I’m Familiar with These Places

Adham Smart is a writer and translator from London and an eternal student of Western Armenian. He was three times a winner of the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including The Rialto, And Other Poems, The Missing Slate, The ISIS, and The Salt Book of Younger Poets. His first book of poetry, yes yes mouth, is published by Valley Press.

Hello, It's Me! (1966)

The physicist Artem Manvelyan stands for a moment in the shadow of the eleventh century Vahramashen Church, the slopes and plains surrounding Mount Aragats stretching away beneath his feet. “Էս տեղերին ծանօթ եմ,” he says – I’m familiar with these places – and continues on his surefooted way.

These words, which echo and upend a line from poet Avetik Isahakyan’s Bingyol, in which a lamenting lover in unknown territory asks for directions, are those of a scientist who has explored the fabric of the universe using the technical instruments housed at his research station a few kilometres up the mountain. In more than one way, he knows where he is; the ancient church and next-door fortress of Amberd are his neighbours at the Aragats Cosmic Ray Research Station (set up by the real-life Armenian scientist Artem Alikhanian on whom Manvelyan is based), the local landscape has been a test site for his thoughts, but he also understands his place as a collection of atoms in a cosmos which he is making knowable through his work.

However, money and interest for intellectual study are scarce until it is useful in war; or, to be less cynical, war is a greedy god; and states, bewildered and scared, pour libations of cash into disciplines they think might make it go away. Once the god is fed, the money dries up. Though we see the research station become a celebrated pin on the map of Soviet Armenia, it is constantly under threat, only receiving the funding it needs when developments in nuclear warfare panic the world into studying the nature of reality as a means of extermination. The lab’s current status here in the real world is much the same – uncertain as a result of underfunding in an era where stargazing is increasingly a tycoon’s pastime.

There are many satisfying instances of cinematic geometry: three men symmetrically donning their jackets after a game of football; two men walking through Yerevan, shading their eyes against the sun; the flight of the camera over a forest canopy which tessellates into the chequerboard skeleton of a dilapidated roof, under which Manvelyan and his wife Lyusya lie in each other’s arms, looking up into space. The film is laced with patterns like these, just as the physical world is an ever-changing tapestry woven out of the same few particles obeying the basic rules of their interactions.

One of the most seductive aspects of Soviet presentation of itself is the way that science and art are seen as equally valuable. In the hazy light of the nuclear age, which dawns halfway through the film, after the destruction of Hiroshima and the end of the war, the now popular research station is descended upon by a crowd of fans. A young woman engages Manvelyan in conversation, and when he says he does not care for poetry, she seems affronted: “Everyone’s interested in the problems of physics and poetry, no?” Otherwise, why would Manvelyan have chosen Mount Aragats as the location of his lab, a mountain exalted by none other than Avetik Isahakyan? I’m familiar with these places – the poetry of the cosmos is one and the same as the poetry of the earth.

Watch Under Soviet Skies on Klassiki from 25 May to 1 June