(the title is taken from the final lines of Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
by Aram Hovasapyan
As my internship with the ANCA is winding to an end, I want to share with you the stance and perspective that drives us, Armenians, forward to achieve results for the Armenian Cause as well as for ourselves individually. Let me convey to you the abovementioned point of view that has proved to be a crucial element in the successes of Armenians to better their lot with a historical analogy.
In the mid- 1870’s uprisings and rebellions sprang up against Ottoman rule by the heavily Christian population in the Balkans which had long been mistreated and persecuted. The Turks countered these uprisings by brutal means, including the mass murder of men, women, and children in several Bulgarian villages. International outcries by European powers regarding the slaughter of fellow Christians led to the eventual declaration of war by Russia against Turkey, beginning the Russo- Turkish War of 1877-1878.
The war was fought in the Balkan theatre as well as in the Caucasus. Russia saw the war as an opportunity to expand its borders into Anatolia and was aided in the fact that the area was inhabited by a plurality of Armenians who had been calling for reforms in Ottoman rule. However, while Armenians had only been meekly calling for reforms to establish fair laws and protection of Christian subjects, the Balkan peoples had began armed insurrections against Ottoman misrule and had gone as far as to declare independence, thus garnering stronger international attention and sympathies. Keep this comparison in mind; we will return to it later. Under the command of four Armenian generals ( Beybut Shelkovnikov, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Ivan Lazarev, and Arshak Ter-Ghukasov), Russian forces in the Caucasus reached as far West as Erzerum by the end of the war. In the European front, Russian forces had also driven back the Turks and had reached San Stefano, in the outskirts of the Ottoman Capital, Constantinople.
The following Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, set the new boundaries of the war-torn regions. The Ottoman Empire was forced to make many concessions in the Balkans, as Serbia’s, Montenegro’s, and Romania’s independences were recognized, and Bulgaria was granted autonomy. In the Caucasus, the Ottomans ceded to Russia the districts of Ardahan, Batum, Kars, Alashkert and Bayazit. Even though Erzerum would be returned to the Turks, Russian forces would stand firm in the city until reforms providing for the safety of the Armenians were enacted. Article 16 of the treaty read, “As the evacuation by the Russian troops of the territory which they occupy in Armenia, and which is to be restored to Turkey, might give rise to conflicts and complications detrimental to the maintenance of good relations between the two countries, the Sublime Porte engages to carry into effect, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security from Kurds and Circassians.”
However, the European powers, namely Britain, were not happy to see such an expansion of Russian hegemony, especially at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. The British had, throughout the 19th century, proved instrumental in preventing the collapse of the “sick man of Europe”, as the Ottoman Empire was often referred to. In return, the British were granted many privileges by the Ottomans and did not want to see the Russians taking control and posing a threat in the region. With alarmed calls for a modification of San Stefano being made, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, known as “the honest broker”, offered to mediate at the Congress of Berlin in the summer of 1878. Upon hearing that a congress at Berlin was set to convene, the Ottoman Armenians, hoping to further better their lot in the coming negotiations, sent a delegation to the capitals of the Great Powers to present the Armenian case. Armenians were hopeful that since the British knew that they asked only for self-administration within the Ottoman Empire and not independence like their Christian counterparts in the Balkans, the British would be willing to advocate for a program of Armenian self-rule in order to stabilize the Empire. The delegation, led by former Patriarch Mkrtich Khrimian, was met politely in London and elsewhere but was not promised anything. Sadly, as the Congress was convened in Berlin, nobody even took note of the Armenian delegation standing outside. In the Congress of Berlin, signed July 13, 1878, a few of the Turkish concessions to the Balkan peoples were reversed (although Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania still maintained their independence), and Russian control in Eastern Anatolia reduced as the Russians ceded Armenian populated Bayazit and Alashkert back to the Turks. Even worse for the Armenians, no provision for Armenian self-administration in the six Armenian villayets were made, and Russian forces were to retreat from Erzerum immediately without waiting for provisions for the safeguarding of the Armenians to be put into effect. In an almost ironical twist of fate, article 16 of San Stefano was replaced by article 61 of the Congress of Berlin which read, “The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the powers, who will superintend their application.” The vaguely promised reforms would never materialize, and many Armenians would be massacred by Turks upon the retreat of Russian forces from Erzerum.
