With a history that dates back thousands of years and an affinity for traditional remembrances, the calendar of the Armenian nation is full of almost continuous observations. Many are connected to our faith such as major feast days, and several are a reflection of significant historical events that have shaped our nation. For over 100 years in the diaspora, April and May have been particularly important months. April, of course, is a period of national remembrance for the Armenian Genocide. It is designated on the 24th to remember the arrest and murder of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders that ignited the Genocide. May recalls just three years later in 1918, when the very existence of the Armenian nation was at stake and the survivors rallied to defeat the Turks who were bent on the total liquidation of the Armenians. The result was the birth of the first Armenian Republic on May 28. The democratic Republic of Armenia recorded many political and social accomplishments in the short duration of merely two and a half years. Democratic institutions and free elections were held. The right to vote was granted to women. There were women who served as members of parliament. The 1918 Republic rose from the ashes of genocide and provided a foundation for Armenians to remember and build upon.
September has been added to the hallowed months of our nation with the creation of the current Republic on September 21, 1991 and a few weeks earlier that same year the liberation of historic Artsakh. Unlike the previous milestones, most Armenians experienced the birth of Armenia and Artsakh and have participated in its development. The September events are relatively recent. With the current issues of nation-building, it is easy to understate these extraordinary events and keep them in perspective. The nature of societal challenges and politics sometimes leaves us precious little time to truly celebrate. This week we celebrate a miracle—one of many in the long history of the Armenian nation.
Without the miracle of 1918, Armenia as a nation would have remained a historical footnote.
Let’s put this issue in a broader context for a moment in order to truly appreciate how fortunate we are to live during this time. Armenia has existed in some form as a nation state for a minimum of 2,700 years. That evolution includes kingdoms, royal dynasties, republics and an ever-changing map. Most of the independent periods are “front end loaded” in our historical timeline. For example, from the 6th century BC (beginning post-Urartu) until the fall of Cilicia in 1375, Armenia existed as an independent or semi-independent nation for approximately 65-percent of that period. This, of course, does not take into account the changing geography of the nation, principalities that continued and independence under the sphere of influence of larger empires. But I think you understand the point. The term “Armenia” was well-represented in the annals of ancient history. Even the migration of Armenians from the highlands to Cilicia in the 11th century due to Seljuk Turkish and Byzantine invasions did not erase Armenia’s presence. The Kingdom of Cilicia was established in 1080 (only a few decades after the fall of the Bagratids) and lasted until the Mamluk invasion in the late 14th century. This pre-modern era included the empire of Tigran Medz, the early Christian period, the Golden Age of Literature (Holy Translators), the vibrancy of Ani and the Crusades. Indeed, the Armenians during those 1900+ years experienced independent identity through nation states in addition to the cultural adhesion that sustained identity during occupied periods. After the fall of Rupenian Cilicia in 1375, Armenia experienced a dark and prolonged drought of tasting freedom as the majority of the highlands and Cilicia were under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. The remaining eastern parts of historic Armenia were under Persian control with Russian dominance since the early 19th century. With the birth of the First Republic in May of 1918, Armenia once again became a nation state for the first time since 1375 and in the highlands since 1045. Despite the short-lived democracy, it became the territorial basis for a continued Armenia entity that eventually became a sovereign state in 1991. Without the miracle of 1918, Armenia as a nation would have remained a historical footnote.
This week we celebrate the continued regeneration of the Armenian nation. The events leading up to the declaration on September 21, 1991 are a rare mix of courage, determination and the enabling collapse of the Soviet Union. I grew up in a very patriotic Armenian household. Listening to my grandparents, parents and extended elders, it was clear there was no love for the Bolshevik Russians, but most of the angst was reserved for the Turks. As Western Armenian survivors of the Genocide, this was an expected response; however the dream of a free Armenia revolved around the liberation of the lost western highlands. The songs, the celebrations and remembrances mostly focused on justice for the crime the Turks had committed. May 28 was a major celebration. Most Armenians longed for and believed that some day the western lands would either be liberated or added to the Soviet Republic (Stalin toyed with the idea at the end of WWII). The idea of Soviet Armenia being independent was contingent on the collapse of the Soviet Union, and well…that seemed unlikely. Still there were ardent patriots and political analysts who insisted the USSR was not a sustainable system.
The unlikely became a shocking and unexpected reality that resulted in the events that led to September 21, 1991. I remember when I was a young teen, the disbelief when learning that not all Armenians in the diaspora celebrated the establishment of the First Republic. It was the first of several examples of disunity among our people. Thankfully, the Republic in 1991 resolved that issue universally as they immediately honored the First Republic and embraced the flag of 1918 for the current Republic. For many Armenians who held the tricolor close to their hearts for decades, it was a proud moment of long-awaited redemption. For others, it was a new and exciting experience. We all experienced the joy of a newfound unity. In celebrating the 29th anniversary of the establishment of the Armenian Republic, we are reminded not simply of the bloodless miracle of returning freedom, but the patriotic reconciliation for estranged diaspora brethren. Without the establishment of 1991, large sections of the diaspora would remain separated. The RoA enabled the melting of the walls that had sub-optimized our communities. True, the stain of the church division remains, but “on the ground” progress has been experienced by all. The level of collaboration has skyrocketed in the last three decades beginning with the tragic earthquake and then the new Republic. As Vartan Gregorian said during his address at NAASR’s gala last November, we learned that we have much more in common than what divides us. Thank you Armenia for leading the way.
Our celebration of the Republic of Armenia’s independence is an opportunity for us to consider how fortunate we are to live in today’s Armenian reality. Perhaps it is human nature to focus on what remains to be accomplished or what challenges remain. Armenia is no exception. We consume a great deal of our time on what the government is not doing, about the social ills of society and how empty our glass is. For a moment, let us think about how many generations dreamed about what we are experiencing. Since 1375, there have been a total of only 32 years when Armenia was recognized as a nation state. We are fortunate to be living in the midst of this current national resurgence. Before we bemoan our fate with concerns about emigration, economics and hostile neighbors, consider this remarkable fact. Our national territorial existence has been in “loss” mode for centuries. Yes, we have been the victims of gross injustices and as a result we have lost Cilicia, the western highlands, Kars, Ardahan, Ararat, Javakhk, Nakitchevan and Artsakh. In an almost unprecedented move, Armenians have regained an important portion of their losses with the liberation of Artsakh in 1991. The psychological impact of this on the confidence of a people abused by countless aggressors is critically important. The leaders in 1918 were trying to manage an impossible dilemma of disease, famine and military aggression, yet they endured. Eventually, they were defeated by the dual offensive of the Bolsheviks and Kemalist Turks. In 2020, the borders are protected, and Armenia is slowly becoming a home for those seeking a new life from the diaspora while Artsakh has established a democratic governance with a growing economy. While most post Soviet republics became the sandbox of corrupt oligarchs, Armenia experienced a peaceful revolution of its citizens to move on from this Soviet hangover and accelerate the nation-building process. During this week, we should all pause and remind ourselves of our good fortune especially in the historical context of our struggle. We live every day to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for the Armenian nation. This week, we have all earned the right to congratulate each other for the dual miracles of 1991, to thank God for the blessings we have received and to remember the sacrifices that have enabled the joy of freedom.