From Good Wishes (Dobro vam) by Vasily Grossman
The inner yard! What constitutes the soul, the inner kernel of Yerevan is not its churches or government buildings, not its train stations, not its theatre or concert hall, not its three-storey palace of a department store. No, what constitutes the soul of Yerevan is its inner courtyards. […] This is the city as a living organism, with the outer skin stripped away. This is where all of Eastern life can be seen: the tenderness of the heart, the peristalsis of the gut, the firing of synapses, the power of both blood kinship and the ties that link all who were born in the same town or village. Old men pray their rosaries and exchange leisurely smiles; children get up to no good; smoke rises from braziers; quince and peach preserves simmer in copper pans; washing tubs are lost in clouds of steam; green-eyed cats watch their mistresses plucking chickens. We are not far from Turkey. We are not far from Persia. […]
And so I go on building my own Yerevan. I grind, crush, absorb and inhale its basalt and its rose-coloured tufa, its asphalt and its cobble-stones, the glass of its shop windows, its monuments to Stalin and Lenin, its monuments to Abovyan1, Shaumyan2 and Charents3, its countless portraits of Anastas Mikoyan;4 I absorb and inhale faces, accents, the frenzied roar of cars being driven at speed by frenzied drivers. […]
Lord and creator, I wander through the streets of Yerevan; I build Yerevan in my own soul. Yerevan — this city that the Armenians tell me has existed for two thousand and seven hundred years; this city that was invaded by both Mongols and Persians; this city that was visited by Greek merchants and occupied by Paskevich's army;5 this city that, only three hours earlier, did not even exist at all.
But then this creator, this almighty ruler begins to feel anxious; he starts glancing around uneasily…
Who is there I can ask? Many of the people around me do not speak Russian — I feel shy, embarrassed to address them. The lord and master is tongue-tied. And so I enter a courtyard. But no — not a chance! This courtyard is nothing like our own deserted Russian yards — it is an Eastern courtyard, an Eastern inner yard, and I am immediately scrutinized by dozens of eyes! I quickly go back out onto the street. But very soon I go into another courtyard. My anxiety is growing — I am no longer pondering on how, in the East, the inner yard is the heart and soul of life. But it truly is the heart and soul of life — and so, once again, I go back out onto the street. What am I to do?
I rush headlong into a third courtyard — and am filled with despair. I see a web of little staircases and balconies, an old man sipping coffee from a little cup, a group of women who break off their conversation to look at me. I smile confusedly and turn back. Everywhere I look, there is life! What am I to do? By now, my thoughts have moved a long way from poetry. And then I come to a decision — I jump into a half-empty tram. For three kopeks I acquire a ticket. I sit myself down on the hard seat, and for a while I breathe more freely. No longer am I a lord and creator — I am the slave of a base desire. This desire controls me; it has power over my thoughts and my soul. It has fettered my proud brain. […]
Everything is new for me; I am seeing everything for the first time. But no longer is the creator's power of thought constructing the whole of Yerevan — its old quarters and its very newest quarters alike. The creator's thought is now obstinate — and it is at once both rigid and supple. How, in a given building, are the toilets arranged? The construction sites are still largely unmechanized and so there are large numbers of workers everywhere — just what I don't want. Behind every pile of bricks I will find people, people and still more people… But if I get out by the bridge and stand on top of the cliff, I might get dizzy. My blood pressure feels terribly high… But the torrent at the bottom of the gorge is white with foam; it looks very beautiful! […]
The tram has reached the end of the line, and no one has stopped me. I dash into some wasteland and find a safe place, out of sight among the ditches and scree… Happiness… Do I need to describe this feeling? For thousands of years poets and other writers have been striving to convey on paper the nature of happiness. All I will say here is that what I felt was not the proud happiness of a creator, the happiness of a thinker whose omnipotent mind has created its own unique and inimitable reality. It was a quiet happiness that is equally accessible to a sheep, a bull, a human being or a macaque. Need I have gone all the way to Mount Ararat to experience it?
1 Khachatur Abovyan (1809 -1848), a poet and educator seen as the father of modern Armenian literature, is best known for his novel Wounds of Armenia.
2 Stepan Georgievich Shaumyan (1878 — 1918) was an Armenian Bolshevik journalist and politician.
3 Yeghishe Charents (1897-1937) was an Armenian poet and revolutionary. He died in prison during the Great Terror.
4 Anastas Mikoyan (1895 -1978) was an Armenian Old Bolshevik who held high office throughout most of the Soviet era, under Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev.
5 Ivan Paskevich (1782 -1856), born in Ukraine, was an important general in the Tsarist army. His successes as Second-in-Command, and then Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces during the war with Persia (1826 -1828) included the liberation of most of Armenia from Persian rule.
Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler