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Why we should read... `From the History of Armenian Social Trends' by Vahan Rshdouni (560pp, Yerevan, 1956) Armenian News Network / Groong February 21, 2008 By Eddie Arnavoudian The continuously growing economic inter-dependence of nations has not, as some had predicted, done away with the nation state as the principle form of international political organisation. Nor has it lead to the undermining of nationalism as a mainstream political ideology. Quite the contrary today nationalism in various parts of the world appears to be as forceful as it has been in the past and even more so, sometimes perhaps as a defensive reaction to the overwhelming power of the larger nations that dictate the direction of economic globalisation. But in contrast to earlier periods there is today an ominous aspect to much of nationalist ideology. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union many nationalist movements acquired a decidedly anti-democratic and anti-humanist definition fired frequently by racist and chauvinist propaganda and rhetoric that claims some inherent superiority and priority for itself as against peoples of other nationalities. Meanwhile nationalist visions that incorporate a democratic, collaborative egalitarian inter-national framework for social and political co-existence among people have been systematically sidelined. The recovery of such democratic visions must, for all our sakes, be made an urgent intellectual and political task of the day. Here, for Armenians and their direct neighbours - Azerbaijanis, Turks and Georgians - Vahan Rshdouni's `From the History of Armenian Social Thought' is enormously valuable. Examining the mid-to-late 19th century Armenian press in the Caucuses Rshdouni provides a superior sample of Soviet era social, economic and intellectual history and touches significantly on issues of nationalism that have relevance for our concerns today. Charting Armenian social and economic development in the Caucuses, he highlights some of the conditions that generated different and even opposing visions of Armenian national emancipation. Even if only a portion of the extracts are accurate and quoted within context, this volume refutes those detractors of Armenian nationalism who dismiss it as an artificial product of imperialist machination and, more significantly, it demonstrates the existence of a remarkable trend of democratic nationalism that opposed Armenian nationalism's own reactionary practitioners. I. ECONOMIC COMPETITION AND THE PATRIOTIC SPIRIT All major 19th century Caucasian-Armenian periodicals devoted a great deal of attention to a perceived decline of Armenian wealth in the Caucuses. The `Armenian Bee', the `New Age', `The Experiment', the `Echo' and the `Cultivator' all express a sense of impending crisis as Armenian trade and industry confronted a challenge from European capital internationally and from Georgian and Azerbaijani capitalists locally. Seeing the retreat in national terms the press attributed it to Armenian industrial backwardness and to Armenian organisational fragmentation. The proposals to halt the retreat were then framed in terms of a national competitive struggle against other national adversaries. Reconstructing these discussions, Rshdouni reveals something of the social and economic context and relations within which particular streams of Armenian nationalist politics could emerge. The `Cultivator' reflecting on an era of Armenian economic supremacy in the Caucasus wrote: `It is now more than 70 years that Russia has ruled the Caucasus and Transcaucasia and during that entire period the whole of the region's trade, the state's monopolies, the supply of the military forces - the whole lot were in Armenian hands.' (p215-216) But as this wealth was dependent `not on productive investment based on modern science but on cunning and luck' it `never survives beyond two generations' and was now in a state of dire decline. the `Echo' also notes this. Armenians in the Caucuses, it says: `...are steadily being impoverished or are withdrawing from productive investment because they have no initiative. As productive capitalists they lack courage and as parvenu wealth they are infinitely exorbitant and wasteful.' (p157) `The Bee' bemoans the fact that today: `Foreign nations, languages and capitals have covered Caucasian territories whose natural wealth requires science, craft, trading experience and confidence - things that we (Armenians) do not have.' (p44) Central to this decline writes the `New Age's' was that in comparison to Europe and Russia the Armenians had no `modern manufacturing' capability. A uniform cry of alarm followed - unless something was rapidly done the Caucasus, and within it Armenian capital would be defenceless against the steady invasion of European capital. For `Armenians to remain indifferent' `when foreign capitalists and foreign corporations enter into competition against them' was `suicide (p30).' The Armenian `cart will topple over' and its positions would fall to foreign investors. One can note a sense of national humiliation and anger in the press's consideration of the prospect of Armenian capital's defeat at the hands of Europe.