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The Critical Corner - 10/10/2005

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YEGHISHE CHARENTS: POET OF LIFE AS PERMANENT REVOLUTION

PART TWO: On the sober gentlemen of Armenian nationalism
[ Review PART I | Go to PART III ]


By Eddie Arnavoudian


Yeghishe Charents came of age in an era of mass slaughter, of World
War I and the Armenian genocide. By the time he was 21 the Young Turk
government had murdered one and a half million Armenians and emptied
western Armenia of all its indigenous Armenian population. Of Armenia
there remained only a rump in its eastern sector, a tiny stretch of
arid rock upon which was founded the first independent Armenian state
for some 600 years. Presiding over this entity was a government too
weak to minister even to the most minimal needs of its exhausted
population, let alone mount any effective resistance to a Turkish
offensive designed to forever delete Armenia from the maps the world.
For Charents all this was an expression of imperialist, Ottoman and
Tsarist barbarism. But it was as well incontrovertible evidence of the
failure of Armenian nationalist leadership, failure to protect the
Armenian people and secure their genuine emancipation.

Charents's `At the Crossroads of History', `Vision of Death', `Address
to the ARF', `The General Vartan Armoured Train' and other poems that
appear in his last two published volumes ` `Epic Dawn (1930) and `Book
of the Road' (1933) - form together a late and controversial settling
of accounts with at least the leadership of the modern Armenian
nationalist movement. In some explosive poetry this leadership is
dismissed as not having a single redeeming feature and is judged to
have been an utter disaster for the ordinary Armenian people. It is
shown to have organised not a struggle for national revival but
something that became a procession of death and annihilation that was
halted only by the rise of Soviet power.  All this, it is perhaps
worth reiterating, did not of course amount to a rejection by Charents
of patriotism and his love of his homeland and its culture.

From an artistic point of view these poems are not always satisfactory.
But the best ones and the better portions of the lesser ones are
touched by a thundering and tortured imaginative power. With searing
images of national tragedy, surreal metaphors of grotesquely distorted
and collapsed individual and national endeavour, as well as with
majestic expressions of human potential and visions of social recovery
they take on a broader human significance registering universal
oppositions between slavery and freedom, defeat and triumph.

There are of course other commentators who, resting on the very same
volumes, claim them as expressions of Charents's welcome return to a
better, nationalist and creative self, or as evidence of his
abandonment of communism in favour of the national tradition he had
rejected in his younger days. Literary critic and novelist Boghos
Snabian for example approvingly quotes Gostan Zarian who writes that
the Bolshevik Charents merely `followed blindly, without thought,
without doubts, without analysis&' Charents's `originality and
intellectual sensibility' Snabian continues begins to make an
appearance `only in the 1930s.' With `Epic Dawn' Charents `Let go of
the masses, of everything to do with the masses. He gave his vote to
solitude, to the heights at the end of stony paths, to optimistic
wisdom and its patriotic light. He burnt old songs and wrote new
burning songs for which others burnt him.'

Literary or aesthetic consideration of Charents's poetry cannot avoid
reference to these and related questions of national history and
politics. They are integral to his art and to the hopes this art
expresses for the future of the people of Armenia.


I. RETURN TO AN INFERNAL PAST

In the early 1930s public life in Armenia, and the Soviet Union, was
becoming dangerously fraught with the consolidation of Stalinism.
Yeghishe Charents was himself forced to wage a rearguard battle
against increasingly vicious vilification from literary and political
opponents. It was at this point that he chose to once again engage
with issues of modern Armenian history. Among the results was `Vision
of Death', Charents's longest poem of 744 lines that treats of
proclaimed ambitions and actual results in the record of Armenian
nationalist history from the mid-19th century into the beginning of
the 20th. But this is not an investigative or analytical poem. It only
describes in shocking, anguished and tortured terms, a surreal and
gruesome trip into the nation's historical past, a past that appears
now as a netherworld of burnt and charred trees populated by the
living dead suffering the disastrous failure of their national
ambitions.

Charents gives little indication of why he decided to embark on this
particular poetic journey into Armenian history. But from the outset
it is evident that he did not do so in search of inspiration that
could help him formulate responses to the mounting troubles and
dangers he anticipated for himself and the people of Soviet Armenia.

