12 July 2009

2907) Why We Should Read... `Antranig And His Times' By Hratchig Simonian

By Eddie Arnavoudian


This hefty first volume of Hratchig Simonian's two-volume biography of Antranig is no hagiography. The author pulls no punches as he considers the life and times of this most extraordinary Armenian guerrilla commander; `warts and all' as Oliver Cromwell put it. Erudite and well-researched, Simonian brings to his work a great deal of little known material that affords fresh insight into his subject. Of particular note is his account of those factors that helped shape the character and direction of the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I am not a historian and offer the following remarks in the spirit of a discussion on these important issues. For the sake of clarity it is perhaps worthwhile at the outset noting that unless directly attributed to Hratchig Simonian, views and opinions are mine alone, albeit based on a reading of the work. . . .





I. NATIONAL LIBERATION - TWO VISIONS, TWO DIRECTIONS

Hratchig Simonian explores extensively the relationships between the military and political wings of the ANLM that had such determining influence on its strategy between 1896-1908. He details Antranig's case for the primacy of guerrilla warfare setting this against the programme proposed by the ANLM leadership, of which the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) was now master. (Here and hereafter all reference to the ARF is to its leadership alone, not to its countless dedicated and self-sacrificing ranks) Closely related is the examination of the opposition between Antranig's revolutionary nationalism and the ARF's Second International socialism. This examination lends credence to the view that the ARF's socialist rhetoric served only to conceal an abandonment of independent revolutionary struggle. This view is in turn reinforced by Simonian's account of Antranig's opposition to the ARF-Young Turk alliance; an alliance that did indeed mark an end to the ARF's revolutionary period.

A singular value of Simonian's overall endeavour lies in its comprehensive demonstration of an oft-neglected truth: the course taken by the ANLM was not determined by external forces alone, by the Ottoman Empire or European imperialist powers. Nor was it pre-ordained by inescapable objective conditions of life in historical Armenia. Contributing significantly to all its important turns were those political and military choices made by the ANLM leadership after debate between its two major component forces: the home-based guerrilla movement and the Diaspora based urban intelligentsia. Here, Antranig, a vocal and ardent advocate for the former played a role of immense significance.

Antranig's views expressed more closely the experience of the artisan-peasant population of Armenia that provided the mainstay for the Armenian revolution and its guerrilla forces. Antranig was of the people and lived amongst them. His perceptions and approaches to armed struggle, political organisation and political alliances were borne of direct knowledge of conditions in Armenia and of its people. For the mass of the Armenian people life, whether ruled over by Sultans or Young Turks, was defined by plunder, pillage, murder, abduction and arson. The so-called 1908 Young Turk revolution made no difference -none of the vast swathes of stolen land or property were returned and there was no let up in official and unofficial anti-Armenian terror that was continuing to drive tens of thousands into exile. For the common people the Young Turk was just that same unreconstructed military and political official of the Sultan's Empire, only dressed in the latest fashion. The people had no ground for illusions in the capacity of Sultan or Young Turk to make meaningful concessions to their legitimate democratic and national demands. Antranig's revolutionary vision was fashioned by this fundamentally antagonistic relation between the mass of Armenians and the Ottoman state and Young Turks. His uncompromising stand was prompted by the people's experience of the uncompromising tyranny of the Ottoman state.

The outlook of the urban elite, on the other hand, was shaped by an entirely different experience. This elite that gave rise to a political and nationalist intelligentsia was externally based, in Istanbul, Tbilisi and further afield. Its relatively secure and privileged conditions of life removed it from the direct experience of the vast majority of the Armenian people. The western Armenian segment of this elite though subject to Ottoman tyranny did not suffer its full savagery. Important sections of both eastern and western elites were integrated into their respective imperial economic systems and sometimes even into the higher echelons of their political apparatus. In Istanbul the elite moved in the genteel surroundings of Ottoman wealth and luxury. When Armenian relations with the Empire soured elite Armenian ears in Istanbul echoed to the sympathetic sounding hypocrisy emanating from European Embassies in Istanbul.

In Istanbul the urban intelligentsia existed in its own right, albeit very conditionally. It had its network of school, publishing houses, newspapers and journals, theatres and clubs. Though far from the Homeland, and limited within the very heart of the Empire, it still had something to live for. As it developed relations with Turkish intellectuals educated in the same European universities, it believed that prospects for Armenian life were improving. In contrast to the Armenian in the Homeland the Armenian intelligentsia and urban political activist encountered in the Young Turks men who rounded on the Empire with a democratic rhetoric that exuded a benevolent concern for all oppressed people. This all played its part in nurturing the belief that among the Young Turks in particular were forces amenable to Armenian democratic demands. This in turn generated that unwarranted willingness for compromise with the Empire as an avenue for political emancipation. [1]

The conflicts between these two trends within the ANLM were to produce two strategic visions, one resting on a conception of an independent Armenian strategic power underpinned by armed force, the other relying on the promise of internal and external political alliances and reform. In the struggle between the home-based guerrilla forces and the representatives of the urban intelligentsia the latter prevailed. It was they who were to push the ANLM to abandon armed struggle and nationwide insurrection. In the name of political organisation they opted instead for the disastrous alliance with the Young Turks. To this there was an alternative path. It was argued for by men such as Antranig. The then ANLM leadership blocked that path. Needless to say, even as the ARF played the leading role in this process, all other Armenian political movements were complicit.

Prior to considering some of these issues, one point about the character and circumstances of the man is illuminating. Like many leading fedayee Antranig hailed from a relatively well-to-do family of artisans in historic Armenia, underlining again the role of this class in the ANLM. Able to afford education for their children, possessing a degree of material comfort they were a class with ambitions typical of their counterparts elsewhere in the world. They balked against the repressions and insecurities of life in the decaying Ottoman Empire that were designed to inhibit their development in favour of the development of a newly emerging Turkish elite.

Antranig was not however a natural revolutionary. In early youth, for all his explosive personality, he worked in the Royal Ottoman armoury when in Istanbul - a prestigious establishment post. In his time he was also a metal worker and cobbler. He had a go at his own copper business. A devout Christian, back in his hometown of Shabin-Karahisar where he was born in 1865, he turned his hand to carpentry and built the local Church, with no charge. It was the force of circumstance that drove him, and countless others, to nationalist politics and revolutionary struggle.



II. GUERRILLA WAR VERSUS POLITICAL ORGANISATION - CONFLICT IN THE MOVEMENT


Like many anti-imperialist movements the Armenian movement too was marked by a complicated relation between its armed wing and its political organisations, the former based in the homeland, the latter mostly in exile. Many of the issues that vexed the militants of the ANLM were to reappear in the liberation movements of the 1950s and onwards in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The debates within the Irish Republican Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s are particularly striking in their numerous parallels with the Armenian movement.

