Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 06/10/2013

Why we should read...

    `The Armenian National Liberation Movement - 1850-1890' by M K Nersissian
    (492pp, 1955, republished 2002, Yerevan)

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 10, 2013

by Eddie Arnavoudian

Do not be put off by the fact that M K Nersissian's `The Armenian
People's Struggle against Turkish Despotism - 1850-1890' was first
published in Soviet Armenia, and indeed its writing begun while Stalin
was still alive. As an introduction to the emergence and early
development of the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM) there
is no better volume. In fluid narrative Nersissian takes us through
all the main stations of the movement's march: the social and
political grounds that produced the ANLM with its unique and specific
features, its ideology and early work, its secret organisations, its
armed actions and uprisings, its international relations, its
ambitions for unity with other peoples in the Ottoman and Tsarist
empires and much, much else.
Offered initially in 1947 as a dissertation in Soviet Armenia and
published in book format in 1955, Nersissian, at first covering only
two decades from 1850, challenged the then orthodox Stalinist slander
that presented the ANLM as a band of reactionary `bourgeois enemies of
the people', responsible, even, for the terrible sufferings of the
Armenian people at the hands of their imperial oppressors. Such drivel
was of course easy meat for anyone with the audacity to return to
classic Marxist texts on national liberation movements and to Marx's
and Engels's evaluations of the Ottoman Empire. Few at the time
possessed the courage. M K Nersissian did.
Resting not just on Marxist authority, but on 19th century Armenians
thinkers, among them Mikael Nalpantian, Raffi, Hagop Baronian,
Haroutyoun Svajian and others, Nersissian's was the first rigorous,
and one could say honest Marxist, history of the 19th century
ANLM. Cleansing the slate of Turkish and Stalinist falsification he
reaffirms the ANLM's popular democratic national character features
born of an oppressed people struggling against an irredeemably
reactionary Ottoman state.
The volume's republication is to be welcomed. It is fine academic
history but also raises critical issues that bedevil contemporary
politics and so continue to demand urgent consideration.

Today as a resurgent Turkish state unfurls old Ottoman imperial sails
it is eagerly and brazenly whitewashing these, presenting the Empire's
sordid record as some sort of role model for itself. Nersissian's
reminder of Marxist evaluations of the Ottoman Empire is timely. Of
course, adherence to Marxist doctrine is not a condition for
appreciating the authority of its sentence. Here Marx and Engels trod
the same path as much of the progressive thinking of their time. It
was the generalised view that in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire
that had been established by a `class of militarist plunderers',
`existed at a lowest and most barbarous state of feudal' degeneration
An irreparably regressive state, with pillage rather than production
its base, the Ottoman Empire could contribute nothing to any national,
social or economic advance. Not `compatible with capitalist
development' (Engels) let alone any other progressive advance, it was
a death trap for the peoples that it had historically subjugated,
among them Muslim people as well as Christians and this by means of
the most vicious tyranny. Dismantling of the Empire was therefore a
first condition for progress and emancipation. Such is the
legitimising context for Nersissian's presentation of the history of
the Armenian movement in its own particularity and specificity.
In the Balkans, national movements against Ottoman occupation rose
upon relatively more secure foundations, driven by the ambitions of a
national landowning and industrial-trading elites that were both
indigenous and directly supported by an indigenous national peasantry
representing a significant demographic majority in the land. This was
not so with the ANLM. Historical Armenia possessed no independent
Armenian economic foundation that would produce confident native
Armenian elites aspiring for national freedom. Armenian capital did of
course exist and in strength. But for centuries it had ceased to be
rooted in Armenia. Located and shaped in the capitals of states
oppressing the Armenian people, in Istanbul, in Moscow, in London and
Paris, it had adjusted to co-existence with the oppressors of the
people in the homeland and in this adjustment was destined to be a
curse upon the ANLM.
The absence of independent secure and flourishing economic foundations
to the national movement in historic Armenian homelands generated
almost impossible structural deformations and weaknesses. The ANLM was
born handicapped, with only one leg as it were. It had but few means
to sustain broad social, economic and cultural national development
and even less to politically or militarily challenge the Ottoman
State. In the homeland in addition there was only the slimmest
national intelligentsia, that ideological and political engine for
national liberation. An Armenian intelligentsia flourished instead in
the Diaspora, in imperialist capitals, but there like Armenian capital
it too was shaped and misshaped by Diaspora conditions.
Nevertheless, with Armenian elites in remote Diasporas, the ANLM in
the homeland acquired a particular popular and democratic physiognomy
finding as it did its main sustenance primarily among peasants,
artisans, smaller traders and small businesses. This was to give the
Armenian movement its democratic and popular definition, radical
features however that would be decisively subverted by fearful and
conservative wealthy Diaspora elites. In the metropolis, in Istanbul
and elsewhere these elites had no interest in disturbing the bloody
status quo of the imperial oppression for these very same imperial
states offered them opportunities to trade and accumulate. So in order
to protect their wealth from Ottoman and Tsarist wrath that would be
generated by any revolutionary mass Armenian uprisings against
imperial oppression, Armenian elites ceaselessly restrained, checked
and moderated its revolutionary development.


