Ian Thomson

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vasily Grossman - review

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An Armenian Sketchbook

Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler

MacLehose Press, pp. 221, £

Vasily Grossman, a Ukranian-born Jew, was a war correspondent for the Soviet army newspaper Red Star. His dispatches from the front between 1941 and 1945 combined emotional engagement with independent-minded commentary. A solitary, questioning spirit, Grossman set out always to document truthfully what he saw and heard. His report on the vile workings of the Treblinka death camp, ‘The Hell of Treblinka’, remains a masterpiece of controlled rage and unsparing lucidity.

Unsurprisingly, Grossman was mortified when the man who had prevented Hitler’s annihilation of Jewry was suddenly set on their extinction. In early 1953, Stalin announced in the pages of Pravda that a plot to murder Kremlin members had been unmasked among Jewish doctors and intellectuals. Jews like Grossman were now condemned as a self-regarding, supra-national sect, inimical to the interests of Mother Russia. It made no difference to Stalin that Grossman had fought courageously against Hitler; he was reduced to the status of a non-person. But worse was to come.

In 1960, Grossman’s great novel of Russia during the Hitler war, Life and Fate, was confiscated in typescript by the KGB. This was done at the height of the Khrushchev ‘thaw’, when a new political tolerance was supposedly in the air. Grossman’s crime had been to draw parallels between Nazism and Soviet Communism. The Hitler and Stalin regimes (as Trotsky had pointed out as long ago as 1936) were totalitarian twins that bore a ‘deadly similarity’. Grossman had been dead for 24 years when, in 1988, Life and Fate was finally published in the Soviet Union.

An Armenian Sketchbook displays all the humanity and candour of Grossman’s Red Star journalism, but with a difference. Grossman was in the early stages of cancer when he wrote the book in 1962 and the prose has acquired a death-haunted tone. In Soviet Armenia the Moscow authorities had hoped that Grossman would meet new people, consume lots of cognac and life-giving pomegranates and, most important, forget about the censorship inflicted on Life and Fate. But Grossman had taken ten long years to write his epic, Tolstoyan novel; whatever else it might be, An Armenian Sketchbook was hardly going to be a paean to Soviet idealism.

Instead, the book is Grossman’s attempt to give his life and politics meaning and justification. Beneath the hawk-eyed observations on Armenian religion and the Turkish genocide of Armenians is an old-fashioned belief in ‘human dignity and human freedom’. When Ottoman officials had stood by as Kurds bestially slaughtered Armenian Christians in present-day Turkey in 1915, a new age of atrocity had got under way, from which it was a short step to Hitler and Stalin, Grossman believed.

In the ancient Armenian capital of Ani (now in Turkey), images of Christ can be seen in abandoned churches with their eyes drilled out. The persecution of minority peoples by a superior power was anathema to the tolerant-minded Grossman. In the course of his two-month tour of Armenia he encountered a 75-year-old man who had ‘lost his mind during the genocide’, when his family was murdered before his eyes.

Along the way, Grossman reports on the anti-Stalinist sentiments he encounters. The dictator is ‘an ignoramus, a boaster, an upstart’, Armenians tell him. Not surprisingly, given its anti-Soviet animus, An Armenian Sketchbook was bowdlerised on its posthumous publication in the Soviet Union in 1965. All references to nationalism, anti-Semitism and Stalin were removed; Khrushchev had been deposed, and any talk against Stalin was no longer acceptable. The book was not published in Russian in its entirety until the late 1980s; Robert Chandler (who translated Life and Fate) has rendered it into exquisite English with the help of his wife Elizabeth. The result is a book wonderful in every way.