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Why we should read... `Dajgahayk - the Armenian Question' By Raffi 165pp, 1881, republished 1983, Tehran `The Western Armenian Liberation Struggle' By H. K. Vartanian 358pp, 1967, Yerevan In defence of the Armenian National Liberation Movement For Souren, Sona, Daron, Raffi and all the children of Hayastan and all the children of all the world. May they appreciate, respect and emulate all those who dedicated their lives to the ideal of liberation and justice... Armenian News Network / Groong December 30, 2002 By Eddie Arnavoudian The 19th century Armenian national liberation movement has not infrequently been dismissed as a `precipitate and irresponsible adventure' that being `artificially generated by intellectuals' eventually proved 'a disaster for the Armenian people'. Some early Soviet Armenian historians described the movement as an organization of 'terrorists', `adventurers' and `national chauvinists'. Turkish historians rewriting the viciously oppressive nature of the Ottoman Empire regularly treat Armenian freedom fighters as if they were `anti-state criminals' engaged in the `massacre of their Turkish neighbours'. A joint reading of Raffi's `Dajgahayk - the Armenian Question', now almost a primary source, and H. K. Vartanian's Soviet era retrospective `The Western Armenian Liberation Struggle' provides ample evidence to refute such gross evaluations; even when accounting for the movement's strategic weaknesses and tactical blunders. Both volumes touch on all important aspects of the Armenian revolution: the Ottoman-Turkish state's long term strategy, the response of the Istanbul-Bolis based Armenian elite, the socio-political roots of Armenian resistance, the conditions necessary for an effective liberation movement and its abuse and manipulation by European powers. Neither book is without flaws, each reflecting contemporary weaknesses in Armenian political thinking. Raffi's Dajgahayk, critically, fails to adequately confront the issue of Armenian-Kurdish relations just as the Ottoman state was cementing an alliance with Kurdish leaders against the Armenians. Vartanian's `The Western Armenian Liberation Movement' is seriously vitiated by a relentlessly hostile treatment of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation and the Social Democrat Hnchak Party. While rightly noting some of their weaknesses he disregards their progressive contribution to the Armenian national revival. Nevertheless both books show the Armenian revolutionary movement to be a direct and necessary response to the increasingly intolerable social, economic and political conditions of the 19th century decaying and declining Ottoman Empire. Highlighting long-term strategic Ottoman-Turkish designs to empty historical Armenia of Armenians they also expose the complicity of the European powers in what was, in effect, a genocidal process. But their greatest value is in the light they shed on those efforts to build a movement in historic Armenia, based on the potential of the Armenian people, that was not strategically dependent on European diplomacy or the compromising Armenian elite in Bolis. 1. THE OBJECTIVE SOCIO-POLITICAL GROUND FOR THE ARMENIAN REVOLUTION No people revolt and take up arms against an oppressor state, risking repression, massacre and death, unless they are left with no alternative. So it was with the Armenian people under Ottoman rule. The steady contraction of the empire in the 19th century put the vast burden of its state expenditures on a shrinking productive population - among them the Armenian peasantry. An unending rise in taxation, much of it arbitrary, was compounded by aggravated land robbery, social oppression and political powerlessness. Hundreds of thousands were thus driven into emigration. Those who remained 'were forced to resort to other (ie armed) methods' as the only means of survival, as Maghakia Ormanian, one of the most intellectually able of modern Armenian churchmen, put it. In the Ottoman Empire Armenians were subjected to double and sometimes triple exploitation. Vartanian lists more than 13 different kinds of taxes on land, animals, education, a military tax, inheritance taxation and many others through which: `the state seized 67 per cent of the peasantry's income, and that was without counting the illegal appropriations by local authorities and Kurdish beys.' (Vartanian, p29) Corrupt, state-appointed tax officers after raising state taxes stole a portion of the peasantry's produce for themselves. Taxation, always excessive, frequently destroyed the foundations of the economy as households were left without the resources to continue production. Frequently taxes were raised illegally, in cash rather than kind. Failure to pay often led to the confiscation of domestic property, agricultural tools and livestock. Armenians were additionally required to provide free labour for state construction and road building programmes. If unable to undertake such forced labour they had to pay yet another tax in lieu. Denied the right to enlist in the Army they paid yet another tax, raised even on the