The 'Armenian question'; Yet another pressure point in the East-West struggle?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

''Grounk'' is the name of the song. When the music starts, a visitor can feel the hall grow heavy with emotion.

For this is the ''Call of the Motherland,'' known to 5.7 million Armenians scattered about the world. The song of longing memorializes a history that few Armenians care to forget. Almost all have heard the story of the deaths by forced marches and execution of an estimated 600,000 to 1 million Armenians in Turkey during World War I.

''Crane,'' goes the song, ''what news do you bring of the homeland?''

Recommended: Think you know Turkey? Take our country quiz.

''Bringing back the news'' is exactly what is happening in this ethnic, heavily blue-collar city just outside Boston. But the ''motherland'' that has sent forth the singers and instrumentalists who are playing in Watertown's St. James Armenian Church Cultural and Youth Center is not the independent nation some have long dreamed of. It is the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic, firmly seated within the Soviet Union. Still, tonight's performance touches symbolically almost every aspect of what was once called ''the Armenian question.''

The stylish tuxedos and dazzling gowns of these Soviet Armenian performers seem far from the long-gone Armenian village life of which they sing.

Peopled partly by those who fled north from Turkey, Soviet Armenia now has a population of some 3.2 million. Another 1 million Armenians live in other parts of the USSR. There are another 1.5 million elsewhere, including the half million in the United States and thousands in France, Egypt, and Iran.

Watching intently from below is the two-dozen-strong Soviet Armenian delegation of musicians, academicians, architects, and government officials, who have also visited Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Theirs is just one of a number of such delegations in recent years.

As several hundred Armenian Americans listen intently, tonight's music buries the ''cold war'' with a cultural unity laced with memories of the past.

All this seems distant from the gunfire of youthful Armenian militants who have made more than 60 attacks on Turkish diplomats in Western Europe and the US since 1973. In May the Turkish honorary consul in Cambridge, Mass., was assassinated in nearby Somerville.

Many of the half-million Armenian Americans say they disapprove of the violence. But they add they understand the frustrations behind it. Some Armenians agree with the suggestion of a spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, that these young terrorists, apparently based in Beirut, have been influenced by the tactics of the extreme wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Just as important is the position Soviet Armenian officials take toward terrorism. Comments they make after the performance this evening suggest Moscow is cautiously encouraging Armenian nationalism both to win the sympathies of American and Soviet Armenians - and to manipulate a pressure point on one of its antagonists, Turkey, a member of NATO.

Before World War I there were an estimated 2 million Armenian peasants and merchants in areas of the Ottoman Empire (later to become Turkey) bordering Czarist Russia. Survivors of the killings, who live in the Soviet Union, the United States, France, Egypt, Iran, and other parts of the Mideast, have passed on to their children and grandchildren tales of Turkish brutality. But some Armenian children have also heard their parents tell of kindness by other Turks who refused to take part in the killings.

Amid terrorist attacks against its diplomats, Turkey has insistently denied it authorized genocidal killings. The official position is that there were killings on both sides after an Armenian minority in east Turkey tried to form a separate state. At a time when Turkey was ''fighting for its life'' and facing armies of Czarist Russia, there were killings on all sides, and the Armenians were eventually ''persuaded'' that it was best for them to migrate south.

''It is possible that some of these Armenians did not want to go,'' says a spokesman with the Turkish Embassy in Washington. The emotional controversy has sometimes lacked precision because of what seems a vacuum in historical research. Non-Armenian and non-Turkish scholars have not yet provided an account that can't be accused of bias, notes a non-Armenian specialist on Central Asia.

An Armenian scholar adds that no Armenian has yet written a comprehensive, authoritative volume on the period. But he maintains that scattered evidence is firm for anywhere from 600,000 to 1 million deaths. (Less scholarly Armenian activists sometimes claim 1.5 million.) Evidence, he says, includes eyewitness accounts, the testimony of travelers, copies of Turkish telegrams, and comparison of population figures in the area before and after the events.

