Commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and its Public Perceptions: Preliminary Observations
When I was asked to write a short paper on the perceptions of various Genocide commemoration initiatives by different social groups in Armenia, I could hardly imagine what an enormous task it would be. It seemed easy, as I was a participant observer both living and working in the research field. However, as I approached the field from the perspective of the researcher, the task became more difficult. The amount of material was huge in terms of quantity, diversity and ever-changing quality. The variety of initiatives, their scope and coverage spanning from one-time grassroots events, ongoing regular activities and all-encompassing government interventions to internal political and social debates, in addition to cultural undertakings and worldwide campaigns for Armenian Genocide recognition by different states and prominent individuals. Public sentiment constantly evolves under the growing pressure of commemoration activities. As a researcher I was flooded and overwhelmed by the amount of material; its diversity from one side, and time and space limitations (the deadline for the paper and its two-page requirement) from the other. Hence this paper touches upon the surface only, and presents an extremely small part of the picture while hoping to tempt the reader to dig further.
The Official Commemoration Symbol and its Reception
The official symbol of the 100th anniversary is a flower, the forget-me-not. Introduced to the public by the State Committee on 100th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on May 27, 2014, its main message is “Remember” (which is explained in the Committee’s official website. From the very beginning there were diverging reactions to the symbol, ranging from open criticism to unequivocal approval. The initial criticism mostly related to the symbol itself, focusing on its colors and underlying implications, as well as the story of its creation. Some opponents disliked the linking of the flower's predominant purple color to the Armenian Apostolic Church; others thought it a masonic symbol with nothing particularly Armenian about it. Yet, the most prominent criticisms linked the symbol and its branding strategy to Russian influence, as the package was created by SHARM, a major branding company in Armenia closely linked to the government and formed on the basis of a former successful Armenian KVN team. The main argument was that the forget-me-not is a direct translation from the Russian nezabudka and does not independently exist in Armenian culture.
Forget-me-Not vs. Red Poppy
An alternative symbol, the red poppy, was immediately proposed by a member of Founding Parliament (previously called “Pre-Parliament”)), an opposition political movement. On the same day of official introduction of the forget-me-not, the same member wrote a Facebook post asserting the red poppy from the Armenian highlands to be the natural symbol of the Genocide, and accusing SHARM of sacrilege and infidelity for taking money to create a PR package for Genocide commemoration. This view was then popularized in Armenia by referring to an already-existing Armenian-American initiative. However, there are well-grounded criticisms of the red poppy as well. In fact, red poppy is closely associated in the United Kingdom and parts of the former British Empire (among other places) with remembrance of World War I battlefields. Len Wicks, a dual Australian/New Zealand citizen and author of a book titled “Origins: Discovery,” in an open letter to the Australian, New Zealand and British people mentions that red poppy “grows prolifically in the sun-drenched fields of Turkey,” referring to an image from Gallipoli. He called upon his fellow citizens to wear a poppy in memory of their country’s World War I veterans together with the forget-me-not in memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide. The dual commemorations would combine on April 25, ANZAC day, which is an important memorial day in Australia marking the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian troops during WWI.
The Triumph of the Forget-me-Not
Despite the criticism – which mostly came from sections of the political opposition and civil society activists – not only did the forget-me-not survive and become widely popular, but is literally everywhere in Armenia. It started slowly, with government officials wearing forget-me-not pins, and then went on to largely conquer the real and virtual public space. A major agent in the advancement of forget-me-not and its accompanying package is the public education system. School children of all ages enrolled in both public and private schools are required to learn the symbolism and underlying philosophy of the forget-me-not. Moreover, each schoolchild in Armenia is required to make six forget-me-not paper flowers following detailed instructions provided in an official government website and made available on YouTube. According to some sources, the number six is defined by dividing 1.5 million –the number of Genocide victims – by the total number of schoolchildren enrolled in Armenia. These handmade flowers are to be collected by schools and then distributed to commemoration visitors and guests. Furthermore, the exterior and interior of many school buildings are decorated with the flower and other symbols of the anniversary. Almost every school has at least one event dedicated to the anniversary. School and university teachers as well as students wear forget-me-not pins. Car owners and proprietors of small and big shops, cafes and restaurants as well as public and private institutions throughout the country use a variety of commercially-available forget-me-not flower stickers (as well as their own creativity) to express their empathy with the global “remember and demand” campaign. There are two “forget-me-not” communities on Facebook as well as several groups with the same name. Many Armenian Facebook users changed their profile pictures and/or cover photos to display the flower, the latest trend being using images of natural forget-me-not flowers instead of the officially-approved symbol. At the same time, people who want to show that they remember the Genocide and/or demand its recognition but do not want to use the official symbolic come up with other solutions, such as changing their Facebook profile pictures and cover photos to show photos of ancestors killed in the Genocide, alternative red poppies, slogans stating remembrance of 1915, photos of prominent people who stood for the Armenian case and even images closely associated with the Holocaust, among other things. These observations suggest that the motto “Remember” as well as the demand for recognition is widely accepted by large segments of the Armenian society.
Forget-me-Not vs. Forget Them
Of all the political parties and movements in Armenia, only one organization, the radical opposition group Founding Parliament, openly announced an alternative symbol of the 100th Anniversary. This was the red poppy. They used it as a starting point for declaring a campaign against the ruling regime, which used the slogan: “100th Anniversary without the Regime.” Apart from different rallies and activities carried out under the campaign, Founding Parliament also called for an alternative event on April 24, 2015, the date when the only public event of importance in Yerevan is the traditional pilgrimage of thousands of people to the Genocide Memorial. Hence they were perceived to present an imminent danger to official commemorative events. On April 7, 2015, the leaders of the movement were arrested on charges of preparing mass disorders to be carried out on April 24, 2015 and have been under custody since then. Their arrests coincided with the arrival of Kim Kardashian, a world-famous Armenian-American reality TV star and advocate of Armenian Genocide recognition. It was then followed by the Mess in the Vatican and Pope Francis's public usage of the term Genocide, with both events serving to largely distract public attention from the arrests.