Young researchers in Turkey are studying the Armenian Genocide without bias, even though the government’s position hasn’t changed
Ronald Grigor Suny, a Philadelphia-born historian and political scientist at the University of Michigan, gave an interview to Diplomaatia in Istanbul, where he was giving lectures at the time. His lecture “Lessons of October: The Fate of Democracy and Socialism in the Age of Revolution and Counter-Revolution” will open the conference “The Russian Revolution and Its Legacies: Taking Stock a Century Later” at the University of Tartu on 4 June.
Estonians often find it difficult to understand the historical relationship between Russia and Armenia, as they have always considered Russia as rather aggressive towards them. Why is the relationship between Armenians and the Russians so differen?
Estonians live on the other side of the world, near Finland and Sweden; Armenians, however, lived on the borders of the Ottoman and Persian empires. Russia has historically been seen as the protector of many Armenian Christians against the forces of Islam. So, until quite recently—almost until Gorbachev [Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union—Ed.] and the war in Nagorno-Karabakh—Armenians were quite supportive of Russia and the Soviet Union. Many of them would like to be less dependent on Russia nowadays, but continue to be so because of Turkey and Azerbaijan.
What went wrong after the dissolution of the Soviet Union? It could have been a new beginning, as in the Baltics. And yet many countries like Armenia ended up in chaos.
The first post-Soviet Armenian government, led by Levon Ter-Petrosyan, tried to redirect Armenian foreign policy away from Russia and towards Turkey. It tried to create a better relationship with Turkey. At the same time, the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh began and Turkey became Azerbaijan’s ally. As a result of this conflict, the relationship with Turkey broke down completely. The border was closed and Armenians were left with no other choice than to turn to Russia which, once again, became their ultimate protection against Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Turkish historians have said that it is true that Armenians were being killed, but by another country, and that modern Turkey doesn’t take responsibility for it. And that if Armenians didn’t call what happened a genocide, everything would be fine.
The Turks have never officially recognised the genocide. They admit up to a certain point that Armenians were killed and deported, but not that it was a deliberate government policy. They claim that the Armenians were actively rebelling against the Ottoman Empire in 1914 and 1915, and that they were collaborating with Russia, the conqueror. This is not true. One must be a professional historian to understand this. Most of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire back then actually supported the empire, and tens of thousands of young Armenians joined the Ottoman army. On the other hand, the Armenians supporting the Russian Empire were fighting on Russia’s side. Hence, the Turks saw Armenians as a threat, disloyal and treacherous, and began deporting and essentially mass-murdering them.
How has the discourse on the Armenian Genocide changed in the last few decades?
The discourse has changed the most in Turkey, because very bold, progressive Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals, who want to understand what happened, have begun researching the Armenian Genocide. The Kurds and their national movement have particularly recognised the genocide; they have even apologised, since many Kurds took part in killing Armenians. But the Turkish government still refuses further public discussion of the topic.
There are virtually no victims of the Armenian Genocide left. How has this influenced the perception of the genocide?
First, there are over 15,000 Armenians in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul. They have a very active and organised community. Second, the genocide was implemented in three ways. The first was by dispersing the population; “They can live in the desert, but nowhere else,” [quote by Talaat Pasha, acting Turkish interior minister in 1915—BD.] they could not be concentrated in one area. The second method was by killing people, mostly men. They were segregated, taken outside the town, and the Kurds, police, army or someone else simply hacked them to pieces. But the third way was that many women and children who survived were forcibly converted to Islam through marriage to Muslims; some of them were turned into slaves or servants of Muslims; and the orphans were adopted. Which means that millions of people in modern Turkey—mostly Kurds and Alawites—are the descendants of the Armenian survivors. Today, many Islamised Armenians identify as Armenians. A few years ago, a book in Turkish was even published about them by Boston University. So the topic of Armenia is still quite relevant. One might think that it is very marginal and insignificant because it happened a hundred years ago. But the subject is used to raise other questions, such as how democratic modern Turkey is or why violence is used against the Kurds.
I have also heard an argument on the Turkish side that there should be a right to deny genocide as part of broader freedom of speech.
