ARMENIA'S RUSSIAN PROBLEM - A HISTORICAL OVERVIEW Armenian News Network / Groong December 5, 2011 by Eddie Arnavoudian Today, in the post-Soviet Third Republic of Armenia Russian, elites once again exercise decisive and corrosive power over critical aspects of Armenian national life. For Russian strategists Armenia is little more than a pawn in their wider Caucasus and regional ambitions. Digging the grave of indigenous economic development, Russian financiers, of course together with other non-Armenian corporations, control large sectors of an already meagre, dependent and decomposing economy. Meanwhile Russian military garrisons stationed in Armenia offer Russian authorities the means to hold the land to ransom and bend the nation to Russian designs. However for Armenia the Russian bear, today as it was in the past, is a contradictory beast. Even as it debilitates Armenian statehood it ensures immediate survival. Russian political and economic interests and its military presence, for the moment at any rate, shores up the Armenian state serving also to stay the hand of Turkish and Azeri forces intent on encroaching on what remains of historic Armenian territory. Yet dependence upon Russia as a first condition for national existence augurs ill for Armenia. No nation can develop forward or is secure when so dependent on another. Leo's `From the Past' (499pp, 2009, Yerevan) and the first of John Kirakossian's invaluable two-volume study of `Bourgeois Diplomacy and Armenia' during the 1870s and 1880s (364pp, 1978, Yerevan) throw thought provoking light on the Russian state's destructive yet contradictory historical role in the process of Armenian nation formation. Both volumes are vastly broader and richer in scope, yet issues beyond their reflection on the Russian dimension must be visited another time. Leo and Kirakossian both underline the historical truth that like the British state and its ruling classes, Russian elites have also played an instrumental role in destroying the central pillars of any viable Armenian nation and state, the severe consequences of which Armenia and Armenians suffer to this day. Tsarism directly and British imperialism through its critical support for and protection of the Ottoman Empire trapped Armenian national development in a crippling pincer movement. In the areas of Armenia that they colonised both the Tsarist state and the British-protected Ottoman state worked with systematic and meticulous design to prevent the emergence of any independent indigenous social, economic, political and military forces upon which a viable modern nation could stand. Both authors persuasively set out the Russian state's oft neglected but particularly pernicious strategy to truncate the emergence of a modern Armenian nation. I. A major Russian presence in Armenian life stretches back centuries, beginning to assume determining shape from the 17th century and producing along with this a powerful pro-Russian lobby within the Armenian national movement. But Russia's profoundly reactionary role in Armenian history assumes acute prominence following its 1828 occupation of eastern Armenia that until then was crushed between the hammer and the anvil of Ottoman and Persian occupation. The Tsar and his servants entered the stage at once as saviours of the Armenian people and as executioners of a potentially independent nation. In time Russia's presence resolved themselves into forms that fixed and reinforced an Armenian subordination that systematically undermined the foundations of national development but enabled still some flourish of social, economic and cultural life. However in the case of Russian power, for Armenians it appears it was a case of `better the Christian devil you didn't know than the Ottoman and Persian devils you did'. A shared Christianity certainly helped to nurture and legitimise sympathies for the Tsarist state. But the prominent and even dominant Armenian pro-Russian orientation had deeper objective roots. Ottoman and Persian rule was surely destroying the pillars and the fabric of life in historic Armenia. The 1828 Tsarist occupation of eastern Armenia, until then a province of the Persian Empire, radically altered things. Under Tsarist authority Armenians acquired an unprecedented degree of social and economic security. For the first time life was relatively safe. For the first time Armenians believed that unlike in the past of Persian occupation they could now begin to enjoy the fruit of their own labours. It was this assurance of immediate survival that explains why from the 17th century on political leaders, churchmen, intellectuals, artists, merchants, peasants and labourers, among them Israel Ori, Khatchatur Abovian, Berj Broshian, Hovanness Toumanian and countless others into the 20th century, all insisted on Armenian incorporation into the Russian Empire as a condition of national survival. The Armenian Robert Burns, Hovanness Toumanian, would countenance no challenge to the wisdom that only in Russia's embrace was Armenia safe, while national musical genius Komitas asserted that western Armenia could survive only if annexed to Russia. It would not do to dismiss or even underplay this salvaging aspect of the Russian colonisation. Yet, here a cruel historical irony! Even as Tsarist power offered Armenian peasants, artisans, traders and merchants a modicum of economic and social security it moved immediately and with ruthless determination to eliminate existing Armenian forces that could have accumulated the power to challenge Armenia's status as a subordinate Russian colony and that could have evolved into an