families of dead men as well as on those who emigrated or absconded. Armenians even paid taxes on domestic vegetable plots. To all this was added the incalculable pillage by Kurdish beys who regarded Armenians of as a free reservoir of wealth. Raffi, examining two petitions submitted to the Sultan by the Church, highlights the enormous increase in economic plunder and social oppression beginning with the second half of the 19th century. The first, covering the years 1852 to 1872, lists 19 complaints. The second, covering only the following five years, has 38 - an increase of 100 percent. (Raffi, p40) Though but a tiny proportion of the total grievances received, these recorded ones that were submitted to the authorities describe the full extent of Ottoman misrule and the depth of its elite's indifference to the fate of their Armenian and, as Raffi repeatedly underlines, their non-Armenian Muslim subjects too. Analysing these petitions Raffi takes the Church leadership to task for its lack of interest in the land question `this most fundamental question confronting the Armenian people'. Reminiscent of apartheid South Africa and Zionist Israel, the Turkish state systematically dispossessed Armenians using, among others, the fraudulent claim that they had no `legal documents' proving ownership of land they tilled for countless generations. During the five years alone dealt with by the second petition, more than 363 Armenian villages and 21 monasteries with all their lands were confiscated. (Raffi, p78-9) Conditions of Armenian life were aggravated by severe social and political abuse. Women, girls and young boys were humiliated, raped and kidnapped as a matter of course. Forced conversions to Islam, frequently on penalty of death or expropriation, contributed further to the stock of suffering as Armenian village communities were broken up and Armenians forcibly assimilated. To all of this injustice, theft, oppression, abuse, humiliation and degradation Armenians had no legal recourse. Raffi notes that petitions to imperial authorities were in vain and in their courts Armenian testimony counted for nothing against that of a Turk. Together, all of this was undermining the very geographic and demographic foundations of the Armenian nation. This was understood all too clearly by Raffi and his contemporaries. Matteos Mamourian, a Western Armenian novelist and political activist, warned that 'the merchant emigrates, the peasant emigrates, the skilled worker emigrates, the labourer emigrates. In a word everyone is departing leaving in large parts of Armenia only women, the elderly and children'. (Vartanian, p72) For Stepanos Lazariantz, conditions during the reigns of Sultan Abdul Mejid and Abdul Aziz may have been endurable but now with `everyone impoverished' `the situation is intolerable.' With the Ottoman state's refusal to heed legitimate Armenian demands for social, economic and political security Krikor Ardzrouni, an eastern Armenian liberal thinker, concluded that `our human rights can be obtained only with arms in hand and with a willingness to shed blood.' (Vartanian, p150 - Mshak, No 182, 1877) Raffi himself sounded the tocsin of resistance declaring that things have `now come to such a pass' that `a deadly blow awaits the Armenian people in Turkey' which could `put an end to their existence' There was `only one course open to them' he continued `to prevent themselves being wiped off the face of the earth - self defence. (Mshak, No 191, 1879, Vartanian, p87) On the basis of such evidence and much more besides, Vartanian, taking up the cudgels against revisionist historians, concludes that: 'the Armenian people's national liberation struggle was a genuine spontaneous development, not, as is argued by certain Armenian nihilists and by Turkish historians who falsify history, artificially generated or the result of individual will or external manipulation.' (Vartanian, p104) 2. OTTOMAN RULE: FROM NATIONAL OPPRESSION TO NATIONAL GENOCIDE The Ottoman Empire and its elite proved utterly incapable of initiating a reliable and secure transition to a democratic multinational federation of free and equal peoples that would meet the needs of its numerous national groups. In the 19th century era of national revival, therefore, conflicts and problems that beset the empire were worked out through a hostile competition between political representatives of different national groups and the state. In that struggle Turkish nationalism occupied a unique historical position. >From the outset the dominant trend of Turkish nationalism was fundamentally and irrevocably reactionary and anti-democratic. It emerged not in opposition to but within and complimentary to the old Ottoman state and its feudal elite. Turkish nationalist forces strove for power only to consolidate the remnants of the Ottoman Empire and preserve its structure of oppression against the just demands of other national groups and its own labouring poor. Central to this aim was a programme of assimilation or elimination of all other national entities and the transformation of the empire into a homogenous Turkish state. Turkish