Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong July 29, 2013 by Eddie Arnavoudian I. `The Arts, Crafts and Everyday Life in Armenian Miniature Painting' Introduced, prepared and edited by Asdghig Kevorkian (1973, 150pp, 48pp illustrations) Without a study of this fine volume our knowledge of Armenian secular history is poorer by a dozen times at least. Secular social life and reflections of the common people's daily affairs is almost non-existent in Armenian classical histories, disdained, derided and dismissed as they were by those men of the Church who in large part composed them. Modern historians must therefore resort to meagre references, indirect suggestions and of course foreign sources. Magnificent exceptions exist - fine detail on architectural monuments, vivid depictions of the weapons of war. But by and large we depend on the use of historical microscopes and intelligent deduction and speculation. And here, thanks to the wonderful work of Asdghig Kevorkian we have another significant addition to our stock of illuminating data. From thousands of miniature paintings patterned into Armenian biblical and religious manuscripts stretching from the 10th to the 18th centuries, Asdghig Kevorkian has isolated and meticulously reproduced dozens upon dozens of images, packed into 48 large pages, that offer a remarkable pictorial history - social, economic and cultural - of agriculture and its tools, of fishing and its equipment, of ship and boat building, of carpentry and furniture making. Present too are the crafts of ironmongery, weapons of war, the art of ceramics, spinning, weaving, embroidery and furniture making and a great deal more too featuring popular entertainment, theatre, music and dance, sports, hunting as well as the art of calligraphy that enabled all this to acquire pictorial representation. Generally components of wider miniature canvases that retell ancient biblical, religious stories, Kevorkian argues convincingly that these images of everyday life reflect not the social realities of Biblical times but those of the painters' own age. In addition, even as most are set in a religious pictorial context, many also appear as headings and decorative borders, independent of direct religious reference and so reflect more immediately the realities of everyday life. A striking example is a 12th century image representing an early form of a fountain pen with a small ink pellet fitted just above the nib of the writing quill. Among many beautiful pictures are those of the desks, writing stands, pen and paint holders used by artists and scribes who laboured to publish the hundreds of thousands of illuminated manuscripts of which alas only some 30,000 survive. Also striking are depictions of sports, circuses, wresting and hunting, of costumes and military apparel, mostly absent from historical texts but smuggled most colourfully into religious volumes. It is remembering that while classical Armenian biblical and Christian texts appeared with illuminated paintings in their hundreds, historical volumes generally contained none. As with the study of all ancient Christian literature, an examination of miniature paintings invites rejection of dismissive appreciations. Religious pictorial representations are much richer than the Christian narratives they retell, being always broader and deeper than the abstract metaphysical faith removed from everyday life to which Christianity is largely reduced today. For the ancients the Bible and its pictorial representation were aids and explications in peoples' terrestrial lives, being invitations to a social morality, to norms of social relations and to everyday conduct. At their worst of course much of religious instruction constituted a system of rules and regulations to secure the common people's acquiescence to and therefore the perpetuation of feudal relations. To render such terrestrial instruction simultaneously attractive and menacing, such instruction was packaged as a divine guide to eternal bliss, for those who obeyed, or avenues to eternal damnation for those who defied the moral dictates of the day, these of course being the dictates of the dominant elite. Here we have a wonderful, indeed irreplaceable volume, an immense pleasure to browse and an invaluable aid to any historian, historical novelist or artist of Armenian life. II. ANAHIT SAHINIAN'S `AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY' This `Autobiographical Essay (384pp, 2006) by Anahit Sahinian, published three years before her death at 93, is a bitter goodbye to the 20th century Soviet Armenian age and to life itself by one of the finest Armenian novelists of that era, who having put a foot into the 21st century felt herself `an illegal visitor there'. This is a final testament, a moving personal remembrance and simultaneously an acute and illuminating socio-political, cultural and literary evaluation