The Legacy of the First Republic of Armenia during the Soviet Era: The Tumultuous 1960s

The First Republic lasted only 32 months. Its legacy, however, went far beyond its short-lived existence.

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

A scene from the massive demonstration at Yerevan’s Lenin Square on April 24, 1965 (Photo: Armenian Genocide Memorial-Institute)

The First Republic lasted only 32 months. Its legacy, however, went far beyond its short-lived existence. After it collapsed in Dec. 1920, generations were born and raised, both in Soviet Armenia and in the Diaspora, with the hope that one day Armenian statehood would be resurrected. The Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR), however, did not provide fertile ground for preserving the legacy of the First Republic. Heavy-handed Soviet censorship and propaganda portrayed the First Republic and its founders as reactionary, nationalist, and adventurist. As early as in the 1930s, in the official discourse of the USSR, the First Republic was presented as distant and insignificant history. The Soviet version of the history of the First Republic and its turning points were distorted beyond recognition. Until the late 1980s, even the date of collapse of the First Republic was noted as Nov. 29, 1920, instead of Dec. 2, when the leaders of the First Republic ceded power to the Bolsheviks.

Yet, despite the official narratives and efforts to ridicule the founders of “the Dashnak republic,” the history of the First Republic faded little on the popular level. In the 1960s and 1970s, the generation that had endured the calamities of the Genocide and had lived in the First Republic, was still alive. Many of them recalled the 1914-1923 period with great pain and sorrow, but also with great pride, recalling the great victories at Sardarabad, Gharakilisa, and Bash-Abaran.

Until the late 1950s, the Soviet leadership in Moscow was ultrasensitive toward any manifestation of local nationalism. However, the Khrushchev-era thaw resulted in changes to the flow of social and ideological transformation in the USSR, including in Soviet Armenia. Leaders of Soviet Armenia undertook various initiatives that aimed to present the history of 1914-1923 under a new light.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, dissident groups and underground movements were formed in Soviet Armenia. The Armenian Youth Union and the National Unity Party, the only underground opposition party in the territory of the USSR, were the ones most widely known. Their strident criticism of Moscow and of past injustices, their territorial claims from Turkey, along with their demand that Karabagh and Nakhichevan be reunited with Soviet Armenia, reopened wounds that the Communist party leadership had hoped was a distant memory.

Many party functionaries and ideologues in Moscow scoffed at those groups and their demands, arguing that only a very few embraced those “manifestations of petty nationalism” in Armenia. Little did they know that their utter confidence would prove problematic. The seeds of Soviet disintegration and ideological polarization were planted in the 1960s, and Armenian dissidents’ roles in that process were anything but secondary. Those “manifestations” were also behind the April 1965 events in Armenia, when mass rallies occurred in Yerevan on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Some 100,000 Armenians participated in the massive demonstration on April 24, 1965, demanding that April 24 be designated a day of commemoration of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Moscow and the Soviet propaganda machine were quick to criticize the unprecedented demonstration by labeling it “secessionist and anti-state nationalism.” Despite Moscow’s reaction, it was an undeniable reality that such ideas were embraced by the masses, in part because fertile ground existed for nurturing such views. People took to the streets because they sensed the change in the air of the Soviet Union.

The unparalleled rally in Yerevan led to changes in the political, cultural, and social landscape of Soviet Armenia. The government had to take note of the growing concerns and rising voices of the people and the intellectual class, and convey that information to Moscow. That’s not to say, however, that the leadership of Soviet Armenia during that decade—Yakov Zarobyan and Anton Kochinyan, and later Karen Demirchyan—nurtured anti-nationalist tendencies. Despite being part of the Communist system, they had all been raised in families that kept the stories of the 1910s alive. The books and memories published by their family members and friends demonstrate that they held a deep belief in the rebuilding of the Armenian homeland. In various settings, they shared their visions of a prosperous Armenia that would develop against all odds. With carefully calibrated language and arguments, they appealed to the leadership in Moscow to consider the sentiments and concerns of the Armenian people. Despite their undisguised unease, the Communist leaders in Moscow were quick to realize that resorting to violence against the population and silencing dissent en-masse could prove problematic. As a result, a new model of coexistence between Moscow and Soviet Republics was shaped in the 1960s, and all the Soviet republics began to benefit from it.

However, the political protests, rallies, and subsequent revisions came at a price. Smaller-scale persecutions and arrests were part of the reality of the era. Between 1963 and 1988, 34 political trials were held in Armenia, resulting in the sentencing of 105 political prisoners. The events of 1965 and subsequent developments had provided inspiration to many in Armenia, and new popular heroes arose who went on to inspire young people.

