The Role of Literature in Preserving the Armenian National Identity

by Grigor Hakobyan


In the early 1800s, further research of Armenian history and literature by European scholars such as A. Meillet and J. Karst, brought forth into the light the lost manuscripts and ancient writings of the Armenian people. Their remarkable works in the field of Armenian Studies created a new wave of Armenian scholars such as H. Ashcaryan (1876-1953) and M. Abelyan (1865-1944), N. Adonts (1871-1942, T. Toramanyan (1864-1934) who rejuvenated the Armenian folklore, reconstructed more factual history of Armenian people and brought forth the archaic achievements of Armenian architecture.

Komitas Vardapet (Solomon Solomonean, 1869-1935, Genocide survivor and spiritual composer of Armenian liturgy) re-created the lost treasures of the uplifting Armenian spiritual music, devising thousands of religious compositions still practiced by the current Armenian churches. His spiritual compositions and inspiring writings of outstanding Armenian writer/poet Raffi, resurrected the creative spirit of Armenian people, reclaiming their attachments to their ancient history, sacred Homeland and spiritual heritage. Sense of national pride and dignity re-emerged among Armenians, giving rise to their new literary works in the face of the coming new century.

Critical, journalistic reviews and monographs on contemporary Armenian writers like Y. Ohsakan, Vahan Nalbandean (1876-1902), Nikol Albalean (1873-1947), Simeon Hakobyan (1880-1942), Arsen Terteryan (1882-1953), Haroutiun Surhatyan (1882-1938), Tsolak Hanzadyan (1886-1935), and Polos Makintsyan (1884-1938) began to emerge.

Armenians in West Armenia and East Armenia were undergoing a cultural reinasonse until the great evil of the genocide came upon them. As the 20th century started, Armenia was still under control of the Ottoman and Russian empires, who were doing their best to erase the Armenian history and literature from the consciousness of the Armenian people.

Their goals were clear, they were working to impose such conditions on Armenian people,where Armenians under Ottoman rule in the West Armenia would have been converted into the Turkish identity and Islamic beliefs, while Armenians under Russian rule in the Eastern Armenia would have been converted into Russian orthodoxy and became slavonized. As a result of these tensions, major cataclysmic events occured, which lead Armenians to significant upheavals, causing thousands of Armenian deaths and mass emigrations from their ancestral Homeland. In 1903, the Russian government confiscated all Armenian Church properties, closing down all Armenian schools and religious seminaries.

Furthermore,armed clashes between Armenian self-defense groups and Russian army troops took place in the eastern Armenia. Continuing guerilla warfare against Russian rule and defying of Armenian clergy to recognize the rule of Russian church upon them, two years later, forced Russian government to stop their anti-Armenian discriminatory and harrasment policies, followed by the return of all confiscated valuable items back to Armenian churches.

The dramatic events were followed by another war in 1905-1906, called as "Tatar(Azeri)-Armenian" war, where Azeries, tried to implement genocidal policies against Armenians residing in Artsakh (Nagorno-Kharabagh), Utik (North Artsakh), Zangezur, Nakhichevan, and other parts of Armeno-Azeri settlements, in their attempts to eradicate the Armenian people from their ansestral Homeland at once and for ever. Evenmore, Azeri bands raided Armenian settlements of Artsakh and Zangezur, robing Armenian farmers and merchants, subjecting Armenian women and kids to rape, torture and merciless killings.

Nevertheless,this war ended up by the Armenian victory in Baku, where Armenians managed to create significant defense barricades in the streets, waging urban warfare and dividing the city into Armenian and Azeri parts of control and eventually, with great courage and sacrifices from the Armenian side, Azeries were brought to their knees, in a very humiliating defeat, with officially declared Azery capitulation. Coming of Lenin to power in Russia resulted in pull out of all the Russian forces from the Caucasian front who were fighting the Ottoman Empire, thus giving to Ottomans a chance to recover their loses and free hand in their ongoing campaign of racial extermination of the Armenians, which were greatly intensified between 1915-1923.

Political developments in the West Armenia were magnified by a military coup staged on behalf of the "Young Turks" organization, an ultra-shovinistic, political party, known as the Committee of Union and Progress. Previous scenarios played out by the prior government of the Ottoman Empire in Adana during 1909-1910 were repeated once again in a far greater magnitude, with an astonishing number of civilian casualties and unspeakable brutalities.

In the early morning of April 24th, 1915, many Armenian writers, poets and other intellectuals, who comprised the cradle of the Western Armenian literature and cultural life got arrested and shot by the Turkish death squad, thus becoming the first victims of the Crime Against Humanity. Famous stars of the Armenian literature G. Zohrap, D. Varuzan, Siamanto, Eruhan, R. Sewak, M.Kiwrshean (Hrand), R. Zardarean, Tlkatinski, A. Yarutiwnean, T. Cheokiwrean, S. Biwrat, G. Barselean, and hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals became the innocent victims of the first Genocide in the 20th century.

Due to the Genocide campaign against the Armenian people in their native Homeland under the Ottoman and Young Turks rule, over 1.5 million Armenians became the victims of the horrendous slaughter, which caused another million Armenians to flee their homes into the neighboring states, going as far away as to Europe and America, seeking a refuge and a new place to settle. Thus was created the well known, organized Armenian Diaspora of the early 20th century.

However, despite all the hardships endured by the Armenian people, cultural life of our nation continued, where the prose dominated the ending stage of the nineteen-century,followed by an era of poetry which gradually emerged to become the dominant subject of the magnificent Armenian literature and the main driving force behind the Armenian cultural revival of the 1960s. Outstanding poets like Siamanto, D. Varuzan, M. Metzarents, and V. Tekeean wrote numerous poems glorifying Armenian culture, history and believes of a better future.

Furthermore, they became the leading intellectuals of the Western Armenian thought, continuously enriching the never ending Armenian literature. Talented Armenian writers/poets like Hovhaness Toumanyan, Avetik Isahakyan, Vahan Teryan and Egishe Charents matched the contributions of their fellow western Armenians by their own unique compositions on the same themes, furthering their overall contributions to the Armenian culture.

Furthermore, many aspects of a cultural symbolism, naturalism and futurism presented by above mentioned Armenian writers have raised the richness of the ancient Armenian folklore, keeping abreast the glorious Armenian literature with the undergoing literary trends of their fellow colleges in Europe and Americas.

Drama was reborn and brought forth into practice by the famous Western Armenian dramaturgy of that time: Shirvanzande, Levon Shant and later on by Alexandr Ispendiaryan and others in the Communist Armenia. The literary trend of the West Armenian writers and their fellow colleges in East Armenia created a movement of returning back to Armenian pagan past, where natural beauty and its mystic spiritual heritage were once again exalted.

In the first days of Young Turks'leadership, the Armenians of the Constantinople have celebrated the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the invention of Armenian alphabet and the four-hundredth anniversary of Armenian printing. The cultural rainasonse of the Armenian people was on its way to achieving its highest cultural climax, when the Armenian Genocide between 1915-1923 and the fall of its first independent republic of Armenia to the oppressive communist regime under the rapidly advancing red army in 1920 have greatly suspended and extensively delayed the Armenian cultural progress until its later times, re-emerging once again after the horrors of the ww-2.

Source: Reference Guide to Armenian Literature, by Gevorg Bardakjian