Friday, February 20, 2015

Declaration of Secession of Nagorno Karabagh from Azerbaijan (February 20, 1988)

The question of Karabagh started in the years of the first independent Republic of Armenia and was not solved after the South Caucasus became part of the Soviet Union. The arbitrary decision of the Caucasian Bureau of the Soviet Communist Party (July 5, 1921) to attach Karabagh to Azerbaijan only contributed to open a new Pandora’s box. Throughout the decades, the Azerbaijani discriminatory policy had the other historical Armenian region, the Autonomous Republic of Nakhichevan, as poster child: due to continuous emigration, its Armenian population went from 40% in 1926 to 2% in 1988.

It is not surprising then, that the Armenians of Mountainous Karabagh, who constituted 90% of its population in 1926, took every opportunity to address Moscow and ask for a fair solution of the issue. Various letters were sent in 1945, 1965, and 1977. The petition of 1965 was signed by 45,000 people. On its grounds, the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union assigned to the Central Committees of the party in Armenia and Azerbaijan the mission of preparing a proposal for the solution of the problem of Karabagh in 1966. However, Azerbaijan was able to put the brakes on any possible solution. The Azerbaijani KGB, led by Heydar Aliyev (future president in post-Soviet times) stimulated interethnic conflict. As a result, more than 150 Armenians were sent to prison, where 20 people were killed and ten others disappeared. More than a hundred families, after two years of persecution, were forced to leave Karabagh. The issue was again treated in 1977 during the discussions of the draft Soviet Constitution, but never went through.

After the proclamation of the policies of restructuring (perestroika) and transparency (glasnost) by the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, the movement for Karabagh entered a new phase in mid-1987. There were demonstrations and meetings, and the representatives of the autonomous region sent petitions to the party and state organs of the Soviet Union. A petition that asked for the reattachment of the autonomous region to Soviet Armenia was signed by 80,000 people.

This phase found its climax on February 20, 1988. The first secretary of the Central Committee of Azerbaijan, Kamran Baghirov; members of the Bureau of the Central Committee, and the instructor of the Soviet Communist Party, V. Yashin, arrived in Stepanakert, the capital of Mountainous Karabagh, with the intention of thwarting the extraordinary session of the Regional Council of the Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabagh Autonomous Region (NKAR), intended to pass a resolution on the issue. The visitors called for a session of the party regional committee, and the local party structure was held responsible the organization for the situation. Despite the pressure of representatives from Baku and of the first secretary of the Communist Party in Karabagh, Boris Kevorkov, the session was held on the same day and the Regional Council passed the following resolution, entitled “On a Petition to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR on the NKAR’s Secession from Soviet Azerbaijan and Its Transfer to Soviet Armenia”:

After hearings and debates on a petition to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR on the secession of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Region from Soviet Azerbaijan and its transfer to Soviet Armenia, the special session of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Oblast Regional Council of People’s Deputies have decided:  “Meeting the requests of the NKAR workers, to appeal to the Supreme Councils of the Azerbaijani SSR and the Armenian SSR to show a profound understanding of the expectations of the Armenian population of Nagorno Karabagh and to resolve the issue of NKAR’s secession from the Azerbaijani SSR and its transfer to the Armenian SSR, and at the same time to submit a petition to the Supreme Council of the USSR on a positive resolution of the issue on NKAR’s secession from the Azerbaijani SSR and its transfer to the Armenian SSR.”

This document followed the legal procedures established by Soviet law and was backed by peaceful demonstrations held in Stepanakert and Yerevan in the same day. The Karabagh Movement, the “test of the perestroika,” had started. Three years later, it would end in the independence of the Republics of Armenia and Nagorno Karabagh.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

February 17, 1948: Death of Hagop Oshagan

His writing has remained unknown by the general public. However, Hagop Oshagan was one of the most important novelists and literary critics in twentieth-century Armenian literature.

He was born Hagop Kufejian on December 9, 1883 in Sölöz, a village near Brusa, in western Turkey. He lost his father at the age of five and endured much hardship during his childhood. He studied for a short while in the seminary of Armash, but he was essentially an autodidact. His voracious reading was the main source for his learning.

He became a teacher at the age of 19, when his first short story appeared in the newspaper Arevelk of Constantinople. He started to make a name for himself in the short period of literary renaissance that followed the Ottoman Revolution of 1908, both as a short story writer and a critic. He joined with Gostan Zarian, Taniel Varoujan, Kegham Parseghian, and Aharon Dadourian to create the short-lived literary group “Mehyan,” which published the journal of the same name from January-July 1914 and attempted a literary renovation.

Hagop Kufejian was on the April 24 lists of the Turkish government, but was able to elude persecution for the next three years, despite being arrested several times. In early 1918, disguised as a German officer, he managed to flee to Bulgaria, where he remained until 1920. He married and would have three children. His elder son, Vahe Oshagan (1921-2000), a poet and literary critic, would become one of the leading names of Armenian literature in the Diaspora during the second half of the twentieth century.

Illustration by Zareh Meguerditchian
Hagop Kufejian adopted the last name Oshagan in 1919 and returned to Constantinople, where he worked as a teacher and was active in literary life. He published his first book, a collection of short stories, The Humble Ones, in 1921. In 1922, together with Gostan Zarian, Vahan Tekeyan, Shahan Berberian, and Kegham Kavafian, published Partzravank, a literary journal that tried to be a qualified literary voice.

The occupation of Constantinople by the troops of Mustafa Kemal in 1922 provoked the escape of many Armenians from the city. Oshagan also left and, after living in Bulgaria from 1922-1924, he became a teacher in Egypt (1924-1928), at the Melkonian Institute of Cyprus (1928-1935), and at the Seminary of Jerusalem (1935-1948).

