Shushanik Kurghinian, a luminous representative of Armenian proletarian poetry and one of the first revolutionary poets was once highly cherished throughout Soviet Armenia. Her socialist poetry and poems dedicated to the struggles of the working class were familiar to almost every schoolchild.
Today, Shushanik Kurghinian is mostly forgotten. During the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kurghinian, along with her revolutionary poetry, disappeared from the literary arena. However, her writings were not solely about socialism: Kurghinian was a feminist, a fiercely courageous voice of girls and women. She was a voice for the oppressed.
Shushanik Popoljiants was born in 1876 in Alexandrapol (present-day Gyumri), to parents Harout and Tiruhi Popoljiants. A daughter of a poor cobbler, she grew up in difficult socioeconomic conditions and faced hardships from a very young age. In 1883, at the age of seven, Shushanik’s father took her to a local monastery to receive her primary education. Her rebellious soul, however, did not conform to the strict rules of the nuns. In her autobiography, she writes of her dislike of the teaching style and treatment of the nuns and how she would spend most of her days outside the monastery playing in the nearby river. “...I would be late for my classes and the nuns would point to me in the classroom and tell my classmates that I have a ‘devilish force to destroy,’'’ Kurghinian wrote.
After spending a year in the monastery, Shushanik entered Alexandrapol’s Arghutian Girls School. While there, she fully immersed herself in her education. In her autobiography, she writes: “I liked the school, I loved to listen, to learn... I loved to wander in the classrooms, I liked the remnants of words and numbers on the blackboards... I naturally felt that the well-placed books on the shelves had something to tell me, they were going to bring me some luck…”
Her dedication did not only extend to education, Shushanik was also a great admirer of the working class. During her summer breaks, she worked at different jobs making pottery or weaving and would sometimes help her father. “I would work for him and ask for every penny of my salary which my mother, raised in conservative traditions, would find ‘disrespectul towards a parent and a result of stupid books.’”
In 1893, at the age of 17, Shushanik became a member of the Armenian Social Democrat Hunchakian Party. Founded in 1887 by a group of students in Geneva, Switzerland, the party’s original goal was to attain Armenia's independence from the Ottoman Empire. The party’s Marxist ideology greatly impacted Shushanik and soon she fully embraced the socialist ideas. Months later, she organized the Hunchakian party’s first women’s political group in the Caucasus and Shushanik along with other young women prepared to go and join the Armenian National Liberation Movement in Western Armenia.
However, Kurghinian was destined to be a writer. After meeting her for the first time, Avetik Isahakyan, one of Armenia’s most famous writers, wrote in his memoir that Shushanik left the impression of an aspiring writer, different from the others.
"She was very assertive among other girls - they listened to her. We got acquainted at the [Seminary], I had just arrived from Europe and she was close to graduation. We became close friends. She told me she wrote... Promised to read, but never kept her promise.”
Shushanik’s journey as a writer was not easy in the traditional and conservative society of Alexandrapol. At the end of the 19th century, unlike in Constantinople, where Armenian writers Srbuhi Dussap, Zapel Yesayan, Zaruhi Kalemkearian or Marie Beylerian were able to express themselves and publicly talk about women’s issues, women in Alexandrapol had to sacrifice their freedom and take care of their families to avoid the harsh criticism of society. Shushanik recalled the numerous challenges she faced in trying to break the conservative “antiquated rules'' and traditions in her family. A girl from the lower classes could never be a writer: It was solely a man’s profession.
“Society does not forgive me and the persecution begins...you can become anything but not a writer. When admonishing me, they say that I emerged from a hut, that my father is a cobbler and there is no guarantee that I would go to a rich house as a bride, and that I need to ‘spin wool and wait for a carpenter, or a blacksmith, or a groom from a village.’"
In 1895, Shushanik entered the Russian gymnasium. At the time, Alexandrapol was under the rule of Tsarist Russia and there was an attempt to Russify most of the Armenian schools. Upon her graduation, Shushanik planned to move to Moscow to continue her education but the person who promised to help her was exiled and all her dreams of pursuing higher education were dashed.
Instead, in 1897, Shushanik married an underground socialist and tradesman Arshak Kurghinian with whom she had three children, Anush, Shavarsh and Arsham. Shushanik’s letters to her husband from that time period reveal that she was very much in love with her husband, who despite the conservative views of society, greatly supported her career as a writer.