A Turkish spokesman denies this scholar's contention that access to the relevant historical archives in Turkey is in effect barred. A non-Armenian specialist on Central Asia notes that access to the archives has been limited, although two scholars from the US, including one of Turkish origin, have gained access. But he adds this is granted only after a careful evaluation of the scholar and his research topic.

''The Turks see any admission of guilt as the thin end of a widening wedge,'' says Robert Mirak, an adjunct professor of history at Boston University. Their concern is that this could strengthen Armenian claims for compensation or the return of lands they once owned in Turkey, he notes.

The result, he says, is a cycle of violence. Each terrorist attack strengthens Turkey's denial. This spurs Armenian bitterness - and helps fuel more terrorist action. An admission that the killings did take place could pacify as many as 90 percent of American Armenians, Dr. Mirak maintains.

Armenian Americans of varying viewpoints often agree in their condemnation of the Turkish denials. A frequent reaction: ''They killed our people and they killed our homeland. Now they try to kill our history, too.''

It is a long way from Watertown to Yerevan, the cultural capital of Soviet Armenia. But more and more Armenian Americans visit Soviet Armenia as tourists or students.

While acknowledging the limits on Armenian independence, many return to report a flourishing Armenian religion and culture that dilute earlier suspicions of communist repression.

But the existence of Soviet Armenia still troubles and divides America's Armenian community. Separate Armenian churches mark the divide.

On the one hand are the ''Tashnags,'' ideological descendants of an independent Armenian state that was crushed in 1920 by Turkish and Soviet armies only two years after its founding. The Tashnags insist that incorporation of Armenians into the Soviet Union 60 years ago helped throttle Armenian nationalism. Others, known sometimes as ''Ramgavars,'' have accepted Soviet rule as a fact of life, thankful that it allows Armenian culture and religion to survive. The Soviet Union at least protects these Armenians from Turkey, American Armenians of this persuasion sometimes explain.

Some even see Soviet Armenia as the true ''homeland,'' comparable to Israel, as a citadel of Armenian history and culture. A truly independent Armenia is unrealistic because it would be invaded and destroyed by either the Soviet Union or Turkey, they sometimes point out.

Of some half-million Armenians in the US, only 2,000 to 3,000 may be considered the ''card-carrying'' kind who are committed on each side, according to Professor Mirak.

On Christmas Day, 1933, this division reached its head, when an anti-Soviet Armenian assassinated the Primate of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America. Archbishop Leon Tourian had angered some Tashnags when he asked that the flag of the defeated Tashnag republic be removed from a worship area. After the killing , American Armenians became split between local churches affiliated with the Catholicosate of All Armenians, located in Soviet Armenia, and those affiliated with the Catholicosate of Cilicia, near Beirut.

The American split became extremely bitter even though there were no differences in doctrine or practice. By contrast, outside the US the two Catholicosates retained cooperative relations. Then in the 1950s the dispute became worldwide when supporters of the Beirut Catholicosate accused the Soviet Armenian Catholicosate of spreading its influence.

Today in Watertown there are two Armenian churches. Armenians from ''both sides'' here agree that with the development of a new generation, the rift is losing some of its intensity. But the rivalry - sometimes friendly and sometimes bitter - is still there.

The church more accepting of Soviet Armenia is the St. James Armenian Apostolic Church. This church provided the rental hall in which the visiting Soviet Armenians performed. Across town is the St. Stephens Armenian Apostolic Church, a rival of Tashnag descent.

In a sign of reconciliation, Tashnag groups put out the word that as long as the event was cultural, rather than political, Armenian Americans should be encouraged to attend.

Archbishop Torkom Hagopian of St. Stevens said before the event, ''We encourage people to go as a cultural event. Many culture lovers will go.'' But would he himself attend? ''I do not have a formal invitation, and I cannot go everywhere,'' he declared. ''I have much business to do that night.''

''They invite us to attend. But when we come, they treat us like stepchildren ,'' a Tashnag complained bitterly. The evening at St. James illustrates the kind of incidents that sometimes irritate the Tashnags.

''Let us stand for 30 seconds in the memory of Leonid Brezhnev.''

