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The Fourth Annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture

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*The Fourth Annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture
Sponsored by the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division

Mumford Room

James Madison Memorial Building

May 1, 1996

7:00 P.M.
Ronald Grigor Suny is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. The grandson of the composer and ethnomusicologist Grigor Mirzoyan Suni, and a graduate of Swarthmore College and Columbia University, he has taught at Oberlin College, the University of California, Irvine, and Stanford University, and as first holder of the Alex Manoogian Chair of Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Baku Commune, 1917-1918 (1972); Armenia in the Twentieth Century (1983); The Making of the Georgian Nation (1988, 1994); Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History (1993); and The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (1993), as well as editor of several additional publications. He is currently working on a study of the young Stalin and the formation of the Soviet Union, and is completing an interpretive history of the Soviet Union. Professor Suny has served as chairman of the Society of Armenian Studies and is on the editorial boards of The Slavic Review, International Labor and Working-Class History, The Armenian Review, and the Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies.
Dr. James H. Billington

Librarian of Congress

(Delivered by Dr. Carolyn Brown, Acting Director, Area Studies)
Beverly Gray, Chief

African and Middle Eastern Division

“Armeniaca and the Library of Congress: 1994-1995”
Dr. Levon Avdoyan

Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist


Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the fourth annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture. My name is Levon Avdoyan and I have the honor of serving you as the Armenian and Georgian area specialist in this great institution.

I would like to begin by introducing to you Dr. Carolyn Brown, our acting Director of Area Studies, who will read a message from Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who regrettably cannot be here with us tonight. The Armenian collections of the Library of Congress are in the custody of the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division. After Dr. Billington’s message, I would like to introduce a close and steadfast friend of these collections, the chief of that division, Ms. Beverly Gray.
Dr. Brown.

James H. Billington

I take particular pleasure in welcoming each of you to he Library of Congress on the occasion of the fourth annual Vardanants Day Armenian Lecture, presented by the Near East Section. Vardanants Day, in its celebration of the Armenian people’s hard earned right to self-determination, has remained a focus for Armenians everywhere. Our collections, so useful in the study of all things Armenian, are dedicated to preserving and providing access to the past, present and future socio-historical, political and cultural materials from Armenian and from the many cultures and civilizations of the Middle East with which it has interacted for millennia. To this end, the Near East Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division has shown wonderful tenacity in adhering to and expanding its mission for the enlightenment of Congress, the American people, and the international governmental and scholarly communities.
I am sure that you will find the lecture by my colleague, professor Ronald Suny of the University of Chicago, who is known for his keen sense of observation and his scholarly objectivity, both enlightening and stimulating, and indicative of the high level of original and innovative scholarship on the ancient and modern history of Armenia which our generation is producing.

I invite each of you to return often to the Library to consult both the Armenian and our other rich collections for your personal and professional research. We are truly here to serve you.


Beverly Ann Gray

I welcome you to this event that has become an established, and highly anticipated annual program in the African and Middle Eastern Division’s calendar. I also bring greetings from our friend and colleague, Dr. George Atiyeh, the Head of the Near East Section, who due to illness, cannot be with us this evening.
The Armenian collection has been an integral part of the Near East Section throughout its fifty years as a section in the Library of Congress. Beginning with only four hundred or so books I the 1940s, the collection began to grow as a result of the combined efforts of the Library of Congress and of a special committee founded for that purpose in the late 1940s and chaired by Mr. Arthur H. Dadian. Since that time, and recently as a result of a generous grant from Mr. Dadian’s estate made by his wife, the late Marjorie Dadian, the Armenian collections have grown into the thousands, and are now thriving.
The Library of Congress is many things, but chief among these aspects of this great institution are its collections. They are its core of our service-past, present and future, to Congress, to the nation, and to the international community as well. From those collections spring our special programs, such as tonight’s Vardanants Day lecture, as well as the innovative scholarship typified by Dr. Suny.
We remain committed to the continued growth and maintenance of these collections, of which the Armenian materials in our custody form and integral and vital part.
Again, welcome to you.
Armeniaca and the Library of Congress: 1994-1995”