Yet another important factor the rise of the Armenian dissident movement and the popular discussion of historical events was the repatriation of tens of thousands of Armenians to Soviet Armenia in the late 1940s. Those newcomers had brought with them new ideas and visions that enriched popular discussion and ideological debates.

The Soviet Armenian leadership was itself inspired by the emergence of patriotic literary works that delved into both the heroic past and the sufferings of the Armenian nation, including the revolutionary period preceding the Genocide. It was during this decade that Khachik Dashtents, Hovhannes Shiraz, Paruyr Sevak, Sero Khanzadyan, Silva Kaputikyan, and many others became household names. Their books and poetry were widely read, distributed, and discussed. Their literary works helped produce a new identity, inculcating hope, determination, and perseverance. They became anchors during a period of nationwide, including leadership-level, soul-searching. Moreover, in 1969, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hovhannes Tumanyan and Komitas were celebrated in Armenia and contributed to the that reawakening.

Two famous sports victories also contributed to the rise of patriotic sentiment in Soviet Armenia. In 1963, Tigran Petrosyan became world chess champion by defeating Mikhail Botvinnik. In 1966, Petrosyan successfully defended the title for another three-year term. His victory became a cause of joy and celebration in Armenia, newborns were named after him, and he popularized chess in Armenia. The other important event occurred in 1973, when the “Ararat” football (soccer) team of Yerevan became the USSR Champion in the Soviet Union’s Premier League, winning the trophy in Armenia’s newly built Hrazdan stadium.

In the 1960s, there was great interest in questions related to Armenian identity and history. The Civil Registration Agency in charge of registering children’s names began to demonstrate reluctance toward accepting non-Armenian names, encouraging the use of Armenian names instead. Couples started to get married in the church—a quite uncommon occurrence in the preceding decades. The first studies about the Armenian Genocide emerged, containing archival documentation; these were the pioneers of Genocide studies in Armenia. Another manifestation of rising interest in Armenian history, culture, and identity was the number of visitors to museums: In 1960, there had been only 96,000 visits, whereas by 1970 the number of visits had increased to 525,000.

Reluctantly, Soviet authorities also yielded to the power of symbolism, particularly in public spaces. As early as 1959, the construction of the Matenadaran, the repository of Armenian manuscripts, had been completed. The same year, the monument of Sasuntsi Davit, the legendary hero of the Armenian national epic, was erected in Yerevan, in front of the railway station. In 1962, the massive statue of Stalin was removed from Victory Park in Yerevan, and five years later it was replaced with the equally massive “Mother Armenia,” visible from all corners of Yerevan. After two years of construction, the Genocide memorial was inaugurated in Tsitsernakaberd in 1967. In 1968, after a series of discussions with Moscow, Kochinyan convinced Soviet leaders of the necessity of celebrating the 2750th anniversary of Urartian Erebuni—modern-day Yerevan. The same year, the construction of the Sardarabad memorial began, marking yet another turning point in the decade. After 1.5 years of construction, the Hrazdan football stadium was also completed. Soon, the erection of a monument commemorating the Battle of Avarayr was authorized; the statue of Vardan Mamikonyan, the Armenian general from that fifth-century battle, depicted on his horse and with sword in hand, gives the impression that he is rallying his people and charging at the enemy. Unveiled in 1975, it has become a powerful manifestation of struggle and hope.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion is that the link between the independent First Republic and the republic of Soviet Armenia remains underexplored. Yet, clearly, despite the dominance of Soviet historiography, the history of the First Republic has left a lasting impact on the people of Soviet Armenia. For many, it has been—and remains—a source of historical pride and inspiration.

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Vahram Ter-Matevosyan

Vahram Ter-Matevosyan is Assistant Professor at the American University of Armenia and he is also the Head of the Turkish Studies Department at the Institute for Oriental Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Armenia. He received his PhD from the University of Bergen (Norway), Master’s degree from Lund University (Sweden), Candidate of historical sciences degree from the Institute of Oriental Studies and Yerevan State University (Armenia). He was Visiting Professor at Duke University, N.C. (2016), Fulbright Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, Calif. (2009-2010) and Visiting Doctoral Student at the University of Washington, Seattle, Wash. (2005). He authored an award-winning monograph Islam in the Social and Political Life of Turkey, 1970-2001 in 2008 and co-authored History of Turkish Republic in 2014. His research articles have been published in several publications including Europe-Asia Studies, Turkish Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, Insight Turkey, Eurasian Geography and Economics, Turkish Review, Diaspora Studies, and others.

