The “Garbage Bin” Approach to History and its Discontents

For a people whose history covers a few millennia, the significance of the First Republic of Armenia far exceeds the number of years it lasted. Other than the Genocide that preceded it, I doubt that there is another period of two and one-half years that has received more attention by scholars, memoirists, and polemicists. հայերեն

That may not be surprising since, above all, the First Republic constituted the rebirth of Armenian statehood on a portion of historic Armenian lands after an absence of almost a thousand years, and that in the form of a modern republic.

On this occasion it is not easy to transcend polemics and controversies, especially for one who grew up reading and hearing about them, and then studying them; for one who had Simon Vratsian, the last Prime Minister of the First Republic as a teacher and principal, and Garo Sassouni the governor of Kars, then part of the Republic, as a literature teacher. Issues can also be confusing, since just about everything about that republic—its genesis, development, leadership, policies, and demise—have been glorified by the dominant actor in the life of that republic, the Dashnaktsutiune, and heatedly contested and harshly critiqued by the Second, the Soviet Republic and that party’s antagonists in the Diaspora, the Ramkavar and Hnchakian parties.

Now, we are almost 30 years into the Third Republic. The political organizations that have appeared on the scene of Armenian history since the 1880s—at least those that have survived organizationally until the rise of the Third Republic-- have all had their chance to present their current face and their case to the Armenian people of the Third Republic and to all who cared to read or to listen. They were able to offer their stories, their interpretations of the past, and their narratives.

In the early 1990’s so-called Marxist scholars of the Second Republic who had produced volumes against the First Republic and its main actor, the Dashnaktsutiune, were suddenly transmogrified into the staunchest defenders of a new independence and more. Meanwhile, the Dashnaktsutiune, the erstwhile staunchest defender of independence, had a hard time recovering from its opposition to a new independence. The Hnchakians and Ramkavars had to adjust their policies to evolving realities, but always trying to find a way to accommodate their reflexive anti-Dashnaktsutiune positions.

The remnants of the Second Republic’s only political actor, the Communist Party, exited the stage in an agonizing act of irrelevance, not long after the collapse of the USSR. The Ramkavars and Hnchakians were never strong in that part of Armenia that became the First Republic; yet as organizations contesting the power of the Dashnaktsutiune in the Diaspora, they aligned with the Soviet position of the Soviet Republic. All three returned to Armenia with great hopes. The Dashnaktsutiune, exiled during the Second Republic, having superior organizational traditions and skills, fared better when it returned to the Armenia of the Third Republic. Even then, in national elections in Armenia that party has failed to garner more than 10% of the popular vote.

The narratives developed by each of these forces and stories told by them about the past, especially about their past, changed conveniently, as necessary.

It is said that when asked about what the future held, a Soviet politician replied, “The future is easy to predict; it is the past that cannot be predicted.”

One has only to look only at the school and university textbooks that have been prepared since independence to confirm the volatility and precariousness with which the past, the most recent past since 1988 the makers of which are still around, to understand the troubling truth of that simple observation contains.

Regardless, by and large these organizations failed to capture the political imagination of the people of Armenia. Instead, the Third Republic was established and its history marked by forces indigenous to the Second Republic to the surprise and, by and large, to the dismay of the three diasporized political parties; to that we must add the elements that acquired significance as a result of the Karabakh war forced upon Armenia and Armenians by Azerbaijan.

Beyond the politically and ideologically motivated accounts and assessments of the First Republic, we can certainly appreciate the serious efforts toward implementation of policies of the First Republic that would establish a modern, egalitarian, democratic society under the worst possible conditions. And that included the right of women to vote in elections, before such a basic right was granted in the US, and policies that would be normal for European countries. Still, these dire conditions—domestic and foreign-- that were exacerbated by the threat of a Bolshevik uprising in the country, also revealed the authoritarian impulses of the Dashnaktsutiune that controlled government.

Above all, all good intentions set aside, that very precarious state, populated by a huge number of orphans and refugees of the Genocide, the new state of Armenia engaged in wars with three of its four immediate neighbors.

Different historians and political forces can draw vary differing lessons from history. President Levon Ter-Petrossian of the Third Republic and a few around him having been historians had drawn one set of lessons from history: they avoided three wars that brought an end to the First Republic. We knew one war was what we could handle. Although it is not yet over, the first phase of the Karabakh was won, while the First Republic lost territories to all three neighbors that it fought against.

