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Worth a read

    Neither masterpiece nor artistically outstanding, yet
    none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading
    them, one will always find something of value...


Armenian News Network / Groong
December 18, 2000

By Eddie Arnavoudian


				  1.

Silva Kapoutikian - a re-evaluation
`Pages From My Sealed Cabinets'
(688pp, Abolon Publishers, Yerevan, 1997)

In recent years, 80 year old poet and activist Silva Kapoutikian has
been dismissed, reviled and condemned. She stands accused of political
cowardice, being a willing instrument of stalinism, a sycophant and a
crawler. To add to it all, she is also dismissed as a poet of no value.

Yet Silva Kapoutikian's `Pages From My Sealed Cabinets' suggests that
she is unjustly persecuted.  Appreciations of her poetry may diverge,
but a reading of this book offers documentary evidence in support of a
more positive appraisal of her political work. It reveals her as an
honest political activist willing to take up issues, both publicly and
privately, during the Soviet era when many others remained silent. An
engrossing running commentary knits together public speeches, writings
and interviews Kapoutikian gave from 1953 onwards and can be
considered a definitive riposte against her critics and detractors.

In an open letter to ex-President Levon Ter Petrossian, Kapoutikian
summarises a record that is backed up by a reading of her public and
printed statements contained in this volume.

`[D]uring the last three or four decades I have frequently spoken out,
sometimes indirectly, sometimes loudly and outspokenly on matters that
you refer to. Do you want me to open up my boxes full of documents
relating to Karabagh - Shall I refer to the numerous letters,
telegrams, articles, poems and speeches in which I raise the question
of commemorating the Genocide, of positively reassessing our national
liberation history and the role of the Diaspora political parties.
Shall I mention my role in defending the Armenian language against
corruption by Russian, the protests I publicly made against
corruption, careerism, legalised theft, against the corruption of our
national morals, against ecological destruction. Shall I mention my
participation in the campaign to close the atomic station and the
`Nairit' factory - All this while many who are now in power remained
silent or even condemned those of us who took up these issues.'

Besides proving the truth of these claims, a reading of the book
reveals much more. Kapoutikian spoke out for Paradjanov, for the
hundreds of thousands of Armenian immigrants from the Middle East, in
defence of Western Armenian and many other issues. Throughout she is
also honest. She does not deny that many a time she crawled, retreated
or acted out of base or cowardly motives. She admits weaknesses and
mistakes. She also quite courageously records events from the past
that she feels ashamed of, events that in fact she need not have
confessed to at all. One example is when in a moment of weakness she
burnt her Tashnag father's archives in order not to be tainted before
the eyes of the authorities.

Furthermore Kapoutikian does not deny being a communist. She is proud
of her beliefs and defends them openly. She does not claim to be a
hero. But she shows that she did fight against what she regarded as a
corruption of her understanding of communism and in particular against
what she believed to be a corruption of her own appreciation of the
national question. In this battle she raised issues vital for the
ordinary Armenian people. It should be added that some of the
campaigns she participated in alongside many others did actually
succeed.

Besides the well documented record of her own role, this valuable and
passionately written book throws some instructive light on important
aspects of Soviet Armenian life. First and foremost it exposes the
spineless and totally parasitic and selfish character of the majority
of the Soviet Armenian elite. Her book shows that successive Armenian
leaderships, though subservient to Moscow's central authority, did
have room to manoeuvre in defence of their own people. Yet the
Armenian elite was unwilling and incapable of exploiting this
opportunity. Compared with the leaderships of other Soviet republics,
the Armenian elite was passive in the defence of the interests of the
Armenian people against arbitrary central authority. Where others
displayed some backbone and secured concessions, the Armenian
leadership in return not for 30, but just 3 pieces of silver readily
surrendered its positions. Additionally this leadership proved equally
indifferent to the material and civic conditions of the vast majority
of the Armenian people. When in other republics the leadership
(besides enriching themselves) for whatever reason made positive
efforts to improve ordinary people's lives, their Armenian
counterparts merely enriched themselves.  Without delving into any
great detail Kapoutikian suggests that this stratum of the Armenian
elite was only able to come into its own after the destruction of the
trend of Armenian communists represented by men like Miasnikian,
Aghasi Khandjian and others who were dedicated to the needs of the
Armenian people.

Read this book to appreciate Silva Kapoutikian's role as a political
activist dedicated to the interests of the Armenian people. Many of
the attacks on her have not been accompanied by evidence. Those who
now want to offer a negative assessment will have to present their
evidence. They will find it exceedingly difficult, especially in the
additional light of her newly published volume of critical essays and
commentaries `I Can Remain Silent No Longer' (Chem Garogh Lrel,
Kidoutyoun Publishers, Yerevan, 2000)


				  2.