Levon Avdoyan
I realize that you have come to be stimulated intellectually by our guest’s presentation this evening, but as is the custom on this occasion, I hope you will allow me to give a brief report on the activities focused on the various Armenian collections since we last convened.
We have progressed nicely both in our acquisitions and in the processing of materials. Of note is the receipt of the three-volume microfiche set of rare, selected Armenian sources that was published by IDC. Truly massive in number-over 8,000 fiche- this set includes important and rare Armenian texts and studies. Even in the simple act of processing materials one can find items of great interest-in arranging, for instance, the over 200 volumes of nineteenth and early twentieth century Armenian almanacs and calendars from Constantinople, Nor Nakhjewan, Moscow and from other places of the Armenian Diaspora, I was struck by the wealth of historical and social information-almost totally unstudied-available in each of these works. These are items begging for scholarly investigation. And so it goes with most of our materials.

In terms of newer items, our newly acquired approval plan dealer, ATC International, has supplied us with publications from the republic of Armenia, and our Overseas Operations Office in Cairo continues to acquire and send us Armenian materials from the entire Middle East. Through these ongoing efforts and projected acquisitions trips by Library of Congress staff, we intend to continue growing both in quantity and in quality.

It remains only to remind you, by reiterating the thoughts of Dr. Billington and Ms. Gray, that these research collections are here to be sued, by Congress, by government agencies, by scholars, by laymen, in short, by you.
And now, on to the heart of the evening. This introduction brings me pleasure both on a professional and on a personal level. Too often these days do we take history as merely a story attractively written or narrated. We forget that the word history has little to do with a story, but actually means an inquiry. The bare bones of Dr. Ronald Grigor Suny’s professional life, as shown in the biography we have rather dryly furnished in tonight’s program, show how well suited he is to historical investigation: Educated at Swarthmore, with a doctorate from Columbia University, holder of the first Alex Manoogian Chair of Armenian Studies at the University of Michigan, visiting professor at Stanford and now Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. Author and editor of numerous scholarly works, all known for meticulous research, keen analysis and a spirit of objectivity that guarantees their utility.
Professor Suny has chosen to challenge us with a presentation temptingly titled: “Nation-making, Nation-breaking, and the End of Empire: A New Perspective on the Events of 1915.” I am as eager as you to be tempted.
Dr. Suny.

Nation-making, Nation-breaking, and the End of Empire:

A New Perspective on the events of 1915
An historian can only be awed by the task of trying to speak about the unspeakable. He or she is humbled by the enormity of what needs to be understood. It seems presumptuous to try to write about the irrational horrors of our century. We have not been trained to deal with the pathologies of politicians that led to the millions of deaths in Ottoman Turkey, Nazi Europe, or the Soviet Union. What tools do we have to explain the mass violence that has become as ordinary on network television as the fires and floods that fill the local news? Perhaps we should not try. Perhaps we should await those singular voices that on rare occasions find the right notes to convey unutterable pain. Maybe those of us without the talents and moral vision of Tolstoy or Goya should turn to lesser issues and not attempt to describe and analyze events such as the Holocaust, the Great Purges, or the Armenian Genocide.

But the work of historians, in my view, is precisely to remember, to recover what might otherwise be lost, to reconstruct from the evidence available the story of the paths that have led us to where we are, in the hope that that social knowledge might help us do better in the future. Perhaps this is a utopian thought, but my sense is that understanding even the worst instances of human activity is essential as a first step for liberating us from the ignorance and mystifications that contributed in the first place to mass political violence. For Armenians this need is particularly acute, for the tragedy that they suffered at the beginning of the century is one of the great unknown historical events of our time. Instead of public recognition and scholarly analysis the Genocide of 1915 has been the double victim of historical amnesia and deliberate distortion by pseudo-scholars and a well-orchestrated campaign by the Turkish government. My talk this evening is an attempt to recover the memory of that tragedy and to try in some way to explain why it occurred.

