The ARF Response to the Demise of the First Republic

From the Armenian Weekly 2018 Magazine Dedicated to the Centennial of the First Republic of Armenia

Government House of First Republic of Armenia, Yerevan (Photo: ARF Archives)

In May 1918, the Armenian Republic was established in the harshest socioeconomic and political environment imaginable. Accordingly, the founding of the First Republic was an improbable achievement. From its inception, the new republic—the first independent Armenian state in nearly 600 years—was beset with internal and external problems that would have confounded even the most mature governments. The lack of basic resources, food, medicine, and clothing, coupled with an inadequate infrastructure, exacerbated the problems facing the government as it sought to meet the needs of its people, many of whom were refugees who had fled their ancestral homes in the Western Armenian provinces.

The international scene proved no better. The young republic was essentially ignored by the victorious Western governments. In a world of realpolitik, the fledgling Armenian state was not important. The situation in Asia Minor and the south Caucasus was chaotic. Turkish ultranationalists not only challenged the legitimate government seated in Constantinople but also the allied proposal (Treaty of Sevres) for the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. In the Caucasus, the young Armenian government had to contend with the Bolsheviks, who had recently seized control in Russia.

Considering such formidable obstacles—the lack of available resources, the absence of meaningful international support, and Armenia’s isolation resulting from its landlocked state—it wasn’t merely the founding of the First Republic that was improbable. Its continued independence proved to be equally so. Notwithstanding its brief existence, however, the First Republic is testament to the efforts of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) to establish a free and independent Armenia. To have succeeded under the conditions of those times speaks to the indomitable spirit of our people to overcome adversity. That spirit—wrapped, as it were, in tenacity and faith—has been responsible for the survival of our nation against adversaries and international interests that have continually encroached on our historic homeland.

When the abrupt, but not unexpected, end of the First Republic came amid its occupation by the Russian army, not all Armenians viewed that event with trepidation. Admirers of the Bolsheviks were pleased. Others firmly believed that being part of the Soviet system would provide Armenians with the security and respite they needed—especially, as it seemed, with an unrepentant and resurgent Turkey as a neighbor. Yet, there were also those who held that the end of the First Republic was an irreconcilable loss, and that there could be no justification that would allow the ARF to accommodate the existence of a Sovietized Armenia.

With the demise of the First Republic, most Armenians were living either in the recently created Soviet-Armenian republic or in others that together formed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The remaining Armenians, mostly survivors of the genocide, were scattered wherever chance may have taken them. The ARF leadership was confronted with a dramatically new reality, banned as it was from the USSR and its presence no longer viable in the Anatolian provinces of the former Ottoman Empire, the historic home of Armenians for millennia.

That rather rapid change in fortune would have dismayed lesser men and women. However, the ARF leadership, imbued with the zeal and determination common to revolutionaries, did not waiver. How it chose to respond not only defined the ARF agenda during the subsequent 70 years that Armenia remained a Soviet republic but also solidified its viability as a political party. That response would transform the ARF from an essentially regional political party to one whose organization and operation became international in scope. At the same time, the creation of a free and independent Armenia remained the ARF’s principal objective.

Although ARF leaders had been active on the world stage representing the interests of the Armenian nation in the period up to the demise of the First Republic, the ARF was not an international political party. Its field of operation was Asia Minor and the south Caucasus, with outliers in Western Europe and Iran. With the establishment of a new Turkey under Ataturk and the Bolsheviks in control of Russia, the ARF was compelled to shift its organizational and operational activities to a much wider geographic area. Iran already had a sizeable Armenian community, as did Aleppo in Syria, and later Lebanon, where many of the survivors of the genocide settled. It was in Beirut that the ARF eventually established its center of operations.

Historically, the ARF was essentially a national liberation movement committed to establishing a free and independent Armenia. The new reality did not change that goal. There was never any acknowledgment that a Soviet Armenian republic was or should be permanent. To reinforce that belief, the symbols of the free and independent First Republic—the tricolor flag and the “Mer Hairenik” national anthem—were never abandoned. They continued to evoke pride and hope among those survivors who shared the belief that Armenia would be free and independent once more. (It should be noted here that when Soviet Armenia declared its independence during the dying days of the Soviet Union, in 1991, it was the tricolor and “Mer Hairenik,” with some changes in the lyrics, that were adopted by the newly independent republic.)

