Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2006 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.
Why we should read... `Longing' by Anahit Sahinian (Selected Works in 3 Volumes, Volume 2, 496pp, Yerevan, 1988) Armenian News Network / Groong By Eddie Arnavoudian October 4, 2006 I. `Longing' is the second volume of Anahit Sahinian's trilogy of Soviet Armenian life that stretches from the 1930s to the late 1950s. The main stage has now moved from the `Crossroads' of urban Yerevan (see ANN/Groong - The Critical Corner, 24 May 2005) to rural Armenia. Sahinian here constructs a panoramic overview fixed with rich detail, particularity and authentic characters. It is this that gives `Longing' an enduring quality of illuminating and critical insight into the lives of the men and women and of the era it depicts. Outraged Soviet apparatchiks blocked its publication for a full 8 years demanding that the author accept editorial damage to the novel. Sahinian's refusal has enriched both art and history. `Longing' takes us into the world of the Armenian peasantry during the Stalinist land collectivisation campaigns and the purges of the 1930s. There we meet real people who possess real complexity and who, despite Party rhetoric, live lives fashioned by past traditions often powerful enough to bend even those who sought to breach them. Relations between the Communist Party and the peasant are not those of saccharine harmony and socialist solidarity asserted in bad Soviet history and art. We meet not just wealthy peasants who are hostile to party policy, but the poor too, who, for whatever reason, resist collectivisation and resent privileges enjoyed by party leaders. We note tension between party leaders proclaiming a militant atheism and peasants reluctant to do away with their God and priest. We feel the fear as the purges take their toll, are moved by the hardships of everyday life, shocked by the routine abuse of women and appalled by the treachery and deception of party cadre in the service of their personal ambition. As it unfolds, the tangled story of Maro and Souren tells also of the desolation of those whose lives have turned out to be a wasted endeavour, it tells of the incurable ache of a lifetime of unfulfilled love, of the hardships of social dislocation, of the barrenness of isolated old age and of the tragedy of existence denuded of ambition and hope. But the novel is also a story of unbreakable spirits and particularly of triumphant women in a male dominated society. Throughout, Sahinian touches the uniqueness of individuals so often reduced to an anonymous component of the mass. At its end the `Longing' of the title comes to embody that eternal yearning for life to be beyond the enervating trial and tribulation that so often accompany its everyday. Though with fewer passages of poetic flight than `Crossroads', `Longing' has the same authentic command over the flow life. However, dialogue that is frequently in a difficult vernacular, though it gives the novel an element of local and historical colour, creates obstacles to our comprehension today and inhibits the grasp of character development. There are in addition flaws of construction and a good deal of deviation and verbosity. But persisting beyond the periods of tedium repays. II. In a reconstruction that reveals with precise nuances and shadings truths of class, party and community relations, Sahinian portrays something of the brutal reality of Stalinist land collectivisation. Its victims were not just the better-off peasants but the poorest too condemned, ostracised and expelled, falling victim to arbitrary power, personal vendettas or other unjust calculation. Some of the better off were indeed hated for their greed and their grasping. But others, separated from the poorest only by a hair's breadth and a bit of luck, were respected and admired for the helping hand they extended to the community. Despite the official proclamations of `irreconcilable class antagonisms', `Longing' also reveals bonds of human solidarity that did exist between the poor and some of the alleged profiteers earmarked for deportation. So for example at a mass meeting when peasants oppose proposals to expel Nazaret Vartumian: `Oh, oh, oh, true we have seen nothing good from them. But have pity on them... their mother and father lost the light of their eyes and now go about scraping against walls... the older boy is good for nothing...' (p90) Even within party ranks there disquiet in the face of proposed deportations: `What are you saying Souren? Throw men, their women and children out of their homes in winter, throw them out into the snow and say `Go!''