` `The Bee' writes that `in our land we are witnessing economic enslavement to foreign capitalists.' `The New Age' feels similarly: `In no time at all, in some ten or twenty years this land full of natural wealth will economically become the property of Europeans. The local Russian, the Armenian and the Georgian, all of them, will then become labourers and clerks for the Europeans. (p73) The `Echo' resents the intrusion into the Caucuses by the Rothschilds that `has already put its ominous finger into yet another of our profitable enterprises - the wine industry'. It had no `doubt that (such) intervention (in the Caucasus) is far more damaging than useful to the locals.' The `Cultivator' foreseeing disaster warned that unless Baku's Armenian industrialists formed united corporations they faced: `...inevitable annihilation... (and) would be utterly incapable of standing up to the Swedish financial giant who held the fortunes of the local people in its hands.' (p214) It was not just European capital that caused the Armenian press anxiety. It was, in addition, worried by challenges from local Georgian and Azeri business. In contrast to retreating Armenian wealth the `Echo' notes that Azerbaijani capitalists now: `... control the greater part of the city's wealth because they have acquired it through knowledge and are not wasteful and spendthrift (p157-158).' Sensing a challenge from the Georgian elite the `Echo' in the name of a broader democracy took up the cudgels against attempts to enhance Georgian privileges in Tbilisi's local council. (p171) These fears prompted extensive proposals for economic modernisation, for the adoption of the latest techniques into Armenian manufacturing and agriculture and for the sponsoring of education and science, all after the most advanced examples available from Europe. Only the scientific development, the unification and the wider organisation of Armenian business could equip it with the power to remain independent of Europe (p71, 73) and to fend off local non-Armenian competitors. Expressing ambitions for independent Armenian economic power, the `Echo' urged Armenian landlords and agriculturists to `learn how to exploit the riches of their land' `without depending on imported foreign help and money'. It further encouraged them to `reach beyond their own narrow spheres' so that they could `occupy an honourable place among the various nationalities...(p153).' These proposals were however marked by the historically extraordinary conditions of Armenian capitalist development in the Caucuses, conditions that contributed to generating a trend within Armenian nationalist politics that would pit Armenians against their other co-inhabitants in the region. Press proposals for Armenian economic reform were not offered for Armenian territory within the Caucuses alone, but for the Caucuses as a whole inhabited, among others, by Georgians and Azerbaijanis whose labour force Armenian capital also readily exploited (p237, p250). For Armenian wealth Armenian territories featured only marginally. Rshdouni comments that: `as is well evident...the operation of almost the whole of Armenian capital took place outside Armenia proper, in the first instance outside the province of Yerevan. The `Cultivator's' economic sermons were...(thus) mostly fruitless in regions of Armenia proper.' (p248) Considering itself native to the entire region, it was in Tbilisi and in Baku that the Armenian elite built its mansions, its factories and its trading headquarters as well as schools for its children and theatre and entertainment for when they returned from their extravagant European holidays. Armenia proper remained at worst a backwater starved of significant investment, or at best a colonial back yard offering cheap labour. Seeking to attract investors to the Yerevan province the `Cultivator' remarks that `due to land shortages' the region had a surplus population that could `offer itself as a labour force that would be content with small wages.' (p249) Yet despite the all-Caucasian setting for the operations of Armenian wealth, the press' proposals for economic reform and modernisation were offered not for Caucasian business as a whole but only for a section of it, for its Armenian segment. It was a call for the exclusive reorganisation and unification of Armenian economic forces so that they would be able to withstand both the European challenge and that of local Georgian, Azeri and Russian business too. In the context of exclusive national organisation the Armenian Church, perhaps as a substitute for the absence of an Armenian nation state, was accorded a special role as an agent of social and educational organisation and control. The `New Age' envisioned a reformed Armenian Church, with its large and wealthy monastic lands transformed into centres of modern economic activity and occupying a central role in advancing `the land's cultural development and the business of the moral regeneration and economic reform (p73). Such exclusive Armenian national social and economic organisation, in an essentially multinational Caucasian region that constituted an integrated and organic economic whole, led almost inevitably to stubborn competition between all equally exclusively organised national forces Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani. This nationalist competition was frequently fuelled by supremacist and chauvinist rhetoric, even by the allegedly progressive press. A case in point was Krikor Ardzrouni, editor of the `Cultivator' who argued that only the Armenians and their language were fit for a civilised and developed society: `When the smallest spark of enlightenment appears among the people of the Caucasus and Asia Minor their language will give way to the Armenian and they themselves will disappear.' Internecine competition bolstered by such anti-democratic nationalism was to play its role in creating grounds for the hatreds between Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijani, hatreds that the Tsarist Empire fertilised and exploited to secure an extra lease of life to its imperial power in the Caucuses. II. THE DECLINE OF THE ARMENIAN VILLAGE While the Armenian elite was faltering before European capital's invasion of the Caucuses and the emerging Georgian and Azerbaijani challenges, the Armenia peasantry in Armenia proper, in the Yerevan and Karabagh regions and further afield, was falling victim not only to foreign but to the Armenian land-owning elite. Tsarist land reform that was with delays and modifications introduced to the Caucuses from the mid-1850s onwards led to a significant commercialisation of agriculture and to the rapid concentration of land ownership into few and fewer hands. Rshdouni reconstructs a shocking picture of the ruthlessness and brutality with which sections of the Armenian peasantry were expropriated, impoverished and driven either to become wage-labourers for local landlords or factory workers in cities such as Baku and Tbilisi. A correspondent for the `New Age' calling himself `The Peasant' wrote in 1893 that `poverty and want was the norm in (Armenian) villages. Even the villages in Shirak are no exception'. Summarising `The Peasant' Rshdouni writes: `The peasant does not have enough corn to eat or to sow. Neither does he have `the money to pay royal taxes'. He has not a hope of repaying `debts and interest accumulated year after year'. For a livelihood some turn to breaking stones for road builders and here they fall victim to the usurer. Nearly thirty youngsters have gone to Batum and other towns in search of work.' (p110) Remarking on the steady impoverishment of the Armenian peasantry the `Cultivator' criticising landlords who affirmed their generosity through their offers to give away 2/3rds of their land and keeping only a third for themselves writes: `We have to think a little more about this one third: is it really such a small piece of land? If for example the whole of the communal land was 3000 acres, the landlord would keep possession of 1000 acres whilst hundreds of families would be dividing 2000 acres among themselves.' (p410) Parapharasing the author Rshdouni continues: `There is no guarantee that Yerevan landlord, like the Russian will not secure for himself the best land that is serviced with a good water supply. In our conditions this means in effect that the peasant loses at least 50 percent if not all of the land (p411).' In the competition to get hold of the best lands one of the greediest grabbers was the Church establishment. It seized on the new land reform laws to claim as its inheritance vast tracts from which it excluded the mass of the peasantry. It then began to charge them for usage that had previously been their right by custom and tradition (p 88-90). In 1884 the `New Age' writes of peasants trying `to free themselves from the authority of Mr. Der-Nersissian's (an administrator for Church properties)' who had `refused (them) the right to freely graze their cattle on monastic pastures'. Instead he was`charging them 1 rouble per animal' for what had been free access by `custom and tradition (p89)'. Peasant resistance to the Church's privatisation of hitherto communal lands and their abrogation of customary common rights was substantial and is hinted at, albeit pejoratively, by a conservative commentator delighted that it was not the peasant who had to power to decide how land was to be divided: `What would have been the fate of the Armenian noble (landlord) if the decider of his destiny were the peasantry? It is good that the law in its wisdom having foreseen this has not given the peasant more rights.' Pressure on land led to continuing and increasingly bitter conflict. `Over the years' reports the `New Century': `...there has been no end to disputes over land. Every day there is some sort of argument over the tiniest piece' and `in recent years the land question has acquired a sombre aspect. Recently there have been a few killings' again over `the tiniest plot.' (p105) As they were steadily impoverished vast swathes of the peasantry fell victim to swarms of usurers who infested rural Armenia. `There is no village' ` without its usurer, without this...ever present evil angel' (p117) writes `New Age'. Only `he who has been a peasant and experienced the usurer's exploitation' can have any idea of the `terrifying plight of (its) victim' it adds. In the usurer's clutches the peasant becomes a `white slave'. In the provinces of Ganzak, Yerevan and Kars, writes the `Echo' usurers, often charged interest at more than 100 percent. Its Yerevan correspondent notes the social disaster: `Illicit/iniquitous interest has exhausted the populations energy. Whoever has managed to put together a certain sum offers it at an interest of 30, 40 and even 50 percent and enriches himself whilst impoverishing those forced to resort to borrowing. In this manner owners of money steadily gather into their hands the population's essential property, their goods and chattels and their land, thereby making poverty general. Woe to the artisan, the farmer, the small trader and those living on a wage who are forced to borrow with interest.' (p191-2) Among such usurers were peasants who had managed to accumulate money working in towns and now returned `got hold of as many other peasant holdings' as they could. Thus they `themselves became large landowners...reducing those living within their domain to the condition of a debtor.' (p177) As a result of the concentration of land in fewer and fewer, the impoverishment of the peasantry and the devastation by the usurer, the peasantry was today `teetering on edge of destruction'. To feed their families young men left their families and their homelands in droves flocking to Tbilisi, Baku and other foreign towns there to become workers in Armenian owned factories and industries. `Villages are being emptied and the towns are growing' wrote one press report. `Peasants flee...agricultural work to find easier ways of securing a living in towns.' For Armenians this generalised flight from the land was on a far greater scale than that of their Turkish, Kurdish or Azerbaijani counterparts. In the 1880s the Armenian working class, calculated by the `Cultivator' to number 25,000, constituted the largest national segment of the newly emerging Caucasian city working class and also its worst afflicted section. Their conditions of life in the towns resembled the nightmare of Victorian England described in novels by Charles Dickens or famously in Frederick Engels' `Conditions of the English Working Class'. `The New Age' describes Baku as `an Asian California' where life and `morality are akin to Sodom and Gomorrah'. (p119-120). Towns in the Caucasus had `all the vices appearing and growing in European cities' but were bereft of any of its positive features. Trapped in city slums `thousands of homeless and penniless labourers are degenerating' writes Emmanuel from the `Cultivator'. The working class in the cities formed in his opinion `one of humanity's most miserable classes' and `suffered countless wounds' and `terrible pains.' From this mass `one can only expect thieves, bandits and murderers.' They are `afflicted with every kind of contagious disease that spreads right through the community.' Contributing to the `Cultivator' novelist Shirvanzade protests that proposals to ameliorate working class conditions are invariably `sound and word uttered in a desert.' (p262-265) The plight of the Armenian peasantry and working class so well depicted in press reports cited by Rshdouni also has its substantial and authentic record in Armenian literature. Berj Broshian's novels come to mind in relation to the Armenian peasantry and Shirvanzade's novels to that of working class life. But others, Toumanian and Abovian among them, also focussed critically on the lives and the conditions of the common people suffering at the hands of landlord, employer or usurer Armenian and non-Armenian. With the Armenian peasantry impoverished and driven from their land by moneyed men of their own nationality it was hardly surprising that spokesmen would emerge to give voice to their particular relations and circumstances and formulate a nationalism that would be different and even opposed to that of the elite's. III. THE HONOURABLE LEGACY OF DEMOCRATIC NATIONALISM From the mid-19th century onwards the wealthier segments of Armenian merchants and industrialist in the Caucuses felt the main challenge to their status to come from non-Armenians, from European capital externally and from emerging Georgian and Azeri competition domestically. Its spokesmen and ideologists therefore would inevitably focus on these conditions and relations when elaborating a strategy for recovery and survival. The possibility of a reactionary nationalism that defined itself against local non-Armenian nationalities, though not inevitable, was certainly possible in such relations where economic fears, hopes and interests were fuelled by competition among different national economic groupings. The position of the Armenian peasant, and later the working class, was significantly different. The Armenian village in the Caucuses was certainly victim to oppression, exploitation and depredation from non-Armenian, Georgian and Azeri feudal lords, the plight of Nakhichevan Armenians being a case in point. But for a significantly large section the conditions and relations that defined a harsh experience were those with the Armenian elite, the Armenian landlords, the Church and now the Armenian factory owner and merchant in the cities. For a large swathe of the Armenian peasantry it was Armenian landlords who were its immediate and most fierce competitors for land and for access to scarce water supplies. Though unquestionable religious, cultural, nationa land economic factors divided the Armenian plebeian off and even isolated it from its Georgian and Azeri counterparts, the latter were not perceived of as primary opposition by many in their struggle to survive increasingly difficult economic and social dislocation. Differing and complex social, class, economic and national relationships gave rise to differing trends and emphases within modern Armenian nationalist thought. Besides the more conservative, exclusive and sometimes even downright chauvinist nationalism frequently fired by hostility to non-Armenian economic antagonists, were proposals for a democratic, multinational patriotism that has remarkable relevance