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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.

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