nationalism thus became a force not for liberation but for oppression. In its relation to Armenian national liberation it acquired, after the 1876 Russo-Turkish war, a marked genocidal logic. In 1869 Fuad Pasha, an early proponent of Turkish assimilation, insisted that within the empire `the assimilation of all nationalities' must be the `ultimate aim of all our efforts'. Otherwise, he felt, `the empire had no future.' (Vartanian, p55-56) It was not difficult to discern the fears behind such thinking. Turkish nationalism's striving for exclusive hegemony was endangered by the substantial economic and social power of other national groups. Jamal Pasha, another proponent of Turkification, was explicit in expressing a readiness to resort to ethnic cleansing. `We nurtured in our midst a snake', he said referring to the national liberation movements in the Balkans. `We must not', he therefore concluded, `do the same in our Asian territories (which included besides Armenia, Kurdistan and the Arab world too). Foresight demands that `we need to uproot and annihilate all those elements that could one day present the same problems and give foreign powers the pretext to intervene in our affairs' To this end Jamal Pasha speaks of the need to remove and `annihilate the Armenian people' (Vartanian, p83-4) Such conceptions were also given explicit anti-Armenian expression by Ali Effendi Arapzade's whose view was to `let these Armenians go to hell and in their place let us welcome Muslims from Tsarist Russia. Then at least (with) a heavy concentration of Muslims (we will be) free of Christian elements.' (Vartanian, p97) To accomplish such ends it was of course only necessary to render more systematic and better organised traditional Ottoman state policy of massacre, plunder, forced emigration, forced religious and national assimilation. This, the state began to do particularly after Abdul Hamid's accession to the throne. Following the 1876 Russo-Turkish war the state recruited and armed Kurdish clans into battalions and unleashed them upon the Armenian people. With no fear of prosecution, these laid to waste huge swathes of Armenian territory. Such destruction was compounded by additional burdens as the government refused to honour agreements to defer taxation against heavy war-time levies. Violence and force were complimented by cultural and educational prohibitions aimed at strangling Armenian national consciousness. The press was banned from using the term Armenia. Reminiscent of modern Turkish state attitudes to the Kurds, Vartanian quotes Nerses Varzhabedian's complaint that Armenians were not able to teach Armenian history freely and `were forced to remove the names of ancient Armenian kings, princes and military commanders' from textbooks and were `even... forbidden to refer to towns with their Armenian names.' (Vartanian, p91). As an additional means of weakening the Armenian people, Raffi remarks on the Ottoman toleration of European Catholic and Protestant missionaries, believing these would sow further dissension and disunity. The genocidal logic of post-1876 Ottoman state policy, rejected by many today, was recognised by contemporaries. According to the 11 April 1880 issue of the Allemaigne Zeitung `Armenians form the majority of the population in the province of Van'. Armenian clerics however were `convinced that the Turkish authorities are intent on... eliminating this majority.' `Everything being done' concludes the author `justifies such claims.' (Vartanian, p95) According to Raffi, Turkish strategy was designed to `annihilate the Armenian nation as a method of resolving the Armenian question.' To this end it was also `working to populate Armenia with... Muslim emigrants from Russia and from European Turkey.' (Raffi, p143) Elsewhere Raffi writes that after the 1879 famine in Van that delivered an irrecoverable blow to the economic and social backbone of the Armenian revival `Armenians became profoundly convinced that Turkey's ultimate aim was to annihilate the Armenian people.' Thus he concludes `took root... the urge to self-defence.' (Raffi, p127) For Krikor Ardzrouni, the aim of the `secret alliance' between Turkey and England was to `eliminate Armenians from Armenia, to deport them from Armenia.' (Mshak 6 1879) A year later he wrote that Turkey would encourage the `Kurds to destroy Armenia and murder the Armenians.' By such means `the Armenian question will be automatically resolved, because in Turkish Armenia there will be no Armenians left.' (Mshak, No 182, 1880, Vartanian, p86) Commentators were also conscious of the wider strategic ambition behind the 1894-1896 massacres of over 300,000 Armenians. For Professor Dillon this `programme of annihilation' was `proceeding according to plan' as the Armenian population was `being destroyed' and its `villages and land was taken over by others.' (Vartanian p176) In 1894 a Mshak editorial speaks of `the effort to morally and physically destroy the Armenian people... forcing them into the disaster of emigration, eliminating them, subjecting them to an irrevocable loss. This in sum is the dangerous policy of the Turkish government.' (Vartanian p183) 3. THE ARMENIAN RESPONSE 'The political morality of the 19th century can be defined as "I revolt therefore I am.' -- Krikor Ardzrouni The geographic, social and political fragmentation of 18th and 19th century Armenian life precluded a unified response to Ottoman strategy. At one end the Armenian elite in Bolis, occupying a relatively privileged position in the Ottoman economy, was essentially conservative and indifferent to the plight of the people in the historic homelands. Always ready to compromise with tyranny it used the misfortunes of the Armenian people as a bargaining counter to enhance its own advantage. At most in any conflict with the Ottoman state it sought the assistance of European powers that had begun to extend their influence over the empire. At the other end were those intellectuals and revolutionaries who consciously tried to articulate the needs of the people. Albeit not always consistent, either as a trend or as individuals, they did attempt to elaborate a programme of action that was based on a concept of self-reliance and self-organisation in the homeland. Raffi, whose Dajgahayk can be read as an attempt to map out the preconditions for an effective national liberation struggle, was withering in his denunciation of the Armenian elite. `The amiras party' as he disdainfully termed the Bolis elite were Armenian `in name only'. `More Turkish than the Turks' for `the sake of its own private interests' it `supported the survival of the Turkish government.' Alongside this elite the bulk of the intelligentsia `preoccupied only with Europe and Church intrigue' had `no interest in the conditions of the Armenian people in Armenia or in their relations with their foreign neighbours.' As for the wealthy in Tsarist Russia, `with honourable exceptions, they squander vast sums for their own pleasure... (but) contribute nothing to the needy in Turkish Armenia.' Armenian merchants have have no love of the `motherland, their homeland being where there is a profit to be made. They never think of the collective interest, they are selfish. `(Dajgahayk p81) The Armenian Church hierarchy thinking `only of its wallet' was no different and displayed a `cold-blooded and stubborn lack of charity...' In all important respects it was impotent, as demonstrated by the fruitlessness of its petitions to the Sultan. It was powerful and influential only in reconciling the people to their expropriation and destruction. In an overall evaluation of the problems of Armenian liberation Raffi writes: `If one day God was to demand revenge for the destruction of Armenia and the spilling of its children's blood, the first enemy of the nation to be called to account would be our clergy. It was they who buried the people's heart, sapped its courage, killed all its vital energies and in the name of Christian humility and Christian patience taught them to remain slaves.' (Vartanian p142) Raffi was not an isolated critic of the Armenian establishment. When sections of the Istanbul-Bolis elite celebrated the 1876 National Constitution, men like Krikor Ardzrouni and Minas Cheraz joined Raffi in dismissing claims by conservatives arguing that `those living under the (Ottoman) flag were (with the Constitution) beginning to enjoy full human freedoms.' Cheraz, a western Armenian activist, noting the absence of proper representation for the people from the homelands condemned the Constitution as an `injury to our brothers in the provinces' and `tantamount to their exploitation.' (Vartanian, p38) Ardzrouni argued that despite the Constitution the regime continued to `rob, beat, exploit and humiliate'. `Where', he demanded to know was `the Constitution that will defend' the Armenians? (Vartanian, p37) Serious reform Raffi argued required minimally that Armenians be given legal tenure to land and the right to bear arms. This the Constitution did not offer. Its limited internal autonomy for the relatively secure and privileged Armenians in Bolis and Izmir was little more than a sop. In return for illusions of grandeur with a National Assembly and elements of free speech and democracy the Armenian elite was persuaded to turn a blind eye to the terror in the Armenian provinces. In opposition to the Bolis elite Raffi and other like-minded thinkers called for centering effort and resources within the homeland. For people like Mamourian, Srvandzian, Raffi, Ardzrouni, Mgrditch Portukalian and the famous Khrimian Hayrig, what happened in Bolis and Izmir was of secondary importance. The province of Vasbourakan and its capital Van was `the heart of Armenia', its `hope... and its light', wrote Portukalian. So along with many others he moved there and set to work. From the 1850s onwards in Van and elsewhere in historic Armenia local activists had already begun work establishing secret societies devoted to organizsing education and self-defence. Their efforts were to give rise to the first, genuine, home-grown modern Armenian political movement, the only one to be rooted in the `heart' of Armenia - the Armenakans. Born in Van the Armenakan movement had its social support in the