independent state-building national leadership. In the designs of its new colonial masters Armenia was to be reduced to a malleable body without muscle or backbone. So the Tsarist elite right up to its 1917 collapse acted single-mindedly to press occupied eastern Armenia in a state of impotent servitude, to mould it into an agent for its own regional and global adventures. Every chapter of Russian policy was an exercise to strip out Armenian backbone and muscle. Why is self-evident. The Tsarist state and around it the Russian bourgeoisie harboured a great fear of Armenian economic and political potential. From the 16th century on, operating through the vast Russian market, through the Caucuses, the Ottoman state, the Persian Empire and beyond in India and in Europe, Armenian capital figured as a significant economic and commercial power. Supported by an independent state within the heart of Asia Minor - in Armenia - Armenian elites could emerge as a problem. An independent Armenian capitalist class backed by its own state was sure to drain Russian capital's profits, block its expansionist pathways and even enter into alliances with hostile powers. Such independence Russia would not allow. II. Even as the Russian Emperor offered Armenians an umbrella of social and economic security, immediately upon his annexation of Eastern Armenia he moved to dismantle and disperse the autonomous Armenian principalities in the province of Garabagh. These small but still sturdy remnants of ancient Armenian statehood had during a 1721 revolt against Persian domination edged towards significant freedom. They evidently possessed the potential to emerge as a core for Armenian nation-formation, as an organising force that could project influence not just across segments of eastern Armenia but of western Armenia as well. Commanding their own long standing armed forces, an alliance between the stubbornly independent Armenian Church and the formidably expanding Armenian merchant and commercial classes together would announce formidable problems for the Russian occupation. So a quasi-independent Garabagh was not to be tolerated. The Russian state began denuding the Armenian lords of ancient powers, transferring lands to Azeri lords and cultivating the settlement of non-Armenians. Provincial boundaries were redrawn and Armenian territorial units variously attached to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Garabagh was detached from its Yerevan/Nakhichevan hinterland and tied to Baku and Shamakh. Thus autonomous Armenian Garabagh that had survived centuries of Mongol, Turkish and Persian oppression was brought low by Christian Russia. With the termination of this remnant of Armenian statehood Tsarism not only eliminated a potential threat to its own power, it simultaneously destroyed a necessary component in the process of a nation's emergence - it destroyed an indigenous elite that rooted in the home land and possessed of autonomous political and military force could act as a vanguard for the whole nation. In Armenian life Garabagh would not be replaced. Fearful of similar threats in occupying Ottoman authorities also moved to crush autonomous centres of Armenian resistance and national organisation, most famously in Zeitun and Sassoon. Through the 19th and into the first decade of the 20th century Russian imperial power worked assiduously to erase all manifestation of independent Armenian politics and to block any development of self-sustaining Armenian national leadership. John Kirakossian shows how during two decades of potent national fermentation in the aftermath of the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish war, from which arose the democratic, progressive and revolutionary Armenian National Liberation Movement, the Tsarist state acted unceasingly to cut and maim the Armenian body politic, to obstruct and stifle social and cultural development. No sphere of Armenian life was spared. All was to be bent, distorted and constrained lest it moved beyond Tsarist control. Repression of the progressive, radical and revolutionary Armenian national intelligentsia was systemic. From Mikael Nalpantian in the mid-1850s to Alexander Shirvanzade and Hovanness Toumanian at the turn of the 20th century squads of writers, artists, intellectuals, thinkers and activists were arrested, thrown into prison, held under home arrest or sent into exile, while an ultra-repressive censorship did its all to stem their message of national revival, freedom, democracy and independence. Tsarist authority aimed particular blows against Armenian education. In 1885 it closed down the 200 Armenian schools in the Caucuses throwing up to 20,000 students onto the streets. Schools were again targeted in 1903 when in a concerted move against Armenian national development Tsarist officials also shut down newspapers, libraries and charitable organisations. With a decree to confiscate the Armenian Church's wealth and property it struck out even at this conservative institution, fearing that with democratic trends developing within and with its unrivalled reach into the remotest corners of Armenian life it could become a dangerous organising hub. Tsarist authorities also collaborated with the Ottoman Empire's attempts to crush the incipient efforts of the Armenian revolutionary armed struggle. Even more disastrously and criminally they fired and manipulated internecine national animosities and rivalries that produced the 1905 Azeri pogroms against Armenians that further undermined the position of Armenians in Baku and Nakhichevan in particular but throughout the Caucuses too. During the First