Armenia is a stony country, and one of the arts in which Armenians have most excelled is architecture. Few places illustrate this better than the monastery of Geghard, where two of the three adjacent churches have – literally – been gouged out of the mountainside. In one there is a spring. The water forms a large pool in a corner, then streams down a shallow channel across the centre of the church. Stone, of course, is everywhere – rough and smooth, plain and exuberantly carved.
Last October, I attended Sunday mass in the third of these churches, which stands just clear of the mountainside. A tall narrow window on the southern wall let in a slanting band of almost solid sunlight. Standing in the raised east end, close to the altar, were six priests, four wearing blue robes, one in white and gold, and one, a novice, in black. Sometimes they faced the altar, sometimes the congregation. The acoustics of this small, squat building, with its rounded apses and dome, were so perfect that their voices sounded equally strong no matter which way they were facing. Their singing was deep, rhythmic and powerful. My guide explained that the priests sing only in Old Armenian. Recent attempts to introduce modern Armenian have been rejected; the fit between the old words and the music is perfect, and too valuable to sacrifice.
I had gone to Armenia because I was translating An Armenian Sketchbook, a memoir by Vasily Grossman about the two months he spent there in late 1961. He too had been impressed by the medieval churches. And like me, he had gone to Armenia to work on a translation; he had been commissioned to edit a clumsy literal version of The Children of the Large House, a long novel about the second world war by an established Armenian writer, Hrachya Kochar. That, at least, was the official reason; the real reasons were more complex.
In February that year the KGB had confiscated Grossman’s typescripts of Life and Fate, his own long novel about the war. In it he had broken several taboos. He had drawn a direct parallel between Soviet and Nazi concentration camps; he had argued that Stalin and Hitler had learnt from each other and that their regimes were mirror images. Grossman had even written of Stalin “snatching the sword of anti-Semitism from Hitler’s hands”. Much of this remains controversial even today, even in the west. Few Soviet citizens thought, let alone wrote, such things in 1961. There is no surprise in the fact that the novel should have been “arrested”, as Grossman always put it.
Grossman had entrusted two copies to friends, but he could not be sure these were safe. His marriage was breaking down. He was suffering from cancer, though this had yet to be diagnosed. His letters give the impression that he was in financial need. There were reasons for him to want to get away from his everyday life.
The Soviet authorities, for their part, had reasons to want Grossman out of the way. By commissioning him to edit this Armenian novel they were probably trying to buy him off, to compensate him – at least financially – for the non-publication of Life and Fate, and so lessen the danger of his contacting foreign journalists or sending manuscripts abroad. Three years earlier, the authorities had miscalculated disastrously after Boris Pasternak published Doctor Zhivago in Italy. By forcing Pasternak to decline the Nobel Prize in Literature, they brought Doctor Zhivago so much publicity that it topped the New York Times bestseller list for six months. The authorities evidently learnt from this. The low-key approach they took with Grossman was, in fact, so successful that a Russian text of Life and Fate did not appear, even in the west, until as late as 1980. And although my English translation was published in 1985, it took another 20 years for Grossman to win recognition in the anglophone world. Without an international political scandal it was, sadly, almost impossible for a Soviet writer to be taken seriously in the west. Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn are both famous; two still greater writers, Andrey Platonov and Varlam Shalamov, remain relatively little known to this day.