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The Critical Corner - 02/21/2008

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Why we should read...

`From the History  of Armenian Social Trends' by Vahan Rshdouni 
(560pp, Yerevan, 1956)

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 21, 2008

By Eddie Arnavoudian

The continuously growing economic inter-dependence of nations has not,
as some had predicted, done away with the nation state as the
principle form of international political organisation. Nor has it
lead to the undermining of nationalism as a mainstream political
ideology. Quite the contrary today nationalism in various parts of the
world appears to be as forceful as it has been in the past and even
more so, sometimes perhaps as a defensive reaction to the overwhelming
power of the larger nations that dictate the direction of economic
globalisation. But in contrast to earlier periods there is today an
ominous aspect to much of nationalist ideology.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union many nationalist movements
acquired a decidedly anti-democratic and anti-humanist definition
fired frequently by racist and chauvinist propaganda and rhetoric that
claims some inherent superiority and priority for itself as against
peoples of other nationalities.

Meanwhile nationalist visions that incorporate a democratic,
collaborative egalitarian inter-national framework for social and
political co-existence among people have been systematically
sidelined. The recovery of such democratic visions must, for all our
sakes, be made an urgent intellectual and political task of the day.

Here, for Armenians and their direct neighbours - Azerbaijanis, Turks
and Georgians - Vahan Rshdouni's `From the History of Armenian Social
Thought' is enormously valuable. Examining the mid-to-late 19th
century Armenian press in the Caucuses Rshdouni provides a superior
sample of Soviet era social, economic and intellectual history and
touches significantly on issues of nationalism that have relevance for
our concerns today. Charting Armenian social and economic development
in the Caucuses, he highlights some of the conditions that generated
different and even opposing visions of Armenian national
emancipation. Even if only a portion of the extracts are accurate and
quoted within context, this volume refutes those detractors of
Armenian nationalism who dismiss it as an artificial product of
imperialist machination and, more significantly, it demonstrates the
existence of a remarkable trend of democratic nationalism that opposed
Armenian nationalism's own reactionary practitioners.


All major 19th century Caucasian-Armenian periodicals devoted a great
deal of attention to a perceived decline of Armenian wealth in the
Caucuses. The `Armenian Bee', the `New Age', `The Experiment', the
`Echo' and the `Cultivator' all express a sense of impending crisis as
Armenian trade and industry confronted a challenge from European
capital internationally and from Georgian and Azerbaijani capitalists
locally. Seeing the retreat in national terms the press attributed it
to Armenian industrial backwardness and to Armenian organisational
fragmentation. The proposals to halt the retreat were then framed in
terms of a national competitive struggle against other national
adversaries. Reconstructing these discussions, Rshdouni reveals
something of the social and economic context and relations within
which particular streams of Armenian nationalist politics could

The `Cultivator' reflecting on an era of Armenian economic supremacy
in the Caucasus wrote:

    `It is now more than 70 years that Russia has ruled the Caucasus
    and Transcaucasia and during that entire period the whole of the
    region's trade, the state's monopolies, the supply of the military
    forces - the whole lot were in Armenian hands.'  (p215-216)

But as this wealth was dependent `not on productive investment based
on modern science but on cunning and luck' it `never survives beyond
two generations' and was now in a state of dire decline. the `Echo'
also notes this.

Armenians in the Caucuses, it says:

    `...are steadily being impoverished or are withdrawing from
    productive investment because they have no initiative. As
    productive capitalists they lack courage and as parvenu wealth
    they are infinitely exorbitant and wasteful.'  (p157)

`The Bee' bemoans the fact that today:

    `Foreign nations, languages and capitals have covered Caucasian
    territories whose natural wealth requires science, craft, trading
    experience and confidence - things that we (Armenians) do not
    have.' (p44)

Central to this decline writes the `New Age's' was that in comparison
to Europe and Russia the Armenians had no `modern manufacturing'
capability. A uniform cry of alarm followed - unless something was
rapidly done the Caucasus, and within it Armenian capital would be
defenceless against the steady invasion of European capital. For
`Armenians to remain indifferent' `when foreign capitalists and
foreign corporations enter into competition against them' was `suicide
(p30).' The Armenian `cart will topple over' and its positions would
fall to foreign investors.