Significantly shaping the ANLM's particularity was the multi-national
demographic structure of historical Armenia. Summarising, Nersissian
writes that territories in which the ANLM operated were not
demographically homogenous, with Armenians being one among other
nationalities who, moreover, did not constitute an absolute majority
(p305). In a territorial patchwork of different nationalities Armenian
national liberation was thus posed in novel and complicated ways.
Demographic conditions in historical Armenia required particular
attention to the cultivation of harmonious relations between different
peoples with a free and democratic state resting not on a single
nationality, but on a democratic unity of all the people inhabiting
the region. Nersissian shows, extensively, that in its early phases
the ANLM was indeed inspired by such popular and democratic visions,
seeking alliance and unity with all oppressed peoples irrespective of
race, nationality or creed.
During the 1850s and 1860s the ANLM had collaborated across national
lines both in western and eastern historic Armenia. Armenians within
Tsarist domains tied their fortunes to a broader anti-Tsarist
movement, united not in the name of independent statehood but for
democratic and revolutionary change throughout the empire (p57-59). In
the Ottoman Empire the ANLM reached out to Christians and to Muslims,
(p248-252) - to Assyrians too (p153) and to Arabs, Kurds (p167),
Bulgarians and Greeks. During uprisings in Zeitun, Van and elsewhere
Armenians were joined in resistance by Kurdish, Assyrian and other
To the ANLM's efforts in this direction Nersissian devotes a great
deal of attention. And so he should. The destruction of a potentially
powerful multi-national anti-imperialist united democratic movement
was to be an overriding preoccupation of Ottoman and Russian
authorities. Tragically they succeeded, pitting Muslims against
Christians, Kurds against Armenians in western Armenia and firing
internecine wars between Armenians and Azeris in the Caucuses.


