Friday, May 31, 2013

Birth of Dro - May 31, 1884

Dro (Drastamat Kanayan) was a freedom fighter, a military leader of the first Republic of Armenia, and a political activist in the Diaspora. He was born in the town of Igdir, in the province of Surmalu (Eastern Armenia, then part of the Russian Empire).

His father sent him to the parish school, but the young Drastamat did not show any interest in books. He would skip school and wander about near the military headquarters of Igdir; his interest in military art developed from these youthful wanderings. He did not do much better in high school in Yerevan. His enthusiasm for the feats of freedom fighters (fedayees) and his interest in the national ideas of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (A.R.F.) prompted him to create a secret youth movement at school. He became a member of the A.R.F. at a very young age.

The Russian government issued a decree on June 12, 1903, to confiscate the properties of the Armenian Church. This created a widespread feeling of ire among the Armenian of the Russian Empire. The A.R.F. created armed groups that acted as guardians of the church property and organized massive demonstrations. Dro Kanayan joined these groups. He later engaged in the clandestine transportation of weapons from Surmalu to Western Armenia.

In 1905 he participated actively in the Armenian self-defense against the Tatar attacks in Baku and other cities of the Caucasus. Following the decision of the party, 21-year-old Dro killed Prince M. A. Nakashidze, governor of Baku, regarded as the main driving force behind the massacres of Armenians. Dro was also active in many battles in the regions of Nakhichevan and Zangezur, and distinguished himself with his talent as a military organizer and strategist.

Dro moved to Tiflis during World War I and became commander of the second battalion of Armenian volunteers, which advanced in the direction of Igdir-Bayazet-Berkri-Van. He was gravely wounded in battle. After recovery in Tiflis, he returned to the command of his troops and entered Van.

Three years later, in March 1918, the Armenian National Council of Tiflis, the supreme authority of Caucasian Armenians, designated him military commissar of the Armenian army corpus. In this capacity, he led the Armenian army in the battle of Bash-Aparan from May 23-27, 1918, which became one of the decisive battles that achieved the independence of Armenia.

In the years of the Republic, Dro was among the organizers of the Armenian army, and he also was charged with the maintenance of political stability in the country. He fought victoriously in the brief Armeno-Georgian war, and then in Zangezur and Karabagh against the Azerbaijani encroachment in late 1919 and early 1920. He became Minister of Defense in the short-lived cabinet of Simon Vratzian, who was prime minister between November 24 and December 2, 1920. The catastrophic situation of Armenia, defeated in the Armeno-Turkish war started in September, and on the verge of being overrun by the invading Turkish army, prompted Dro to adopt a pro-Russian position. He found that the only alternative, as the lesser of two evils, was the establishment of the Soviet regime in Armenia, which would guarantee the survival of the country.

By an agreement signed on December 2, the government of the Republic of Armenia resigned and transferred power to the Communists. Dro and a Soviet representative, Silin, were charged with the transition government until the arrival of the Bolshevik Revolutionary Committee (Revkom) on December 6.

In the wave of repression that followed the establishment of the Soviet regime, Dro and some 1,200 officers of the former Armenian army were exiled to Russia. Dro stayed in Moscow for the next four years. In 1925 he managed to leave for France and then he settled in Romania. He was elected member of the Bureau of the A.R.F. in 1933 and held this position until his death.

During World War II, Dro and a small group of A.R.F. members living in the Balkans, cut off from the headquarters of the party in Cairo (Egypt), decided to establish some sort of cooperation with the Nazi German regime in order to save the lives of tens of thousands of Armenian prisoners of the Soviet army and avoid any kind of danger to the Armenian population in occupied Europe. He left his comfortable life in Romania and moved to Germany. When the German army started the organization of the “Eastern Legions,” enrolling Soviet prisoners of war according to their nationality, he encouraged Armenian prisoners to enter military service, because the alternative was death in the camps. An “Armenian Legion” was formed, with some 11,000 soldiers. Dro was also engaged in military counterintelligence missions in Crimea and the Northern Caucasus, but he was never the commander of the Armenian Legion or had any military position, as it has been frequently written.

