More than ten years ago now, I had the privilege of participating in an international cultural exchange programme in Poland run by AIESEC, a global student and young professionals network. There were some twenty or twenty-five of us college-age students from a dozen different countries going around various villages and towns throughout Poland. We met with high school students and delivered presentations on our countries and cultures.
Poland is among the most ethnically homogeneous societies in the world. For a teenager in a distant rural area to interact with a young person from, say, Peru, or India, or even more exotic Armenia, must have been a pleasantly disruptive experience. Besides recounting to those bright faces the story of the first Christian nation or the legacy of the genocide, I found myself discussing my own personal family history that, like any good Armenian story, traverses a few seas and continents.
During my sessions, I would ask those present if they were Polish. Yes, of course. How did they know that? Well, they were all living in Poland, their parents were Polish, they all spoke Polish, they were all at least nominally Catholic, they had Polish passports... The list was rather clear to everyone present. Then I would mention how most Armenians don’t live in Armenia, many don’t speak the language (even with a language that is more than one language!), perhaps most considered themselves Christian – whether following either Catholicos or Patriarch, or as Armenian Catholics or Protestants – and as for having Armenian passports, such documents didn’t even exist before 1991, even though considering one’s self Armenian most certainly did. It was a contrast around which interesting discussions took place.
The above list is a rather simplistic breakdown of what goes into identity, that too only ethno-national identity. Professional identity, social class identity, educational identity, gender identity, and many other kinds of self-description often inform one’s worldview and conduct much more immediately than ethnic affiliation. And yet, over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, societies that used to belong to the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Romanov domains today give great importance to ethnicity, going so far as to inform state policies ranging from public education in minority languages to subsidies for religious institutions to genocide. Nationalism remains the dominant framework in these parts.
Such is the case with the Armenian nation as well – a group that is widespread, well into and across societies that don’t often give much consideration to ethno-national belonging or purposefully avoid that category. The Armenian identity is valued by Armenians to such an extent that a term exists – hayabahbanoum (in Western Armenian pronunciation) – to refer to actions undertaken in Armenian Diaspora settings that aim at retaining the identity, such as speaking the language, running schools and churches, cultural or other groups, discouraging marriage with non-Armenians, and so on. For much of the 20th century, surely as a reaction to genocide and Sovietization, the fear in the communities of the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere was that the Armenian identity was facing existential threat.
I argue that such is not the case, probably has never been the case. We are talking about an identity that has manifested itself one way or another (whether or not in the modern socio-political, nationalistic sense) for well over two thousand years. The Armenian Diaspora is itself a thousand years old at least, with or without genocides leading to waves of emigration. Perhaps my conclusion is drawn too anecdotally, based more on personal travels, rather than scholarship, but I have seen vibrant, thriving communities of Armenians in many places on our planet. If, in one place, the general situation deteriorates, there is always the option of moving on to the next spot.
That, really, has been the secret of Armenian survival: flexibility, risk-taking, a drive towards innovation and adventure. We go places, take advantage of what they have to offer while enriching the local economy for our own part, integrating and adapting... and yet clinging on to an ethno-national identity, an act which is still a bit of a mystery to me. It’s not that no Armenian has ever assimilated or not passed on Armenian culture to the next generation. But somehow, having an identity as a value in itself – especially in problematic scenarios, depending on the host country – is something I have trouble accounting for sometimes.
In all events, I expect that, in the decades to come, there will remain millions of individuals all over the world who will identify as Armenian, in whole or in part. The hayabahbanoum anxiety is misplaced.
Now, what it would entail to be Armenian will be different. Probably most of those millions of Armenians in, say, thirty or forty years will be Americans or Russians. Probably Western Armenian as a literary language will diminish, if not disappear. But hasn’t something like that been the case over the past millennium or two, anyway? How many Northern or Southern Armenians have disappeared after centuries of use? The case of the Armenians of Transylvania comes to mind. Within the past few years, we have had Armenian churches in Syria and Iraq ruined, while opening or re-opening churches in Siberia and Burma.
If, for the Armenian concerned with hayabahbanoum, bearing the Armenian identity implies an immediate set of rigid demands – fluency in the language, adherence to Armenian Christianity, heterosexuality, etc. – then those sorts of nationalistic expectations will indeed most likely be challenged in the generations to come.
So then what will all those millions of Americans and Russians in fifty years have in common in order to claim an Armenian identity, in order to identify with one another across a divide of what may well be a new Cold War? Surely all Armenians claim to bear and continue a rich history. The legacy of the genocide in particular is equally haunting for one in St. Petersburg by the Baltic Sea as for one in St. Petersburg by the Gulf of Mexico. In practical terms, such as language or food, maybe nothing will connect future Armenians besides a long list of memories, nothing forward-looking, anyway.