`Vision of Death' opens with a positive reaffirmation of Charents's
confidence and faith in the present and future of Soviet Armenia. As
he prepares to `cast his glance backward' Charents does so `sat
astride the steed of the future'. The `foaming river of blood' that he
has to cross to begin his journey `separates a bitter past' from his
own `bright present'.  In fact Charents even knows the results of his
journey in advance. Here he expects to find nothing positive, nothing
that might challenge or undermine his Bolshevik convictions or his
negative judgement of the nationalist leadership. At the outset
feeling the need for a companion from the pantheon of classical poetry
he bypasses Homer who is skilled in `singing the death of heroes' with
`easy heart, as if a children's tale'. He does not select the `heroic
and barbarian Virgil' who records `Latin glories'. Instead from `the
grim middle ages' Charents invites Dante, the author of `The Inferno'.
Only this `tortured genius' whose face is etched by `untold suffering'
can be adequate witness to a history where there is `no mountain of
courage' and where there is no `promise of any glorious summit'. Dante
alone is equipped to depict the `painful, corrupted, dim and
desiccated' vista they will come upon. He alone can put to words the
`terrifying and absurd' results of recent Armenian history.

As the poets enter this world of the dead they encounter many, though,
and it is important to bear this in mind, not all, of the most
prominent cultural, intellectual and political protagonists of the
Armenian national revival and the Armenian national liberation
movement. Among figures who personify different moments of Armenian
cultural renaissance and political organisation they meet poet and
historian Gevond Alishan, novelist and thinker Raffi, nationalist poet
Rafael Badganian, activist Stepanos Nazariants, the three founders of
the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (AR) Kristapor Mikaelian, Rosdom
and Simon Zavarian, poets, playwrites and activists Bedros Turian and
Mkrtich Beshigtashlian, journalist and editor Krikor Ardzrouni, the
Armenian Church and political leader Khrimian Hayrig, prominent ARF
intellectual, politician and novelist Avedis Aharonian, two major
revolutionary poets of the early 20th century Siamanto and Daniel
Varoujean as well of the mass of Armenian people who walk the path
fashioned by these protagonists.

With each successive encounter it becomes apparent that the movement
they together generate is not a liberation movement but a ghastly
procession of Blood and Death that is winding its way to a hilltop
upon which burns the all-consuming fire of the 1915 Genocide and World
War One.

At the very centre of the infernal flame at the top of the hill,
sitting `upon a gold throne' is a `mighty Lord that has no defined
form' but who is variously a figure `gripping in his fist' a `small
tricolour flag', `a wolf-head priest in a black robe' and then as a
sequence of apparitions suggestive of moneyed classes, Ottoman power
or the essence of corruption.  The power of this ghastly procession is
overwhelming and draws into its wake potentially life-affirming
geniuses such as Siamanto and Daniel Varoujean. It is their presence
that compels Dante to speak for the first time. His remarks underline
the poem's critical depiction of the nationalist movement. Dante
comments not on the tragedy of their brutal murder but on that of
their misdirected genius:

    `Oh you sad and pitiful troubadours, scapegoats of a barbarous life
    Uttered the Teacher suddenly, turning to their shadow
    You had been called upon to become lighthouses of Light and Joy
    But your blazing hearts you brought as sacrifice to that Lie.' (p258)

These two poets:

    `Had the power to enjoy spiritual joy, to grow with thought and reason
    In the garden of Poetry and Thought.
    In this procession dark and vicious is there a greater victim 
    Than your fiery genius served upon this alter filthy and profane.'
    (258-259 


II. VISIONS OF A BURNT OUT DREAM

`Vision of Death' is unrelentingly grim and even hostile in its
characterisation of the nationalist movement - `that Lie', `this altar
filthy and profane'. But with one exception Charents never shows scorn
or disdain for the protagonists and their dreams and ambitions. The
legitimacy of their effort is affirmed by depictions of the barbarism
of Ottoman tyranny and their integrity and dedication is never called
into question. Ghevond Alishan is shown telling proudly of his efforts
to unearth from beneath the dust of time the classical glories of
Armenian history so as to put them to the service of the oppressed
people's emancipation:

    `My lyre I used, to call them to battle, in the name of the past
    I urged them to rise and shake of the barbarous dust
    I called on them to be deserving of our ancestors' glories
    And lit the lanterns of the past as lighthouses for a new salvation.' 
    (Vol. 4, p229)

Ghevond dies with his `heart at peace' his `lyre in his hands to the
very end.' He is contented for he has seen how his song:

    `Raise to their feet a whole generation of brave young men
    Who emerged from the dust of servitude to fight for the motherland.'