of an epoch and its end, hugely rewarding irrespective of attitudes to the author's rejection of the post-Soviet capitalist order. Sahinian whose life and novels spanned the Soviet decades - she was born in 1917 - stands out as a striking, forceful and stubborn personality, clearly possessed of will and strength that enabled her to survive the bureaucratic grinder of the Soviet era and the market bludgeon of the post-Soviet decades to produce a substantial body of impressive literary and critical work. An unbending life would not be an inappropriate description. Globally, the 20th century may have been a century of war and barbarism. But for Sahinian and for Soviet Armenians she insists in its substantial portion it was an era of stability, cultural flourish and socio-economic progress against which in fact previous Armenian centuries and the two decades that followed the Soviet demise stand out as barbaric. A. Anahit Sahinian offers us an impressive account of why, in contrast to many of her contemporaries, she remained and that to her end, loyal to egalitarian ideals imbibed in her early village and school life. Sounding a polemic against those who dismiss socialism as a hostile imposition, Sahinian notes that in the first instance it was Armenian social conditions, reflected in modern Armenian literature, that served to fertilise ideological sympathy for socialist revolutionary movements sweeping through the Tsarist Empire. That `we were well prepared to destroy the old' she writes `we owe' among other things `to our classical literature', (p26) to Hovanness Toumanian, Berj Broshian and others whose writings exposed the poverty and inequality of Armenian life. International literary currents - Dickens and Hugo are mentioned - also helped `prepare the ground for the rooting of socialist thought.' (p27) That the Soviet order was to find some of its sturdiest supporters among women like Sahinian who were born into conservative rural Armenia appears also unsurprising. The Soviet era released women from direct material need and from the heavier shackles of male oppression. It opened for them, for Sahinian, unimaginable avenues for professional personal advance. Soviet society spared women the tragic fate of young `Maro' told in Toumanian's poetic epic to which Sahinian refers as an example of the radical substance of Armenian literature. To escape brutal pre-arranged child marriage, domestic abuse and rape Maro is driven to death in bleak and wild mountains. In contrast, for the young Sahinian `fortune had turned'. She `lived in happy times' (p26-27), going `to school where in its safety' she `could recite' the epic of Maro's destiny.' Inspired by unprecedented opportunity for education, Sahinian also managed to resist `hammer blow' pressures to early marriage: for many women a pre-mature termination of education and career. While `many did not want to continue education... I was not of the many. I still had a road to travel. I still had a mountain to climb...' The Soviet age evidently afforded her the opportunity to do so, and so she was able to live life as writer, novelist, editor, educator and social activist. Social and political commentary is meshed into the story of Sahinian's personal life, her sporting prowess, her school and university days, her marriage and the early death of her husband with whom she shared the `last happy days of her life'. Revealing a feel for the times she tells us of friendships and relations with contemporary literary and political figures, of the older generation of Avetik Issahakian and the younger of Barouyr Sevak's age. She tells also of unceasing battles against bureaucratic obstruction of her literary endeavours. As an adherent of the critical realist tradition in literature Sahinian had no time for a `socialist realism' that `demanded not art' but the dishonest `beautification of life with glories offered to the Communist Party and to Stalin!' For telling social truths crass censors attempted to block publication deeming her novels `pornographic' for portraying domestic infidelities! But Anahit Sahinian prevailed. Her `The Crossroads' and `Longing' in particular remain unmatched, audacious, against-the-stream critical reconstructions of the Soviet decades - warts and all, from the highest echelons of state to private domestic turmoil. Beyond personal and gender considerations Sahinian underlines the oft forgotten truth that Soviet era economic transformations generated unquestionable national and popular support from survivors of the genocide who had taken refuge in what became Soviet Armenia and from the people of eastern Armenia devastated by war, famine and disease. Particularly after the end of the 1937 purges and the World War II years of `rationed bread', when `even mention of sugar was impossible' `the good times' arrived. Economic advance, cultural, educational and public development