Why we should read... `The Armenian National Liberation Movement - 1850-1890' by M K Nersissian (492pp, 1955, republished 2002, Yerevan) Armenian News Network / Groong June 10, 2013 by Eddie Arnavoudian Do not be put off by the fact that M K Nersissian's `The Armenian People's Struggle against Turkish Despotism - 1850-1890' was first published in Soviet Armenia, and indeed its writing begun while Stalin was still alive. As an introduction to the emergence and early development of the Armenian National Liberation Movement (ANLM) there is no better volume. In fluid narrative Nersissian takes us through all the main stations of the movement's march: the social and political grounds that produced the ANLM with its unique and specific features, its ideology and early work, its secret organisations, its armed actions and uprisings, its international relations, its ambitions for unity with other peoples in the Ottoman and Tsarist empires and much, much else. Offered initially in 1947 as a dissertation in Soviet Armenia and published in book format in 1955, Nersissian, at first covering only two decades from 1850, challenged the then orthodox Stalinist slander that presented the ANLM as a band of reactionary `bourgeois enemies of the people', responsible, even, for the terrible sufferings of the Armenian people at the hands of their imperial oppressors. Such drivel was of course easy meat for anyone with the audacity to return to classic Marxist texts on national liberation movements and to Marx's and Engels's evaluations of the Ottoman Empire. Few at the time possessed the courage. M K Nersissian did. Resting not just on Marxist authority, but on 19th century Armenians thinkers, among them Mikael Nalpantian, Raffi, Hagop Baronian, Haroutyoun Svajian and others, Nersissian's was the first rigorous, and one could say honest Marxist, history of the 19th century ANLM. Cleansing the slate of Turkish and Stalinist falsification he reaffirms the ANLM's popular democratic national character features born of an oppressed people struggling against an irredeemably reactionary Ottoman state. The volume's republication is to be welcomed. It is fine academic history but also raises critical issues that bedevil contemporary politics and so continue to demand urgent consideration. I. Today as a resurgent Turkish state unfurls old Ottoman imperial sails it is eagerly and brazenly whitewashing these, presenting the Empire's sordid record as some sort of role model for itself. Nersissian's reminder of Marxist evaluations of the Ottoman Empire is timely. Of course, adherence to Marxist doctrine is not a condition for appreciating the authority of its sentence. Here Marx and Engels trod the same path as much of the progressive thinking of their time. It was the generalised view that in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire that had been established by a `class of militarist plunderers', `existed at a lowest and most barbarous state of feudal' degeneration (Marx). An irreparably regressive state, with pillage rather than production its base, the Ottoman Empire could contribute nothing to any national, social or economic advance. Not `compatible with capitalist development' (Engels) let alone any other progressive advance, it was a death trap for the peoples that it had historically subjugated, among them Muslim people as well as Christians and this by means of the most vicious tyranny. Dismantling of the Empire was therefore a first condition for progress and emancipation. Such is the legitimising context for Nersissian's presentation of the history of the Armenian movement in its own particularity and specificity. In the Balkans, national movements against Ottoman occupation rose upon relatively more secure foundations, driven by the ambitions of a national landowning and industrial-trading elites that were both indigenous and directly supported by an indigenous national peasantry representing a significant demographic majority in the land. This was not so with the ANLM. Historical Armenia possessed no independent Armenian economic foundation that would produce confident native Armenian elites aspiring for national freedom. Armenian capital did of course exist and in strength. But for centuries it had ceased to be rooted in Armenia. Located and shaped in the capitals of states oppressing the Armenian people, in Istanbul, in Moscow, in London and Paris, it had adjusted to co-existence with the oppressors of the people in the homeland and in this adjustment was destined to be a curse upon the ANLM. The absence of independent secure and flourishing economic foundations to the national movement in historic Armenian homelands generated almost impossible structural deformations and weaknesses. The ANLM was born handicapped, with only one leg as it were. It had but few means to sustain broad social, economic and cultural national development and even less to politically or militarily challenge the Ottoman State. In the homeland in addition there was only the slimmest national intelligentsia, that ideological and political engine for national liberation. An Armenian intelligentsia flourished instead in the Diaspora, in imperialist capitals, but there like Armenian capital it too was shaped and misshaped by Diaspora conditions. Nevertheless, with Armenian elites in remote Diasporas, the ANLM in the homeland acquired a particular popular and democratic physiognomy finding as it did its main sustenance primarily among peasants, artisans, smaller traders and small businesses. This was to give the Armenian movement its democratic and popular definition, radical features however that would be decisively subverted by fearful and conservative wealthy Diaspora elites. In the metropolis, in Istanbul and elsewhere these elites had no