Others whom Charents and Dante meet are shown to be inspired by the
same admirable enthusiasms. Novelist Raffi throughout his life `bent
and blew over a fire' he lit `with his own frail hands'. His novels
`inspired generations' as they `spread sparks and burning dreams in
our dark motherland.' (p232). Rafael Badganian with his `wild and
curly hair', `his proud and intelligent look' `trumpeted struggle and
battle with his copper trumpet. Even Kristapor Mikaelian, founder of
the ARF that Charents politically rejected, is depicted as a
courageous, dedicated and determined man driven by honourable
ideals. Charents listens to Mikaelian explaining:

    `In my life hesitation and fear were to me unknown
    I recruited a vast army of braves from our men
    And on our black flag inscribed `Fatherland or Death'.

For

    In our own promised land oppression reigned.
    And brave men returned there 
    To clear away insult and tears from peoples' faces

But fired as they were by just ambition these figures are now all
horribly distorted and maimed by the eternal anguish and humiliation
of utter political and historic failure. Alishan may have died at
peace but he cuts a pathetic figure when the poets meet him. Raffi
when alive `sang of revenge against the ancient enemy' but now he
`sits over the ashes of his fire' and from his `lips drip only insults
and curses.' (p232). Badganian's `martial trumpet' instead of
exploding into song `releases a chesty sound like a moaning wind.'
(p233) Kristapor Mikaelian's planned execution of murderous Sultan
Abdul Hamid goes horribly wrong. The red sultan:

    `Remained alive and woe remained to me
    I left the world with vow unfulfilled'. (DDH/MM p209) 

After the 1895-96 massacre of 300,000 Armenians the Red Sultan kept on
`flooding the land with blood' and `raising barbaric hordes to destroy
towns' while getting `drunk on our children's blood'.

Throughout there is nothing that relieves the horror of this world of
national and individual ambition utterly collapsed, of a world whose
inhabitants gaze unendingly on the death they have reaped from the
dreams they sowed. Irrespective of motive or desire, wittingly or
unwittingly, the modern nationalist movement they headed made of
modern Armenian history an infernal nightmare for its people.

Why the movement turned out as such Charents does not explain. But he
gives a hint when registering without comment its lack of any
independent, domestically based strategy for emancipation. Key
political figures are depicted in strategic and futile dependence on
European imperialism to bring about Armenian emancipation. Krikor
Ardzrouni has on `his tin flag a crowned [Russian] bear' that `in his
paw holds a metal cross with which he strikes down on a yellow
[Ottoman] crescent' (p246). Khrimian Hayrig, sitting at the imperial
diplomatic table sups with the proverbial useless `paper spoon' and
`chooses as his guardian a [British] lion with its copper main'
(p248). He `endlessly, in unvarying tones repeats a magic number'
(p248) 61 that refers to a pro-Armenian formulation of the 1876 Berlin
Congress that was designed only to block any independent and so
effective Armenian action.


III. NATIONALIST HISTORY AS A PROCESSION OF BLOOD AND DEATH

Charents's presentation of Armenian nationalist history in `Vision of
Death' is neither simple nor straightforward. The poem's
anti-nationalist intent seems beyond question. It has been commented
on thoughtfully albeit sometimes debatably too by Vartan Matiossian,
an English language version of his essay being available in `Yeghishe
Charents: Poet of the Revolution' edited by Marc Nichanian.
Identifying this intent does not however, as Matiossian notes, exhaust
discussion. It is possible to argue for example that the poem does not
reject the national movement as a whole nor does it denounce the
liberation struggle against Ottoman tyranny. It targets on the
contrary only certain strategic and political choices made by dominant
forces within the movement. These facts surface in a consideration of
a critical flaw in `Vision of Death' that colours and compromises its
art and its message.

