Saturday, March 29, 2014

March 29, 1912: Death of Gabriel Sundukian

This year is the 90th anniversary of the National Academic Theatre of Armenia. Not by chance, it is named after Gabriel Sundukian. This is a deserved homage to the founder of Armenian modern theater.
Sundukian was born in the family of a merchant in Tiflis, on July 11, 1825. He studied at first in the school of Shahan Cirbied, the former professor of Armenian language at the Sorbonne, from 1832-1837. There he learned Classical and Modern Armenian, French, Latin, and Italian. After studying for two years in another Armenian private school, he followed the courses of the Russian gymnasium of Tiflis from 1840-1846.
He later went to St. Petersburg, where he studied at the Oriental Department of the School of History and Philology of the university. In those years, his love and interest for literature grew, and his theatrical taste was forged in the theaters of the Russian capital. He graduated with a dissertation on the principles of Persian versification.
During a short while, he taught at the Nersisian School of Tbilisi, and lived in Derbend, on the Caspian Sea shore, from 1853-1858. He returned to Tbilisi and went to work at the Railway Commission of Tiflis until his retirement.
Sundukian wrote his plays in the Armenian dialect of Tbilisi, with the aim of reaching out to the common people. The social questions of the time were the main subject of his works, and gave them enormous popularity. He was the first to represent the life of the city in Armenian theater, touching on family subjects, marriage, inequality of women, the relationship of parents and children, and other issues with depth and realism. He included all social classes in his plays, from merchants to workers.
The first phase of his production started with Sneezing at Night is Good Luck, premiered in 1861. He wrote other popular plays, such as Quandary (Khatabala) and Oskan Petrovich in the Other Life in 1866. These were basically light comedies where Sundukian criticized the situation of women, excessive love of money, and raised important moral questions.
The second phase consisted of serious comedies, where laughter and cry went together. He wrote his masterpiece, Pepo (1871), in this period, which had an enormous success. He introduced here the conflict of the bourgeois class and the lower class, and the tragedy of the protagonist, Pepo, who represented the working class. The play was essentially a critique of the moral flaws of the ruling class.
Other popular plays were Destroyed Home (1883) and Another Victim (1884), where he depicted the destruction of an entire family and the conflict of generations.
Sundukian passed away on March 29, 1912, in his hometown, Tbilisi, and was buried in the Armenian cemetery of Khojivank. His works have continued to enjoy wide popularity in Armenia and the Diaspora. Pepo became one of the first Armenian sound movies, filmed by Hamo Bek-Nazarian in 1935, and Khatabala was also turned into a movie in 1971.
The facade of the Gabriel Sundukian Theater in Central Yerevan.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

March 22, 1925: Death of Alexander Miasnikian

Few communist leaders are still celebrated in Armenia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the second independence. Alexander Miasnikian is one of them.

He was born in Nakhichevan-on-Don (Nor Nakhichevan), the town near Rostov founded by Armenian migrants from Crimea in the late eighteenth century, on January 28 (February 9 in the Gregorian calendar), 1886. Son of a small merchant, he studied first at the diocesan school of his hometown and then at the Lazarian Lyceum of Moscow from 1904-1906. He was attracted by revolutionary ideology as a student, first in Nakhichevan and then in Moscow. Miasnikian formally became a member of the underground revolutionary movement (the Bolshevik branch of the Russian Social-Democratic Party) in 1904 and was arrested and exiled to Baku in 1906. He continued his revolutionary activities, first in Baku and then in Moscow, where he graduated from the law department of Moscow University in 1911. Between 1912 and 1914, he worked as an assistant to a lawyer in Moscow and participated in the dissemination of political literature. His revolutionary nom de guerre was Al. Martuni (“son of fight”).

During those years, he also devoted himself to literary criticism and journalism. He edited ten periodicals. He published articles in the 1910s about the meaning of the discovery of the Armenian alphabet and the works of poets Mikayel Nalbandian, Hovhannes Tumanian, Hovhannes Hovhannisian, and Alexander Tzaturian. He wrote many times about the Armenian Question, which he labeled “Gordian knot,” where the disagreements and the interests of the European powers were tied.