The Armenian delegation, having realized that they were swindled, sent the following message of protest:
“The Armenian delegation expresses its regrets that its legitimate demands, so moderate at the time, have not been agreed upon by the congress. We had not believed that a nation like ours, composed of several million souls, which has not so far been the instrument of any foreign power, which, although much more oppressed than the other Christian populations has caused no trouble to the Ottoman government (and, although our nation had no tie of religion or origin to any of the great powers, yet, being a Christian nation it had hoped to find in our century the same protection afforded to the other Christian nations) – we had not believed that such a nation, devoid of all political ambition, would have to acquire the right of living its life and of being governed on its ancestral land by Armenian officials.
The Armenians have just realised that they have been deceived, that their rights have not been recognised, because they have been pacific; that the maintenance of the independence of their ancient church and nationality have advanced them nothing. The Armenian delegation will return to the East carrying with it the lesson that without struggle and without insurrection nothing can be obtained. Nevertheless the delegation will never cease addressing petitions until Europe has satisfied its just claims.”
Upon returning to Constantinople, Khrimian Hayrik (“Hayrik” is the loving term for “father”) delivered a sermon where he recounted the events at Berlin. He said that European politicians had set a large pot of “harisa” stew. The Balkan peoples dug into the “dish of liberty” with their iron spoons, while the Armenians inserted their paper spoon of petitions only to see it melt. Khrimian Hayrik’s sermon was seen as a call to forge an iron spoon, and thus the fedayee movement as well as revolutionary organizations seeking to better the lot of Armenians would soon emerge.
The moral of this painful story is that we all need to reflect on and learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Repeating the powerful words of Khrimian Hayrik,“without struggle and insurrection nothing can be obtained.” Whether it is striving for the advancement of the Armenian cause or hoping for that promotion at the workplace, nothing comes for free. One has to struggle and fight for it. As the times have changed, Khrimian Hayrik’s words should not be interpreted to mean solely “armed struggle.” Today, struggling and fighting in a civil and non-violent manner can cause a very powerful effect indeed. Just look at the Civil Rights Movement in the USA or Gandhi’s success in leading India to independence throughout the first half of the 20th century. That is not to say that a strong military presence should not be had as well. In fact, the United States relies heavily on its military to obtain what it wishes. Hilary Clinton’s plans for America included “forging a broad-based military presence.” Undoubtedly, it is this fighting mindset that has paved the way for Armenians to advance recognition of the genocide, to lobby successfully for foreign aid to Armenia, and to regain their historic lands in Artsakh and successfully defend it. It is also the same mindset that has propelled many Armenians to dizzying heights. With Khrimian Hayrik’s reflection in mind, struggle and fight for what you desire to obtain!
By: Shahan Goenjian
Gaining recognition of the Armenian Genocide from the United States and Turkey is the most pressing issue of the worldwide Armenian community today. Ideally, with this recognition Armenians would receive reparations for the land, lives, and opportunities lost.
The United States federal government has not yet officially recognized the Armenian Genocide because of its political ties with Turkey. Turkey is a large commercial power and an ally in the hazardous Middle East. The US military is also allowed to have air bases in Turkey. To look at the situation without sentiment, good foreign relations with Turkey is important for the United States to maintain its hegemony. However, the Turkish government is unwilling to acknowledge the genocide in any respect and actually takes great offense to its recognition – as made evident by their withdrawal of their ambassador to France in response to France’s recent legislation which criminalizes genocide denial.
More than just 1.5 million lives were lost in the Armenian Genocide. Lands that had been cultivated and sanctified by our people and our churches for thousands of years were stolen. Some whole families were erased from history and others were left to start anew in orphanages and foreign lands. This was all motivated by extreme nationalism of the Young Turks, founders of the Republic of Turkey, and could be likened to fascism – fascism that later fueled Nazi Germany’s Holocaust. However, Germany has already long apologized for their predecessor’s actions in political and social realms by releasing public apologies and providing Jewish survivors with monetary reparations. If Turkey has any intention of joining the European Union they should follow the Germans to salvage the remaining honor and justice they still have.