What an unusual idea: to offer pseudo-history—what [US president Donald] Trump now calls “alternative facts”—to counter the hard work of historians. And yet, it is a real fight everywhere. All post-Soviet countries are rewriting their history at the moment. Those who were heroes are now enemies; former enemies, even fascists, are now heroes. This is happening in the Baltics, and in Armenia. Some people who collaborated with the Nazis, such as Garegin Nzhdeh [a politician and military strategist of the First Armenian Republic—BD.], are now considered heroes. And the people who murdered Jews in Latvia and Lithuania are no longer denounced, as they were during the communist era. So this is a complicated topic, and historians must work independently of the state and the government to create real histories, not national mythology. Nobody loves us for this. The Republic of Armenia won’t thank us for speaking ill of the Armenians. And Turkey will not thank us for a job well done for uncovering black marks such as genocide or crimes against the Kurds and Alawites that make us ashamed of our past.
A few days ago, I gave a lecture here [in Istanbul] about genocide. A Muslim woman, covered from head to toe, walked up to me and asked: “How can you tell me the story of my ancestors and say that they were killers?” I answered: “Look, there are murderers hidden in the past of every country. It’s just that some of us struggle to bring this to light and it is not especially comfortable for those who wish to preserve a nicer, rosier image of history.” In the end, that woman bought two of my books; I guess she wanted to learn. I am a teacher and I like it when people try to learn about history. But I know that it might be extremely painful to find out what your ancestors have done or are still doing. Estonians also suffered terribly. Look at what happened during Stalin’s time, how many were deported to Siberia and killed. We must face up to this awful history.
It seems to me that there are increasingly more attempts in the research landscape to make peace with the past, to find a common historical narrative of Armenians and Turks. You have also worked in this direction.
I’m interested in the Soviet Union; I’m writing a book about the young Stalin. But since I’m Armenian, I was also interested in the South Caucasus in my youth. My first book was about the Baku Commune [a Soviet-style government that existed from 13 April to 25 July 1918—BD.]. My second book was about Georgia and the creation of the Georgian people. The Azerbaijanis don’t like my book on Baku much—they think some left-wing Armenian is writing about them—and the Georgians don’t like my books about Georgia much, for the same reason. Then I started writing a book about Armenians [Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History—BD.]. But Armenians don’t like the book because it is anti-nationalistic! Then I was told I should work on genocide, so I began learning Turkish and researching Turkey. Over the past 20 years, we have brought together Armenian, Turkish, Kurdish and German researchers—all of whom want to discuss what happened in 1915. The name of our group is “Workshop on Armenian-Turkish Scholarship”. We organise conferences, and the next one takes place in Berlin in September. These meetings have been very successful, and we have published many books, for example Question of Genocide: Armenians and Turks at the End of the Ottoman Empire [edited by Suny, Fatma Müge Göçek and Norman M. Naimark—BD.], which was translated into Turkish.
Has cooperation with Turkish researchers become more difficult as a result of the latest events in Turkey?
Yes, it has. A few years ago, [Turkish president Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan was working towards making society more democratic. Discussion about the Armenian Genocide was relatively free back then; there was an ongoing peace process with the Kurds. All of this was very hopeful until 2014 and the summer of 2015, from when things took a different turn. There were clashes between the Kurds and Turkish security forces, and there was an attempted coup d’état last summer. The public sphere is now closed to a certain degree and democracy is in danger. These topics are more complicated to deal with, as well. However, there are many young researchers who want to open up the past and understand what happened. But they have to be much more careful at the moment because hundreds of academics have lost their jobs, their passports have been taken away from them and they cannot go abroad. This is a difficult time for academics in Turkish universities.
To what extent is the West responsible for the genocide?
There has been progress over the last 25 years on the subject of genocides and crimes against humanity within the international community, which has begun to understand its responsibility in avoiding them. This is very good. But in order to prevent, one must understand what we are dealing with and how such things happen: the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Srebrenica massacre. The topic of 1915 will always be politically charged; it is made to be political. I personally am not so interested in politics but I would like to find out why these things happen. Why did the 1915 massacre happen, why did Stalin’s government carry out a massacre in Russia, why did the Ukrainian Holodomor happen, or why were Estonian intellectuals exterminated? I want to understand how and why something happened, and what to do so that it doesn’t happen again.
Armenian culture has long been developing in the diaspora. What’s your view on this?
