Translated as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), the Dashnak Party sought to improve the lives of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, eventually embracing Armenian nationalism.
The Dashnak Party was founded in 1890 by Armenians in Tbilisi, Georgia, then part of the Russian empire. The initial focus of its attention was western Armenia or so-called Turkish Armenia, the sector of historic Armenia in the Ottoman Empire. In the early twentieth century, it also began to organize seriously in eastern Armenia in the Russian empire, as well as in Armenian communities across Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Between 1918 and 1920, during the period of the independent Republic of Armenia, its activities were centered in the new country. After Sovietization, the ARF moved abroad, first fleeing to Iran and eventually settling in Beirut, Lebanon, from where it guided Armenian political life in the Middle East until the Lebanese civil war began in 1975.
The ARF was organized to gather and coordinate the efforts of numerous small groups of Armenians in the Caucasus region involved in revolutionary activity. Bringing together a literate elite, local activists, and peasant guerrillas into a single party was probably its principal ideological achievement. With its leadership schooled in the Russian educational system and its revolutionary, nationalist, populist, and socialist ideas, the ARF articulated the goals of these numerous strands of Armenian society into coherent collective national objectives.
Relieving the plight of the Armenians in the Ottoman provinces as its primary objective, the ARF concentrated on organizing, educating, and arming the population in the countryside to resist the arbitrary rule of Ottoman administrators. Eventually it resolved to assassinate Sultan Abdülhamit II, who was held responsible for a series of brutal massacres in the 1890s. The overthrow of the sultan by the Young Turks and the restoration of the Ottoman constitution in 1908 seemed to affirm that the struggle against the sultan's regime, despite the increased brutalization of the Armenian population by the army, police, and the Hamidiye corps, had been worth the price. The 1909 massacres of Armenians in Adana province soon reversed expectations and revived tensions.
Reluctant to divide its energy and its attention, initially the ARF had chosen to sidestep the problem of autocracy in the Russian Empire. Events leading up to the 1905 revolution, however, precipitated the decision to oppose the tsar also as a despotic ruler devising and implementing policies oppressive to the Armenians. Crossing that threshold proved decisive because the consequences of World War I compelled the ARF to reconsider its objectives. With the decimation of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire, the ARF goal of seeing a national home secured in the Armenian-inhabited eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire was voided. The breakup of the tsarist empire in 1918 instead provided an opportunity to develop the former Russian province of Yerevan, which was declared an independent republic, into the nucleus of an Armenian state. ARF members virtually ran the entire government of the Armenian republic. This close association had its drawbacks for the Armenian state in that Western powers were unsympathetic to a government run by a party whose platform advocated socialism. Conversely, its nationalist program made it a foe of Bolshevism and hence subjected it to the enmity of the Soviet regime. Banished from Soviet Armenia in 1920, the ARF assumed the mantle of a nationalist government-in-exile. When it reorganized in the diaspora, the ARF completely lost its Russian-Armenian character as it found a new basis for its existence among the exile communities in the Middle East, mostly composed of the survivors of the former Armenian population of the Ottoman state.
Part of the success of the ARF is explained by the fact that from 1890 to 1920 it attracted a sizable contingent of the Armenian intellectual elite. Whether as party members, advocates, or supporters, they created a huge body of nationalist literature. The practice was started by its founders, Kristapor Mikayelian (1859–1905); Stepan Zorian (1867–1919), known as Rostom; and Simon Zavarian (1866–1913). The party organ, Droshak (Banner), was the leading journal of Armenian political thought. During the independent republic, many distinguished figures from Russian-Armenian society became associated with the ARF. Avetis Aharonian, famed as a writer, became president and traveled to Paris to negotiate with the Allies. Alexander Khatisian, one-time mayor of Tbilisi, became prime minister. Others who rose to prominence during this period, such as Simon Vratsian, Nigol Aghbalian, and Levon Shant, remained central figures in the Armenian diaspora and its endeavors to educate a new generation of Armenians in exile. The ARF also attracted numerous guerrilla leaders and frontline revolutionaries into its ranks. Papken Siuni led the capture of the Ottoman Bank in 1896 in Constantinople. Men like Andranik, Aram Manoogian, and Drastamard Kanayan, called Dro, led organized armed defense of Armenian communities and of the Armenian republic. In diaspora, the ARF has been less successful in finding the kind of charismatic leadership that once distinguished it as the leading Armenian political organization. From this standpoint, the evocation of past leadership has become an important feature sustaining the organization in diaspora communities.
