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Why we should read... "Revolutionary Figures" by Antranig Chalabian (463pp, USA, 1991) Armenian News Network / Groong February 2, 2004 By Eddie Arnavoudian Antranig Chalabian's 'Revolutionary Figures' (also available in English) collects together short biographies of legendary Armenian guerrillas (Mihran Damadian, Hambardzum Boyadjian, Serob Aghbiur, Hrair-Dzhoghk, Gevorg Chavush, Sebastatsi Murad and Nikol Duman) that together constitute a critical and thought provoking introduction to many aspects of the 19th century Armenian revolutionary movement. They range across its internal organisation, its tactics and strategy, the struggle between its opposing trends, its relation to the population, the issue of alliances with Kurdish and Turkish dissidents, the role of the Church, as well as elements of the broad social and political context for the movement's development, successes and failures. Chalabian does well to reiterate, throughout, the directly and immediately beneficial role of the armed Armenian fedayee movement. Whatever the long term evaluation of its record in the historic Armenian provinces, there is little question that at their strongest and most vigorous, the fedayee for relatively long periods held off plunderers and marauders and succeeded in tempering the brutality and thievery of Ottoman officials and Kurdish feudal lords. They successfully defended the lives and property of a section of the Armenian peasantry. In part this was due to the terrible fear instilled among Turkish and Kurdish officialdom by the boldness and fierceness of fighters from a people whom they regarded as little better than humble sheep. Significantly Armenian fedayee in certain periods also defended Turkish and Kurdish peasants against their exploiters. Chalabian does not however disguise the dismal sides of the movement. It was infected and debilitated by a multitude of traitors and spies. The absence of an experienced and effective regional and national leadership caused bitter and sometimes fratricidal feuding among different contingents of fedayee that was compounded by damaging sectarian antagonisms between the different revolutionary parties. Hrair's repeated calls for the formation of a united front of Armenian revolutionaries fell on deaf ears. Worst of all the leadership of the movement proved incapable of measuring up to the ploys and deceptions of both the imperialist powers and the Young Turks. At least up to the 1895/96 massacres of up to 300,000 Armenians in historic Armenia and Anatolia, the armed revolutionary movement had deep local roots and broad popular support. During the 1894-95 Sassoon Uprising, for example, both civilian leadership and population participated enthusiastically in battles to defend what they regarded as their ancestral rights and their autonomy, expressed in this instance in a refusal to pay new, exorbitant and destructive taxes. Chalabian shows the fedayee not as outsiders, interlopers, or substitutes for the local population but as military leaders and cadre bringing their skills to a popular effort. Their great value lay in their ability to engage the enemy for longer periods than the ordinary peasant who had to return to the indispensable business of tilling their soil. Armenian Sassoon occupies a crucial position both in the development of the revolutionary movement and in its mythology. With its enduring independent, militant and armed traditions dating far back into a history that produced the Armenian epic of David of Sassoon, it remained even into the early 20th century a bastion and reservoir of potential Armenian freedom. A dangerous and contagious example to the rest of the Armenian population fretting and restless beneath the growing weight of Ottoman oppression, it is hardly surprising that the Ottoman state set out to destroy Sassoon. Initially it failed, confronted as it was with impetus of an emergent Armenian national movement grounded within the historic homelands. This impetus was however broken by the 1895-96 massacres consciously calculated to devastate the organic, natural growth of the revolutionary movement. Following the mass murder, dislocation, expulsion and forced conversions those armed organisations that sought to recover and rebuild the movement had to work against the grain, among a population now decimated and demoralised. Yet they persevered and by all accounts could have turned the tide had it not been for the loss of nerve by the Armenian political leadership and its surrender to the deadly hopes in a collaboration with the Young Turks. Two of the trends within the revolutionary movement that rose after the 1895/6 defeats defined the contrasting features of a home grown movement in retreat and one that sought to remove power and decision-making to centres outside historical Armenia. Nikol Duman argued that henceforth the fedayee should organise from the outside conducting military operations as incursions from the Russian or Persian borders. Aghbiur Serob in contrast held firm to his conviction that it remained both necessary and possible to root the movement among the local population. The loss of confidence by the Armenian political leadership can in part be explained by the decimation of its leading militants after their retreat from Van in 1896. This led to a more emphatic reliance on external forces and so the movement adjusted its attitude to the armed struggle accordingly. It is in this period, between 1895/6 and the capitulation of 1908, that the ARF emerges as the dominant force in Armenian politics. It commenced the process of eliminating the independence and power of the local fedayee striving to subordinate them to its design for greater collaboration with the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire and the Russian bourgeoisie in the Tsarist Empire. Among other things the ARF leadership attempted to remove from the local scene men like Kevork Chavoush and replace them by Russian-Armenian leaders such as Rouben, more amenable to the external leadership's designs. It is in this connection that one needs to grasp the significance of the Mihranakan movement within the ARF. Its opposition to the ARF leadership was in essence not about ideology but about fears that the leadership was subordinating the fedayee struggle to the political interests of the Armenian elite in the Caucuses and particularly in Tbilisi. This the Mihranakans regarded as a betrayal of the Armenian people suffering under Ottoman rule. The volume's last chapter on the legendary Murad Sebastatsi takes the story of the revolutionary movement beyond 1908 to Murad's death in Baku in 1918. Again it underlines the conservative and damaging role of the Armenian political leadership. Like many fedayee, Murad was partly taken in by the delusions of 1908. But unlike the Istanbul and Tbilisi leadership, he, rooted as he was among the people, refused to abandon weapons and worked hard to organise and arm the people. He even advised the young not to join the Ottoman Army. For all this Murad fell foul of the establishment, the wealthy, the Church hierarchy and the Bolis based careerists who counselled submission, passivity and collaboration with the Young Turks. Thus were buried Murad's efforts, like those of many other local fighters, that together in 1915 could have produced wider successful self-defence operations. The Armenian political leadership's strategy, dictated by its relationship not with the Armenian people but with forces within the Tsarist and Ottoman elite, continued to devastate the fortunes of the Armenian nation beyond 1915. The heroic 1918 battles to defend Armenian Erzerum and Kars ended in defeat. Murad's and Antranig's valiant efforts again fell before the Tbilisi elite's decision to concentrate resources in the Caucuses and follow the dictates of Russian policy. The right and possibility of Armenians to continue living in historic Armenia was here sacrificed as the Tbilisi leadership entrusted their fate to deceitful Turkish and German diplomacy. This volume offers much more. It records the Armenian revolutionary movement's consistent efforts to seek alliances with Kurds and dissident Turks. It throws light on the social origins of many fedayees leaders who like Serob Aghbiur and Murad Boyajian hailed from the better off stratum of the peasantry. It notes the role of patriotic priests who played an important role in the development of the national movement taking an active part not only in debates on tactics and strategy but in revolutionary operations too. Decidedly a worthy read! -- 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.