In the last twenty-five years of his life, Oshagan put together a prodigious amount of literary production, including several lengthy novels. Particularly important was the eighteen hundred-page novel The Remnants (1932-1933), which he left unfinished and was intended to be a novel about the Armenian catastrophe of 1915. Barely read at its time, it became an object of cult followers during the past thirty years, as well as the subject for important literary studies.

Aside from his fiction, including also plays and many literary essays, Hagop Oshagan wrote the ten-volume Panorama of Western Armenian Literature (1939-1944), a collection of monographs about the most important literary figures of the period 1850-1915, which he intended to be the “novel” of that period in Western Armenian culture. He only saw the publication of the first volume in 1945. The remaining nine volumes were published between 1951 and 1982. This cemented his fame as the most important name in Armenian literary criticism.

Oshagan passed away in Aleppo, where he had gone to visit the areas that had been the scene of the Armenian deportation and killing in 1915. He died from a heart attack on February 17, 1948, and was buried in the local Armenian cemetery. He had not been a writer for the masses in his lifetime; nevertheless, twenty thousand people attended his funeral. Every year (until the recent Syrian civil war), the students of the Karen Jeppe College of Aleppo went to the Armenian cemetery at the beginning of the school year to pay their respect at his tomb.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 8, 1885: Birth of Gostan Zarian

The life span of Gostan Zarian, one of the foremost names of twentieth century Armenian literature, covered eight crucial decades. He was active in Constantinople with the Western Armenian generation before the genocide, then lived forty years in the Diaspora, and finally went to die in Soviet Armenia. He was a sort of “wandering Armenian,” not only physically, but also spiritually. His literature was at the crossroads of many influences.

Zarian was born in Shamakhi (Azerbaijan) on February 8, 1885. His father, a general in the Russian army, died when he was four, and he was sent to Baku, where he attended a Russian school. In 1895 he moved to France, where he continued his studies in Asnieres and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, two suburbs of Paris. After finishing high school, he went to the Université Libre of Brussels and obtained a doctorate in literature and philosophy in 1909. 

Zarian initially wrote poetry and essays in Russian and French, until the famous Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren advised him to write in his mother tongue. The Armenian poet, who already spoke Armenian, went to Constantinople in 1910, where he started to participate in the renewal of literary life. In mid-1911 he left the Ottoman capital and went to Venice, where he studied Armenian with the Mekhitarist Fathers until the end of 1912. He married Rachel (Takuhi) Shahnazarian in December 1912, from whom he would have three children, and the newlyweds moved back to Constantinople. Zarian would actively participate in Western Armenian literary life until the beginning of the war. He was one of the leading voices of the group “Mehian,” together with Hagop Kufejian (Oshagan), Kegham Parseghian, Taniel Varoujan, and Aharon (Dadourian), and editor-in-chief of the homonymous journal Mehian, which was published from January-July 1914.

Zarian escaped with his family to Bulgaria in late October 1914, the day before Turkey declared war and joined the Central Powers, and thus he avoided the genocide. After living for a year in Bulgaria, he moved to Italy, where he lived for the next six years in Rome and Florence. In 1916 he published his poem “Three Songs,” translated from Armenian into Italian, which was widely critiqued. His literary activities were matched with an active engagement for the Armenian Cause. In 1919 he went to the Caucasus as a special reporter for several Italian newspapers.

Zarian moved back to Constantinople in late 1921, when the remnants of the Western Armenian intelligentsia were starting again a cultural and literary movement. He published the monthly Partzravank, together with Oshagan, Vahan Tekeyan, Shahan Berberian, and Kegham Kavafian, which lasted from January-July 1922. He also published his first book in Armenian, a collection of poems entitled The Crown of the Days. At the end of the year, when the Kemalist forces were about to occupy Constantinople, the writer accepted an invitation of the Soviet Armenian government and moved to Yerevan. For the next two years, he taught European literature at Yerevan University. However, he returned to Europe in June 1924 and would spend the next four decades on the move. He lived in Paris, Venice, Milan, Corfu, Florence, New York (1942-1947), Amsterdam, Ischia, Beirut, Aix-en-Provence, Vienna, Rapallo, Oakland, California (1960-1962), and in 1963 he repatriated to Soviet Armenia.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Zarian published his major works of prose in the monthly Hairenik of Boston, such as The Traveler and His Road, Bancoop and the Bones of the Mammoth, and Countries and Gods, among others. He also published as a book his poems The Bride of Dadrakom in 1930 and Three Songs (1931), and his masterpiece, the novel The Ship on the Mountain (1943). He contributed prose, poetry, essays, and commentary to a variety of Armenian and non-Armenian publications, writing in Armenian, French, Italian, and, later, English. He published two short-lived journals, the literary monthly La Tour de Babel in French (1925), and the pioneering journal of Armenian Studies in New York, Armenian Quarterly (1946). He was friends with various noted European writers, such as English novelist Lawrence Durrell and others. He taught at the American University of Beirut and at the University of California at Berkeley.

His return to Armenia was somewhat controversial, because he had criticized the Soviet regime in several works. His novel The Ship on the Mountain was about the period of the first independence. It was reissued in a heavily censored way (1963) and this created a heated polemics. In any case, Zarian was almost ignored in the last years of his life. He died on December 15, 1969 and was almost totally forgotten by literary circles in Armenia until the end of the regime. Several of his works were printed in book form in the 1970s and 1980s in the Diaspora. His rediscovery in Armenia started with the twenty-first book century, and several works scattered in the press and also unpublished have also been published.