Historians have analyzed the massive deportation and killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in eastern Anatolia in 1915 as the conflict of two exclusive nationalisms, the conflict of two people over a single piece of territory, and this has been reconceptualized by those who would deny that a genocide took place as a civil war between Turks and Armenians. In this construction the victims become only one side in an uneven struggle, and the perpetrators become the defenders of their homeland and nation. What I will argue is quite different. Rather than a civil war, which indeed never took place and exists only in the imagination of professional falsifiers, the Genocide occurred when state authorities decided to remove the Armenians from what had been their historic homeland in order to realize a number of strategic goals -- the elimination of a perceived Armenian threat to the war against Russia, to punish Armenians for activities which the Turkish authorities believed to be rebellious and subversive, and to realize their ambitions to create a Pan-Turkic empire that would extend from Anatolia through the Caucasus to Central Asia. The Genocide occurred at a moment of near imperial collapse when the Young Turks made a final, desperate effort at revival and expansion of the empire which they had reconceived as Turkic rather than Ottoman. Nineteen-fifteen, then, can be understood in the context of imperial decline, a radical reconceptualization of the nature of the state along nationalist and Pan-Turkic lines, and the radicalization of Young Turk policies in the fierce context of the First World War.

Scholars have come to a general agreement over the last several decades that we need to think about nations and nationalism differently. Rather than fixed, objective, primordial categories, modern nations are the product of hard work by intellectuals and political actors, scholars and propagandists, who have applied their energies, not only to the mapping of difference and boundaries, but to the construction of a useable past. A principal trope of nationalist writers has been the recovery of what has been lost, revival of what has lain dormant, and resurrection of what appeared to be dead. But in the active imagining of communities and inventing of traditions there has also been the forced silencing of voices and the erasure of inconvenient memories.1 In the transition from multinational empires to more homogeneous nation-states, those serving the “progressive” development of nation-making and modernization have transformed the demographic horrors of deportation, ethnic cleansing, and genocide into inevitable, unavoidable, even necessary civil conflicts. Consider the words of Princeton’s great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, which can be read as a implied rationale for the Turkish massacres of Armenians:

For the Turks, the Armenian movement was the deadliest of all threats. From the conquered lands of the Serbs, Bulgars, Albanians, and Greeks, they could, however, reluctantly, withdraw, abandoning distant provinces and bringing the Imperial frontier nearer home. But the Armenians, stretching across Turkey-in-Asia from the Caucasian frontier to the Mediterranean coast, lay in the very heart of the Turkish homeland -- and to renounce these lands would have meant not the truncation, but the dissolution of the Turkish state.2

In what appears to be a cool and balanced understanding of why their Ottoman rulers would have used mass violence against a perceived Armenian danger, Lewis places the Armenians “nearer [the Turkish] home” and “in the very heart of the Turkish homeland,” employing language that already assumes the legitimacy and actuality of a nation-state. In this transparent paragraph Lewis subtlely rewrites the history of Anatolia from a land in which Armenians were the earlier inhabitants into one in which they become an obstacle to the national aspirations of the Turks, who now can claim Anatolia, rather than Central Asia, as their homeland. His language employs the logic of nationalism as if it has a kind of universal relevance even in political structures that evolved out of and still worked within a contradictory logic of empire. In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was still an imperial state, albeit already long existing within an international system of powerful nation-states and an increasingly hegemonic Western conviction that the nation, however defined, was the principal source of political legitimacy. The nature of that system and its self-justifications were changing, but Lewis’ reading of a notion of ethnic homogeneity as the basis for a national republic of the Kemalist type, which lay in the future, into the moment of Armenian annihilation is ahistorical and anachronistic. As he is well aware, in the last years of the empire conflicting and contradictory ideas of Turkish nationalism, some deeply racist, vied with Pan-Turanism, Pan-Islamism, and various strains of Ottomanism in an ideological contest for new ways of reformulating the state.