Miasnikian was drafted into the Russian Army in 1914, where he promoted revolutionary ideas among the soldiers. After the February Revolution of 1917, he became a member of the Western Front’s frontline committee and was elected as a delegate for the 6th Congress of the Bolshevik Party. He later became chairman of the Northwestern Regional Committee of the Bolshevik Party, member of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Western Region, and commander of the Western Front. In early 1919 he was appointed chairman of the Central Executive Committee and the Bolshevik Party in Bielorussia (Belarus).

After his long parenthesis outside Armenian life, Miasnikian, who was on the Polish front in 1920, was appointed chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, the newly installed government of Soviet Armenia which replaced the Revolutionary Committee that had been in power after the fall of independent Armenia. He took the position in April 1921, after the end of the February uprising against the Soviet regime. He brought a letter from Vladimir Lenin, where the leader of the Soviet revolution exhorted his Armenian comrades: “(...) A slower, more careful, more systematic transition towards socialism; this is what is possible and necessary. To work at the same time to improve the situation of the villager and took over the great work of electrification and watering...”

Miasnikian’s constructive policy led to the formation of state institutions and the economic infrastructure of the republic, stabilizing the internal situation. He actively pursued work towards the eradication of illiteracy and the development of local manufacturing. Many intellectuals exiled in Iran before and after the February uprising returned to Armenia, while many others settled from Constantinople and other places. Many refugees from Western Armenia also started to settle in the country. He voted in July 1921 against the decision of incorporating Mountainous Karabagh into the territory of Azerbaijan, which was fueled by Joseph Stalin.After the creation of the Transcaucasian Federative Republic in March 1922, where Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan were integrated in one political unit, Miasnikian left his position and went to occupy leadership positions in the government of the federation as one of the chairmen of the Executive Committee and later first secretary of the Transcaucasian Committee of the Communist Party.

Statue of Alexander Miasnikian in central Yerevan
He died tragically on March 22, 1925, when he was departing from Tiflis (Tbilisi) to Sukhumi with Gevorg Atarbekian and S. Mogilevsky to participate in the Congress of the Soviets of Abkhazia. The “Junkers” airplane took fire due to an engine problem and the three men died. They were buried in Tbilisi three days later. Although the official version was an accident, there are views that it was not, and that the incident was orchestrated by, among others, the influential Georgian Bolshevik Laurenti Beria, who had started his career as right hand of Stalin. 

A factory, a square, and a street took Miasnikian’s name (in Russian Myasnikov) in Minsk, the capital of Belarus. Later, two cities in Armenia and Karabagh were named Martuni after his pseudonym, while a village in the province of Armavir was called Miasnikian. His statue is placed in Miasnikian Square of Yerevan. 

Saturday, March 15, 2014

March 15, 1921: Assassination of Talaat Pasha

On March 16, 1921, one of the headlines of The New York Times read: “Talaat Pasha Slain in Berlin Suburb.” After giving the details of the killing the day before, the report noted: “Talaat, whose name was on the second Entente list of Turkish war criminals, left Constantinople two years ago and had been living as a fugitive ever since under assumed names, first in Switzerland and later in Germany. He evidently feared the fate which has now overtaken him, for he had frequently changed his address in Berlin and at the time of his death was living at a pension in the West End.” The correspondent for the American newspaper added that the killer had been identified as an Armenian student (“Solomon Tellirian,” according to the Associated Press) and that “it is assumed that the deed was an act of revenge for the massacres of his compatriots.”

In July 1919, the Turkish martial court of Constantinople had condemned to death in absentia, among others, the “Three Pashas,” the members of the Young Turk triumvirate that had led the Ottoman Empire during the war: Talaat (Minister of Interior and Great Vizir in 1917-1918), Enver (Minister of War), and Djemal (Minister of Navy). The three had already fled Turkey, and the sentences were never carried out either by Turkey or by the allies.

The 9th General Assembly of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation convened in Yerevan, the capital of the Republic of Armenia, between September and October 1919, and adopted a resolution to punish those responsible for the genocide. A list of 200 names was prepared. The secret operation received the code name “Nemesis” (the name of the Greek god of vengeance). It was led by Shahan Natalie (Hagop Der-Hagopian, 1884-1983) and Armen Garo (Pastermadjian, 1873-1923), the latter being the Armenian ambassador to the United States.

On the front page of the daily paper, Chakatamart, dated friday March 18, 1921, the headline in Armenian below the banner reads, "An Armenian student kills Talaat Pasha."
The number one target of the operation was Talaat, who the U.S. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau had called the “Big Boss” of Turkey and already considered responsible of the extermination in his memoirs.