As efforts to build a multi-national democratic liberation movement
faltered and fell, an already structurally weak and unstable Armenian
movement reverted to earlier, more traditional moulds of dependence on
foreign powers. With no means of independently challenging or playing
off the two main Ottoman and Tsarist oppressing powers, dominant
trends within the early ANLM opted for subordination to the Tsarist
crown believing Russian annexation of Ottoman occupied historical
Armenia to the best first stage of Armenian national liberation. So
for most of the 19th century Armenians not only did not engage in an
anti-Russian struggle for national liberation but considering the Tsar
as a potential liberator of the Armenian people extended whatever help
they could to Russian expansionist ambitions.
Notwithstanding the relentless and sometimes savage Tsarist oppression
(p54-55) of Armenians under its tutelage, Nersissian details objective
social, economic and political conditions that would generate enduring
Russophile tendencies. Measured against the significant degree of
economic and social security offered to Armenians in Tsarist occupied
Armenia, Armenian life in Ottoman occupied western Armenia was in a
hellish stage of terminal disintegration.
Against Turkish falsifiers (p307-309) who claim Armenians were not
exploited and did not revolt until falling victim to 1880s Russian and
European manipulation (p315) Nersissian reminds us of the truth. The
process of ethnic cleansing and genocide - using tried and tested
means of extreme oppression and exploitation, forced migration, land
confiscation, forced religious conversion, linguistic discrimination
and assimilation - begins together with the early to mid-19th century
emergence of a reactionary chauvinist Turkish nationalism bent on
restoring and dominating the Ottoman Empire for its exploitation
Well before the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish war, usually cited as a turning
point exacerbating Armenian-Turkish relations, Ottoman power, at the
behest of a chauvinist Turkish nationalism had already begun expelling
Armenians from influential posts in state institutions and erasing
classical Armenian monuments from historical Armenia. It had also even
more significantly launched its strategic assaults on semi-autonomous
Armenian regions in Zeitun and in Sassoon that could act as magnetic
centres for a wider national revolutionary movement (p68, 74-6), among
other things settling Cherkez people in Zeitun and preparing military
outposts in Sassoon.
All this was taking place against the backdrop of a relentless
downward spiral of the region's Armenian population as Ottoman
repression together with land confiscation and centralisation, in
Kurdish and Turkish not Armenian landlord hands, was driving Armenians
into Diaspora cities, to Istanbul, Baku, Tbilisi and elsewhere. As
Armenians were driven out, so their lands were settled by Ottoman
refugees fleeing from the edges of a shrinking Ottoman Empire. With
western Armenia already denuded of substantial Armenian numbers in the
wake of successive Russo-Turkish wars had - some 90,000 leaving for
Russian controlled territory after the 1828-1830 war - Armenian
demographics and Armenian life, the life of the small peasant and
artisan, were approaching the catastrophic.
(We should note that such 19th century Tsarist engineered population
transfers were to later provide Azeri chauvinists with toxic fuel. The
tens of thousands of Armenians who had moved from Ottoman occupied
lands to the Russian occupied core of historical Armenia were
denounced as colonial type settlers, as agents of Tsarist domination
and treated as enemies of the Azeri common people.)
One can readily appreciate the politics of the lesser Tsarist evil to
which Armenians turned, even as it was to play itself out with such
terrible consequences. Ceaselessly oppressed, robbed, plundered,
raped, abducted and murdered the Armenians of western Armenia, had no
reason for loyalty to the Ottoman state. This state was not only not
their state, not only did it not offer them minimal securities but was
actively engaged in their destruction.


Accelerated national disintegration in western Armenia, with hopes of
reforming the Ottoman Empire fading and ambitions for unity with other
Ottoman oppressed peoples dwindling, the dominant trends of the
national movement ended more firmly embedded in a pro-Russian mould,
enthusiastically embracing Russian campaigns to seize Ottoman occupied
historical Armenian territory. Armenian emancipation was transformed
from a vision of independent statehood to the annexation of western
Armenia to the Tsarist Empire.
In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars and again in the Crimean War of 1855
Armenians west and east had supported the Russian war effort. Armenian
eagerness for Tsarist triumph reached unparalleled levels during the
Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Then Armenians passionately participated
as soldiers, volunteers, scouts, watch-outs, bridge builders and
porters, in addition to proffering vast stocks of material aid.
Such direct endorsement anti-Ottoman Tsarist campaigns were to
contribute fatally to damaging the ANLM's relations with its
non-Armenian neighbours providing as it did powerful grist to the mill
of anti-Armenian Turkish chauvinism. Armenians were charged with being
agents of Tsarist expansion, depicted as 5th columnists, as traitors
fighting to impose the Tsarist yoke on not just Turks and Kurds, but
as well on other Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire who regarded
the Russians state as an oppressive force.
The emergence of modern revolutionary political organisations with
their armed wing - the Armenakans, Social Democratic Hnchaks and the
Armenian Revolutionary Federation - did create terms to develop
independent Armenian revolutionary politics, but these too succumbed,
unable to extricate themselves from the marsh of dependency
politics. And so at the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war Armenians were
once again drawn into Russian campaigns against the Ottoman Empire.
World War One Armenian support for Tsarist campaigns to conquer
Ottoman controlled historical Armenia was to provide reactionary Young
Turks and later Azeri nationalists with further ammunition to whip up
generalised anti-Armenian hysteria. Chauvinist Turkish and Azeri
activists and falsifiers never ask the question: why did Armenian
peasants and artisans in historic western Armenia turn against the
Ottoman Empire, why did their dream of emancipation equate with
Tsarist not Ottoman occupation? If life was so good for them in
historic Armenia, why did they not fight with the Ottoman Empire
against Russian expansionism? Nersissian answers the questions!