In the late 1890s, Shushanik started to gradually appear in the Armenian literary arena and in 1899, published her first poem in “Taraz” magazine in Tbilisi [editor Tigran Nazaryan]. During this period, Shushanik did not write much and most of her poetry was rather lyrical and gentle, touching upon the topics of the centuries-long struggles of the Armenian nation and the beautiful landscapes of her homeland. In 1903, in order to avoid arrest, Shushanik, already a mother of two, decided to move to Moscow. The Tsarist government had been spying on her for her socialist ideas and she was advised to leave Alexandrapol.
On their way to Moscow, one of Shushanik’s children fell critically ill and the family decided to stay in Rostov-on-Don. In the beginning of the 20th century, the city was one of the early industrial centers of Tsarist Russia, leading to the increase of the working class and poor living conditions of the population. A woman from a lower class family, who had faced injustice from a young age, Shushanik immediately embraced the sufferings of the working class. As she recalled in her autobiography, impacted by the failed Russian Revolution in 1905, she soon experienced a “poet’s awakening” and started to actively voice the struggles of the workers.
Excerpts from the poem “The Workers”
We are coming,
With dirty old jackets, covered in soot,
With torn hats and dirty hair
Mostly pale, hungry and barefoot,
Sometimes pale, sometimes resigned
A clear sign of hunger and that silent misery.
Sometimes with uncontrollable anger, eager for revenge,
Looking old before our time from the awful pain,
With the desire for light and fresh air on our faces
With the hope of one day living like human beings,
And with deep wounds in our broken hearts
We are coming….
Yes, we are coming
From the forgotten darkness of torture and pain,
Poverty, persecution and slavery,
To destroy your tyranny,
To break the chains of slavery,
To forge a new road for ones like us
Who deserve equality.
This is how we are coming!
Shushanik’s poetry from this period is bold and forthright. She described the hardships of working class people and addressed their struggle against the harsh working conditions. In a poem “Dim the Chandeliers” she blatantly criticized the rich who entertain themselves in front of abundant tables while the poor starve and suffer.
Excerpts from the poem “Dim the Chandeliers”
You celebrate merrily with peals
of laughter echoing off the high walls,
from which the hungry and hapless fell,
shattering their legs…
And your chandeliers shimmer brightly,
illuminating your sated faces,
While your consciences are hard as rock;
your hearts, forever dark.
Dim the chandeliers…
And let, row by row, the hungry, the orphans
you left without father or mother,
gather around your overflowing table.
And let, row by row, the wretched, barefoot mothers,
who lick your thresholds, roaming
the streets, begging for dry bread,
gather to look in your palaces for the tombs
of those who at the expense of their own lives,
labored to build the richly carved walls
of your luxurious homes,
that rise to the heavens.
However, one of the most important aspects of Kurghinian’s poetry, which has been largely neglected throughout the years, is her direct calls for women's rights and empowerment. Along with her revolutionary poetry, Kurghinian demanded freedom for Armenian women and raised issues concerning working women, young maids and prostitutes. In several poems such as “I Weep for You, Armenian Woman,” “The Seamstress” and “As a Delicate May Rose,” Shushanik complained about the social structures and the established roles of women within the family; she rallied for Armenian women and encouraged them to fight for their rights and break patriarchal traditions.
Excerpts from the poem “I Weep for You, Armenian Woman”
I know not how to cry, but I often weep for you, Armenian woman,
for your wretched life of enslavement, your lot and condition,
your patience turned to stupor, your slumbering soul
is my very own wound, my pain.
have you heartless men heard the lullaby song
the Armenian woman sings rocking her child on her knees?
surely this song is silent expression of incurable pain,
caused by an unnatural life.
This song, in the houses of wealthy and poor,
is a doleful requiem of buried memories,
a synchronous rhythm accompanied by tears
that dull the luster of young cheeks.
Shushanik also addresses the issue of women being perceived as objects. In the poem “Sold” she portrays a young girl whose parents, without her consent, “sell” her to a rich man. Throughout the poem, Kurghinian represents the painful reality of young girls and shows the agonizing aftermath of the “deal.”
Excerpts from the poem “Sold”
She was young, pretty and gentle,
with a childlike smile on her lucid face,
always helped her mother and chanted,
sweetly in a carefree voice, a merry soul.
One day they sold her for a good price,
as a wife to the rich “agha.”
when her cruel father arrived home drunk,
her virgin’s heart lost sleep and rest.
Years passed...I saw her one day,
looking altered, unhealthy, so frail.