World War and the Genocide of the Armenian people Tsarist policy remained just as criminal, critically destroying the real prospect of Armenians emerging from the war with a substantial independent military force. Whilst using Armenians and their volunteer forces for its own ends the Tsarist autocracy worked carefully to block 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 Ottoman occupied western Armenian homelands. Whilst Armenian soldiers were dying on foreign fronts Russian commanders refused to permit Armenian volunteers to march to the aid of compatriots being slaughtered by the Young Turks. In areas of western Armenia that they subsequently occupied Russian imperial authorities 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. Following the 1915 Young Turk Genocide and World War One Western Armenia, with its rich natural resources could have provided the means for sustainable statehood, was emptied of its Armenian inhabitants while prospects of at least partial recovery during and immediately after the Ottoman Empire's collapse fell foul to systematic anti-Armenian Tsarist policy. The consequences were catastrophic. The very ground for Armenian national development had been torn away. The First Armenian Republic that arose on a tiny rocky corner of Russian dominated eastern Armenia was reduced to an untenable entity, in large expanses a refugee camp for survivors of the Young Turk murder machine. The subsequent Soviet and post-Soviet Republics were also condemned to remain fundamentally unsustainable. Without minimising the strategic and critical blunders of the leadership of Armenian national movement during these catastrophic decades it remains historically accurate to assert that the weight, cost and consequence of errors by the Armenian leaderships were multiplied disastrously by Tsarist, and of course British imperialist intervention and interference in Armenian life. III. Prior to its 1920 annexation to the Soviet Union, even the First Armenian Republic, now no more than a 1/12th of historic Armenia, was targeted for annihilation by a resurgent Turkish chauvinist nationalism under Kemal Ataturk, and also one must note by Georgian and Azeri nationalists eager to pick off the most fertile portions of what remained. The Soviet occupation, like the Tsarist one almost 100 years earlier, once more appeared to prevent national annihilation. With unrelenting Turkish, Georgian and Azeri hostility to any form of Armenian state, this time too large swathes of the Armenian intelligentsia, among them Hovanness Toumanian welcomed the haven offered by Soviet power. However the rapid degeneration of the Russian Revolution failed to repair the shattered foundations of Armenian statehood. The imposition of Soviet rule in the Caucuses had uprooted the Tbilisi and Baku based Armenian bourgeoisie. This however was no great loss. Despite the fact that this class had played a significant role in national development from the 17th to the 20th century, following WWI it lay exhausted showing neither interest nor desire for an independent Armenian state. With Soviet power the ARF, hitherto the dominant force in Armenian politics and the unchallenged leadership of the First Armenian Republic, was also removed from the land. However the Armenian Bolsheviks and their allies that replaced the Armenian commercial elites and the ARF were not destined to become effective leaders of the nation. Armenian Bolsheviks though of no real weight in Armenia constituted a formidable battalion in the Caucuses as a whole and included some able leaders dedicated to the recovery of the Armenian people. But whatever the potential of men such as Stepan Shahumyan, Vahan Derian, Alexander Miasnikyan and others, any positive and independent national or regional power possessed by the Armenian and Caucasian communist movement had already been decisively shattered by the 1918 defeat of the Baku commune, well before the imposition of Soviet rule in the region. This defeat in turn played an important role in the triumph of Stalinism and of Georgian and Azeri chauvinist nationalism in the Caucuses that together contributed to the further weakening of the Soviet Armenian state. Headed by Stepan Shahumyan, the Baku Commune had emerged in April 1918 through a broad cross-national alliance of Armenian, Azeri and Georgian forces, among them Armenian Bolsheviks and leftist factions of the ARF. At its peak it represented an autonomous unit capable of holding its own against the centralised power of Russian Bolshevism and thereby capable also of negotiating the resolution of critical regional problems with some democratic and local viability. For the emergent Armenian state furthermore, any extension of the Baku-born Armenian Bolshevik-left-wing ARF alliance into Armenia promised to root there something of a more credible communist leadership there able to cater to the particular needs and interests of the Armenian people throughout the Caucuses. The Baku Commune however fell, in large measure as a result of British intervention, and the best of its leadership was executed. It was a devastating blow. It signalled the end of independent, radical Caucasian communist power. When Russian Bolshevism eventually secured dominance in the region, their local allies, once powerful, had been reduced in important measure to placemen with little influence over the centre and doing the bidding of Moscow and this without necessary regard for the needs of the local populations. Equally significantly the defeat of the Baku Commune enabled national chauvinist forces in Georgia and in Azerbaijan to assume commanding influence within the apparatus of their newly established soviet states. In the wake of the Baku catastrophe the Armenian communist-socialist movement suffered further blows to its credibility and its viability following the abortive May 1920 Communist Party uprising against the ARF-led First Armenian Republic. A tide of repression eliminated another layer of cadre among them Alaveryan, Mussaelyan and Kharipjanian. It put an end to any prospect of an Armenian communist-left ARF alliance that could have given Armenians greater room to negotiate Caucasian border disputes in accord with demographic realities. Nothing changed during Alexander Miassnikyan's tenure. A leading communist who devoted particular effort to the Garabagh question, he proved powerless to sway central Soviet power now bending to Azerbaijani influence. The optimisms of the subsequent Aghassi Khanjian period with its vigorous economic and cultural development was also destroyed - by Stalin's final triumph and the infamous 1930s purges. A short list of the thousands who fell victim - political leaders, economists, architects, scientists, writers, historians, artists, agronomists - registers the tremendous quality and potential of a nation-building cadre eliminated - Aghassi Khanjian, Yeghishe Charents, Aksel Bakunts, Zabel Yessayan, Vahram Alazan, Gourgen Mahari, Mkrtich Armen. The Stalin purges are not to be compared with the Ottoman genocide except in one aspect. During the purges too, an entire generation of the Armenian intelligentsia and national leadership was cut down in its prime. Men and women who had so much to give, who were willing to give their all to the building of Soviet Armenia, where annihilated or maimed. Now, an already meagre but additionally devastated Armenian communist political apparatus had little prospect of withstanding the machinations of the chauvinist forces that dominated politics in Azerbaijan and Georgia. Moscow bent to the more active and determined Georgian and Azeri forces that presided over economically more significant expanses of the Caucuses. Nakhichevan, Garabagh and Javakhk, territories with majority or substantial Armenian populations were excluded from Armenia, the first two transferred to Azerbaijan, the third to Georgia. Armenia remained a landlocked and unviable entity. Seventy years of the Second Soviet Armenian Republic did nothing to alter this reality. During the Soviet era huge progress was registered in almost every sphere of Armenian life the recognition of which does not of course require turning a blind eye to the equally fundamental problems of national development generated during this period. But this progress was a dependent progress, conditional on external, central Soviet state support. It did not generate an independent and sustainable economy or an independent political force that was capable of leading the people out of what were to become the ruins of the Soviet Armenian Republic. ..... Soviet Armenia became the Third Armenian Republic but is now even more untenable as an independent state with its common people prey to an even more virulent strain of parasite. If an 11 July 2011 `ANN Groong' report claiming that some 40% of Armenian families do not envisage their future in the homeland is even approximately accurate, the outlook for Armenia is bleak. The unabated outflow of youth, of energy, of vigour and talent is now catastrophic. It is a declaration of despair, an expression of the end of hope and the collapse of the will to rebuild and recover. The existing national leadership remains indifferent to the steady exhaustion of the land's energies. In anticipation of future crises these elites have already purchased their first class airline tickets to America and Europe. However, debilitated as it is now, the nation still has inner reserves. With Garabagh now an effective component of modern Armenia, the grounds for constructing a viable nation are just that little broader and firmer. However the traditional Armenian elites - historically frequently tied to and dependent of foreign powers - are corrupt, ineffectual and indifferent to the fate of the nation and incapable of offering the necessary leadership. Armenia's hopes rest with the common people alone who for one reason or another have chosen to remain in their historic homeland. The common people alone have a material interest in the future of the nation, in its economic development and political stability. They alone therefore possess the right to determine the direction of the land. Only they can carve out an independent future for Armenia. It is for them to seize the initiative. Time alone will tell whether circumstances can propel them into effective action. What form this will take, how corrupt elites are to be blocked from exploiting popular discontent and popular ambition, must also await actual developments in Armenia. Meanwhile a careful reading of our history can offer inspirational thought. In today's deteriorating economic and social climate Armenian survival cannot rest principally on Russia or indeed any other foreign power. In Russian calculations that take into account oil-rich Baku, Iran and the growing regional power of the Turkish Republic, Armenia is a five cent bit. There can be no hope of long term survival let alone genuine development without a radical popular economic, social and political strategy that leaves Armenia independent of Russia and all other great powers, even when in necessary alliance with any of them. -- 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.
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