1965 and the Birth of the Modern Campaign for Justice
The Armenian Weekly
April 2011 magazine
On the morning of April 24, 1965, students from Yerevan’s universities skipped class. At a time and place when poets were nearly as popular and influential as celebrities are today, one of Soviet Armenia’s greatest poets recited his defiant poem written for the 50th anniversary of the genocide in a small theatre: “We are few, but we are called Armenians.” Baruyr Sevag’s poem exclaimed that no matter how few or weak Armenians may be in the world, no matter how “death had fallen in love” with this ancient tribe, they shall “feel proud” for being Armenians. The final line of his poem cried out defiantly that the Armenians would grow and thrive, now and forever: “We are, we shall be, and become many.” Dead silence followed. Few had heard such exclamatory speeches within the rigid confines of Soviet life before. Doing so usually meant chastisement or worse, imprisonment. The students in the audience, infused with stridency after listening to the poem, then left the theatre to join other students across Yerevan to make their way to the city center for an unprecedented undertaking. They were about to make history by partaking in the first major public commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.
Earlier in the day, the Catholicos, whose long graying beard and gentle eyes gave him a grandfatherly appearance that added to his palpable spirituality, had overseen a memorial prayer commemorating the genocide overflowing with attendees at the Church’s headquarters.
The youth descending on the center of Soviet Armenia’s capital wanted more than prayers to mark this occasion. They wanted political action. Carrying signs that read “A just solution to the Armenian Question” and “Our lands” along with enlarged photos of genocide victims, the students, joined by their professors and Soviet Armenia’s leading intellectuals, artists, and writers, popped in to businesses and homes to recruit others on this sunny day during which a wispy spring breeze kept the shade cool. With no previous experience in organizing demonstrations—one participant described the students’ tactics as “primitive”—the procession fumbled along to Lenin Square driven as much, if not more, by curiosity as militancy. Various government buildings and the city’s best hotel ringed the oval-shaped public space used to hold communist rallies. Gathering in front of a granite Lenin statue erected during World War II—the largest of the ubiquitous iconic shrines dotting the U.S.S.R—the students saturated the square and soon spilled into the adjacent streets. The demonstrators muddled their way through the city as some sang nationalistic songs, while others screamed a cacophony of anti-Turkish declarations.
Though free of Joseph Stalin’s terror, this was still the Soviet Union, a place where propaganda monopolized every facet of public life. Newspapers like Pravda published the government’s credos. Kindergarteners through university graduates studied and regurgitated the canonic teachings of Marx and Lenin. Government officials authorized public events staged to conform to this strict dogma. This demonstration had received no such permission from the state. The protestors understood that this one act might permanently derail their careers, placing them in shabby homes and dreary jobs instead of leading government ministries. They knew that many could be arrested, or worse, jailed or banished to Siberia to suffer in isolation and exile. The sight of KGB officers in plain sight further fueled their fears. Though nervous and worried, they pressed on. The groundswell of emotion on this day was simply too strong.
Holding the largest concentration of Armenians in the world, Soviet Armenia would have been best suited to press the Armenian case against Turkey. If the first Armenian Republic had thrived, it could have pursued reparations and human rights trials against the Young Turks, and maintained territorial claims against Turkey. But the republic gave way to a rigid Soviet policy that reduced political activity by the population of Soviet Armenia to a standstill—even when it came to the genocide. The U.S.S.R. had prohibited Armenian scholars from studying the tragedy. It extinguished any chance of erecting a public memorial. It censored those who brought up the topic. And it refused to sponsor Armenian claims against Turkey.
Geo-political interests in corralling Turkey away from its NATO alliance did not completely explain Soviet policy. When Lenin and his ideological brethren brought communist revolution to Russia, they envisioned a world in which Soviet citizens would, in due time, cast off their allegiances to ethnicity and religion. This vision of the Soviet citizen had no room for nationalistic aims. As a uniquely Armenian saga, the genocide did not accord to this ecumenical communist ideology. Soviet authorities took every means to smother any talk of the genocide, even among those who lived through the tragedy.
Yet, on this day, Armenians refused to stand silent any longer.
As the setting sun formed a silhouette behind Mount Ararat, the crowd, now bulging to 100,000, surrounded the grey-stoned opera house at the center of the city adorned with Greek columns, arches, and semicircular layers sitting atop each other. By now, survivors of the genocide had joined the crowd, injecting the younger protestors with added adrenaline. To appease the growing demand for a public commemoration, authorities had decided to hold a modest ceremony for about 250 people in the opera house. Though the KGB vetted the guest list to prevent any unexpected incidents, it took immense lobbying by Soviet Armenia’s leadership to their superiors in Moscow to proceed with the event.
