Soviet Armenia Redux

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

There is a euphoria generated by the prospect of celebrating the centennial of the First Republic in 2018. However, this November 29 reminds us of another centennial arriving in 2020, that of the creation of the Soviet Armenian Republic, under the most controversial turn of historic events.

While Turkish Kemalist forces under Kazim Karabekir were at Armenia’s border, threatening to overrun the country, the government in power, controlled by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), decided to sign the Treaty of Alexandropol, placing the country under Turkish tutelage. In the meantime, the same government was negotiating with the Communists over a power-sharing deal, where Gen. Dro (Drastamad Kanayan) and Hampartsoum Derderian would represent the ARF on the Revolutionary Committee.

At a distance of 98 years, it is a challenge to understand what was in the minds of those leaders when they engaged in a double deal. Since the incoming government was not a party to the Alexandropol Treaty, the latter was rendered invalid. Thus, Armenia was safe from the prospect of Turkish domination. As soon as the Soviets took over, they declared the treaty defunct and saved the last remnant of historic Armenian territory, which they also expanded to its current dimensions.

In this way, Soviet Armenia became part of our history and in terms of longevity, it far exceeds the First Republic.

Soviet Armenia was a hybrid state; it was a republic by itself but was part of a larger federated unit, the Soviet Union.

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While thinking about and preparing for the celebration of the First Republic’s centennial, many people have forgotten the 70 years of Soviet Armenia, which cannot be taken out of our history.

Now that the winds of the Cold War have subsided and the existence of the Soviet Empire relegated to the ash heap of history, it is incumbent upon us to make a sober evaluation of the Second Republic which laid the foundations of Armenian culture, science and technology, raising the level of its achievements to that of the highest international standards.

Incidentally, the industrial and the technological base which was created during that period was wasted during the first few years of the Third Republic, ruled by an amateurish leadership.

Our ethnic pride would not allow us to admit that the three consecutive republics came into existence but through our heroic political struggles. However, reality is different. World events and regional political developments helped Armenians to seize the opportunity and create a sovereign or semi-sovereign homeland.

That historic fact does not obliterate or devalue the heroic liberation and self-defense movements that Armenians have conducted from Zeitun to Shabin Karahissar, from Van to Sardarabad, from Cilicia to Karakilissa.

Based on a false gospel, the Soviet system turned out to be hell for its citizens. It was a historic experiment conducted at the expense of millions of lives; an experiment which Armenians also shared in. The West fought furiously to contain the ideological power of the Communist Utopia from engulfing the globe. That experiment, especially its promise to bring equality to all, turned out to be a hoax and thus it eventually collapsed under its own weight.

It was not enough that Armenians had lost two thirds of their population in their historic homeland; they had to pay their dues during World War II, in defense of the Soviet Homeland, by sacrificing another 300,000 lives from their male population.

In addition to those sacrifices, Armenians had to endure Stalin’s terror, losing the cream of the crop of the Armenian intelligentsia.

With all the evils associated with the Soviet system, Armenia enjoyed a number of advantages that it had missed throughout history.

As part of a monumental global economy, Armenia was able to develop its industrial base, not only on the consumer level but also in cybernetics and space technology. The development of science and technology reached unprecedented levels.

The Soviet education system proved to be on the highest level at the time. Victor Hampartzumyan, the Alikhanyan brothers and Grigor Gurzakyan explored the universe and the stars and placed Armenia’s name at the cutting edge of physics and astronomy.

A very serious scholarship took deep root in Armenia; Ajarian, Mananian, Chahukyan, Gharibian and Malkhasyants developed world-class scholarship and historiography. Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance was performed throughout the world. Works by Sarian, Minas Avetisian and Kochar were on display in museums around the world. The literary creative impulse propelled writers like Mahari, Hrant Matevossian, Silva Kapoutikian, Shiraz and Bakunts to the pan-soviet summit and beyond.

Armenia became a center of attraction for many Armenians around the world and many repatriated voluntarily to the revived homeland led by writers and artists like Kochar, Ara Sargsyan, Sarian, Avedik Issahakian, Vahan Totovents, Zabel Yesayan and others.

In addition to repatriation, one evil aspect of Soviet system became a blessing in disguise: Soviet citizens were not allowed to leave their country. That ban contributed to the enhancement of Armenia’s ethnic profile.

After centuries of turbulent history, Armenian found peace and stability, where life was predictable. There was full employment, free education and healthcare, free vacation packages and retirement benefits.

Today, in our independent republic, the questions in every family’s mind are where the next meal will be coming from and what the future will hold for their children.

Today, when Armenia is a free and independent republic, Armenians are confused as to how to use that freedom. After wasting the economic base of the Soviet era, that freedom has led to depopulation.

While Soviet Armenia was prospering, the world Armenian community was deprived of sharing the culture developed in the homeland because it was shielded by an Iron Curtain. It was destined that the Armenian Democratic Liberal (ADL) party should take the leadership role in piercing that Iron Curtain to bring Armenia’s living culture to the diaspora, at the expense of being called “communist agents,” “fellow travelers” or “Soviet sympathizers.”

The only purpose that the ADL had for reaching out to Armenia was to bring out the music, literature, dance and culture to the diaspora and to develop a spiritual unity for the world Armenian population. Similarly, the ADL reached out to the center of the Armenian faith to keep the spiritual unity between the Diaspora and Armenia.

Many ADL leaders, editors and rank and file members suffered the consequences of their patriotic stands; they were subjected to verbal abuse, physical injury and even death. But the endeavor paid off eventually. When Armenia attained independence, the two segments of our people were not alienated from one another.

Lo and behold, an ironic development came to prove that the people who labeled the ADL a Soviet tool turned out to be on the KGB payroll themselves. Indeed, the Soviet KGB General Oleg Kalugin published lists of names of Soviet agents in the west. And the two most ardent ARF leaders from the Middle East were on that list.

The past is present; whatever the Third Republic inherited from Soviet Armenia, it has been building on that legacy.

Today, when the Soviet empire is gone, we can call a spade a spade, without any fear of being labeled as an agent. Thus, the patriotic ADL policy has been vindicated.

Soviet Armenia is part of our history and its legacy has to be evaluated objectively and its patriotic leaders should enjoy the historic respect they deserve.