May 28, a glorious anniversary

May 28, 1918 is a glorious day and an unforgettable landmark in the history of the Armenian nation. 

Almost nine centuries after the fall of the Bakradouni Kingdom in Armenia and six centuries after the collapse of the Armenian Kingdom in Cilicia, the birth of the Republic of Armenia was a miracle. The dimmest moment in our history became the brightest, when the Armenian nation, like the mythological phoenix, rose renewed from its ashes and established a state on the plains of Mount Ararat. With Western Armenia obliterated by the Armenian Genocide, Eastern Armenia forged its own destiny, ready to participate as a sovereign member in the family of nations, leading the Armenian people to new horizons.

How was the new Republic of Armenia created, and under what circumstances?

During World War I, while Armenians in the Ottoman Empire were forcibly deported to the Syrian and the Mesopotamian deserts and systematically massacred, thousands of Armenians in the Russian Empire were serving in the Russian Army. They were promised that if the Russians won the war against the Turks, they would create an independent Armenia on historic Armenian lands. Based on that promise, under the auspices of Catholicos Kevork IV, an Armenian National Bureau and a Military Council were formed, which, among other things, sponsored the creation of seven voluntary brigades to fight against the Turks. By the beginning of 1917, the Russian Army, with the help of Armenian forces, succeeded in driving the Turks out of Western Armenian provinces.

Although the Russians crushed the Turkish forces in the South, they suffered several humiliating defeats in the West by the Germans, the powerful allies of the Turkish government. 

In the meantime, the Bolshevik Revolution was born and gradually infiltrated the Russian government. Eventually it toppled Czar Nicholas II on March 14, 1917 and brought the Romanov Dynasty to an end, after ruling the Russian Empire for 300 years.

Great turmoil in the country followed. The Russian army’s frontlines began to crumble. The government of Young Turks took advantage of this unstable situation and exerted great pressure on the socialist government of Russia. In an effort to disengage Russia from the war, the Russians and Turks signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. As a consequence, Vladimir Lenin ordered the Russian troops to abandon the Western Armenian territories and return home. The defense of the expansive Turkish front was left to the Armenians. 

Armenian volunteers participating in the Battle of Sardarabad, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

While Russia was preoccupied with civil unrest, the three regions of its empire in the Caucasus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, were obliged to form the Transcaucasian Federative Republic (later called the seim). This federation, created in February of 1918, came apart within a few months, because the three nations, with their mutually contradictory interests and sensitivities, began to secretly plot against one another. The Azeris, or the Tatars, being of Islamic religion, tried to ease the Turkish army’s invasion of Azerbaijan, in order to realize their plan for pan-Turanism. (Pan-Turanism was the plan of the Young Turks to unite all the Turkish speaking peoples throughout Turkey, the Russian Caucasus and Central Asia). The Georgians, though similar to the Armenians, desired to occupy territory to the detriment of the Armenians. Seeing this situation, the Turkish army advanced, taking Kars and Alexandropol (Gyumri). Meanwhile, the Georgians declared independence on May 26, 1918. One day later on May 27, Azerbaijan also announced its independence. 

The Turks were delighted at these declarations of national independence, since the Caucasus was severing its ties with Russia, and Turkey could have its own way. The Turkish government could even obliterate the Armenians of the Caucasus, just as it had endeavored to obliterate the Western Armenians. 

Turkish forces mobilized an army of 35,000 men and advanced on Armenia. They captured Hamamlu (modern Spitak) and Alexandropol (Gyumri). In an attempt to seize the rest of Armenia, they began a three-pronged attack, directed toward Kara Kilise (modern Kirovakan), Bash Abaran (modern Abaran) and Sardarabad. 

The Armenian troops were under the command of General Tovmas Nazarbekian, a former Russian Armenian general. He had resigned his commission when Czarist policy turned against the Armenians, but returned to the army when Russia abandoned its anti-Armenian stance. He defended the Kara Kilise front and assigned general Dro (Dramastad Ganayan) to defend Bash Abaran and General Movses Silikian to defend Sardarabad. The strategy was to prevent the Turkish march towards Yerevan.

It was a critical time of life and death. General Silikian made an emotional appeal to the people: “Arise all Armenians! Fight for your honor and the integrity of your country. Fight the way your ancestors fought to defend their lives and property.”

Although outnumbered and outgunned, the Armenian people realized that their very survival was at stake. Multitudes of people — farmers, workers, intellectuals, clergy, women, young and old — fought alongside the Armenian soldiers and drove out the invading Turkish army. 

Following the decisive Battle of Sardarabad, on May 28, 1918, the Armenian National Council declared the independence of Armenia. Yet the new state was in chaos. There were no organized administrative machinery, means of transportation or trained experts for the three branches of government. The food supply was exhausted. Famine and sickness were widespread. In the words of the prime minister of the Republic, Hovhannes Kachaznouni, “The government has to start from scratch. It must create everything from a heap of ruins and absolute chaos…a condition which can be described by one word — catastrophic.”

May 28 has become the symbol of Armenia’s national hope and aspirations. It is a testimony to the struggle for liberty and independence, to the sacrifices of brave men and women for whom the ideals and honor of their nation were dearer than life.

Despite the internal and external problems, the creation of a state on May 28 out of chaos and calamity was nothing short of a miracle. It laid the foundation of the modern state of Armenia.

May 28 has become the symbol of Armenia’s national hope and aspirations. It is a testimony to the struggle for liberty and independence, to the sacrifices of brave men and women for whom the ideals and honor of their nation were dearer than life.

Moreover, May 28 is a lesson that cherishing the valor and sacrifices of our ancestors is not enough. Each generation has its role, responsibilities and patriotic duties. The future of the Republic of Armenia depends on our commitment to give our time, talent and treasure for the growth and development of our beloved homeland.

Finally, May 28 is a reminder that the republic that we love today was bought at the cost of our martyrs’ blood. The Republic of Armenia rests upon the foundations cemented in place by the sacrifices of Armenian soldiers and citizens. Its reservation and perpetuation as a democratic and progressive state are our challenge and responsibility.

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

Rev. Dr. Vahan H. Tootikian is the Executive Director of the Armenian Evangelical World Council.
Rev. Dr. Vahan Tootikian

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this historical information that I was half informed .what a struggle Armenian people went through and still going on

  2. Thank you for this interesting brief summary. In my years teching in Armenia, I was impressed that my university students knew their history so well. I am not Armenian but I share concerns about Armenia’s present situation and future.

  3. It is a great pleasure to read your articles in Hairenik weekly paper. Every time I receive the paper, I look for your article first. May God bless you and protect you and give you a long healthy life so you can share your wisdom and knowledge of our history. Thank you reverend Vahan Tootikian. I remember you from Egypt many many years ago. Best wishes

  4. ارمنستان، گرجستان و آذربایجان سالها جزیی از سرزمین ایران بوده اند و با تجاوزگری روسها و آزار این مردمان از ایران جدا شدند. بعدها هم در دوران مخنلف، تحت ظلم و تجاوز ترکان قرار گرفتند.

    • این داستانها مال گذشته هاست. الان همه اینا کشورهای مستقل هستند که از ایران هزار بار بهترن.

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