‘Where the Horizon Ends’ a novel by K Gyulnazaryan
Armenian News Network / Groong
January 14, 2021
By Eddie Arnavoudian
A Soviet era indictment of the Stalinist leadership during the Soviet Union’s war against Hitler
Written with page upon page of light-hearted humor that belies the grimness of its subject Khazhak Gyulnazarian’s (1918-1995) 1966 novel ‘Where the Horizon Ends’ is a significant and rare Armenian addition to the library of World War II literature.
The novel tells primarily of the dehumanization of Soviet soldiers in Nazi prisoner of war camps in Romania. How different to the experience of German held British PoWs portrayed in ‘The Wooden Horse’ by Eric Williams! As powerful as the presentation of prison camp life is Gyulnazryan’s extensive prelude where we follow young protagonists from call up, to training, to their journey to the battlefront and then to their participation in deadly battles on the Gerch Peninsula in the Black Sea. Critically, knitted into a dramatic, tragic, and moving story is a systematic critique of the Stalinist leadership’s criminal mismanagement of the anti-Nazi war and of its criminal treatment of Soviet soldiers captured by German foes.
The protagonists are ordinary people, no caricatured cutouts here of those imaginary, unreal pure and virtuous Communist Party cadre-warriors beloved of the worst type of socialist realism. Narrator Aram Taryan, the tall, witty, and charismatic Dikran Paghramyan, wise and authoritative beyond his years and a small band of other Russian, Ukrainian, and Azerbaijani soldiers are just like any youngster playing football down in the square, unaware at the beginning of the full tragedy that their and their families’ lives would become.
Lives full of ambition, hope and desire are shattered by bullets, bombs and shrapnel in mud filled trenches. Spirit and morale are challenged brutally by military setbacks, defeats, and incarceration in Nazi prison camps. Yet still human, everywhere they seek for gaps of normality in the savage abnormality of war and prison camp. They dream and strive for love, and for sex too, when this is possible, but always for companionship and solidarity, the very fundamental essence of human being and human survival.
At a socio-political level the story of these young men is an artistic indictment of the Soviet Union’s Stalinist leadership before, during and after the Second World War. There is implicit condemnation of the 1930s purges that decimated the Soviet Union’s military cadre and that weakened its war effort. We read of men previously charged as ‘enemies of the people’ now restored to their military positions. Frontline troops give little credence to the Party machine’s charges against purge victims. The terrible Soviet setbacks in Gerch result from lack of adequate armaments and equipment and poor military leadership.
The artistic critique is simultaneously a defense of Soviet prisoners defamed as cowards by Stalinist officials. We see them captured not for lack of courage to die for the ‘motherland’ but for lack of weapons and because of incompetent leadership. And even when prisoners, Dikran, Aram, and their other comrades do not surrender. In barbarous conditions, almost starved, abused, and dehumanized, they never cease their struggle to escape and rejoin ranks on the front line. The novel exposes the Stalinist leadership’s stigmatizing of Soviet prisoners as a cover up of its own failures that cost so many lives.
All of this, to repeat, flows naturally and seamlessly from the powerful story of individual human beings at war.
This note on a fine novel cannot conclude without particular reference to its universality. Besides its cast of multinational characters, its universal quality is underlined by its Armenian protagonists. They are not marked by assumed unique or extraordinary national characteristics that set them apart from all others. They are no more or less courageous, passionate, fearful, anxious, or terrified than the next non-Armenian person. That they come from Yerevan adds a touch of national color to what is however a deeply universal human story.
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is ANN/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.