(the title is taken from the final lines of Robert Frost’s poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
by Aram Hovasapyan
As my internship with the ANCA is winding to an end, I want to share with you the stance and perspective that drives us, Armenians, forward to achieve results for the Armenian Cause as well as for ourselves individually. Let me convey to you the abovementioned point of view that has proved to be a crucial element in the successes of Armenians to better their lot with a historical analogy.
In the mid- 1870’s uprisings and rebellions sprang up against Ottoman rule by the heavily Christian population in the Balkans which had long been mistreated and persecuted. The Turks countered these uprisings by brutal means, including the mass murder of men, women, and children in several Bulgarian villages. International outcries by European powers regarding the slaughter of fellow Christians led to the eventual declaration of war by Russia against Turkey, beginning the Russo- Turkish War of 1877-1878.
The war was fought in the Balkan theatre as well as in the Caucasus. Russia saw the war as an opportunity to expand its borders into Anatolia and was aided in the fact that the area was inhabited by a plurality of Armenians who had been calling for reforms in Ottoman rule. However, while Armenians had only been meekly calling for reforms to establish fair laws and protection of Christian subjects, the Balkan peoples had began armed insurrections against Ottoman misrule and had gone as far as to declare independence, thus garnering stronger international attention and sympathies. Keep this comparison in mind; we will return to it later. Under the command of four Armenian generals ( Beybut Shelkovnikov, Mikhail Loris-Melikov, Ivan Lazarev, and Arshak Ter-Ghukasov), Russian forces in the Caucasus reached as far West as Erzerum by the end of the war. In the European front, Russian forces had also driven back the Turks and had reached San Stefano, in the outskirts of the Ottoman Capital, Constantinople.
The following Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878 between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, set the new boundaries of the war-torn regions. The Ottoman Empire was forced to make many concessions in the Balkans, as Serbia’s, Montenegro’s, and Romania’s independences were recognized, and Bulgaria was granted autonomy. In the Caucasus, the Ottomans ceded to Russia the districts of Ardahan, Batum, Kars, Alashkert and Bayazit. Even though Erzerum would be returned to the Turks, Russian forces would stand firm in the city until reforms providing for the safety of the Armenians were enacted. Article 16 of the treaty read, “As the evacuation by the Russian troops of the territory which they occupy in Armenia, and which is to be restored to Turkey, might give rise to conflicts and complications detrimental to the maintenance of good relations between the two countries, the Sublime Porte engages to carry into effect, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security from Kurds and Circassians.”
However, the European powers, namely Britain, were not happy to see such an expansion of Russian hegemony, especially at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. The British had, throughout the 19th century, proved instrumental in preventing the collapse of the “sick man of Europe”, as the Ottoman Empire was often referred to. In return, the British were granted many privileges by the Ottomans and did not want to see the Russians taking control and posing a threat in the region. With alarmed calls for a modification of San Stefano being made, German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, known as “the honest broker”, offered to mediate at the Congress of Berlin in the summer of 1878. Upon hearing that a congress at Berlin was set to convene, the Ottoman Armenians, hoping to further better their lot in the coming negotiations, sent a delegation to the capitals of the Great Powers to present the Armenian case. Armenians were hopeful that since the British knew that they asked only for self-administration within the Ottoman Empire and not independence like their Christian counterparts in the Balkans, the British would be willing to advocate for a program of Armenian self-rule in order to stabilize the Empire. The delegation, led by former Patriarch Mkrtich Khrimian, was met politely in London and elsewhere but was not promised anything. Sadly, as the Congress was convened in Berlin, nobody even took note of the Armenian delegation standing outside. In the Congress of Berlin, signed July 13, 1878, a few of the Turkish concessions to the Balkan peoples were reversed (although Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania still maintained their independence), and Russian control in Eastern Anatolia reduced as the Russians ceded Armenian populated Bayazit and Alashkert back to the Turks. Even worse for the Armenians, no provision for Armenian self-administration in the six Armenian villayets were made, and Russian forces were to retreat from Erzerum immediately without waiting for provisions for the safeguarding of the Armenians to be put into effect. In an almost ironical twist of fate, article 16 of San Stefano was replaced by article 61 of the Congress of Berlin which read, “The Sublime Porte undertakes to carry out, without further delay, the improvements and reforms demanded by local requirements in the provinces inhabited by Armenians, and to guarantee their security against the Circassians and Kurds. It will periodically make known the steps taken to this effect to the powers, who will superintend their application.” The vaguely promised reforms would never materialize, and many Armenians would be massacred by Turks upon the retreat of Russian forces from Erzerum.
The Armenian delegation, having realized that they were swindled, sent the following message of protest:
“The Armenian delegation expresses its regrets that its legitimate demands, so moderate at the time, have not been agreed upon by the congress. We had not believed that a nation like ours, composed of several million souls, which has not so far been the instrument of any foreign power, which, although much more oppressed than the other Christian populations has caused no trouble to the Ottoman government (and, although our nation had no tie of religion or origin to any of the great powers, yet, being a Christian nation it had hoped to find in our century the same protection afforded to the other Christian nations) – we had not believed that such a nation, devoid of all political ambition, would have to acquire the right of living its life and of being governed on its ancestral land by Armenian officials.
The Armenians have just realised that they have been deceived, that their rights have not been recognised, because they have been pacific; that the maintenance of the independence of their ancient church and nationality have advanced them nothing. The Armenian delegation will return to the East carrying with it the lesson that without struggle and without insurrection nothing can be obtained. Nevertheless the delegation will never cease addressing petitions until Europe has satisfied its just claims.”
Upon returning to Constantinople, Khrimian Hayrik (“Hayrik” is the loving term for “father”) delivered a sermon where he recounted the events at Berlin. He said that European politicians had set a large pot of “harisa” stew. The Balkan peoples dug into the “dish of liberty” with their iron spoons, while the Armenians inserted their paper spoon of petitions only to see it melt. Khrimian Hayrik’s sermon was seen as a call to forge an iron spoon, and thus the fedayee movement as well as revolutionary organizations seeking to better the lot of Armenians would soon emerge.
The moral of this painful story is that we all need to reflect on and learn from the mistakes of our ancestors. Repeating the powerful words of Khrimian Hayrik,“without struggle and insurrection nothing can be obtained.” Whether it is striving for the advancement of the Armenian cause or hoping for that promotion at the workplace, nothing comes for free. One has to struggle and fight for it. As the times have changed, Khrimian Hayrik’s words should not be interpreted to mean solely “armed struggle.” Today, struggling and fighting in a civil and non-violent manner can cause a very powerful effect indeed. Just look at the Civil Rights Movement in the USA or Gandhi’s success in leading India to independence throughout the first half of the 20th century. That is not to say that a strong military presence should not be had as well. In fact, the United States relies heavily on its military to obtain what it wishes. Hilary Clinton’s plans for America included “forging a broad-based military presence.” Undoubtedly, it is this fighting mindset that has paved the way for Armenians to advance recognition of the genocide, to lobby successfully for foreign aid to Armenia, and to regain their historic lands in Artsakh and successfully defend it. It is also the same mindset that has propelled many Armenians to dizzying heights. With Khrimian Hayrik’s reflection in mind, struggle and fight for what you desire to obtain!