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Armenians and the Global Cold War: History, Memory and Legacies

Political and other developments concerning Armenians during the Cold War era have not been covered much in history books up until today. Modern historical writing on Armenia has focused heavily on the pre-Cold War era, particularly the years during and just after the Armenian Genocide and in the course of the First World War. Yet the period between 1945 and 1991 saw a host of important developments both within Soviet Armenia and the Armenian diaspora. In fact, Armenians were involved in the Cold War in more ways than one. The Cold War pitted the two great superpowers of the time, the Soviet Union and the United States, against one another. One part of the Armenian population lived in Soviet Armenia, while others lived in the diaspora, scattered mostly across the Americas, Western Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East. These diasporan communities were divided along political lines, which developed different stances towards the superpowers in the context of the Cold War. Indeed, the international political climate had strong influences on Armenian political parties’ positions towards one another and on issues connected with the Armenian homeland in the shape of Soviet Armenia.

In this lecture, Dr Ara Sanjian aimed to fill in the gaps in modern Armenian and international historiography by mapping out the developments of Armenian political activity and thought during the Cold War. Dr Ara Sanjian is associate professor of History at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and director of its Armenian Research Centre. This lecture took place on Thursday, 24 May 2018. It was organised by the director of the Programme of Armenian Studies, Dr Krikor Moskofian, and chaired by Raphael Gregorian.

The Cold War has been largely seen as an ideological clash between capitalist/free-market principles against those of a socialist/command economy and society. The roots of this clash can be traced back to the rise of these ideologies in the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing across much of Europe and North America, and when the issues of new divisions of labour, the value of commodities, and economic management in general came to the fore.

Dr Sanjian regards the sovietisation of Armenia in 1920 as the start of this ideological clash among Armenians living across the world. The people of Armenia itself had little choice but to accept Soviet rule and the ideological baggage that came with it. However, the Armenian political parties, which were now in exile, were freer to develop their own ideological stances, and had to make a stark choice between the communist ideology of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union and the free-market-based ideology of the West, where many of them were based. Nevertheless, the conflicting views of diasporan political parties were born out less of a conflict in economic ideologies, but more of their respective views regarding the international balance of power and their perspectives on the utility (or lack thereof) of Soviet rule in Armenia. In other words, the stances that diasporan parties adopted before and during the Cold War were more a result of internal political feuds within Armenian communities and disagreements with regard to Soviet rule, and less a consequence of conflict based on rigid ideological differences.

In general terms, across the diaspora, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaks) was anti-Soviet. This sentiment was largely an outgrowth of the party’s expulsion from Armenia after the Bolsheviks had taken over the country. The Social Democratic Hnchakian Party, on the other hand, was in general pro-Soviet. Some Hnchakians were practically communists, while others in the same party were not as dedicated to communism. The third Armenian political party in the diaspora, the Armenian Democratic Liberal Party (Ramkavars) represents an intriguing case. The Ramkavar party is an adherent of liberal economic ideology, supporting free-market principles, and is identified with the bourgeois element within society. Its ideological background was thus in opposition to that of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it accepted Soviet rule as long as it believed that the Russian connection contributed to the security of Armenia and its socio-economic development.

Indeed, the level of the intensity of rivalries among Armenian groups across the diaspora before and after the Second World War varied widely. Prior to the Second World War, arguably the most severe division was seen in North America, after Archbishop Ghevond Tourian was assassinated in New York as he presided over mass on Christmas Eve 1933. His assassination was the direct result of tensions between anti-Soviet Dashnaks and rival Armenians who sympathised with Armenia’s Soviet government. These tensions had risen to the surface earlier that year when Tourian had objected to the presence of the tricolour Armenian flag of the pre-Soviet, independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1920) on the stage during a celebration of Armenian Day at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. He had argued that he did not wish to draw the ire of the Soviet government in Armenia, a stance which offended some Dashnak members of the Armenian community.

