2018 is a big year for Armenians. It marks the centennial of the establishment of the first Armenian Republic, on May 28, 1918, after a 543-year period of statelessness and subjugation to foreign empires (Persian, Russian, and Turkish). But for that heroic act of creation out of “formless chaos” (as described by Simon Vratsian, twice the republic’s prime minister), we would not have today’s two Armenian republics. We owe an incredible debt to that generation of selfless, self-sacrificing leaders who laid the foundations of a country that was later forcibly Sovietized.
Numerous major undertakings to recognize, honor, and better understand that mind-boggling achievement are in the making. Some have already been announced, and no doubt many more, large and small, will soon manifest. There is even some apt, sharp, preemptive critique of these efforts that will hopefully keep them on track and prevent them from becoming like the formulaic, dull, and conventional “events” we put on every year.
It seems, by coincidence, that the years ending in “8” have been good to Armenians, for the most part (some of the years were more ominous than auspicious). So I thought a review of these eights of the past two centuries might be a fun as we ring in 2018. Perhaps some of these events should also be marked over the course of 2018. And, yes, you might legitimately argue that some of the eights, below, are not such a big deal, but for the most part they are important. Of course, none compare to 1918—which, because of May 28 of that year, is the single most important year in modern Armenian history, except of course 1915.
Let’s work backward in time. I could not remember or find events in 1898, 1888, 1868, 1848, or 1838 meriting mention in the context of this article. Please note that the basis for including an “8” year in this article is significant events that are not focused on individuals. Otherwise, numerous births, deaths, or even the disappearance of Khachatour Abovian (Khachadour Apovian) in 1848 would have to be included, rendering this piece book-length.
In 2008 the election (questionably, for many) of the Republic of Armenia’s current president, Serge Sarkisian, took place. Days after his win, massive street demonstrations were met with state repression, leading on March 1 to the death of 10 people. Later in the year, after a visit from Turkey’s then-President Abdullah Gul, the ill-conceived and ill-begotten “protocols” process began. These protocols were supposedly going to normalize Armenia-Turkey relations. They were roundly criticized by most sectors of Armenian society as a capitulation to Turkey’s anti-Armenian lust. Yet, Yerevan proceeded and found itself in the embarrassing position of approving an agreement that even the Turkish parliament has yet to ratify, despite their being oh-so-favorable to that side’s interests. Finally, just weeks ago, Sarkisian announced that, barring Turkey’s ratification, in Spring of 2018 Armenia would formally nullify its ratification of protocols.
1998 marked the end of Levon Ter Petrosian’s ruinous time as the first president of Armenia. He oversaw the establishment of the economically unproductive klepto-capitalism that now bedevils the citizens and life of the republic. Robert Kocharian was elected president and reversed Ter Petrosian’s feckless, cowardly, and arguably treasonous foreign policy regarding Artsakh. I was surprised to discover that in September of 1998, a cholera outbreak struck a village 60 kilometers from Yerevan, mentioned only (at least so far as I could find) in a one-paragraph announcement from the World Health Organization in which the village is not even named.
In 1988 commenced the Artsakh Liberation Movement. Demonstrations in Yerevan and Stepanakert drew hundreds of thousands of participants calling for the legal/political reunification of Artsakh with the Armenian SSR. The heart and soul of the Armenian nation flowed into this effort. By most accounts, this movement also marked the beginning of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Tragically, it also led to the typically Turkish response: massacres—in Sumgait, Kirovabad (“Ganja,” Gandzak/Kantzag), and Baku.
The 1978 Iranian Revolution, while not an “Armenian” event per se, had a major impact on Armenian life. The ensuing turmoil led to a massive (over the course of four decades) emigration of Armenians from Iran. This has unavoidably taken its toll on a 400-year-old community that served as one of the pillars of our Diaspora. Recognizing that the panhandle of Iran is a part of what was historically Armenia with a rich architectural heritage that remains extant, we realize how important this community was, is, and will continue to be.
1968’s notable event may seem minor and even parochial when considered in hindsight. But seen in proper context, the unveiling of the Armenian Genocide Martyrs Monument in Montebello, Calif., on April 21, was a major accomplishment. Remember that at the time the Los Angeles area community was positively puny compared with today’s half-millionish. Those that preceded the monument’s erection, with one exception, were in major Armenian centers—Lebanon, Etchmiadzin, Watertown, Mass., and even Bolis (though that monument was removed with the coming of Ataturk). It was also the only monument on public land, Bicknell Park, for a long time. At the time, according to Wikipedia’s list (which I found to be incomplete), only seven such memorials pre-existed Montebello’s.