After the war, Dro settled first in the United States and then in Lebanon, while he continued his political activities. He passed away in Boston on March 8, 1956. His remnants were reburied in Armenia, in a section of the memorial complex of the Battle of Bash-Aparan, in 2000. The government of Armenia founded the General Dro National Institute of Strategic Studies, while the Ministry of Defense established a medal in his name to decorate military personnel, freedom-fighters, and civilians who excelled in military teaching.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Birth of Siranoush - May 25, 1857

Siranoush is regarded as the most famous actress in the history of Armenian theater. She was a brilliant interpreter of tragedies and operettas. She was a daring, proud, and persistent woman in real life, but she knew how to be delicate and emotional on the stage. Her theatrical fame perhaps helped the name Siranoush (a combination of the words ser “love” and anoush “sweet”) become a common one among Armenian women born in the twentieth century.

She was born Merobe Kantarjian in Constantinople. She was one of four cousins who became actresses. Azniv Hrachia (1853-1920) and Siranoush had a long and very fecund life, but Asdghik (1852-1884), Siranoush’ s sister, and Marie Nevart (1853-1885) died very early. At a time when few women dared to go on the stage, and men still played female roles, Siranoush entered the world of theater at the age of eight performing for Tovmas Fasulajian’s group. She appeared once again in 1867 with Bedros Maghakian’s group, and finally made her professional debut at the age of 16 with the same group in the play “Pierre of Arezzo.” She studied singing with Dikran Chuhajian, the famous opera composer, and later with Italian musicologist Carlo Nicosias, to whom she was briefly married from 883 and 1887. In 1875 she joined Hagop Vartovian’s group, where she interpreted various operettas. She played in Tiflis from 1879-1881 and 1891-1892.
She was the first and most celebrated Ophelia in Armenian theater, as she played that role opposing an equally famous Hamlet, Bedros Atamian (1849-1891), in the first performance of William Shakespeare’s play on November 20, 1881 in Tiflis. She was also equally celebrated as the first Armenian actress who played the role of Hamlet—the same as French world-famous actress Sarah Bernhardt and others before her—in 1901, again in Tiflis. Her Hamlet was so convincing, that only her voice of coloratura soprano reminded the audience that a woman was talking about the eternal dilemma of being or not being.

She acted for long periods of time in Constantinople, with frequent presentations in Greece, Bulgaria, and Egypt, with different groups, as well as her own group. In 1897 she returned to the Caucasus and played for a long time in Baku, which was the main center of Armenian theater between 1897 and 1901. She also played in many places in the Caucasus, from Yerevan to Nakhichevan-on-Don (Rostov), and Central Asia. The best Armenian actors from Tiflis, headed by two luminaries like Hovhannes Abelian and Siranoush, performed in Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1912, where Siranush was compared to world famous Italian actress Eleonora Duse.

Siranoush performed some 300 roles. Among the most famous, besides Ophelia and Hamlet, were Marguerite Gautier (Alexander Dumas Jr.’s The Lady of the Camellias), Teresa (Luigi Camoletti’s Sister Therese), Ruzan (Muratsan’s Ruzan), Jeanne d’Arc and Mary Steward (Friedrich Schiller’s Joan d’Arc), Medea (Alexei Suvorin’s and Viktor Burenin’s Medea), Portia (Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice), Princess (Levon Shant’s The Ancient Gods), Margarit (Gabriel Sundukian’s Spouses), etc.Some of her roles, such as Ophelia, Marguerite Gautier, Medea, and others, became masterpieces of Armenian acting. Her sensitive and deeply felt performing was most appreciated by her contemporaries.

Siranoush toured Iran between 1918 and 1921, and returned to the Caucasus, where she gave her last performance in 1922. Afterwards, she left for Constantinople to join her daughter, who lived there. She finally settled in Cairo (Egypt), where she performed her signature role of Marguerite Gautier in 1932, at the age of 75. She died on June 10, 1932 on her way home from the theater. She is buried in the Armenian cemetery of Cairo.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Birth of Hamo Bek-Nazarian - May 19, 1892

Hamo (Hambardzum) Bek-Nazarian was one of the pioneers of Armenian cinema. Born in Yerevan in 1892, he moved with his family to Tashkent (currently the capital of Uzbekistan). He first became a cyclist, and then a wrestler. He participated in competitions outside the Russian Empire and even wrestled in the circus with the pseudonym of Maroni.