The words might have been spoken in the Soviet Union, but they were not. Instead this was Dr. Ewart Gunier, a former professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University, as he introduced the Watertown performance. The audience rose in silence.

Next Dr. Gunier, president of the Boston branch of the US-Soviet Friendship Society (a non-Armenian cosponsor of the concert), eulogized Brezhnev, stressing his contributions to world peace and to the fight against hunger.

But Souren Tashjian, chairman of the cosponsoring Armenian Celebration Committee, maintained the eulogy violated an agreement that the performance be kept nonpolitical.

Dr. Gunier later explained in an interview that he did not clear the eulogy with the Armenian Celebration Committee, because he considered his comments appropriate in Watertown.

In the late 19th century the ''Armenian question'' hung like a shadow over British politics. The moralistic William Gladstone (prime minister for interrupted periods in the 1860s, '70s, '80s, and '90s) urged measures to save Armenians from what he viewed as a repressive Ottoman Empire. His rival, Benjamin Disraeli (prime minister at different times in the 1860s and '70s), was more interested in backing the Ottomans to block Russian expansion toward India.

Today the ''Armenian question'' is a delicate issue hanging over the confrontation between the Soviet Union and NATO-member Turkey.

In an interview after the concert, two Armenian foreign affairs officials present in the delegation repeated the official Soviet Armenian position on the wave of anti-Turkish militant Armenian terrorism.''

These actions are both wrong and ineffective, but we can understand the frustrations and conditions which motivate them,'' said Levon Manasserian, vice-chairman of the commission of foreign affairs of the Supreme Soviet of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Vardan Voskanyan, the first secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, gave much the same view, which sounded nearly identical to comments made by American Armenians. Both insisted these statements represented nothing new.

But even these cautious statements show a change compared with a few months back, notes Prof. Vahakn N. Dadrian, a specialist on Soviet Armenia at the State University of New York at Geneseo. He says Soviet officials previously avoided the issue.

The new statements indicate the Soviet Union may be subtly manipulating a sensitive issue for Turkey, Professor Dadrian explains. They indicate that high Soviet leaders are backing a hint of increased support for Armenian grievances to warn Turkey against adhering too closely to NATO.

The new Soviet position was displayed earlier this year to a visiting Turkish political scientist, Mumtaz Soysal of the University of Ankara, by John Guiragowsian, the foreign minister of Soviet Armenia, Dadrian adds.

This hint of greater Soviet tolerance for Armenian nationalism coincides with greater tolerance toward other Soviet national minorities, notes an American specialist on Central Asia. As the population of these minorities increases, Moscow runs the risk that its efforts to win their loyalty by tolerance of their nationalism could backfire by encouraging nationalistic opposition to Moscow's rule.

In Watertown both Mr. Manasserian and Mr. Voskanyan suggested how cautious and limited is any Soviet support for Armenian grievances. Both declined to support peaceful Armenian efforts against Turkey, using, for example, the United Nations or the World Court.

''Soviet Armenians would like to see this, but foreign policy must be made in Moscow, not in Armenia. Steps against Turkey, a NATO member, would involve our overall relations with NATO, and the need to maintain world peace.''

Professor Dadrian suggests some other reasons for caution. If Moscow were to tilt too strongly for the Armenians, that could cause discontent for other sometimes rival Turkic and Islamic ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union who have been rising in prominence in the last 30 years. The Soviets also seek to encourage and benefit from left-wing Kurdish nationalists within Turkey. But any litigation on behalf of Armenians could be unwelcome to those Kurds who now occupy what was formerly Armenian occupied land.

So a century after Gladstone and Disraeli sparred over aid for the Armenians, the issues have not disappeared.

But tonight the concert is over, and some passions of the past are quiet for a while. In the auditorium of St. James, Soviet Armenians and American Armenians mingle. ''You know I am a Tashnag,'' laughs an Armenian American, joking with a Soviet Armenian official. As they chatted and walked out of the hall, it seemed as though they might have grown up together - in some homeland of an earlier time.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...