The 1896 slaughter by the Ottoman state of over 300,000 Armenians and the killing of over 600 of the most tested Armenian guerrilla fighters inevitably forced a major re-evaluation of ANLM strategy and tactics. This received direct expression in a clash between two outstanding figures - Antranig and Hrair (Armenag Ghazarian - 1864-1904 - another widely respected guerrilla leader), both of whom in time joined the ARF. In his account Simonian does not shy away from the shadier aspects of this clash. Nor does he disguise the faults of his hero, writing even of claims that Antranig devised a plan to assassinate Hrair.

1896 had revealed the shortcomings of locally or provincially organised resistance that relied almost exclusively on the military skills of autonomous guerrilla formations operating in isolated territorial units. Despite their bravery and skill they proved unable to defend the population from slaughter and were ultimately no match for the superior nationally organised forces of the state. So `from the mid-1890s' writes Simonian `there developed within the guerrilla forces two positions on the future development of the movement.' (p95), The first was represented by leaders such as Antranig, Kevork Chavoush, Sebastatzi Murat and others for whom `the guerrilla struggle was the principle method of struggle against Turkish and Kurdish exploiters' (p95).

Opposing Antranig and his co-thinkers was Hrair. Arguing that liberation was impossible through guerrilla warfare Hrair `proposed the idea of a nationwide insurrection' involving `mass popular participation' and `the arming of the people.' To this end Hrair elaborated an ambitious programme of `popular education' and political organisation as a preparatory stage for an eventual insurrection. To enhance effectiveness he also called for `the unification of Armenian political organisations' and urged the `development of alliances with other people's oppressed by the Ottoman Empire'. Insisting on a principle of self-reliance Hrair rejected strategies that `expected freedom from foreign nations.' (p95 -101) As part of this overall project he began work to reign in and subordinate the guerrilla units to the wider movement.

In Antranig Hrair confronted an unyielding opponent. Antranig `categorically rejected' Hrair's thinking. `Objective conditions in western Armenia' were not conducive to `mass insurrection'. Giving Antranig's position a somewhat sharp and one-sided formulation, Simonian writes that for Antranig it was `the guerrilla who would free the people from the shackles of tyranny' and therefore `it was the people who should serve the fedayee, rather than the fedayee serving the people.' The foundation of the movement Antranig believed `must be an elite guerrilla force' that remaining independent should subordinate to itself all political organisations. Antranig in contrast to Hrair opposed collaboration with non-Armenian revolutionary forces. (p103 `104)

One must question Simonian's claim that Antranig's and Hrair's positions `expressed two categorically opposed views'. (p95) This is the case only on a first superficial impression. Both were both dedicated revolutionaries committed to the emancipation of the people. Their debate was necessary and potentially fruitful. Both highlighted essential elements of revolutionary strategy that required the combination of the military and the political into a single whole. Antranig's formulations may have suggested a militarist disdain for mass political organisation, but at its core was the unquestionably correct insistence on the indispensable role of armed struggle for national liberation. On the other hand Hrair's positions could in immediate terms suggest a downgrading of armed struggle. But they expressed, albeit in a one-sided way, a grasp of the urgency of political and organisational work among the people.

In the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire any oppositional political organisation without the protection of armed force invited slaughter. In addition no amount of political work would persuade people of the benefits of nationwide insurrection if the movement could not even begin to defend them in their everyday life from endemic state repression and brigandage. So while Antranig rightly insisted on the necessity of an independently organised Armenian armed force, many of Hrair's proposals were also to the point. Low levels of popular political consciousness and political involvement, as well as powerful senses of local identity militated not only against political organisation and nationwide coordination but against guerrilla warfare too. Political organisation and education among the masses furthermore was a condition for securing consistent popular support to feed and clothe the guerrilla forces and to provide them with safe shelter, financial aid and a steady stream of recruits.

The business of a revolutionary leadership would have been to develop this debate and produce an integrated political-military strategy that by overcoming past weakness would enhance the ANLM's power. This proved beyond the leadership. As with many other movements, the Armenian leadership failed to blend the political and the military. So the political and military spheres came to be headed by antagonists rather than collaborators. Hrair emerged as the `great organiser of the liberation movement' while Antranig became `its undisputed military leader'. (p115).

Simonian does not examine why the leadership failed to produce an integrated revolutionary strategy. But his text makes it clear that this had nothing to do with personality clashes or with their debate about the future of the struggle. Critical here was the chronology and evolution of the ARF's collaboration with the Young Turks that was unfolding in the Diaspora far removed from the Homeland. Responding in turn to what they perceived as the overwhelming power of an external political leadership with little grasp of conditions in the Homeland and local realities of Ottoman rule, the guerrillas stood more stubbornly to its existing traditions with all the weakness that this entailed.



III. REVOLUTIONARY REVIVAL STIFLED IN ARF-YOUNG TURK EMBRACE

As the conflict between Antranig and Hrair unfolded, the ARF was simultaneously overhauling its strategic thinking, but on entirely different foundations. As it came to more decidedly dominate the post-1896 political scene the ARF elaborated a new strategy that was to mark a steady passage away both from Antranig's conceptions of guerrilla warfare and from Hrair's vision of nationwide mass insurrection. Occupying a central place in this process was the ARF's alliance with the Young Turks that in its development, if not in its conception, became not an enhancement of but a substitute for independent Armenian power.

Accommodating itself to Young Turk strategic requirements the ARF by 1908 became a subordinate and dependent ally. Through their alliance with the ARF the Young Turks used the ARF in their own struggle against Sultan Hamid II. They also succeeded in delivering a decisive blow against the independent power ANLM. Through their accord with the ARF the Young Turks secured the voluntary disarmament of the military wing of the ANLM. In 1908 when ANLM members took positions in the Ottoman Parliament and even in cabinet offices they did so powerless. The ARF-Young Turk accord had disarmed the ANLM but it had given it no power over the state army, police or intelligence forces that were to organise the genocide. As Antranig remarked in another context, `if in the Homeland' there `are no (Armenian) military forces, as some would want, then no one will be in a position to resist'. (p299).

1896 had created certain grounds for those who argued in favour of a strategic and dependent alliance with the Young Turks. Mass slaughter, the death of many of the finest guerrillas and the subsequent mass emigration of skilled artisans from Armenia dealt a severe blow to the domestic base of the ANLM and to the political weight of its local guerrilla leadership together causing immense demoralisation and disarray within the ranks. Such circumstances would readily explain the ARF leadership's almost subservient turn to what it regarded as a more powerful force - the Young Turks. Yet this Young Turk orientation accelerated in its negative development at the very moment that the ANLM was experiencing a powerful revival and was re-rooting itself among the people.