In 1914 he started his career in Russian cinema. His first role was a minor one in a film, significantly titled Enver-pasha – predatel’ Turtsii  (“Enver Pasha, Traitor of Turkey”), released in 1915. He appeared with the artistic name of Hamo Bek in more than 70 Russian silent movies, where he met his future wife, the actress Sofya Volkhovskaya (1888-1956).

 He graduated from the Commerce Institute of Moscow in 1918. In 1921 he headed the movies section of the film studios of Georgia and then became a film director of the State Film of Georgia. In 1923 he moved to Armenia following an invitation by the government and founded the Armenfilm (Haifilm)studios. This was a real challenge, as there were no grounds for cinema in Armenia and Bek-Nazarian had to start everything from scratch. Two years later, he directed the first Armenian feature film, Namus (The Honor), based on the homonymous play by Shirvanzade (1858-1935). He also directed other important films, such as Zare (the first movie on Kurdish life) and the first Armenian comedy, Shor and Shor Shor, in 1926. He wrote the scenario of Shor and Shor Shor in one night and filmed it in eleven days. He also filmed three Georgian movies in 1924-1925, and would later film two Azerbaijani movies (1927 and 1941). 

By 1935 Bek-Nazarian had written (alone or in collaboration) and directed sixteen films, both features and documentaries. He achieved another feat in that year: he directed the first Armenian sound film (“talkie”), Pepo, also based on a classical play by Gabriel Sundukian (1825-1912). This was four years after the release of the first Soviet sound film, at a time when less than one out of a hundred film projectors in the Soviet Union were equipped for sound. Pepo became his masterpiece, as well as one of the masterworks of the Armenian movie industry. He earned the title of Popular Artist of Soviet Armenia in the same year.

He produced two other important films among his works: Zangezur (1938), which received the Stalin Prize of second degree in 1941, and David Bek (1943). The latter was based on the Armenian rebellion against Persian domination in the eighteenth century. However, he suffered a very big disappointment with his film Yerrort karavan (Third Caravan), dedicated to the subject of the repatriation to Armenia in 1946-1948, which was probably set to become his masterpiece. The filming of the movie, which was halfway, was forbidden and the production was shut down in 1951, probably as part of the change of heart of the Soviet regime with regards to repatriation and repatriates. Bek-Nazarian, deeply upset and disillusioned, abandoned both Armenfilm and Armenia, and went to work in the Central Asian republics, such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He passed away on April 27, 1965, and was buried at the Armenian cemetery of Moscow beside his wife. His work was posthumously acknowledged and the movie studios of Armenfilm were named after him.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Liberation of Shushi - May 9, 1992

Shushi had historically been the capital of Karabagh and the third most important Armenian cultural center in the Southern Caucasus (after Tiflis and Baku) until 1920, when the pogrom executed by Azerbaijani forces ended in the destruction of the Armenian quarters and the extermination of the Armenian population of the city.

During Soviet times, the capital of the autonomous region of Mountainous Karabagh was moved to Stepanakert, while Shushi, located four miles to the south, became an Azerbaijani center.

In the years of the Karabagh war (1989-1994), the strategic importance of Shushi, situated on a mountaintop overlooking Stepanakert, acquired more relevance for Azerbaijani forces in Karabagh after the occupation of Khojalu by Armenians in February 1992. The town became the main base for the indiscriminate shelling of Stepanakert with Soviet-built GRAD multiple rocket launchers. These launchers were capable of shelling 40 rockets at the same time and cause enormous damage to the civilian population. Over 2,000 people were killed in Stepanakert as a result of Azerbaijani shelling in the first months of 1992.

The capture of Shushi became imperative to end the relentless bombing of Stepanakert and the suffering of its population. The plan was finalized on April 28 and the order of attack was given on May 4, 1992.  However, various reasons caused a delay of four days.
Members of the ARF battalion celebrating the liberation of Shushi in front of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 1992.

The military operation was directed by Commander Arkadi Ter-Tadevosyan, who had a force of 1,200 members of the Self-Defense Forces of Karabagh, divided into five companies. The Armenian forces were complemented by four tanks and two attack helicopters. The Azerbaijani defending forces counted 1,200 people in Shushi, where the civilian population had been already evacuated, and some 800 around the town. A Chechen volunteer contingent led by guerrilla warlord Shamil Basayev (who was among the last to leave the city and was killed in 2006 in Chechnya) had reinforced the Azerbaijanis.