5 Comments

  1. It is clear that those who remembered May 28 in the diaspora and the people of Armenia were linked in spirit during those Soviet years. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1st Republic with unprecedented unity, I pause to remember the thousands of dedicated Armenian patriots in the diaspora who never forgot and endured under less than favorable conditions within the Armenian community. They gathered in agoomps, getrons and church hall to celebrate the heroic defense of our Armenian civilization during those faithful days. I grew up in one of those church hall listening to and being inspired by the likes of Arthur Giragossian. I don’t remember him describing it as a “Dasnak Republic” in his speeches. It was a celebration of Armenian sovereignty after 543 years of subjugation. It became the territorial basis for the Soviet Republic and for our beloved Republic today. Perhaps , the most significant change in our communal and scholarly dialogue since 1991 is that the 1st Republic is no longer referred to by anyone as the “Dashnak Republic”. It is universally respected as having a rightful place of honor in modern Armenian history. That accomplishment is due in large part to the brilliant contributions of Richard Hovanissian the last fifty years with his trailblazering research on the republic that helped normalize its perception.
    So as we rightfully celebrate Dro, Aram, Silikyan and Nazarbekian, let us also pause to remember all those men and women who taught us the importance of May in all the communities of the diaspora.

  2. Harkank yev Badiv -Honour and Respect for the founding fathers of our first Independent Republic- the fact is if it weren’t for them we would not have had our Armenia of today- The government of Ottoman Turkey failed to annihilate us – just three years after 1915 Armenians stood up united Tashnaks- Armenakans and hunchaks and all other Armenians fought back the Turkish armed forces led by the Young Turks military and dealt the decisive blow to the Turks in the battle of Sardarabad on May 24,1918 and on May 28 the Independent Republic of Armenia was born.

    Out of the ashes of our grandfathers and grandmothers who were marched into the desert and left to die of starvation – yes out their ashes was born a new generation of Armenians all around the world, a new generation of young men and women which is well aware of its past, a generation which has rebuilt all its institutions be it churches, schools or community centers,a generation that is well aware of its responsibilities and continues to carry the torch and fights for its rights, be it in Armenia, in Artsakh or in the diaspora. A generation which is and will continue to flourish – We are ONE PEOPLE – ONE NATION- LONG ARMENIA AND ARMENIANS.

  3. Thank you very much. The way I feel about mother Armenia, even though I was nit born there, I owed it to myself to be more knowledgeable about this

  4. “Their strident criticism of Moscow and of past injustices, their territorial claims from Turkey, along with their demand that Karabagh and Nakhichevan be reunited with Soviet Armenia, reopened wounds that the Communist party leadership had hoped was a distant memory.” — This is the key passage that shows what the problem is between Russia and Armenia, and which I have been saying over and over that Russia being Armenia’s friend is shallow and not deep rooted. There is zero reason and zero excuse for Russia to have kept the status quo from the first Soviet period in destroying the Armenian homeland, and creating a fake Turkic one in its place in the territories of Nakhichevan and Artsakh. Some here want to argue that they “couldn’t do anything about it because of international consequences” – oh yeah? Like what? The only “excuse” worth considering might have been that Turkey (guided by NATO) would close the straits to Russia. But then, that wold in turn also have “international consequences” for Turkey as well as NATO in turn. Was the Turko-Turanist wet dream so important for NATO that they wold risk all out war with the Soviet Union? BS! Even a couple years ago when Turkey shot down a Russian plane, that clown in the Russian parliament started talking about nuking Istanbul. I will never accept any lame excuses by our resident apparatchiks trying to justify why Soviet Russia did not correct the wrongs committed against Armenia by their very own Soviet Union. 1960’s on Moscow could have done ANYTHING it wanted within the Soviet Union with little to no “international consequences”. And the main reason for that was, NATO feared the Soviet Union a lot more than it does Russia now. I will change my mind about Russia-Armenia relations if and when Russia tears up all those treacherous anti-Armenian documents it signed with Turkey to give away Armenian lands to them – OR – When the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan resumes and Russia immediately tears up the Nackichevan agreement, orders Turkey to keep its tail down, and gives the OK for Armenia to finish off the job left unfinished in 1994. Other than this, I have no positive view about Russia-Armenia “friendship”.

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