transformed people's lives: `The Armenian mother was proud that her son had become an engineer, her orphan child who had experienced the plight of refugees was now participant in the reconstruction of the homeland.' (p43) Yet as she travels and journeys through the memories of her life and times Sahinian also draws an eye opening landscape of the negative sides of Soviet Armenian life too - the question of Lake Sevan and its declining waters, the Azeri repopulation of Armenian border villages, the turmoil of the Gorbachev years and much more. B. Despite total disdain for the post-Soviet order Sahinian does not glorify the Soviet era. Offering her explanation of the collapse of Soviet socialism she targets its elite's tyrannical corruption that in her view led to disillusion in the idea of socialism, to Soviet degeneration and its eventual disintegration. Here the 1937 Purges were a critical turning point. They `tarnished the grand ideals we possessed' and drove away `enlightened men of the world' who had hitherto regarded the USSR as a force of `global salvation'. Destroying an entire generation of honest and dedicated communist, socialist and patriotic cadre, 1937 hoisted into leadership a despicable group of opportunists in whose hands the communist party became `a mighty tyrannical pyramid' feeding its own privilege and status. Though a modicum of material security had been assured for all, remembrance of the thousands killed during the purges and the explosion of bureaucratic greed, selfishness and rampant opportunism that followed haemorrhaged not only social and economic life but faith in the very idea of socialism. Corruption and nepotism, bribery and kickbacks spread through every sphere of society so tarnishing the ideology of socialism that faith in any possible progressive, egalitarian reform was destroyed! The baby was thrown out with the dirty water believes Sahinian. It was not of course an age without hope, hope that we read of in reminiscences of the national revival during the years following the 50th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, the latter struggle over Garabagh during and indeed even before the Gorbachev days. However with the ground removed for a vision of egalitarian reform and reconstruction, all this enthusiasm and optimism was exploited by new elites that secured the triumph of a cannibal capitalism that Sahinian damns with ruthless reason. In the post-Soviet regime, a leadership more corrupt and selfish than any in the Soviet era took the helm destroying the economic foundations of Armenian national life. `...like wolves come upon a defenceless flock of sheep, they fell upon the republic's economy, and in the first instance its productive capacity....they divided the factories among themselves, calling it privatisation and shipped them as scrap metal to neighbouring countries.' (p299) All that `belonged to the nation' was seized by a regime `shaped by criminals', even pavements and parks were privatised as were the shores of Lake Sevan. `The people were pushed aside. They were not needed...', `let them emigrate' for all this new elite cared. The less people the easier it would be for the band of newly rich `to tailor a constitution that enabled them to sell and resell national wealth among themselves'. Sahinian recalls when she had visited Paris during the Soviet era she had been stunned by the sight of beggars in the streets of that jewel western capital city. She recalls the pride she felt in her homeland back then: `...beggars in Paris! In Armenia we had forgotten that they existed. This small Armenia that had seen Genocide, the loss of its western lands and a people brought to the edge of annihilation, today has neither rich nor poor, neither does it have beggars, and for this I take the liberty to feel proud as I stand in the Paris that amazes the world.' In the immediate years of post-Soviet Armenia there appeared little left to be proud of. Produced by economic, social, educational and cultural collapse, beggars returned once more to Armenian city streets. The nation was devastated, a bitter truth underlined by the flight of tens and hundreds of thousands, a frightening emptying of the homeland, a digging of its grave set in motion by the new selfish elite. Frail and ill, unaccustomed to the depredations of new voracious capitalist elites, unable to accommodate to the social and economic disintegration, to mass poverty, unemployment and cultural collapse, it is understandable that Sahinian would have felt an `illegal immigrant' to the 21st century. Yet this 21st century `Autobiographical Essay' and with all that she bequeathed, Sahinian keeps a bright lantern alight for those searching for paths through the dark and rubble strewn horizons of Armenian national life. -- 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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