Saturday, August 18, 2012

Birth of Shushanik Kurghinian - August 18, 1876

Quite a neglected name in the literary canon, Shushanik Kurghinian was one of the earliest figures of Armenian feminist literature. Shushanik Popoljian was born in Alexandropol (today Gyumri) into a poor family. She wrote in her autobiography, “Sometimes father would bring his shoe-repair ‘workstation’ home, in order to save money, and I would work for him demanding my wages, every single kopeck. Mother, being raised in a traditional household, would reprove of my ‘ill behavior toward my parent,’ blaming those harmful books for corrupting me.”

She first studied at an all-girls school. In 1893, at the age of 17, she organized the first female faction of the Social Democratic Hnchakian Party (founded in 1887). She was twenty-one when she married Arshak Kurghinian, a businessman and a member of the socialist underground in the Caucasus. She published her first poem in 1899 in the monthly Taraz. Her activities against the Russian czar blacklisted her. In 1903 she escaped to Rostov-on-Don, in the northern Caucasus, with her two children, while her husband stayed in Alexandropol. Living in utmost hardship and poverty, Shushanik Kurghinian immersed herself in the Russian revolutionary milieu and some of her most powerfully charged poetry was written from1907–1909, during the years of her affiliation with Rostov's proletarian underground. 

She managed to clandestinely publish her first collection of 43 poems, Ringing of the Dawn, assisted by Alexander Miasnikian, the future leader of the communist party in Soviet Armenia. Her second forthcoming volume, however, was rejected by the censors and never released. Her poetry brought out the most silenced voices and raised such issues as the unjust social conditions that forced poor women to lives of prostitution and exploitation. Kurghinian used poetry to promote feminist ideals, envisioning a social revolution through women’s struggle for equal rights and emancipation. 

She continued to write and participate in social projects, but her fragile health became an issue. She moved back to Alexandropol in 1921, a year after the sovietization of Armenia. She traveled to Kharkov and Moscow in 1925 for medical treatment, but returned home disappointed. After the earthquake of Leninakan (the name of Alexandropol from 1924-1990) in 1926, she settled in Yerevan. She died the next year at the age of fifty-one. 

During the Soviet era, Kurghinian’s poetry was used only for socialist propaganda, thus undermining the artistic merit of this writer and activist. Her feminist works were marginalized. As Victoria Rowe writes in A History of Armenian Women’s Writing, 1880-1922, “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’.” Her works have started to be seen under a new light over the past few years.