? (p83) Despite protest, collectivisation remorselessly rakes away its victims. In Sahinian's depiction of the process that has a great deal of historical authenticity, the Communist Party does not emerge at all well. It appears as an unfamiliar, unwanted urban intrusion accepted only on account of its unchallengeable power. Even as it recruits from among the locals, it remains remote, an instrument of external authority that does not understand local circumstance. Party members enjoy privileges not available to the mass. They eat meat and drink brandy whilst planning to confiscate `everything the kulaks have' including all their food (p101). Writing with humour Sahinian tells how: `Eventually in the collective stables `mine and yours' vanished as equality was proclaimed. All animals were watered or left thirsty, fed or not, as the case may be, all together, all equally...until that is the red stallion was isolated and pronounced to be the president's. From then onwards Vaska was put in an individual and privileged position...Grass was never short for him. The others may or may not receive water. Vaska always did. (p140) Souren, then local party chief, becomes the proud owner of this animal, `not a horse but a dream'. As the story wends its way through the village it highlights the immense conservatism that prevailed. Despite the revolution people cling to old ways, to the old religion, to old mores and relations between men and women. Reverences for the wealthy and the powerful retain force though they are now expressed more frequently in relations to the Party leadership. Souren is respected in a sort of love-hate relationship forced upon villagers by their involuntary dependence on the party apparatus for seed, grain and emergency help. III. Drama and tension mount as Souren is isolated and eventually falls from grace. Though we are not sure why, relations between local leaders reach breaking point. There is a stand off and Souren is defeated, `promoted' out of the village. Thereafter at a tense pace Sahinian takes us through the late 1930s, the great purges, the murder of Aghasi Khanjian and the trials and tribulations of the Second World War. The mood of terrible helplessness in the face of the Stalinist state power that appeared incomprehensible and beyond challenge is palpable. `The ninth wave thundered down' writes Sahinian, `dragging along yet another list of names ` Bukharin, Rykov, Yakir... all right-wing Trotskyists, terrorists, spies, fifth columnists' (p312) - all earmarked for annihilation. In the author's company we attend frenzied party meetings to hear accusations and counter-accusations and witness back-stabbings and treachery as atomised individuals fight for survival against erstwhile comrades now indifferent or even hostile and with help only from loved ones who care. Alongside the public spectacle we are also shown private anguish - Souren's mother fearing for her son's future as he too is dragged into the vortex. Souren is arrested. Saved from execution, he volunteers for the army and despite himself ends up a hero in the French resistance. But this offers no respite. When their returning train arrives at the Soviet border: `For a long while they did not understand what storm had rushed in. They disarmed them all and removed all their insignia and their decorations. From the border the train changed direction, no more towards the east but the extreme north. Goodbye freedom. (p335) Reflecting the real experience of tens-of-thousands of post-war returnee ex-prisoners of war Souren then spends more of his life in camps or in exile. Though he occupies a pivotal role in Sahinian's examination of the rotten timber of Soviet society, Souren's character is artistically flawed. At points his growing emotional and psychological weariness is charted well. But, largely he remains opaque, an enigma lacking an inner world, at any rate until the novel's conclusion. Unless psychotic, for which there is no textual evidence, much of his behaviour is incomprehensible. If however Souren was to be judged psychotic, the novel would also lose something of its force. Souren in this case could not then be considered authentically representative of the thousands of middle level ordinary and decent men and women who became party members and whose tragedy he personifies. Souren's treatment of Maro does reflect rural misogyny, even within Party ranks. But beyond this he seems also to suffer a touch of misanthropic viciousness. There seems no ground for his unrelentingly dour mood and his rages against his mother. A self-proclaimed socialist and man of the people he seems nevertheless to lack any sense of human generosity and compassion. He refuses for example to permit the collective's horse and cart to be used transport a sick man to hospital and punishes another official who does. Fortunately, this inadequate construction of Souren is balanced out and is prevented from collapsing by his depiction during novel's conclusion and more importantly by the presence of the more rounded Maro. III. Sahinian does not shy away from exposing the routine and wanton violence women were subjected to in rural society (p86, 92). But she does so through characters that are or become conscious of their condition and have a will to resist. Explaining why she turned down one offer of marriage Maro remarks that the man: `wanted me...he used to say `my wife has died, I have no one to clean my home, no one to light my stove, come, let me take you and install you as my housewife. (p393-4). In another scene, only when outside her own home can a young bride: `breath in some air, drink some water and come alive for an hour or two, before later having to return and enter the grave.' (p371) But these women are not victims. If the earlier portions of the book record Souren's rise and fall the latter part tells a stirring tale of Maro's resistance, recovery and triumph. Unlike Souren who is fashioned by circumstance, is its product and victim, his life ironed