During one of my daily morning meetings with President Ter-Petrossian, at a time when the Karabakh war was at its most intense, I found the president in a rather jovial mood. I had my regular list of items to discuss with him. The president waved his hand, as if temporarily to dismiss any other issue, and asked: “Do you know what today is?” I checked my mind and my notes and gave a very precise calendrical response, knowing full well he was not asking for the date. “Today,” he said, “our Republic is a day older than the First Republic.”

The question arises, what was the problem with the policy decisions of the First Republic? Or, as some would prefer to formulate it, what was the problem with the policies of the Third Republic’s first administration under Ter-Petrossian? The answer, to the second formulation of the question by the critics of that administration has been, that the first administration of the third republic did not have a “national vision,” i.e., that it did not make greater Armenia, the Armenia of the Sevres Treaty, sometimes denoted by the term “Armenian Cause,” the basis of its foreign policy.

It seemed, at this moment, that simply put the difference was what one wished and what was attainable and, more significantly, what was defensible, on the ground and on the negotiating table, and what was not. So, the answer to the first question asked at the start of the previous paragraph might be formulated in the following manner: the capabilities of the First Republic were not commensurate with its vision of the map of Armenia.

So, what is left to be said for an aging scholar who still has time to ponder, after more than 50 years of hearing, researching, writing, and all the while pondering about the First Republic, and the two that have followed? And what is left to be said in view of what that First, precarious, unlikely yet juridically factual Republic reestablished statehood in the millennial heritage of what we consider our history?

I have been intrigued, recently, what can I say, by a number of intriguing questions:

  1. What causes change in Armenian history? What is the role of foreign powers and those of domestic forces?
  2. Who manages that change and with what tools? And what does one do with the change?
  3. What is the role of statehood in Armenian history and why has it appeared and disappeared so often? As a corollary issue, what is the difference and the relationship between an Armenian “state” and an Armenian “nation,” the latter implying a Diaspora or Diasporas. A state implies a territorially defined identity, while a nation implies an ethnic/religious based one the elements of which can be found anywhere on earth. And, at the end,
  4. What constitutes the nexus of Armenian history? In other words, what paradigm can we use to understand the history of a place and of a people where statehood was significant but not always on hand? How did, let us say the Armenia of 2,300 years ago end up with the Armenia of today.

While it is neither the intention of this article nor within its possibilities to answer them, it is possible to contribute to the understanding of that history by asking the right questions, since the wrong questions cannot provide good answers, while even wrong answers to the right questions can open pathways to a better understanding of historical and ongoing processes.

I believe I can offer some thoughts on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the First Republic along these lines.

The First Republic encapsulates the dilemmas and challenges of Armenian history. It represents elements of continuity but mainly change, the culmination of challenges and issues the Armenian people faced, at least as figured out by the political parties in the last 13 decades or so and the Church that did so for much longer.

As a paradigmatic model, the First Republic, and much of Armenian history it seems to me, can best be understood if we accept that what defined it was not its domestic programs and attempted achievements, as important as these were for that precarious state. Rather, it is the tensions it had to endure and resolve in the regional and international arenas and the relationship of local forces with international ones. Much in Armenian history has been explained by the conflict between powerful neighbors and domestic forces. The better model, I have come to conclude, is seeing the interaction between antagonistic domestic forces each aligned with rival foreign powers. That alignment might be direct collusion or indirect cooperation. Ideological or very tactical. Or both. In other words, the domestication and internalization of regional and international rivalries; and, the internationalization of domestic ones. And that places a good deal of the responsibility for the way Armenia’s history has evolved on the shoulders of Armenian individuals and organizations who spoke and acted in the name of the Armenian people.

In the First republic, the leading force, the Dashnaktsutiune, aligned with the West, the anti-Bolshevik coalition, that delivered the dead-on-arrival Sevres Treaty, the ultimate achievement of the “Armenian Question” or “Armenian Case” approach. The Bolsheviks in Armenia of the First Republic, obviously thought the solution to that question could not be sought in the West, but in the ideals of the International Bolshevik Revolution, as personified in the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Both sides believed in what they were saying. And died for it too. More significantly they killed each other for it. It may be worth reviewing developments our history of the last 2,000 years under that light.

The Dashnaktsutiune, the dominant force of First Republic, ended up with far less territory than it started out with, and with far less than the Treaty of Sevres promised; promising is the easy part in history. And the Bolsheviks started with the Treaty of Kars.

On this 100th anniversary of that most important date of rebirth of Armenian statehood, one last thought. More often than not history has been treated as a garbage bin, where anyone can throw anything that one finds worthy of forgetting; later anyone can go in and retrieve an item and market it again, recycled for new times and circumstances.

Sometimes, we need to rescue history from the damages the “garbage approach” can inflict on facts, processes, and critical perspectives.