The Critical Corner
October 28, 2019
By Eddie Arnavoudian
In the Armenian national pantheon, there should be a special place reserved for the armed Armenian freedom fighters known as the Fedayeen who in the late 19th and early 20th century battled to defend their homeland peasant and artisan communities against a rising tide of ferocious Ottoman attack.
They deserve to be remembered well, for their example to this day has lessons for the common people of Armenia and the world. They deserve to have their slanderers from all sides rebutted. Moreover, in view of the 1915 Genocide that uprooted and forever destroyed Ottoman occupied Armenian homeland communities a historical explanation of the failure of the Fedayeen movement is urgently demanded.
To this end I submit the following preliminary notes for debate in defense of the Armenian Fedayeen. The notes unfold as a controversial proposition - that the Fedayeen were betrayed by the Armenian ruling elites who exercised commanding influence over the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM) and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in particular.
As always, when discussing the ANLM and its political parties a clear and strict distinction must be drawn between its leaderships on the one hand and those thousands of dedicated activists who sacrificed all in the struggle to free the Armenian people from imperial tyranny, oppression and exploitation. Thus, the critique offered here is directed only at the leadership of ARF and the ANLM, not their ranks.
I. Fedayeen – the roots
II. Fedayeen – the successes
I. Classes in the ANLM – peasants, Diaspora elites and the intelligentsia
II. Antagonisms – Fedayeen versus political parties
III. Debating the future
I. Betrayal of the Fedayeen
The Betrayal of the Armenian Fedayeen
The 19th and early 20th century Armenian Fedayeen guerrillas were the backbone of the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM). ‘Born of the people’, they ‘were the pillars of the Armenian revolution.’ It was they who ‘kept the political parties on their toes’, it was they who ‘sustained both their authority and their popularity (Chormissian, 1974, p349).’
Emerging from the core of Ottoman-occupied rural Armenian homelands the Fedayeen were authentic revolutionary representatives of the peasantry - the vast majority of the Armenian people. The frequently epic battles they waged to protect Armenian village communities served to fortify a rising tide of resistance against the Ottoman State and its ruling classes’ ceaseless pillage, plundering, arson, land grabbing, massacre, ethnic cleansing and forced Islamization that were bringing life in rural Armenian communities to the brink collapse.
Tragically the Fedayeen were never allowed to develop to its full potential; and that by none other than the political leadership of the ANLM! Across a decade from 1898 the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), now dominant in the ANLM, worked to first marginalize and then dissolve the Fedayeen. Supporting the 1908 Young Turk seizure of power, one of the ARF’s first steps was to disband the ANLM’s armed wing. Thus unarmed the Armenian people were denied the means to resist the 1915 Ottoman-Young Turk Genocide.
The dissolution of the Fedayeen flowed inexorably from the ARF’s strategic project for alliance with the Young Turks then aspiring for Ottoman power. To this project the Fedayeen was an obstacle. The Young Turks representing an aggressively nationalist Turkish bourgeois and landlord class eyeing Armenian lands and wealth, would not countenance an armed Armenian force fighting for the peasantry. Still, intent on securing its accord the ARF pressed on with dismantling the Fedayeen.
Often explained as political naivety or strategic blunder the ARF’s strategy had its roots in deep class oppositions between the ANLM’s two main battalions - the wealthy, relatively secure Diaspora economic-social elites that produced the bulk of the ANLM’s political leadership and Armenian peasant communities in their historic homelands that produced the Fedayeen. Profiting within the Ottoman Empire, the watchword of the Diaspora elites was compromise with its ruling political classes. A devastated Armenian peasantry had no interest in such compromise. Tragically the ARF’s political leadership bent the movement’s oar to the Diaspora elites and to accommodation with the genocidal imperial order.