into shape by others, Maro is active and shapes her own existence taking circumstances into account but never passively yielding to them. Maro clearly inherits something of the unruly defiance of her mother who, with no regard for power or authority, would at any opportunity `open her bagful of swears and curses to hurl handfuls to her left and right' (p91). Amidst a patriarchal Armenia wracked by political and social upheaval, the Stalinist purges, the destruction of WWII and the reconstruction thereafter, Maro is ever irrepressible refusing to be ground down despite personal grief, despite a loveless marriage and despite her undying passion for Souren who is now beyond reach (357-8). Here, as she does throughout, Sahinian evokes vividly local rural mores (p368), the helpless sexual innocence of rural people and the painful absence Maro feels for the lack of passion in the man to whom she has been married (p365). Maro's is the story of ingenuity and triumph in the face of universal odds. As people survived by resort to petty trade, the black-market and bribery and through social solidarity in hard times (p354, 384-5, 390), it is also the story of women's experience wherever war is the order of the day. Maro comes into her own during the war when men were away at the front, demonstrating endless energy and initiative, intelligence and will to overcome and to successfully care for family and friends (p374-375). Following the war the same qualities of energy, enthusiasm and initiative lead to undreamed of levels of prosperity and contentment (p347) for Maro and her family as she renovates and modernises her home and obtains all the latest fashions and mod cons including the most up to date bathroom from abroad. In the account of post-war recovery we also meet many people earlier exiled as kulaks or counter-revolutionaries now become factory workers in Yerevan. What was meted out as punishment proved to be good fortune that secured them and their children a better future. `Longing' also registers other signs of the beginning of the post-Stalinist economic, social and cultural recovery with references among other things to the rehabilitation of Armenian novelist Raffi. Meanwhile, and perhaps significantly, throughout the Soviet Union even old aristocrats types such as Natalia, whom Souren marries when in Russian exile, recover some of their privilege in an account that hints at the emergence of a new post-war privileged Soviet elite. Sahinian's presentation, with its enthusiastic depiction of Maro's and her family's pleasure, comfort and contentment, suggest a positive evaluation and optimistic vision of the direction of post-war, post-Stalin Soviet Armenian society. But the novel here can also be read as perhaps a more damning indictment of the Stalin legacy than anything that focussed on the Stalin years themselves. In Maro's strivings that so dominate the narrative we cannot fail to note a triumphant spirit of apolitical individualism and a consumerist ethos not very different to that, which existed in the west. Also significant here is the pivotal role of the nuclear family with Maro's vision and concerns rarely ranging beyond. Here `Longing' unavoidably suggests a judgement of the Stalin years as a burial ground for the collective, social and egalitarian vision that had inspired its thousands of activist victims such as Souren who in contrast to Maro now end life collapsed into a heap of disil IV. Such is the setting for a tear-jerking conclusion that depicts the closing years of what Souren painfully feels to have been a wasted life. He revisits his old village but only to feel the bitterness, the loneliness and even despair of many who suffered from 1937 purges. He recognises no one, with the exception of someone he never got on with. Near the old Church he overhears galling accusations as the young condemn those like himself who in the 1930s had wrecked religious artistic monuments. In Yerevan Souren is deemed too old to work. Pensioned off he has nothing left to live for, no social function, no family, no children, no grandchildren. Sahinian's depiction is deft. So is her capacity for observation and her perception: `He is already old; accept that you are old. For better or for worse, wisely or foolishly you have squandered your life. Now you sit waiting for death. People have covered you over. They have put bread on your table, eat and wait...the door has closed on you. Have no hope that someone will knock and come in. But go out so long as you have breath in you, it is better you die on the street, people will see you, they will then react.' (p474) Souren's only respite are pensioners who gather in a local park known as their `Club' where they endlessly chew over a past that can never be substitutes for real life. Only Maro really cares for him, feeling the still warm embers of the unfulfilled love of their younger days. As `Longing ends Souren's inability to adjust to post-war life and Maro's ruing of a lost love that lurks as endless sadness beneath her always smiling and well-garmented exterior capture vividly the urge to life, the emotion and sensibility for the passing of time, for lost opportunity and the very mystery of being, of happiness and suffering in life that seems always all to short. -- 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.