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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

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.


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

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,

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)


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

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)


	'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 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

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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