Monday, April 20, 2015

Uruguay Recognizes the Armenian Genocide (April 20, 1965)

As it is well known, the fiftieth anniversary of the Medz Yeghern, the Armenian genocide, became the event that gathered Armenians worldwide around public claim for recognition of what had happened in 1915 and for the Armenian Cause.

Believe it or not, the small community of Uruguay was at the forefront of the struggle. Around 1963 the young generation came together to commemorate the month of Armenian culture in October, and the next year it joined its voice to the campaign in neighboring Argentina against the issuance of a postal stamp by the Argentinean postal service that would commemorate the 100th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. These activities became the driving force behind the decision of young people in a community politically divided as elsewhere in the Diaspora to come together and organize the commemoration on April 24 in a unified way. They created the Coordinating Committee of Armenian Youth Organizations of Uruguay (Mesa Coordinadora de Organizaciones Juveniles Armenias del Uruguay), which was integrated by five organizations belonging to different political orientations of the community.

The Coordinating Committee organized the commemoration of 1964, with an imposing “March of Silence” through the streets of Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, which was widely commented in the press and had its impact over Armenians all over the world. It invited to a general assembly of 19 organizations (the entire spectrum of the community) that in January 1965 issued a communiqué, stating that, “The Armenian Cause belongs to all Armenians and is not the domain of any faction,” and that “Political organizations, religious institutions, and all organizations existing in the community must set to work around the Armenian Cause.”

The intensive activities carried by the Coordinating Committee, including lectures, press releases, PR work with the Uruguayan press, and a competition of posters for the 50th anniversary, were crowned by its lobby efforts.

These political efforts led to a commemoration by the Municipal Council of Montevideo on April 27, 1965, which was preceded, most importantly, by the passing of a law recognizing the genocide.

The draft bill was written by Representative Enrique Martínez Moreno, and introduced on January 29, 1965 to the Constitution and Codes Committee of the House Representatives, with the signature of six co-sponsoring representatives of different political parties. The bill stated:

Article 1. The following 24th of April is declared "Day of Remembrance for the Armenian Martyrs," in honor of the members of that nationality slain in 1915.
Article 2. The stations of the Official Radio Service must on that date conduct part of their broadcast in honor of the mentioned nation.
Article  3. Armenian descendants who are public servants are authorized to miss work on the mentioned date.

The word genocide was not mentioned in the draft bill, but it appeared mentioned several times to legally qualify the extermination of 1915 as “one of the most terrible genocides that history has known,” in the introductory text of the draft, adding that “the synthesis of one of the most brutal genocides is more than a million assassinated persons.”

The draft bill was discussed by the House of Representatives on April 6, 1965. A proposal to add an article naming a school of Montevideo with the name of Armenia mustered the necessary number of votes, while another proposal to devote a school class to refer to the genocide did not. The draft bill was approved with the addition of article 4 (“The 2nd Grade School, No. 156, in the department of Montevideo, is designated with the name of ‘Armenia’”) and went to the Senate. The project was not treated on April 7 and was delayed until April 20, when it was treated with urgent character and approved with unanimous vote. The law 13,326 was signed by Washington Beltran, President of the National Council of Government (Uruguay had a collegiate executive in those years), and issued on April 22, 1965. The enthusiasm that the approval of the law created in the Uruguayan Armenian community inspired a massive assistance to the commemorative acts from April 23-28.

Petty politics caused the demise of the Coordinating Committee shortly thereafter. The Armenian community would fall into decades of new political divisions that seem to be on their way to solution on the eve of the Centennial. It is noteworthy that on March 2004, the Uruguayan Parliament passed law 17,752 that extended the commemoration to every April 24, repeating the text of 1965 without the use of the word genocide. Nevertheless, on April 7, 2015, the Postal Service of Uruguay issued a stamp on the centennial of the Armenian genocide and Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa underscored that, “Uruguay was the first country to recognize the Armenian Genocide by law 50 years ago, a transcendental step in a struggle that continues to the present day.”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Beginning of the Adana Massacre (April 14, 1909)

The massacres of 1894-1896 organized by Abdul Hamid II had spared the Armenians of the region of Cilicia. The revolution of July 1908, headed by the Young Turks with the support of non-Turkish minorities of the Ottoman Empire (including Armenians), forced the Sultan to restore the Constitution of 1876. The principles of equality and freedom proclaimed by the Ottoman Revolution created hope for the Armenians that their political and social situation would improve. The Adana massacre in April 1909 crushed those hopes.

A military revolt by supporters of the Sultan staged a counterrevolution on April 13, 1909 and Constantinople was briefly seized. The leaders of the Young Turks were initially forced to find refuge elsewhere, some of them among Armenians. The next day, the massacre started in Adana. False rumors of an Armenian insurrection, fueled by the instigation of Muslim clergy and the publications of the newspaper Ittidal (organ of the Young Turks), and the organization by notables, the gendarmerie, and highly-placed officials, including the vali of Adana, Jevat Bey, drove the development of the events. The plundering of Armenian shops in the first day was followed by the attack on the Armenian quarter of Shabanieh in the second day, led by the Turkish gendarmerie and mob, which had been armed with weapons from the official deposit, with the Armenians trying a desperate defense. The attack and the massacre came to a stop on April 16, while the surrounding Armenian villages and farms had been practically wiped out.

