Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 12/05/2011


Armenian News Network / Groong
December 5, 2011

by Eddie Arnavoudian

Today, in the post-Soviet Third Republic of Armenia Russian, elites
once again exercise decisive and corrosive power over critical aspects
of Armenian national life. For Russian strategists Armenia is little
more than a pawn in their wider Caucasus and regional ambitions.
Digging the grave of indigenous economic development, Russian
financiers, of course together with other non-Armenian corporations,
control large sectors of an already meagre, dependent and decomposing
economy. Meanwhile Russian military garrisons stationed in Armenia
offer Russian authorities the means to hold the land to ransom and
bend the nation to Russian designs.
However for Armenia the Russian bear, today as it was in the past, is
a contradictory beast. Even as it debilitates Armenian statehood it
ensures immediate survival. Russian political and economic interests
and its military presence, for the moment at any rate, shores up the
Armenian state serving also to stay the hand of Turkish and Azeri
forces intent on encroaching on what remains of historic Armenian
territory. Yet dependence upon Russia as a first condition for
national existence augurs ill for Armenia. No nation can develop
forward or is secure when so dependent on another.
Leo's `From the Past' (499pp, 2009, Yerevan) and the first of John
Kirakossian's invaluable two-volume study of `Bourgeois Diplomacy and
Armenia' during the 1870s and 1880s (364pp, 1978, Yerevan) throw
thought provoking light on the Russian state's destructive yet
contradictory historical role in the process of Armenian nation
formation. Both volumes are vastly broader and richer in scope, yet
issues beyond their reflection on the Russian dimension must be
visited another time.
Leo and Kirakossian both underline the historical truth that like the
British state and its ruling classes, Russian elites have also played
an instrumental role in destroying the central pillars of any viable
Armenian nation and state, the severe consequences of which Armenia
and Armenians suffer to this day. Tsarism directly and British
imperialism through its critical support for and protection of the
Ottoman Empire trapped Armenian national development in a crippling
pincer movement. In the areas of Armenia that they colonised both the
Tsarist state and the British-protected Ottoman state worked with
systematic and meticulous design to prevent the emergence of any
independent indigenous social, economic, political and military forces
upon which a viable modern nation could stand. Both authors
persuasively set out the Russian state's oft neglected but
particularly pernicious strategy to truncate the emergence of a modern
Armenian nation.

A major Russian presence in Armenian life stretches back centuries,
beginning to assume determining shape from the 17th century and
producing along with this a powerful pro-Russian lobby within the
Armenian national movement. But Russia's profoundly reactionary role
in Armenian history assumes acute prominence following its 1828
occupation of eastern Armenia that until then was crushed between the
hammer and the anvil of Ottoman and Persian occupation. The Tsar and
his servants entered the stage at once as saviours of the Armenian
people and as executioners of a potentially independent nation. In
time Russia's presence resolved themselves into forms that fixed and
reinforced an Armenian subordination that systematically undermined
the foundations of national development but enabled still some
flourish of social, economic and cultural life.
However in the case of Russian power, for Armenians it appears it was
a case of `better the Christian devil you didn't know than the Ottoman
and Persian devils you did'. A shared Christianity certainly helped to
nurture and legitimise sympathies for the Tsarist state. But the
prominent and even dominant Armenian pro-Russian orientation had
deeper objective roots. Ottoman and Persian rule was surely destroying
the pillars and the fabric of life in historic Armenia. The 1828
Tsarist occupation of eastern Armenia, until then a province of the
Persian Empire, radically altered things. Under Tsarist authority
Armenians acquired an unprecedented degree of social and economic
security. For the first time life was relatively safe. For the first
time Armenians believed that unlike in the past of Persian occupation
they could now begin to enjoy the fruit of their own labours.
It was this assurance of immediate survival that explains why from the
17th century on political leaders, churchmen, intellectuals, artists,
merchants, peasants and labourers, among them Israel Ori, Khatchatur
Abovian, Berj Broshian, Hovanness Toumanian and countless others into
the 20th century, all insisted on Armenian incorporation into the
Russian Empire as a condition of national survival. The Armenian
Robert Burns, Hovanness Toumanian, would countenance no challenge to
the wisdom that only in Russia's embrace was Armenia safe, while
national musical genius Komitas asserted that western Armenia could
survive only if annexed to Russia.
It would not do to dismiss or even underplay this salvaging aspect of
the Russian colonisation. Yet, here a cruel historical irony! Even as
Tsarist power offered Armenian peasants, artisans, traders and
merchants a modicum of economic and social security it moved
immediately and with ruthless determination to eliminate existing
Armenian forces that could have accumulated the power to challenge
Armenia's status as a subordinate Russian colony and that could have
evolved into an independent state-building national leadership. In the
designs of its new colonial masters Armenia was to be reduced to a
malleable body without muscle or backbone. So the Tsarist elite right
up to its 1917 collapse acted single-mindedly to press occupied
eastern Armenia in a state of impotent servitude, to mould it into an
agent for its own regional and global adventures. Every chapter of
Russian policy was an exercise to strip out Armenian backbone and
Why is self-evident.
The Tsarist state and around it the Russian bourgeoisie harboured a
great fear of Armenian economic and political potential. From the 16th
century on, operating through the vast Russian market, through the
Caucuses, the Ottoman state, the Persian Empire and beyond in India
and in Europe, Armenian capital figured as a significant economic and
commercial power. Supported by an independent state within the heart
of Asia Minor - in Armenia - Armenian elites could emerge as a
problem. An independent Armenian capitalist class backed by its own
state was sure to drain Russian capital's profits, block its
expansionist pathways and even enter into alliances with hostile
powers. Such independence Russia would not allow.