Just as the survivors of the Genocide undertook the task of rebuilding their lives, the ARF began its task of building an organizational infrastructure that would allow its leadership (Bureau) to effectively communicate and allocate authority and responsibility to Central Committees, which served as the link between the Bureau and the local Committees (gomidehs) that fell within a Central Committee’s geographic jurisdiction. That organizational structure, based on its revolutionary predecessor, was the key to maintaining a coherent message and implementing sanctioned activities and events, especially when the ARF was operating on a global scale, in various cultural and political environments.

The delegates of the 26th Convention of the ARFof America in front of the Hairenik Headquartersin Boston (Photo: ARF Archives)

While this “chain of command” was being implemented, the Diaspora was expanding outward, like a ripple in a quiet pond, from the Middle East to Western Europe, the United States and Canada, South America, and finally to Australia. At the same time, the Diasporan population was also increasing as families were formed and new generations were added. In 1923, there were some 300,000 Armenians in the Diaspora. Today, that number has grown to at least six million. (However, in should be noted that a relatively small Armenian Diaspora had existed for centuries prior to 1915, and some of the increase in the Diasporan population after 1991 is attributable to the out-migration from Armenia and other former republics of the Soviet Union.)

With the ARF’s now highly nationalistic agenda, the spirit and the optimism of the ARF proved to be inspirational to these Armenians who had been torn from environments they knew well, and had been tossed like survivors of a shipwreck on some foreign shore. Many of the survivors held on to the belief that they would, in time, return to their homeland. Traumatized by the savagery that had been unleashed upon them, many found it difficult, if not impossible, to understand why such a catastrophe had befallen them.

The ARF leadership recognized, early on, the potential problems of acculturation and assimilation associated with the forced dispersion of genocide survivors to new and often remarkably alien cultural environments. The response to that anticipated problem was especially relevant for those generations born in the Diaspora whose principal ties to their heritage consisted merely of one or both parents. Many, if not most, of those born in the Diaspora would be educated in non-Armenian schools, hastening the process of acculturation and assimilation; and when those Diasporan generations married, the cultural attrition would tend to accelerate in the case of their children.

Aware of that likely attrition among the Diasporan generations, the ARF sponsored various organizations that would provide relevant opportunities not only to learn about heritage but also to enrich the lives of individuals as they engaged in diverse activities, such as athletics, scouting, and social activities. The overriding objective was instilling knowledge of heritage and the creation of active members of the Armenian community.

Three organizations organized to meet those objectives were the Homenetmen athletic and scouting organization, the Hamazkayin Cultural and Educational Society, and the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF-YOARF). Homenetmen was formed in Constantinople, in 1918, and re-established in 1924 with a chapter in Beirut, Lebanon. In 1933, the AYF, the youth organization of the ARF, was formed in the United States. The Hamazkayin Cultural Organization was organized in 1928 in Cairo, Egypt, to cater to the educational and cultural interests of the developing communities.

Moreover, founded in 1910 in New York, the Armenian Relief Society (ARS) operated under the umbrella of the ARF. The ARS is not only the oldest but also the largest active Armenian Woman’s organization. Its antecedents had begun years earlier, when women volunteers raised funds to aid Armenian victims of the lawlessness common in the interior provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Since its founding, the ARS has served Armenians in need and provided financial assistance in response to international disasters.

The end of World War II exposed the mass killing carried out by Nazi Germany of the Jewish people and other ethnic groups. The coining of the term “genocide” by Raphael Lemkin and its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as a crime punishable under international law gave hope to the Armenian people. The emotional scars that the survivors of the Armenian Genocide carried for so many years were still raw, unable to heal.

Given its network of regional and local committees operating throughout the Diaspora, the ARF was the only political organization capable of confronting Turkish leaders in the world arena. For Armenians and the ARF in particular, Genocide recognition became a political but also moral imperative; the efforts of the ARF assuaged somewhat the burden of hopelessness and victimization that the nation carried.

