Thursday, August 26, 2010

Land, Country and Nation

August has been a reflective and revealing month for me. I have just finished reading two books about the Genocide that might be considered "book ends" about this terrible period in our history. The first, "Armenian Golgotha" by Rev. Father Grigoris Balakian, was written between 1920 and 1922 by a survivor of the first group of Armenians that were arrested and sent to their deaths on April 24, 1915. This truly harrowing eye-witness account of the Genocide, written by a survivor shortly after the events took place, awakened feelings long buried since I participated in Genocide commemoration events in college and shortly thereafter. The second, "Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice" by Michael Bobelian, was just published in 2009 and carries the story of Armenians struggle for recognition and the Turks' steadfast denial through the first episode of "football diplomacy". Both are excellent books and in my opinion "must-reads" for all Armenians interested in better understanding the cycle of events that brings us to today's reality concerning Armenia, the Diaspora and Genocide recognition.

The thread that links these two books together is the shifting balance between the drive toward creation and development of an independent homeland for Armenians on the one hand, and recognition of the Genocide on the other. In his account, Rev. Balakian repeats several times that the driving force behind his four years of struggle and eventual escape from the hands of his executioners was the desire to survive and rebuild the destroyed Armenian nation and homeland. Mr. Bobelian recounts how the first wave of efforts by Armenians, starting with the Paris Conference immediately following the end of the First World War, focused on the establishment and protection of an independent homeland for Armenians as compensation and delivery of justice for the terrible crime against our nation by the Turks. Then, as the hopes of a viable independent homeland faded between realpolitik on the part of the Allies, the rise of Attaturk and the imperial ambitions of the Soviet Union, both struggles gave way to rebuilding lives wherever Armenians landed (except for the individual acts of vengeance and justice against the perpetrators).

Fifty years later, given the Soviet Union’s iron grip on its republics, and the West's full embrace of Turkey as a critical ally in the Cold War, Armenian efforts naturally flowed toward recognition rather than an independent homeland, and this approach dominated efforts right up to -- and many would argue through-- the break-up of the Soviet Union and the re-establishment of an independent Armenia. In the past 15 years, and in particular, the past two years, these two threads have once again become intertwined, not always in a positive manner. One of the central issues remains the respective roles of the government and Republic of Armenia and the Diaspora in establishing priorities and driving actions on recognition and development of the homeland. Naturally, successive governments in Armenia have opted to maximize the safety and development of the small and struggling republic while respecting the memory of the Genocide. Similarly, Diasporan groups (unfortunately, there is no single organization that can represent the interests of all Armenians in the Diaspora) have continued the nearly one hundred year-old struggle for recognition. The signing of the Protocols last fall brought this dichotomy to its boiling point, but the subsequent backtracking by both Armenia and Turkey have somewhat calmed down the situation.

Yet we must resolve this dichotomy as a nation - if we don't, we will continue to diffuse our ability to achieve either or both objectives, and will finally help the Turks successfully close the Armenian Question. Why? Because after 100 years of dispersion and assimilation into other societies, there is no concentrated, viable political, cultural and national center to the Diaspora (as there was in Beirut prior to civil war, Tehran prior to the revolution, and Aleppo, Baghdad and other strong Armenian communities that have slowly shrunk over the past 25 years). Despite the heroic efforts of a broad spectrum of political, cultural, religious, educational and professional organizations throughout the Diaspora to keep language, history and tradition alive, time and the inevitable and invincible force of assimilation will continue to diffuse and weaken the Diaspora's ability to drive the fate of our nation. As a result, no matter how large the chasm of language, experience, and cultural values may appear between the "traditional" Diaspora (those that were driven out of historic western Armenia to countries around the world) and the current Republic of Armenia, the chasm must be crossed and closed. The reality is that both sides (Diaspora and Armenia) are in grave danger of demise and eventual extinction, albeit because of very different factors. On the other hand, there are so many ways to leverage the respective strengths of each side (full sovereignty and national status of the Republic, economic and heterogeneous power and experience of the Diaspora) that our future as a nation is firmly in our own collective hands.

Time will tell whether the right path is to strive for recognition and reparations, including the return of traditional Armenian lands to Armenia. Frankly, I just don't see the latter coming to fruition, but that’s a complex topic to be addressed separately. On the other hand, I am absolutely convinced that the reality of Armenia as a republic, where one doesn't need to struggle to raise children that, speak, read and write Armenian, where there are subway stations named "Zoravar Antranik" and "Sassountsi Davit", where one can wake up every morning and have a chance of seeing Ararat, where one can choose to live in Zeitun, Marash or Malatia, and eat the most delicious apricots in the world, can serve as the foundation for the true rebuilding of the nation that was destroyed 100 years ago. Combine this foundation with the economic power, integration into and understanding of the leading economies in the world, as well as the heroic and deeply-seeded will to survive as a people among Diasporan Armenians, and you have the potent formula to rebuild our homeland.

Future posts on this blog will be dedicated to crossing and closing the chasm between Armenia and the Diaspora. Coincidently, I'm writing this last sentence as my flight from St. Petersburg is descending toward Zvartnots Airport with Ararat on our right in its full majestic view. It's good to be back home - when will all Armenians feel the same way?

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