The Burden of Memory

The Burden of Memory

Perhaps you noticed them in the main square of your town this year–or last year, or any year you’ve been alive, in any town where you’ve ever lived: a group of people solemnly assembled, a pries


Perhaps you noticed them in the main square of your town this year–or last year, or any year you’ve been alive, in any town where you’ve ever lived: a group of people solemnly assembled, a priest in a peaked hood, probably a children’s choir and definitely two or three elected officials. It is April 24, and the crowd has gathered to commemorate the genocide that began on that date in 1915, in which 1.5 million Armenians living in Eastern Turkey were killed by order of the Ottoman government. A master of ceremonies reports the latest tally of how many countries have passed resolutions commemorating the Armenian genocide, and how many newspapers have used the word “genocide” instead of the less politically charged “mass killings” to characterize the tragedy. A few centenarians–the last of the genocide survivors–hobble onto a platform while the crowd observes a moment of silence. The priest prays, the choir sings and a Congressman scans his notes and assures the Armenians that their contributions to American society are indispensable.

After eighty-nine years, April 24 rituals in Armenian communities around the world have become as reliable as time itself. Their endurance is a response to the Turkish government’s persistent refusal to acknowledge the crimes of its predecessors. Although most historians outside Turkey consider the Armenian genocide to have been the first genocide of the twentieth century–an atrocity whose rigorous planning and execution inspired Hitler–official Turkish history alleges that any killings that took place were merely side effects of World War I, that Turks were also killed by Armenians, and that Armenians colluded with Russian forces, posing a security threat. To propagate this version of the story, Turkey has hidden documents, blackmailed universities (including elite US schools) and filled library shelves worldwide with fraudulent histories. Only a few prominent historians question whether Turkey’s actions constituted genocide, most notoriously Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, who was condemned by a Paris court in 1995 for “hiding elements which go against his thesis–that there was no ‘serious proof’ of the Armenian Genocide.”

Those Armenians whose grandparents were forced from their homes and marched to death camps in the Syrian desert are, understandably, not interested in having a debate on the kaleidoscopic possibilities of historical interpretation. They want high-level condemnation of the atrocities their loved ones suffered. Some, ultimately, want reparations. But Turkey has thus far managed to prevent any US administration from passing an official resolution calling the events of 1915 genocide by threatening to cut access to strategic border zones. Meanwhile, Canada, France and other countries have ignored such threats and recognized the Armenian genocide.

For Armenians in the diaspora–a diaspora largely created by the genocide–the quest for Turkish government recognition has become a raison d’être and a powerful unifying issue for a community that otherwise contains many subdivisions that vary by degree of assimilation and allegiance to different host countries.

The collective energy of the Armenian diaspora is what made Peter Balakian’s book The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, an unlikely bestseller for a few weeks last fall. The Burning Tigris describes how Americans in the first half of the twentieth century were deeply engaged in efforts to help “the starving Armenians” in the wake of their catastrophe. But the distinctive merits of Balakian’s book had little to do with its commercial success. The reason was that Armenian-Americans spent much of last year running an intensive e-mail campaign to garner pre-orders for the book on A sufficiently high number of pre-orders would push the book into multiple printings early on and guarantee a high ranking. The campaign worked, as Armenians worldwide placed orders for one, two, three or twenty copies. Favorable reviews abounded. (A similar publicity crusade boosted Atom Egoyan’s 2002 film, Ararat, the first-ever feature film about the Armenian genocide.)

With The Burning Tigris, Balakian, a poet and the author of a highly praised memoir about the genocide, Black Dog of Fate, resuscitated a discourse that has been comatose for decades. While Armenian-American lobbyists work year after year to convince governments and journalists to acknowledge the genocide officially, Balakian launches into his book with no discussion of Turkey’s denial (which he saves for the epilogue). Instead, he tells a remarkable story of how the Armenian Cause became a pet project for the American cultural elite of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Armenian tragedy is thus folded into a dramatic narrative of romance and political intrigue, starring heroic Americans, not suffering Armenians.

The brilliance of Balakian’s project–and its undoubted PR value to the Armenian diaspora lobby–is that it portrays the genocide concern as a quintessentially American issue rather than a special interest that Americans should feel guilty for ignoring. Indeed, following the success of The Burning Tigris, Balakian (along with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Samantha Power and Robert Melson, a scholar and Holocaust survivor) helped convince the New York Times to change its longstanding policy against using the word “genocide” to describe the Armenian events. (The Burning Tigris details the reports about the Armenian genocide that appeared on that paper’s front pages while the massacres were taking place.)

