By Vicken Cheterian
The hall at the University of Geneva was packed as I introduced Kadir Akin and his documentary RED*. Only a decade back the scene would have been unusual: an Armenian university lecturer introducing a Turkish intellectual, who had worked for several years on Armenian history. For eight decades intellectual exchanges, even personal friendship between Armenians and Turks were simply non-existent.
Moreover, the theme of the documentary was one of the most contested pages in the Armenian-Turkish history: that of the Armenian revolutionary movement. For Ottoman and later Turkish historiography, the Armenian revolutionary groups were no more than traitors that collaborated with the enemy, colonial empires (Russian, British and French), to destroy the Ottoman Empire. They were enemies of the state. For Armenians, they were heroes who fought against injustice, for the freedom of the nation.
“I did not do this movie for the Armenians, I did it for the Turks,” told me Akin when we met before the projection, around a cup of coffee. His interest started when he first learned about Paramaz, an Armenian social-democrat revolutionary, who, with 19 of his comrades, were hanged on Beyazit Square in Istanbul, in 1916 (1915 Massispost). It was in 2010 when he read in an Istanbul leftist publication an article titled: “Let us not forget Paramaz.” Apart from this there was no additional information in Turkish. Limited articles available in English on the internet made him realize that there was a Marxist movement in Ottoman Empire 33 years before the founding of the first Turkish Communist Party, found only in 1920. In spite of the numerous leftist parties in Turkey, Akin wondered why the first socialists in the Ottoman Empire were left in the dark.
It would take him into a long journey of eight years to discover the history of the Hunchakian Social Democratic Party, the first socialist party in the Middle East that introduced Marxism into the Ottoman Empire and Iran, as well as to the history of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation – Tashnagtsutyun. He had to travel outside Istanbul – to Yerevan, but also to Beirut to meet historians and members of Hunchak Party, and to Geneva where seven university students founded the Hunchakian party in 1887.
Kadir Akin first worked on a book entitled “Paramaz- Armenian Revolutionary, From Abdul Hamid to Union and Progress Armenian Socialists and Genocide”. The book was initially published in 2015, and found much success in Turkey. Since, it has been released already in its fifth edition. The low-budget documentary is thick like a book: it documents the history of Armenian political parties until the genocide.
“Until now we did not know how the Genocide influenced Turkish socialism”, Akin said. The fact that for decades Turkish leftists continued to ignore socialist militants who preceded them “shows that the origins of Turkish socialist is not internationalism. On the other hand, both Hunchaks and Tashnags were member of socialist international”, he added. He thinks the debates of the past, and especially the programme of the Hunchak Party is still relevant for today: “Hunchaks wanted Anatolian Federalism”, an issue which continues to resonate in Turkey today, as the destruction of the Armenians did not end the question of how a centralized state manages diversity.
Why did a Turkish intellectual was suddenly interested in Armenian (revolutionary) history? The other side of the question (that I ask in my book Open Wounds) is: why was the Armenian history reduced to silence for so long?** “The Genocide of the Armenians destroyed this memory, the historic experience of Hunchaks and Tashnags from todays political experience,” told me Akin.
My own interest in Armenian revolutionaries, and especially the history of the Hunchakian Party, was revived as I was reading the magnum opus of Hana Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq – still today the major work on the history of that country. There, he mentions that probably the first person who introduced socialist ideas to Iraqi youth was Arsen Kidour, a young Armenian teacher sent to Baghdad, and member of the Hunchakian Party. Batatu, who made long interviews with Kidour in Beirut in the 1960s’ writes that the Hunchaks were also “the forerunner of the Communist party of Syria and Lebanon”. They were also the forerunner of Marxist and Communist parties in Turkey, Bulgaria and Iran.
Today, the Armenian revolutionary movement, and the rich political debates of the 19th century, is largely forgotten. They have no place in the two major discourses that developed in the 20th century: nationalism and Islamism. The few Armenian revolutionaries that are remembered today are largely placed within the nationalist discourse – either as the saviours of the Armenian nation, or even further like in the case of Missak Manoushian – who led a group of migrant Communists of East European, Jewish, Spanish, and Armenian backgrounds in resisting Nazi occupation of France, as a hero of French resistance. No one remembers Armenian and Georgian activists who took part in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911 and how for a short while the entire (revolutionary) police force of Tehran was under an Armenian militia led by Yeprem Khan. No one remembers the Baku Commune – that short-lived internationalist government in the industrial city led by the Bolshevik Stepan Shahumian. Armenian Revolutionary history is forgotten and Shahumian has no place, neither in Armenian, nor in Azerbaijani national narrative.
Yet, the documentary of Kadir Akin tells us that the Armenian Revolutionaries are also part of the Ottoman and Turkish history. And by doing so, he subverts the hegemonic paradigms of nationalism and Islamism, the modern history of the Middle East, and the way it continues to be told in books until now. It has the potential to radically revise the way the modern history of the Middle East has been told and written, making history writing a critical exercise opposing power, hegemonic narratives, fighting against censorship and denialism.
The experience of the Armenian political movements, their debates and the political actions they adopted remains relevant to the current situation in the Middle East: Hunchakian Party organized the first political demonstration in Istanbul in 1894 demanding for political reforms, 116 years before the Arab Spring; Tashnagtsutyun organized probably the first major terrorist operation in 1896 – occupying Ottoman Bank to demand the stop of the anti-Armenian massacres; and Armenian parties organized a major guerrilla movement in the 1890’s, some 70 years before the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Revisiting those struggles are full of lessons that has been ignored for so long.
More important than the methods of political struggle was its substance: the relationship between the individual that they wanted to become a “citizen” with political rights, and the state, the Ottoman state. Yet, the Armenian revolutionaries, the “sons”, cannot be understood without the constitutional movement, the “fathers”: the movement of reforms in the Ottoman reforms of the 19th century, the Tanzimat, in which Ottoman Armenians played central role. Yet, that is another forgotten story that needs other occasions to talk about.
*RED introduction on Youtube