Charents's group portrait of the leadership of the nationalist
movement is consciously selective and limited. There is no reference
to Khatchadour Abovian, Mikael Nalpantian or Mkrtich Portukalian, all
towering and defining personalities. While the ARF features centrally
in the poem, there is no reference to the earlier Armenakans or the
Social Democrat Hnchak Party. They historically predated the ARF and
actually initiated both the political organisation and the armed
struggle of the modern national movement. There is in addition no
mention of men such as Stepan Shahoumian or Alexander Miasnikian.
Though they were communists and so strictly speaking, not part of the
nationalist movement, they nevertheless related to that movement,
debated it and proposed their own programmes for the future of the
Armenian people. These people Charents did not overlook as a result of
ignorance or oversight. At different times he indeed wrote or
dedicated poems to Abovian, Nalpantian and Shahoumian.

Yeghishe Charents also maintains silence on Armenian armed resistance
to Ottoman tyranny without reference to which no evaluation of the
nationalist movement is possible. There is no mention of the first
major armed national and popular uprising in Zeitun in 1861 or to the
1892 Sassoon Revolt that marked a pinnacle. The poem refers to two ARF
organised operations - the occupation of the Ottoman Bank and the raid
on Khanasor - neither of which were characteristic of an armed
movement that at its peak was a locally rooted self-defence force in
which the Armenakans and the Hnchaks had played prominent roles. Also
startlingly obvious is the absence from the poem of the foremost
Armenian guerrilla commander and symbol of all that was best in the
movement - Antranig Ozanian.

The case for arguing that the personalities and forces omitted from
`Vision of Death' constituted an alternative and sometimes even a
left-leaning opposition to the dominant ARF wing of the movement is
powerful. Why did Charents not refer to them? What for him marked them
off from the ARF or from Raffi, Badganian and the others who do
appear?  This is not at all clear in the poem. But evidence within
`Vision of Death' and from Charents's other poetry from the same
period leaves little doubt that he had in his sights not the national
movement as such but its dominant ARF leadership whose particular
culpable responsibility for the results of modern history he intended
to underline.

In `Vision of Death' the only political organisation leading the
Armenian people on the procession of Blood and Death is the ARF.
Vartan Matiossian notes that the tricolour brandished by the lord atop
the hill is the flag of the ARF. As the masses move forward they utter
the chant `Hetahyun, Hetahyun, Hetahyun' - a variation on the Armenian
acronym of the ARF. Charents's critical focus on the ARF also acquires
somewhat unpleasant expression in the treatment meted out to its
famous intellectual and diplomat Avetis Aharonian. Contrary to all
others Aharonian is depicted in a manner both scornful and disdainful,
intended to humiliate rather than communicate pain at failure. In all
this, `Vision of Death' recalls Gourgen Mahari's `The Burnt Orchards'.
Both, despite superficial impressions target not the national movement
as a whole but the ARF.

That Charents in `Vision of Death' did not set out to denigrate the
national movement as such is clearly implicit in the depiction of the
integrity and even nobility of the motives and ambitions of its
historical actors. This despite the fact of their utter failure. In
other poems this becomes explicit. In his `Address to the ARF'
Charents directly acknowledges the necessary and indeed honourable
nature of the Armenian liberation movement against Ottoman and Tsarist
empires even as he attacks the ARF. He takes the latter to task:

    `For seeking to lay claim to the mantle 
    Of that massive and heroic battle
    That my people waged yesterday
    Against the repressive Sultan and Tsar.
    This people was ever seething against 
    The oppressor's wound round its neck.
    You sought always to put their righteous anger
    To the service of your dark dreams. (p22)

The ARF that had `become to the tyrant Tsar a comrade' and had
`drowned the wonderful breath of revolt' in `dark inter-national
slaughter' had no right to any `wreaths' for the struggle. These `do
not suit' its `bloody face.' (p23)

