A Deadly Dilemma

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The demons of history are once again haunting Armenia’s political life. The memory and legacy of Garegin Nzhdeh have been resurrected and have become a controversial topic in the political discourse between Armenia and Russia, with the spillover affecting Azerbaijan.

In recent years, every time Russian-Armenian relations hit a snag, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova referred to the issue of Garegin Nzhdeh, who is revered in Armenia and to whom monuments are dedicated in Yerevan, Kapan and at the monastery of Spitakavor. Recently, criticism of Nzhdeh’s legacy has been amplified and has been overshadowing Armenia’s foreign policy.

A controversy erupted in the Krasnodar region of Russia; the Armenian church in Armavir has a monument dedicated to Nzhdeh, along with General Andranik. For the locals, Nzhdeh remains a controversial figure and the monument has caused an outrage, to the extent that the city’s authorities have asked the church to dismantle the monument.

But a city council deputy, Alexey Vinogradov, took the initiative to vandalize the monument by spraying it with black paint, even before the church authorities were allowed time to take down the monument.

The Russian state Duma has condemned the act of vandalism and Armenia’s foreign minister, Zohrab Mnatsakanyan, at this time is faced with the delicate task of handling the case with the Russian authorities.

Azerbaijan is clearly behind the provocation. The government in Baku has decided to make this case as a cause celebre, since Nazi collaboration still remains an incendiary issue with the Russian public.

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In recent months, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev twice in international forums blamed Armenia for harboring collaborationist sentiments by honoring Garegin Nzhdeh’s memory and legacy.

Nzhdeh is an undisputed hero for Armenians, but for Azerbaijan, he is more than a collaborator and his name can be used in multifaceted anti-Armenian propaganda.

Indeed, Nzhdeh’s Nazi collaboration is a potent and surefire way to incite the ire of the Russian public. On the next level, he can be used — and has been used — to further antagonize the Central Asian nations before which Turkey and Azerbaijan dangle pan-Turkic dreams.

During the last meeting of the Turkish-speaking nations in Baku, Aliyev raised the issue of the Zangezur region which has been blocking the territorial continuity of the Turkic nations. And the sole responsible party which has made possible the integration of Zangezur into Armenian territory has been Nzhdeh himself, fighting against Azeri and Bolshevik forces, in 1921.

On yet another level, Nzhdeh’s Nazi connections serve as a convenient way to press their point that through honoring a hero with a Nazi past, Armenians are being anti-Semitic. This last item was highlighted at a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries on October 12, 2019, where Aliyev and Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had a spat over the issue.

Aliyev, in his speech, mentioned that CIS leaders had repeatedly opposed the glorification of Nazis and he continued, “Unfortunately, this is happening in the CIS, in particular in Armenia, where the former authorities erected monuments to the fascist executioner and traitor Garegin Harutyunyan in the center of Yerevan, who served the German fascists under the nickname Garegin Nzhdeh.”

Of course, Pashinyan, caught by surprise, responded in an eloquent manner that Nzhdeh had fought the Turks and saved Armenia’s territory.

Aliyev also made a reference that the former Republican administration had adopted Nzhdeh’s philosophy. That, of course, was a misunderstanding, because neither Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, nor any member of his government truly understood what Nzhdeh stood for when they were advocating Nzhdeh’s philosophy. Once the Soviets had destroyed the belief system of each citizen in order to develop the conformist Soviet individual, it became almost impossible for any ideology to survive after the collapse of the socialist system. To this day, any political philosophy in Armenia is only skin deep.

Now that Nzhdeh’s legacy has become a political hot potato, it is not up to the Azeris and for that matter, the Russians, to dictate which hero Armenians should nor should not honor.

At the same time, Armenians have to take a deep breath and evaluate our heroes for the good of future generations.

Nzhdeh had a glorious biography as a state-building hero, a strategist, fighter and political philosopher. He fought in Van and Kara Kilissa, but his most valuable achievement was the declaration of the Republic of Mountainous Armenia, which included Zangezur and Artsakh. In 1921, combined Azeri and Bolshevik forces were fighting to dismember Armenian territory and annex Zangezur to Azerbaijan. He fought to his last breath to keep that province within Armenia, even disobeying his superior, Rupen Ter Minassian. After his historic victory in Zangezur, he moved to Tabriz, Iran, where the ARF-Dashnaktsutyun expelled him from the party ranks, although his subsequent life and activities continued within the ARF circles.

His racialist Tseghakron philosophy is thought to be inspired by Nazi ideology.

During World War II, Nzhdeh and General Dro (Drastamat Kanayan) were in Germany, collaborating with Hitler’s forces to “liberate” their homeland. Life in the Soviet Union was not a walk in the park, but the illusion that Hitler would grant sovereignty to Armenia was only an illusion, because Europe — particularly France — provided case studies about Nazi intentions. Hitler’s racist philosophy that only Aryans deserved sovereignty gave clear indication as to what to expect in case of the Axis forces’ victory. All collaborators have used that hollow excuse, which does not stand up to facts.

What Dro and Nzhdeh  had done was not unique during world War II. Russians, Ukrainians, French and even Azeris had defected and collaborated with Hitler. We can cite two salient cases; one is that of Marshal Philippe Petain of France and the other Gen. Andrey Vlasov of Russia.

Petain was the hero of Verdun in 1916 during World War I, where 300,000 French and German soldiers were killed. Through his decisive victory, Petain earned the rank of Marshal and became the most revered soldier in France. However, during World War II, when the German forces occupied France, he headed the Vichy puppet government, put in place by the Nazis. Following the collapse of Hitler’s empire, Petain was tried and given a death sentence, which was commuted to life imprisonment, by Gen. Charles de Gaulle because of his age and ill health. He died in dishonor in a castle on the island of Yeu.

The other case is that of Gen. Andrey Vlasov, who had distinguished himself at the battle defending Moscow. He was captured by the Nazis in Leningrad while trying to break the German blockade of the city. He was taken to Berlin and became a turncoat. He organized the Armed Forces of the Peoples of Russia, and fought alongside Hitler’s army. After Hitler’s defeat, he was tried and convicted in Moscow and hanged in 1946, along with other collaborators.

A few weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron causally remarked that the heroes of Verdun have to be remembered; an uproar ensued throughout the country.

All these stories place the Armenian people in a deadly dilemma. Do we honor a hero for his heroic deeds or acknowledge him based on his whole person, warts and all?

Compared to Dro and Nzhdeh, General Andranik remains the personification of Armenia’s liberation movement and the icon of Armenia’s statehood.

But he has yet to meet the heroic treatment that Dro and Nzhdeh have enjoyed, most probably for two reasons; Eastern Armenians, historically, have maintained a bias against Western Armenians and that trend still continues until today. And Andranik was a son of Western Armenia, although most of his heroic deeds were with volunteers of Russian forces. The other reason is that Andranik resigned from the ARF and his scope was much larger. Dro and Nzhdeh have residual power bases among the ARF circles who hold them on a higher pedestal.

If there is one monument which deserves to be placed in the heart of Yerevan, at Republic Square, it is that of Andranik.

It is time to think clearly about Nzhdeh and Dro. We have to ask how history should judge them when we compare them to Petain and Vlasov.

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