A HISTORY OF ARMENIAN CRITICAL THOUGHT... Armenian News Network / Groong July 2, 2018 By Eddie Arnavoudian The criticism of an unjust, iniquitous social order, of oppressing and exploiting states and ruling elites is not a Marxist invention! The intellectual critique of foreign and domestic states and elites forms a solid axis in the cultural and intellectual legacy of every nation. Among Armenians too, besides the sycophantic, self-serving glorification of ugly elites, by hired pens of a kept intelligentsia, often priestly, there is an ancient critical tradition worthy of recall and recovery. From 5th century Moses of Khoren whose powerful `Complaint' against the Armenian ruling establishment startles with contemporary relevance, to 20th century novelist Shirvanzade's denunciations of heartless Armenian capitalists in Baku, the history of Armenian critical thought shines with challenges to the devastation of community and national life by foreign and domestic elites. Today when every radical criticism of society (or indeed even the mildest - by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain for example) is denounced or dismissed as dangerous or irrelevant Bolshevism, a reminder of the history of Armenian critical questioning of power can inspire us to hold firm as we battle against forces that today destroy not just community and nation but the very natural world in which these must exist. Part I: The 5th Century `Golden Age' From 5th century Armenian thinkers - ideologues of a newly triumphant Armenian Christian Church - one cannot expect critical thought after the fashion of the anti-feudal, anti-establishment 18th and 19th century bourgeois and radical democrats. Commanding intellects of the age, Agatangeghos, Pavsdos Puzant, Yeghishe, Khazar Barpetzi and Movses Khorenatzi had little in common even with their later 10th century Christian brethren such as Lasdivertzi and Narek who had rounded on elites of their own times with acute profundity. Yet with an unabashed frankness and a striking intellectual objectivity these historians and chroniclers provide the foundation for a damning critical indictment of an often misnamed 4th-5th century `Golden Age'. For the Armenian common people, and indeed for its elites and for independent Armenian statehood too, this age was anything but golden. Looking back to the early 4th century Armenian Christian `conversion' and right up to the late 5th century, among much else, our `Golden Age' histories tell a tale of Christian tyranny and destruction, of cruel, oppressive and exploitative social relations, of unending internecine elite warfare, avarice and decadence, an early Christian age in fact so rotten that within one hundred years it concluded with the ignominious collapse of the Christian Armenian state (See Note 1). Yet in this ugly landscape there are seams that enhance: Khorenatzi's assertion of the rights of small nations against great power designs to crush and eliminate them; Yeghishe's passionate affirmations of the right of rebellion against unjust power; and critically, for politics bedeviled by dependency on great powers, Barpetzi's ennobling self-reliance in the execution of any great social or political project. I. Christianity imposed by military force! The first in the cycle of 5th century historians, the hugely readable Agatangeghos is frank and forthright. There was no Armenian conversion to Christianity. Christianity was imposed with military force, dehumanising humiliation, terror and destruction. Those with illusions will blush on paging Agatangehos's `History' - violence and military dictatorship played a role immensely more important than the preaching of the priests! Even Agatangeghos's account of King Drtad's spiritual `conversion' is a tale of dehumanisation. Refusing to voluntarily `convert' Drtad is condemned to a beastly, pig-like existence and restored to nobility only on acquiescence to Christian dictate. His conversion has nothing to do with `seeing the light' but with escaping the living hell to which he had been consigned in his de-human existence (A411, 413, 429, 435 - See Note 2). While Gregory the Illuminator, the founder of Armenian Christianity is depicted as playing a decisive role, the success of the entire enterprise was based on his alliance with Armenian King Drtad's armed forces. During the decade from 303-312 Gregory `relied on the King's terror and instruction to secure obedience from all' (A443). Aware of this, Gregory seems to have paid particular attention to fortifying the King's army, the proven guarantor of Christian `conversion'. He laboured to indoctrinate the armed forces `devoting one month to fasting and prayer' (A463) and Christening `over 4,000 men, women and children' from the King's military entourage. It was only following the military pact between Christian leader and secular monarch that Gregory `received sanction from the King, his princes and lords' to `commence the task' of `demolishing, destroying, annihilating and removing from the face of the earth the scandal' of paganism (A437). With `peremptory instruction from the King' the `entire royal army' proceeded to wage veritable war to `annihilate even the memory of these false deities that dared assume the name of god' (A437). The vast scale of this campaign is not only described in detail but told with a measure of relish! The Christian military campaign opened with a march on the town of Ardashad there `to destroy the temple of the (chief) goddess Anahid' (A437). On its way, in an ideologically significant move, the army `set about destroying, wrecking and