Hugely unfavourable conditions for the ANLM were rendered worse by the
consistent pro-Ottoman politics of all western imperial powers, dating
as far back as the 1780s and including then Napoleon and the USA
thereafter too. European powers and the USA, without exception and
throughout the life of the ANLM pitted themselves against Armenians.
In this they were animated essentially by their opposition to Russian
expansion into the Ottoman Empire that they wanted to seize for
themselves. Armenians in European judgement were dangerous Russian
allies and their political ambitions had therefore to be thwarted
whatever the cost.
Before 1850 and after, France and Britain acted as political and
military body guards of Ottoman territorial integrity, arming,
reforming, training, and even officering its armies. British perfidy
(p269, 273) stands out in all its violent and haughty arrogance
stretching back to the first Zeitun revolts and later in 1895-6 when
it offered direct military advice to Turkish officers bombarding
Armenian homes in Van (p272). The French similarly supported the
Sultan, cajoling concessions from Armenians in Zeitun that were to
mark the first stages of its downfall and at the same time urged
Ottoman Turks to assimilate Armenians.
Nersissian also dissects US imperial policy, as anti-Armenian as that
of Europe, a fact usually ignored on account of W Wilson's sponsorship
of the 1920s Treaty of Versailles. Yet the US too, and that from the
late 1700s, was a solid and consistent Ottoman ally, something
Armenian-Americans need to be aware of. In search of monopolies and
other commercial advantage the US not only supplied the regime with
vast quantities of arms (p275, 277-8) but also sent in its
missionaries to facilitate commercial conquest at French and British
expense. During the 1895-6 massacre of 300.000 Armenians not only did
the USA not protest but claimed that the scale of the massacres were
exaggerated and not truthful (p278).
If the ANLM failed, one must not of course absolve the Armenian
leadership of the national movement of its substantial share of
responsibility. However, in the balance it should be noted that over
and above all the structural weaknesses and deformations of that
movement and all the pro-imperial illusions of its leadership, the
ANLM had to fight not just a powerful militaristic Ottoman state, but
one that was backed to the hilt by the then most awesomely wealthy,
aggressive and savage European imperial powers.  That the Armenian
people survive to this day is therefore itself a sort of miracle.


