Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 12/21/2015

Krikor Ardzrouni: 19th century champion of Armenian national democratic thought
`A biography in three volumes' by Leo
(Collected Works Volume VI, 1987, pp206 -726)

Armenian News Network / Groong
December 21, 2015


Leo's three volume biography of Krikor Adrzrouni (1845-1892),
outstanding warrior editor, battling journalist and founder in 1872 of
what was to become the first Armenian daily newspaper, opens with an
account of his grandfather Gevorg's emigration from Ottoman occupied
Van to Tsarist occupied Tbilisi and of his various grand business and
educational ventures there. It is a prologue that encapsulates the
peculiarities of Armenian nation formation that Krikor Ardzrouni's
tumultuous intellectual life and times was to epitomize.


In 1813 amid the fermenting and bubbling of modern Armenian life,
Grandfather Gevorg Ardzrouni, a hugely wealthy scion of an ancient
feudal estate, a remnant of former secular elites, left his western
Armenian homeland of Van for the Diaspora of Georgian Tbilisi. In the
Ottoman Empire, as Leo remarks, not just the common people but the
elite too, even `the famous, were in no way protected from plunder and
repression (p209).'  So whilst Armenian economic elites managed an
existence in Istanbul, in historic Armenia this was impossible.

The political and class relations that obtained in Armenia, the
lawless forms of rule exercised by the local Kurdish fiefdoms as well
as the earlier devastation of Armenian economic and political elites
and the steady outflow of the masses were almost insuperable obstacles
to coherent national development after the European fashion. A
sustainable process of nation formation, of cultural, linguistic,
educational, artistic and scientific development required coagulation
of social and economic forces within and around a defined geographic
territory and a dominant national economic elite. This for Armenians
did not exist in their historical homelands.

Armenian national development did however flourish, but in its own
fashion, outside Armenian borders, scattered across foreign lands.
Indeed, the 18th and 19th centuries glow strong as centuries of
Armenian revival but one rising upon the triumphs of Armenian trading
elites in the international market place - India, Istanbul, Moscow,
Tbilisi, not in Armenia.

In Van Gevorg Ardzrouni had entertained ambitions to play a role in
laying more organic and secure foundations for national development,
culture and enlightenment in Armenia itself. But Ottoman power blocked
his dreams `of transforming Lake Van's island of Akthamar into a
Mekhitarist San Lazzaro', a centre of culture and enlightenment, with
its own academy and printing works. (p215). Subsequently others, most
strikingly Khrimian Hayrig, strove for the same and confronted similar
and even more difficult obstacles.

But for Gevorg life in Van had become impossible and so he upped and
left for Tbilisi that was then the Los Angeles of today, a magnet for
ambition and energy that was thwarted in the homeland. Then of course
it was a foreign oppressing state doing the thwarting and strangling.
Today it is an Armenian state and its utterly corrupt dominant elites.
In the early 19th century Gevorg Ardzrouni was also in part responding
to a Tsarist state that actively enticed Armenian merchants to desert
Ottoman sovereignty for more favorable accumulating opportunities in
the Tsarist Empire. But it did so of course in order to boost Russian
national interest, not Armenian. Significantly today too, a desperate
Russian ambition similarly entices Armenians to Russia to help bolster
its own catastrophic demographic collapse.

Nevertheless, in Tbilisi Gevorg built an economic empire and at the
same time contributed majestically to the Armenian national revival.
Leo's account here cannot but draw gasps of admiration for the man's
dedication and determination. `Among the wealthy and privileged of
Armenian life', Leo judges, Gevorg was `an amazing exception, for in
his blood, if one can so say, there flowed a love of the people
(p234).' Among many other things that Gevorg did, buying a printing
press and financing and helping to organize what was to become the
outstanding Nersissian College that opened in 1824, played a huge role
in Armenian nation formation.

But the enterprise of nation building in a foreign land under imperial
jurisdiction had absolute limits and contained the seeds of its own
dissolution. With historical Armenia marginalized, in the Diaspora
nation formation took on a particular a-political form focused in its
early stages in Venice, Vienna and Amsterdam and later in the two
great metropolises of the Diaspora - Tbilisi and Istanbul. There
however Armenian linguistic, cultural and educational accomplishments
were cuttings in potted plants, removed from natural, self-sustaining
habitat and soil. They furthermore existed primarily to serve the
Diaspora. Schools, the press, libraries, theatres, literature and art
developed to meet the needs of the growing and flourishing Armenian
communities in Istanbul and Tbilisi, Smyrna and Baku.

