Friday, February 21, 2014

Death of Missak Manouchian - February 21, 1944

French Armenian filmmaker Robert Guédiguian’s movie, “The Army of Crime,” which Richard Brody praised in The New Yorker (2010) as “vigorously heroic yet mournful Second World War drama,” reconstructed the deeds and the downfall of a group of foreign members of the French Resistance led by Armenian poet and activist Missak Manouchian (Manoushian).
Manouchian was born on September 1, 1906, in Adiyaman (vilayet of Mamuret-ul-Aziz). He survived the Armenian Genocide, harbored by a Kurdish family. His brother Karabet also survived the Genocide.  Both orphaned siblings were accepted at an orphanage in Syria. They finally made their way to Marseilles in 1925.
The brothers moved to Paris, where Karabet Manouchian died in 1927. Missak had taken a job at a plant of the automobile company Citroën and joined a member of the General Confederation of Labour, a national association of trade unions that was the first of the major French confederations. He lost his job in the early 1930s, at the time of the Great Depression. He joined the Communist Party in 1934 and became secretary of the Committee of Assistance to Armenia (Hayastani Oknutian Gomide or HOG) the next year and editor of its weekly Zanku. In one of the meetings of the Committee, he met his future wife Melinée Assadourian (1913-1989).
Manouchian was a poet who founded two left-leaning literary magazines, Chank and Mshaguyt, with a fellow Communist friend and poet, Sema (Kegham Atmadjian). Besides their own poetry, they published articles on French literature and Armenian literature.
At the beginning of World War II, the young poet was evacuated from Paris as a foreigner. He returned after the defeat to Germany in June 1940 and was briefly arrested by the German authorities of occupation in June 1941, when the invasion of the Soviet Union began, but released a few weeks later by the efforts of his wife.
After becoming the political head of the Armenian section of the underground MOI (Immigrant Workforce Movement), the branch of foreign members of the Communist Party, from 1941-1943, Manouchian transferred in February 1943 to the FTP-MOI, a group of gunmen and saboteurs attached to the MOI in Paris. The group carried out almost thirty successful attacks on German interests from August to November 1943.
The Special Brigade No. 2 of the General Intelligence, a collaborationist French police force, undertook a large operation against resistance activists, which eventually led to the complete dismantling of the FTP-MOI network in Paris. A total of 68 persons were arrested, including Manouchian on the morning of November 16, 1943, in Évry Petit-Bourg. His wife managed to escape and survive the war.
Manouchian and the others were tortured to gain information, and eventually handed over to the Germans. The inner circle of twenty-three people (eleven Jewish, five Italians, three French, two Armenians, one Spaniard, and one Polish) was given a 1944 show trial for propaganda purposes before execution. Twenty-two men were shot on February 21, 1944, at Fort Mont-Valérien, near Paris. The only woman of the group was beheaded in the prison at Stuttgart (Germany) three months later. After the liberation, Manouchian would be posthumously awarded the highest order of the Legion of Honor.
In the wake of the execution, the Germans printed 15,000 propaganda posters on red background paper. The red posters (Affiche Rouge) bore photos of ten of the dead. The center photo of Manouchian had the following inscription: “Armenian gang leader, 56 bombings, 150 dead, 600 wounded.” The poster was intended to portray the Resistance as murderous foreigners who were a danger to law-abiding citizens. But people marked the red posters with "Morts pour la France!" (They died for France). Pasted on walls all over Paris, the posters became emblems of martyrdom by freedom fighters, and contributed to popular support for the Resistance.
The last letter of Manouchian to his wife stated: “I joined the Army of Liberation as a volunteer, and I die within inches of Victory and the final goal. Happy will be all those who will survive and taste the sweetness of Freedom and Peace of tomorrow. I'm sure that the French people and all the freedom combatants will know how to honor our memory with dignity. . . . With the help of friends who would like to honor me, you shall publish my poems and writings that are worth being read. You shall take my memories, if possible, to my relatives in Armenia.”
A commemorative plaque and a fresco remember the Manouchian group in Paris, as well as a park and a memorial in Évry Petit-Bourg. A street bears Manouchian’s name in Yerevan.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The February Revolt - February 18, 1921