She had come to the old chapel as a pilgrim,
fasting for lent, incense and candles in her hand.
One of Kurghinian’s most powerful poems “I Want to Live,” is another example of her struggle for equality. Here, she fearlessly expresses her desire to equally stand next to men and demands to freely express herself without being criticized by society.
I Want to Live
I want to live–but not a lavish life
trapped in obscurity–indifferent and foolish,
nor as an outright hostage of artificial beauty,
a frail creature–delicate and feeble,
but equal to you–oh men–prosperous
as you are–powerful and headstrong–
fit against calamities–ingenious in mind,
with bodies full of vigor.
I want to love–unreserved–without a mask–
self-willed like you–so that when in love
I can sing my feelings to the world
and unchain my heart–a woman’s heart,
before the crowds?ignoring their stern
judgmen’s with my shield and destroy
the pointed arrows aimed at me
with all my vitality unrestrained!
I want to act–equal–next to you–
as a loyal member of the people,
let me suffer again and again–night or day–
wandering from one place to another–
always struggling for the ideal
of freedom?and let this burden
torment me in my exile,
if only I may gain a purpose in this life.
I want to eat comfortably–as you do,
from that same fair bread–for which
I gave my share of holy work;
in the struggle for existence–humble and meek,
without feeling shame–let me
shed sweat and tears for a blessed earning,
let scarlet blood flow from my worker’s hands
and let my back tire in pain!
I want to fight–first as your rival,
standing against you with an old vengeance,
since absurdly and without mercy you
turned me into a vassal through love and force.
Then after clearing these disputes of my gender,
I want to fight against the agonies of life,
courageously like you–hand in hand,
facing this struggle to be or not.
Kurghinian’s awakening in 1905 deeply shaped her as a writer. In 1907, with the assistance of Alexander Myasnikyan who would later become the first leader of Soviet Armenia, Shushanik published her first volume of poems entitled “Ringing of the Dawn'' in Nor Nakhijevan (a city populated mainly by Armenians near Rostov-on-Don). During those years, despite the difficult social conditions, she was an active member of underground proletariat groups and considered her poetry “absolutely political.” In 1907, Avetik Isahakyan visited Shushanik in Russia and later wrote in his autobiography that she left a “mysterious impression” on him.
"She left the impression of an enigma: a true sibyl, a sorceress, an oracle -- slender, tall, strong, with phosphorescent eyes - completely isolated from a family setting...She was all in her thoughts, her poems, her dreams, books, newspapers...Even though she was a loving mother, she was not destined for marriage and family: Knowing that her mission was different, she was carrying on that tragedy.”
After the publication of “Ringing of the Dawn,” Shushanik wrote her second volume of poetry but it was censored by the authorities of Tsarist Russia because of its socialist ideology.
Even though she spent most of her life in Russia, Shushanik was in constant communication with Armenian intellectuals. She exchanged letters with writers Hovhannes Tumanyan, Avetik Isahakyan and Ghazaros Aghayan, actors Vrtanes Papazian and Hovhannes Zarifian, art historian Garegin Levonyan. Kurghinian was also well aware of the Armenian women writers in Constantinople and was close with Turkish-Armenian writer and journalist Arshakuhi Teodik.
In 1910, Shushanik’s health started to deteriorate and she had to spend several years travelling to different sanatoriums. During those years, Shushanik, greatly impacted by the devastating aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, wrote several poems describing the sufferings of the refugees. Kurghinian also wrote theatrical plays. Her letters to Armenian actor Hovhannes Zarifian reveal that there was even an attempt to stage one of her plays. However, it was never realized.
In 1921, Alexander Myasnikyan invited Shushanik to newly established Soviet Armenia to actively participate in the revival of the Armenian nation. Shushanik, who wholeheartedly believed the bolsheviks would build Armenia, immediately moved to Yerevan. However, while in Armenia, Kurghinian lived in poor conditions which further weakened her health. In letters to her daughter from that period, she constantly complained about her financial situation and deteriorating health and condemned Soviet officials for not properly taking care of her. In 1925, she traveled to Moscow to receive treatment and then returned to Yerevan. Shushanik Kurghinian died on November 24, 1927, leaving behind a rich legacy.