Armenian quarter of Adana before the massacre and looting.
Armenian quarter of Adana after  the massacre and looting.
Ittidal and Jevat Bey (who was dismissed on April 18, but continued in his position for two weeks) spread false news of Armenian provocations that had created the Turkish attack. Meanwhile, the “liberation army” from the European section of the empire had marched onto Constantinople and put an end to the counterrevolution. A battalion was dispatched to Cilicia, which arrived on April 25. Turkish provocations created a new repression, this time by the “liberation army,” and further Armenian massacres were enacted from April 25-27 in Adana, which was half-razed, and the surrounding area. The Armenians of two cities, Hajen and Dort-Yol, were able to fend off the Turkish attacks from April 14-28.

While reactionary elements were suspected of instigating the massacres to discredit the Young Turks, the latter were also implicated in both waves of killings. The number of casualties was variously counted. An official committee established in July 1909 gave a number of 4,196 Christians and 1,487 Muslims, with a total estimate of 15,000, including unregistered people. The government reevaluated the numbers in August, which became 5,243 Christians and 1,186 Muslims. The new vali made another investigation and came to a more accurate number of 19,400 Christians (including 655 Evangelical Armenians, 210 Catholic Armenians, 418 Jacobite Syrians, 163 Chaldeans, and 99 Greeks) and 620 Muslims for the vilayet of Adana. According to the British journalist Ferriman, an investigative committee sent by the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople came to a figure of 21,361 Christians killed (18,839 Armenians, 1,250 Greeks, 850 Syrians, and 422 Chaldeans) only for the vilayet of Adana. There were several thousands of dead in the following months, due to wounds, epidemics, and other reasons.

The material losses were considerable. Only in the vilayet of Adana, according to the government committee, 4,823 houses, farms, schools, churches, factories, agricultural enterprises, inns, mills, and shops were entirely destroyed, of which just 386 belonged to Muslims. The value of the losses was estimated to be 5.6 million Ottoman liras.

The investigation opened by the government failed to prosecute and to indict, and dashed Armenian expectations of liberal reforms. As Armenian novelist and commentator Yervant Sermakeshkhanlian (Yerukhan, 1871-1915) wrote in November 1909, “The last crimes that have filled with blood the soil of Armenia, alas, are called not to be the last ones, as long as a superior example does not terrorize the implacable and indefatigable criminals, who are still roaming unpunished.”  The Adana massacre became a rehearsal for the Young Turks to measure the depth of Turkish animosity in the Ottoman Empire toward Christian minorities. Yerukhan’s words were prophetic. He would be among the first victims of the next crime: the Medz Yeghern of 1915-1916.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Death of Gregorio Sciltian (April 1, 1985)

As it has frequently happened with painters born in Russia, Italian Armenian painter Gregorio Sciltian (Grigor Shiltian) has been sometimes considered an “artist of Russian birth.”

He was born on August 20, 1900 in Nakhichevan-on-Don, the Armenian suburb of Rostov-on-Don (today within the town) that was the birthplace of many important Armenian figures from the last  two centuries such as Mikayel Nalbandian or Simon Vratzian. His father was a lawyer, and his mother, the offspring of a family of prosperous Armenian industrialists.

After studying at a Russian gymnasium in Moscow, Sciltian returned to Rostov and later left for St. Petersburg, where he studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts. After the October Revolution, he fled to Georgia with the aim of going to Europe. However, he was unable to get a visa and temporarily settled in Tiflis. Here he was in contact with various Russian avant-garde painters and writers.

In 1919 he finally left Georgia and, after a short sojourn in Crimea, in 1920 he moved to Constantinople and then to Vienna, where he studied the works of the Italian Renaissance in the Academy and the Museum of Fine Arts. He married Elena Boberman in 1923 and moved to Italy, settling in Rome. He participated in the Biennale of Rome in 1925 and the Biennale of Venice in 1926. 

Afterwards, he moved to Paris, where he lived, worked, and exhibited from 1927 to 1932. He returned to Italy in 1933 and established himself in Milan from 1934 to 1941. After living six years in the area of the Garda Lake, he returned to Milan in 1947. He participated in many exhibitions in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, and England, and founded a group called “Modern Painters of Reality” with Italian artists Pietro Annigoni, Antonio Bueno, and others in 1947. From the 1950s he also worked on costumes and set designs, and illustrated books. He published five books in Italian, including “My Adventure” (1963) and “The Reality of Sciltian” (1968).

A French critic, Waldemar George, published a work in Italian about him, “Sciltian: The Magic of Reality” (1950). Interestingly, the same critic would publish a book in French on Soviet Armenian painter Yervand Kochar in the early 1970s. 

Sciltian is well known for his portraiture and his trompe-l'oeil compositions. He represented the long-standing tradition of illusionistic painting that dates back to the Middle Ages. However, he added a measure of metaphysics, which links his compositions to the Italian branch of magic realism.
He passed away in Rome on April 1, 1985, and was buried in the Catholic cemetery of the Italian capital. The inscription on the tombstone is an aphorism by him: “The only true and supreme purpose of the art of painting has been and will always be that of obtaining the illusion of reality.”