In 1904 notes Simonian `scores of youngsters having acquired weapons made their way into the mountains to swell the ranks of the guerrillas' then under Antranig's leadership. (p155) Underscoring their refreshed native foundation Simonian cites figures showing that during the 1904 Ottoman assault on Sassoon the majority of guerrillas consisted of local people. Among the 200, 125 were from the immediate region, another 40 from other regions of western Armenia and 30-40 from the Caucasus. There were in addition some 800 local peasants armed and ready to do battle on behalf of their community. (p172) In this connection Simonian writes that as battle loomed `the Armenian (guerrilla) youth had an important advantage (over Ottoman forces)'. `They were in their own homeland, among their own people and tied by a thousand and one strings to the peasant masses.' It was this that defined the `power of the guerrilla and their popular character.' (p133) The same point is underlined by the official ARF organ `The Flag' that wrote of the guerrilla `standing never having been greater' than it was in 1903.' (p156)

In the early 1900s, the revived potency of the ANLM was significant enough for the Ottoman regime to contemplate another round of massacre as a means to again decapitate it. Though this did not materialise Simonian details the heightened social and economic oppression - the plunder, rape, kidnapping and depopulation - that ensued (p131-137). Parallel with such repression the Ottoman state in 1904 made another onslaught against the Armenians of Mush-Sassoon so as to once and for all break this centre of resistance.

1896 had failed to destroy Sassoon and with the regeneration of Armenian guerrillas it once again emerged a bastion of revolutionary Armenian potential. So the government hurled up to 10,000 regular troops and thousands more Kurdish auxiliaries against Armenian Sassoon. Outnumbered as they were, the Armenians had little choice but to engage the enemy in a full frontal battle. As a result they did make political and military mistakes, especially in regard to the safety of the local population. But Armenian forces resisted with a great deal of military courage and adroitness. Nevertheless the 1904 assault on Sassoon sounded the death-knell of this quasi-independent region ending an important stage in the history of the Armenian liberation movement.

Against the new Armenian revolutionary revival there seemed to be an almost globally organised opposition. The Tsarist regime regarding the Armenian revolution with equal horror collaborated directly with the Turkish state slaughtering scores of Armenian fighters in 1904 (p205-217). Besides the Ottoman and Tsarist states in the 1904-1908 period European Embassies, the Armenian Church and the Armenian political leadership, then in negotiation with the Young Turks, all seemed to be driven by the same aim: to remove the guerrillas from Mush-Sassoon. `Antranig must leave' appeared to be their call.

As a result of such enormous pressure and the military setbacks in Sassoon Simonian writes that Antranig was forced to `give way to (Van's) Armenian dignitaries, to pressure from political activist Goms (Vahan Papazian, 1876-1973, a leading ARF activist) as well as to the demands of foreign ambassadors.' In the autumn of 1904 against their will Antranig and his fighters left the city and headed for Persia.' The `Flag' reported that he had `left temporarily'. But he was to return only after the catastrophe of the genocide that removed the foundation of the Armenian nation - the people.

One need not attribute a priori intentions or conscious collaboration to note how such united efforts succeeded where the Ottoman Empire alone had failed. This combined Ottoman, imperialist and Armenian elite pressure running parallel with deepening ARF-Young Turk negotiation delivered, after 1896, a second and almost irreparable blow to the ANLM. In 1907 the death of Gevorg Chavoush, a veteran guerrilla marked the symbolic end of an independent Armenian revolutionary force. With Antranig forced into exile and Hrair now also dead the `ARF leadership sent Aram Manoukian from the Caucuses into Vasbourakan.' (p227) Thereafter the field was left to the `politicians' with a free hand to do with the movement as they wished. By 1908 the ARF-Young Turk accord was sealed.



IV. ANTRANIG VERSUS THE ARF LEADERSHIP

Rejecting the ARF political trajectory Antranig, across the years, acted as something of a consistent opposition, sometimes internal, sometimes external. `The Movement' summarised the essence of his stand when it reported him arguing for `removing the reigns of leadership from the (ARF) Bureau officials, from amateurs' and `passing them to the military revolutionary forces' `working in the Homeland.' (p305) On a first encounter the detail of Antranig's politics seem to be marked by a narrow nationalism and militarism that compared poorly with an apparently more sophisticated political, democratic and internationalist ARF leadership. But for all the ambiguities of his formulations in his practical politics Antranig proved to be the more acute judge.

Antranig's political views were not born of any theoretical or ideological considerations. Opposing the Young Turks he simply made what was a correct practical assessment that they were not genuinely committed to the emancipation of nations oppressed by the Ottoman Empire. He may not have argued a sophisticated intellectual case but in contrast to the ARF his experience in the Homeland enabled him to discern the utterly reactionary character of the Young Turks. So he rightly turned down offers of a seat in the new Ottoman `parliament'. `Go ahead and enjoy their company' he told the ARF leadership. `But be careful of these new comrades of yours'. In `the not too distant future they will have your heads and those of the people too... A vast trap is being laid, be careful.' (p321-322) The ARF leadership, whose politics expressed tragic delusions of the Diaspora intelligentsia did not heed such sound advice. [2]

The same practical concerns animated Antranig's stand against the ARF's decision to join ranks with Russian socialists against the Tsarist state. Opening this new battlefront was in his view an unwise extension of severely limited Armenian power. Armenians under the Tsarist yoke were indeed oppressed. But under the Ottoman yoke they were threatened with imminent extinction. So Antranig urged the concentration of all resources and effort on the national struggle in the heart of Armenia ` the western Armenian provinces occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

Antranig's opposition to the ARF's brand of socialist ideology flowed primarily from such practical concerns. As this ideology accompanied the growing intimacy with the Young Turks and the ARF entry into the anti-Tsarist struggle Antranig condemned ARF socialism as an `alien path'. In this socialism he saw little more than radical rhetoric that disguised the `betrayal of national ideals' (p260-261). However neither his opposition to the ARF-Young Turk accord nor his hostility to ARF socialism made him a national chauvinist or a friend of the elite.

Antranig's uncompromising nationalism was prompted only by concern for the downtrodden. He hated Ottoman tyranny because `executing its work systematically' it subjects the common people to `artificial famine, forced emigration... endless and unbearable taxes... plunder, kidnapping and other such miseries.' (p274) In their attitude to non-Armenians Antranig and the guerrillas were `honourable and just to all, irrespective of nationality.' It was not unusual, writes Simonian `for Kurdish and Turkish working people to turn to the guerrillas' to right wrongs done them by their own elites. (p92)

The final ideological and political, if not organisational rupture between Antranig and the ARF crystallized during the ARF's Fourth General Congress held in Vienna in 1907. Though at the time not resident in Armenia, he attended as the representative for the guerrilla movement substituting for Gevorg Chavoush. Urging Antranig to remain firm, a letter from Chavoush gave vent to guerrilla bitterness against the exiled leadership for its failure to send `money or armaments' to Mush and Sassoon. This had `thereby caused the people to curse' the leadership. (p288) At the Congress besides reiterating his broad positions Antranig laid enormous stress on questions of armed organisation and weapon procurements calling for immediate measures to prepare for national insurrection. Among other reasons he referred to the emigration that was `draining the land of up to 50,000 people a year' and so undermining the foundations of the Armenian nation. What in normal circumstances would `take four years to do we have to do in one' he argued. (p295-300)

But the 1907 ARF Congress marked the isolation of the guerrilla leadership and final victory of the Diaspora intelligentsia. The treatment meted out to Antranig highlighted their polarisation. As representative of the guerrillas he was sidelined. Throughout Simonian's account one gets a whiff of the leadership's patronising haughtiness suggesting that Antranig was incapable of appreciating the finer points of politics. Antranig may not have received a European university education, but he possessed a brilliant mind. For all his political shortcomings he was astute enough to anticipate the Young Turk trap. But he proved unable to organise a political opposition that would prevent the ARF leadership walking into that trap.