Soghomon Tehlirian
Soghomon Tehlirian (1897-1960), a 23-year-old student who had survived the Armenian Genocide in Erzinga, was selected to execute the mission. Some of the personnel in the Armenian diplomatic mission in Berlin gave logistic support, and other A.R.F. members worked from outside. Once Talaat’s whereabouts were established, Tehlirian arrived in the German capital in December 1920. For the next three months, he carried a surveillance task with his associates. He rented an apartment near the Turkish leader’s house in order to study his everyday movements. Talaat was killed by Tehlirian with a single shot on March 15, 1921, as he came out of his house in the Charlottenburg district. The assassination took place in broad daylight and led to Tehlirian’s immediate arrest by German police.

The young avenger was tried for murder on June 2-3, 1921. The three German defense attorneys focused on the influence of the genocide on Tehlirian’s mental state. When asked by the judge if he felt any sort of guilt, Tehlirian remarked, “I do not consider myself guilty because my conscience is clear … I have killed a man. But I am not a murderer.” It took the jury slightly over an hour to render a verdict of “not guilty.”

Operation Nemesis, which continued until 1922, went totally unnoticed at the time. The partial story of Talaat’s liquidation was told by Tehlirian in his memoirs, published in 1953. The main details of the operation were not uncovered until the 1980s.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Birth of Hrachia Adjarian - March 8, 1876

In times when “social mobility” was not a fashionable concept yet, the son of a shoemaker could become the foremost expert of the Armenian language as per European standards. Hrachia Adjarian, born in the Samatya neighborhood of Constantinople and blind in his left eye since the age of one, would be a legend in his lifetime and afterwards.

In 1883, Adjarian, then seven, started his primary studies at the grammar school of Samatya, where he studied Armenian, Turkish, and French, and finished the entire school course in two years. He then attended the Sahagian School and graduated with honors in 1890. Three years later, he would graduate from the Getronagan School of Constantinople. He taught for a year in Kadiköy and then for another year at the Sanasarian Lyceum of Karin (Erzerum). After writing the first draft of his future Armenian Etymological Dictionary, in 1895 he went to Europe and studied with two eminent linguists of the time, who were also experts in the Armenian language: Antoine Meillet at the Sorbonne of Paris and Heinrich Hubschmann at the University of Strasbourg. He graduated in 1898 from the Sorbonne. A year before, at the age of 21, he was elected member of the prestigious Société de Linguistique de Paris.

Adjarian returned from Europe in 1898 to start his career as a teacher at the Gevorgian Seminary of Etchmiadzin, and then taught in Shushi (Gharabagh), Nor Bayazet (nowadays Gavar), Nakhichevan-on-Don (Nor Nakhichevan), Tehran, and Tabriz until 1923. He met his first wife, Arusiak, in Shushi. Meanwhile, he published studies of various Armenian dialects, catalogs of Armenian manuscripts and many other articles and also books. In the period until 1915, his most important works were Classification of dialectes arméniennes (1909), Armenian Dialectology (1911) and Armenian Provincial Dictionary, published in 1913 with more than 30,000 words. He became the founder of a series of branches of Armenian Studies, such as history of the Armenian language, Armenian dialectology, etcetera.
He survived the turmoil of World War I, the Armenian Genocide, the massacres of Armenians in Azerbaijan, and found refuge in Iran. In 1923 he was invited to settle in Soviet Armenia and join the faculty at Yerevan State University, where he taught for the next thirty years. He lost his wife in 1925, and later, at the insistence of his friends, he remarried one of his students, Sofia, who would be his faithful companion for the rest of his life. They adopted a daughter, Knarik.

In 1926 Adjarian started to publish his magnum opus, the Armenian Etymological Dictionary (1926-1935, seven volumes), which contained 11,000 roots of the Armenian language.

In 1937 he was elected corresponding member of the Academy of Sciences of Czechoslovakia. Ironically, in September of the same year, he would be arrested during the Stalinist purges on charges of having been an English spy in Soviet Azerbaijan and a member of a counter-revolutionary group of professors. He was interrogated and beaten on those trumped-up charges. His wife, under great peril, was able to hide his priceless manuscripts. The court condemned him to six years of imprisonment. Adjarian was finally released in December 1939 “for lack of corpus delicti.” He got back his position at the University.