Of course, there is the Armenian state.
I purposefully avoided bringing up the Republic of Armenia in this essay until now because I wanted to draw a distinction between the Armenian ethno-national identity and the Armenian state as a political entity. Surely there is such a thing as a state-based identity. As any good nationalist will tell you, the state is the ultimate expression of the nation and the guarantor of its existence. Any good liberal thinker would tell you in contrast that that is not what a state is (not what a state should be) for. Many Armenians would tell you for their part that their Armenian identity has no connection with the Armenian state, that their ancestors do not come from what is Armenia today, or that, regardless, their self-expression of being Armenian outdates this young republic, has existed and continues to exist outside of it.
Another example. In neighbouring Georgia, back in 2011, I was in a discussion group, again with some high school students, and the subject of the American Dream came up. As we were discussing that concept, I asked if there was a Georgian Dream and what it included. The students talked about democracy, human rights, rule of law, a stable country – much to my surprise, because I was rather expecting them to talk about reclaiming lost territories above all. Wouldn’t the Armenian Dream include recognition of the genocide, the return of lands, reparations, and so on, leading up to a strong state? Again, perhaps my views stem from a limited sample of Armenian society. But the nationalist discourse places a great deal of weight on the Armenian state – and, of course, the struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh provides an excellent context to keep that discourse going, with the additional advantage of one or two clearly-marked-out enemies. It is convenient to have others to point towards.
The animosity is unfortunate, in part because the Republic of Armenia also has its own others today – barely-visible minorities (not unlike Poland). Many Armenian nationalists, I am sure, would be upset with the vision of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual Yerevan as a corollary to any future prosperity or economic vibrancy in Armenia. Those same nationalists should consider that those two words would describe the Ani of a millennium ago or one of the Tigranakerts a millennium before that.
No, I am not sure about the Armenian Dream, if it is clearly defined and how one might subscribe to it or participate in it. The American Dream, on the other hand, is cool. Everybody wants to be free, make a lot of money, have a house and a car. It is a great contrivance that is positive and attractive to think about. In Turkey, meanwhile, nationalist discourse goes crazy over how wonderful the Turks are – flags everywhere, depictions of Atatürk everywhere – instilling a sense of pride. Both of the above cases are misplaced and simply inaccurate. There is so much poverty and social injustice in the United States. I won’t even go into the problematic nature of public self-perception in Turkey.
And what about Armenia? What narratives do the people in Armenia craft for themselves? Yerkire yerkir chi – “The country is not a country,” it isn’t worth a damn, let’s all just shrug our shoulders and give up. Or move out. Let’s go somewhere else, where we can live martavari – a life worthy of a human being. Let’s go to America. Or Russia. Or Turkey.
The sentiment mentioned above – “If, in one place, the general situation deteriorates, there is always the option of moving on to the next spot” – applies just as well to Armenia, evidently.
But even yerikire yerkir chi is misplaced and inaccurate. There are many cool and wonderful things going on in Armenia, some fantastic opportunities and opportunities to create even more fantastic opportunities. But, in an ironic twist, the Republic of Armenia finds itself a space that invites and encourages both nationalism and cynicism. The nationalism lives on in the Diaspora. The cynicism is also, unfortunately, regularly expressed abroad. How did it come to pass that the black sheep of the Armenian family got to be Armenia?
Back in Poland, in 2007, the country had recently joined the EU, the economy was doing more or less well. In my mind, the country was pretty big, pretty secure. And yet so many of my friends there had negative outlooks on life, politics, and history. It was too reminiscent of Armenia – homogeneous society and all. I was frustrated because, to me, those people had it good and had real reason for pride and hope, and yet they chose to focus on the negative and regularly complain, stuck often in the past.
It’s not that there was nothing to complain about in Poland, and surely there is plenty of real things to complain about in Armenia. But there is a way of acknowledging and presenting all that – a balanced, nuanced, and even optimistic way. I conclude that ultimately we choose the discourse with which we fill our days, the narrative strands that we tie together to recount our shared past, and the vision we wish to draw for our hopefully-shared future. I believe the Armenian identity has a very secure future, regardless of what it will mean to be Armenian down the line. It is the Armenian state that is the more interesting facet of the Armenian experience at present, one with serious internal and external challenges that need to be dealt with institutionally, as a matter of policy. Connecting the Armenian identity so closely with the Armenian state may not always be useful to that end.