interest in disturbing the bloody status quo of the imperial oppression for these very same imperial states offered them opportunities to trade and accumulate. So in order to protect their wealth from Ottoman and Tsarist wrath that would be generated by any revolutionary mass Armenian uprisings against imperial oppression, Armenian elites ceaselessly restrained, checked and moderated its revolutionary development. II. Significantly shaping the ANLM's particularity was the multi-national demographic structure of historical Armenia. Summarising, Nersissian writes that territories in which the ANLM operated were not demographically homogenous, with Armenians being one among other nationalities who, moreover, did not constitute an absolute majority (p305). In a territorial patchwork of different nationalities Armenian national liberation was thus posed in novel and complicated ways. Demographic conditions in historical Armenia required particular attention to the cultivation of harmonious relations between different peoples with a free and democratic state resting not on a single nationality, but on a democratic unity of all the people inhabiting the region. Nersissian shows, extensively, that in its early phases the ANLM was indeed inspired by such popular and democratic visions, seeking alliance and unity with all oppressed peoples irrespective of race, nationality or creed. During the 1850s and 1860s the ANLM had collaborated across national lines both in western and eastern historic Armenia. Armenians within Tsarist domains tied their fortunes to a broader anti-Tsarist movement, united not in the name of independent statehood but for democratic and revolutionary change throughout the empire (p57-59). In the Ottoman Empire the ANLM reached out to Christians and to Muslims, (p248-252) - to Assyrians too (p153) and to Arabs, Kurds (p167), Bulgarians and Greeks. During uprisings in Zeitun, Van and elsewhere Armenians were joined in resistance by Kurdish, Assyrian and other neighbours. To the ANLM's efforts in this direction Nersissian devotes a great deal of attention. And so he should. The destruction of a potentially powerful multi-national anti-imperialist united democratic movement was to be an overriding preoccupation of Ottoman and Russian authorities. Tragically they succeeded, pitting Muslims against Christians, Kurds against Armenians in western Armenia and firing internecine wars between Armenians and Azeris in the Caucuses. III. As efforts to build a multi-national democratic liberation movement faltered and fell, an already structurally weak and unstable Armenian movement reverted to earlier, more traditional moulds of dependence on foreign powers. With no means of independently challenging or playing off the two main Ottoman and Tsarist oppressing powers, dominant trends within the early ANLM opted for subordination to the Tsarist crown believing Russian annexation of Ottoman occupied historical Armenia to the best first stage of Armenian national liberation. So for most of the 19th century Armenians not only did not engage in an anti-Russian struggle for national liberation but considering the Tsar as a potential liberator of the Armenian people extended whatever help they could to Russian expansionist ambitions. Notwithstanding the relentless and sometimes savage Tsarist oppression (p54-55) of Armenians under its tutelage, Nersissian details objective social, economic and political conditions that would generate enduring Russophile tendencies. Measured against the significant degree of economic and social security offered to Armenians in Tsarist occupied Armenia, Armenian life in Ottoman occupied western Armenia was in a hellish stage of terminal disintegration. Against Turkish falsifiers (p307-309) who claim Armenians were not exploited and did not revolt until falling victim to 1880s Russian and European manipulation (p315) Nersissian reminds us of the truth. The process of ethnic cleansing and genocide - using tried and tested means of extreme oppression and exploitation, forced migration, land confiscation, forced religious conversion, linguistic discrimination and assimilation - begins together with the early to mid-19th century emergence of a reactionary chauvinist Turkish nationalism bent on restoring and dominating the Ottoman Empire for its exploitation alone. Well before the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish war, usually cited as a turning point exacerbating Armenian-Turkish relations, Ottoman power, at the behest of a chauvinist Turkish nationalism had already begun expelling Armenians from influential posts in state institutions and erasing classical Armenian monuments from historical Armenia. It had also even more significantly launched its strategic assaults on semi-autonomous Armenian regions in Zeitun and in Sassoon that could act as magnetic centres for a wider national revolutionary movement (p68, 74-6), among other things settling Cherkez people in Zeitun and preparing military outposts in Sassoon. All this was taking place against the backdrop of a relentless downward spiral of the region's Armenian population as Ottoman repression together with land confiscation and centralisation, in Kurdish and Turkish not Armenian landlord hands, was driving Armenians into Diaspora cities, to Istanbul, Baku, Tbilisi and elsewhere. As Armenians were driven out, so their lands were settled by Ottoman refugees fleeing from the edges of a shrinking Ottoman Empire. With western Armenia already denuded of substantial Armenian numbers in the wake of successive Russo-Turkish wars had - some 90,000 leaving for Russian controlled territory after the 1828-1830 war - Armenian demographics and Armenian life, the life of the small peasant and artisan, were approaching the