Perhaps a function of writing in an era of Soviet Russian bureaucratic
hegemony `The Armenian People's Struggle against Turkish Despotism -
1850-1890' is flawed in two important aspects - by its uncritical and
over-enthusiastic evaluation of the ANLM's strategic reliance upon
Russia, a feature of a great deal of Soviet era historiography, even
at its best as in M K Nersissian's case, and the refrain from a more
thorough discussion of the possible forms of statehood and nationhood
that were on the agenda of the ANLM and other national movements in
the region at the time.
Armenian emancipation Nersissian argues was impossible without leaning
on Russia, whatever its political character. Rightly critical of
European and Tsarist betrayals, even as he abstractly opposes the
politics of dependency Nersissian claims that concretely, given the
Armenian people's demographic position, isolated and encircled by
overwhelming non-Armenian populations (p305), the ANLM had no better
alternative than to chain itself to the Russian bear. Nersissian does
not of course use this phrase, but it is appropriate.
Armenian Russophile positions had indeed deep objective roots. But the
ANLM's politics of strategic subordination and dependence on foreign
powers, and on Russia in particular, was not inevitable necessity. If
the study of history is of any value for us today, it is beholden on
historians to show how not just the Ottoman but the Tsarist state too
worked systematically to crush actually existing potential for
independent Armenian politics, a policy that alas proved successful
with disastrous results.
Immediately upon their 1821 conquest of eastern Armenia, well before
similarly motivated Ottoman assaults on Zeitun and Sassoon, those
regions of potential indigenous independent Armenian political
development, Russian power set out to cut down Armenian political life
and fit it to its own design for supremacy in the Caucuses. We need
only recall its dismantling of the semi-autonomous principalities in
Garabagh and its systematic suppression of all manifestations of
independent Armenian political activity (see Groong/The Critical
Corner `Armenia's Russian Problem - A Historical Overview', 5 December
Armenian national political development in the Caucuses even as
Armenian elites enjoyed astonishing economic advance, was at every
stage thwarted. Diaspora Armenian elites did nothing to counter
this. Possessed of the illusion of Russian protection Armenian elites
with their wealth tied in Baku, Tbilisi and further a-field had no
inclination to develop independent political foundations in Armenia
itself. So when World War One broke, unleashing bloody national wars,
the ANLM, especially after the fall of Tsarist power, proved powerless
before aggressive Azeri and Georgian elite defiance of elementary
democratic arrangements necessary to the emergence of independent
Armenian, Georgian and Azeri states.
In such conditions the grounds existed, yes frail and fragile, but
still existed for independent politics, for a liberation politics that
would by uniting all the oppressed nationalities have sufficient force
to remain free of imperialist manipulation. It is a pity that
Nersissian did not devote more space to such a discussion that is
certainly opened in this volume with its clear suggestion that within
the Ottoman Empire, or at least in its Asia Minor hinterland and in
the Tsarist occupied Caucuses, neither the ANLM nor any of the other
national liberation movements could possibly pursue emancipation in
the form of states exclusive to a single people.
An enduring resolution to each individual national question could be
successful only if it were a component part of a wider multi-national
movement and state. Given the demographic structure of historical
Armenia, demands for a specifically Armenian independent state were
clearly unrealisable, a federal arrangement harbouring different
peoples being clearly the more democratic resolution. Intellectuals of
the Armenian national movement had, in fact, reached out for some sort
of democratic vision.
The Armenian national movement had at first considered and even
adopted but then gone on to abandon demands for independent Armenian
statehood in preference for revolutionary democratic reform and
internal autonomy of both Ottoman and Tsarist Empires. It needs to be
here stated loud and clear that the Armenian national movement, both
within Ottoman and Russian Empires, was the very last to abandon
federal, multi-national democratic conceptions of statehood and
nationhood and took the course of exclusive national independence
with the First Armenian Republic of 1918 under duress as it were.

				* * *

In the 19th and 20th centuries exclusivist nationalism proved a
disaster for all except the Turkish elite that commanding the powerful
repressive apparatus of an imperial Ottoman state triumphed by means
of slaughter, war, genocide and assimilation. Today in the final
settling of issues that as a result continue to bedevil all the
peoples of the region and in the securing of enduring democratic
resolutions to deeply contested questions, thought is demanded that
without sacrificing independent national development, goes beyond
orthodox and fixed notions of political nationhood and statehood.
Nersissian's volume in both its strengths and otherwise, besides being
a completely satisfying education in history provides excellent food
for thought on such matters.

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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