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August 15 2018 | 5:21pm AET

The Legacy of the First Republic of Armenia during the Soviet Era: The Tumultuous 1960s

Source: The Armenian Weekly | Monday, 28 May 2018
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By Vahram Ter-Matevosyan - From the Armenian Weekly 2018 Magazine Dedicated to the Centennial of the First Republic of Armenia


A scene from the massive demonstration at Yerevan’s Lenin Square on April 24, 1965 (Photo: Armenian Genocide Memorial-Institute)

The First Republic lasted only 32 months. Its legacy, however, went far beyond its short-lived existence. After it collapsed in Dec. 1920, generations were born and raised, both in Soviet Armenia and in the Diaspora, with the hope that one day Armenian statehood would be resurrected. The Soviet Union (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or USSR), however, did not provide fertile ground for preserving the legacy of the First Republic. Heavy-handed Soviet censorship and propaganda portrayed the First Republic and its founders as reactionary, nationalist, and adventurist. As early as in the 1930s, in the official discourse of the USSR, the First Republic was presented as distant and insignificant history. The Soviet version of the history of the First Republic and its turning points were distorted beyond recognition. Until the late 1980s, even the date of collapse of the First Republic was noted as Nov. 29, 1920, instead of Dec. 2, when the leaders of the First Republic ceded power to the Bolsheviks.

Yet, despite the official narratives and efforts to ridicule the founders of “the Dashnak republic,” the history of the First Republic faded little on the popular level. In the 1960s and 1970s, the generation that had endured the calamities of the Genocide and had lived in the First Republic, was still alive. Many of them recalled the 1914-1923 period with great pain and sorrow, but also with great pride, recalling the great victories at Sardarabad, Gharakilisa, and Bash-Abaran.

Until the late 1950s, the Soviet leadership in Moscow was ultrasensitive toward any manifestation of local nationalism. However, the Khrushchev-era thaw resulted in changes to the flow of social and ideological transformation in the USSR, including in Soviet Armenia. Leaders of Soviet Armenia undertook various initiatives that aimed to present the history of 1914-1923 under a new light.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, dissident groups and underground movements were formed in Soviet Armenia. The Armenian Youth Union and the National Unity Party, the only underground opposition party in the territory of the USSR, were the ones most widely known. Their strident criticism of Moscow and of past injustices, their territorial claims from Turkey, along with their demand that Karabagh and Nakhichevan be reunited with Soviet Armenia, reopened wounds that the Communist party leadership had hoped was a distant memory.

Many party functionaries and ideologues in Moscow scoffed at those groups and their demands, arguing that only a very few embraced those “manifestations of petty nationalism” in Armenia. Little did they know that their utter confidence would prove problematic. The seeds of Soviet disintegration and ideological polarization were planted in the 1960s, and Armenian dissidents’ roles in that process were anything but secondary. Those “manifestations” were also behind the April 1965 events in Armenia, when mass rallies occurred in Yerevan on the 50th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Some 100,000 Armenians participated in the massive demonstration on April 24, 1965, demanding that April 24 be designated a day of commemoration of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.

Moscow and the Soviet propaganda machine were quick to criticize the unprecedented demonstration by labeling it “secessionist and anti-state nationalism.” Despite Moscow’s reaction, it was an undeniable reality that such ideas were embraced by the masses, in part because fertile ground existed for nurturing such views. People took to the streets because they sensed the change in the air of the Soviet Union.

The unparalleled rally in Yerevan led to changes in the political, cultural, and social landscape of Soviet Armenia. The government had to take note of the growing concerns and rising voices of the people and the intellectual class, and convey that information to Moscow. That’s not to say, however, that the leadership of Soviet Armenia during that decade—Yakov Zarobyan and Anton Kochinyan, and later Karen Demirchyan—nurtured anti-nationalist tendencies. Despite being part of the Communist system, they had all been raised in families that kept the stories of the 1910s alive. The books and memories published by their family members and friends demonstrate that they held a deep belief in the rebuilding of the Armenian homeland. In various settings, they shared their visions of a prosperous Armenia that would develop against all odds. With carefully calibrated language and arguments, they appealed to the leadership in Moscow to consider the sentiments and concerns of the Armenian people. Despite their undisguised unease, the Communist leaders in Moscow were quick to realize that resorting to violence against the population and silencing dissent en-masse could prove problematic. As a result, a new model of coexistence between Moscow and Soviet Republics was shaped in the 1960s, and all the Soviet republics began to benefit from it.

