Armenian News Network / Groong
July 20, 2004
By Ruth Bedevian
It was a very hot, sunny summer's day in the latter part of June when my friend and I knocked at the door of 26 Zarubian Street, Yerevan, Armenia. One cannot visit Armenia without hearing the name Isahakyan. It is a `household' word, for Avetik Isahakyan is an icon of the Armenian people. He lived a long and fully productive life, creating poetry and prose that has found its way into the heart and soul of his people. Many of his poems have been used as lyrics for songs. The literary prize for poetry was established in his honor in Erevan in 1980.
His House Museum opens a guest's eyes to a panorama 20th century cultural and literary Armenian life lived abroad and on Armenian soil. It reveals to its visitors the rich world of Armenian Letters. It is the last residence of Isahakyan, a gift to him from the Soviet government. Although he lived abroad in several countries for many years of his life, he spent the remaining two decades (1936-1957) of his life in his beloved homeland and in this comfortable house which offered a cooling cross breeze through the open windows between the entrance and the courtyard in the back.
Several docents accompanied us about the rooms of the home, sharing details and anecdotes. One young docent with sparkling eyes and English script in hand showed eagerness to read and share pages of information. With a mixture of Western Armenian, Eastern Armenian and English translation generously offered by my friend, Gohar, we spent two full hours pouring over each display case, filled with memorabilia from a life that spanned 82 years. We were led to the back porch which opened onto a lovely garden where Isahakyan enjoyed sipping coffee and entertaining his guests. We were led to his bedroom where his bathrobe and suits are still neatly hanging in his wardrobe. The intimacy charmed me. The wardrobe was not roped off and if one wished, one could have reached out and touched the clothing that once clothed the man. Unlike several of his contemporaries, Isahakyan enjoyed recognition, respect, and the comfort of a successful career during his lifetime. He lived to see his children's children!
As a young student he joined the Armenian Revolutionary Federation helping to send arms and money to Western Turkey to help fight against the Ottoman government. He subsequently was arrested and spent a year in prison. It was upon his release from prison in 1897 (at age 22) that he published his first book of poems entitled, Songs and Wounds. He was soon arrested again for his activities `against Russia's Tsar' and sent to prison in Odessa. Upon release, he went abroad studying literature, history and philosophy in Zurich. He returned to Armenia in 1902, but soon moved to Tiflis, one of the two centers of Armenian intellectual activity at that juncture in history (the other being Constantinople). He was one of five original members of the famous `Vernatun' (Upper Room), a literary circle that met weekly at Hovhannes Toumanyan's home in Tiflis.
Between 1899 and 1906 he wrote The Songs of Haiduks - an anthology of poems that became the first creation within Classical Armenian Poetry dedicated to the Armenian Freedom Struggle. In 1908 Avetik Isahakyan, with 158 other Armenian intellectuals, was arrested and sent to the Metekha prison of Tiflis. After six months he was freed on bail; but staying in Tiflis was untenable and by 1911 Isahakyan went abroad again, living in France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and finally in Germany where he joined a German-Armenian movement and edited the group's journal, `Mesrob.' He was persuaded to believe that the Kaiser's Germany - Turkey's supporter - could prevent the annihilating designs of the Young Turks' policies. History proved that hope groundless. Following the Genocide and World War I, Isahakyan's writing described Armenia's woe-filled fate and its heroic struggle for self-determination. His `White Book' tells of the worst part of the Genocide that took place in 1915 and subsequent events through 1922. In 1926 he returned to Armenia and wrote prolifically. Between 1930 and 1936 he again lived abroad (this time in Paris), but returned home to Armenia for the final time where he continued his patriotic, literary and social work pursuits.
Isahakyan's House Museum is filled with memorabilia from his long and illustrious life. Display case after display case yields artifacts, photos, news clippings and personal belongings that all tell a rich story of this man, whose work is filled with respect for human dignity and is deeply rooted in the history, culture and suffering of his people. The artifacts not only tell his story, but that of his contemporaries and of the times in which he and his colleagues struggled to keep faith with their artistic integrity. It was to this home, the docent related, that Charentz made his last visit before being arrested. He appealed to Isahakyan to help his family and although Isahakyan attained prominent positions within the Soviet Armenian government, he was not able to save his friend.
He played an active role in creating the Armenian Academy of Sciences and was Chairman of the Writer's Union of the Republic of Armenia from 1944 until his death. So honored, he was buried in Yerevan's Artists' Pavilion (also known as Komitas Pantheon by the local people) where other luminaries have been laid to rest, among them Komitas Vartabed who was the first to be buried there, followed by others such as Vahan Derian, Shirvanzade, Stepan Zoryan, William Saroyan, Aram Khatchadurian, Martiros Sarian, et al.
Oh - but the Artists' Pavilion - we had to leave that `gem' for yet another day's visit. The chief docent admonished the younger docents that closing time was 5pm and it was already 6pm. With good reason they acknowledged their director's rule, but quite gently reminded her that the visitor from America had more than the usual amount of questions and being proud and hospitable Armenians, they did not wish to leave a single question unanswered. It was indeed a memorable day of engaging exchange.
Ruth Bedevian recently visited many Armenian authors' House Museums around Armenia. She's writing monthly installments about Armenian authors for the St. Leon Armenian Church newsletter (Lradoo) at the request of Father Diran Bohajian.
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