Lebanon’s first Civil War, in 1958, was a bracing turning point for intra-communal relations in the Armenian Diaspora. The shock of the fratricidal killings resulting from our political parties’ ending up on different sides of that episode led to much greater cooperation thereafter, which enabled more political progress. That cooperative sensibility persists even today, though sometimes I think it goes too far. (As a side note, it was interesting to learn that on Sept. 2, Soviet MiG-17 pilots shot down a US Air Force C-130 aircraft with 17 crewmen aboard, after it inadvertently penetrated denied airspace. It crashed near the village of Sasnashen, in Armenia.)
1948 was the last year of the first, and largest, round of repatriation (nerkaght), with estimates ranging from 90,000 to 350,000 going to Soviet Armenia in the three years starting in 1946. This was part of a broader soviet policy of encouraging repatriation, but in Armenia’s case the toll of WWII had been so great and the need for more skilled people so strong that bringing Genocide-scattered Armenians “home” became policy during that brief postwar period when East-West tensions were relatively muted. Of course, integration of this and later groups of immigrants was far from smooth or complete. They were often looked down on or excluded in various ways. Sometimes even marriages between “locals” and “aghpars” (as repatriates were derogatorily named) were prohibited by families simply on that basis. Moreover, many of those who had repatriated ended up Siberian labor camps.
1938 was the last gasp of visible Armenian presence in Turkish-occupied parts of the Armenian Highlands and Cilicia. Sanjak of Alexandretta (Iskenderun) was ceded to Turkey by France as the Mandatory Power ruling Syria. That led to a second exodus of Armenians from that territory. The calculus behind this bit of French treachery was the currying of favor with Turkey, perhaps in anticipation of WWII. This year also marked the end of 1936-8 “Great Purges” in the Soviet Union. Along with all other citizens of the country, many Armenian intellectuals, whom we would today call dissidents, and people who were suspected of even the slightest deviance from Bolshevik orthodoxy, were either outright murdered or sent to Siberia to suffer, and often perish, under extreme living conditions.
1928 marked the birth of the Hamazkayin Cultural and Educational Society, in Egypt, with the participation of giants of the first republic’s leadership, such as Levon Shant, Nikol Aghbalian, and Dr. Hamo Ohanjanian. The organization has since grown to become a worldwide presence serving Armenians’ cultural needs, including dance, education, music, and theater.
1918 was a truly big year, not only because of the birth of the first republic but also because that same republic maintained women’s right to vote as granted under Russian rule in 1917, codifying it in 1919. Women were also elected to parliament. Of course, WWI ended with the Ottoman Empire on the losing side, allowing Armenian Genocide survivors to return home (until they were booted out again by Ataturk). The much-beloved Homenetmen was also organized the same year and has since served, and kept hundreds of thousands of mostly young Armenians connected to Armenian life, through scouting and athletic programs.
1908 was another very big year. Bloody Sultan Abdul Hamid II was deposed and the Ottoman Constitution was reinstated on July 24 after years of struggle by numerous groups within the empire, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) being a major participant. Also, given one of the places this article will appear, I would be remiss in not noting that 1908 also was the Asbarez newspaper’s first year of publication.
1878 brought a strong dose of reality to Armenians’ consciousness. After losing a war to Russia, the Ottoman Empire signed the treaty of San Stefano. This agreement made Russia the guarantor of Ottoman Armenians’ rights (as then understood). But just four months later, thanks to British connivance (the Ottomans ceded Cyprus to Britain as “payment”), the Treaty of Berlin was signed in which the paragraph addressing Armenian issues was moved from being the 16th to the 61st (makes you wonder…) and watered down to the point of meaninglessness. This whole process led (later Catholicos) Khrimian Hayrig to make his famous “Iron Ladle” (Yergateh Sherep) speech, in which he analogized military power to that kitchen utensil and the condition of the Armenians to a paper ladle, referring to the promises and papers which was all he had to rely on when attending the conference of Berlin that yielded the revised treaty. His “iron ladle” is part of the ideological undergirding for the revolutionary organizations that came into being in the decade that followed.
In 1858, the historical novel “Wounds of Armenia” was first published (though written in 1841). It was the first Armenian secular novel dedicated to the fate of the Armenian people and its struggle for liberation. It was also the first to be written in the Eastern Armenian vernacular.
1828 was another important treaty year. The Treaty of Turkmenchai consolidated Russian gains south of the Caucasus Mountains and the eastern end of the Armenian Highlands at the expense of the Persian Empire. Armenians living in these territories gained space to develop after being removed from the oppression of living as Christians in a Muslim empire. In fact, this led to immigration from the Ottoman and Persian Empires under the slightly misguided notion that life under the Russians would be rosier. It was less bad, but tyrannical rule under any religion is still tyrannical.
Let’s hope and work for some major achievements in the upcoming “8” as we appropriately celebrate the 1918 republic. On a related note, perhaps there will be a run on all five volumes of Richard Hovanissian’s opus describing the birth, growth, and fall of the first Republic of Armenia. Buy them.