for conditions today. Among the most remarkable is a critique of conservative nationalism and a sketch for an alternative offered by Hovsep Der Movsissian a radical correspondent for `The Armenian Bee'. In its principles and in its details Movsissian's writings are valuable today and not just for Armenians and their neighbours, but for all people of different nationalities who live mingled in single territorial units, large or small. Here the Indian sub-continent comes immediately to mind. Movsissian covers virtually every area of modern concerns in Armenian-Turkish and Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. As a first point of principle is an insistence that in territories inhabited by different nationalities all have an inalienable right to equality and to free national development: `We are all members of one great human family. In the Caucuses more than anywhere else it is necessary to spread the idea of friendship among nations, to spread the notion that (different peoples) should strive for enlightenment hand in hand (p387).' Different peoples have a right and indeed a duty to take patriotic and national pride in the development of their particular culture, their `language, their religion and their literature'. But: `There are many other areas of life where it would be a crime against truth to consider them in nationalist terms, or to adopt narrow nationalist attitudes. (p387) This Movsissian argued was the case especially where political and economic organisation is concerned. As an example of narrow nationalism in the political sphere, Movsissian, taking into account the demographic structure of Yerevan, criticises Armenian proposals to secure two thirds of Yerevan's city council positions leaving only a third for the city's Azerbaijani inhabitants. Through this he elaborates democratic principles for governing relations between people of different nationalities. `Bearing our national interest in mind...it is necessary, as far as possible to approach those nationalities living around us - to approach them, befriend them and enjoy with them equal rights and equal duties... (While) we will not permit others to deny us our rights, simultaneously we cannot permit ourselves to deny others their own rights.' (p386) In the economic sphere narrow nationalism often expressed itself as a defence of Armenian feudal landlords just because they happen to be Armenian, and this despite the fact that they exploit Armenian, Georgian and Azerbaijani peasants and workers. In the course of his articles, Movissian makes an acutely pragmatic political point that needs to be learnt well by all, by Armenian, Turkish, Azerjaijani, Georgian, Kurdish and other commentators and activists. With appropriate replacement of the term `Turks' with that denoting other nationalities what he says has relevance to all: `If we do not have the patriotic sensibility that would allow us to love the Turks (or Armenians or Georgians or Kurds or Azerbaijanis, etc), to love them without reservation and without dissimulation, then bearing our national interest in mind we should at least work to live together with them...in peace and friendship. The future of Armenian and Turk is bound closely together and the friendly co-existence of these two peoples is to both their benefit.' (p388) Movsissian rightly refuses to define Armenian nationality or to determine Armenian political choices and alliances in religious terms. The French may `defend our case' he says, `but when we see them repressing Arabs in Algeria and Tunisia our sympathies go over to the Arabs' `even though they are Islam whereas the French are Christians.' In another point that underlines the need for alliance not with imperial powers but with local Armenian neighbours he writes: `If the Russians are our co-religionists, let us not forget that the Turks are our compatriots, with whom we are bound by the past, the present and the future. (p388) Relentlessly clear in his argument, Movsissian's work should be republished and read as a sobering caution by those given to enthusiastic evaluations of modern day imperial manoeuvring on the Armenian question. Significantly Movsissian was not a lone star. His outlook is an integral element of a broad and long intellectual and cultural tradition among Armenians stretching back to Khachadour Abovian and Mikael Nalpantian from the mid-1800s through to Berj Broshian, Ghazaros Aghayan, Shirvanzade, Hovanness Toumanian and others at the end of the century and into the 20th. Whatever other politically contentious views they held, they all accepted the demographic diversity of the Caucuses and of the territories of historical Armenia proper and proposed a vision of a harmonious and democratic co-existence of all nationalities as a condition for the realisation of Armenian national emancipation and ambition. Today Movsissian is almost forgotten, though thanks to Rshdouni we have the means to recover his legacy for our own endeavours. In doing so we must simultaneously recover the democratic and humanist aspect of the patriotism that marked Abovian's, Nalpantian's, Toumanian's, Aghayan's and others' visions, visions that have been neglected at best or censored and buried at worst. Today they are all honoured for their art and even their patriotism, but not at all for the democratic and multi-national character of this patriotism. -- 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.