burning' the renowned pagan `centre of learning and godly wisdom' said to have been established by Ormist (A437). The Church eyed the wealth of pagan temples such as Vahevanyan that `was rich with treasures, full of gold and silver and with many other gifts donated by great kings (A453).' A tide of devastation and looting raged across the land as every possible pagan temple and statue was levelled and its land and wealth appropriated by the victorious Christian Church. A rich Armenian pagan civilisation and culture was destroyed with a ruthlessness as total as the 21st century ISIS-style destruction of Christian and non-Islamic temples and institutions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. The Armenian Church was as intolerant and as violent as one could get, and perhaps more comprehensively so than anywhere else. That such violence was the norm at the time is true. But it alters not the savage character of the Christian conquest. To consolidate its positions the Church did make concessions', one could say bribes, to the common people. To secure a popular compliance it initially distributed `gold and silver' to `the poor, the suffering and the property-less' (A439, 441). But it made sure to retain monopoly control of all immovable sources of wealth. The Church seized for itself all pagan `land and buildings along with the resident serfs and pagan priests' (A441). It was thus that on the same exploitative social foundations as the old pagan regime the new religion was to emerge as a dominant elite estate. Puzant who does not detail the Christianisation of Armenia nevertheless alludes to its violent imposition on the common people. He writes that Christianity: `...was accepted by them against their will. They submitted to it as if it was a human deviation, without genuine, devout faith (PP91).' Puzant indicates the fragile and unstable quality of early Armenian Christianity. Only segments of the elite, `the literate minority', who knew something about `Greek and Assyrian literature', understood Christianity. Among the `illiterate mobs, among the feudal lords and the common people' Christianity was never secure. Teachers `may preach from morning till sundown, they may pour their sermons upon the people as if rain, but the mobs would retain not even an iota of instruction (PP91).' Established through force, violence and destruction, through two centuries the new Christian elite steadily amassed vast wealth and status. Always insecure the elite defended its privileges with inquisitorial style torture, violence and blood-lust. As if perfectly acceptable morally and otherwise, Pavsdos Puzant records that in 371AD`General Mushegh destroyed (non-Christian) temples and ordered captives to be roasted on a burning fire (PP231).' `He arrested nobles who had received honours from the (pagan) Persians, skinned them and stuffed their bodies with straw before hanging them along fortress walls (PP231-2)'. Capturing the Persian Kings private tents `Mushegh ordered the skinning and stuffing of 600 men so that he could present these as gifts to Armenian King Bab (PP233).' Nothing changed with time. Writing of the 451AD Armenian revolt against Persian power the devoutly Christian Yeghishe displays a perverse delight in the tortured death of Prince Vassak deemed traitor to the Armenian cause. With glee he reports Vassak's `stomach swelling up and his waist being crushed as his firm flesh melted and frayed.' All the while `worms boiled up in Vassak's eyes and dripped down from his nostrils (Y130)'. Yeghishe also rather nonchalantly describes General Vartan's surviving forces attacking Persian territories and `committing bloody deeds as they mercilessly slaughtered their victims (Y120)'. Numerous other examples are ready at hand. All 5th century historians without exception glorify such war, violence and torture and without a qualm record enslavement, plunder and exploitation as legitimate means to defend and increase the wealth and privilege of their Christian order, an order that in their own accounts was sustained by the systemic exploitation of the peasant and artisan! II. `The common people build our world and feed the land!' It was not just because of their numerical majority that radical democrat Mikael Nalpantian described the common people as the foundation of a nation. Crucially, it was because the entire social structure rested on the productive labour of the peasant and artisan. This truth runs as an implicit thread through our 5th century histories. Almost inadvertently, at one point Pavsdos Puzant is explicit writing that `the peasantry builds our world and feeds the land (PP121)'. Thus it was that there came into existence the royal and princely mansions, the grand Churches, the monasteries, the farms, the towns and villages, the roads, the bridges, the royal hunting grounds, the very foundations for the reproduction of social life. Yet this peasantry that built and fed the land's elites, its aristocracy, clergy and monarchy, lived unremitting lives of misery, oppression and exploitation. The cruel relations that defined the social character of the early Armenian Christian age are described at the very opening of Agatangeghos's `History'. To explain the majesty of Christian spiritual emancipation he turns to metaphors from the secular world he inhabited. An artistically magnificent account of the courage of sea-faring merchants battling storm and wave grasps something of the blighted and bent lives of the common people. Merchants brave the seas to earn the means to `free their suffering relations from debt bondage to unjust