In 1911 the ARF did eventually accept that its alliance with the Young Turks had proved to be an error and so moved to terminate it. But instead of developing an independent, self-reliant policy that combined Antranig's and Hrair's revolutionary vision, the ARF turned again to treacherous Europe and nefarious Russia that had so cynically and so systematically used and betrayed the Armenian people.



V. NATIONAL LIBERATION AND FOREIGN STRATEGY

The extent of the divergence between the ARF's policy and any form of independent Armenian political strategy was manifested decisively during World War One (WWI) and in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. During WWI the ARF abandoned even the pretence to any such notion and together with the Armenian political elite as a whole displayed a staggering lack of spine and a total inability to conceive of any action independent of Russia or the major imperialist powers. [3]

During this same period Antranig's political judgements were not always as sharp as in the past. Removed from his home base in western Armenia and without the backing of an organised guerrilla force based among the people he lacked firm foundations for tactical and strategic calculations. Politically isolated he was also in no position to exercise influence over the direction of Armenian policy. But he was never passive and always raised his voice when he judged the interests of the Armenian people endangered. So he repeatedly came into conflict with the ARF leadership.

Despite the catastrophe of the Genocide, WWI did present the Armenian political leadership with the opportunity of seizing the initiative, of embarking on an independent nation-building project. Here the ARF's war and post-war policy beggared belief. It exerted every effort to transform the ANLM into a willing and humble servant of Tsarist war policy. [4] In return it demanded nothing. It was content with the repetition of duplicitous pro-Armenian proclamations dug up from dusty Tsarist archives. Yet for all this rhetoric Tsarist (and Western European) policy during the war years remained as fundamentally anti-Armenian as it had been for over a century. [5]

The Tsarist Empire seized WWI as an opportunity for another incursion into the Ottoman Empire to grab portions of occupied western Armenia for itself. To secure Armenian collaboration for their own imperialist venture they permitted the establishment in Tbilisi of an Armenian National Office that came to be controlled by ARF personnel. At once this body began organising Armenian resources to aid the Tsarist war effort. A major element was the organisation of battalions of Armenian Volunteers to act as adjuncts to Tsarist armies. Whilst using the ARF, the Armenians and their volunteer forces for its own ends the Tsarist autocracy worked carefully to prevent the emergence of any independent Armenian political power. It was particularly driven to prevent the development of any independent Armenian military power.

Fearing that the 120,000-150,000 Armenian recruits in the Tsarist army could become the nucleus of an Armenian army none were allowed to fight on the Turkish front that looked on the Armenian homeland. Instead they were scattered into isolated units across the 1000s of miles of Russia's European front. Having removed the vast bulk of Armenian fighting men away from Armenia, the Tsarist authorities were to then turn to neutralise the Armenian Volunteers that they judged to have become a problem to Tsarist ambition. Albeit relatively small in numbers the Volunteers with their constant flow of recruits, their enthusiasm and with leaders such as Antranig had chalked up significant victories and accumulated enormous experience and war materiel. Fearing their potential the Tsarist government first incorporated them into its own army thus denying the Volunteers any space to act autonomously and then disbanded them. (p479, p495)

Whilst Armenian soldiers were dying on foreign fronts Russian commanders refused to permit Volunteers to march to the aid of compatriots being slaughtered by the Young Turks. (pp393-433, p478). To prevent the Volunteers consolidating military gains they were repeatedly forced into needless tactical and strategic withdrawals from territories they had liberated. Russian imperial authorities also removed all Armenians from administrative posts in the government apparatus they established. Planning to populate newly conquered Armenian lands with Russians they also put impediments before Armenians wishing to return to their homeland. (p525-526)

Yet, despite all this the Armenian political leadership never for a moment reconsidered its blind submissiveness to the imperialist powers. Together with its earlier alliance with the Young Turks this constituted another self-inflicted blow to the Armenian national movement. Yet the Armenian people survived and how they did may be told in the second volume of Hratchig Simonian's biography of Antranig.


* * * * * * *

The first volume of `Antranig and His Times' ends with a substantial chapter on the impact on Armenian politics of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Antranig's relations with the Bolsheviks, both meriting separate consideration. Beyond this, Hratchig Simonian's volume stands as an excellent and thorough history of the modern Armenian liberation movement covering almost every aspect of its experience: its origins, the development of political parties, the growth in Ottoman repression, the vicious and consistent anti-Armenian policy of the Tsarist Empire, European policy on the Armenian question, the role and weight of the European solidarity movement and much else.

Here is a fine first volume that inspires one to grab hold of the second and retreat to a quiet hill refuge for a week.

________________________________________________________________________


[1] Hagop Oshagan, the foremost 20th century Armenian novelist has a fine artistic examination of some of these questions in his short novel `Hadji Murad'.


[2] A full history of the ARF-Young Turk relations would be instructive in answering some significant questions: why, despite evidence of Young Turk national chauvinism, and despite its opposition to Armenian autonomy, did the ARF come to its concord with them? What were the terms of the deal, did it take account of what was happening in the historic provinces? Was the ARF deceived by apparently credible assurances about a change in Turkish policy?


[3] Why this leadership centred in the Caucuses and Istanbul refused or was unable to do so requires explanation. Contributing to such would be the noting of its structural integration into the economic and to a certain extent even political/administrative apparatus of the Ottoman and Russian Empires.


[4] At the outbreak of WWI and just before, the ARF was either remarkably contemptuous of the strength of Turkish nationalism or thoroughly ignorant of the Young Turk's frenzied hatred of Russia. So confident was it of a swift Turkish defeat that it made not even a tactical effort to disguise its pro-Tsarist enthusiasms.


[5] The visceral European and Russian opposition to an independent Armenian state also demands further historical study. Beyond immediate political causes European, British, German, French and Russian hostility to an independent Armenia was in part a result of their fear of the potential of Armenian commercial power. All these states had ambitions to secure the economic wealth of the declining Ottoman Empire for themselves. Here Armenian industry and capital that was significant in both the Ottoman and in the Tsarist Empire was a factor to be taken into account. The potential power of Armenian capital united with an Armenian state could threaten to obstruct imperialist ambitions to seize control of the entire area.

