Stepan Zorian: An Outstanding Soviet Era Novelist’s Posthumous Works
Armenian News Network / Groong
November 28, 2021
By Eddie Arnavoudian
Unflinching critical engagement in Soviet Armenia
Short story writer and novelist Stepan Zorian (1889-1967) described himself as a ‘chronicler of his times’. His three volumes of posthumously published notes, letters, articles, fragments from unfinished short stories and novels and especially his diaries make for riveting reading about life in Soviet Armenia. They are full of frank and revealing insight as they expertly chronicle the Stalin era, the hardships of everyday life in Armenia, the traumas of Armenian history, the fragility of the Soviet Armenian state, the reality of Great Russian and other national chauvinisms, the Cold War, the threat of global nuclear catastrophe, opinions on writers and poets as well as on his own literary career and much more.
Like the first and second volumes, this third one (336pp, 2013, Yerevan) has the quality of primary source material and the quality of fine art too as the author with vivid sketches of individual experience, emotion and sensibility, his own included, captures a sense of those invisible but overarching social relations and forces that shape lives.
Illuminating comments on painting, sculpture, architecture and literature show him unafraid to challenge Soviet orthodoxy or the more bombastic Armenian patriotic traditions. The almost deified Soviet writer Maxim Gorky is dismissed. ‘I was never attracted by any of his works’. His ‘characters are artificial’ and his most famous novel ‘Mother’ ‘is boring, verbose, artless and unconvincing.’ Zorian’s judgment of poet Siamanto, victim of the genocide, is no less withering: ‘wooden language and words plucked from dictionaries’; instead of ‘honest emotion’ ‘bombastic sentences’, ‘accumulations of words…bombastic words.’
Despite the great honour he enjoyed in the Soviet era Zorian had no time for the bureaucratic USSR party apparatus whose officials tiresomely and repeatedly heralded a degenerate Soviet Union as a triumph of socialism. Despondent, in a December 1966 diary entry he warmly recalls the pre-Stalinist ‘1920s… (as) different days. Then there was enthusiasm, faith and a positive outlook. These have now all been forgotten. Petty egoism prevails everywhere… What is going to be the end of this…’ Zorian died in 1967, just over two decades before ‘the end’ in the form of the USSR’s collapse.
Ruminations on tiny landlocked Armenia grasp its existential vulnerability even during the Soviet age. ‘The phenomenon of mass emigration’ that had blighted the larger homelands during the 19th century ‘continue to this day’. Like yesterday, in Soviet Armenia too ‘rivers have flowed beyond its borders to irrigate the fields of other nations, its human resources migrated to build other nations’ cities, its intellectuals built other nations’ science.’ With Armenia weakened and now ‘bereft of its (historical) lands’ ‘the outlook for its continued survival is bleak.’ Our nation ‘is like an irreparably broken plate, its fragments strewn far and wide’.
Passing entries capture wider truths. The times are menaced by unresolved national animosities. The ‘brotherhood (of peoples) is an illusion.’ National antagonisms during the Soviet age have been suppressed but not eliminated. ‘Rather than the sermon of brotherhood it is the law that restrains.’ Meanwhile Great Russian chauvinism corrupts the Armenian language. ‘We have to have permission’ ‘to use our own native words’. ‘The defense of (Armenian) terminology is damned as nationalism!’ ‘What usurpation!’
Zorian’s register of his own personal drama is as profound as it is moving. 70th birthday greetings ‘leave a bad taste’. They remind him ‘of the years during which my bright dreams and so many creative ambitions died.’ He remembers the Stalinist purges when ‘countless men…innocent comrades and friends…were exterminated.’ Five years on as the December ‘snow settles on roofs and trees…I feel childhood returning and despite being 75 I want to run and play!’ But still there is no escaping memory. Recollection of ‘comrades lost and banished’ cause deep pain. Revealing enduring wisdom, Zorian continues:
‘Albeit 75 I do not feel old. I remain captivated by the beauties of nature and of life, exactly as I was when young. Moreover, my mind is as active as ever, as is my desire to work. Perhaps this itself is a sign of age…we want to leave a legacy behind. On the other hand, the desire to work is perhaps an instinct that seeks to dim the thought of death. Yet I now think of death more frequently …It does not matter how much one grasps it as an inexorable law of nature, death remains the greatest tragedy of a human life.’
The available portions of Zorian’s diaries are invaluable. Alas, only tiny segments survive. For personal and family safety at the height of Stalin’s purges, he and his family burnt the bulk of diaries Zorian had started keeping in 1910. A huge masterpiece of art has been lost beyond any recovery. But that which remains together with all Zorian’s posthumous writings are absolutely indispensable to any historian of Soviet Armenia and of Soviet Armenian art, culture and literature.
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.