princes (A9)'. They `use a portion of their gain... to free themselves from debt' and from `the yoke of royal taxation'. It `is not greed' for profit but `poverty, need and utter destitution' that `drives them to risk life and limb (A9).' Spiritual emancipation Agatangeghos writes is akin to `elevating the poor from the dung heap and making them equal with princes (A13).' But elevating them from the real `dung heap' the people lived in would not occur to our honourable Agatangeghos or the Church elite that lived off the labour of the poor. Even as the chroniclers of the triumphant Christian age showed no interest in the lives of the common people their classic `Histories' demonstrate that the new Christian regime implanted itself as a vastly privileged estate alongside secular allies with both thriving on compulsory free labour, exorbitant taxation, tithes and the absolute servitude of the land's working population. In an impressive 1957 `History of the Armenian Peasantry' Y Hagopian using 5th century literature as a primary source reconstructs in some detail the class structure, organisation, stratification and the system of exploitation of peasant and artisan labour that sustained 4-5th century Christian society. Yeghishe in a richly significant phrase speaks of `an ingredient' of elite `wealth being the theft of the property of the poor (Y107)'. Not infrequently an already intolerable burden of such domestic theft was made even more intolerable by additional theft from Persian and Byzantine powers. Yeghishe notes that for the peasant, new Persian taxation was a threateningly fatal additional burden. `Collected, more in the manner of plundering bandits than a dignified State' it would `annihilate the plebeian farmer' throwing the population into `extreme poverty'. As he focuses on resistance to Persian power, quoting from a speech delivered by Ghevond, the religious leader of the 451 anti-Persian Church uprising, Yeghishe underlines popular rage against both domestic and Persian super-exploitation: `If we look down...what disastrous things do we see...the suffering of the poor and their countless tortures, the harsh pressures of the tax collectors, theft and plunder from tyrannous neighbours, hunger and thirst... An endless flood of fear from those outside and dread from those inside (Y107).' Barpetzi too refers to widespread impoverishment caused by `the bitter slavish yoke' of Persian tax collectors who `descended like locusts gobbling up the land and causing much danger to the people.' (Hagopian p342 p477) III. `The fish stinks from the head down' Sitting atop the 4th and 5th century Armenian Christian order was a degenerate, selfish, centrifugal, debauched, hedonistic and philandering secular elite. Puzant describes this caste as `trampling upon' `justice and right' with: `King and the princes especially...engaged in indiscriminate killings and the spilling of innocent blood alongside many of its other sins (PP89).' The long list of sins indicates a fragile and unstable state: `lawlessness' `injustice' `bloodletting' `plunder', `expropriation', `hatred for the poor' as well as `homosexuality' (sic) and `whoring (PP90, 91,103) '. Puzant's colours may be lurid and exaggerated. But the depiction remains essentially correct. This was the recognised behaviour of all feudal elites and for Armenians at the time was confirmed by none other than Movses Khorenatzi, the outstanding figure of early Armenian historiography. In the `Lament' that concludes his `History' the early Christian age is judged to be the lowest point of Armenian history. Armenia appears as dark, blighted, nightmare land on the edge of collapse. The entire elite - prince, priest, judge and teacher - all fail to measure up to the standard implied in their titles: `Teachers - stupid and conceited, elected by money not saintly devotion', `priests - hypocrites who love status more than God', `judges - lazy and ignorant who prefer trading and drinking', `soldiers - cowardly, boasting, pillagers and drunkards, `princes - venal, rebellious, plundering, greedy', `judges - lying, cheating, bribe takers (MK315-316) In the arc of Armenian history the Christian Khorenatzi gives pride of place to the pagan order his own Church so brutally destroyed. Khorenatzi `loves' the Armenian pagan kings `most'. He would have loved `to have been born in their (pagan) times' so he could `revel in the rule' of truly great kings (MK130). If Christian Armenia is to ever recover Khorenatzi suggests then it must seek to emulate the most exemplary pagan period. Puzant's earlier narrative of monarchic successions after King Drtad's death reinforces Khorenatzi's picture. The period is punctuated by murderous and debilitating battles between egotistical Crown, Church and estates. The Christian state from its very inception was weak and floundering and in Khorenatzi's evaluation began to founder immediately upon King Drtad's death (MK240-241, 244). Raging internecine conflict brought it to its knees (PP103-110, 299). Quoting Nerses the Great, Pavsdos Puzant warned of impending disaster: `Beware, for as a result of all your sins and corruptions the lord will withdraw from you your kingdom and your Church. You will be divided and dispersed and your borders like those of Israel will collapse...you will become sheep without a shepherd...you will become victim to beasts, your will fall into the hands of foreign enemies and the chains of oppression shall never be loosened....As with the land of Israel which was torn asunder never to be reunited, you too will be dispersed and destroyed.' Far-sighted segments