`Not to know anything about Antranig is equivalent to knowing nothing about one's own modern (Armenian) history.' So wrote the great 20th century poet Barouyr Sevak in a 1963 article urging Soviet Armenian historians to restore Antranig to his rightful place in history. Hratchig Simonian's two-volume biography `Antranig and His Times' leaves us no excuse not to know. The second volume, albeit more controversial and debatable, is equal to the first, both in scope and depth. Covering the period from 1918 to Antranig's death in 1927, far from home in the USA, its considered narrative and rich detail provide a comprehensive historical overview into which Simonian fits an account of the last decade of his hero's life.

Of particular interest is Simonian's reconstruction of events from January 1918 to Antranig's final departure from Armenian territories in April 1919. Here his focus is on Antranig's role in the 1918 Armenian-Turkish wars, on his relations with the First Armenian Republic established in May 1918 and on his military campaigns in Nakhichevan and Zangezur/Karabagh that together brought to the fore some of the critical issues of 19th and 20th century Armenian national and state formation. Despite the 1915 Young Turk genocide in western Armenia, the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman and Tsarist empires afforded new opportunities for Armenian national emancipation. Yet, as Simonian shows, the attempt encountered immense obstacles.

The Armenian national movement never evolved the cohesive and single-minded leadership that was needed to tackle the problems of the day. Largely located outside Armenian territories, it was fragmented socially, economically and politically. It lacked an overarching national consciousness, political vision or practical ambition and proved incapable of overcoming the deep-rooted provincialism that debilitated every sphere of Armenian life. Critically it was unable to construct an effective national army, a first and decisive task for any nation emerging amidst wars and foreign invasion. More tragically still the Armenian leadership (and indeed those of the other national groups in the region) had no strategy to cope with the complex demographic composition of the historic provinces of western Armenia and the Caucuses that presented enormous obstacles to the emergence of exclusive, homogenous nation states.



I. THE ARMENIAN-TURKISH WAR OF JANUARY-MAY 1918

In January 1918 with the collapse and then the retreat of Tsarist armies, significant portions of western Armenia were left in tenuous Armenian control. However Ottoman Turkey was not about to cede territory that it had for centuries regarded as its own. A Turkish offensive to re-conquer Armenian controlled territory was inevitable and urgently put on the Armenian agenda the task of forming a centralised and disciplined national army.

For the first time, the Armenian national movement confronted a decisive problem that it had to resolve with no direct assistance from any foreign power. To this challenge the Armenian leadership could not rise, despite the fact that:

`Russian forces...had left behind...vast stocks of weapons and ammunition, as well as clothing and foodstuffs. The Armenians failed to put all this to use... They could not even destroy these stocks to prevent them falling to the enemy. So the ill-equipped and half-starved Turkish soldiers were thus clothed and nourished and with invigorated spirit they threw themselves forward.' (p20)

Poor military leadership and organisation led to the collapse of plans to create `a 64,000 strong Armenian Army under Tovma Nazarpekian's leadership' and an army of `30,00 western Armenians led by Andranig.' (p37) And in what became a lightening advance, Turkish armies confronted an ill-organised largely rag-tag, untrained and demoralised Armenian military force, mere remnants of the disintegrated Tsarist army composed of men exhausted by war and lacking any decisive or centralised leadership. Arriving in Erzerum on 18 February 1918, Antranig found the `substantial (Armenian) military force' in a state of such `extreme disorganisation' that it was `incapable of serving any purpose'. There was `no spirit of resistance'. Many soldiers simply `did not want to defend' the town. Fighting siprit was sapped further by rampant provincialism with eastern Armenian soldiers `having little desire to fight' for western Armenia on the grounds that `this is not our land'. (p49) As a result the Armenian military experienced a rapid collapse `of morale' and `discipline' that was followed by a tide of desertions'. (p25)

Underlying and exacerbating the poor organisation of Armenian military forces was the lack of any dynamic national political leadership. During his military campaigns Antranig was outraged not just `by the inactivity of the military leadership at the front' but by the passivity of `the national authorities in Tbilisi.' Armenian forces that held lines from Erzerum to Van did so not through triumphant battle driven by clear political goals but by default, inheriting them after Russian troops retreated. The Tbilisi leadership showed neither the will nor the wisdom to elaborate a strategy that would replace its previous reliance on the Tsarist power. So it bickered internally, floundered and bent passively to Turkish military and political offensive. Paralysis, confusion and squabbling were aggravated by the provincialism that infected even the highest reaches of the political establishment.

`Many eastern Armenian activists were of the view that the efforts in defence of western Armenia were of no value. Increasingly there took root the view that western Armenians should look after western Armenia whilst eastern Armenians should turn their attention to Caucasian (i.e. eastern) Armenia.' (p36)

As a result of all these factors `Turkish troop, even though they were not large in number' were `superior' to the Armenians' `numerically and in their battle-readiness.' (p20)

Turkish military superiority was reinforced significantly by support from Turkish and Kurdish communities in western Armenia. The hundreds of miles of lines defended by Armenian forces protected a hinterland that the 1915 Genocide had emptied of its native Armenian communities. Armenian troops were therefore denied important and strategic civilian support. On the other hand Turkish and Kurdish communities who had benefited by post-1915 seizures of Armenian land were now even more fiercely hostile both to Armenian military forces and the idea of an Armenian state in the area. Thus when Turkish troops entered Erzinckan Turks who had until then `been in hiding' emerged, `fell upon (the town's) Armenian districts' and `ruthlessly slaughtered those who remained.' (p30). In the environs of Erzerum Turkish troops `secured support from at least 20,000...Turks, Kurds and Lazars, of whom 7,000 were armed. Within Erzerum there were 4,000 armed men ready to fight alongside' the invading Turkish army. (p65)

Antranig did attempt to establish harmonious co-existence with non-Armenian communities in the region. Throughout his military career he had been singular in his freedom from any chauvinist or racist attitudes. Such was the case during the Armenian-Turkish wars of 1918 as well. In his essay on the poet Hovaness Toumanian, novelist Gourgen Mahari tells of a meeting between Toumanian and Antranig in which Antranig recounted how:

`During the Armenian-Turkish battles (Antranig) had gathered together Turkish women and children, fed them and under the supervision of two Armenian soldiers escorted them to Turkish held territory.' (Gourgen Mahari, Selected Works, Volume 5, p598)

On entering Erzerum in 1918, Captain Bonapartian addressing the Turkish population on Antranig's behalf, stated that Turkish `people too, like the Armenians had suffered terribly at the hands of an unjust government.'

`You can all be absolutely sure (Bonapartian went on to add) that General Antranig makes no distinction between people. He is opposed to no national group, so long as no national group conspires against or exploits another group' (p54).