But the novelty of its narrative notwithstanding, The Burning Tigris cannot escape becoming yet another artifact in what the young scholar Lisa Siraganian has called “the fetish-culture of diasporan Armenians.” In this culture, many diaspora Armenians are reared to hate Turkey with a fervor that seems completely at odds with their daily lives as typical–even liberal–American citizens. Clothes with “Made in Turkey” labels are put back on the rack, Turkish restaurants are avoided and a vacation in Istanbul is shunned by even the most adventurous travelers. At Armenian summer camps and youth groups, third-generation Armenian-Americans who don’t speak Armenian and have never seen Armenia learn to perpetuate this legacy. Many are descendants of genocide survivors, but often it is the later-generation descendants who take up the cause most ardently, suggesting that something besides a simple interest in justice fuels their behavior. In the face of the distress of assimilation, the glory of a shared victimhood is seductive indeed, especially when it can be attained without having actually suffered.

Sociologist Anny Bakalian has called the quest for genocide recognition a sine qua non for the Armenian community in America. A literal grasp of her words calls to mind a scene from George Steiner’s controversial novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. In a provocative climax, Steiner’s Adolf Hitler character suggests that Jews should be grateful to him for having catalyzed the fulfillment of the Zionist dream. A similar tragic paradox underlies the Armenian situation: Without the shared sense of purpose afforded by the pursuit of Turkish recognition, would the Armenian diaspora simply assimilate and disappear? In other words, is Turkey’s denial the diaspora’s lifeblood?

The enthusiasm surrounding the release of The Burning Tigris was a reminder that the needs of the diaspora, which lives in the shadow of the history that defined it, differ from–and sometimes clash with–those of the 3 million citizens of Armenia, who live for their own future. So what about that little piece of land in the Caucasus where doesn’t often deliver?

In Armenia itself, Turkish denial of the genocide barely registers as a concern among the citizens of the tiny republic, who are lucky if they get through each day with enough running water and electricity to put dinner on the table. Armenians are not indifferent toward the genocide, or to Turkey’s denial of it, but the historical tragedy has been supplanted in their imaginations by the demands of day-to-day life. Since 1988, when a terrible earthquake killed 50,000 Armenians and left one in ten citizens homeless, the country has endured relentless suffering. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in food and power shortages during the harsh winters of the early 1990s, and simultaneously the war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh felled many, severely drained resources and sparked a refugee crisis.

At the train station in the capital city of Yerevan, the hardships of daily life are on full display. The train platform, which used to bustle with travelers, is now the site of a chaotic outdoor market that has spread across most of the platform and surrounding grounds. Vendors from the outskirts of Yerevan entreat passersby to pick up a few peaches, a light bulb or some plastic shoes. It is the clearance sale of all the city’s bazaars, and not in a good way.

Inside the silent station hall, a dust-shielded board lists distant cities that Armenians could have visited in the past; virtually any place of interest in the Soviet sprawl was once accessible by rail. But the only place the train now goes outside Armenia is to neighboring Georgia, an equally rocky country that is larger than Armenia, almost as ancient and at least as poor. Eighty-five percent of Armenia’s possible ground access to the outside world is closed due to blockades imposed by Turkey on the west and Azerbaijan on the east. The small gap in the precipitous mountain border that Armenia shares with its friendliest neighbor, Iran, is best traversed in a tiny Niva, Russia’s answer to the Jeep.

But the trunk of a car can hold only so much for market, which is why Armenia’s economy is so effectively strangled by the Turkish and Azeri blockades; they curtail cargo transport and the development of import and export relationships in all directions. The World Bank estimates that these blockades have an impact of up to $1.1 billion a year on Armenia. If the blockades were lifted, according to the bank, Armenia’s GDP–currently at $3,770 per capita–could increase by 10-18 percent, and Armenia’s exports could double.

Azerbaijan closed its border with Armenia in 1991, when Armenian and Azeri forces began fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, a territory geographically encompassed by Azerbaijan but historically populated by Armenians. A bloody ground war ensued, and Armenia won control of Nagorno-Karabakh as well as several surrounding districts. A cease-fire in 1994 ended the fighting, but a real resolution has yet to be reached. As Azerbaijan’s next of kin, Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to protest the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In Modern Armenia: People, Nation, State, Gerard Libaridian describes how relations between Armenia and Turkey have shifted in the years since 1991, when Armenia became an independent state. In a refreshingly balanced analysis, Libaridian examines Armenia and Turkey as states with clear needs and interests, and argues that pressure from the Armenian diaspora has long complicated the efforts of the two neighbors to establish ties. Libaridian, currently a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, was a foreign policy adviser to the president of Armenia from 1991 to 1997; his direct involvement in negotiations gives him the credibility to present views that will be unappealing to many diaspora Armenians.