I. Fedayeen – the roots
The Armenian Fedayeen was a direct reaction to the severe intensification of oppression and exploitation of homeland Armenian rural communities by Kurdish elite and Ottoman State forces. They were spontaneous, almost inevitable reactions of self-defense against forces determined to reduce, destroy and to drive the Armenian peasantry from its ancient lands. Within the ANLM the Fedayeen were the authentic representatives of the peasantry.
Fedayeen commanders such as Arapo (1863-1893), Mihran Damadyan (1863-1945), Hambardzum Boyajian (Murad the Great – 1860-1915), Hrair-Dzhoghk (1864-1904), Sepasdatsi Murad (1874-1918), Serop Aghbyur (1864-1899), Gevorg Chavush (1870-1907), Sose Mayrig (a woman Fedayeen – 1868-1953), Antranig (1865-1927) and many others together with their guerrilla units acquired Homeric reputations among homeland Armenians. Fighting for the common people they were beloved of the people with epics created in their honour, sung and told in Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish.
The early origin of these Armenian freedom fighters known also as hayduks are traceable to ceaseless rural class struggle against the feudal Ottoman order, to ceaseless spontaneous acts of individual or collective defiance and resistance. Young peasant or artisan rebels for whatever reason at odds with the law often fled to inaccessible mountain hideouts, there to form outlaw bands. Often ‘robbing the rich to give to the poor’, wreaking revenge against tax collectors, government officials and local landlords they were ‘the products of material impoverishment, an _expression_ of discontent and want generated by (Ottoman) economic backwardness that afflicted all peoples (Chormissian, 1974, p136)’.
Initially a social and class phenomenon rather than a national or political one, until the mid-19th century such outlaw bands were multi-national frequently uniting Turkmens, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Lazes and others. With the rapid evolution of separate nationalist political movements these remarkable formations were to give way to others now organized on national lines. Yet even in their national uniforms Armenian rebels continued to display both class hostility to their exploiters and an admirable solidarity for all the Ottoman oppressed independent of nationality. National groups first known as Tchelos:
‘…spread terror and fear among usurers, rich landlords, merchants and government circles. But among the… impoverished masses – whether Christian or Muslim they became figures of love and gratitude (Chormissian 1974, p137)’
The story of Torros Dzaroukian one of the first and most famous Armenian Tchelo commanders shows why. Torros would:
‘…block roads, rob the rich and many a government postal caravan too and then generously distribute takings both to Armenian and Turkish villagers (Chormissian 1974, p137).’
Over time these social warriors were absorbed into the political parties of the ANLM. Torros Dzaroukian and other Tchelo bands first joined the Social Democratic Hnchak Party (Hnchak). Others would later join the ARF and together they eventually became the Fedayeen, the nucleus of the armed wing of the ANLM. A telling account of the process of transformation is the remarkable story of Arapo’s transition from self-seeking bandit to guerrilla fighter defending his local Armenian peasant community (Rouben, 1974, Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary, Volume 3 p53-59 – see Note 1).
Memoirs and histories repeatedly underline the Fedayeen’s local, native roots. Rouben’s ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’ reminds us that ‘all Serop Aghbyur’s soldiers were local villagers (Rouben, 1974, p149)’. Paraphrasing the Fedayeen leadership’s views Rouben writes that:
‘Though the Armenian people began to gather beneath the ARF flag, it was not so much because of propaganda and education but as a result of living struggle whose embodiment was the Fedayeen…The Fedayeen, despite being outlaws, were the authentic children of the land…If they were to leave, a new generation of Fedayeen would immediately come forth given that state repression would continue and even intensify (Rouben, 1974, page 201-202).’
At its most progressive and dynamic the ANLM leadership worked to reinforce, supply and develop this home grown force with cadre and weapons from beyond Ottoman borders. Despite the movement’s detractors, this remained always an auxiliary, as backup to an essentially locally-rooted peasant fighting force. Such external reinforcements were always a minority. During the 1904 Sasun-Daron Uprising for example among the 200 Fedayeen, 120-130 were from the immediate region, 40 odd were from other areas of Ottoman occupied historical Armenia and some 30-40 were from Tsarist occupied Armenia.