As for the Kurdish people Antranig considered `it a great tragedy for Armenian and Kurd to be in conflict' and urged that `every means be utilised to bring the Kurds closer to us' (p16). But with no national effective strategy to incorporate different national groups in joint projects of emancipation such ambitions could not be realised.

No leadership by example from Antranig or from men such as Murat with their dedicated but tiny battalions could fundamentally alter the situation. Whatever Antranig's `astonishing daring, iron decisiveness, stubbornness, personal example', whatever his `immense military experience' and `overwhelming popularity' (p56), he could not substitute for the historically inherited indecisiveness and fragmentation of the Armenian national leadership. He and his men could not substitute for the broad social base for Armenian emancipation in western Armenia that was destroyed in 1915. Nor could Antranig's individual lack of hostility to Turkish and Kurdish people replace the lack of a national strategy that accounted for the demographic complexities of western Armenia.

So, in the space of three to four months Armenian military forces were decisively repulsed. After Erzerum was `scandalously abandoned', the `140,000 Armenians that remained in western Armenian provinces' were once more `uprooted' and, so `began yet another round of tortured retreat.' (p72) The retreat went beyond even the 1878 Ottoman and Russian occupied Armenian borders. On 12 April 1918 the apparently impregnable and heavily fortified fortress of Kars was abandoned without a fight in the wake of the Armenian leadership's failure to respond to Turkish, Georgian and Azeri intrigue and machinations. In Simonian's view the surrender of Kars was:

`... striking evidence that the Tbilisi-based national powers were incapable of rising to the level of their responsibilities. In those decisive days they were unable to offer wise and effective leadership. (p112)

`As Antranig rightfully noted' concludes Simionian the `main responsibility' for Armenian defeats `rests with the national leadership' whose failures Simonian adds led to `heavy defeats' that `left to the enemy the wide expanse of Western Armenia. (p34)



II. ANTRANIG AND THE FIRST ARMENIAN REPUBLIC

In some important respects Antranig and the government of the First Armenian Republic (FAR) represented two opposing and even irreconcilable forces within the Armenian national movement. Antranig, even given his shortcomings, was a personification of a broader, all-embracing Armenian nationhood. Always ready to fight alongside the common people whatever province they hailed from his example and attitude contrasted sharply with narrower, even elitist, preoccupations of the trends that held the reigns in the FAR government.

In his stature, his moral authority and popularity Antranig stood on a par with leaders of other national movements such as Garibaldi, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh or Nelson Mandela. His appeal cut across all provincialism or localism. Integrated into the leadership of the Armenian state and Republic he could have contributed enormously to welding the people and its army into a single united force. According to General Nazarbekian (1855-1931), a leader of the Armenian General Staff at the time and an outstanding figure in the victorious battles at Khrakilisa, Bash Abaran and Sartarabad, `Antranig (in 1918) was the only person who could save the Armenian people.' Yet there was, and it appears there could never be, a place for him within the leadership of the Armenian state that was established on 28 May 1918.

The First Armenian Republic was not the realisation of a national ideal born on the wave of mighty popular triumph over provincialism and foreign domination, as had been the case in Garibaldi's Italy for example, or the unification of the Chinese or Vietnamese nations. It was rather an almost unsustainable entity foisted upon the Armenian people, and on an unwilling Armenian elite, against its will and in circumstances beyond its control. Repeating a widely held view Simonian argues that in 1918:

`The establishment of an independent Armenian state in the conditions that then prevailed flowed from Turkish interests and were to the detriment of the Armenian people. In creating what was a travesty of a state Turkey hoped to divert attention away from the problem of western Armenia.' (p158)

The full extent of the `travesty' was exposed a week after the proclamation of independence, when on 4 June 1918 representatives of the allegedly independent state signed the humiliating Treaty of Batum whose terms reduced Armenia to a dependent, apartheid Bantustan-like state. Presided over by representatives of a weak elite that had little enthusiasm for independence, some 800,000 people, many ill and starving remnants of the Genocide, were squeezed into a 10,000 square kilometre patch of virtual stone and desert around Yerevan. Turkey furthermore obtained rights to use Armenian road and rail facilities to transport its troops across the Caucuses. Under the pretext of maintaining law and order it also secured rights to intervene in domestic Armenian affairs.

One significant clause in the Treaty highlighted the intractable demographic complications even within Armenian state borders. Intent on organising and deploying Turkish and Azerbaijani communities as a 5th fifth column within Armenia in anticipation of a further offensive to terminate the new republic, the Turkish state inserted a clause in the Treaty that curtailed Armenian government jurisdiction over these communities. The Armenian government meanwhile was required to demobilise a substantial part of its army. Finally Turkish officers were to be stationed in Armenia to supervise implementation of these clauses.

In contrast to the Armenian national leadership that was willing to sign the Batum Treaty, Antranig could never reconcile himself to it, or to the government that had signed it. It was a treaty that made no provision for the western Armenian people. Angtranig's hostility to the FAR was fired by more than just what he judged to be a betrayal of western Armenians. He opposed it for its refusal to support eastern Armenian people in Nakhichevan, Zangezur and Karabagh who were themselves engaged in defensive battles against the Azerbaijani elite's attempt to annex Armenian populated areas of the region. Simonian for example writes that fearful of Turkish and European reaction Hovanness Katchaznouni (1868-1938), ARF member and first Prime Minister of the Armenian Republic, `categorically refused' `to offer military assistance' to Zangezur Armenians and advised them instead `not to raise arms against Azerbaijan but to submit to its authority. (p395) The story was similar first in Nakhichevan and then later in Karabagh.

For Antranig `a government that displayed such indifference to the people' simply `did not exist'. (p56-58) Considering the new Armenian state as a `gift from the Turks' he `refused to submit `to its leadership and `right to the end of his life' `endlessly exposed it' and `subjected its work to constant criticism' (p.161-2). Tensions and stresses sometimes reached levels so acute that they threatened to explode into civil war.

Simonian does not satisfactorily explain the deeper causes for the unceasing hostility between Antranig and the leadership of the First Armenian Republic. But he provides much material to ponder this and the related matter of the essentially deformed and feeble nature of the Armenian elite that in 1918 actually opposed the idea of independence. Alexander Khaddissian, (1876-1945) another ARF member and government minister, writes that the idea was in fact `first advanced by Turkey'. Simon Vratzian (1882-1969), a former Minister and later also Prime Minister recalled that as `Georgians and Azerbaijanis triumphantly declared independence the Armenian National Assembly `prevaricated' over what it considered a `bitter joke'. It's meeting that considered the proposal for independence resembled `a house in mourning with the corpse laid out in the hall.' (p155) But confronted with Turkish, Georgian and Azerbaijani pressures it felt it had no choice but to vote in favour. The moods and inclinations of the Armenian elites remained unaffected by the truly momentous Armenian military victories at Sardarabad, Bash Abaran and Kharakillissa.

