Remembering Silva Kaputikyan: A Consummate Poet, A Valiant Activist

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In the early 2000s, I was in Armenia when I called Silva Kaputikyan (or Gaboudigian in Western Armenian) on the last day of my trip. I apologetically informed her that my visit to her would not last more than one hour, because of time constraints. Her answer was: “If you will bargain your hours and minutes with me, you may as well cancel your entire visit.”

She was blunt and brutally honest with friend and foe alike.

The centennial of her birth was in 2019, but the anniversary was marked in a rather muted way. This year, her 101st anniversary was celebrated in a more official way; her apartment was dedicated as a museum.

Kaputikyan was bigger than life. She carried an aura of regal dignity on top of her charismatic personality. She was born in Armenia during the Soviet period, but she never dissociated herself from the heritage of her family, who hailed from Van, from the oldest cradle of Armenian civilization.

During her lifetime, she produced a profusion of literary output which was translated into Russian and through Russian into many foreign languages. She was more than an Armenian poet; she was celebrated throughout the Soviet Union. She surely paid her dues to the Soviet officialdom to build her literary and political pedestal, from the height of which she delivered her poetic and nationalistic messages to Armenia and beyond.

Even her poem dedicated to the Chelyabinsk Tractor Factory was not devoid of poetic color and candor.

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As a female poet, her lyricism and the melodic line of her emotions helped her to stand out among her contemporaries.

Her thinking and sentimental journeys were bathed in feminine vulnerability and genuine artistry.

From the mists and perfumes of her lyricism also emanated an iron will which dominated not only her poetry and her entire literary output but also her social activism.

During the Soviet era, any deviation from the state-sponsored Marxist dogma could cost a writer his or her career or even his or her life. Kaputikyan somehow stood above the Glavlit (Soviet censorship office) because of her talent and immense popularity.

She seemed to be untouchable. And she was smart enough to turn that status to her advantage to promote her political agenda.

Early on, when no one could utter a word about Karabakh’s Armenian identity and the plight of its population, Kaputikyan embarked on a crusade to demand Karabakh for Armenia, joined by journalist Zori Balayan and novelist Sero Khanzadyan. She took her mission all the way to Moscow to politicize the issue. Through her leadership, even under the iron rule of the Soviet regime, Armenians were able to collect 75,000 signatures in support of Karabakh’s plight. Kaputikyan carried her message all the way to Kremlin and argued in front of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. At that time, political fortunes of the Soviet Union  were undergoing a fundamental shift but no one was certain of the future. People still guarded their opinions as in previous times.

Kaputikyan launched her social activism when male chauvinism was rampant in Armenia. And referring to her courage, the poetess boasted: “There is only one manly man in Armenia and she is a woman.”

During the Soviet period, Silva Kaputikyan was credited for her continued contacts with the diaspora. She connected the diaspora with Armenia’s intellectual life, enriching both in the process. The Tekeyan Cultural Association invited the poetess to her first diasporan tour. Her visits to Lebanon and Syria were of historic proportions. Her superb rhetoric, blended with her poetry and patriotism carried the day. She was treated as a living saint. Huge crowds packed concert halls to hear her inspirational and poetic message. She reflected in her message Armenia’s cultural evolution which was at its height then.

As much as she reflected Armenia’s life in the diaspora, she also helped the reverse process. As she continued touring the Middle East, Europe and America, she began publishing her memoirs. She published two monumental volumes, The Caravans Still Marching and The Mosaic Composed of the Colors of Soul and the Map.

She used her literary talents to make those volumes extremely readable; humorous anecdotes, historic encounters and philosophical musings were used to put diasporan life in a readable and informative context.

Of course, some incidental events were interpreted through the lens of Soviet-trained intellectual perspectives, but overall, she laid out a colorful tapestry of Armenian life around the world.

Silva Kaputikyan’s adulation extended beyond her reputation as a poet; she became a national icon. Visiting her apartment in Yerevan inspired diasporan Armenians with the awe of entering a sacred shrine. And she savored that veneration with obvious delight.

When independence came to Armenia, many believed that Kaputikyan’s free spirit would welcome that historic event with open arms. But surprisingly, the opposite happened. Her idealism clashed with the opportunism of the newcomers. It was unbelievable to find the first president of independent Armenia, Levon Ter Petrosian, with solid academic credentials, treat the writers, intellectuals and artists of the country as a philistine. The intellectual elite, who had enjoyed a reverential position during the Soviet period, became the underdogs. That infuriated Kaputikyan, who took Ter Petrosian to task.

At that period, the Tekeyan Cultural Association once again had invited the poetess to tour, this time around in the US and Canada, to celebrate her 75th birthday. A collection of her new poems was published, with this writer’s introduction, to mark the occasion. But Kaputikyan turned that literary tour into a political campaign. She used every forum in every city to criticize Ter Petrosian himself, his government and his policies. And she asked dismissively the rhetorical question: “Who the hell is this scholar of Assyrian studies who has enrolled himself as a member of the Writers’ Union, among creative writers?”

She embarrassed her hosts to no end, because they were trying to maintain friendly relations with the first president.

But the worst was yet to come with the regime of the second president, Robert Kocharyan, who she believed impoverished Armenia and encouraged its depopulation.

But her antagonism came to a boil with the massacre at the parliament on October 27, 1999.

“Any president with dignity and integrity would have resigned after this carnage,” she proclaimed and then added, “A huge abyss has been created between Armenia’s population and its ruler.”

To give a higher pitch to her anger, she returned the Mesrob Mashtots Medal, which President Kocharyan had bestowed upon her, accompanied with an abrasive poem composed for the occasion, titled, “Revolt,” in which she wrote, “I am not living any more, yet I am not dying either. My not dying will last very long, until I see the day of your judgement.” And that irony became a reality.

Now that Kocharyan is behind bars, waiting for his day in court, Kaputikyan’s poem has found new popularity and resonance.

Kaputikyan’s poetry enriched the Armenian literary canon in many ways. She was already a classic during her lifetime. Future generations will come to be inspired by her legacy of impeccable poetry. But above all, she will stand tall in Armenian history as an icon of liberty and patriotism.

Kaputikyan died in 2006 and after a state funeral, was buried in the Komitas pantheon.

From Van to Yerevan, she continues to remain as important as ever 101 years after her birth.

 

 

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