One can note a sense of national humiliation and anger in the press's
consideration of the prospect of Armenian capital's defeat at the
hands of Europe.`

`The Bee' writes that `in our land we are witnessing economic
enslavement to foreign capitalists.' `The New Age' feels similarly:

    `In no time at all, in some ten or twenty years this land full of
    natural wealth will economically become the property of
    Europeans. The local Russian, the Armenian and the Georgian, all
    of them, will then become labourers and clerks for the
    Europeans. (p73)

The `Echo' resents the intrusion into the Caucuses by the Rothschilds
that `has already put its ominous finger into yet another of our
profitable enterprises - the wine industry'. It had no `doubt that
(such) intervention (in the Caucasus) is far more damaging than useful
to the locals.' The `Cultivator' foreseeing disaster warned that
unless Baku's Armenian industrialists formed united corporations they

    `...inevitable annihilation... (and) would be utterly incapable of
    standing up to the Swedish financial giant who held the fortunes
    of the local people in its hands.'  (p214)

It was not just European capital that caused the Armenian press
anxiety.  It was, in addition, worried by challenges from local
Georgian and Azeri business. In contrast to retreating Armenian wealth
the `Echo' notes that Azerbaijani capitalists now:

    `... control the greater part of the city's wealth because they
    have acquired it through knowledge and are not wasteful and
    spendthrift (p157-158).'

Sensing a challenge from the Georgian elite the `Echo' in the name of
a broader democracy took up the cudgels against attempts to enhance
Georgian privileges in Tbilisi's local council. (p171)

These fears prompted extensive proposals for economic modernisation,
for the adoption of the latest techniques into Armenian manufacturing
and agriculture and for the sponsoring of education and science, all
after the most advanced examples available from Europe. Only the
scientific development, the unification and the wider organisation of
Armenian business could equip it with the power to remain independent
of Europe (p71, 73) and to fend off local non-Armenian
competitors. Expressing ambitions for independent Armenian economic
power, the `Echo' urged Armenian landlords and agriculturists to
`learn how to exploit the riches of their land' `without depending on
imported foreign help and money'. It further encouraged them to `reach
beyond their own narrow spheres' so that they could `occupy an
honourable place among the various nationalities...(p153).'

These proposals were however marked by the historically extraordinary
conditions of Armenian capitalist development in the Caucuses,
conditions that contributed to generating a trend within Armenian
nationalist politics that would pit Armenians against their other
co-inhabitants in the region. Press proposals for Armenian economic
reform were not offered for Armenian territory within the Caucuses
alone, but for the Caucuses as a whole inhabited, among others, by
Georgians and Azerbaijanis whose labour force Armenian capital also
readily exploited (p237, p250). For Armenian wealth Armenian
territories featured only marginally.  Rshdouni comments that:

    `as is well evident...the operation of almost the whole of
    Armenian capital took place outside Armenia proper, in the first
    instance outside the province of Yerevan. The `Cultivator's'
    economic sermons were...(thus) mostly fruitless in regions of
    Armenia proper.' (p248)

Considering itself native to the entire region, it was in Tbilisi and
in Baku that the Armenian elite built its mansions, its factories and
its trading headquarters as well as schools for its children and
theatre and entertainment for when they returned from their
extravagant European holidays. Armenia proper remained at worst a
backwater starved of significant investment, or at best a colonial
back yard offering cheap labour. Seeking to attract investors to the
Yerevan province the `Cultivator' remarks that `due to land shortages'
the region had a surplus population that could `offer itself as a
labour force that would be content with small wages.' (p249)

Yet despite the all-Caucasian setting for the operations of Armenian
wealth, the press' proposals for economic reform and modernisation
were offered not for Caucasian business as a whole but only for a
section of it, for its Armenian segment. It was a call for the
exclusive reorganisation and unification of Armenian economic forces
so that they would be able to withstand both the European challenge
and that of local Georgian, Azeri and Russian business too.

In the context of exclusive national organisation the Armenian Church,
perhaps as a substitute for the absence of an Armenian nation state,
was accorded a special role as an agent of social and educational
organisation and control. The `New Age' envisioned a reformed Armenian
Church, with its large and wealthy monastic lands transformed into
centres of modern economic activity and occupying a central role in
advancing `the land's cultural development and the business of the
moral regeneration and economic reform (p73).

Such exclusive Armenian national social and economic organisation, in
an essentially multinational Caucasian region that constituted an
integrated and organic economic whole, led almost inevitably to
stubborn competition between all equally exclusively organised
national forces Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani. This nationalist
competition was frequently fuelled by supremacist and chauvinist
rhetoric, even by the allegedly progressive press. A case in point was
Krikor Ardzrouni, editor of the `Cultivator' who argued that only the
Armenians and their language were fit for a civilised and developed

    `When the smallest spark of enlightenment appears among the people
    of the Caucasus and Asia Minor their language will give way to the
    Armenian and they themselves will disappear.'

