Krikor Ardzrouni: 19th century champion of Armenian national democratic thought `A biography in three volumes' by Leo (Collected Works Volume VI, 1987, pp206 -726) Armenian News Network / Groong December 21, 2015 By EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN Leo's three volume biography of Krikor Adrzrouni (1845-1892), outstanding warrior editor, battling journalist and founder in 1872 of what was to become the first Armenian daily newspaper, opens with an account of his grandfather Gevorg's emigration from Ottoman occupied Van to Tsarist occupied Tbilisi and of his various grand business and educational ventures there. It is a prologue that encapsulates the peculiarities of Armenian nation formation that Krikor Ardzrouni's tumultuous intellectual life and times was to epitomize. I. In 1813 amid the fermenting and bubbling of modern Armenian life, Grandfather Gevorg Ardzrouni, a hugely wealthy scion of an ancient feudal estate, a remnant of former secular elites, left his western Armenian homeland of Van for the Diaspora of Georgian Tbilisi. In the Ottoman Empire, as Leo remarks, not just the common people but the elite too, even `the famous, were in no way protected from plunder and repression (p209).' So whilst Armenian economic elites managed an existence in Istanbul, in historic Armenia this was impossible. The political and class relations that obtained in Armenia, the lawless forms of rule exercised by the local Kurdish fiefdoms as well as the earlier devastation of Armenian economic and political elites and the steady outflow of the masses were almost insuperable obstacles to coherent national development after the European fashion. A sustainable process of nation formation, of cultural, linguistic, educational, artistic and scientific development required coagulation of social and economic forces within and around a defined geographic territory and a dominant national economic elite. This for Armenians did not exist in their historical homelands. Armenian national development did however flourish, but in its own fashion, outside Armenian borders, scattered across foreign lands. Indeed, the 18th and 19th centuries glow strong as centuries of Armenian revival but one rising upon the triumphs of Armenian trading elites in the international market place - India, Istanbul, Moscow, Tbilisi, not in Armenia. In Van Gevorg Ardzrouni had entertained ambitions to play a role in laying more organic and secure foundations for national development, culture and enlightenment in Armenia itself. But Ottoman power blocked his dreams `of transforming Lake Van's island of Akthamar into a Mekhitarist San Lazzaro', a centre of culture and enlightenment, with its own academy and printing works. (p215). Subsequently others, most strikingly Khrimian Hayrig, strove for the same and confronted similar and even more difficult obstacles. But for Gevorg life in Van had become impossible and so he upped and left for Tbilisi that was then the Los Angeles of today, a magnet for ambition and energy that was thwarted in the homeland. Then of course it was a foreign oppressing state doing the thwarting and strangling. Today it is an Armenian state and its utterly corrupt dominant elites. In the early 19th century Gevorg Ardzrouni was also in part responding to a Tsarist state that actively enticed Armenian merchants to desert Ottoman sovereignty for more favorable accumulating opportunities in the Tsarist Empire. But it did so of course in order to boost Russian national interest, not Armenian. Significantly today too, a desperate Russian ambition similarly entices Armenians to Russia to help bolster its own catastrophic demographic collapse. Nevertheless, in Tbilisi Gevorg built an economic empire and at the same time contributed majestically to the Armenian national revival. Leo's account here cannot but draw gasps of admiration for the man's dedication and determination. `Among the wealthy and privileged of Armenian life', Leo judges, Gevorg was `an amazing exception, for in his blood, if one can so say, there flowed a love of the people (p234).' Among many other things that Gevorg did, buying a printing press and financing and helping to organize what was to become the outstanding Nersissian College that opened in 1824, played a huge role in Armenian nation formation. But the enterprise of nation building in a foreign land under imperial jurisdiction had absolute limits and contained the seeds of its own dissolution. With historical Armenia marginalized, in the Diaspora nation formation took on a particular a-political form focused in its early stages in Venice, Vienna and Amsterdam and later in the two great metropolises of the Diaspora - Tbilisi and Istanbul. There however Armenian linguistic, cultural and educational accomplishments were cuttings in potted plants, removed from natural, self-sustaining habitat and soil. They furthermore existed primarily to serve the Diaspora. Schools, the press, libraries, theatres, literature and art developed to meet the needs of the growing and flourishing Armenian communities in Istanbul and Tbilisi, Smyrna and Baku. Development upon foreign soil produced in addition its own distorted internal social, class and