Shushanik Kurghinian: Then and Now
During the Soviet period, Shushanik Kurghinian was a beloved poet. A supporter of the Russian Revolution and socialist ideology, she was acknowledged as the founder of proletarian poetry in Armenia. Marxist literary critic Bakshi Ishkhanyan compared her work to other contemporary writers such as Hakob Hakobyan and the Italian poet Ada Negri (1870-1945). Moreover, Soviet authorities included Kurghinian’s poetry in the school curricula and supported publication of her work in different time periods. In 1939, with the help of Kurghinian’s daughter, Anush, the second volume of her poetry was published. Her next collections of poems were published in 1947 and 1971. In 1955, the Soviet literary critic Hovhannes Ghazaryan wrote a monograph on her works, which was published by the National Academy of Sciences and in 1981, the Academy published another volume of Kurghinian’s work including previously unpublished poems, short stories and letters. In 1976, Shushanik’s character appeared in the movie “Yerkunk” [Delivery] by the famous Armenian director Frunze Dovlatyan, which represents the life of Alexander Myasnikyan, who comes to his homeland to help build Soviet Armenia.
Even though Soviet authorities greatly respected Shushanik’s poetry, her poems addressing the struggles of women were largely neglected and were never acknowledged in the context of early 1900s feminist thought. In “A History of Armenian Women’s Writing, 1880-1922,” Victoria Rowe writes that the “Soviet literary criticism ignored the gender specific aspects of Kurghinian’s works because they posited that socialist society would eliminate women’s problems, and any specific addressing of women’s issues was condemned as ‘bourgeois.’”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Shushanik Kurghinian disappeared from Armenia’s literary arena and remained largely unknown.
In 2003, Shushan Avagyan, a translator and assistant professor at the American University of Armenia, translated a selection of Shushanik Kurghinian’s poems into English. The book, which generated interest in the forgotten poet within Armenia and the Diaspora, presented an opportunity to acknowledge Kurghinian also as a feminist writer and rediscover her heritage.
Avagyan says that she first encountered Kurghinian during her school years: “We had a section devoted to Shushanik Kurghinian in our high school textbook. When I asked my teacher why we weren’t reading her works she said that Kurghinian was not an ‘important writer.’ And I moved on.”
Several years later, when Avagyan was pursuing her master’s degree in women’s literature at Illinois State University, she discovered a wealth of literature written by women and feminists from antiquity to the present times. She also realized that none of them were Armenian. “I felt that something was missing, and then Shushanik Kurghinian’s figure emerged from the depths of my memory and changed the course of my life...She was an enigmatic, obscure character whose work I wanted to extricate from oblivion,” Avagyan says.
At first afraid of being disappointed by Kurghinian’s poetry, Avagyan was soon struck by the force of Kurghinan’s voice, the “height of her stature, and the depth of her optimism.”
It was then that she decided to translate her works into English. “I wanted to share her heritage with the world,” Avagyan says. “Also, I was looking for a way to understand myself and my life better. I wanted to find my own voice through translation.” Beyond translating the works of the fierce poet, Avagyan, through art installations, tried to bring attention to the fact that although Kurghinian’s house existed, there was no house-museum dedicated to the poet.
“Years ago, I think it was in 2012, I saw a video about Manvel Melkonyan. He had a disability and was living in a dilapidated house on Pushkin Street in Gyumri which he claimed was the house where Kurghinian had lived. I went to Gyumri with my partner. Manvel showed us the house, and we photographed the house inch by inch,” says Avagyan.
Several months later, during the 8th Gyumri International Biennale in 2012, Avagyan used the photographs for a David Hockney-style photographic collage installation titled “Shushanik Kurghinian Left This House in 1905.”
“I recreated the house using the same photographs again at a symposium at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna,” Avagyan explains. “Later I used those photographs at a panel discussion on migration and exodus organized by Viken Berberian at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art [NPAK] on April 6, 2013. I kept recreating the house on paper to bring attention to it, to remind people about the absence of the house-museum of the great Shushanik Kurghinian.”
Today, Kurghinian’s house is abandoned. The owners are unknown and the state seems to not be interested in preserving the writer's property. Shushanik Kurghinian’s archive including her manuscript, photographs, personal documents and books is kept at the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Arts in Yerevan. Her grave, along with a modest statue is located in Komitas park, outside the Komitas Pantheon. There is also a library in Yerevan and a school in Gyumri named after her. Kurghinian’s legacy is sometimes celebrated by feminist groups, but her life and work still remain unknown to a larger public.
Several translated passages of Avetik Isahakyan’s memoirs were taken from Shushan Avagyan’s article “A Forgotten Heritage” published in Groong, 2003.
Special thanks to the staff of the Yeghishe Charents Museum of Literature and Arts.