Independence represented totally different prospects for the Armenian elite on the one hand and the Georgian and Azerbaijani elites on the other. For the latter two it was a double victory. Freed from Tsarist colonialism, political independence also offered the Georgian and Azerbaijani leaderships the instruments with which to challenge and defeat one of their main internal competitors - the Armenian financial, commercial and industrial class. Brimming with confidence and enthusiastic in anticipation their resolve and determination was steeled by German and Turkish imperialist support.

For the Armenian elite, in contrast, national independence represented something of a defeat on the wider Caucasian stage. The Armenian elite was largely located outside historical Armenia and outside the territories of the new Armenian state, dispersed in fact across the whole territory of collapsed empires and beyond. As an alternative to Tsarist rule the eastern wing of the elite that emerged dominant after the war preferred not independence but a federation of Caucasian states. This it considered more appropriate to protecting its commanding economic and even political positions in Georgia and Azerbaijan. (That the eastern Armenian elite regarded the entire Caucuses, including Georgia and Azerbaijan as the natural geographic site for its economic and social development finds striking expression in the 19th and early 20th century Armenian press, right across the spectrum, from the conservative `The Bee' to the radical liberal `Labour'.) In Tbilisi the Mayor was Armenian, as was the majority of the population. In Baku Armenians were significant players in the oil industry. Separate independent states would effectively remove these areas and Georgia and Azerbaijan as a whole from the Armenian elite's sphere of action. In all the elite's calculations, the impoverished and relatively backward eastern provinces of Armenia around Yerevan hardly featured.

The very structure and nature of this elite almost pre-determined the absence of any national strategy that was in harmony with the interests of the people who actually inhabited eastern and western Armenia. With such origins and such character this elite could have no real interest let alone the will and determination to single-mindedly construct a national army and an effective state apparatus in what it regarded as a backwater around Yerevan that by 1918 was inhabited by a mass whose suffering it had never felt as its own. In contrast, Antranig who was borne of the common people, who always remained close to them, retained a steely will and unbending determination to fight alongside the ravaged people of a ravaged nation.

Even as the First Republic leadership could not incorporate Antranig into its ranks, Turkish power remained hugely fearful of the military and political potential he represented for Armenian national unity and independence. `Even before the ink was dry' on the Batum Treaty it `demanded the immediate disarmament' of Antranig's military battalions' (p.163). Thereafter Turkish authorities applied unending pressure on the Armenian government to disarm and remove him (p339, 347). And for as long as Antranig remained in the region they waged a relentless campaign against him (p377, 411) intending to isolate him and divide him from the people.

Turkish efforts were unfortunately bolstered, unintentionally or otherwise, by sections of the Armenian leadership. On the day the Batum Treaty was signed the new Armenian government sent a delegation that included a Turkish officer, to demand Antranig's submission. (p163). Antranig was categorical in his defiance: `Go and tell Vehib Pasha that I will not disperse my troops.' (p164) The Armenian government's position hardly changed later when Antranig was in Nakhichevan and Zangezur. Katchaznouni considered Antranig's `presence in Zangezur' `an evil' and thought it `necessary to neutralise and remove' him from the area. (p396)



III. CAMPAIGNING IN NAKHICHEVAN AND ZANGEZUR/KARABAGH

Despite the Treaty of Batum, Antranig remained determined to continue battle against Turkish power. So he prepared to depart from 1918 Armenian state borders and join up with British forces in Mesopotamia still engaged in war against Turkey. But en route, in June 1918 he halted his march to fight alongside Armenian communities in Nakhichevan resisting Azerbaijani nationalist assault. Then in November he moved to fight alongside Armenian communities in the Zangezur/Karabagh region who found themselves in a similar predicament.

The defensive and necessary character of Armenian military operations in these regions cannot be called into question, whatever the claim of partisan historians and whatever the sometimes unacceptable conduct of Armenian forces. In these regions local Armenian communities were not fighting their Azerbaijani and Turkish neighbours. Without any support from the Armenian government, they were engaged in a battle for survival against a united and co-ordinated offensive by the Turkish and Azerbaijani states, with the latter assisted directly by British imperialism. Had Armenians not resisted they would have been forced out of land they had every right to inhabit.

In Nakhichevan, Zangezur and Karabagh Antranig's operations were dogged not just by the absence of Armenian state support and once again by narrow local provincialisms, but by another more fundamental problem. In 1914 Armenians in Nakhichevan province constituted only a minority, albeit a large one, with 54,000 of the population, compared to 86,000 Azerbaijanis. In the main city of the same name only a third were Armenian and two-thirds Azerbaijanis. Though the situation in Mountainous Karabagh and the northern portions of Zangezur was significantly different, with Armenian communities accounting for 70 per cent of the population, there was still a substantial 24 per cent Azerbaijani community. Elsewhere, of Zangezur's four districts -Sissian, Ghaban, Meghri and Koris - only the latter retained an overwhelming Armenian majority. In Sissian there were at least 25 Azerbaijani villages, and of Upper Ghaban's 40 villages only four were Armenian. (p194-5, 343, 366,310)

In these provinces demographic composition and population distribution was too fragmented to allow for simple resolution of national conflicts into independent self-sustaining political entities. With different communities sharing the same villages, or living in neighbouring ones and all sharing the same natural resources and means of communication the creation of nationally homogenous and economically and socially sustainable states was almost impossible. Allocating different parcels of territory to any one or the other of the three Caucasian states would not just break up the region's economic structure it would create patchworks of hostile national groups some of whom would be locked into borders against their will.

The area's demographic topography also precluded easy military victories and dictated a conduct of war that rendered it more savage. Strictly military needs enforced extraordinarily brutal measures against civilian communities. With opposing villages and hamlets criss-crossing disputed territories military and political control of any area was never secure from renewed offensives organised from hostile neighbouring villages. Whatever the political and moral principles of war that were adopted by any military leadership, they were inexorably driven to clear and destroy villages and communities from opposing armies as the only means of securing safety on their flanks.

Antranig could not escape these pressures despite his consistent and indeed ruthless opposition to violence against Azerbaijani and Muslim communities in Nakhichevan, Zangezur and Karabagh. When in Nakhichevan, two Russian soldiers in his battalion recall that passing through exclusively Azerbaijani villages Antranig issued strict orders:

`...forbidding (his soldiers), and that on threat of firing squad, to lay hands on the Muslim population and its property. As (Antranig) had established stern discipline in the battalion these orders were carried out without hesitation.' (p212)

In Karabagh Simonian, with an air of unpleasant disapproval, writes that:

`Antranig ordered the immediate execution of anyone guilty of repression or plunder. There were unfortunate incidents: a few (Armenian) refugees suffered the ultimate punishment for trying to steal Azerbaijani cattle.' (p 311)

Such attitudes were not exclusive to Antranig. In its address to `our Muslim brothers' of Zangezur the local Armenian National Assembly stated that `throughout the long years of war' Armenians had `not once acted in a hostile or inhuman way' towards the Azerbaijani population and affirmed that having `been neighbours for centuries' `each and everyone of us has full rights to live in his home surrounded by his family.' (p405)

Yet despite these principles Antranig and his allies also resorted to village clearances and destructions as indispensable requirements of military security. In Sissian, assaults from neighbouring Azerbaijani villages `unavoidably put on the agenda the issue of disarming and deporting their populations'. According to Simonian he `was determined to secure agreement' for such policies. (p367) Village clearances and mass deportations were carried out elsewhere, by all sides, with inevitable instances of violence against civilians that Simonian alas does not fully and adequately examine.