Turkey’s position in this conflict is shameful not only of themselves but of humanity as a whole. The founders of the Republic of Turkey were responsible for organizing the genocide and yet they got away scotch free, and Turks even praise those founders as modern heroes. Their government’s denial shows extreme ignorance and an unwillingness to engage in honest, open debate. If one were to analyze the Turkish state in the way one would analyze an individual, Turkey would be deemed sociopathic – for not only their government, but hundreds of Turkish Facebook groups, take pride in and mock the genocide against the Armenians, showing no remorse or conscience. The Turkish government cannot be trusted until they confess to their crimes and pay due reparations. It should be the duty of the worldwide Armenian community to raise a voice against inhumanity and help put an end to the genocides being committed around the world today in places like Darfur, Uganda, Burma/Myanmar, and Chechnya.
Sometimes I wonder what it might feel like to be something else. Swedish, maybe. It would feel so different to be known for ABBA, lingonberry jam, and ready-to-assemble furniture with a birch veneer. I could be wrong, but I imagine it would be simpler and more manageable than feeling the weight and burden of proving a genocide to an eternally skeptical audience. This causes a heaviness in my chest.
This past week has made it particularly difficult to be Armenian. Momentarily in the spotlight because of France’s genocide bill, my Google news alert has been flooding my inbox with dozens of news sources’ perspective on the matter. A lot of it is hard to read. In addition to that, the media hype surrounding Khojaly this year has initiated some kind of constricting sensation I didn’t know I could feel, like asphyxiation.
My family lost approximately 120 individuals at the hands of Turks. Azerbaijani authorities claim just over 600 Azeri civilians were lost in Khojaly. I know this isn’t a numbers game—genocide shouldn’t be quantified. But I also know the series of events which claimed 120 lives from a single family is not comparable to Azerbaijan’s notion of what genocide is.
To use the same term makes me think that either they don’t comprehend the enormity and objective of genocide… Or that maybe they do, but they also know that any additional genocide claims will diminish the significance of our genocide, and that these claims would leave the rest of the world with the impression that genocides simply occur from time to time; they are just a component of our reality. The sowing of this type of confusion is especially problematic in a time when information, accurate or not, is so easy to disseminate. Without the tool of the internet, it took us nearly half a century to get to a point where our genocide began to be discussed internationally. But after marketing the Azeri version of events as genocide for a couple of years, their efforts have already yielded a significant result. What is most distressing to me is that even if their version of events is not internationally accepted, they have once again devalued the importance of our genocide by way of making frivolous genocide claims and casting doubt upon the veracity of our history. It’s that easy.
Being Armenian and defending what that means is not uncomplicated. It certainly would be easier to shift into a state of apathy, but I think that would be contrary to my nature. I remember exactly where a map of Karabakh hung in my grandfather’s dining room. That was over half of my lifetime ago, but I remember studying it with him and him telling me, “Mern eh. Or muh hon bidi yertank.” I eventually did. He never made it. I brought back some soil to take to Forest Lawn for him. I remember thinking: This soil? This clay? This anaerobic earth is what is ours? So dense and chalky that it can’t even sustain life; it suffocates.
“Survivor” is a word I have known since childhood. I have encountered stories, pictures, memoirs of genocide survivors and have always wondered what this says about me. It’s a word with dual meaning. Survival can be equated with greatness. It can signify the last man standing, the fittest, the most resilient. It can also point to the battered and ravaged, post-disaster, barely breathing. Most people are imbued with a sense of importance that makes them feel secure. Everyone, I think, likes to believe that they are here to carry out some work that only they can do. I’m no different. For that reason, I tend to allow the word “survivor” to deviate from strict adherence to its true definition. I assign an otherworldly beauty to it, like a refined metal. If I am a descendant of survivors, then I want the word to signify strength.
I just finished reading Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. While reading it, I found it remarkable how a defining experience such as this nuclear disaster can turn peasants into poets. It’s alchemy. This is what happens when survivors tell a story. The book is an incredible jigsaw oral history, pieced together from many accounts of survivors. Although completely different circumstances are present, my story and the story of the Chernobylites, as they call the survivors in Ukraine, had a few similar threads: Opaque or outright deceitful governance, a general feeling of helplessness and an inability to protect oneself against an enemy force, and the subsequent erasure of a population through horrific means. Most importantly, both incidents offered a forced legacy which descendants must carry. With the Chernobylites, it’s thyroid cancer. With me, it is less easily diagnosed. There is no chemo or radiation therapy for combating the blotting out of my past.