Inside the performance hall, leading representatives of the Soviet Armenian government convened along with the Catholicos. A senior government official spoke first, followed by a world-class astrophysicist. Compared to the reserved performance inside the opera house, the demonstrators listening on loudspeakers outside had grown rowdy, choking off transportation in Yerevan and shutting down universities and businesses. Though tame compared to the riots of America and Europe during the 1960’s—with no looting, widespread vandalism, or violence—the demonstration heated up as organizers delivered speeches insisting on Soviet sponsorship of Armenian demands. The protestors wanted to submit a petition to those inside the opera house. When the guards refused to grant them entry, the students pushed against the barricades placed in front of the opera house and threw stones at its windows. After some deliberation, the authorities declined to call in the army, instead employing the municipal security force to entangle with the protestors to avoid bloodshed. The sight of their sons and daughters in the crowd made some officers reluctant to move against the protestors with alacrity. Embarrassment turned others away from facing their children. Instead, firemen blasted high-powered hoses from the building’s windows to keep the demonstrators at bay. These proved feeble in the face of the energized crowd. Pumping their fists into the air, the demonstrators repeatedly shouted “Our lands, our lands” in a chorus.
When the astrophysicist finished, the crowd outside grew increasingly antagonistic. The opera’s windows shattered amidst the continuous volley of missiles. Soaked in water, the demonstrators finally overwhelmed the barriers, barging into the main hall and flooding it with screams. Shocked by the population’s strong resolve for action, most everyone in attendance fled from a rear exit of the building. The Catholicos remained behind. Respect for his position temporarily silenced the boisterous crowd. “My dear children,” he started to tell the restless listeners in his grandfatherly way. Before he got more than a few words out, shouts and jeers continued.
The leaders of Soviet Armenia elected not to order mass arrests. Within a year, however, the fallout from the unexpected demonstration led to their downfall as the chieftains in Moscow installed more stringent satraps to quash such nationalistic outbursts. The Soviet government’s only concession to the Armenian fervor was to erect a memorial honoring the victims of the genocide. But it refused to do anymore. It would neither alter its foreign policy nor sponsor Armenian claims against Turkey. As such, Soviet Armenia never again served as a staging point for the Armenian quest for justice. Instead, the demonstration’s biggest impact came not in changing the policy of the U.S.S.R., but serving as an inspiration for Armenians throughout the diaspora. And it was the diaspora—and not Soviet Armenia—that struggled for justice for decades to come.
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President Herbert Hoover wrote in his memoir: “Probably Armenia was known to the American school child in 1919 only a little less than England.” That was no longer true in 1965. A human rights disaster that had inspired the first major international humanitarian movement had largely disappeared from the world’s consciousness by its 50th anniversary. One could not find a single museum, monument of noteworthiness, research center, or even a comprehensive publication about the genocide.
On the 50th anniversary of the genocide, the Armenians of the diaspora were finally prepared to take that extraordinary step needed to remind the world of the forgotten genocide. In Beirut, all of the Armenian political parties came together to speak in front of 85,000 people packed inside a stadium. Thousands marched in central Athens. In Paris, Armenians marched down the Champs Elysees; 3,000 attended a memorial mass in Notre Dame. More than 12,000 participated in Buenos Aires. Armenians in Milan, Montreal, Syria, Egypt, and Australia also staged events, as did Armenian Americans. Boston’s Armenians held a ceremony in a Catholic cathedral as well as a rally in John Hancock Hall. In San Francisco, 300 mourners marched in silence to a cathedral; others held a vigil in front of City Hall. Armenians held events in Illinois, California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Washington, D.C., Ohio, Virginia, and smaller communities throughout the country.
Few people encapsulated the meaning of the genocide to a new generation more than Charles Metjian, who organized a demonstration in New York. The 30-something fire department employee was not much of a 1960’s radical. Despite caring for a growing family and working two jobs, however, he took it upon himself to organize a march to the United Nations. Metjian had never met his grandfather, yet the sight of his childhood friends interacting with their own made him long for the mythical patriarch. The childhood stories Metjian had heard of how Ottoman soldiers had hacked his grandfather’s body to pieces outside his home, cutting off his arm and finally killing him with a blow to the head, remained etched in Metjian’s mind. The bind between grandfather and grandson—between a victim and his descendant—remained strong despite the passage of 50 years. “Time has neither changed nor lessened this crime…committed against you,” Metjian wrote in an open letter to the grandfather he had never known. “I vow I will make every effort to make fruitful the justice that is long overdue to you.”
Metjian urged others to join him. “The choice is yours,” he wrote to all Armenians before the April 24th march. “He who calls himself an Armenian comes to this Bridge; either he crosses it and Honors his people or he falls back and dissipates himself from his Heritage.” Metjian’s message was clear: All Armenians, no matter how far removed in time and space from the dark days of 1915, owed it to their ancestors to fight for justice.
Numerous pamphlets rehashing old arguments of resurrecting the Treaty of Sèvres went out to governments across the world. But something was different. The genocide began to take on a life of its own, detaching itself from the broader historical narrative that had defined the contours of Armenian claims against Turkey in the past. Historically, Armenians had linked the genocide to their desires for their ancestral lands and to a specific place, a homeland, where they would be entitled to self-rule and self-determination. That link remained, but starting in 1965, it began to come apart. A decade or two later, Armenians hardly mentioned the pledges of the post-World War I era in their pursuit of justice; instead, they focused almost exclusively on the genocide as a distinct event. No longer confined to Armenian families and community gatherings, the catastrophe became the focal point of Armenian political aspirations, a never-ending source of mobilization replenished by Turkish denial. As other cultural markers faded or lost their appeal to a younger, assimilating population, the genocide and the pursuit of justice associated with it gradually displaced the longing for a homeland as a central element of Armenian identity.