Internecine competition bolstered by such anti-democratic nationalism
was to play its role in creating grounds for the hatreds between
Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijani, hatreds that the Tsarist Empire
fertilised and exploited to secure an extra lease of life to its
imperial power in the Caucuses.


While the Armenian elite was faltering before European capital's
invasion of the Caucuses and the emerging Georgian and Azerbaijani
challenges, the Armenia peasantry in Armenia proper, in the Yerevan
and Karabagh regions and further afield, was falling victim not only
to foreign but to the Armenian land-owning elite.

Tsarist land reform that was with delays and modifications introduced
to the Caucuses from the mid-1850s onwards led to a significant
commercialisation of agriculture and to the rapid concentration of
land ownership into few and fewer hands. Rshdouni reconstructs a
shocking picture of the ruthlessness and brutality with which sections
of the Armenian peasantry were expropriated, impoverished and driven
either to become wage-labourers for local landlords or factory workers
in cities such as Baku and Tbilisi. A correspondent for the `New Age'
calling himself `The Peasant' wrote in 1893 that `poverty and want was
the norm in (Armenian) villages. Even the villages in Shirak are no
exception'.  Summarising `The Peasant' Rshdouni writes:

    `The peasant does not have enough corn to eat or to sow. Neither
    does he have `the money to pay royal taxes'. He has not a hope of
    repaying `debts and interest accumulated year after year'. For a
    livelihood some turn to breaking stones for road builders and here
    they fall victim to the usurer. Nearly thirty youngsters have gone
    to Batum and other towns in search of work.' (p110)

Remarking on the steady impoverishment of the Armenian peasantry the
`Cultivator' criticising landlords who affirmed their generosity
through their offers to give away 2/3rds of their land and keeping
only a third for themselves writes:

    `We have to think a little more about this one third: is it
    really such a small piece of land? If for example the whole of the
    communal land was 3000 acres, the landlord would keep possession
    of 1000 acres whilst hundreds of families would be dividing 2000
    acres among themselves.' (p410)

Parapharasing the author Rshdouni continues:

    `There is no guarantee that Yerevan landlord, like the Russian
    will not secure for himself the best land that is serviced with a
    good water supply. In our conditions this means in effect that the
    peasant loses at least 50 percent if not all of the land (p411).'

In the competition to get hold of the best lands one of the greediest
grabbers was the Church establishment. It seized on the new land
reform laws to claim as its inheritance vast tracts from which it
excluded the mass of the peasantry. It then began to charge them for
usage that had previously been their right by custom and tradition (p
88-90). In 1884 the `New Age' writes of peasants trying `to free
themselves from the authority of Mr. Der-Nersissian's (an
administrator for Church properties)' who had `refused (them) the
right to freely graze their cattle on monastic pastures'. Instead he
was`charging them 1 rouble per animal' for what had been free access
by `custom and tradition (p89)'.

Peasant resistance to the Church's privatisation of hitherto communal
lands and their abrogation of customary common rights was substantial
and is hinted at, albeit pejoratively, by a conservative commentator
delighted that it was not the peasant who had to power to decide how
land was to be divided:

    `What would have been the fate of the Armenian noble (landlord) if
    the decider of his destiny were the peasantry? It is good that the
    law in its wisdom having foreseen this has not given the peasant
    more rights.'

Pressure on land led to continuing and increasingly bitter conflict.
`Over the years' reports the `New Century':

    `...there has been no end to disputes over land. Every day there
    is some sort of argument over the tiniest piece' and `in recent
    years the land question has acquired a sombre aspect. Recently
    there have been a few killings' again over `the tiniest plot.'

As they were steadily impoverished vast swathes of the peasantry fell
victim to swarms of usurers who infested rural Armenia. `There is no
village' ` without its usurer, without this...ever present evil angel'
(p117) writes `New Age'. Only `he who has been a peasant and
experienced the usurer's exploitation' can have any idea of the
`terrifying plight of (its) victim' it adds. In the usurer's clutches
the peasant becomes a `white slave'.

