Monday, May 28, 2018

First Commemoration of Independence in Soviet Armenia (May 28, 1988)

During the Soviet regime, the history of the first independence of Armenia was thoroughly distorted and the commemoration of May 28 was logically forbidden. The explosion of the Karabagh Movement in 1988 would change the general outlook. The claims to reunite the autonomous region of Mountainous Gharabagh to Armenia were accompanied by claims to address social, economic, and cultural burning issues of the present and hidden or distorted issues of the past.

Movses Gorgisian, May 28, 1988
From February 1988, huge crowds gathered at Theater Square (now Freedom Square), in front of the Yerevan Opera, in peaceful rallies to claim for the return of Gharabagh to Armenia. One such rally was held in the afternoon of May 28, 1988, to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the first independence. The well-attended gathering was organized by the Union for National Self-Determination, a political party founded by dissident Paruyr Hayrikian in 1987. Hairikian had been imprisoned in early 1988 for claiming that the Sumgait pogrom had been instigated by the Soviet leadership, and he would be stripped of Soviet citizenship and deported to Ethiopia. Other members of the party had taken charge, especially Movses Gorgisian (1961-1990), assisted by Mekhak Gabrielian. The “Mashtots” Union, an organization for the defense of Armenian language and culture, was also involved in the preparation.

After Gabrielian’s opening remarks, the first to take the stage was Movses Gorgisian, who started his message by saying: “People! I will show you something, don’t be afraid” He raised the tricolor flag of the first independence, until then a taboo subject, and he was echoed by several participants in the rally, who raised a total of seven flags in different places. “Do not be afraid of raising the tricolor flag of the republic,” added Gorgisian. He went on:

“The Armenian nation today celebrates the day of our statehood within the body of the Soviet Union, it is impossible to take that from us. We have prepared a message; we are addressing the government[s] of Armenia and the USSR to ask something: on this day, on May 28, in 1918 it became the day of the Armenian Republic, and the government has the obligation to approve it as the day of creation of our republic, in the same way that April was approved as mourning day.”

Banners placed on the stage read: “To proclaim May 28 day of united, all-national struggle for the just solution of the Armenian Cause” (Մայիս 28-ը հռչակել Հայ Դատի արդար լուծման համազգային պայքարի միասնութեան օր), “The only road to salvation of the Armenian people was found on May 28, 1918” (1918 թ. Մայիսի 28-ին գտնուեց հայ ժողովրդի փրկութեան միակ ուղին), “Today’s Armenia would not be a republic without May 28” (Առանց Մայիսի 28-ի այսօրուայ Հայաստանը հանրապետութիւն չէր լինի).

The main speakers were two noted linguists and intellectuals, Varag Arakelian and Rafayel Ishkhanian. Arakelian made a brief historical introduction and condemned the policy of Soviet Armenian authorities to lead the most glorious page of the last 500 years into oblivion. Ishkhanian rejected the label of “A.R.F. republic” that some people used to denigrate the first independence, while noting the A.R.F. majority in the government. He highlighted the role of Aram Manoukian as organizer of the victories of May and founder of the Armenian republic:

“The enemy reached Yerevan. The supreme command of the Armenian forces, led by Nazarbekov, had decided to hand Yerevan to the enemy and to organize the defense near Lake Sevan. The National Council of Tiflis had agreed with this decision. There was one man in Yerevan who said ‘No, if we hand Yerevan, then we will hand Armenia. If we hand Yerevan that means the end of the Armenian people.’ That man was Aram Manoukian. Unfortunately, I don’t see his picture here.” People held pictures of General Antranik, Karekin Nejdeh, various fedayis and also Hayrikian, who was then in a Moscow prison.

After the speeches, the doors of the Opera opened and the secretary of ideological issues of the Central Committee of the Armenian Communist Party, the first secretary of the City Committee of the party, and other officials came out. They tried to take out the tricolor flags from the square, but in vain. They were met with cries of “Shame, go away!” Later on, poet Sylva Gabudikian had a televised speech, where she argued that the tricolor flag fragmented the nation, as it divided Armenia from the Diaspora.

Ironically, the next day the newspapers, all government-controlled, published the following news piece released by Armenpress: “On May 28, in the Theatrical Square of Yerevan, some people, veiled behind slogans related to Mountainous Gharabagh, tried to raise the issue of P. Hayrikian, known for his anti-Soviet declarations. They attempted to encourage people into illegal activities. Those attempts were condemned by those gathered there.”

From then on, the flag of the first Republic of Armenia would start appearing in the demonstrations for Gharabagh, and the idea of independence would begin taking roots. Two years later, on August 23, 1990, the Republic of Armenia would be reborn instead of the Armenian Socialist Soviet Republic, and the referendum for the independence would be held on September 21, 1991, while the once powerful Soviet Union was collapsing.