Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Notes on Armenian identity and nationalism

  • Historical background and contextArmenian
  • Cultural Field
    Crombach, Sara

    The Armenian population inhabited what had once been a medieval vassal kingdom of Georgia, later divided between an Ottoman-ruled territory and an Iranian portion conquered by Russia in 1828. In the Russian territories, the provincial capital was Erivan/Yerevan, but as Armenians grew more affluent, they also gravitated to the old metropolitan centre of Tbilisi and the burgeoning oil-rich city of Baku. Moreover, since the 17th century a huge diaspora had settled in many parts of Europe, with cultural centres in the Mekhitarist monasteries of Venice (since 1717) and Vienna (since 1810, with a printing house for non-European fonts).

    As with the other Caucasian territories, Russian rule proved conducive to cultural modernization and a national cultivation of culture. The figure of Xačatur Abovian (1808–1849) – Tartu-educated educationalist, language reformer and novelist – parallels similar cultural practitioners in the region, like the Azeri Mirza Fatali Akhundov, who was likewise active in Tbilisi. While the institutional ambience was Russian, the intellectual basis for this Romantic Nationalism was laid further afield. The first Armenian newspaper was established at the end of the 18th century by the Armenian diaspora in Madras, and after a few decades all the larger Armenian communities in the Ottoman and Russian Empires and in the diaspora had their own national newspapers; the Armenians in the Persian Empire soon followed this trend. Meanwhile, in the Armenian Mekhitarist monastery of Venice, an Armenian grammar and an ecclesiastical history had been written in 1779 and 1784 by the monk Mikael Čamčian.

    The Armenian ethno-cultural awareness that developed from these beginnings was based on three major pillars. The first was the early adoption of Christianity (beginning of the 4th century) and the subsequent establishment of an autonomous Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church in the 6th century. While the conversion to Christianity determined an early and permanent orientation to the Western world, the Armenian Church stood apart from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions since its rejection of the Chalcedon Council, its theological (miaphysite) distinctness providing a clear marker of national identity. A second pillar was the construction of an Armenian alphabet around 400 and the ensuing early-established literary tradition. The third pillar of identity was the loss of the partly-mythical Great Armenian Kingdom that came to an end after Arab, Seljuq, Mongol, Ottoman and finally Russian invasions between the 7th and 19th centuries.

    This awareness in turn fed into a national ideology that was defined by the perception of being an ancient, chosen people, driven by the desire for reunification and the ambition to return to the alleged historical homelands. This ambition, which is often called ”the Armenian Cause”, would become a source of inspiration for a more politically motivated nationalism at the end of the 19th century.

    The Church considered itself to be the spiritual and moral guardian of the nation’s identity and interests; powerful and widely popular prelates like Mkrtič Xrimian represented the nation at international conferences like the one at the Istanbul suburb of Yesilköy, then known internationally as San Stefano, which has given its name to the treaty concluded there in 1878. The Armenian clergy raised national feeling, especially in the Ottoman Empire; but they alo had reservations about Russian-educated modernizers like Abovian, the novelist/poet Mikael Nalbandyan (1829–1886) or the journalist Grigor Artsruni (1845–1892, educated at the Venice Mekhitarist college and in Heidelberg; editor, since 1872, of the liberal periodical Mshak, “The land-tiller”).

    In the urban centres of Tbilisi and Baku, upwardly mobile Armenians mingled with the older-established populations – Georgians and Azeri Muslims respectively, with whom the Armenians’ good standing among the Russian authorities and their economic prosperity caused tensions. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, this situation was also affected by the increasingly hostile climate against Armenians across the Ottoman border: this positioned Russia as a protective counterweight against Ottoman and Turkist enmity. Despite the cultural intolerance of the reign of Alexander III, which principally affected the Armenian Church institutions, Russian rule was still considered the lesser of two evils. A “Young Armenian” movement (forerunner of the  revolutionary nationalist organizations of the following decades, notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation or Dashnak) was founded in Tbilisi in 1889, which undertook reprisal raids against Ottoman Kurds suspected of persecuting Armenians. The reformist novelist Hakob Melik Hakobian (ps. Raffi) (Hakob Melik Hakobian, 1835–1888), whose tales were published in Artstruni’s Mshak in the 1870s and 1880s, already denounced anti-Armenian persecutions by Turks and Kurds, notably in “The fool” (1880, set in the recent Turko-Russian War).

    This ethnic polarization reached crisis proportions as one of the Turkish war aims during the Great War was to establish anti-Russian contacts with Turkic populations in the Caucasus; the Armenian territories posed an obstacle to this geopolitical ambition, and as Armenians looked to Russia for support, and took active service against Turkey, they were perceived as anti-Turkish traitors and internal enemies by the Turkish regime. This escalated into pogroms and a genocidal ethnic cleansing of the Armenian populations under Turkish rule.

    Out of the turbulent ruin of the Russian Empire in 1917-18, an Armenian Republic arose, which harboured many refugees from Turkey and faced hostile relations with the other Caucasian republics, Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as with Turkey itself. The Armenian Republic was annexed by Soviet Russia in 1920. Although some cultivation of culture was fostered under Soviet rule (thus, a film version of Raffi’s 1882 historical novel David Bek was produced in 1944), Romantic Nationalism played no significant role, overshadowed as it was by the trauma of the genocide, also among the diaspora communities in France and the United States.

    Word Count: 912

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Crombach, Sara, 2022. "Notes on Armenian identity and nationalism", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 26-04-2022, consulted 17-07-2024.