Even as the Russian Emperor offered Armenians an umbrella of social
and economic security, immediately upon his annexation of Eastern
Armenia he moved to dismantle and disperse the autonomous Armenian
principalities in the province of Garabagh.  These small but still
sturdy remnants of ancient Armenian statehood had during a 1721 revolt
against Persian domination edged towards significant freedom. They
evidently possessed the potential to emerge as a core for Armenian
nation-formation, as an organising force that could project influence
not just across segments of eastern Armenia but of western Armenia as
well. Commanding their own long standing armed forces, an alliance
between the stubbornly independent Armenian Church and the formidably
expanding Armenian merchant and commercial classes together would
announce formidable problems for the Russian occupation.
So a quasi-independent Garabagh was not to be tolerated. The Russian
state began denuding the Armenian lords of ancient powers,
transferring lands to Azeri lords and cultivating the settlement of
non-Armenians. Provincial boundaries were redrawn and Armenian
territorial units variously attached to Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Garabagh was detached from its Yerevan/Nakhichevan hinterland and tied
to Baku and Shamakh. Thus autonomous Armenian Garabagh that had
survived centuries of Mongol, Turkish and Persian oppression was
brought low by Christian Russia.
With the termination of this remnant of Armenian statehood Tsarism not
only eliminated a potential threat to its own power, it simultaneously
destroyed a necessary component in the process of a nation's emergence
- it destroyed an indigenous elite that rooted in the home land and
possessed of autonomous political and military force could act as a
vanguard for the whole nation. In Armenian life Garabagh would not be
replaced. Fearful of similar threats in occupying Ottoman authorities
also moved to crush autonomous centres of Armenian resistance and
national organisation, most famously in Zeitun and Sassoon.
Through the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th century Russian
imperial power worked assiduously to erase all manifestation of
independent Armenian politics and to block any development of
self-sustaining Armenian national leadership. John Kirakossian shows
how during two decades of potent national fermentation in the
aftermath of the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish war, from which arose the
democratic, progressive and revolutionary Armenian National Liberation
Movement, the Tsarist state acted unceasingly to cut and maim the
Armenian body politic, to obstruct and stifle social and cultural
development. No sphere of Armenian life was spared. All was to be
bent, distorted and constrained lest it moved beyond Tsarist control.
Repression of the progressive, radical and revolutionary Armenian
national intelligentsia was systemic. From Mikael Nalpantian in the
mid-1850s to Alexander Shirvanzade and Hovanness Toumanian at the turn
of the 20th century squads of writers, artists, intellectuals,
thinkers and activists were arrested, thrown into prison, held under
home arrest or sent into exile, while an ultra-repressive censorship
did its all to stem their message of national revival, freedom,
democracy and independence. Tsarist authority aimed particular blows
against Armenian education. In 1885 it closed down the 200 Armenian
schools in the Caucuses throwing up to 20,000 students onto the
streets. Schools were again targeted in 1903 when in a concerted move
against Armenian national development Tsarist officials also shut down
newspapers, libraries and charitable organisations.
With a decree to confiscate the Armenian Church's wealth and property
it struck out even at this conservative institution, fearing that with
democratic trends developing within and with its unrivalled reach into
the remotest corners of Armenian life it could become a dangerous
organising hub. Tsarist authorities also collaborated with the Ottoman
Empire's attempts to crush the incipient efforts of the Armenian
revolutionary armed struggle. Even more disastrously and criminally
they fired and manipulated internecine national animosities and
rivalries that produced the 1905 Azeri pogroms against Armenians that
further undermined the position of Armenians in Baku and Nakhichevan
in particular but throughout the Caucuses too.
During the First World War and the Genocide of the Armenian people
Tsarist policy remained just as criminal, critically destroying the
real prospect of Armenians emerging from the war with a substantial
independent military force. Whilst using Armenians and their volunteer
forces for its own ends the Tsarist autocracy worked carefully to
block independent Armenian military power. Fearing that the
120,000-150,000 Armenian recruits in the Tsarist army could become the
nucleus of an Armenian army none were allowed to fight on the Turkish
front that looked on the Ottoman occupied western Armenian
homelands. Whilst Armenian soldiers were dying on foreign fronts
Russian commanders refused to permit Armenian volunteers to march to
the aid of compatriots being slaughtered by the Young Turks. In areas
of western Armenia that they subsequently occupied Russian imperial
authorities removed all Armenians from administrative posts in the
government apparatus they established. Planning to populate newly
conquered Armenian lands with Russians they also put impediments
before Armenians wishing to return to their homeland.
Following the 1915 Young Turk Genocide and World War One Western
Armenia, with its rich natural resources could have provided the means
for sustainable statehood, was emptied of its Armenian inhabitants
while prospects of at least partial recovery during and immediately
after the Ottoman Empire's collapse fell foul to systematic
anti-Armenian Tsarist policy. The consequences were catastrophic. The
very ground for Armenian national development had been torn away. The
First Armenian Republic that arose on a tiny rocky corner of Russian
dominated eastern Armenia was reduced to an untenable entity, in large
expanses a refugee camp for survivors of the Young Turk murder
machine. The subsequent Soviet and post-Soviet Republics were also
condemned to remain fundamentally unsustainable.
Without minimising the strategic and critical blunders of the
leadership of Armenian national movement during these catastrophic
decades it remains historically accurate to assert that the weight,
cost and consequence of errors by the Armenian leaderships were
multiplied disastrously by Tsarist, and of course British imperialist
intervention and interference in Armenian life.