However, the political protests, rallies, and subsequent revisions came at a price. Smaller-scale persecutions and arrests were part of the reality of the era. Between 1963 and 1988, 34 political trials were held in Armenia, resulting in the sentencing of 105 political prisoners. The events of 1965 and subsequent developments had provided inspiration to many in Armenia, and new popular heroes arose who went on to inspire young people.

Yet another important factor the rise of the Armenian dissident movement and the popular discussion of historical events was the repatriation of tens of thousands of Armenians to Soviet Armenia in the late 1940s. Those newcomers had brought with them new ideas and visions that enriched popular discussion and ideological debates.

The Soviet Armenian leadership was itself inspired by the emergence of patriotic literary works that delved into both the heroic past and the sufferings of the Armenian nation, including the revolutionary period preceding the Genocide. It was during this decade that Khachik Dashtents, Hovhannes Shiraz, Paruyr Sevak, Sero Khanzadyan, Silva Kaputikyan, and many others became household names. Their books and poetry were widely read, distributed, and discussed. Their literary works helped produced a new identity, inculcating hope, determination, and perseverance. They became anchors during a period of nationwide, including leadership-level, soul-searching. Moreover, in 1969, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Hovhannes Tumanyan and Komitas were celebrated in Armenia and contributed to the that reawakening.

Two famous sports victories also contributed to the rise of patriotic sentiment in Soviet Armenia. In 1963, Tigran Petrosyan became world chess champion by defeating Mikhail Botvinnik. In 1966, Petrosyan successfully defended the title for another three-year term. His victory became a cause of joy and celebration in Armenia, newborns were named after him, and he popularized chess in Armenia. The other important event occurred in 1973, when the “Ararat” football (soccer) team of Yerevan became the USSR Champion in the Soviet Union’s Premier League, winning the trophy in Armenia’s newly built Hrazdan stadium.

In the 1960s, there was great interest in questions related to Armenian identity and history. The Civil Registration Agency in charge of registering children’s names began to demonstrate reluctance toward accepting non-Armenian names, encouraging the use of Armenian names instead. Couples started to get married in the church—a quite uncommon occurrence in the preceding decades. The first studies about the Armenian Genocide emerged, containing archival documentation; these were the pioneers of Genocide studies in Armenia. Another manifestation of rising interest in Armenian history, culture, and identity was the number of visitors to museums: In 1960, there had been only 96,000 visits, whereas by 1970 the number of visits had increased to 525,000.

Reluctantly, Soviet authorities also yielded to the power of symbolism, particularly in public spaces. As early as 1959, the construction of the Matenadaran, the repository of Armenian manuscripts, had been completed. The same year, the monument of Sasuntsi Davit, the legendary hero of the Armenian national epic, was erected in Yerevan, in front of the railway station. In 1962, the massive statue of Stalin was removed from Victory Park in Yerevan, and five years later it was replaced with the equally massive “Mother Armenia,” visible from all corners of Yerevan. After two years of construction, the Genocide memorial was inaugurated in Tsitsernakaberd in 1967. In 1968, after a series of discussions with Moscow, Kochinyan convinced Soviet leaders of the necessity of celebrating the 2750th anniversary of Urartian Erebuni—modern-day Yerevan. The same year, the construction of the Sardarabad memorial began, marking yet another turning point in the decade. After 1.5 years of construction, the Hrazdan football stadium was also completed. Soon, the erection of a monument commemorating the Battle of Avarayr was authorized; the statue of Vardan Mamikonyan, the Armenian general from that fifth-century battle, depicted on his horse and with sword in hand, gives the impression that he is rallying his people and charging at the enemy. Unveiled in 1975, it has become a powerful manifestation of struggle and hope.

The main conclusion that can be drawn from this discussion is that the link between the independent First Republic and the republic of Soviet Armenia remains underexplored. Yet, clearly, despite the dominance of Soviet historiography, the history of the First Republic has left a lasting impact on the people of Soviet Armenia. For many, it has been—and remains—a source of historical pride and inspiration.