A Lesson Worth Repeating: Reflections on the Occasion of May 28
Special for the Armenian Weekly
The following is based on a speech Dr. Antranig Kasbarian gave on the 97th anniversary of the First Republic of Armenia during a program/celebration held in Watertown, Mass.
Before beginning, I’d like to convey my sense of honor and privilege in sharing the podium today with His Holiness Aram I, who through his words and deeds has enhanced our sense of dignity, pride, inspiration, and above all, our sense of national responsibility in this, the Centennial year of the Armenian Genocide.
Your Holiness, your accomplishments are many, but permit me to point out two that are particularly salient for our people here today: First is your repeated assertion of the Armenian Church as both a spiritual home and a national home—one that lives and breathes with, for, and by the people, and that is unafraid to tackle contemporary issues in the life of our nation. Second is the leading role you have played in bolstering the Armenian Cause—a cause that does not simply remember, commemorate, or preach awareness, but that actively seeks justice in all its forms. This has become apparent of late, in your bold step of taking Turkey to court in an effort to reclaim that which was stolen from the Catholicosate of Sis, and from all of us, a century ago. We deeply thank you and look forward to your continued leadership on these and many other issues.
I’d also like to acknowledge the presence of another distinguished human rights defender, Mr. John Evans, who during his tenure as U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, spoke truth to power by openly acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. This was a bold, daring, and unprecedented act for which he has paid dearly, both personally and professionally. Ambassador Evans, it gives us great pride to know that in our midst there stand public servants, such as yourself, who hold firm on human rights issues not for expediency, popularity, or personal gain, but simply out of concern for what is fair and just. Welcome.
Now, turning to the matter at hand: There is much to be said on this, the 97th anniversary of May 28, 1918. As many of you know, this date marks the declaration of independence of the Republic of Armenia, a fledgling nation-state built on the ashes of genocide and against great odds; the first sovereign Armenian state in over five centuries; and a state that formed the basis, territorially and juridically, for the modern-day Armenian Republic we treasure today.
May 28, 1918 also marks the culmination of a heroic self-defense struggle, one that was life-or-death in the truest sense, and one that mobilized the entire resources of the nation: trained officers alongside untrained peasants, genocide survivors, refugees, and many others who had nothing left to lose. As we know, this ragtag bunch of defenders somehow filled the vacuum left when Russian forces withdrew from Asia Minor, and mustered the strength to repel Ottoman forces at Sardarabad, Gharakiliseh, and Bash Abaran, holding their tenuous positions until an armistice between Turkey and the European Allies caused a full withdrawal and cease-fire.
There are many things to be said on this occasion. First, we should evaluate, not simply celebrate, the First Republic in its various dimensions: There is the road to independence itself, replete with stories of heroic struggle amid peril and plight. But there are also the difficult years that ensued during independence. The burdensome and vulnerable conditions under which the government operated; the agonizing choices and decisions made in both domestic and foreign policy spheres; the hopes surrounding President Woodrow Wilson’s arbitration between Turkey and Armenia, and the ensuing disappointment of the failed U.S. mandate for Armenia; and, ultimately, the fall of the republic under the combined onslaught of resurgent Kemalist and Red Army forces. This, and more, should be examined in hopes of drawing parallels and comparisons we can apply toward Armenia’s current potential and predicament.
Here I would like to address a more focused question: Why, after all these years, do we continue to celebrate May 28 at all? Skeptics points out, for instance, that we now have a new independent republic, with its own independence day—Sept. 21—which should supersede the earlier one. Others, more cynical perhaps, might ascribe our continued remembrance to a Dashnaktsakan desire to hold on to the glory days of the past, revering and remembering its pantheon of heroes who, indeed, not only won our independence, but in so doing, won the hearts and minds of our people as well.
In my view, neither of these scenarios is sufficient to account for the staying power of May 28. To do so properly, we must account for the reverence, the mystique, the hope and idealism aroused by that tiny First Republic, which in many ways remains a standard—even with its flaws and troubles—of the ideals we should aspire to in developing our nationhood.
To begin, we should note that the republic’s leaders were themselves titans, formed in the crucible of struggle during the preceding decades. What they lacked in statecraft and diplomatic experience, they made up in their organic ties to the people, in their pure revolutionary zeal, and in their personal codes of conduct, in which they always gave more than they took. When we consider the lives of Simon Vratsian, Armen Garo, Dro, Aram Manukian, Levon Shant, Ruben Ter-Minasian, and many others, we see a political character quite different from those of contemporary politicians. Public service, to them, was not a means to an end; rather, it was a sacred mission: Can we imagine these men taking bribes, seeking refuge in parliamentary immunity, or using their influence for personal ends?
…The republic’s leaders were themselves titans, formed in the crucible of struggle during the preceding decades. What they lacked in statecraft and diplomatic experience, they made up in their organic ties to the people, in their pure revolutionary zeal, and in their personal codes of conduct, in which they always gave more than they took.
Meanwhile, the problems the Republic faced were as enormous as they were immediate: Famine, pestilence, refugees, border disputes with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan, as well as unrest from domestic factions. And yet, somehow, the leadership found time to forge some semblance of democracy, based on inclusiveness, tolerance, and respect. Women were found in the parliament and diplomatic corps; indeed, women were granted voting rights before such measures were adopted in the US and other Western democracies. Parliament also featured minority voices alongside the Dashnak majority – not only Social Democrats and other Armenian factions, but ethnic minorities including Kurds and Yezidis. It was also a government that thought long and hard about separation of powers, fighting corruption, ensuring the civil liberties of its population, and other concerns that might be dismissed as luxuries for a troubled, fledgling republic.
But these revolutionaries-turned-statesmen were not of that sort. They truly believed in the experiment they were undertaking. The process of independent statehood was as important as the form: Independence was not an end in itself, but a means toward developing something more valuable – progress, prosperity, national dignity and security, and the safeguarding of the fundamental rights of all.
I say all of this not to whitewash the past. Certainly the First Republic’s leaders committed mistakes. We can and should question their tactics and choices at various times, but not their motivations. Today, at a time when Armenia faces enormous challenges both within and without, the moral strength and clarity provided by these early leaders can point a better way forward for all of us. Above all, they remind us of the need to root our actions in the life and needs of our entire people; not only the elite, but everyone without exception. That, I believe, is a lesson worth repeating.
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