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.