Ruben Sevak: Knight of Honor and Duty
Many at the age of 30 are just starting out their evolvement while he was killed at the age of 30, leaving a deep imprint in the memory of the Armenian people with his bright and dignified life. It is Ruben Sevak's birthday today.
He was a bright spark, intelligent and charismatic; he was well placed to be eventually in the list of the literature masters as he was already wrapped up in the European culture, in its context. He could finally lead a quiet, comfortable life in his Lausanne villa on the shores of Lake Neman with his beautiful wife and two children. The world fostered openness in front of the talented poet and gifted doctor but he preferred the conscious martyr's death.
Ruben Sevak (Çilingiryan) was born on February 15 1885 in the town of Silivri on the European coast of the Marmara Sea, in the vicinity of Constantinople. In 1905 after graduating with honors the famous Armenian Lyceum of Berberian in Constantinople and showing exceptional abilities in mastering various subjects Ruben Sevak left for Switzerland where in the fall of 1905 he became a student at a Medical Faculty of Lausanne University.
The outstanding poetic talent of the medical student came out even during his years of study at the lyceum. In Switzerland, one of the centers of political, social and, of course, aesthetic innovations of Europe his talent was revealed with even more capacity.
In the poems of the young poet one can hardly observe the sharp transition from East to West and this is not only his achievement. The matter is that Constantinople along with Tiflis was a huge centre of Armenian culture, at the outset of the 20th century was at the intersection of two civilizations. This was especially conspicuous among the Armenian intellectuals. The knowledge of French was not mandatory but it was so needful that almost all the writers of the Western Armenia were proficient in the language as their mother tongue. And since at the beginning of the century the Armenian culture was Eurocentric, it was easily, naturally integrated into the European culture. The obsession with Europe was especially clearly expressed in the Western Armenian poetry at the beginning of the 20th century.
Ruben Sevak was one of the best and the last representative of the cultural phenomenon of the XX century that was not yet duly appreciated. The twenty-years-old poet from the very first day in Switzerland did not feel himself as a back countryman in a foreign country, as it is usually the case but a full member of the literature process, in his native element.
In 1910 he married Yanni Apel, a beautiful German girl from an aristocratic family of Prussian colonel.
It takes a lot to show all the distinctness and luxuriance of the poetry of Ruben Sevak within the article. Therefore let's touch on some distinguishing poems where one can clearly notice the relationship, the commonness of exploring the European culture and Armenian poetry at the turn of the century.
A typical neo-romantic poem "Why?" apparently stays within the limits of romantic poetry and picturesqueness: maid-love, death…However the melancholic contemplation of the neo-romantic poet suddenly turns into a tragic monolgue of the visionary poet going to his death:
I am still going... profusely… to the graves
My traces are turning into…
A breeze of love would be enough for you —
Against the hurricane you went…
(word based translation)
The image that we often see in the poems of Sevak is the knight (poet) who is already gray haired, weary making his way to nowhere … Typically a neo-romantic image symbolizing here the death, the end of an entire era, the entire system of values.
I do not know who, God leads where,
always, in the heat and cold,
untraceable like the trouble,
it silently whirls along God knows where.
At the setting of the sun suppressing the fear,
I see a shadow on the clouds –
the rigorous knight in a hurry
Is passing God knows where
He is rushing and behind his back
the skeletons move wall
the black warm-blooded horse
is taking him God knows where.
I heard he is keeping a vow,
love and glory is awaiting him
and the grave is awaiting, where he
will find peace – God knows where.
But unlike other Neo-Romantics, Sevak considered the reason of death not only in new, faithless times. In the works of the poet death appears in two hypostases. The death of the ideal materializes into the physical death, violence. The poet foretells unprecedented disasters and miseries.
In 1912 (the year when the poem "Why?" was written)in one of his articles he wrote: "Indeed I am telling you, indeed the danger is colossal, so colossal, that we cannot even imagine."
The sonnet "BOSOM" presents a polarized picture of human existence: life and death. But they have merged, one gives rise to another. Love brings forth death.
It was the feast of life. And all the sons of mankind are on it.
All those who are still alive, who are dead and who have not yet been born
The fields were turning green under the expanse.
But till the immense profundity
It was like a sea torpidly immersed in dreams and cold.
Smoke rose from the earth, and it exhaled blood and passion,
And these smells are reduced to dead-alive.
Husbands and wives, here and there convolving in love and bitterness,
Engendering great Life without disturbing the silence
In the languor the heads of husbands were laying on the breasts of maidens,
And the wives carried in their wombs the seeds of strangers and
future deaths by preparing the same fate for them.
And the air was dead and lead and the Pyramid-Bosom rose to the heavens
From these places with granite severity
On it, on the very peak stood the black cross.