national dynamic and development. The clash between the newly emerging Armenian elite that was closely connected to European capitalism and the old feudal Church/Amira alliance became a contest not about state power or political national self-determination, but about the internal organization of Diaspora communities whose existence within and subordination to foreign states was accepted as given. In all this the homeland, home to the majority of the people, remained only a hazy mist and in large measure an object of romantic invention. >From this Diaspora a certain national cultural and social contribution did filter to the homeland. But it was not strong enough to dam the tide of national destruction let loose by the collapsing Ottoman Empire. As Armenian culture and enlightenment flourished in the Diaspora and even set small roots in the homeland, the homeland itself was being denuded of the human social forces that could use this culture to build a modern Armenian nation. At the very moment Armenian culture was taking its greatest modern strides, opening up in addition vistas of forgotten historical grandeur the homeland was systematically being emptied of potential bearers of this renaissance. It should be noted here too that the failure of national development in the homeland was to also leave the Armenian communities and their elites of the Diaspora defenseless, critically vulnerable both to European challenges and the national movements of territories in which they operated. They did not survive the traumas of World War One and were vastly diminished or eliminated in Bolis and Smyrna, in Tbilisi and Baku and indeed even beyond. II. Fragmented, scattered across different and often hostile states and heaving beneath the weight of a feudal Church, Armenian society in the Diaspora - in Istanbul and Tbilisi in particular - was nevertheless undergoing a process of capitalist economic development and transformation. Older merchant capital that had cut out prominent positions for itself within the Ottoman and Tsarist state structures was confronted now not just by the Armenian business class with its close connections to advanced European manufacturing, but by an aggressive imperialist Europe bent on conquering the region's mineral and agricultural wealth. Additionally these old elites and new Armenian business had to contend with the ascent of local Turkish, Georgian and Azeri economic forces - all eager to grab their space on the sunny capitalist beach. Into the fray, determined to fortify Armenian positions, enters Krikor Ardzrouni, grandson of the famous Gevorg. He set himself audacious revolutionary ambitions - to release Armenian social and national energy, initiative and power by bringing down the clerical-feudal establishment that dominated and held back Armenian life with hidebound dogmas, obscurantism, superstition, hostility to reason and to science and with its tyrannical social and family traditions. In his ideological battles Ardzrouni would take no prisoners. He planned and then he acted, without compromise; and family wealth gave him the means to do so independently. Born in 1845 in Moscow hundreds of miles away from Armenian homelands this outstanding and brilliant, stubborn and determined man who was to be educated firsts in Petersburg and Moscow, then in the German University of Heidelberg and in Zurich and Geneva too and who had to learn Armenian as a second language, emerged as the mouthpiece, the ideological representative, of the most advanced segment of Armenian bourgeois society urging it to pick up not just Europe's gauntlet, but those of its local competitors too and to do so by fashioning a modern, enlightened democratic Armenian nation and society. Ardzrouni's national ambitions were fired whilst in Europe where he had encountered students from other national movements. He tells painfully of how the `German, American, Greek, Swiss and Danish citizens... were there studying so that in time they would be useful to their nation.' He met `Bulgarians, Serbs, Czechs and Rumanians' too who `though belonging to nations that possessed no independent statehood' nevertheless `ceaselessly spoke of their fatherland, of their mother tongue, of their schools and their press and literature.' Among these students `only us Armenians, could not speak up as we at the time still did not have a mother tongue, hardly any schools, no modern literature or press and had no sense or self-consciousness of nationality (p246-247).' It was this absence of a firm sense of national identity that Ardzrouni set about to correct, throughout his life propounding the urgent need for a breach with the past and a reconstruction of Armenian social, economic, cultural and national life. Central to his urgency was an acute consciousness that without a major transformation, Armenian elites would cede positions to Europe and to local competitors too with Armenian society suffering devastatingly as a result. All effort and resources therefore must be devoted to and for the consolidation of a modern Armenian society. In the name of a modern progressive liberalism, the old religious nationalism that defined Armenian nationality in terms of adherence to the Armenian