Some may consider it naave or even malicious to cite this poem as
evidence for anything other than an instance of Charents bowing to
party demands for anti-ARF propaganda. Such concerns should not be
discounted. But neither can one ignore the fact that this is a long,
99-line, poem that is systematic in its criticism and displays
considerable care in construction and composition. Furthermore its
criticism is not unique to Charents or Armenian Bolsheviks. Charents's
rejection of the First Armenian Republic for example has many
parallels with General Antranik's. It is worth reiterating here that
as a young man Charents had witnessed the ARF as the undisputed
leadership of the Armenian people in an era of its greatest modern
catastrophe. For a rebel spirit such as his, rejection of the ARF
required no external or forced prompting. He wrote as he felt, and
always was honest to himself. The point is put well when he writes
that `as dedicated as Charents was to the revolution he preserved an
inner rebelliousness, he never became a party writer' in the sense
this term subsequently acquired during the Soviet era. (`Modern
Armenian Literature ` a historical sketch', p263)

`Vision of death' contains poetry of unquestionable power. Yet its
omissions and silences obscure the complex and complicated course of
actual historical development. This critically compromises its
artistic and intellectual integrity. Modern Armenian history appears
in this poem as a monotonous accumulation of individuals and events
that are all of the same quality and magnitude. The subtleties and
shades that accompany all history are as absent as Antranig. There is
no hint of the intense debates over ideology, strategy and tactics
that in fact shaped the changing, evolving character of the movement.
It needs to be said that in this instance there is also no suggestion
that the ARF itself had undergone a qualitative transformation from a
revolutionary force to one ready to enter a pact with the Young Turks
for example. `Vision of Death' as a result lacks any internal artistic
development and contains no suggestion of real relations and conflicts
with all their possibilities from which new directions or resolutions
could germinate. It is marked by a one-sided flatness that drains it
of dramatic tension and limits artistic and intellectual reflection on
the tragedy and the pain that Charents depicts.

The poem's one-sidedness indeed undermines the cogency of Charents's
own conclusion that against the failed efforts of the nationalist
leadership it was only the Russian Revolution that brought about
liberation for the Armenian people. This solution springs out of the
blue, at the very end of the poem, as if miraculously. It has no
internal grounding within the poem and no roots within the development
of Armenian history as it is rehearsed in the poem. It makes its
appearance as an arbitrary external imposition. Charents's embrace of
the Russian Revolution appears of the same order as the dependence on
foreign power that he so forcefully criticises in the very same
poem. It is a dependency furthermore that excludes the people from
history, an exclusion that Charents criticises Armenian elites for
being guilty of.


IV. THE LEGACY OF HISTORY TRANSFORMED INTO NATIONALIST MYTHOLOGY

Charents directs his formidable poetic weaponry not only against the
ARF's leadership of the movement but against the ideology of Armenian
nationalism as well. This he pronounced to be little more than
self-serving mythology generated by a self-centred and avaricious
elite that was indifferent to the actual needs of the people. In `The
General Vartan Armoured Train' Charents seeks to topple a central
pillar of this ideology. The General Vardan train is named after the
5th century Mamikonian general who in 451 commanded Armenian forces in
the Battle of Avaryar against Persian invasion. In Armenian
nationalist consciousness Vardan came to be the purest personification
of patriotic dedication, loyalty, courage and bravery.

Charents's dissection of what he considered the myth of Vardan opens
with a stinging denunciation of the ARF dominated Republic:

    `That grim machine, that nightmare without an exit
    That morgue
    That is called `The Republic of Armenia' (p270)

Charents did not make this judgement out of blind anti-ARF or
Bolshevik prejudice. He had personally witnessed the ARF government's
impotence in the face of the death of tens of thousands of people by
starvation, disease, the after effects of Genocide and continuing
local wars. It is the ARF government of this `morgue' that instructs
the Division's communist commander to return to the capital. The
commander is anxious. They are `calling him to Yerevan there to disarm
him and in some dark corner&. No! No! He is no innocent child.' (p270)
Weary and exhausted at three in the morning he calculates the internal
and regional balances of forces, considers the pros and cons of
submission or revolt. This portion of the poem it is worth noting
carries an acute evaluation of the political situation at the time. At
this moment of powerful inner tension his mind unexpectedly returns to
a childhood memory when with a paper helmet he had acted as General
Vardan in a school play about the Battle of Avarayr.