In 1943 he would become a founding member of the Armenian Academy of Sciences. In the remaining years of his life, he started to publish some other fundamental works: History of the Armenian Language (2 vols., 1940-1951), Dictionary of Armenian Names (5 vols., 1942-1962), Complete Grammar of the Armenian Language in Comparison with 562 Languages (7 vols., 1952-1971). At the end of his life, he had accumulated over 200 scholarly publications. He left many unpublished volumes, some of which are still being published.

Adjarian passed away on April 16, 1953. The Institute of Linguistics of the Armenian National Academy of Sciences bears his name.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Reform of Armenian Orthography - March 4, 1922

The reform of Armenian orthography in 1922 unleashed a decades-long controversy throughout the Armenian world that has not stopped until this day.
In January 1921, historian Ashot Hovhannisian (1887-1972), Commissar of Popular Education of the newly-established Soviet Armenian government, organized an advisory meeting about the orthography reform as part of a policy to foster education and fight illiteracy. Linguist and philologist Manuk Abeghian (1865-1944), who had written extensively on the issue since the late 1890s, presented a position paper on the issue. The paper repeated in its essentials the main theses of another paper (published in the same year) that he had read during a commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of the creation of the Armenian alphabet in 1913. Abeghian suggested to suppress the letters օ (o) and է (e) and replace them by ո (vo) and ե (ye), as well as a series of orthographic changes that signified a radical departure from the standard usage that had been the general norm since the Middle Ages.
Hovhannisian presented the paper to a special committee, which accepted its suggestions, and had it printed and sent to various parties, with the wish of “hearing the voice of the users of the Armenian language, particularly those worried with education.” No replies were received. After the end of the February rebellion in April, Hovhannisian was replaced by translator and journalist Poghos Makintsian (1884-1937), who continued his predecessor’s efforts and created a new special committee in February 1922. This committee presented to Makintsian the conclusions of its discussions of Abeghian’s paper. Makintsian, instead of transmitting them to the Soviet of Popular Commissars (equivalent to the Council of Ministers), chose to present Abeghian’s suggestions. The Soviet, under the chairmanship of Alexander Miasnikian, approved them on March 4, 1922, and ordered their execution. In the same year, Abeghian published his paper with the title “Guide of the New Orthography of the Armenian Language.””" It was the first book in the new spelling.
The reform stirred huge discontent in Armenia and in the Diaspora. The great poet Hovhannes Tumanian wrote a letter to the Soviet of Popular Commissars in May 1922, where he expressed his disagreement: “I, as an Armenian writer and chairman of the Union of Armenian Writers, come to declare my astonishment and to protest against the attitude of the Commissar of Education of Armenia in this important issue. Mr. M. Abeghian has made a proposal and published it. Very well. But where did the Commissar of Education of Armenia learn that both Mr. M. Abeghian and himself, the Commissar of Education, are infallible, and without subjecting the proposal to examination, have decreed to adopt it and write and print only with that [spelling]?”
The reform was actually spearheaded by the Soviet regime as part of a general policy of adopting the Latin alphabet to write the languages of non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union. Makintsian himself, who had presented a paper in 1919 (“On an Uniform Latin Alphabet for the People of the Socialist Federative Soviet Republic of Russia”) at a conference in Moscow, admitted in an article published in Russian on November 29, 1924, in the daily Zarya Vostoka of Tiflis: “I would have not cast my vote in favor of that reform under any circumstance if I had not considered it a step towards facilitating the work of going to the Latin characters . . . If the reform of the Armenian alphabet is bound to freeze and remain halfway, in that case it would be better to return to the old spelling without further ado. . . The sooner we throw to the archive the angular, ugly, and eye-damaging ‘Sahak-Mesrobian’ alphabet, the sooner we will get rid of Abeghian’s spelling.”
On August 22, 1940, yet another reform of spelling was decreed, executed by linguist Gurgen Sevak (1904-1981). It marked a partial return to the traditional spelling and it is the one in use until today in the Republic of Armenia, as well as among its emigrated citizens throughout the world. The Diaspora which was born after 1915 uses the traditional spelling, which Iranian Armenians also use, with small differences, as Eastern Armenians used it before Soviet times.
The title page of Sayat Nova's Armenian poems published in 1931 which utilizes the Soviet Armenian orthography of 1922.