Love and Death, Eros and Thanatos, the metaphors of the era gradually take personal form in Ruben Sevak's works. His dreadful previsions started to come true. In early April, 1909 the new government of the Young Turks organized the massacres of Armenians in Cilicia. Within two weeks the armed frenetic crowd killed 30 thousand Armenians with the wordless toleration of the army and the police. The bloody XX century had arrived for Armenia. The poet, who lived away from the homeland, understood it perfectly well. There was a sharp change in his fate and work. For him Death: Thanatos is no longer only aestheticised character in a “ar-nouveau” style, but a real act of bloody drama, foreknowledge of the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915.
Who is crying at the door in cold?
A nomad, sister, open it…
Is there a skeleton there, muddy from tears?
Hunger, sister, open it…
The ax smashed my door into chips!
— It is a massacre, open it…
In 1911 in one of the letters Ruben Sevak Wrote: "I would like to visit Venice before finally returning to the homeland and spend at least one spring there, one of the few springs of my life. I want to live, to feel that I live... foreboding the death."
It was in August, 1914. The First World War had already begun. Alongside the quay of Constantinople the prevailing atmosphere gave poet's wife Yanni a nasty jar: "Ruben let's go back with the same steamer, I do not like this country at all…It's horrible; don't you see there are no smiles on the faces."
A few months later, on April 24, 1915 the government of the Young Turks arrested and deported the elite of the Armenian intellectuals of Constantinople. More than two thousand cultural, science and art figures, public officials and religious figures, even members of the parliament were secretly taken out of the capital and brutally killed. A little later, in May Sevak was also arrested. He was sent to the village of Changiri in Anatolia where there was already a large group of deported Armenians. The eyewitnesses say that he had incredibly put a bold face on while in exile, encouraging others and abiding the Hippocratic Oath till the end...
It fell out that he had to cure the daughter of a high Turkish official. She was at deaths door. The doctor went the extra mile to save the life of the patient. Her condition improved with each day; moreover, she fell in love with her savior. The girl's father wishing to express his gratitude, said to Sevak:
— Doctor, you all must die, none of you will be rescued. But if you adopt Islam and marry my daughter, I will save you...
Sevak replied aghast that he is already married and he has children.
— Not a big deal, — said the Turkish officer. — For our religion it is not an obstacle.
Sevak's friends that were also deported with him persuaded him to agree, to make a temporary apostasy to save his life. But Ruben Sevak understood that by saving his life he will lose his soul.
It is worthy of note that Sevak, being an atheist, considered apostasy a treason. Betrayal to his people, to his role as a poet, intelligent.
"We are the leaders of our people. If we betray our ideals, people will lose their faith in the justice of struggle. We must set the example. We must die for the sake of immortality of our people", — he said. And besides for him a person with utmost morality, a poet-knight, a moral maximalist, any transaction with consciousness was unacceptable. That is why he preferred the conscious death. "The knight sacrifices himself, — Berdyaev wrote, — and his goodness, but he will never sacrifice the values, he is truly committed to his values."
Ruben Sevak considered Christianity to be one of the supreme values not so much in terms of religious, but in common all mankind sense. The role of the artist as the carrier of great ideals is the value that is beyond the physical existence.
On August 26, 1915, at dawn, a group of five people were sent to the neighboring small town Ayash. Among them were Ruben Sevak and another prominent Armenian poet Daniel Varouzhan. The story of an eyewitness, a Turkish carriage driver named Hassan revealed the circumstances of their murder.
On the way the carriages were stopped by strange people. It seemed that the bandits attacked them; however the policeman obsequiously greeted the stranger who was followed by four armed men. Hence, the displacement was a false flag operation, a trap. The hands of the five victims were tied and they could not resist. The policemen went through their pockets, robbed them and left. The carriage driver was watching it from afar. The five slaughterers lashed out against the captives, stripped them and tied to the trees. "Then the head of the bandits and his men laid open their daggers and started to slaughter them slowly and calmly. The outcries of the condemned and their desperate rage tore my heart." Among the slaughterers was the father of the girl whose life Sevak had rescued.
The woeful news came to Yanni, who had not left Constantinople all this time trying to get her husband out of the exile. The Turks did not have the right to deport her as she had German citizenship. She also reached out to the German ambassador Wagenheim. The ambassador responded to Yanni's entreaty to rescue her husband thuswise: "You are an undeserving German woman, you betrayed your nation, married that Armenian man and now you are asking me to rescue him! He will not come back. They went to die."
Shuderring with ambassador's response, Yanni threw the German passport in the face of the German ambassador with the following words: "I have a son; I will bring him up so that when he is old he revenges the German people for his father." (O. Çilingiryan "Ruben Sevak", Paris, 1985)
Yanni Sevak renounced German allegiance, stopped speaking German and gave her children Armenian education. In the 1920s and 1930s she acted on the theatre stages of Paris, published some of her collections of prose and verse in French language.
Yanni died in Nice on December 28, 1967. As per her will she was buried according to the Armenian rite.
The anxiety of Ruben Sevak was not groundless. Yanni really had to "open her arms" to the cruelest windstorm that accrued the poet and his people, she had to share their tragic fate. And she did it amazingly honorably.
Special thanks to the author Alexander Toptchian and ZHAM Magazine for the article.
Translated by Anna Movsisyan.