Prof. Georgi Derluguian

Will There Be an Armenian Diaspora in 100 Years’ Time?


By Avo Piroyan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

The Armenian diaspora today is a modern phenomenon dating back not much more than 100 years. The first wave of emigration goes back to the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the second wave followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

At times, it can feel as though the diaspora will be a constant feature of Armenian society abroad. However, should the current status quo continue, the vast majority in the Armenian diaspora will assimilate and disappear within a few generations, according to sociologist Prof. Georgi Derluguian.

Derluguian is a professor of Social Research and Public Policy at New York University (Abu Dhabi affiliate). He has authored multiple books and dozens of scholarly articles and contributions on social history. His first-hand study of the Soviet Union’s collapse culminated in the award-winning monograph, Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus (University of Chicago Press, 2005).  He previously taught at Northwestern University, Sciences Po and Université de Bordeaux in France, as well as Tallinn Technological University in Estonia and Kiev State University in Ukraine.

The current status quo is, of course, not an unchangeable factor and the future of the diaspora is not a foregone conclusion.

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Ghettos and Peasants

To project the future of the diaspora, one needs to look at the past. Namely, how have Armenians survived for the several thousand years that they have been around.

Armenians had an independent or semi-independent homeland in one form or another until the sack of Ani by the Seljuk Turks in 1064 and the fall of Armenian Cilicia in the 14th century. After that point Armenians have lived under foreign rule.

“The vast majority of the Armenians that continued to live in the Armenian heartlands throughout the centuries, up until the Armenian Genocide, were peasants. They married within their tight-knit communities and spoke the Armenian language by default.

“Those that found themselves living in the bigger cities under foreign rulers largely lived in ghettos where they did business with each other and were held together by the Armenian Church and Armenian schools,” said Derluguian.

Those Armenians that did not fall into one of the above two groups assimilated over time with the dominant ethnic group.

Victims of Their Own Success

Interestingly the diasporas that assimilate and disappear are the ones that have the greatest success and face the least amount of persecution (excluding pogroms and genocide), such as the Armenian diaspora in India.

“They are the victims of their own success,” said Derluguian.

Today the US, Russia and France constitute the main parts of the diaspora. In all three, Armenians are not persecuted nor live in ghettos.

“Ask yourself, what are the chances of your kids marrying an Armenian? And then their kids? And if someone is only one quarter Armenian [ethnically] or less even, then what keeps them attached to their Armenian part?” asked Derluguian.

Multi-Ethnic Armenians

However, the prospects are not all negative. Preserving one’s ethnic roots in the 21st century has become decidedly easier with civilized nations now accepting of and open to multiculturalism.

“Over the last 20 or so years it has even become ‘cool’ to have a second identity [ethnicity],” said Derluguian.

Those with only partial Armenian heritage are often just as, if not more, enthused about their heritage as full blown Armenians living abroad or in Armenia. Indeed, those that marry into an Armenian household tend to adopt themselves into the new culture.

“One of the things that surprised me most when I first visited the Armenian community in the US, was how active American, Mexican etc. women that married Armenian men were in the Armenian community including the Armenian Church,” said Derluguian.

Indeed, these diaspora institutions (the church, schools etc.) have been and continue to be the backbone of the Armenian communities abroad and their ongoing existence is crucial to preserving the diaspora.

The Pleasure Principle

“Being an Armenian in the diaspora can’t be too difficult,” said Derluguian.

This alludes to the pleasure principle which dictates that people seek maximum pleasure and minimum pain. In the case of the Armenian diaspora, this includes emotional pain attached to the negative situations associated with Armenia.

“Armenia and being an Armenian has to be an attractive prospect [either economically or culturally]. Armenia needs to generate ‘cultural products,’” said Derluguian, adding, “everyone knows/knew the Sabre Dance [by Aram Khachaturian]. This made Armenians feel proud to be associated with that.”

As such much depends on the success of the Armenian state which in turn heavily depends on the level of involvement from the diaspora. The latter is arguably the Armenian state’s greatest economic asset and potential and is so far heavily underutilised for a variety of reasons.

“It must be a mutually reinforcing ascendant relationship. Without a successful national state diaspora could dissipate as soon as in another generation or two, yet the Republic of Armenia is unlikely to succeed without the diaspora either,” said Derluguian.

Connection Is Vital

Of the three fundamentals — peasantry, segregation (ghettos) and an independent homeland — that kept the Armenian identity alive over several thousand years, only one truly exists today.

In order for the Armenian diaspora to have longevity, its members need to have strong links with the Armenian diasporan organizations and institutions.

Beyond, and indeed perhaps instead of that, even a small level of attachment to the Republic of Armenia will strongly foster the Armenian identity into the next generation/s regardless of how multi-ethnic an individual might be. Things such as an Armenian passport or a home in Armenia will almost certainly solidify a person and their family’s connection to their Armenian roots.

The realities of the 21st century with its technological and social advances make preserving the Armenian diaspora easy and hard in equal measure.

Unlike in times gone by, Armenians are no longer forced together to form a diaspora. It is now a choice. Equally unlike in times gone by, Armenians are no longer facing persecution and active pressures to assimilate. Therefore, it is a free choice and one that is the diaspora’s to make.

(Avo Piroyan is a London-based contributor.)

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