Church was to be banished. So too with the useless romantic-Christian patriotism, so powerfully fostered by the Armenian Church and the Mekhitarists. This should be replaced by a genuine `patriotism that produces a feeling obliging one to be of practical use and value to society.' (p311). `Art for art's sake' also was to also be cast aside. Artists were not self-serving but had a duty to `compel the people to think...about our bad upbringing, our ignorance and superstition, our moral and physical failings..' (p309). Many modernists would dismiss such views with their haughty disdain. These are however perennial conceptions, expressed recently in their own way by the Afrobeat Nigerian twins, the Lijadu Sisters who about their music inter alia say `We can't just try and make money through music. We need to correct our own society.' The entire educational system, shot through with obscurantist clerical-feudal dissolution was itself to be dissolved with natural sciences and other subjects necessary for economic progress taking centre stage. Ardzrouni's call for nationwide education, for a free press, for open, uncensored debate was regarded as revolutionary and denounced and censored whenever possible. But he persevered, convinced that the free circulation and debate of educated ideas was an essential pre-condition for the critical development of a productive capitalist economy that would allow Armenians to exploit Caucasian raw materials (p346) and so turn back the impending imperialist European economic invasion. Crucial to the release energy and potential the Armenian feudal family, this `nest of superstition', this `stubborn defender of rotted ideologies', `this strangler of the principles of equality and freedom', this `sanctifier of infinite tyranny' had to be dismantled. Liberating social initiative required furthermore the genuine emancipation of women. Ardzrouni pours beautiful scorn on what then passed for such emancipation. `Teaching women to play the piano, to speak French, to have taste in choosing their clothes, and most importantly teaching them to keep their mouths shut' was no education. Emancipation demanded education that enabled women too to participate in social and community development and progress. (p284) III. Ardzrouni was a liberal individualist, and a utilitarian one to boot, convinced that individual initiative was critical to social advance and economic progress. But this utilitarian individualism was far removed from selfish egoism or Victorian heartlessness. At its core it had a social dedication and commitment. `Ardzrouni Leo writes, `would not only declare war against the backwardness and superstition of the old generation...but against the contemporary university educated intelligentsia...(when) it failed to carry out its (social) role and responsibility (p289). The individualist ethic that defined Ardzrouni had a deeply democratic aspect that was in part conditioned by the fact of the very small, indeed tiny, modern Armenian middle class in the Caucuses. Against an entrenched parasitic and obscurantist Church, against unproductive merchant elites dominating Armenian life, Ardzrouni could not pit the challenge of a powerful exemplary bourgeois class. Conscious of the urgency of transformation he sought to accelerate this through a campaign to educate and enlighten the common people, whom he believed with adequate freedom and democracy, would play their individual roles in fashioning a new liberal democratic society. Krikor Ardzrouni was the militant flag-bearer not so much of a class, but of an idea, an idea of bourgeois liberalism, that was germinating among the offspring of a merchant capitalist class that had sent its children to Europe where they imbibed European traditions, one has to say shorn of its worst imperialist colours. But in the realization of this idea Ardzrouni confronted and personified a historic problem. The base for the modern liberalism he was so committed to was not only a minor segment of Armenian society it was also situated in the Diaspora. It was not in a genuine national force, a fact pointed out long ago by Mikael Nalpantian. However sturdy in appearance, however wealthy, it remained essentially a rootless a-national entity. Without the bolster of a discrete national geographic terrain, without support of its own state it had no future. Krikor Ardzrouni's triumphs and the contradictions of his project all unfolded in the pages of his the `Cultivator', his daily newspaper. Its very existence expressed the peculiarity of Armenian nation formation. Its birthplace was Georgian Tbilisi where it was to spend its entire fighting life. Though it spoke for an emerging Armenian bourgeois class, urging it to seize the leadership and construct a modern Armenian society, it referred essentially and fundamentally to a class and society flourishing in Tbilisi and Baku not in Armenia proper. Significantly `The Cultivator' was not sustained financially by the class whose trumpet it was. It survived exclusively reliant on the substantial wealth that Ardzfrouni inherited from his grandfather and father. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.
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