Development upon foreign soil produced in addition its own distorted
internal social, class and national dynamic and development. The clash
between the newly emerging Armenian elite that was closely connected
to European capitalism and the old feudal Church/Amira alliance became
a contest not about state power or political national self-determination,
but about the internal organization of Diaspora communities whose
existence within and subordination to foreign states was accepted as
given. In all this the homeland, home to the majority of the people,
remained only a hazy mist and in large measure an object of romantic

>From this Diaspora a certain national cultural and social contribution
did filter to the homeland. But it was not strong enough to dam the
tide of national destruction let loose by the collapsing Ottoman
Empire. As Armenian culture and enlightenment flourished in the
Diaspora and even set small roots in the homeland, the homeland itself
was being denuded of the human social forces that could use this
culture to build a modern Armenian nation. At the very moment Armenian
culture was taking its greatest modern strides, opening up in addition
vistas of forgotten historical grandeur the homeland was
systematically being emptied of potential bearers of this renaissance.

It should be noted here too that the failure of national development
in the homeland was to also leave the Armenian communities and their
elites of the Diaspora defenseless, critically vulnerable both to
European challenges and the national movements of territories in which
they operated. They did not survive the traumas of World War One and
were vastly diminished or eliminated in Bolis and Smyrna, in Tbilisi
and Baku and indeed even beyond.


Fragmented, scattered across different and often hostile states and
heaving beneath the weight of a feudal Church, Armenian society in the
Diaspora - in Istanbul and Tbilisi in particular - was nevertheless
undergoing a process of capitalist economic development and
transformation. Older merchant capital that had cut out prominent
positions for itself within the Ottoman and Tsarist state structures
was confronted now not just by the Armenian business class with its
close connections to advanced European manufacturing, but by an
aggressive imperialist Europe bent on conquering the region's mineral
and agricultural wealth. Additionally these old elites and new
Armenian business had to contend with the ascent of local Turkish,
Georgian and Azeri economic forces - all eager to grab their space on
the sunny capitalist beach.

Into the fray, determined to fortify Armenian positions, enters Krikor
Ardzrouni, grandson of the famous Gevorg. He set himself audacious
revolutionary ambitions - to release Armenian social and national
energy, initiative and power by bringing down the clerical-feudal
establishment that dominated and held back Armenian life with
hidebound dogmas, obscurantism, superstition, hostility to reason and
to science and with its tyrannical social and family traditions. In
his ideological battles Ardzrouni would take no prisoners. He planned
and then he acted, without compromise; and family wealth gave him the
means to do so independently.

Born in 1845 in Moscow hundreds of miles away from Armenian homelands
this outstanding and brilliant, stubborn and determined man who was to
be educated firsts in Petersburg and Moscow, then in the German
University of Heidelberg and in Zurich and Geneva too and who had to
learn Armenian as a second language, emerged as the mouthpiece, the
ideological representative, of the most advanced segment of Armenian
bourgeois society urging it to pick up not just Europe's gauntlet, but
those of its local competitors too and to do so by fashioning a
modern, enlightened democratic Armenian nation and society.

Ardzrouni's national ambitions were fired whilst in Europe where he
had encountered students from other national movements. He tells
painfully of how the `German, American, Greek, Swiss and Danish
citizens... were there studying so that in time they would be useful to
their nation.' He met `Bulgarians, Serbs, Czechs and Rumanians' too
who `though belonging to nations that possessed no independent
statehood' nevertheless `ceaselessly spoke of their fatherland, of
their mother tongue, of their schools and their press and literature.'
Among these students `only us Armenians, could not speak up as we at
the time still did not have a mother tongue, hardly any schools, no
modern literature or press and had no sense or self-consciousness of
nationality (p246-247).'

