“The first thing I saw in Armenia was stone; and what I took away when I left was a memory of stone… And what best expresses the soul of Armenia is neither the deep blue of Lake Sevan nor the peach orchards and vineyards of the Ararat valley; what expresses the soul of Armenia is stone.”
These words come from An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman (1998) translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler (Maclehose Press, 2013). Grossman (photo left) visited the country in 1961, but his affectionate portrait says much about a country fully “half as old as time”. The passage quoted continues:
“There is no beginning or end to this stone. There it lies – flat and thick on the ground. There is no escape from it. It is as if countless stonecutters have been at work – thousands, tens of thousands, millions of stonecutters, working day and night for years on end, for centuries, for millennia. They must have used wedges and hammers to dismantle huge mountains. They must have smashed them into splinters – splinters they could use to build huts, temples or the walls of fortresses. From what they left behind in this vast quarry you could make a mountain so high that the snow on its peaks would never melt.”
Twenty-five million years ago, a geological upheaval formed the Armenian Plateau, creating the rough topography of modern Armenia. The Lesser Caucasus range extends through northern Armenia, runs southeast between beautiful Lake Sevan and Azerbaijan, then passes roughly along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border to Iran. Geological turmoil continues today in the form of devastating earthquakes. In December 1988, the second largest city in the republic, Gyumri, was seriously damaged by a massive quake that killed more than 25,000 people.
As if natural rock and stone were not enough, near the city of Sisian in Syunik province stands Zorats Karer (also called Karahunj or Carahunge), an ancient archaeological site that includes some 220 large stone tombs. Some think that Zorats Karer might be an Armenian Stonehenge and was used as an ancient observatory. Others have concluded that it was a necropolis dating back to the Middle Bronze or Iron Age. Whatever one believes, stone is in the nature of Armenia.
Vassily Grossman (1905-64) was a Ukrainian Jew who spent most of World War II reporting from the front lines with a humanity and attention to detail that defied the Soviet censors. His masterpiece, the epic novel Life and Fate, pitted communism against fascism, but came down on the side of human kindness.
Written in early 1962, An Armenian Sketchbook was Grossman’s response to political persecution, expressing what he held dearest in art and life. It describes a visit he made in order to rewrite a literal translation into Russian of a long Armenian war novel, The Children of the Large House by Hrachaya Kochar. Grossman saw his trip as a means of temporarily escaping from Moscow and of earning money after publication of Life and Fate had been refused by the Soviet authorities.
Not speaking a word of Armenian, Grossman sets off to explore. He strolls through the squares and inner courtyards of the capital city, Yerevan, visits monasteries in the countryside and marvels at the beauty of Mount Aragats and Mount Ararat. The stoniness of the landscape fascinates him and he seems to equate it with a certain rugged endurance in the national character, a theme on which the book dwells at length. At the same time he is keenly aware that defining national traits in this way easily becomes a pretext for the kind of totalitarian abuse he was bitterly and personally familiar with from Stalin’s Great Repression and the Second World War.
Attending an Armenian village wedding, he glimpses the snow-clad peak of Greater Ararat shining in the distance. “From its stone foot to its white head it was lit by the morning sun. It belonged to today; and to the life of past millennia. It brought together today’s wedding and the flutes of three thousand years ago. Everything passes; nothing passes…” But everything changes. A great book to take on a visit.