By the spring of 1919, with no backing from the Armenian government and after the fall of the Baku Commune to the British, the stage was set first for Antranig's retreat from Nakhichevan and then, and controversially, from Zangezur and Karabagh.

Armenian communities paid a high price for the failure to democratically resolve national conflicts in these areas. Armenian communities in Nakhichevan were never to recover. Throughout the Soviet era they were systematically forced out of their ancestral lands. The present post-Soviet Azerbaijani leadership continues the steady annihilation of all evidence that Nakhichevan was once a shining site of Armenian culture and civilisation. And to this day a terrible question mark hangs over the future of the Armenian community in Karabagh. Furthermore the failure to find a democratic and collective inter-national solution to national problems in the region leaves even the what remains of Armenia as an object of revanchist ambitions both from the Turkish state and the Azeribaijani nationalists who claim it as territory its own, and that on the grounds of having been historically inhabited by Turks and Azerbaijanis.



IV. PERFIDIOUS ALBION

The entire modern history of Armenian nation formation and subsequent state building has been bedevilled and crippled by one single dominant weakness: the national leadership's lack of independence and its strategic reliance on foreign powers. In 1918-1919 Antranig did not remain immune from this virus. He was to commit one of the greatest errors of his career when he decided to embark on his march to Mesopotamia in the hope of there joining up with the British Army. Predisposing him to rely upon and trust Perfidious Albion his intended alliance undid his legendary resolve when fighting in Nakhichevan and in Zangezur/Karabagh.

A collective international and democratic endeavour to resolve the difficult problems of national emancipation in the Caucuses was not excluded in advance, despite the apparent strength of chauvinist politics in the region. There were significant national democratic trends within all the major communities, the Armenian tradition being represented by thinkers, intellectuals and artists such as Abovian, Nalpantian, Broshian, Aghayan, Toumanian and others. The democratic character of their patriotism is reflected in Toumanian's remark that `I with my worldview, am not worn away by the absence of an Armenian kingdom. For me the Armenian people's cultural independence within a brotherhood of cultured people is entirely adequate.' The blinkered vision of regional nationalist forces contributed their bit to sidelining these trends, but primary responsibility must be laid at the door of the imperialist powers, first Tsarist and then British. To prop up its rule the Tsarist government had been single-minded in fostering, strengthening and whipping up animosities amongst Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijani people. After the 1918 Armistice it was the turn of the British who for a short period effectively colonised the region deploying their military squadrons to every important and contested region.

Whilst pretending to the role of impartial arbiter, British appetite for Baku oil dictated its consistent support for the Azeri elite. So it displayed a complete disregard for principles such as national self-determination, for regional demographic realities and the wishes of the populations of contested regions. As early as December 1918 writes Simonian:

`General Thompson in a public statement officially confirmed that Great Britain regards Azerbaijani territory as an inalienable whole and recognises within it only one authority, that of the Azerbaijani government. This inalienable whole included Karabagh and Zangezur.' (p469)

At every step Antranig was confronted by the fact of British support for the Azerbaijani elite. In February 1919 British Army Major Mick Mayor appointed extreme Azeri nationalist, Dr Sultanov, to the post of political governor over Armenian populated provinces in Karabagh with instructions `that each and every one of his orders was to be fulfilled without question.' (p490) Another Captain Shuttleworth declared that `every act against Azerbaijan in Karabagh and Shushi would be considered as an act against British authority.' (p490) The British also worked to undermine Armenian military advantage when they permitted Azeri nationalists to station 2000 troops in Shushi but denied Armenians similar right on `on the grounds that this could aggravate tensions.' (p493-94)

But Antranig's expectations of an alliance with the British army in Mesopotamia trapped him in the web of British deception. Against both the caution and advice of some of his closest supporters he displayed:

`...unnecessary faith in the allies, in the promises of their representatives and he particularly overvalued the orders and actions of General Thomson.' (p463)

At one critical point in Karabagh, on General Thompson's orders, Antranig halted his march on Shushi calculating that if he `disobeyed the British order' he would end up `in conflict with both the British and the Azerbaijanis' and this was exactly what the `Turks wanted.' (p460). His failure to enter Shushi resulted in the loss of a firmer negotiating position that was to have critical consequences for the long-term fortunes of the Armenian communities in Karabagh.

Local Armenian militants frequently grasped more clearly the devious designs of the British. The Shushi branch of the ARF thought that for Armenians `the political situation became more dangerous from the moment `the Turks retreated from Karabagh' and `the British stepped into the region.' In Yeghishe Ishkhanian's opinion `the British have come here to restrain the Armenians with the intention of forcing them to submit to Azerbaijan. (p488). He continues that the British pretence at supporting Armenians had generated a trust in British policy that undermined the Armenian people's `independent fighting spirit.' (p494)

Antranig realised his mistake too late. But, when he did he turned on the British with a vengeance. In a speech before he and his forces evacuated Zangezur, and in the presence of British Major Gibbon, Antranig said, `turning and pointing to local peasants who were reduced to skin and bone and to refugees literally grazing in the fields':

`Do you see Mr Major, representative of Great Britain, the world's richest and most powerful nation on earth... these people are dying because they tied their destiny to you...They are your victims...' (p558)

As he withdrew from Zangezur, Simonian writes that Antranig was `determined to do everything to ensure that Armenians would never again go begging to foreigners', believing that `it would be better to see his troops and the people starving rather than beg for charity.' (p561). That he may have deviated from this position after leaving Armenia must be the subject for a future discussion.


* * * * *


In his relations with the leadership of the Armenian National Liberation Movement and the First Armenian Republic, in his commitment to the interests of the Armenian common people, in the absence in him of any chauvinism for Turkish, Kurdish or Azerbaijani people, in his inspiring leadership and his undaunted will for freedom, Antranig's life with all its stupendous achievements and all its failures tells more loudly than anything else of urgent issues that still need attending to in the process of 21st century Armenian nation formation. It behooves us well to learn some lessons from Antranig's history and the history of his times. Here, among others, Simonian is a first rate teacher.


--Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.


© Copyright 2005 Armenian News Network/Groong
(752pp, Gaysa Publishers, Yerevan, 1996)


For Donald Abcarian, translator of Raffi and upright thinker whose help here and elsewhere is valued immensely.

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