of the Armenian Church, men such as Vrtaness and Nerses the Great grasped the dangers confronting the new Christian state. Puzant tells of a group of Bishops who `met to confer about reforming the secular orders and defining the laws of the faith'. Nerses the Great, a man of enormous energy and vision is said to have urged: `...the King, the grandees and in general all those who exercised authority over others to have mercy on their servants, inferiors and students, to treat them as family, and not to illegally oppress them with excessive taxes, remembering that for them too there is a god in heaven.' Of course the Church had no intention of releasing serfs from feudal bondage. It did however understand that a degree of social harmony was necessary to sustain the social order. But all was to no avail. The elites paid no heed. Heralding the collapse of independent statehood in 387AD Armenia was divided between Persian and Byzantine empires. Never much more than a vassal state used as a pawn in battles between Rome and Persia in 428, in just over a century after the Christian triumph, the Armenian Christian state was removed as a nuisance to both. Khazar Barpetzi writes: `The Arshagouni dynasty, as a result of its inglorious behaviour and in accord with the predictions of Saint Nerses, fell from God's grace and was abandoned. Armenia was condemned to division between Persian and Greek kings. Between them they took into their servitude portions of this great land.' (KB27) The Christianisation of Armenia was part of a wider phenomenon that swept Europe and Asia Minor. Judging the Persian menace greater than that of Rome the Armenian King Drtad converted to Roman Christianity as a tactical political rather than religious move. Dressed like a Christian Roman he hoped he could scare off Zorastrian Persia. The project failed. After 428 a Christian Armenian state was only to be re-established in the 9th century. But this Bagratouni dynasty too endured for just a century. Nearly 800 year into the future, in 1918 when Armenian statehood was once again re-established it was then on the tiniest, most unsustainable remnant of a historic Armenia that Christianity had utterly failed to protect. This miserable experience contrasts sharply with for example the Persian Islamic conversion that was also brought about by a foreign global socio-political and military tidal wave. The Persian Iranian order, its ruling classes and its state, despite coming repeatedly to the edge of disintegration and disappearance managed, endured and recovered as an independent power despite the defeat of Zorastrianism. IV. Self-reliance and the right to revolt! Despite its defining darker sides, it would be wrong to bypass the uplifting moments of the 5th century literary legacy. Within often magnificent literary- cultural accomplishments three of the five main historians-chroniclers set out certain fundamental principles of progressive thought relevant to our own day today. For as long as imperial nations have oppressed and exploited small nations there has been and will be resistance. Movses Khorenatizi offers an early Armenian affirmation of this truth, one that resonates in contemporary experience. In one aspect his `History' is a defence of the rights of small nations and of their contribution to human civilisation and culture. In a much quoted passage Khorenatzi remarks: `Though we are only a small people, limited in numbers and frequently oppressed by foreign kings, nevertheless even in our land there have been great acts of courage that are deserving of memory and record. (p96) He goes on to condemn the great powers for their genocidal policies, for their attempts to assimilate smaller nations and to write them out of history. To exact revenge against Haig, the founder of the Armenian state, Assyrian King Ninos plans to `annihilate every last offspring of Haig's tribe.' (p117) A `proud and selfish man' he also `sought to present himself... as the only King touched by courage and perfection.' (p117) During his reign `the histories of other nations were not regarded as important', and so he `ordered the destruction of vast numbers of volumes that told of these and other achievements...' (p119). It was in part as inspiration to struggle against such annihilation that Khorenatzi wrote his grand `History'. Yeghishe's brilliantly written `The Story of Vartanantz' goes on to uphold the right of revolt against unjust political power and that in a very `un-Christian' manner. Though written after the 451 Armenian defeat at the Battle of Avarayr Yeghishe reads as an uncompromising summoning to stand ground, as an invocation against demoralised surrender and as a proclamation of the righteousness of the Armenian revolt against Persian power. Yeghishe portrays what was as a broad, popular, nationwide insurrection that embraced whole swathes of the population irrespective of class or status. There was `no differentiation between lord and servant, between delicate freeman and hardy peasant, and none appeared lesser in bravery.' All were `willing of spirit whether man or woman, old or young... (Y149-50).' As the organisation of the uprising progressed `all - not just brave men, but married women too - were ready for battle, helmets fitted, swords at their waste and shield on arms (Y142) .' Aggressive Persian power was detested by all classes. So a temporary confluence of interest between the Church, albeit itself an exploiting force and the peasantry to resist Persian power! Yeghishe's affirmation of the principle of the right to rebellion is not voided by the opportunist