Armenian Revolutionary Movement

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Nationalist movement among Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1878 to 1921.

In the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, the Ottoman government agreed to undertake reforms in the so-called Armenian provinces of the empire. Based on a track record of reforms promulgated but seldom implemented, Armenian nationalists disbelieved that any meaningful changes would be made in the Ottoman administration of the Armenian-populated regions of the Turkish state. Moderate and conservative Armenians, on the other hand, placed much stock in an international treaty signed by the great powers containing an explicit Ottoman commitment to reform. The failure of the great powers to hold Abdülhamit II to his promise as they became embroiled in the competition to carve up Africa and Asia and the sultan's recalcitrance in introducing voluntary reforms left many Armenians disillusioned with the Ottoman regime. A rising national consciousness obstructed by an increasingly despotic administration under Abdülhamit II did not take long to prompt a revolutionary movement among Armenians of the Ottoman Empire.

Local self-defense units had already taken to resisting Ottoman authorities. Particularly egregious from the standpoint of rural inhabitants was the government's license and tolerance of Kurdish predation over Armenian towns and villages. In response to this predicament, the first formally organized Armenian political society made its appearance in 1885 in the city of Van. The group was quickly disbanded by Ottoman police.

The Armenian revolutionary movement acquired its real impetus in the Russian Empire. In an atmosphere of greater freedom, better education, and social advancement, the new intellectual class taking form in the Russian Caucasus spawned a group of political thinkers who began to articulate serious concern with the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Influenced by Russian populism and radicalism, they organized two groups advocating Armenian national goals. The Armenian Social Democratic Party first appeared in Geneva among Russian-Armenians studying abroad. The husband and wife team of Avetis and Maro Nazerbekian led the group. The party soon was known by the name of its publication, Hunchak (Clarion), selected in imitation of the Russian-language publication by the same name issued by the Russian revolutionary Alexander Herzen.

The Hunchak Party subscribed to socialism and called for the restoration of Armenian statehood. Members focused their activities on the Ottoman Armenians whom they tried to propagandize and provide with arms. Though it found adherents among Armenians in both the Russian and Ottoman Empires, the Hunchak Party never garnered a large following. Its ideological positions were viewed as too radical and its program infeasible in the face of the overwhelming power of the state and the absence of real political consciousness among the rural masses.

The Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) had better success. Organized in Tbilisi in 1890 by a trio of ideologues known as Kristapor, Rostom, and Zavarian, the organization became known less by its acronym than by the Armenian word for federation, dashnaktsutyun. Its members and supporters were thus called Dashnak. The Dashnak Party gained greater mass appeal as it sought to define a populist platform that was based not so much on ideological propositions as on the objective conditions of the Armenian population. In its early years it advocated reform, autonomy, and self-government, forsaking independent nationhood. The ARF emphasized the need for political organization and support for

groups engaged in local struggles, which it tried to bring under one umbrella, hence the notion of federation. The object of their program remained the fate and status of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

After its formative years, three critical develop-mentsthe 18941896 violence and the 1905 and 1917 Russian revolutionsredirected the thrust of the Armenian nationalist movement. The destruction visited upon the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire between 1894 and 1896 compelled Armenian society to rethink its condition and Armenian political organizations to reassess their course of action. The level of lethal violence unleashed by the Turkish state reached beyond anything experienced by the Armenians to that point. With hundreds of thousands affected and tens of thousands dead, the revolutionaries were confronted with a very serious dilemma. The sultan's regime used the charge of revolutionary activism against the Armenians to justify its wholesale measures. Armenians in the provinces and in Istanbul were openly challenging the state and its representatives. Demonstrations, reprisals against corrupt officials, underground publications, and revolutionary cells frightened the sultan and provided evidence of the emerging nationalism of one more minority in the empire. From the standpoint of the ruling Ottoman class, Russian tolerance of Armenian organizations advocating political change in the Ottoman Empire appeared particularly seditious.

The havoc wreaked in Armenian society by the killings alienated a large segment of the masses from political involvement. It also destroyed a good part of the Hunchak and Dashnak organizations. Thereafter, the distrust between the Ottoman regime and the Armenians was never repaired. The ARF and the Committee for Union and Progress cooperated in their opposition to the sultan Abdülhamit, whom even progressive-minded Turks accused of preventing the modernization of the state. After the Young Turk revolution of 1908, Armenian political organizations were legalized in the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, the charge of sedition would be brought up again by the Unionist government during World War I, and once again measures taken against the Armenian population at large. Executions and mass deportations brought an end to the existence of Armenian society in the Ottoman Empire and with that also completely halted Armenian political and revolutionary activism in Turkey.

Events in the Russian Empire took a very different course. The 1905 revolution witnessed the intensification of radicalism all across society. Armenians were no less affected. In fact, Armenian society already had been galvanized by a measure introduced by the government that had seriously undermined Armenian loyalty to the regime. In 1903 the czar had issued an edict confiscating the properties of the Armenian church. Designed to under-cut the strengthening of Armenian ethnic consciousness by depriving Armenian society of its principal means of support for its educational institutions, the edict energized the moribund revolutionary organizations and helped attract new interest and membership in them. It also compelled them to consider socialism more seriously and finally to oppose czarism as a repressive system of government. The igniting of racial animosity and virtual warfare between the Armenians and the Az-eris to distract them from the revolution augmented the prestige of the ARF all the more as it took to the defense of the populace in the absence of Russian policing to contain communal violence. The repression that followed once again curbed the activities of the Armenian organizations. By that point, however, the ARF had gained mass appeal and clearly had emerged as the leading political organization in Armenian society. When the Russian Empire broke up after the 1917 revolution, the ARF was in a position to assume charge of the process resulting in the establishment of the Republic of Armenia. From 1918 to 1920 during the entire duration of the independent republic, the ARF was the dominant party.

Armenian socialists, who were members of Russian organizations and opposed to specifically Armenian nationalist parties, soon gained prominence after the Bolshevik revolution. Though they were only a single strand of the Armenian revolutionary movement, the sovietization of Armenia placed the Armenian Bolsheviks at the helm of Armenian society. Calling Dashnaks and others bourgeois nationalists, the Bolsheviks excluded them from the political process in Soviet Armenia and persecuted them as counterrevolutionaries. By 1921, the momentum of the movement was spent, leaving a legacy of catastrophe in the Ottoman Empire and of successful nation-building in the Russian state.

see also abdÜlhamit ii; committee for union and progress; dashnak party; hunchak party.


Nalbandian, Louise. The Armenian Revolutionary Movement: The Development of Armenian Political Parties through the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Ter Minassian, Anaide. Nationalism and Socialism in the Armenian Revolutionary Movement, translated by A. M. Berrett. Cambridge, MA: Zoryan Institute, 1984.

Rouben P. Adalian

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Armenian Revolutionary Movement

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