From an organizational standpoint, the ARF bridged two major gulfs in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Armenian society: It created an alliance between Turkish Armenians and Russian Armenians, who had become divided by a boundary, and between the rural population and the urban population, who inhabited completely separate spaces as the Armenian bourgeoisie lived outside the Armenian heartland. To maintain a network that spanned so widely both socially and geographically, the ARF developed a highly decentralized organization that empowered regional bureaus with the privilege of devising policy.
Throughout its existence, the ARF has relied on direct financial support from Armenian society. With a large following and popular base, the organization has maintained a substantial infrastructure. Despite the destruction of innumerable Armenian communities, the ARF continuously maintained its operations and reorganized its network as Armenians migrated across the Middle East. Though based in urban Armenian communities and deriving support from the lower and middle classes, the ARF program addressed principally the condition of the Armenians in the Turkish provinces and of the agrarian population in general. Beyond equal treatment before the law and structural reform in the Ottoman government, the ARF placed great emphasis on improving the lot of Armenian farmers. An economic program therefore always formed a vital part of its doctrine. With many socialists among its ranks, the party as a whole was still slow to adopt socialism as the party platform despite its ideological currency in Russia. Ideas of the kind seemed remote from Armenian reality in the distant provinces of the Ottoman and Russian Empires. Consequently, despite its urban base, the ARF did not agitate as strongly among industrial workers, who tended to be drawn to social democratic groups, but rather concentrated on the program of national liberation.
Because Armenians constituted a subject minority unequipped to resolve its own problems, in the judgment of the ARF Armenian emancipation depended on the attention of the European powers. Their sympathetic influence was required to compel the reluctant Ottomans to introduce reforms. This policy remained controversial throughout the period as outside powers involved themselves with the Armenian question on their own timetable of interests and as the Ottoman government in its state of weakness looked upon the strategy with enormous suspicion. The persecution of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, resulting in the Armenian Genocide, finally aligned the Western powers on the side of the Armenian republic. The Western failure to extend sufficient assistance to make a difference in preserving Armenian statehood, however, raised the question of whether the ARF had not misplaced its trust.
The ARF regards itself as a vanguard organization. In its early decades, its membership consisted of professional revolutionaries who published its papers, organized its cells, manufactured weapons, led guerrilla operations, and briefly ran a government. Its constituency has not been restricted to any class because it derived its strength from its popular nationalist program. The ARF constituency remains the larger segment of the Armenian diaspora though it no longer draws the same level of critical support from the professional class as it once did.
With its main political mission defused by 1920, the ARF devoted considerable attention to resurrecting Armenian communal life among the exile communities. The emergence of a new independent Republic of Armenia has posed special challenges to the organization, which for long sustained itself with the myth of national leadership. The rise in the 1980s of a major nationalist movement in Armenia independent of the ARF left the party somewhat stranded. These problems combined with earlier difficulties when its principal base was destroyed by the civil war in Lebanon. The largest and most dynamic diaspora community in the Middle East had provided the ARF a secure home in the post–World War II decades. Even so, with the independence of Armenia in 1991 and the conflict over Nagorno Karabagh, the ARF redirected its attention toward supporting domestic change in Armenia and enlisting international support for the Armenian struggle for sovereignty and self-government.
See also Armenian Genocide; Armenian Revolutionary Movement; Hunchak Party; Ottoman Empire: Overview.
Adalian, Rouben P. Historical Dictionary of Armenia. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
Atamian, Sarkis. The Armenian Community: The Historical Development of a Social and Ideological Conflict. New York: Philosophical Library, 1955.
Hovannisian, Richard G. The Republic of Armenia, 4 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971–1996.
rouben p. adalian