The Armenians last lost their country in 1375, after which they were occupied first by the Ottomans and Persians and, finally, the Russian Empire. They began travelling and moving to different parts of the world. Interestingly, many of them settled in Eastern Europe, for example, in Romania, Lviv (then in Poland, now in Ukraine), Astrakhan in Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg, and naturally in Georgia and in Baku, Azerbaijan. The diaspora provided the phenomenon of self-governance lost by many Christian Armenians when they left the Muslim empire to live in Christian countries. And since those countries, such as the Kingdom of Poland and the Russian Empire, were more advanced, the Armenians had slightly better access to education or to the West, which is why Armenians in the diaspora developed faster than those in Armenia itself or in Eastern Anatolia of the Ottoman Empire, which we historically know as Armenia. Some Armenians in the Ottoman Empire might also be called a diaspora—for example, in Izmir, Trabzon and Istanbul—and they developed faster, too. And thus Western education, capital, science and knowledge came from outside, from the diaspora.
It might be interesting for Estonians that one of the centres where young Armenians went to study was the University in Dorpat [Tartu]. The great Armenian writer, Khachatur Abovian, was educated there; he was the author of the first Armenian novel, Wounds of Armenia. But my favourite Armenian who was educated in Tartu and lived in Tallinn was the Bolshevik Stepan Shaumian. He was wonderfully educated and was a truly humanist socialist. When the Baku Commune fell, he tried to flee with the others but, unfortunately, was murdered in 1918 in Turkmenistan along with the rest of the 25 commissars.
Can the Armenian diaspora be seen as a subculture?
There are more Armenians in the diaspora than there are in the Republic of Armenia, which is tiny. There are more of us each year, because life in Armenia is hard and people emigrate, which is extremely sad. Many are in Russia, France, Los Angeles and elsewhere. And even though it seems that certain historical and economic processes are dying out in the Armenian diaspora, the exact opposite is true. In a way, these Armenians are preserving their identity. Sometimes it’s the language, but not always. For example, I learnt the language as a postgraduate. There are also new centres, new Armenian schools in France and Los Angeles, as well as elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the large diaspora in Aleppo, Syria, has disappeared; many fled to Armenia and Turkey for safety.1 And someone like me or you, born in another country with a different native language, is still interested in being an Armenian. Maybe we like the food or the music or simply to be different, but in some way we are still interested.
It seems to me that there are huge differences between the refugees from the genocide and the diaspora that left Soviet Armenia—their identities are constructed differently. For example, the older generation in Estonia does not identify itself through genocide but rather through language and culture. At the same time, the genocide itself is important for the younger generation.
A diaspora is a group of people who have some ties to their native land. But back in the day, it was difficult for the Armenians all over the world who were cast out from the Ottoman Empire to find common ground with Soviet Armenia, because it was a communist country behind the Iron Curtain, an enemy.2 A large part of the diaspora was against communism or the Soviet Union or supporting the Dashnaks [Armenian political party, the roots of which date back to the 19th century—BD.] or neutral towards the Soviets. Having a relationship with Armenia was complicated. Soviet Armenians, on the other hand, didn’t know much about the genocide until 1965, 50 years after it had happened, when a demonstration was held [in Yerevan] in honour of the victims. As a result of that, a cenotaph was built. But Moscow wanted to have a good relationship with Turkey and didn’t really encourage anti-Turkish feeling in Armenians. Lenin and Atatürk were allies. Stalin tried to take back land from Turkey in 1945–6, but failed because Turkey joined NATO. In short, a generation grew up in Soviet Armenia without really knowing anything about the genocide or thinking about it. But later, the genocide became the topic that brought together all Armenians in the diaspora as well as in Armenia itself, Hayastan—Dashnaks and the left-wingers (there are many of them, by the way), as well as the liberals and conservatives (there are lots of them, too). Every Armenian identifies with this terrible crime that destroyed a nation in 1915, and the younger generation mobilises around this topic.
How would you characterise the relationship between Armenia and the diaspora?
It has changed over time. The Republic of Armenia—which even has a Ministry of Diaspora—would ideally like to have an obedient diaspora that supports it and donates money. But this hasn’t come about. When Soviet Armenia fell and a new republic was born, many Armenians from the diaspora wanted to participate in the politics of the Republic, donate money and see the country prosper. Local Armenians discouraged them, however. The Republic of Armenia likes some diasporas—such as the one in Russia, which has many oligarchs and wealthy people who help Armenia but don’t get involved in politics—more than others. They are less satisfied with the diaspora in America, for example, which was very active at one point and wanted to take a greater part in political decision-making in Armenia. This didn’t turn out very well. It is a complex relationship.