In the provinces of Ganzak, Yerevan and Kars, writes the `Echo'
usurers, often charged interest at more than 100 percent. Its Yerevan
correspondent notes the social disaster:

    `Illicit/iniquitous interest has exhausted the populations energy.
    Whoever has managed to put together a certain sum offers it at an
    interest of 30, 40 and even 50 percent and enriches himself whilst
    impoverishing those forced to resort to borrowing. In this manner
    owners of money steadily gather into their hands the population's
    essential property, their goods and chattels and their land,
    thereby making poverty general. Woe to the artisan, the farmer,
    the small trader and those living on a wage who are forced to
    borrow with interest.' (p191-2)

Among such usurers were peasants who had managed to accumulate money
working in towns and now returned `got hold of as many other peasant
holdings' as they could. Thus they `themselves became large
landowners...reducing those living within their domain to the
condition of a debtor.' (p177)

As a result of the concentration of land in fewer and fewer, the
impoverishment of the peasantry and the devastation by the usurer, the
peasantry was today `teetering on edge of destruction'. To feed their
families young men left their families and their homelands in droves
flocking to Tbilisi, Baku and other foreign towns there to become
workers in Armenian owned factories and industries.  `Villages are
being emptied and the towns are growing' wrote one press report.
`Peasants flee...agricultural work to find easier ways of securing a
living in towns.'

For Armenians this generalised flight from the land was on a far
greater scale than that of their Turkish, Kurdish or Azerbaijani
counterparts. In the 1880s the Armenian working class, calculated by
the `Cultivator' to number 25,000, constituted the largest national
segment of the newly emerging Caucasian city working class and also
its worst afflicted section. Their conditions of life in the towns
resembled the nightmare of Victorian England described in novels by
Charles Dickens or famously in Frederick Engels' `Conditions of the
English Working Class'. `The New Age' describes Baku as `an Asian
California' where life and `morality are akin to Sodom and
Gomorrah'. (p119-120).

Towns in the Caucasus had `all the vices appearing and growing in
European cities' but were bereft of any of its positive
features. Trapped in city slums `thousands of homeless and penniless
labourers are degenerating' writes Emmanuel from the `Cultivator'. The
working class in the cities formed in his opinion `one of humanity's
most miserable classes' and `suffered countless wounds' and `terrible
pains.' From this mass `one can only expect thieves, bandits and
murderers.' They are `afflicted with every kind of contagious disease
that spreads right through the community.' Contributing to the
`Cultivator' novelist Shirvanzade protests that proposals to
ameliorate working class conditions are invariably `sound and word
uttered in a desert.'  (p262-265) The plight of the Armenian peasantry
and working class so well depicted in press reports cited by Rshdouni
also has its substantial and authentic record in Armenian
literature. Berj Broshian's novels come to mind in relation to the
Armenian peasantry and Shirvanzade's novels to that of working class

But others, Toumanian and Abovian among them, also focussed critically
on the lives and the conditions of the common people suffering at the
hands of landlord, employer or usurer Armenian and non-Armenian. With
the Armenian peasantry impoverished and driven from their land by
moneyed men of their own nationality it was hardly surprising that
spokesmen would emerge to give voice to their particular relations and
circumstances and formulate a nationalism that would be different and
even opposed to that of the elite's.


 From the mid-19th century onwards the wealthier segments of Armenian
merchants and industrialist in the Caucuses felt the main challenge to
their status to come from non-Armenians, from European capital
externally and from emerging Georgian and Azeri competition
domestically. Its spokesmen and ideologists therefore would inevitably
focus on these conditions and relations when elaborating a strategy
for recovery and survival. The possibility of a reactionary
nationalism that defined itself against local non-Armenian
nationalities, though not inevitable, was certainly possible in such
relations where economic fears, hopes and interests were fuelled by
competition among different national economic groupings.

The position of the Armenian peasant, and later the working class, was
significantly different. The Armenian village in the Caucuses was
certainly victim to oppression, exploitation and depredation from
non-Armenian, Georgian and Azeri feudal lords, the plight of
Nakhichevan Armenians being a case in point. But for a significantly
large section the conditions and relations that defined a harsh
experience were those with the Armenian elite, the Armenian landlords,
the Church and now the Armenian factory owner and merchant in the
cities. For a large swathe of the Armenian peasantry it was Armenian
landlords who were its immediate and most fierce competitors for land
and for access to scarce water supplies. Though unquestionable
religious, cultural, nationa land economic factors divided the
Armenian plebeian off and even isolated it from its Georgian and Azeri
counterparts, the latter were not perceived of as primary opposition
by many in their struggle to survive increasingly difficult economic
and social dislocation.