A New York Times article headline from March 17, 1921
The government of the Republic of Armenia transferred the power to the incoming Armenian Bolsheviks on December 2, 1921, and the first independence came to an end: Armenia became a Soviet republic, nominally independent. The Military-Revolutionary Committee (Revkom) led by Sarkis Kasian arrived in Yerevan on December 6. 
The transference of government and loss of independence had been the choice between the lesser of two evils. On the west, Armenia had been defeated by the Turkish nationalist forces that responded to Mustafa Kemal, which had occupied Alexandropol, and the danger of a new massacre that would complete the genocide loomed over the country. It was expected that the new government, while dealing with the Turks with the sponsorship of Soviet Russia, would also address the myriad of problems that affected the exhausted population. 
This did not happen. The newcomers, instead, caught in the fever of revolution and war communism, tried to apply to Armenia the same recipes that were being practiced in Soviet Russia.  Food was requisitioned from the starving population to be sent to Russia as “help from the Armenian workers.”  Repression against the former government and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation started. In late December about 1,200 high-ranking officers of the army of independent Armenia were arrested, including the heroes of the May 1918 battles, like generals Tovmas Nazarbekian, Movses Silikian, Daniel Bek-Pirumian, and Dro. They were forced to walk from Yerevan to Alaverdi (about 100 miles), and then dispatched to prisons in Baku and Russia; Daniel Bek-Pirumian, hero of the battle of Sardarabad, was shot in the Yerevan prison in February 1921. 
Economic suffering and political violence led to the brewing of a popular movement to put an end to the situation. In February 1921 many prominent A.R.F. members, who had also been active in the years of the Republic, like Levon Shant, Nikol Aghbalian, and Hovhannes Kajaznuni, were arrested. Some of them were killed in prison by Azeri killers armed with axes. Others were saved by the rebellion, which started on February 13 amid a group of refugees from Sasun who had settled on the foot of Mount Aragatz. In the next four days, the rebel forces, now headed by members of the A.R.F. who had eluded persecution, took Ashtarak, Echmiadzin, Garni, and Hrazdan. Yerevan was liberated on February 18 and the Bolshevik-led Military Revolutionary Committee retreated. The rebellion had been helped by the fact that the troops of the XI Red Army had been taken out of Armenia to participate in the sovietization of Georgia. 
On February 18 the independence of Armenia was again proclaimed and the “Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland” took power under the leadership of the last prime minister of the independent Republic, Simon Vratzian. It issued an order that stated: “The Bolshevik regime in Armenia has been eliminated. Until the formation of a government, the whole authority is in the hands of the Committee for the Salvation of the Homeland.” A message to the delegation of the Republic of Armenia and to the leaders of the world powers, sent on the same day, remained unanswered. A response to a message sent to Georgia was received on February 21, when the Armenian embassy was reopened in Tiflis. However, four days later Georgia fell to the Soviet forces, and the rebellion in Armenia was left alone against the Communist forces. There was no help from the outside world, because it was obvious that the rebellion would fail sooner or later; the Soviet forces in Armenia had the support of Soviet Russia. 
Bloody battles took place between the opposing sides during the short-lived period of freedom. The Bolsheviks attacked Yerevan on February 27, but were forced to retreat on March 1. After a two-week stop, they attacked again and briefly took Ashtarak, but were repelled on March 17. However, the numerical superiority of the Bolsheviks became crucial. Their great offensive started on March 24 and nine days later, on April 2, Yerevan fell. 
The A.R.F. forces retreated without opposing serious resistance to avoid the destruction of the capital. Thousands of people, both civilians and soldiers, retreated to Zangezur, where the Republic of Mountainous Armenia had been formed, and joined the forces of Garegin Nzhdeh. The resistance ended in July, while the refugees and the leaders of the rebellion had already crossed the border to Persia. 
The reasons of the revolt were later discussed by the Bolshevik authorities in Russia and the Military-Revolutionary Committee was replaced in April 1921 by the Council of People’s Commissars, led by Alexander Miasnikian until his death in 1925, whose policies ensured a more tolerant treatment of the population, the end of the rebellion, and the partial return of some of the refugees from Persia.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Death of Armen Tigranian - February 10, 1950

