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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. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.