This new focal point for political action combined with heightened political awareness not seen since the post-World War I era translated into action. The Illinois, California, and Massachusetts legislatures passed resolutions marking the genocide, as did a myriad of cities and towns. Forty-two Congressman, including Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), honored the 50th anniversary in America’s most hallowed legislative chamber.
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The Turkish response to this unexpected uprising verged on the hysterical. After many years in which news of Armenians barely registered in Turkey, the flurry of activity in 1965 sent shockwaves through Turkey’s ruling elite. Turkish newspapers issued bitter denunciations. Diplomats countered Armenian claims in the press. The Turkish Embassy urged the State Department to squash declarations made on behalf of the Armenians by American politicians. Its ambassador asked for the removal of a tiny genocide monument erected at an Armenian senior citizen center in New Jersey because, he insisted, despite being on private property, it was “easily visible to all passersby on a busy street corner and, therefore, legally public property.” Some Turkish officials, unable to appreciate that the American government could not simply ban protestors, blamed the U.S. government for the demonstrations.
A member of the Turkish Embassy in Washington urged readers of the New York Times that in dealing with the “dark days…the best thing to do now would be to forget them….” That was just the problem. Turkey wanted to forget a past that Armenians could not forget. Too many survivors lived on with traumatic memories that refused to fade away. Too many of their children and grandchildren heard stories of lost relatives, tormented deaths, and a never-ending despair that 50 years had failed to heal. By obliterating their shared past, Turkey was erasing the defining event of the Armenian experience. One group could not get its way without forcing the other to overturn decades of memories. The irreconcilable positions could only result in one victor and one loser.
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Just as the resurrection of the genocide began, the Cold War divisions that had divided the Armenian Diaspora began to fade. Though Armenian factions remained deeply suspicious of each other, the détente between the United States and the Soviet Union filtered down to the Armenians. There was even talk of Church unity.
The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the most politically engaged segment of the community, shifted its policy. While it remained steadfastly anti-Soviet, its Cold War agenda began to recede as the genocide took prominence, making the quest for justice against Turkey, and not the Soviet Union, the party’s primary aim. The death of its leadership held over from the Armenian Republic—like Simon Vratsian and Reuben Darbinian—during the 1960’s contributed to this shift as the ARF turned its significant political connections and mobilization efforts to the genocide.
Likewise, the aspirations of the survivor generation of returning to the lost homeland offered little appeal for their descendants who had never lived on Armenian soil. The generation that came of age after the genocide had set roots in new nations. The sentimental attachment to a mythical homeland did not remain. William Saroyan reflected the psyche of this generation. Born in California, in 1964 he travelled to the home of his ancestors in Bitlis, Turkey, after numerous attempts over a span of many years. Despite finding the very spot of his family’s house, Saroyan realized that his family’s roots had been completely torn out. No foundation remained to make his return possible. “I didn’t want to leave,” Saroyan said of his visit. “But it’s not ours.”
Swayed by the civil rights, student rights, and anti-war movements, the Armenian youth in America viewed the genocide as another injustice to fight for, an injustice for which they maintained a personal investment. They refused to cower meekly like the survivors. Instead, having inherited a sound economic and communal foundation from the survivors who had spent their lives rebuilding, they possessed the luxury to mount a political campaign. The experience of the genocide manifested itself differently in these younger generations. The psychological defenses used to contend with and evade the persistent strain of the genocide had contributed to the silence of the survivors. Their offspring had not witnessed its horrors first-hand, and as such, had the necessary detachment to reawaken the forgotten episode of history. At the same time, with only a generation or two between survivors and the children of the 1960’s, the psychological scars of the genocide endured. The ongoing failure to establish truth prohibited the natural healing process from taking effect.
In an era when many Americans began to search for their roots, Armenian Americans inevitably confronted the genocide at every turn. They came to realize that so much of who they were was begotten in the apocalyptic days of 1915. The rise of identity politics, a movement that came to prominence in the 1960’s, in which groups began to come together and identify themselves by shared historical grievances, encouraged the younger Armenians’ campaign for justice. An overpowering sense of obligation to their ancestral legacy along with its unresolved trauma gave them the sustained emotional energy needed to carry on a decades-long struggle with Turkey. Instead of the genocide’s horrors ceasing with the death of the survivors, these horrors transplanted into their descendants and overshadowed Armenian identity for generations to come.
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Leading up to 50th anniversary of the genocide, several Armenian American newspapers published a long essay authored by the gifted writer, Leon Surmelian. “The time has come for Armenians to stand up and be counted,” Surmelian noted. “For too long now we have been the forgotten people of the western world. And we deserve to be forgotten if we take no action, now.” Surmelian was correct: The world had forgotten the Armenians.
Starting in 1965, Armenians across the world, whether in Soviet Armenia or the diaspora, whether partisan or apolitical, resurrected the genocide from its dormancy and refused to remain forgotten any longer.