They were brother and sister, and had very divergent ways. While Armen (1879-1950) was a musician and became an artist emeritus of the Republics of Armenia and Georgia, Armenuhi (1888-1962) was a poet and became an expatriate with her husband Vartkes Aharonian, son of novelist Avetis Aharonian and a literary critic and public figure himself (people of certain age in the East Coast and particularly in New York will probably recall the Aharonians as teachers, writers, and lecturers).

Armen Tigranian was born in Alexandropol (now Gumri) on December 26, 1879. He played the flute from an early age and participated in the concerts of the woodwind orchestra at his school. His family moved to Tiflis in 1894 when he was fifteen. Eight years later he graduated from the classes of flute and musical theory of the School of Music; he had also taken lessons of composition from Makar Ekmalian, the noted author of the Armenian polyphonic mass. In the same year, 1902, he returned to Alexandropol. He organized school and popular choirs; the latter toured Tiflis, Baku, and Kars. He composed his first songs at this time with lyrics from poets like Avetik Isahakian and Hovhannes Hovhannisian, as well as arrangements of Armenian folkloric songs.
In 1908, at the age of 29, Tigranian started to write his first opera, Anush, based on the celebrated poem by Hovhannes Tumanian, which laid the ground for a new stylistic orientation in the Armenian music theater. Fragments of the opera were presented in Tiflis in the same year. A complete version of Anush was staged for the first time in Alexandropol four years later. The opera was the first composed in Eastern Armenian, and its Alexandropol performance was the first presentation of an opera in Armenia. For the next thirty years, the composer introduced some changes and additions, and revised the musical arrangement of his work. The opera was particularly remarkable for the scenes of popular feasts and ceremonies, as well as its lyrical songs, duets, and choir songs. Some of the melodies composed by Tigranian became very popular and continue to be popular to this day.
Tigranian commemorated on an Armenian stamp.
The composer moved back to Tiflis in 1913. He participated in the activities of the Armenian Musical Society (1913-1921), taught at the Hovnanian School and gave concerts. He wrote new works, such as music for the drama Layla and Majnun (1918), the Oriental Dance for symphonic orchestra, and choral works, and made arrangements of folkloric songs. 

Tigranian continued his creative endeavors during the 1920s and 1930s, and produced songs, cantatas, choral works, and piano works (Dance Song, Suite of Armenian Dances, Oriental Fantasy, Emerald of Shirak, Child Album, etcetera). Anush was staged for the first time at the Opera of Yerevan in 1935. 
During World War II, Tigranian started to work, among other pieces, on a new opera, David Bek, based on Raffi’s homonymous novel. The subject, which was the heroic resistance of the Armenians of Siunik against Persian and Turkish invasion in the 1720s, was suited to fit patriotic feelings, which were on the rise at the time in the Soviet Union. As in the case of Anush, the new opera included many elements of village music. He finished the opera in 1949, but it was premiered posthumously in 1950 at the Opera of Yerevan.
Besides writing music for many plays, Tigranian translated the librettos of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto and George Bizet’s Carmen into Armenian.
Tigranian’s house-museum is located in his birthplace, Gumri, while streets and music schools in Gumri and Yerevan have been named after him. His statue graces the Ring Park of Yerevan.
A scene from the opera Anush staged by the Gyumri Opera Company  

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Birth of Zabel Yesayan - February 4, 1878