But you know, for people like us, Armenian nationality is made up of two different parts: the Armenian Armenians, who are called Hayastans, and the Spyurkahays, the Armenians of the diaspora. By the way, Estonia has quite a remarkable diaspora as well, some of whom have returned home and hold high positions in the government.
How can the diaspora contribute to its homeland? And what is the homeland of the Armenian diaspora?
The homeland of the Armenians is the post-Soviet Armenia or the modern Republic of Armenia. However, most members of the diaspora are not from the Caucasus but rather from the Ottoman Empire. They left either before, during or after the genocide, so they don’t have this kind of relationship with the Caucasus. But today they recognise the Caucasus as their homeland. They support it, and complain about the lack of democracy and about the oligarchs, mafia and corruption, which are serious problems in Armenia. But overall, most of them support the Republic of Armenia. There is no hostility or antagonism, or if so, then there is very little towards Armenia itself.
While doing research, I found that it is often quite difficult to have a dialogue with researchers from Armenia, at least one that ignores the governing narratives. Deconstructing nationality is extremely difficult in these circumstances. How have you coped with this?
Because when talking about nationalism, we are right on target. Soviet Armenia was communist; in addition, as we all very well know, Lenin’s—and especially Stalin’s—nationality policies were characterised by violently drawn borders. Yet somehow, countries were formed in such circumstances—Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and others—and they developed nationalism. And when the Soviet Union fell, suddenly, these old communists were the most nationalistic ones. It’s like they changed their clothes into national clothes and continued as nationalists. They largely control academia, oppose the West, and are critical about our so-called antinationalism. I also felt discouraged at first by the attacks against my friends and colleagues. But today I see the younger generation of Armenian researchers who want to do advanced studies. Some of them have come to the University of Michigan. I don’t know if they are able or willing to return to Armenia, or if they find work in academia, at the universities controlled by those old nationalistic communists. But at least they are trying.
It seems to me that the Armenians in Armenia are the victims of their own nationalism at the moment. Do you see a way out?
There is no easy way out, because Armenia is essentially a besieged country, surrounded on many sides by enemies who would quite like to destroy it. Nationalism is the government’s shield against problems. So, patriotism and nationality will last as long as there is war and hostile neighbours, and it is very difficult to conduct scholarly debate on those subjects. But there must be independent researchers who do their work quietly, regardless of the country. Otherwise, it would be impossible to write history anywhere, because government-approved national narratives are not history but mythology.
Nationalism is damaging human rights in Armenia. At the same time, we see a genuine human rights movement and the formation of civil society in Armenia today. Are these movements influential or do they go unnoticed?
I’m optimistic. Civil society has developed; it is strong and independent. Armenians are not afraid of the government, whether the issue is the rising price of bus tickets or electricity. They are organised, they hold protests and meetings. Civil society is lively, and in remarkably better shape than in Azerbaijan, for example, where it has been shattered, or in Uzbekistan. Rather, it is similar to Georgia. The government is a different matter: it might react to civil society but it doesn’t need to. But I have high hopes for the vitality of Armenian civil society. Armenia is obviously not as democratic as Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, but the fight continues. And I believe that the diaspora could help a lot in promoting democracy by not supporting the existing establishment. However, the diaspora hasn’t done enough of this. It hasn’t pushed hard enough to end corruption and the power of the oligarchs. Changing Armenia into a more democratic country should be the goal for the young and the diaspora.
What is the future of this region? Where will Armenians be in 20 years?
We, Armenians, have always been scattered and afraid that we might disappear. Milan Kundera said something that Estonians understand well—a small nation can disappear and it knows it. Kundera was talking about the Czechs, the Israelis always mention it, and the same might happen to Armenians and Estonians. The risk of disappearing is always there. But, hey, we survived! We survived the genocide! Estonians survived more than 50 years of Soviet power and they are doing better than ever. And the Armenian culture is strong; it will prevail. The rest—politics and economics—will change. Countries fight and make peace. But if you see waves on the water, there are deep currents below the surface. Culture is an undertow that has existed for thousands of years. It will not disappear.
1 About 100,000 Armenians lived in Syria. Today, more than 20,000 of them have allegedly emigrated to Armenia, alongside some Arabs.
2 There are three visions amongst Armenians of the “native land”. The first is the modern Republic of Armenia, the second is the memory of a home village somewhere on the former territory of the Ottoman Empire, and the third is the mythical United Armenia that long ago stretched from one sea to another.