Though fighters for the Armenian national liberation movement, the Fedayeen were never to lose the social and class character of their predecessors. They never acted out of national hatred for Turk or Kurd or any other people. Their stunning adventures of derring-do tell of class solidarity with all common people whether Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrian, and indeed even Azeri. Gevorg Chavush a remarkably successful Fedayeen commander ‘readily defended not just Armenian but Turkish peasants (Rouben, 1974, p).’ Serob Aghbyur too:
‘…acted as defender of all the exploited delivering blows against all officials and criminals from whose hand Armenians and Muslims suffered. Though Armenian and Muslim judged him ruthless they deemed him just. So Serop’s operations did not produce inter-ethnic hatreds that the government was so intent on fomenting (Rouben, 1974, p155).’
In his biography of Antranig, Hrachig Simonian writes that Antranig and his guerrillas were ‘honourable and just to all irrespective of nationality.’ It was not unusual ‘for Kurdish and Turkish working people to turn to the guerrillas’ to right wrongs done them by their own elites (Simonian 1996, p92). Beyond Ottoman borders the Fedayeen protected Azeri villagers in Iran. Taking refuge in ‘the small Salmasd province of Iran’ when retreating from Sasun, Armenian soldiers defended not just local Armenians but Azeri villagers too. Their ‘mere presence was sufficient to restrain Kurdish brigandage (Rouben, 1972, p53-54).’
II. Fedayeen – the successes
In the historic western Armenian provinces there is little question that at their strongest and most vigorous the Fedayeen recorded significant and promising revolutionary achievements. For relatively long periods they held off 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.
Among a peasantry subjugated and humiliatingly passive in the face of unending oppression and exploitation, among a broken and almost dehumanized rural mass, the appearance of the Fedayeen served to re-fire humanity, dignity and self-respect. In a moving passage Rouben writes that:
‘Through all the areas we visited, the locals would for the first time be seeing ‘Armenian police’. Initially they would be wary and fearful, but then with tearful eyes they would want to kiss us, to kiss our garments and our weapons. We did not forcibly pluck their chickens or demand money. We did not beat them nor did we extract taxes. We did not oppress them in any way…From being a beast (the peasant) begins to become a man (Rouben, 1972, p188-189).’
Repeatedly the Fedayeen movement reigned in violence, indiscriminate pillage, the abduction, rape and murder that were the tragedy of life in the Armenian village. Scores of villages that in the past had passively watched as their property, their animals, their stocks of grain and food and even their women and children snatched before their eyes now took to arms in self-defense, and that with significant success.
‘In the inaccessible corners of the Mountain Range region we developed such strength that the Kurds were forced to reckon with us and sought peace so as to avoid suffering at our hands (Rouben, 1973, p191) ‘As a result of Gaspar’s efforts the village of Mushaghen remained free of exploitation…They resisted the Kurds and refused to pay taxes. Bandits did not dare to plunder their property (Rouben, 1973, p237). Elsewhere the 150-family strong village of Artnonz that had earlier been serfs to the Kurds was now for almost 15 years mostly free of Kurdish whim and plunder…They had among them 80 armed (Fedayeen) (Rouben, 1972, p244).’
In the province of Daron, the home of semi-autonomous Armenian Sasun, the Fedayeen frequently managed to extend ‘liberated’ ‘no go areas’. A number of villages in the Shaddakh province ‘without any large confrontations or blood-letting succeeded in uniting with the province’s free belt…They did not bend to Kurdish whims or pay taxes (Rouben, 1974, p71).’ In Sasun itself, from 1894 ‘Armenians categorically refused to recognize any Kurdish elite authority and responded with arms to any assault or hostile demand (Rouben, 1974, p101).’ Across time ‘small groups of free villages were extending their influence (Rouben, 1974, p75).’