`Mesrop Mashtots'
A biographical-political sketch of the founder of the Armenian alphabet


The eminent historian Leo (Arakel Babakhanian, 1860-1932) wrote this
biographical sketch `Mesrop Mashtots' in 1903 as part of the 1500th
anniversary celebrations that marked Mashtots's founding of the
Armenian alphabet in 403.

Leo quite rightly avoids attributing to Mashtots any nationalist or
patriotic motives.  He was a Christian priest and his enterprise was
inspired by an essentially narrow and self-serving ambition ` to
secure Christianity's still vulnerable position in Armenia. The new
alphabet was decidedly not designed to preserve Armenia's rich but
unwritten pre-Christian heritage. On the contrary, during the Church's
battle to eradicate stubbornly surviving non-Christian strongholds it
would be used as a weapon to annihilate this pre-Christian culture.
Leo of course recognises that by giving the Armenian Church an
identity independent of the Greek and Assyrian, the alphabet did
create the foundation for a future national culture. But this was an
indirect result of Mesrop Mashtots's narrower intentions.

Throughout the first half of the book which deals directly with Mesrop
Mashtots's work, Leo sets out all the available historical data and
develops his sometimes persuasive and sometimes controversial
arguments.  One in particular merits remark. Leo claims that the
Byzantine authorities, at least in its first stages, sponsored Mesrop
Mashtots's enterprise. They hoped, he argues, to thereby develop a
solid but subordinate ally that would dam the empire's eastern borders
against Persian infiltration. While such considerations may have been
behind the facilities the Byzantine authorities afforded Mesrop
Mashtots, the end result proved to have the opposite effect. The
development of a national Armenian Church served to strengthen its
independent political ambitions and proportionately weakened Byzantine
authority in Armenia.  Indeed it is possible to argue more
convincingly that the Church embarked on the project of creating an
Armenian alphabet not only to facilitate its internal proselytising
work but to also fend off challenges from both Greek and Assyrian
Christian clergy and the ambitions of the Persian empire.

The second half of the volume is given over to an interesting
discussion of the role of Vartan Mamikonian in the Battle of Avarayr -
the famous `Vartanantz'.  This may seem odd, but there is indeed a
close connection between Mashtots's work and this military encounter
in 451. On the Armenian side, the driving force was the Armenian
Church. The cultural work following the founding of the alphabet gave
the Church the confidence to challenge Persian attempts to undermine
its political, social and economic standing.

However, while demolishing the mythology that surrounds Vartan
Mamikonian's role in the anti-Persian war, Leo's historical assessment
of the man is questionable. It is true, as Leo claims, that Mamikonian
was no nationalist or patriot. Vartan's opposition to the Persians
expresses his position as the leading representative of the
pro-Byzantine wing of the Armenian feudal aristocracy. Vartan
Mamikonian, argues Leo, did not field any significant independent
force and was heavily reliant on Byzantine power and functioned at its
behest. There is some truth in this, but it misses an essential aspect
of this particular - `Vartanantz' - war. When Vartan Mamikonian
undertook to lead the military battle against the Persians, contrary
to his own better judgement, he was doing the bidding not of the
Byzantine Empire, but of the Armenian Church.  It was the Armenian
Church seeking to defend its independent positions from concerted
Persian assault that was the leading force in the Battle of
Avarayr. Vartan had indeed planned to lead an anti-Persian campaign
and this with Byzantine assistance. But when the latter was not
forthcoming, he prepared to abandon Armenia for exile in Byzantine
held territory. He was prevented from doing so by the Church who
effectively strong-armed him to serve their own purpose.

Leo simultaneously re-evaluates the role of the much-maligned Vasak
Syouni. In his opinion, Vasak, in contrast to the pro-Byzantine Vartan,
led the aristocracy's pro-Persian faction. Coming from North-Eastern
Armenia, where Christianity had few firm roots, Vasak had no problem
abandoning this religion if this were to suit his purpose. Like any
feudal principality of the time he calculated the military, political
and economic costs of any alliance and concluded that one with the
Persians was more in accord with his interests. Thus his role in
Avarayr.

Leo, even while putting the `Vartanantz' issue in historical
perspective, does not deny the immense significance of the Battle of
Avarayr. It contributed to creating a tradition of resistance to
external authority. For those wishing to learn something about the
circumstances preceding and immediately following the development of
the Armenian alphabet there are few better volumes with which to
start.

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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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