There is a waxing and waning to my story. I build it one way, but there are always those insisting otherwise, rewriting history, leveling whatever I have built. When I look at a pre-genocide black and white family portrait, how do I explain the deletion of seven out of nine individuals? A woman in the corner escaped and had a son who had a son who had me. There is poetry in there somewhere, but it was lost along the way. Yet, another survivor recalls: “One day, the Turks said they wanted to collect all the young children and look after them. Some women, who couldn’t feed their children, let them go. Then my mother saw them piling the children on top of each other and setting them on fire. My mother pushed me under another pile of corpses. She buried herself with me under those bodies. Even today I cannot stand to be in darkness or to be on my own. My mother saved me from the fire. She used to tell me afterwards that when she heard the screams of the children and saw the flames, it was as if their souls were going up to heaven.”
There is one concern that has been nagging at me for quite some time, that of the level of knowledge and general acquaintance that Diaspora has with Armenian Literature.
As someone who came from Armenia, it was quite surprising for me to discover that people here don’t know Paruyr Sevak’s or Vahan Teryan’s poems, and have not read Raffi’s and Muratsan’s historical novels. For me, Armenian language was always inseparable from Armenian Literature and in my mind, the two went hand in hand. Based on my surroundings, now I believe that the spread and education of cultural literature is just as vital as the spread of language within the Diaspora, if not more essential.
When it comes to defining who you are as an Armenian, literature is the source that provides the facts intertwined with emotions. Literature is what defines our perception of Armenian history, culture, goals, past and future achievements, pain and revenge. It is Sevak’s “Anlreli Zangakatun” that introduced the subject of genocide to me as a child in a manner that made my heart bleed and affects me just as strongly even today. It is his “Garun A,Dzun A Arel” that I want to read to the U.S. Congress before they prepare to vote for The Genocide Recognition Bill, so that their eyes and hearts can finally transcend the boundary which divides looking from SEEING.
Maybe then they will finally feel the pain and the “stain of denial” that all future generations of Armenians are born with and carry around every second of their individual lives. It was Shiraz’s “Hayots Danteakan” that made me understand that pain is a source of strength, that the time as a judge requires from us to “imprint 1.5 million names on the shameless forehead of the world”. It was Yeghishe Charents’s hidden message in his poem “Oh, Armenian Nation, your only salvation is in your unity”, that he wrote in the peak of the Stalinist terror years, masterfully crafting the letters in the verse. It was this message passed by him and Garegin Njdeh that gave rise to the wave of awakening in the 1980s and resulted in the liberation of Artsakh. Victory of Artsakh came to give life to the pages of Raffi’s “Xent” and Muratsan’s “Gevorg Marzpetuni”, exemplifying that there are fights we can wage and win only as a united force of individual soldiers and that if united, the smallest army can indeed defeat the strongest of enemies. We fight for our values which are worth dying for.
One of the obvious problems is that the percentage of people who read Armenian is very little. I am happy to say that there is a new website called audiodaran, which provides some of these works as audio books enabling those who understand Armenian, but do not read it, to listen to these classic pieces of listerature. However, it does not provide a solution to the problem which is the absence of professional translations for all of these masterpieces. These works must be translated and mass distributed to not only Armenians, but people everywhere resulting in the advertisement and spreading of our literature, and thus, our history and the cause we are fighting for all over the world. Our culture has one of the richest, emotionally and intellectually challenging, soul enriching, thought provoking literatures. We have something special to “sell” to the world; such as, books which can become scripts and amazing movies. As well as, mesmerizing poems that can become songs in different languages, historical records and writings of political-philosophical geniuses who are equal to Machiavelli and Confucius.
This year’s meaning is special in this regard. This year is the 500th anniversary of Armenian Printing, and Yerevan became the “World Book Capital 2012” by UNESCO. What we need now, are the tools to spread our literature, dedication, restless work and enthusiasm to give the world and Armenians everywhere the treasures that have remained buried for far too long.