In 1943-1947 there came a change in the priorities of the Dashnak party. The party warmed to Soviet rule in terms of its perceived possible contribution to the expansion of Armenia’s borders after the end of the Second World War. Simon Vratsian, the fourth and final Prime Minister of the independent Republic of Armenia (1918-1920), was pivotal in forming this new ARF perspective on Soviet Armenia. Nevertheless, the West was strictly opposed to any territorial expansion of the Soviet Union, especially into Turkey, which soon became a strategic ally of the West on the borders of the Soviet Union. Thus the years 1943-1947 proved to simply be an interlude, during which Armenian parties’ interests temporarily coincided with one another.

The repatriation efforts of 1946-1948 and after 1962 are also an important part of Armenian Cold War history. Many have assumed that the repatriation of 1946-1948 was undertaken in view of the expected Soviet territorial expansion into the regions of Kars and Ardahan, although it remains to be proven beyond reasonable doubt whether or not there was indeed a direct correlation between the two Soviet policies. The repatriation efforts of 1946-1948 are also notable due to the fact that the Dashnaks were excluded from participating in its organisational efforts. Furthermore, the repatriation campaign turned into an opportunity for the anti-Dashnak factions to wage a propaganda campaign against their rivals that left behind fissures across the diaspora. The antagonism between rival factions within the various Armenian communities in the diaspora and their different attitudes vis-à-vis Soviet Armenia continued, as stories of the repatriates’ dissatisfaction with life in Soviet Armenia began to filter through not long after the first caravans had set for the homeland in the summer of 1946.

Lebanon was the scene of virulent inter-party rivalries during the period 1947-1960. In Dr Sanjian’s analysis of the press, particularly during the parliamentary election campaigns of that period, he found that the Dashnak party attempted to denigrate the Hnchakians and Ramkavars by labelling them as communist fellow-travellers, implying that they were stooges for the Soviet government. There had been no such emphasis in the interwar years, and the Dashnaks gave up this strategy in the 1960s. This certainly represents an element of the Cold War being played out in the internal politics of Armenian parties in a community in the diaspora, especially when we also take into consideration the fact that, up until then, the Dashnaks had on principle refused to involve external powers when competing against other Armenian political forces across the diaspora. This principle was abandoned in 1951, thus allowing the Cold War into the Armenian diaspora.

The Dashnak tilt towards the West had been recorded as early as 1947. An important figure in this regard is the famous military commander and former Defence Minister of independent Armenia, Drastamat “Dro” Kanayan. He cooperated with the CIA in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and some of the CIA files that mention his activities have been declassified in recent years.

Nevertheless, the Soviet authorities also attempted to exploit Armenian nationalism in order to bring Armenians in the diaspora, including the Dashnaks, to their side. One example of this is Garegin Nzhdeh, who had been captured by the Soviets in Bulgaria toward the end of the war and exiled to Siberia for having collaborated with the Nazis. He was brought back to Yerevan from Siberia in 1952 and was asked to write a letter to Simon Vratsian, asking whether he and his Dashnak comrades were prepared to fight against Turkey on behalf of the Soviet Union in case of a future war between the two states.

These developments are undoubtedly linked to the international context of the time, which also saw the proclamation of the Truman doctrine, the implementation of the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe, the Soviet counter plan drawn up by Vyacheslav Molotov, the creation of the Cominform, and the propagation of US diplomat George Kennan’s concept of containment of the Soviet Union.

Nikita Khrushchev premiership of the Soviet Union following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 coincided with the most intense years of Cold War rivalry among Armenians, especially in the Middle East. This is partly because his administration was keener to engage with the so-called Third World, in contrast to the relative disengagement of Stalin’s administration after 1947. Khrushchev’s policies included engagement with diasporan Armenians in the Middle East and elsewhere.