catastrophic. (We should note that such 19th century Tsarist engineered population transfers were to later provide Azeri chauvinists with toxic fuel. The tens of thousands of Armenians who had moved from Ottoman occupied lands to the Russian occupied core of historical Armenia were denounced as colonial type settlers, as agents of Tsarist domination and treated as enemies of the Azeri common people.) One can readily appreciate the politics of the lesser Tsarist evil to which Armenians turned, even as it was to play itself out with such terrible consequences. Ceaselessly oppressed, robbed, plundered, raped, abducted and murdered the Armenians of western Armenia, had no reason for loyalty to the Ottoman state. This state was not only not their state, not only did it not offer them minimal securities but was actively engaged in their destruction. IV. Accelerated national disintegration in western Armenia, with hopes of reforming the Ottoman Empire fading and ambitions for unity with other Ottoman oppressed peoples dwindling, the dominant trends of the national movement ended more firmly embedded in a pro-Russian mould, enthusiastically embracing Russian campaigns to seize Ottoman occupied historical Armenian territory. Armenian emancipation was transformed from a vision of independent statehood to the annexation of western Armenia to the Tsarist Empire. In the 1828-29 Russo-Turkish wars and again in the Crimean War of 1855 Armenians west and east had supported the Russian war effort. Armenian eagerness for Tsarist triumph reached unparalleled levels during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. Then Armenians passionately participated as soldiers, volunteers, scouts, watch-outs, bridge builders and porters, in addition to proffering vast stocks of material aid. Such direct endorsement anti-Ottoman Tsarist campaigns were to contribute fatally to damaging the ANLM's relations with its non-Armenian neighbours providing as it did powerful grist to the mill of anti-Armenian Turkish chauvinism. Armenians were charged with being agents of Tsarist expansion, depicted as 5th columnists, as traitors fighting to impose the Tsarist yoke on not just Turks and Kurds, but as well on other Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire who regarded the Russians state as an oppressive force. The emergence of modern revolutionary political organisations with their armed wing - the Armenakans, Social Democratic Hnchaks and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation - did create terms to develop independent Armenian revolutionary politics, but these too succumbed, unable to extricate themselves from the marsh of dependency politics. And so at the outbreak of the 1914-1918 war Armenians were once again drawn into Russian campaigns against the Ottoman Empire. World War One Armenian support for Tsarist campaigns to conquer Ottoman controlled historical Armenia was to provide reactionary Young Turks and later Azeri nationalists with further ammunition to whip up generalised anti-Armenian hysteria. Chauvinist Turkish and Azeri activists and falsifiers never ask the question: why did Armenian peasants and artisans in historic western Armenia turn against the Ottoman Empire, why did their dream of emancipation equate with Tsarist not Ottoman occupation? If life was so good for them in historic Armenia, why did they not fight with the Ottoman Empire against Russian expansionism? Nersissian answers the questions! IV. Hugely unfavourable conditions for the ANLM were rendered worse by the consistent pro-Ottoman politics of all western imperial powers, dating as far back as the 1780s and including then Napoleon and the USA thereafter too. European powers and the USA, without exception and throughout the life of the ANLM pitted themselves against Armenians. In this they were animated essentially by their opposition to Russian expansion into the Ottoman Empire that they wanted to seize for themselves. Armenians in European judgement were dangerous Russian allies and their political ambitions had therefore to be thwarted whatever the cost. Before 1850 and after, France and Britain acted as political and military body guards of Ottoman territorial integrity, arming, reforming, training, and even officering its armies. British perfidy (p269, 273) stands out in all its violent and haughty arrogance stretching back to the first Zeitun revolts and later in 1895-6 when it offered direct military advice to Turkish officers bombarding Armenian homes in Van (p272). The French similarly supported the Sultan, cajoling concessions from Armenians in Zeitun that were to mark the first stages of its downfall and at the same time urged Ottoman Turks to assimilate Armenians. Nersissian also dissects US imperial policy, as anti-Armenian as that of Europe, a fact usually ignored on account of W Wilson's sponsorship of the 1920s Treaty of Versailles. Yet the US too, and that from the late 1700s, was a solid and consistent Ottoman ally, something Armenian-Americans need to be aware of. In search of monopolies and other commercial advantage the US not only supplied the regime with vast quantities of arms (p275, 277-8) but also sent in its missionaries to facilitate commercial conquest at French and British expense. During the 1895-6 massacre of 300.000 Armenians not only did the USA not protest but claimed that the scale of the massacres were exaggerated and not truthful (p278). If the ANLM failed, one must not of course absolve the Armenian leadership of the national movement of its substantial share of responsibility. However, in the balance it should be noted that over and above all the structural weaknesses and deformations of that movement and all the pro-imperial illusions of its leadership, the ANLM had to fight not just a powerful