We are eight months away from the 100th anniversary of the First Armenian Republic (1918-1920); a historic turning point and a landmark in the nation’s modern history. Preparations are already underway in Armenia and the Diaspora, as different organizations and institutions are getting ready to welcome the centennial. Although there seems to be a consensus as to what the “First Republic” stood for, there seems to be little agreement as to what these celebrations should entail, who ought to have a say and certainly what are the symbols that should represent the First Republic a century after its emergence.
In a recent piece on the symbolism and the narrativization of the history First Armenian Republic throughout the twentieth century, Ara Sanjian voiced the critical issue of the “privatization” [Կուսակցականացնում] of the history of the First Republic by different (and often times antagonist) political parties, as well as the “legitimacy” of the organizers - the current Armenian government - on the eve of the centennial. Sanjian concluded his article by raising the lingering yet important question: “Will the current Armenian government, whose legitimacy is challenged by many people inside the country, but which enjoys acceptance by most of the traditional Diasporan organizations, be able to go one better and break the ice [of the “privatization” of the First Republic’s history?]”
Notwithstanding such hesitations, the Armenian government formed a commission on April 21, 2017, presided over by the Prime Minister, which excludes members from Diasporan organizations. Although the presidential decree foresees the possibility of extending additional invitations to new members - including those from the Diaspora - the likelihood of such changes remains yet to be seen. Just a few months before the anticipated celebrations, disagreements regarding the “Who,” “What” and the “How” resurfaced in the Armenian reality, as people reverted back to “marking territories:” Should Aram Manukian, one of the founders of the First Republic, be considered a national symbol? If so, does he deserve a statue? And last, but least, should it be erected on the exact spot where Lenin’s former statue used to stand in Republic Square? These were among the many issues raised by public intellectuals, party members and the media at large.
Such questions came at a time when the Armenian government was debating the selection of Armenian figures who could be featured as national symbols on the country’s new currency (the Dram) scheduled to be released next year. Once again, such issues came to reinforce public or partisan anxieties in confronting the nation’s recent history. The following article is an attempt to touch upon some of the abovementioned problems by engaging with an aspect that has not yet been adequately addressed in public discourse - namely the archives of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) on the eve of centennial of the First Republic.
By bringing the issue of archival politics at the forefront of our discussions, this article raises the problems of “narrativization” and “political terminology” and their relationship to the anticipated celebrations in May, 2018. Furthermore, without the promise of delivering exhaustive answers, some of the questions that this article ponders upon include: How are we to make the best use of the ARF archives on the eve of the Republic’s centennial? Is there any way the ARF archives can help us generate a critical, yet inclusive narrative of the First Republic? Does the sheer fact that ARF archives are party documents render the collectivization of the First Republic’s history unlikely? Can there be any kind of relationship between ARF archives, the legacy of the Cold War, and the public discourse of the current Armenian reality? And finally, how does the synchronization of various archival material help us collectivize our history, and achieve a better understanding of concepts such as “state” and “institutions?” Despite their open-endedness, it is the conviction of this author that such questions would help us crystallize the collective ideas and values essential for future directions.
A brief overview of the history of the ARF archives would be helpful. The bulk of the ARF archives are currently housed in Watertown, Boston.
Many of these documents are now being prepared for publication, as the 13th volume of the “Materials” covering the period 1918-1920 is scheduled to appear next year on the 100th anniversary of the Republic. It is these documents that I want to turn to now. Why this overview?
As I mentioned in a recent article, the political terminology of the Cold War is still perpetuated by many of these organizations, as stereotypes are often used and perpetuated to “describe” particular sets of people (mostly young) from the wide ranging spectrum of Armenian politics. Such a parlance is often reproduced when talking about modern Armenian history in general and that of the First Republic in particular.
The bulk of the ARF archives (including documents, party correspondence, private papers, congress minutes, etc.) are currently housed in Watertown, Boston. After Rosdom (Stepan Zorian; one of the founders of the ARF), many people including Simon Vratzian (the fourth and last prime minister of the First Armenian Republic), Apraham Kukhantian, Jirayr Libaridian, Tatul Sonents Papazian, Hratch Dasnabedian, Yervant Pamboukian among others, have assumed the directorship of this institution. So far the classification and cataloging (25 volumes) of all the documents until 1924 is complete. In addition to some of the material that was published by Vratzian in “Divan Hay Heghapokhagan Tashnagtsutian (Դիւան Հայ Յեղափոխական Դաշնակցութեան)” and “VEM Pan-Armenian Journal,” significant ARF documents came to light in a series of (so far) twelve volumes bearing the title “Materials for the History of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation” (Նիւթեր Հայ Յեղափոխական Դաշնակցութեան Պատմութեան Համար). The first four of these compilations are edited by Hratch Dasnabedian, whereas the remaining eight came out under the editorship of Yervant Pamboukian. Anyone familiar with this series will agree that it is a fundamental source that not only sheds light on the history of the ARF, but provides material for understanding the larger Caucasian/Ottoman/Balkan and even European contexts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Moreover, as rightly pointed out by the director of the Armenian National Archives, Amadouni Virapyan, the ARF archives in Boston contain a significant portion of documents pertaining to the history of the First Armenian Republic, including its “birth certificate” - the document of declaration of the independence by the Armenian National Council.
Public discourse in Armenia and sometimes in the Diaspora still portrays the period between 1918 and 1920, as the “Dashnak Republic” (Դաշնակ Հանրապետութիւն) often ignoring the epistemological and ideological categories that underlie this term. Although the ARF was one of the most prominent political forces around which the history the First Republic revolved, political terminologies such as the “Dashnak Republic” conceal how this label was conceived by the Soviet authorities as a way to discredit the First Republic as a “bourgeois nationalist” creation, and the ARF as an “imperialist” force. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Turkish nationalist and mainstream historiography has adopted the same jargon (Taşnak Cumhuriyeti).