Prior to its 1920 annexation to the Soviet Union, even the First
Armenian Republic, now no more than a 1/12th of historic Armenia, was
targeted for annihilation by a resurgent Turkish chauvinist
nationalism under Kemal Ataturk, and also one must note by Georgian
and Azeri nationalists eager to pick off the most fertile portions of
what remained. The Soviet occupation, like the Tsarist one almost 100
years earlier, once more appeared to prevent national annihilation.
With unrelenting Turkish, Georgian and Azeri hostility to any form of
Armenian state, this time too large swathes of the Armenian
intelligentsia, among them Hovanness Toumanian welcomed the haven
offered by Soviet power. However the rapid degeneration of the Russian
Revolution failed to repair the shattered foundations of Armenian
The imposition of Soviet rule in the Caucuses had uprooted the Tbilisi
and Baku based Armenian bourgeoisie. This however was no great loss.
Despite the fact that this class had played a significant role in
national development from the 17th to the 20th century, following WWI
it lay exhausted showing neither interest nor desire for an
independent Armenian state. With Soviet power the ARF, hitherto the
dominant force in Armenian politics and the unchallenged leadership of
the First Armenian Republic, was also removed from the land. However
the Armenian Bolsheviks and their allies that replaced the Armenian
commercial elites and the ARF were not destined to become effective
leaders of the nation.
Armenian Bolsheviks though of no real weight in Armenia constituted a
formidable battalion in the Caucuses as a whole and included some able
leaders dedicated to the recovery of the Armenian people. But whatever
the potential of men such as Stepan Shahumyan, Vahan Derian, Alexander
Miasnikyan and others, any positive and independent national or
regional power possessed by the Armenian and Caucasian communist
movement had already been decisively shattered by the 1918 defeat of
the Baku commune, well before the imposition of Soviet rule in the
region. This defeat in turn played an important role in the triumph of
Stalinism and of Georgian and Azeri chauvinist nationalism in the
Caucuses that together contributed to the further weakening of the
Soviet Armenian state.
Headed by Stepan Shahumyan, the Baku Commune had emerged in April 1918
through a broad cross-national alliance of Armenian, Azeri and
Georgian forces, among them Armenian Bolsheviks and leftist factions
of the ARF. At its peak it represented an autonomous unit capable of
holding its own against the centralised power of Russian Bolshevism
and thereby capable also of negotiating the resolution of critical
regional problems with some democratic and local viability. For the
emergent Armenian state furthermore, any extension of the Baku-born
Armenian Bolshevik-left-wing ARF alliance into Armenia promised to
root there something of a more credible communist leadership there
able to cater to the particular needs and interests of the Armenian
people throughout the Caucuses.
The Baku Commune however fell, in large measure as a result of British
intervention, and the best of its leadership was executed. It was a
devastating blow. It signalled the end of independent, radical
Caucasian communist power. When Russian Bolshevism eventually secured
dominance in the region, their local allies, once powerful, had been
reduced in important measure to placemen with little influence over
the centre and doing the bidding of Moscow and this without necessary
regard for the needs of the local populations. Equally significantly
the defeat of the Baku Commune enabled national chauvinist forces in
Georgia and in Azerbaijan to assume commanding influence within the
apparatus of their newly established soviet states.
In the wake of the Baku catastrophe the Armenian communist-socialist
movement suffered further blows to its credibility and its viability
following the abortive May 1920 Communist Party uprising against the
ARF-led First Armenian Republic. A tide of repression eliminated
another layer of cadre among them Alaveryan, Mussaelyan and
Kharipjanian. It put an end to any prospect of an Armenian
communist-left ARF alliance that could have given Armenians greater
room to negotiate Caucasian border disputes in accord with demographic
realities. Nothing changed during Alexander Miassnikyan's tenure. A
leading communist who devoted particular effort to the Garabagh
question, he proved powerless to sway central Soviet power now bending
to Azerbaijani influence.