It was this absence of a firm sense of national identity that
Ardzrouni set about to correct, throughout his life propounding the
urgent need for a breach with the past and a reconstruction of
Armenian social, economic, cultural and national life. Central to his
urgency was an acute consciousness that without a major transformation,
Armenian elites would cede positions to Europe and to local
competitors too with Armenian society suffering devastatingly as a

All effort and resources therefore must be devoted to and for the
consolidation of a modern Armenian society.  In the name of a modern
progressive liberalism, the old religious nationalism that defined
Armenian nationality in terms of adherence to the Armenian Church was
to be banished. So too with the useless romantic-Christian patriotism,
so powerfully fostered by the Armenian Church and the Mekhitarists.
This should be replaced by a genuine `patriotism that produces a
feeling obliging one to be of practical use and value to society.'
(p311). `Art for art's sake' also was to also be cast aside. Artists
were not self-serving but had a duty to `compel the people to
think...about our bad upbringing, our ignorance and superstition, our
moral and physical failings..' (p309). Many modernists would dismiss
such views with their haughty disdain. These are however perennial
conceptions, expressed recently in their own way by the Afrobeat
Nigerian twins, the Lijadu Sisters who about their music inter alia
say `We can't just try and make money through music. We need to
correct our own society.'

The entire educational system, shot through with obscurantist
clerical-feudal dissolution was itself to be dissolved with natural
sciences and other subjects necessary for economic progress taking
centre stage. Ardzrouni's call for nationwide education, for a free
press, for open, uncensored debate was regarded as revolutionary and
denounced and censored whenever possible. But he persevered, convinced
that the free circulation and debate of educated ideas was an
essential pre-condition for the critical development of a productive
capitalist economy that would allow Armenians to exploit Caucasian raw
materials (p346) and so turn back the impending imperialist European
economic invasion.
Crucial to the release energy and potential the Armenian feudal
family, this `nest of superstition', this `stubborn defender of rotted
ideologies', `this strangler of the principles of equality and
freedom', this `sanctifier of infinite tyranny' had to be dismantled.
Liberating social initiative required furthermore the genuine
emancipation of women. Ardzrouni pours beautiful scorn on what then
passed for such emancipation. `Teaching women to play the piano, to
speak French, to have taste in choosing their clothes, and most
importantly teaching them to keep their mouths shut' was no
education. Emancipation demanded education that enabled women too to
participate in social and community development and progress. (p284)


Ardzrouni was a liberal individualist, and a utilitarian one to boot,
convinced that individual initiative was critical to social advance
and economic progress. But this utilitarian individualism was far
removed from selfish egoism or Victorian heartlessness. At its core it
had a social dedication and commitment. `Ardzrouni Leo writes, `would
not only declare war against the backwardness and superstition of the
old generation...but against the contemporary university educated
intelligentsia...(when) it failed to carry out its (social) role and
responsibility (p289).

The individualist ethic that defined Ardzrouni had a deeply democratic
aspect that was in part conditioned by the fact of the very small,
indeed tiny, modern Armenian middle class in the Caucuses. Against an
entrenched parasitic and obscurantist Church, against unproductive
merchant elites dominating Armenian life, Ardzrouni could not pit the
challenge of a powerful exemplary bourgeois class. Conscious of the
urgency of transformation he sought to accelerate this through a
campaign to educate and enlighten the common people, whom he believed
with adequate freedom and democracy, would play their individual roles
in fashioning a new liberal democratic society.

Krikor Ardzrouni was the militant flag-bearer not so much of a class,
but of an idea, an idea of bourgeois liberalism, that was germinating
among the offspring of a merchant capitalist class that had sent its
children to Europe where they imbibed European traditions, one has to
say shorn of its worst imperialist colours.

But in the realization of this idea Ardzrouni confronted and
personified a historic problem.  The base for the modern liberalism he
was so committed to was not only a minor segment of Armenian society
it was also situated in the Diaspora. It was not in a genuine national
force, a fact pointed out long ago by Mikael Nalpantian. However
sturdy in appearance, however wealthy, it remained essentially a
rootless a-national entity. Without the bolster of a discrete national
geographic terrain, without support of its own state it had no future.

Krikor Ardzrouni's triumphs and the contradictions of his project all
unfolded in the pages of his the `Cultivator', his daily newspaper.
Its very existence expressed the peculiarity of Armenian nation
formation. Its birthplace was Georgian Tbilisi where it was to spend
its entire fighting life. Though it spoke for an emerging Armenian
bourgeois class, urging it to seize the leadership and construct a
modern Armenian society, it referred essentially and fundamentally to
a class and society flourishing in Tbilisi and Baku not in Armenia
proper. Significantly `The Cultivator' was not sustained financially
by the class whose trumpet it was. It survived exclusively reliant on
the substantial wealth that Ardzfrouni inherited from his grandfather
and father.

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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