The Historic Price of Individualism


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Why do Armenians gravitate away from their native land and live in far-away countries, overwhelmed with the nostalgia of the ancestral homeland? We seldom pose the question to ourselves and when we do, we always have cop-outs: we blame our neighbors, curse our conquerors and decry our enemies.

It is true, history has treated the Armenian people very harshly, for a number of reasons. As we try to enumerate or analyze those reasons, it never occurs to us to assess our own responsibility in shaping our destiny as one of the oldest nations on the planet. If one day we decide to delve into our own responsibility, perhaps we will begin to soberly plan our future.

The reason Armenian have not been able to become a dominant nation — except during Tigranes II reign in the first century BC — is our individualism. Individualism denotes self-reliance, self definition, independence and all the other positive attributes. But when contrasted with the collective will, catastrophe ensues.

Because of various depravations, victimizations and constant foreign domination, Armenians have developed a very strong individualist trait, which has always been in conflict with collective discipline, nation-building and focus on a common future. That is how they have survived through all the adversities of history.

During the dark ages, individualism was suppressed especially through religion, where eyes and hopes were diverted away from the individual to the sublime and to heaven, which religious leaders conveniently used to consolidate their hegemony over their subjects. It is no wonder that kings and rulers claimed divine lineage to legitimize their power over the masses.

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The lay rulers and the clergy used and abused their absolute power over people, suppressing any expression of individual ideas.

The Inquisition in Europe punished any deviation from the church doctrine harshly. People were denied independent thinking, facing torture and burning at the stake. The famous victims of such intolerance were Galileo and Giordano Bruno.

With the emergence of the Renaissance, society’s focus shifted towards the individual. And later, fueled by the Industrial Revolution, the individual came to control his or her destiny and enjoy life’s blessings without inhibitions.

Europe eventually came to balance individualism versus collective will, thus developing empires to control the peoples and resources of other continents. As individuals negotiated the limits of their freedoms with the imperatives of national consensus, powerful governments were formed, without compromising individual liberties. Nationalism became the glue to hold together the individuals. The French philosopher Voltaire became the proponent of individual freedoms within the parameters of collective will. He encapsulated that concept succinctly when he said, “Your freedom ends where my nose begins.”

Armenians pride themselves that the Renaissance dawned in Armenia before Europe. Gregory of Narek’s poetry is considered a watershed in that development. Indeed, the poet, in his supplications to the Supreme Power, dwells on the frailties of the individual, imploring divine forgiveness or help. In the Book of Lamentations, Gregory of Narek outlines human desires and forbidden urges within the confines of his prayers, with a poetic craft unsurpassed for many centuries.

This individualism in Armenia always developed within the context of foreign domination, which made the survival of the individual questionable most of the time. Every Armenian developed his individualism at the expense of his fellow Armenians, always losing the collective perspective.

The contrast was stark during the Ottoman years. As the majority of the Armenians suffered in the provinces, Amiras and the privileged class of Armenians lived in affluence in Constantinople and other urban centers. They served the Sultan, who sometimes used them to exploit fellow Armenians in the provinces by assigning them tasks such as tax collection, which was performed most of the time with a whip crashing on the back of the Armenian peasant, to please the Sublime Porte.

The class of Armenian Amiras were completely detached from the aspirations of the Armenian masses living in the hinterlands. Today the Armenian Amiras are remembered in Istanbul because they were able to secure some favors from the Sultan to build churches and schools in Istanbul.

Individualism among the Armenians sometimes is expressed in the form of factionalism. Indeed, with a very primitive concept of patriotism, Armenian volunteers in the Russian army refused to fight under General Antranik, as the Russian army relinquished its conquests, heading home and leaving the fortress of Kars defenseless towards the end of World War I. Food, ammunitions and clothing were abandoned, but the Armenian volunteers refused to defend the fortress of Kars, stating that Kars was not part of their homeland and our national hero left the front, despondent.

After World War I, as Ataturk was able to hold together a defeated country through diplomacy bordering on hypocrisy, Armenians jeopardized their first republic, created after six centuries of foreign domination. Granted, perhaps Armenia’s fate was doomed as Ataturk and Lenin were trying to outmatch each other, but our perpetual infighting also contributed to the demise of the First Republic. As a result of the February uprising, tens of thousands of young Armenians killed each other on top of the 1.5 million victims at the hands of the Turks.

The Soviet era proved to be one of the darkest chapters of human history. It was as if the Catholic Inquisition had returned with a vengeance, with an atheistic twist. On top of the loss of the entire leadership and intellectual class of Western Armenians, a new crop of literary talents fell victim to Stalin’s atrocities.

The Soviet Union was a huge prison. Personality and individualism were sacrificed for the collective. The new philosophy called for the creation of the new man, the Soviet citizen.

Despite all adversities and casualties, the Soviet system proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Armenians. Travel bans contributed to the development of the demographics in Armenia with immigration from the Balkans and the Middle East. If only forced attachment to land could keep Armenians in the native homeland. That stability in turn contributed to the tremendous development of science, literature and music, beginning a new golden age in Armenian history.

Today, all that was created during the Soviet era is being blown to four winds and Armenians are leaving their country at a rapid pace.

Azeris are waiting at the gate and they have already concocted a history that Armenians are sitting on Azeri land.

If this time around we lose the second republic, that will be the historic price we pay for Armenian individualism.

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