As part of that effort demanding Turkey’s recognition of its guilt, the ARF worked assiduously to influence foreign governments to recognize the genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turkish government against its Armenian citizens from 1915 to 1923. As a result of those sustained, coordinated efforts by the ARF and its affiliated organizations, Uruguay in 1965 became the first government to recognize the Armenian Genocide.

Concomitantly, the ARF’s international presence allowed it to successfully counter propaganda by the Turkish government and Turkish-paid lobbyists and sponsored organizations to deny the Genocide.

In the 100 years since the founding of the First Republic, the ARF has undergone a metamorphosis that no one could have envisioned when the First Republic came to an end. The joy and the exhilaration spawned by its founding was too soon taken away. However, in this instance, as often happens, with the passing of time the unintended consequence of the event became more significant than the event itself.

The “consequence” flowing from the demise of the First Republic was the new and dramatically different reality it created. With lesser leaders, the ARF could easily have taken a different path or tack, but such was not the case. By the time Soviet Armenia declared its independence in 1991, the ARF had evolved from a localized liberation movement into the largest and most influential political party in the Diaspora.

In the interim 70 years during which Armenia had no independent voice, the ARF was an effective proponent for Armenian issues, for a free and independent Armenia, and for the development of Armenian-centric communities. Its work with the youth was exemplary. In addition to the process of aiding the youth to become practitioners of their culture and to be appreciative of their heritage, ARF-led programs would develop the youth’s innate abilities by providing older as well as peer mentors and role models, internships, opportunities to serve the community, and a host of other opportunities and experiences associated with being a member of an organization. It would be those members who carried on the work of the ARF decades into the future. And, today, the ARF is a bona fide political party in Armenia, with its headquarters relocated to Yerevan. It has one foot in the Homeland and the other foot in the Diaspora.

One may wonder how the ARF would have developed had the First Republic survived. There can be no definitive answer, but this writer firmly believes that there would have been little or no interest for the ARF to expand beyond the borders of the First Republic. Confined there, the ARF would not have become the largest and most influential political organization in the Diaspora.

Today, its value to Armenia cannot be ignored. While the Armenian government is constrained in its relations with other governments by protocol, the ARF is not and can more freely express a position with respect to issues affecting Armenia (and Artsakh).

Today the ARF is well positioned to continue to play an important role in the life of Mayr Hayastan.

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Michael Mensoian

Michael Mensoian, J.D./Ph.D, is professor emeritus in Middle East and political geography at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and a retired major in the U.S. army. He writes regularly for the Armenian Weekly.

2 Comments

  1. At the recent conference in NYC on the 1st Republic, the role of the ARF was discussed. Of course , we are all aware of the traditional divisive views in the community. Supporters of the ARF have heralded the sacrifice and leadership that led to this historic moment. Other elements of the community have derided the ARF for its decision making and control of the ill fated republic. What was particularly gratifying to me is that the community and scholars are now looking at the Republic and the ARFs role in the context of the time and challenges….and now from a more purist perspective. This has brought a more favorable light on the ARF. Upon a full review , we learn that the leaders of the republic were unselfish men , many of whom left comfortable lives in Tiflis to move to the challenges and chaos of Yerevan. Aram Manoogian, for example died of typhus in 1919 , contracted when he visited the refugee camps of his fellow Armenians.
    The greatest accomplishment of the ARF since the fall of the first republic was to carry on its populist character by organizing the diaspora in many countries around the world. It began as building center, clubs and churches and grew into the grass roots activism that is an asset in today’s communities. They kept the pilot light of Armenian nationalism on in the diaspora through multiple generations. This is one of the reason why reasonable diasporans should be surprised that such an impactful organization in the diaspora for nearly 100 years, has not had, to date, nearly the success in Armenia. It is ironic but if the ARF remains true to its populist roots, that could change in Armenia.

  2. Dear Stepan, the ARF s of the past had more high moral standards , most of them were born on Armenian territories they were hardened nationalists and they had seen the barbarity of the Turcs.They all gave up their comfortable lives and worked for nothing for the love of Armenia,you can see today in Armenia the entire government work to feel up their own pockets.Those men from yester years were selflessly dedicated to the cause without a penny in their pockets.As Richard Hovanessian said you will not find another generation like that.

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