Differing and complex social, class, economic and national
relationships gave rise to differing trends and emphases within modern
Armenian nationalist thought.  Besides the more conservative,
exclusive and sometimes even downright chauvinist nationalism
frequently fired by hostility to non-Armenian economic antagonists,
were proposals for a democratic, multinational patriotism that has
remarkable relevance for conditions today. Among the most remarkable
is a critique of conservative nationalism and a sketch for an
alternative offered by Hovsep Der Movsissian a radical correspondent
for `The Armenian Bee'.

In its principles and in its details Movsissian's writings are
valuable today and not just for Armenians and their neighbours, but
for all people of different nationalities who live mingled in single
territorial units, large or small. Here the Indian sub-continent comes
immediately to mind. Movsissian covers virtually every area of modern
concerns in Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. As a
first point of principle is an insistence that in territories
inhabited by different nationalities all have an inalienable right to
equality and to free national development:

    `We are all members of one great human family. In the Caucuses
    more than anywhere else it is necessary to spread the idea of
    friendship among nations, to spread the notion that (different
    peoples) should strive for enlightenment hand in hand (p387).'

Different peoples have a right and indeed a duty to take patriotic and
national pride in the development of their particular culture, their
`language, their religion and their literature'. But:

    `There are many other areas of life where it would be a crime
    against truth to consider them in nationalist terms, or to adopt
    narrow nationalist attitudes.  (p387)

This Movsissian argued was the case especially where political and
economic organisation is concerned. As an example of narrow
nationalism in the political sphere, Movsissian, taking into account
the demographic structure of Yerevan, criticises Armenian proposals to
secure two thirds of Yerevan's city council positions leaving only a
third for the city's Azerbaijani inhabitants.

Through this he elaborates democratic principles for governing
relations between people of different nationalities.

    `Bearing our national interest in is necessary, as far
    as possible to approach those nationalities living around us - to
    approach them, befriend them and enjoy with them equal rights and
    equal duties... (While) we will not permit others to deny us our
    rights, simultaneously we cannot permit ourselves to deny others
    their own rights.' (p386)

In the economic sphere narrow nationalism often expressed itself as a
defence of Armenian feudal landlords just because they happen to be
Armenian, and this despite the fact that they exploit Armenian,
Georgian and Azerbaijani peasants and workers.

In the course of his articles, Movissian makes an acutely pragmatic
political point that needs to be learnt well by all, by Armenian,
Turkish, Azerjaijani, Georgian, Kurdish and other commentators and
activists. With appropriate replacement of the term `Turks' with that
denoting other nationalities what he says has relevance to all:

    `If we do not have the patriotic sensibility that would allow us
    to love the Turks (or Armenians or Georgians or Kurds or
    Azerbaijanis, etc), to love them without reservation and without
    dissimulation, then bearing our national interest in mind we
    should at least work to live together with peace and
    friendship.  The future of Armenian and Turk is bound closely
    together and the friendly co-existence of these two peoples is to
    both their benefit.'  (p388)

Movsissian rightly refuses to define Armenian nationality or to
determine Armenian political choices and alliances in religious
terms. The French may `defend our case' he says, `but when we see them
repressing Arabs in Algeria and Tunisia our sympathies go over to the
Arabs' `even though they are Islam whereas the French are Christians.'
In another point that underlines the need for alliance not with
imperial powers but with local Armenian neighbours he writes:

    `If the Russians are our co-religionists, let us not forget that
    the Turks are our compatriots, with whom we are bound by the past,
    the present and the future.  (p388)

Relentlessly clear in his argument, Movsissian's work should be
republished and read as a sobering caution by those given to
enthusiastic evaluations of modern day imperial manoeuvring on the
Armenian question.

Significantly Movsissian was not a lone star. His outlook is an
integral element of a broad and long intellectual and cultural
tradition among Armenians stretching back to Khachadour Abovian and
Mikael Nalpantian from the mid-1800s through to Berj Broshian,
Ghazaros Aghayan, Shirvanzade, Hovanness Toumanian and others at the
end of the century and into the 20th. Whatever other politically
contentious views they held, they all accepted the demographic
diversity of the Caucuses and of the territories of historical Armenia
proper and proposed a vision of a harmonious and democratic
co-existence of all nationalities as a condition for the realisation
of Armenian national emancipation and ambition.

Today Movsissian is almost forgotten, though thanks to Rshdouni we
have the means to recover his legacy for our own endeavours. In doing
so we must simultaneously recover the democratic and humanist aspect
of the patriotism that marked Abovian's, Nalpantian's, Toumanian's,
Aghayan's and others' visions, visions that have been neglected at
best or censored and buried at worst.

Today they are all honoured for their art and even their patriotism,
but not at all for the democratic and multi-national character of this

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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