Gevorg Chavush’s operations as he built his Fedayeen forces and their authority in the Daron region (Rouben Volume 3, p337-352) is testimony to the revolutionary, progressive and plebeian character of this guerrilla movement. They were defenders of the common people whose use of revolutionary force protected Armenian villages from expropriation and from excessive and brutal exploitation and plunder.
Fedayeen participation in the 1894 uprisings in the autonomous Armenian province of Sasun helped ensure that the region remained free from the 1889-96 nationwide massacres that wrought such death and destruction across Armenian homelands. In Van, during these massacres Fedayeen secured the safety of its Armenian population, though tragically their 600 strong contingents were trapped and slaughtered as they retreated from the city.
Ending the third volume of his memoirs Rouben notes that by 1904:
‘Of course the people had not been freed from state oppression. But landlords, Turkish and Kurdish elites and other exploiters that threatened to forever suppress and drown the people – all of this had been restrained (Rouben, 1974, p356)
The Ottoman State and Kurdish lords naturally dreaded the Fedayeen. They especially feared that in Daron together with the historically armed and semi-autonomous community of Sasun they could become a hub of resistance threatening Ottoman control of historic Armenian lands. At some points indeed so powerful had the Fedayeen become that in their own internecine disputes Kurdish leaders sought their support. ‘Having Fedayeen fighting in their ranks would spread terror among their opponents (Rouben, 1973, p242).’ Desperate ‘to restore their earlier colonial and feudal privileges and rights now falling to Fedayeen’ bullets Turkish and Kurdish authorities even resorted ‘to building their own Fedayeen units (Rouben, 1974, p240)’!
To the rise of Armenian resistance the Ottoman state responded with the 1895-96 massacres of 300,000 Armenians. Ten years later it prepared for renewed assault on Sasun autonomy in 1904, an assault that though fiercely resisted was tragically successful. In fierce onslaughts one after another important Fedayeen fighters and ANLM political organizers were killed.
Yet despite the devastating 1895-6 massacre and despite the 1904 Sasun defeat the Fedayeen and ANLM recovered rapidly.
‘The 1904-1908 period’ Rouben writes ‘witnessed the most comprehensive arming of the people and that on a scale that surpassed even the power of the local Kurds (Rouben, 1973, p160).’
It will not do to indulge in romantic excess. The Fedayeen generally lived short and hard lives of sacrifice and early death. The movement was bedeviled by countless troubles. It was infected 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 Fedayeen that was compounded by damaging sectarian antagonisms between the different revolutionary parties of the ANLM.
Nevertheless against all the slanders and the vilification of the Armenian guerrillas, their record reveals their critical, positive and necessary role. Any contemplation of Fedayeen triumphs would support conjectures that had the movement been allowed to survive and flourish the Armenian peasants’ and peoples fortunes in 1915 would not have been as catastrophic as they turned out.
Yet at the behest of Diaspora elites the Fedayeen peasant defense force was to be disarmed by the political leadership of the ANLM.
Note 1: Rouben was a leading ARF figure. His memoirs despite hints of self-serving apologia, despite disapproval of an independent Fedayeen movement and signs of unpleasant disdain for Antranig offers still an excellent insight into the Fedayeen movement and its relation to the travails of rural Armenian communities battling for survival.
Levon Chormissian, 1974, ‘Overview of a Century of Western Armenian History’, Volume 2, 576pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1972 ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 1, 403pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1973, ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 2, 1973, 328pp, Beirut
Rouben, 1974, ‘Memoirs of an Armenian Revolutionary’, Volume 3, 1974, 373pp, Beirut
Garo Sassouni, 1965 ‘A critical look at the 1915 Genocide’, 64pp, Beirut
Hrachig Simonian, 1996, ‘Antranig and His Times’, Volume 1, 752pp, Yerevan
Hrachig Simonian, 2009, ‘On the Paths of National Liberation’, Volume 3, 1128pp, Yerevan
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.
Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, is prohibited without prior written consent
from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2019 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.