However, the role of the American government in Lebanon should also not be ignored within the context of the Armenian Cold War. Indeed, when the pro-western Lebanese government rigged the national elections in 1957 with American help, it relied partly on assistance from the Dashnak party. Electoral districts in Beirut were gerrymandered in such a way as to make use of the votes of the Armenian followers of the Dashnak party to defeat pan-Arabist candidates from the Sunni Muslim community, who opposed the pro-western policies of the country’s then president.

Tensions within the Armenian community in Lebanon reached their apex during the crisis to elect a new Armenian Catholicos in Antelias (1952-1956) and the short Lebanese Civil War in 1958. Between May and November 1958, between 35 and 40 Armenians were murdered in tit-for-tat killings, encouraged by rival Armenian political factions. This violence took place at a time when the Lebanese political spectrum overall was also strongly divided between pro- and anti-western camps. It was only when the Lebanese Civil War ended in October 1958 that the violence between Armenians also ceased, thanks to the reconciliation efforts of the Lebanese Minister of the Interior in the country’s post-war national reconciliation government.

An important break in the Armenian Cold War in the Middle East occurred in 1959 soon after the pan-Arabist president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had openly attacked Arab communists for the first time. This new stand by Nasser provided an opportunity to the Dashnak party to reposition itself as a more pro-pan-Arabist party, as it now suited their established anti-Soviet stance and also put them in a safe position within the context of growing pan-Arab and anti-colonial sentiment in the Middle East. This repositioning lessened the chasm between the Dashnaks and their Ramkavar and Hnchakian rivals on regional policy issues.

In the 1960s, tensions between Armenian diasporan political parties began to subside somewhat, leading to a kind of détente. This détente can be attributed to the shift of focus towards national issues connected to genocide recognition, demand for reparations from Turkey, and Soviet Armenia’s territorial claims from neighbouring Soviet Georgia and Soviet Azerbaijan in the Caucasus. Diasporan party members of all political hues began making regular visits to Soviet Armenia, and they witnessed first-hand that politically active individuals in Soviet Armenia were raising, both in private and through petitions, the territorial issues of Karabakh and Nakhichevan. In addition, genocide recognition initiatives were picking up speed as the fiftieth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1965 approached, a year which saw the commemoration of the Genocide in Soviet Armenia for the first time. These issues were a catalyst for bringing together the various political factions within the diaspora. The Cold War thus became less of a factor in determining relations among the various Armenian political groupings in the diaspora, and in turn interaction between each of those groupings and Soviet Armenia. Under these changed circumstances, when the world witnessed what is usually called a second Cold War between 1979 and 1985, Armenians – unlike during the first Cold War after 1945 – were not much affected.

The Cold War within the Armenian sphere could be said to have ended towards the latter half of the 1980s, especially with the introduction of Mikhail Gorbachev’s ‘New Thinking’, which denied an irreconcilable conflict between capitalism and communism, and called for cooperation among the previously conflicting parties. The Communist Party in Soviet Armenia formally dropped its public antagonism to the Dashnaks in 1989. Since Armenia’s independence in 1991, the three traditional Armenian diasporan parties have had little reason to remain staunchly antagonistic to one another, at least at the level of ideology, as they no longer have to choose between two superpowers.

Dr Sanjian considers the Cold War era to be an understudied topic in Armenian history for political reasons. The Cold War period represented a period of stark tensions between the Soviet government and the Dashnaks, as well as among the Armenian parties themselves in the diaspora. The notion of national unity is now held above all else, and so there has been little space for a critical study of the Cold War era, the details of which now seem to go against the national unity tendencies of the more recent years. In addition, scholarship on the issue of the Genocide has been much in demand in Armenian academic circles, often been at the expense of other topics in Armenian studies. This focus on the Genocide can also be explained within the paradigm of national unity, as it is a cause that unites Armenian political actors across the board. Moreover, this order of preferences is certainly not new to Armenian historiography, which has often focused on historical examples that portray the Armenian nation as united, while at times disregarding the actual complexities of the reality.


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