Ironically, despite the presence of a large number of ARF members in the key institutions of the First Republic, the historiography on this period produced by party members (Mikael Varantian, Simon Vratzian, Rupen Der Minassian among many others) never refer to it as the “ARF republic” though the Diasporan setting in which many of them worked and wrote (after most of them left the country in 1920-1921) was certainly favorable to such representations. Therefore, among the many challenges that await the abovementioned state commission on the eve of the centennial, the deconstruction of ossified political terminologies is nothing but a small piece in the overall question of historical narrativization. Political terminologies are strong instruments of privatizing national histories, an issue dealt at length in Sanjian’s article.
100 ruble note designed for the Democratic Republic of Armenia by Arshak Fetvadjian. Some of Fetvadjian's designs featured animal motifs that were found on the decorations in Ani.
The new banknotes were printed in Europe and never put into circulation.
It is here that the question of the ARF archives pertaining to the history of the First Republic can become helpful; the “collectivization” of the history of the First Republic should first begin by a synchronization of the available material. Such “collectivization” can start by launching a public platform where a critical engagement with such material can be facilitated. Perhaps, the nascent “Historians’ Association of Armenia” (Հայաստանի Պատմագետների Միություն) would be a proper institution for such an undertaking. Hence, more than tackling the question of “what actually happened between 1918 and 1920” which some may believe is the sole purpose of this work, such initiatives can be helpful in shifting the public discussion from a “frantic” search of national symbols, or heroes (against “traitors”) to a more constructive one, where the emphasis would be on institutional building, adaptations, compromises and their embodiment of “national” values.
In other words, more than debating whether Aram Manukian merits a statue or not (which is also helpful for public discussions), it would be much more beneficial to see the institutions that Manukian presided over, and the long road we have crossed in corrupting, changing, adapting, adopting or simply removing them. This would pave the way to a more comprehensive understanding of Manukian and in his immediate political environment, rather than a retrospective adjudication through the lens of current day problems. Another example: An engagement with ARF archives (and other materials) on Nikol Aghbalian and his activities as Minister of Education and a pioneer of the Republic’s educational apparatus (one of the most prominent founders of Yerevan State University in January,1920) would help us better comprehend the ways in which he dealt with the problems of the Russian and Armenian languages, an issue that still resonates in modern discourse. Such an exercise would be a much more beneficial contribution to the debates on educational reforms in Armenia, than cheap criticisms addressed to the incumbent minister and the ARF leadership as simply neo-communists (Komsomols).
Although this may seem like the exclusive task of historians, it is not quite so; ministries, educators, public intellectuals all have a role to play in this process. As I tried to explain in a different piece, partisan affiliations and/or ideological commitments have often impacted the content of the history textbooks that are used in Armenian schools. The linearity through which Armenian history is taught in the Diaspora (assuming the same case to be in Armenia) hampers all abilities to critically gauge and assess changes, transformations, ruptures, continuities, and relationships. Such textbooks are often marked with an excess of symbolism often ignoring the key institutions such as the First Armenian Parliament (in 1918), ministries, the relationship between the Czarist, Armenian and Soviet Armies, the institutional ruptures and continuities between the First, Second and Third Republics, etc... Consequently, we are still waiting for a full appraisal of the parliamentary experience of the First Republic and its implications on modern Armenian political thought. The current shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary one, at this historical juncture (almost 100 years after 1918) might be suggestive, yet what we ended up with were cynical assessments (rightly or wrongly) or a few positive thoughts at most.
Of course all of this leads to the inevitable question of access to the ARF archives, which many rightly point out is still “closed.” Without delving much into the technical details of this issue, discussed elsewhere, it should be stated that on the eve of the centennial of the First Republic, it is incumbent upon the ARF leadership to institutionalize, and thus publicize the archives in its possession (I would add, even translate the first twelve volumes referred to above into English), with a particular focus on the period between 1918-1920. Not only does such a venture provide a service to academics worldwide, but as this article tried to argue, the incorporation of the ARF archives into the public discussion and their synchronization with materials available in Armenia carries with it some practical benefits that can pave the way for more productive narratives.
In 1920, a set of ten stamps for the Republic of Armenia were printed in Paris. Only a few were ever used. The rest were never sent or never arrived. Later reprints were ordered by the the ARF government in exile. A large quantity of counterfeits also made their way into the stamp trade.
Despite the non-contested role of the party in the emergence of the First Republic, it behooves the ARF leadership (in Armenia and the Diaspora) to pro-actively immerse itself in the critical reassessment of that crucial period, rather than simply take pride in it (as much as that is tempting for any political party). Such “collectivization” of the history of the First Republic entails another crucial feature, namely the willingness of all the vested parties/sides to accept constructive critiques. The opening of the ARF archives and particularly the ones pertinent to the First Republic may also be a sign by the incumbent ARF leadership of its readiness to accept such critiques. Although many organizations, parties (Diasporan or otherwise) have expressed their disgruntlement (rightfully) regarding the abovementioned commission’s exclusive character, it is not simply the issue of having the privilege of sitting at that table for sitting’s sake, but rather a serious question of what one has to offer and contribute to it. In this respect, the opening of the ARF archives with the genuine collaboration among different institutions has the potential of crystallizing common grounds upon which consensus, dialogue and mutual understandings can develop. At the end of the day, the commission’s task should not be solely restricted to the organization of the national jubilee, but rather turn this moment into an opportunity for long-term political convergence.