On Jan. 27, 1973, two diplomats of the Turkish Republic traveled to Santa Barbara, Calif., to meet with an individual claiming to possess Ottoman artifacts he wished to donate to the country for posterity. Mehmet Baydar and Bahadir Demir played into the hands of Gourgen Yanikian, who had planned their murder as an act at once of vengeance, of retribution, and of justice.
It is hard, as an Armenian today, to write about Yanikian without judging his actions using those three less-than-consistent characteristics noted above. Vengeance is not exactly a Christian concept, is it? Justice is ordered by a legitimate, recognized authority. As for retribution, well, it is not for no reason that “Operation Nemesis” was the name of the immense undertaking following the Armenian Genocide to do away with those responsible for that horrific crime: Nemesis is the Greek deity of divine retribution.
I do not know if Armenians can claim divinity. But I can say that Yanikian took it upon himself to address an issue that had lain cast aside for far too long. Listening to him, as one can on YouTube, one notices his fascinating accent. As someone who grew up and studied in Karin (Erzurum) and Russia, it is not surprising that he speaks in Eastern Armenian. At the same time, many of the ways in which he says words are clearly more akin to the Western Armenian pronunciation. Isn’t that telling? For, the story of this man is echoed in the story of so many Armenians of the 20th century, among them Soghomon Tehlirian, whose actions, one can forcefully argue, inspired Yanikian.
But listening to the content of what Yanikian has to say, as a young Armenian 40 years later, the immediate reaction I have is: “Sir, Baron Yanikian, much as I can be in awe of you, things have changed since you were around.” Soviet Armenia, where Yanikian spent time and much appreciated, is no more. There is an independent republic today. We have an additional struggle, armed and otherwise, for Artsakh that offers its own existential meaning for our people.
I do not think it is a coincidence that the acts of violence that Yanikian inspired, and which plagued Turkish diplomats through the 1970’s and 1980’s, ended as the movement for Artsakh began, as the Soviet Union collapsed, and Armenians took on the responsibilities of statehood. The issue of relations with Turkey has, for 20 years now, been an issue at the inter-state level, a matter of international diplomacy. There exist today other tools at one’s disposal (some might say “complementing,” others “supplementing,” the bullets) that Yanikian could not have invoked in 1973.
Forty years on, in reading Michael Bobelian’s Children of Armenia and Tatul Hakobyan’s The Armenians and the Turks (a provisional title in English, as the book is still only available in Armenian), I can only conclude that the Turkish foreign minister sat down with the representatives of the yet-“classic” Diasporan-Armenian political parties in Zurich in 1977, only because their ambassadors and consuls were shedding blood. Why did such an initiative never take place between 1923, when the Republic of Turkey was founded, and 1977? It is unfortunate that Ankara saw so much instability itself—undergoing three coups d’états in as many decades—otherwise perhaps a modus vivendi could at least have been accommodated.
But I conclude at the same time that the plans so prevalent in the minds then of even the all-too-“classic” organized diaspora of an azkahavak (a mass movement of the Armenian people to Soviet Armenia) alongside a hoghahavak (the occupation of traditional Armenian lands by none other than that superpower, the USSR) in the run-up to a free, independent, and united Armenia…well, such thoughts seem dated, especially given the fact that the Armenians are probably the only people in the world whose diaspora population ended up increasing with independence, sadly an ongoing trend.
I cannot say I am proud of every aspect of the history, politics, and society of the Armenian people, but I can say with great confidence that I am far from ashamed when it comes to much that my people have accomplished. It is important to bear in mind today where we stand, what exists around us, what instruments are available, and, most importantly, how we wish to address an issue that has dogged us and our neighbors for far too long in a way that will be meaningful for all concerned, and in a way that will lead to a lasting peace. I hope that Gourgen Yanikian would agree.