As he ponders his options, the commander is suddenly conscious, beyond
any possibility of doubt, that the story of General Vardan disguises a
dismal history of impotence and failure:

    `Oh has not the entire course of our history
    Been a non-existent Avarayr&
    And those, those knights of the people, the lot of them,
    Those brutal and avaricious lords,
    Did they not mount the stage with wooden spears
    And paper helmets on their heads? (p274)

To pay for `its entrance' to this ignominious performance `the people
have given up their livelihood', they `have been brutalised' and have
`shed rivers of blood.' Today, the First Armenian Republic armed with
the `same tin and paper' appears `as a finale to this ancient myth.'
(p274). So the commander determines to break with this tradition and
raises the banner of revolt that he believes will open up a new and
genuinely free road for the people.

The myth of a heroic national past receives further systematic
treatment in `At the Crossroads of History'. In it Charents acts as a
living spokesman for the common people and writes as the enduring
embodiment of the feelings and perceptions of common people in any age
of history. He echoes their living indictment of and revolt against
elites who heaped nothing but misfortune, misery and catastrophe upon
them. For the Armenian people there is nothing in the record of its
elite that is worthy of recollection:

    `Throughout your existence of thousands of years
    You have produced not a single thought for future generations.
    Which, which historian can offer you an apologia,
    You of the fruitless orchards and barren altars.'(p206)

The past for the common people was always one of `slavery, ashes,
forgetfulness and death.' With no loyalty to the land Armenian elite
`sought warmth for its soul from foreign fires' whilst life for the
people `stretched ahead without light and unsmiling'. When it was lit
up, it was `by another's light, a terribly, terribly destructive
light.' `Stamping the mark of slavery' on the face of the people the
elite are:

    `Squanderers of our inherited treasures
    Taking refuge on distant shores
    There to build for yourselves mansions and castles.' (p209)

So through history the Armenian people trudged on `without leadership,
dispersed, without vision' untilm that is, `this brilliant present'
age of Communist revolution. To disguise their destructive record,
elite ideologists invent `childish myths' that verge on national
chauvinism. It is this mythology that the poet sets out to puncture
with a stern determination that no other poet `will ever turn back to
sing of old glories' or `boast that without us the world would be a
deserted garden' (p204)
 
Yet for all this uncompromising rejection Charents does not dismiss
the entire course of Armenian history. Within its flow and against the
infertile ambition of the elite he affirms the existence of another
tradition, one generated by the common people. Though driven into
slavery, their homes reduced to ashes:

    `They walked that stony road
    Grey, nameless men, peasant serfs
    They bore in their breast captivating ideas
    Creative thoughts and fiery words
    That do not yet reach to the skies,
    Have yet no form
    But shall some day rise fully formed.
    Oh the untapped treasurers, the yet unexcavated
    Genius of the spirit.'

In contrast to the elite, the `genius spirit' of these `grey, nameless
men' has produced a legacy for the future. From them we have `our
inherited treasures'. Even as they `bore the brunt of your brutal
tyranny', even in the `deepest darkness' they `dreamt still of the
sun' and for centuries `sang to just and noble visions' in `plebeian
rhythm' that created its very own `ancient epic into which it placed
the undying red vision of its future life.' (p210).

Soviet era commentators criticised Charents's categorical rejection of
Armenian elites as instances of the poet falling victim to `vulgar
sociology'. In contrast they asserted a progressive role for the
elites even as they noted a defining exploitative nature. Nationalists
also, in different terms, berated Charents for his unqualified
demonising of the Church, the nobility and the modern Armenian
nationalist movement. One could of course assert that from the
perspective of the actual Armenian peasant in any particular period of
history the progressive or venerable contribution claimed for the
elite would hardly be visible beneath the harsh, grinding mud-stricken
poverty of their everyday life. In `At the Crossroads of History'
Charents puts himself in the shoes of such common people.

Whatever contours of debate Charents's poems also resonate as a
powerful statement of universal human capacities and as a plea for
popular emancipation from social conditions that destroy talent,
potential and the spirit.