character of the Church revolt! Since the termination of Armenian statehood the Church adjusted happily to foreign rule. It did not resist so long as it was permitted to remain free of taxation and retain its powers to govern and live off the Armenian common people's labour. Things only changed in 450 when Persian power proposed to remove the Church's economic and social privileges. As soon the real material interests of its class were threatened, the Church elite without second thought discarded the Christian injunction to submit to secular power, to `render unto God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's'. The political imperative of revolt and resistance in defence of class interest prevailed over all other considerations. Thus Yeghishe albeit indirectly, affirms a fundamental principle of political struggle in all phases of history for all social classes and forces. Khazar Barpetzi rounds off Movses Khorenatzi's proclamation of the rights of small nations and Yeghishe's affirmation of their rights to rebel with an urging to self-reliance in the struggle against imperial powers. According to Barpetzi following the defeat at Avarayr conditions in Armenia went from bad to worse. `Decency vanished, wisdom was lost, bravery was dead and gone and Christianity went into hiding as the once famed Armenian army became an object of ridicule and laughter (KB269).' But in 481 one Vahan Mamikonian emerges and in alliance with the Church prepares to lead yet another and this time unprecedented guerrilla rebellion against the Persian throne. Vahan Mamikonian is portrayed as a courageous fighter and a brilliant inventive military tactician. But central to his image is that of a leader conscious that Armenian aims can best be served by reliance on Armenian forces alone, by a refusal to trust foreign imperial forces even if they like the Byzantine powers shared the same Christian religion! Prior to raising the flag of rebellion Vahan Mamikonian advises caution. The revolt is fully justified but he does `not have the confidence to say that it will be successful.' (KB289) The Persians are `powerful and audacious' while reliance on Byzantium would be tragic self-deception. Vahan knows well the `deceit of the Greeks' who `swearing solidarity with our forefathers went on to betray them.' (KB289) The rebellious Armenian camp nevertheless urges Vahan to take up the mantle: `All that you said...you said truthfully and justly. Therefore we do not place our hopes on the Greeks or the Hons...but first and foremost in God's will ...and then on pain of our own lives.' (KB289). Three years of guerrilla war and Persian commander Shabouh accepts that his forces have been battered as `never before'. Persian King Beroz acknowledges that `the (guerrilla) tactics employed by Vahan are unknown to us today. We recall such accomplishments only in the stories of ancient warriors.' (KB379) During some hard-knuckled negotiations Vahan reiterates that these achievements were acts `by Armenians alone'. `No one else' he says `helped us, neither Greek, nor Hon nor any other foreign forces.' So the Persian throne sought an end to the war and an arrangement that would secure a friendly ally someone capable of doing them such damage. * * * * * * * The Armenian people not only gained nothing from the 4-5th century imposition of Christianity, they lost a great deal! For the people the exploitative social, economic and political relations remained in place and indeed began a transition to more severe feudal exploitation and servitude. Throughout the Christian age, during brief periods of independent Christian Armenian statehood and longer centuries foreign rule over Armenian Christian communities there was an acceleration of peasants being bonded to the land as serfs to a degenerate aristocracy! But still, amid the generalised muck and grime that `Golden Age' histories reveal about 4-5th century Christian Armenia are principles of political struggle, of strategic and tactical vision, that albeit born of the experience of feudal elites remains, to this day as relevant to every national, democratic and progressive force. Note 1: The term Golden Age, always a label of hindsight is perhaps better attached to the 5th century cultural and literary legacy - the creation of the unique Armenian script and the birth of a magnificent Armenian historiography alongside the prolific translation of works of world culture including the Bible. Yet the literary and cultural `Golden Age' proved an impotent ally in the Armenian elites' battle for the survival of Christian statehood. Besides their uninhibitedly critical exposure of the darker side of 4th-5th century Armenian society ruled by irredeemably decadent elites the `Golden Age' classics have other tremendous, historical, literary and intellectual qualities For a glimpse of the five authors referred to you can visit Groong at: http://www.groong.org/tcc/index.html(Agatangeghos - 1 May 2001; Pavsdos Puzant - 16 August 2000; Yeghishe - 30 December 2001; Khazar Barpetzi - 19 October 2001; Movses of Khoren - 12 March 2001) Note 2: Sources are indicted with author initials followed by page number thus - Agatangeghos - A000. The volumes from which extracts are borrowed are: Agatangeghos, Armenian State University Press, 1983; Pavsdos Puzant, Armenia Publishing House, 1988; Yeghishe, Housaper Printing House, Cairo, 1950; Khazar Barpetzi, Armenian State University Press, 1982; Movses Khorenatzi, Armenian State Univerity Press, 1981 - 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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