militaristic Ottoman state, but one that was backed to the hilt by the then most awesomely wealthy, aggressive and savage European imperial powers. That the Armenian people survive to this day is therefore itself a sort of miracle. V. Perhaps a function of writing in an era of Soviet Russian bureaucratic hegemony `The Armenian People's Struggle against Turkish Despotism - 1850-1890' is flawed in two important aspects - by its uncritical and over-enthusiastic evaluation of the ANLM's strategic reliance upon Russia, a feature of a great deal of Soviet era historiography, even at its best as in M K Nersissian's case, and the refrain from a more thorough discussion of the possible forms of statehood and nationhood that were on the agenda of the ANLM and other national movements in the region at the time. Armenian emancipation Nersissian argues was impossible without leaning on Russia, whatever its political character. Rightly critical of European and Tsarist betrayals, even as he abstractly opposes the politics of dependency Nersissian claims that concretely, given the Armenian people's demographic position, isolated and encircled by overwhelming non-Armenian populations (p305), the ANLM had no better alternative than to chain itself to the Russian bear. Nersissian does not of course use this phrase, but it is appropriate. Armenian Russophile positions had indeed deep objective roots. But the ANLM's politics of strategic subordination and dependence on foreign powers, and on Russia in particular, was not inevitable necessity. If the study of history is of any value for us today, it is beholden on historians to show how not just the Ottoman but the Tsarist state too worked systematically to crush actually existing potential for independent Armenian politics, a policy that alas proved successful with disastrous results. Immediately upon their 1821 conquest of eastern Armenia, well before similarly motivated Ottoman assaults on Zeitun and Sassoon, those regions of potential indigenous independent Armenian political development, Russian power set out to cut down Armenian political life and fit it to its own design for supremacy in the Caucuses. We need only recall its dismantling of the semi-autonomous principalities in Garabagh and its systematic suppression of all manifestations of independent Armenian political activity (see Groong/The Critical Corner `Armenia's Russian Problem - A Historical Overview', 5 December 2011). Armenian national political development in the Caucuses even as Armenian elites enjoyed astonishing economic advance, was at every stage thwarted. Diaspora Armenian elites did nothing to counter this. Possessed of the illusion of Russian protection Armenian elites with their wealth tied in Baku, Tbilisi and further a-field had no inclination to develop independent political foundations in Armenia itself. So when World War One broke, unleashing bloody national wars, the ANLM, especially after the fall of Tsarist power, proved powerless before aggressive Azeri and Georgian elite defiance of elementary democratic arrangements necessary to the emergence of independent Armenian, Georgian and Azeri states. In such conditions the grounds existed, yes frail and fragile, but still existed for independent politics, for a liberation politics that would by uniting all the oppressed nationalities have sufficient force to remain free of imperialist manipulation. It is a pity that Nersissian did not devote more space to such a discussion that is certainly opened in this volume with its clear suggestion that within the Ottoman Empire, or at least in its Asia Minor hinterland and in the Tsarist occupied Caucuses, neither the ANLM nor any of the other national liberation movements could possibly pursue emancipation in the form of states exclusive to a single people. An enduring resolution to each individual national question could be successful only if it were a component part of a wider multi-national movement and state. Given the demographic structure of historical Armenia, demands for a specifically Armenian independent state were clearly unrealisable, a federal arrangement harbouring different peoples being clearly the more democratic resolution. Intellectuals of the Armenian national movement had, in fact, reached out for some sort of democratic vision. The Armenian national movement had at first considered and even adopted but then gone on to abandon demands for independent Armenian statehood in preference for revolutionary democratic reform and internal autonomy of both Ottoman and Tsarist Empires. It needs to be here stated loud and clear that the Armenian national movement, both within Ottoman and Russian Empires, was the very last to abandon federal, multi-national democratic conceptions of statehood and nationhood and took the course of exclusive national independence with the First Armenian Republic of 1918 under duress as it were. * * * In the 19th and 20th centuries exclusivist nationalism proved a disaster for all except the Turkish elite that commanding the powerful repressive apparatus of an imperial Ottoman state triumphed by means of slaughter, war, genocide and assimilation. Today in the final settling of issues that as a result continue to bedevil all the peoples of the region and in the securing of enduring democratic resolutions to deeply contested questions, thought is demanded that without sacrificing independent national development, goes beyond orthodox and fixed notions of political nationhood and statehood. Nersissian's volume in both its strengths and otherwise, besides being a completely satisfying education in history provides excellent food for thought on such matters. -- 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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