In registering what is, in effect, a popular egalitarian and
socialistic tradition, Charents is never, here or elsewhere, a hollow,
shallow and dogmatic mimic of Bolshevik or Leninist formulas. His
focus on the fortunes of the common people, inspired as they certainly
were by Russian communism, also follow a pre-existing Armenian
tradition that was preserved in the `ancient epic' he acknowledges and
that was developed for the modern national movement by thinkers such
as Mikael Nalpantian whom he chose to disregard in `Vision of
Death'. The parallels with Nalpantian are notable. Nalpantian also
rejected the Armenian elite. For him the nation was not its well off
elite but its people:

    `By the term nation' argues Nalpantian `we must understand the
    common people and not those few families who have enriched
    themselves from the sweat and blood of the people.'
    
    National independence was to be cherished, but only if it helped
    to secure the `real and essential' interests of the common man and
    woman. After all:

    `We have not devoted our life and our pen to the rich. Behind
    their barricades of wealth they are protected even from the worst
    tyranny. But that poor Armenian, that exploited, naked, hungry and
    pitiable Armenian who is oppressed not just by foreigners by his
    own elite, his own clergy and his own ill-educated intelligentsia,
    that is the Armenian who deserves and demands our attention.'

		    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Within these broad parameters one can turn to speculate upon some of
the causes that in the 1930s prompted Charents to engage in a poetic
examination of the record of the Armenian nationalist movement and its
leadership.

Perhaps these poems should be read as Charents's contribution to a
poetic development and elaboration of an Armenian radical
egalitarian/socialist tradition against what he considered the
disaster of narrow nationalist politics.  To reveal the extent to
which these poems and others permit such a reading would call for a
new essay. But Charents's political poetry of this period can also,
perhaps more readily, be read as a literary intervention into the
debates about the future of the Armenian people by an artist who was
passionately embroiled in the struggles of his own time.

In the Soviet Union and in Armenia the 1930s witnessed the systematic
curtailment and suppression of the earlier decade of relative cultural
democracy. This period was to end with the Great Purges to which many
outstanding men and women of letters, some communist, some fellow
travellers, fell victim. Many had come home from the Diaspora having
abandoned possibly lucrative careers and lives. Many had actively and
energetically committed themselves to the struggle for communism
regarding it as the sole path for the revival and recovery of the
Armenian people. The rise of Stalinism severely dimmed their
enthusiasm, tarnished their optimism and bred growing demoralisation.
 
Charents's poems seem to draw a firm, uncompromising line against the
doubt and demoralisation in communism that was generated by the
Stalinist consolidation. The vehemence of expression and the
terrifying quality of the imagery of nationalist disaster suggests a
determined effort to block any return to the old nationalist political
tradition as an answer to present troubles. Repeatedly these poems
counter-pose a disastrous nationalist past to a promising socialist
present, whatever the immediate difficulties.  In `Address to the ARF'
(1929) the Armenian people are joining `battle alongside all the
slaves of the world' and `are raising a massive building' that will
also be an `eternal tomb' to the ARF. `At the Crossroads of History'
(January 1933) opposes a past without leaders and without vision to
`this brilliant present.' In April 1933 Charents glances back at a
`Vision of Death' sat astride the `steed of the future'.

Needless to say Charents was sheer and uncompromising in his
opposition to the rise of Stalinism considering it inimical to the
fortunes of the people of the Soviet Union in general and the Armenian
people in particular. But the alternative he fought for was not a
return to an old ARF-led nationalist tradition. About this Charents
leaves little doubt. His chosen path was to engage in battle against
Stalinism not from a nationalist but a socialist perspective. So
simultaneously with his anti-ARF poems he writes brilliantly and
scathingly against the vulgarisation and degeneration of art and
culture during the rise of Stalinism. In the same period he produces
the poetic drama `Achilles or Piero' that pits Trotsky against a
Stalin conceived of as a betrayer of the noble principles of the
revolution that Charents and others had dedicated their art to.

Such is one context for appreciating Charents's poetry that in the
very same two last volumes sings to life, to joy and fulfilment in his
native land that even then was still full of the promise of a shining
future. In these volumes we also see Charents as unwavering in his
patriotism and love of his homeland and culture as he is unwavering in
his opposition to nationalist politics. Whether he altered his stand
in his post 1934 poetry must be the subject of another discussion.

(All extracts except when otherwise indicated are from the 1968
Edition of Volume IV of Charents's Collected Works in VI Volumes,)


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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