Zabel Yesayan was a gifted novelist. Hagop Oshagan, her contemporary and another great writer and literary critic, assessed her in the following terms: “The work of Madam Yesayan is a whole. Its two big poles, the soul of individuals and the collective sensitivity of peoples, have been eternally conquered in indestructible works. Z. Yesayan is the most complete success of Western Armenian literature.” But she was also an activist for the rights of women and the rights of her people. “Women have not come to the world just to be pleasing,” she wrote. “Women have come to develop their mind and their intellectual, moral, and physical qualities. The ideal of all self-respecting women should not be just to please, but to become a beneficial element on this world.”

Born Zabel Hovhannesian in Scutari (nowadays Uskudar), a suburb of Constantinople, she attended the local Surp Khach School, and her aim was to become a writer. She managed to go to Paris at the age of seventeen, in 1895, and study literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne. Her prolific literary career started in the same year with a prose poem published in the literary periodical Tsaghik, published by Arshak Chobanian in Constantinople. She went on to publish short stories, literary essays, articles, and translations, both in French and in Armenian, in periodicals such as Mercure de France, Masis, Anahit, and Arevelian Mamoul. She would also publish two novels, In the Waiting Room (1903) and Decent People (1907).

She first signed with her maiden name, and soon, after she married painter Dikran Yesayan (1874-1921), she adopted her nom de plume that made her famous. They would have two children, Sophie and Hrant.

After the Ottoman Revolution of 1908, Zabel Yesayan returned to Constantinople, where she was active in literary and public affairs. After the Adana massacres of 1909, she was a member of the Investigative Commission set up by the Armenian Patriarchate and was sent to Cilicia in this capacity. The tragic fate of the Armenians in Cilicia inspired her masterpiece testimony of the catastrophe, Amid the Ruins (1911), as well as a series of articles, a novella, and short stories.

She was the only woman in the list of intellectuals to be arrested and deported on the fateful night of April 23-24, 1915, but she was able to avoid that dubious honor and to find refuge in Bulgaria months later. She was later joined by her mother and her son (her daughter lived with her husband in Paris).

She went to the Caucasus, and worked actively for the next three years, both in Tiflis and Baku, gathering testimonies of survivors, which she also translated in order to provide information to the French press. After reaching Paris in 1919, she went to Cilicia and Beirut in 1920-1921 to collaborate in the relocation of refugees and orphans.

Returning to Paris, she published the novellas The Last Cup and My Soul Exiled, the latter being another of her best works. She published other works in the 1920s, when she also left the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, of which she had been a member, and took a pro-Soviet orientation. She visited Soviet Armenia in 1926 and wrote down her impressions in a travelogue entitled Prometheus Unchained (1928). Finally, she settled down in Yerevan in 1933 with her children. She taught French literature at Yerevan State University and participated in the first Congress of Soviet Writers in Moscow (1934). She published two books during her last years, most importantly her childhood memoir, The Gardens of Silihdar (1935), considered her masterpiece.

Zabel Yesayan, holding the Armenian Tricolor, with her family in Paris.
After surviving 1915, it was an irony that she returned to Armenia to contribute in the rebuilding of the country, only to become yet another victim of the regime four years later. The Stalinist purges claimed her life, together with her younger colleagues Yeghishe Charents, Axel Bakunts, Vahan Totovents, and others, whom she tried to defend. She was arrested and deported in 1937. Going from prison to prison, she managed to write a few letters to her daughter and her daughter-in-law. The last one was sent from Baku in late 1942. Afterwards, there was complete silence.

As she wrote in The Gardens of Silihdar, “... I take refuge in them [the gardens] every time ominous dark clouds pile up on the horizon of my life.” Perhaps that helped her resist almost six years of exile and physical and moral suffering. One unconfirmed version says that she was drowned in the Caspian Sea in late 1942 or early 1943, at the age of 65. But her works lived to turn her into the “great lady” of Armenian literature.