’s logic may seem convoluted when handled by the cold hand of reason, it is profoundly true and entirely sensible. Andreas’s reasoning is predicated on a simple equation: the Turks murdered my people; their friends are my enemies, and their enemies are my friends. Cosmopolitanism of the sort practiced by celebrated writers in the Soviet capital has no patience for such primitive distinctions. And yet Grossman can’t resist; he knows Andreas is more right than wrong.


And how could he not? Like Andreas, Grossman, too, had seen his people slaughtered, not only by the Nazis in Poland and the Ukraine and elsewhere across Europe but also in Russia, where Stalin had sent thousands of Jews to their deaths after gruesome show trials. Many of these victims, Grossman knew, had insisted right until the moment of their demise that they were not Jews but, first and foremost, loyal citizens of their respective nations. The Jewish doctors and poets and merchants purged by Stalin often perished with their belief in cosmopolitanism’s virtues intact.


But Grossman was sharper. An excellent barometer of human emotions, he could tell, even if he was loathe to admit it, that people understood themselves predominantly as members of groups, and that groups understood themselves predominantly in relation to the specific lands from which they hailed. Without that specific mountain and that specific lake and that specific tradition, without roots, all human experiences are interchangeable, which is to say they’re all equally meaningless. What is brotherhood, after all, without blood brothers? The story of Grossman’s travels in Armenia is the story of his coming to terms with this complicated but essential idea.


Here he is, for example, midway through the book, recounting a story he’d heard about two families, fording the Arax river in the middle of a dark night toward their ancestral Armenia. “The men set off first,” Grossman writes. “The water was up to their chests and the powerful current pressed against them, making them lose their footing. The water howled and roared; round stones slipped and slid soundlessly under their feet, not wanting to bear their weight. The swift water seemed black and terrible, like death.” When the families finally make it to the other side, undetected by the Turkish soldiers guarding the river, they kiss the ground and weep. One man whistles, and Armenian border guards soon appear, bringing the refugees dry clothes and welcoming them back home.


It’s a dramatic scene, but it’s one that resonates with Jews in particular, for whom so much of modern history has been about the perilous journey back to the historic homeland. George Eliot placed this nationalist yearning at the fore of her Daniel Deronda, the great proto-Zionist novel, written two decades before Theodor Herzl launched the movement that would eventually bring about the rebirth of the Jewish State after millennia in exile. “A human life, I think,” Eliot’s narrator muses, “should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of earth, for the labors men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.”


These sweet habits are everywhere in evidence in Armenia. The men and women Grossman meets aren’t entertaining ideas or espousing ideologies—they’re living out national traditions that are as ancient and immovable as the rocks that constantly catch his urban eye. They are rooted, and he, a Wandering Jew, does his best to tell himself that he’s more evolved than these people, more intelligent, in possession of some modern truth that the rubes selling trout by Lake Sevan can’t possibly grasp.


By the book’s end, he recognizes his mistake.


He’s attending a wedding in a small village, sitting on a board laid atop empty crates in a small clubhouse thick with smoke. He is surprised that so few of the speeches given are about the bride and the groom, and so many are about Armenia and its glories. Then a thin, old man in a soldier’s tunic gets up to speak, and Grossman quickly realizes that it’s him the man is addressing. Someone translates the speech: The man “was talking about the Jews, saying that when he was taken prisoner during the war he had seen all the Jews being taken away somewhere separate. All his Jewish comrades had been killed. He spoke of the compassion and love he felt for the Jewish women and children who had perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He said how he had read articles of mine about the war, with portrayals of Armenians, and had thought how this man writing about Armenians was from a nation that had also suffered a great deal. He hoped that it would not be long before a son of the much-suffering Armenian nation wrote about the Jews. To this he now raised his glass.”


Everyone in the small room rises to their feet. They all give toasts, speaking of the twin genocides that bind them to the visitor from Moscow. And Grossman sees nationalism as what it truly is, or at least ought to be, not a grand divide but a bridge between cultures, each proud of its heritage and each eager to reach out and share with the other not only their similarities but also their differences. It’s far more complex a vision than the Soviet insistence on the brotherhood of men, which, more often than not, turned out to be little but a serene mask hiding the hideous face of bigotry, persecution, and murder. “To the end of my life,” Grossman observes in the book’s final page, “I will remember the speeches I heard in this village club.”


From his Armenian hosts, the Jewish intellectual learns the secret beauty of nationalism, an old idea that insists that real diversity and equity and empathy can only bloom if rooted in the specific soil of a specific homeland, a specific religion, a specific set of traditions and beliefs. Like so many in our contemporary educated classes, he boards the train to Yerevan assuming that only boors believe the nationalist creed. His journey takes him to different conclusions. Readers hoping to understand a little better the rise of Donald Trump, say, or the British exit from the European Union, or the specters haunting nearly every political contest nearly everywhere in the world these days, would do well to go along for the ride.


Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and the author of several books, including A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen.

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