The optimisms of the subsequent Aghassi Khanjian period with its
vigorous economic and cultural development was also destroyed - by
Stalin's final triumph and the infamous 1930s purges. A short list of
the thousands who fell victim - political leaders, economists,
architects, scientists, writers, historians, artists, agronomists -
registers the tremendous quality and potential of a nation-building
cadre eliminated - Aghassi Khanjian, Yeghishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts,
Zabel Yessayan, Vahram Alazan, Gourgen Mahari, Mkrtich Armen. The
Stalin purges are not to be compared with the Ottoman genocide except
in one aspect. During the purges too, an entire generation of the
Armenian intelligentsia and national leadership was cut down in its
prime. Men and women who had so much to give, who were willing to give
their all to the building of Soviet Armenia, where annihilated or

Now, an already meagre but additionally devastated Armenian communist
political apparatus had little prospect of withstanding the
machinations of the chauvinist forces that dominated politics in
Azerbaijan and Georgia. Moscow bent to the more active and determined
Georgian and Azeri forces that presided over economically more
significant expanses of the Caucuses. Nakhichevan, Garabagh and
Javakhk, territories with majority or substantial Armenian populations
were excluded from Armenia, the first two transferred to Azerbaijan,
the third to Georgia. Armenia remained a landlocked and unviable
entity. Seventy years of the Second Soviet Armenian Republic did
nothing to alter this reality.
During the Soviet era huge progress was registered in almost every
sphere of Armenian life the recognition of which does not of course
require turning a blind eye to the equally fundamental problems of
national development generated during this period. But this progress
was a dependent progress, conditional on external, central Soviet
state support. It did not generate an independent and sustainable
economy or an independent political force that was capable of leading
the people out of what were to become the ruins of the Soviet Armenian


Soviet Armenia became the Third Armenian Republic but is now even more
untenable as an independent state with its common people prey to an
even more virulent strain of parasite. If an 11 July 2011 `ANN Groong'
report claiming that some 40% of Armenian families do not envisage
their future in the homeland is even approximately accurate, the
outlook for Armenia is bleak. The unabated outflow of youth, of
energy, of vigour and talent is now catastrophic. It is a declaration
of despair, an expression of the end of hope and the collapse of the
will to rebuild and recover. The existing national leadership remains
indifferent to the steady exhaustion of the land's energies. In
anticipation of future crises these elites have already purchased
their first class airline tickets to America and Europe.

However, debilitated as it is now, the nation still has inner
reserves. With Garabagh now an effective component of modern Armenia,
the grounds for constructing a viable nation are just that little
broader and firmer. However the traditional Armenian elites -
historically frequently tied to and dependent of foreign powers - are
corrupt, ineffectual and indifferent to the fate of the nation and
incapable of offering the necessary leadership.  Armenia's hopes rest
with the common people alone who for one reason or another have chosen
to remain in their historic homeland.
The common people alone have a material interest in the future of the
nation, in its economic development and political stability. They
alone therefore possess the right to determine the direction of the
land. Only they can carve out an independent future for Armenia. It is
for them to seize the initiative. Time alone will tell whether
circumstances can propel them into effective action. What form this
will take, how corrupt elites are to be blocked from exploiting
popular discontent and popular ambition, must also await actual
developments in Armenia.
Meanwhile a careful reading of our history can offer inspirational
thought. In today's deteriorating economic and social climate Armenian
survival cannot rest principally on Russia or indeed any other foreign
power. In Russian calculations that take into account oil-rich Baku,
Iran and the growing regional power of the Turkish Republic, Armenia
is a five cent bit.  There can be no hope of long term survival let
alone genuine development without a radical popular economic, social
and political strategy that leaves Armenia independent of Russia and
all other great powers, even when in necessary alliance with any of

Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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