area and there through its schools and cultural centres it trained local cadres and in its military camps produced locally-based self-defence fighters. The driving principle behind their work was reliance on the potential of the Armenian people themselves. Raffi's Dajgahayk, a manifesto for national unity that would unlock this potential, taking into account the religious, linguistic, political and traditional fragmentation that beset the Armenian people proposes a broader concept of nationality to unite all Armenians. Instead of religious affiliation, a concept of secular, political nationality should define who was Armenian. Religion and faith should be regarded as a matter of individual conscience and free choice. Armenians of all denominations, including, as Raffi underlines, Muslim Armenians, could then be cemented into a single powerful force. Those who stressed the urgency of nurturing native Armenian potential understood well that Europe could not be trusted to tend to Armenian interests. An editorial in Mshak put what could be termed this `Sinn Fein! (We Ourselves!) conception both precisely and clearly: `A nation that does not rely on itself has no future... We must place hope in ourselves not in Berlin (ie European diplomacy) ' Mateos Mamourian warned that it was `an illusion to expect that foreign nations will effect the same miracles as Jesus Christ. To wait on some `foreign saviour to remove Armenian shackles' was `inanity'. Karekin Srvandzian more graphically stated that European `false friends were no uncles to the Armenians.' They were rather `skilled hunters and butchers' who regarded Armenians as `little more than... healthy cattle' to be taken to `the slaughterhouse.' Mamourian went on to argue that `an enslaved people's first and only saviour is itself, its own work, its own inner strength, its own enlightenment, its own unity and determination.' (Vartanian, p157). In somewhat more spirited terms Father Karekin declared that `we should expect nothing from foreigners, let us look after ourselves, prepare ourselves and show other nations that we too are a nation... (able) to defend ourselves. Let us prepare and educate men, form organisations, spare nothing and sacrifice all to this aim. This is the only road to salvation. This is the Bible of my mission.' (Vartanian, p109) Khrimian Hayrig brilliantly summarized the outlook of this trend in his now famous and ever-repeatable speech he delivered from the Church podium after experiencing the unrelenting Ottoman brutality and European deception that followed the farce of San Stefano. Noting the dominant role of force and power in politics he asked `what is the use of pleading, of begging letters where shimmers the sabre and the rifle.' Therefore he urged the people to `gather weapons, and return again to gather more weapons.' In their striving for freedom people should `put their faith first and foremost' in themselves and in `their intellect.' Pronouncing that the `saviour of man is man himself' he concluded his appeal: 'People of Armenia, henceforth you must put your trust in steel, in steel you shall find your salvation. Everything and anything can be wrought from this honourable metal - hoes, sickles, swords or rifles. Arm yourselves.' (Vartanian, p81-83) This healthiest and most promising trend of the Armenian national liberation movement was destroyed before it crystallised into an effective force. The Ottoman regime, always politically astute, recognised the danger. So it first hounded out Portukalian and Khrimian and then set about arresting, detaining, torturing and murdering. In 1896 considering `the centralisation and growing national consciousness of Armenians in Van and Erzerum intolerable' the Ottoman authorities, writes Vartanian, `planned slaughter in Van-Vasbourakan. Van escaped widespread massacre as a result of successful armed self-defence. But 600 of the best cadre of the Armenian revolution (Armenakans, Hnchakians and ARF members) were slaughtered as they left the city. Besides eliminating some of its best fighters and intellectuals the 1894-6 massacres, delivered another critical blow to the social foundations of the home grown Armenian national revival. Thereafter the movement never recovered full confidence in the independent power of the Armenian people. So it was never able to fully escape the debilitating and treacherous influence of the Bolis elite and the deceptive diplomacy of European imperialism. It adapted its strategy to these pressures, de-emphasising organisation at home and prioritizing tactics designed to invite foreign intervention. Nevertheless despite its weaknesses and retreats, the Armenian liberation movement stands on a par with other liberation movements that have swept across Asia, Africa and Latin America. The haytuk and fedayee of the Armenian revolution deserve the same place in the pantheon of national liberation as those of the fighters from South Africa, Palestine and elsewhere who gave their lives in the struggle for freedom, justice and equality. This, at any rate is beyond any dispute. ------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.