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Armenia’s different legacy

Armenia may choose to draw on the legacy of its own long history, as opposed to the Soviet legacy narratives. Doing so will help the country through institutional development and reforms.

March 6, 2020 - Valentina Gevorgyan - Articles and Commentary

The Armenian alphabet. Photo: Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra (cc) wikimedia.org

The history of Armenia spans from antiquity to present. The sentence “According to the Bible, Noah landed his ark on Mount Ararat” is learned by every schoolchild of Armenian descent, and also, Armenians are proud to be the first nation in the world to have adopted Christianity as the state religion (301). However, what usually gets lost in this conversation is that the history of Armenians goes farther than that. Armenia is a state survivor from periods of invasions, wars, migration and treaties. Its people have been scattered among the Ottoman, Russian and Persian Empires, and it has a worldwide diaspora. For most of Armenia’s history, its lands lay between rival empires, a circumstance which has continuously affected the life of its people for centuries.

Self-reliance and revolution, as emerging ideas with the goal to liberate identity, have been defining characteristics of the Armenian people. Since the nineteenth century, the history of Armenian emancipation has resembled revolutionary cycles manifested in various forms. Westernised and nurtured on the lessons of the French Revolution, Armenians considered the concept of revolution as something to be historically significant and relevant. In 1880 Raffi, a great Armenian writer, released his novel Khent (“the Fool”) in which he created prophetically the model of the “new Armenian man” as a revolutionary. Towards the end of the nineteenth century Armenian political parties were developed as promoters of revolutionary ideas, including the Armenakan party formed in Van[1] (1885), the Hnchak (Social Democratic)[2] party founded in Geneva (1887), and the Dashnaktsutiun (Armenian Revolutionary Federation) party established in Tiflis (1890). The historical role assigned to parties was their ability to properly balance the centuries-old national traditions and culture with universal values by uniting and spreading them among Armenians. The parties also served an important platform to counter the fear, hatred and genocide policy towards Armenians adopted by the Sultan, Young Turk and Kemalist authorities.

Armenian history can be summarised as a history of struggle to liberate Armenian literature, language, and the right to schooling and secular thinking. The quest for education, research and an enlightened mind is wrapped in the exploratory and explanatory enquiries of Armenian thinkers that the nation, luckily, had more than a few. In the eighteenth century, Armenian culture was preserved and revitalised by a small group of monks. In 1717, Armenian scholar Mkhitar Sebastatsi founded the Armenian Catholic Congregation in San Lazaro, Venice. The group revived the Armenian tradition through compiling, recopying and organising ancient Armenian texts. The Mkhitaryans have left a voluminous data on multiple disciplines (including physics, chemistry, mechanics, geology, botany, zoology, mining, meteorology and astronomy) in the form of textbooks, monographs and articles. Then the developments witnessed an even greater shift in Armenian national ideology: from religious to secular, followed by the emergence of new intelligentsia. Among the representatives of Armenian thinking was Khachatur Abovyan (1809-1848), a writer and an advocate of national unity and spiritual revival. His “The Wound of Armenia” was the first novel in Eastern Armenian. It is a collective of Armenian psychology: a quest for liberation and secrets of the continuous power of resistance. He openly discussed universal values that are capable of guiding people regardless of any nationality. His elevated thinking manifested in the concept of universal values that were meant for all people, regardless of their religious or political affiliation. Abovyan, one of the founders of the Eastern Armenian new pedagogy (a secular content-based learning), dedicated his scholarship to liberating Armenian thinking from backward views imposed by churchmen and imperialists. The newspaper Hyusisapayl (the Northern glaze), launched by another advocate of secular ideas, Mikayel Nalbandian, provided a space for critical analysis and largely applied the perspective of European enlightenment to analyse life phenomena.

The image of an Armenian based on commitment to education followed many generations, and eventually generated disastrous attitudes towards Armenians by neighbours, as the history shall show. The achievements of Armenians were interrupted by the massacres of Sultan Abdulhamid in 1895-1896 and eventually contained by the Genocide in 1915. The Turks were fearful of Armenian potential and their understanding of statehood, an idea which has never lost its grace in the discourse of the Armenian community. However, even in the period of extremely unequal distribution of power, Armenians successfully defended themselves. An example of this is the long Armenian resistance in 1915 on the mountain in the Syrian desert (a historical instance, developed into the Franz Verfel’s novel Forty Days of Musa Dagh, published in 1933). In 1918, Armenia established its first republic around Erevan. It was an opportunity that came at the worst possible historic moment. In 1921 Armenia, along with other countries, became a constituent part in the newly emerged Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics. This was a development that delivered a number of tragedies, as a consequence of a closed society built on fear. But, fortunately, not a lost hope for revival.

Another attention-worthy element in the history of Armenian people is the rise of a sense of social consciousness and public activism defined by the value of common people. The quest for public activism has never ceased to be a defining feature of Armenians. It was put on hold after the shocks they experienced at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, Armenians organised mobilisations, in an unprecedented way for Soviet history. In 1965, 100,000 people gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. There was also an Armenian revolutionary movement in 1987 and 1988 that demonstrated opposition against communist rule and expressed support for Nagorno-Karabakh, eventually leading to independence in 1991. A showcased dissident thinking emerged with the establishment of the human rights group in Erevan in April 1977 to monitor Soviet compliance with the Helsinki Agreement of 1975.

In the early years of independence, the country’s reality was a devastating economic situation that was plagued by mismanagement, informal decision-making, partisanship and corruption – practices that continued their legacy for three consecutive regimes. With the 2018 revolution, the Armenian people chose a chance to progress and relied on the new government for its delivery. The new events seemed to resemble the past as society expressed an increased interest in participation, holding those governing accountable, and pursuing a good life.

Armenia has spent a long time around. Its variety of experiences have opened the door to choose the right legacy as a foundation for development. Armenia’s is not the Soviet legacy. Its Soviet history was just a detrimental period in time. Revolution, secular thinking and public activism represent the trilogy of the nation’s intellectual and social history, as well as the defining characteristics of the Armenian people. Recognizing the right legacy may help navigate the country towards institutional development and reforms that resemble the practice of enlightened societies. These societies function based on the rule of law and respect towards human dignity and rights. Today, Armenia may choose to erase its Soviet legacy, drawing instead on its wealthy history of progressive and revolutionary ideas and a healthy social consciousness for development.

Valentina Gevorgyan is Policy Research Fellowship Coordinator at the Open Society Foundations Armenia and Doctoral Researcher in Political Science at the Department of Social Sciences, University of Fribourg.


[1] The centre of Armenian kingdom Urartu in the 9th to 6th centuries BC; overwhelmingly Armenian-populated in nineteenth century before 1915; a city in Eastern Turkey today.

[2] Named after Aleksandr Herzen’s first revolutionary newspaper “Kolokol”, The Bell.

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