Shushi was attacked by the flanks and the rears in the twilight hours of May 8, as the ridge facing Stepanakert was easier to defend. There was a full engagement by midday, and the ending to the battle was envisioned in the evening, when Armenians, occupying favorable positions around Shushi, allowed the enemy forces a corridor for retreat.

Members of the ARF battalion celebrating the liberation of Shushi in front of the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral in 1992.
The ancient Armenian capital was occupied on May 9. Azerbaijani military plane and helicopters shelled the Armenian ranks, as well as Shushi and Stepanakert during midday. Later, it was discovered that the air offensive was aimed at exploding the weapon deposits abandoned in Shushi with the hope of destroying the entire city. However, the plan did not succeed, and the “clean up” of the city ended in the evening of the same day. It has been estimated that the Armenians lost 60 people, while Azerbaijanis had a total of 150 to 200 casualties.

The victory at Shushi had a crucial importance in the Karabagh war. The Armenian forces immediately launched an offensive over the corridor of Lachin, which was central to the connection between Armenia (Goris) and Karabagh (Stepanakert), and occupied Lachin (nowadays Berdzor) on May 18. The consequent falls of Shushi and Lachin triggered the deposition of Azerbaijani president Ayaz Mutalibov.

The liberation of Shushi was of enormous symbolical value, as it represented the recovery of a city that had been abandoned for more than seventy years to Azerbaijanis. In the last twenty years, Shushi has been slowly recovering its Armenian profile and population, with the white and imposing silhouette of the nineteenth-century Ghazanchetsots Cathedral (which had been converted by Azerbaijanis into a deposit of GRAD launchers) standing completely renovated as a symbol of resilience and faith in the future.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Death of Yeprem Khan - May 6, 1912

Armenians participated simultaneously in the Ottoman constitutional revolution of 1908 headed by the Young Turks and in the Iranian Constitutional Movement of 1905-1911. In both cases, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (A.R.F.) had a leading role and in Iran, its actions were led by a young but veteran militant, Yeprem Davtian.

Known simply as Yeprem, and later as Yeprem Khan, he was born in 1868 in the village of Barsum (in the province fedayees (freedom fighters) in the late 1880s. He participated in the ill-fated expedition of Sargis Kukunian in 1890, which failed to cross the Russian-Ottoman border, as it was simultaneously attacked by the gendarmerie of both countries. Yeprem was arrested by Russian Cossacks among the surviving participants, exiled to Siberia (1892) and then to the island of Sakhalin, in the Russian Far East. He escaped from exile in 1896 to Tabriz, in the north of Iran. He participated in the punitive expedition of Khanasor in July 1897 against the Kurdish Mazrik tribe that had executed a massacre of Armenians. He married Anahid Davtian in 1902.

Yeprem was one of the main organizers of the A.R.F. branches in the Iranian towns of Rasht and Enzeli. The activities of the party in the country were primarily directed against the Ottoman regime. He convinced the party to participate in the revolutionary movement that exploded in Iran in 1905 and brought the ailing shah Muzaffer-ed-Din to sign a Constitution in late 1906. The A.R.F. officially entered the movement in February 1907. Yeprem had an active participation in the resistance to the counterrevolutionary movement led by Muzaffer’s son, Mohammed-Ali Shah (1907-1909). He occupied Rasht and Enzeli in February-March 1909. In July of the same year he was among the leaders of the occupation of Tehran, which ended with the dethronement of the shah in favor of his son. He was designated police chief of Tehran by the second Iranian Parliament in 1909 and police chief of the country in 1910. He reorganized the police force and formed a gendarmerie, introducing European uniforms and training. He led a series of successful military campaigns against opponents of the constitutional regime between November 1909 and April 1910.    

He had a crucial role in the defeat of another counterrevolutionary movement in September 1911. He was rewarded by the government with a gem-studded sword, a pension, and the title of sardar (military commander). Six months later, Yeprem directed a second expedition against the forces of the ex-shah Mohammed-Ali, but he was killed during a successful battle on May 6, 1912, while trying to rescue the body of a comrade. He was interred in the courtyard of the Armenian Haigazian (now Davtian) school in Tehran.