Venue: SOAS, University of London
Speaker: Dr Houri Berberian (California State University, Long Beach)
Chair: Christopher Sisserian (Programme of Armenian Studies)
The South Caucasus, in the early twentieth century, became a hotbed of revolutionaries and revolutionary ideas that crisscrossed three imperial frontiers. The ideas of revolution, constitutionalism, and socialism travelled across great distances and were adapted to local conditions and cultures. This was the focus of Dr Houri Berberian’s study, set in the larger context of fin de siècle technological development.
Developments in transportation and communication, such as railways, telegraph, and expansion of print, during this period facilitated the spread of revolutionaries, arms, and ideas. The three revolutions mentioned in this talk were similar to earlier revolutionary waves that had swept the Atlantic world before and after the French Revolution in 1789 and part of another wave of early twentieth-century revolutions that included the Chinese, Mexican, and Portuguese.
Berberian introduced the concept of ‘time-space compression’ into the discussion. This is the idea, first articulated by geographer David Harvey, that the nature and relationship of space and time alters, often due to technological advancements. The advancements in transportation and communication of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemed to ‘shrink’ both time and space. This transformation had a significant impact on the spread of revolutionaries and their ideas in the Caucasus and the region’s three empires.
Armenian revolutionaries took advantage of the advancements in technology. The introduction of the telegraph and developments in print facilitated communication across long distances. Berberian explained that ‘revolutionaries were fully aware of the propagandistic effect of the printed word’ and used these technologies ‘to challenge the very empires that supported their construction.’
Berberian considers the Armenians to be ideal subjects for a study of the three revolutions in the region. They inhabited all three empires, participated in all three revolutions, and crossed imperial borders, along with newspapers, weapons, and ideas. The main actors belonged to the socialist-nationalist Armenian party, Dashnaktutyün (ARF – Armenian Revolutionary Federation). Key figures included Rostom (Stepan Zorian) and Yeprem Khan (Davidian) among others.
Berberian pointed out that socialism appealed to Armenian revolutionaries for a number of reasons. First, socialism promised political, cultural and economic freedoms. But in what context did such an ideology arrive? The early twentieth century saw inter-ethnic clashes within the South Caucasus, especially between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, known as the Armeno-Tatar conflict of 1905-06. Apart from these conflicts there was a general increase in anti-Armenian sentiment in the region. In addition, Armenians seemed to feel less safe as the foreign interest in the ‘Armenian Question’ was fading from the 1880s, and Armenians began to feel disenchanted with European, moderate, liberal nationalism. Finally, a radical socialism appeared to provide a solution for Armenians to free themselves from oppressive rule, in the Russian, Ottoman and, to a lesser extent, Iranian states.
In conclusion, the tale of these revolutions and of Armenian revolutionaries in the South Caucasus is a tale intertwined with global movements and developments in technology and ideology. Furthermore, through a ‘connected histories’ approach that explores the circulation of Armenian revolutionaries, material, and ideas, Berberian connects these revolutions and contributes to our understanding of these interwoven revolutions in a novel way.