After Armenia gained independence, the leading party, the Armenian National Movement (ANM), under then-President Levon Ter-Petrossian, decided that genocide recognition could not be a condition for Armenia’s relationship with Turkey. “Obviously this policy was not due to a lack of knowledge of history within the ANM,” Libaridian writes, noting that Ter-Petrossian himself was a historian; his views did not reflect “the absence of an appreciation of the significance of the genocide” but a difference in “how to imagine the future.”

Thus began what Libaridian calls “the battle for the soul of the new republic.” Ter-Petrossian was vilified by critics in the diaspora for his refusal to give priority to genocide recognition, and for banning the ARF party, a militant political group with strong diaspora ties. (My own memories of the Ter-Petrossian years include stories of Armenian-American children chanting “Death to LTP!” at ARF gatherings in suburban New England–LTP being the preferred moniker of disrespect for the president among diaspora malcontents.)

Libaridian offers an especially perceptive analysis of Turkish diplomats during Ter-Petrossian’s years in office. Challenging the widely held anti-Turkish sentiments of his diaspora peers, Libaridian reminds readers that the Turkish administration was made up of people whose close colleagues had been assassinated by Armenian terrorists–mostly diaspora Armenians, some descended from genocide survivors–between 1975 and 1983. More than thirty Turkish diplomats and bystanders were killed in bombings and assassinations. “It left a deep impression on the Turkish state and defined its view of Armenians, especially in the mind of the foreign policy establishment.” Libaridian notes this not as an apologist but as a strategist.

He also explains that until the Soviet Union came apart, Turkish officials never thought of Armenia as a state. They thought only of Armenians, a cultural group that, in their estimation, consisted of a handful of crazed terrorists and an aggressive diaspora that relentlessly condemned Turkey. “It took them a while to start thinking of Armenia as an independent country,” says Libaridian. “This was a serious problem.”

This leap of imagination was not Turkey’s challenge alone; the diaspora, too, had to get used to the idea of an Armenian state. Until 1991, the diaspora could be a cultural and political surrogate for a republic restricted by Soviet policies. And while the diaspora had no need of friendly relations with Turkey, Armenia, facing the requirements of statehood, desperately needed the economic and security benefits guaranteed by diplomatic ties with a neighbor. Armenia’s leaders as well as its regular citizens had the biggest challenge of all: making the psychological transition from being Moscow’s smallest child to setting up a house of their own.

When Robert Kocharian became president in 1998, he immediately sought to reel in an alienated diaspora. Kocharian has not insisted on genocide recognition, but in a nod to diaspora demands, he has put the issue on the negotiating table. He has also welcomed the ARF back to Armenia, and established more formal relations with other diaspora organizations.

Kocharian’s approach is not surprising, considering that diaspora Armenians currently provide about one-third of Armenia’s GDP by way of donations, investments and development programs of every imaginable variety. Walk around Yerevan with locals, and they will readily tell you which diaspora billionaire built that new road up ahead, or the new museum that will tower over the city, or various new schools, hospitals and homes that gleam against the capital’s crumbly backdrop. In summertime, repatriates and visitors from the diaspora fill the streets and spend money on a healthy quantity of crafts and jewelry, not to mention food, hotel rooms and services.

Analysts in Armenia and the diaspora are divided into two camps: those who believe Armenia can build a sustainable economy based solely on diaspora support, and those who believe an open border with Turkey is critical to a functioning economy. But would the diaspora keep sending money if Armenia didn’t indulge its quest for genocide recognition? And if it weren’t for the diaspora’s demands, might Turkey long ago have opened its border and allowed for the kind of long-term economic development that Armenia needs? Turkey’s official stance now is that the opening of the border is tied to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict; but over the years diaspora activities have shaped the diplomatic environment in which the negotiations have taken place.

In the battle for the soul of the republic, Kocharian’s administration is in an awkward bind, forced to seek diaspora funding and thus obliged to tolerate the diaspora’s unique psychological demands–which, though they are born of good intentions, are not necessarily in Armenia’s best interests. Indeed, according to Libaridian, officials in Armenia would rather not encourage a nation of victims. “What is this?” he asked in a recent interview, adopting the perspective of an Armenian official. “We respect, we mourn, but we don’t want a bunch of citizens who live for and identify themselves as victims in history. We have won a war.”

What, then, does a disgruntled diplomat offer as an alternative? “The best way to commemorate the victims of the genocide is to live, survive and progress, to give an opportunity to the new generation in Armenia to live better than their parents,” Libaridian says. “Then, if they have the means to do something more than we could do to gain recognition, let them do it. But give them that opportunity.” Armenia’s supporters in America should keep sending money–but in the political arena, they should step aside and allow Armenia’s officials to develop economic relationships that will insure the country’s stability, so that the era of tragedy that began with the genocide does not continue indefinitely, sustained by the age-old hatred that makes less and less sense as time goes on. The truth will no longer set anybody free. Armenia has suffered enough.

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