The Ottoman Empire, like other great empires, can be understood as a composite state in which the metropole is distinct in some way from the periphery, which is conceived or perceived by metropolitan or peripheral actors as a relationship of justifiable or unjustifiable inequity, subordination, and/or exploitation. What might be called the “imperial paradigm” was a system in which the Turkish Sultan, by right of conquest and divine sanction, ruled over subjects of various religions and ethnicity in a structure of inequity and subordination that maintained or reinforced difference. There was no idea from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century of a single nation-state or of the various religious and cultural communities in the empire having rights that limited the power of the sultan. Each community or millet was respected as different but subordinate to the ruling Ottoman elite. Only in the nineteenth century did rival concepts of the nation and popular sovereignty, equality under the law, political participation of all citizens, and national self-determination undermine the legitimation formulas for empire. But the imperial paradigm was challenged, not only by new nationalisms of the subject peoples, but also by conflicting conceptions of empire and nation from the ruling Turkish elites. Powerful rethinking of history in the idiom of the nation had the effect of homogenizing events and processes in a single, progressive narrative so that other ways of understanding experience were lost.

In the Ottoman Empire ideas of the nation were both borrowed from Western conceptions and reshaped by Turkish and Armenian thinkers and actors. The nation may be thought of as the modern form of “imagined” political communities that exists within a discourse that came together in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries around the notion of bounded territorial sovereignties in which the “people” provide the legitimacy to the political order.3 Though the discourse of the nation began as an expression of state patriotism, through the nineteenth century it increasingly became ethnicized until the “national community” was understood to be a cultural community of shared language, religion, and/or other characteristics with a durable, antique past, shared kinship, common origins and narratives of progress through time.4 While scholars have generally accepted that nations are neither natural nor primordial but the result of hard constitutive intellectual and political work of elites and masses, among the most interesting questions to be explored is how they exist in particular understandings of history, what stories are told to make the nation appear as a stable subject moving continuously through time, fulfilling a project over many centuries of coming to self-awareness.5 By the twentieth century such imagined communities were the most legitimate basis for the constitution of states, thought to be products of blood and nature, displacing dynasties and religious and class discourses -- and concurrently challenging alternative formulas for legitimation like those underpinning empires.

It was precisely in the context of the dominant discourse of the nation in the twentieth century that once-viable imperial states became increasingly vulnerable to nationalist movements that in turn gained strength from this new sense of state legitimation, namely that states ought to represent, if not coincide, with nations. At the same time the new nationalism coexisted with the rise of notions of popular sovereignty, of democratic representation of subaltern interests, and a fundamental tension arose between inequitable imperial relationships and concepts of national democracy. Though liberal states with representative institutions, styling themselves as democracies, could (and were) effective imperial powers in the great overseas empires of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, the great contiguous empires of eastern Europe and the Middle East resisted democratization that would have undermined the right to rule of the dominant imperial elite and the very hierarchical and inequitable relationship between metropole and periphery in the empire. While empires were among the most ubiquitous and long-lived polities in premodern history, they had operated within a different legitimating paradigm. The powerful combination of nationalism and democracy proved fatal to their continued existence in late modern times.

Within the discourse of the nation two kinds of arguments are made to justify a people’s claim to a piece of the earth’s territory: an historical argument of prior settlement, the idea of an original people; or an argument of demographic dominance, the idea that a majority’s claim has precedence over those of minorities. The fact that Armenians after 2500 years in eastern Anatolia had become a minority in the overall population, and the Ottoman Turks who through conquest and assimilation over 500 years in the region had become the dominant population (and, along with other Islamic peoples, most importantly the Kurds, a majority), powerfully underscored Turkish claims to the territory. In the case of the Armenians only the first claim, that they were the original settlers of the region, legitimized their claim to Anatolia as homeland. Armenian nationalists made such a claim in the late nineteenth century, and Turkish nationalists responded. Both of these claims, which had no particular meaning in the older imperial paradigm, resonated within a concept of the nation-state in which the “people,” however constituted, become the source of legitimacy.

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