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The Armenian diaspora we don’t know (1)



The Armenian diaspora we don’t know (1)
by Alin Ozinian*

It is unfortunate that these days in Turkey what is known about the Armenian diaspora is still very much based on rumor, stereotypes and information that is often not based on truth.
There are three separate groups of Armenians recognized in Turkey, and these are categorizations that have come about with the help of the press. These groups are the Armenians from Armenia, the Turkish Armenians and the diaspora. The latter group, the diaspora, is perhaps the least well-known and, since there is less known about them than the other groups, the least loved. It is also a group that does not seem to be able to shrug off the image of derailing relations with Turkey.It is very important for Turkey, where many people still see the diaspora as some sort of “monolith” and as an “enemy of dialogue,” to instead think about this group as the grandchildren of people who were in fact citizens under the Ottomans. In doing so, relations between Turkey and the diaspora could become healthier, and at the same time, this diaspora would become better understood.

Understanding the Armenian diaspora

Today, however, the general perception of the diaspora in Turkey is of a mass of people who see Armenia as their motherland, who withhold no financial or spiritual support from Armenia, who hold complete control over Armenia’s “Turkey politics,” and who are busy acting out their part as “enemies of Turkey.” Unfortunately, though, the diaspora is a phenomenon that is not easily analyzed. In order to really get a better idea of the diaspora, there needs to be careful analysis and interpretation of the period during which it took shape, as well as the relations between Turkey, Armenia and the countries where members of the diaspora have resided during this time.

Armenians, subjected to ethnic cleansing in 1915, and expelled in a systematic fashion from their homelands, were basically forced to march into the deserts of Deir-ez-Zor in northeastern Syria. Those who survived tried to reach places such as Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad. While one faction of this group tried to form new lives in these cities, another faction headed for far off places such as Egypt, Greece, France, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and America. In the wake of 1915, Armenian communities sprang up in places like Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Australia, Addis Ababa, Cape Town and even Hong Kong. These days, the term “diaspora” is generally accepted as referring to any members of a certain nation or belief system who live outside their motherland as minorities. As for the term “Armenian diaspora,” it was used for the first time at the start of the 1920s.

However, when we look back into history, we can see that in fact Armenians began to form communities in other countries far in advance of 1915, starting after the collapse of the Arshakuni Armenian Kingdom. From the 15th to the 16th centuries, the founders of Armenian communities in countries like Romania, Poland, India, Italy, Germany, Iran and America were basically Armenian merchants who had gone to those countries for trade. It is estimated that the number of Armenians living outside of Armenia at that time was around 200,000. Under the Ottomans, before 1915, the first migration of Armenians actually began in the early 1870s, reaching its highest numbers in the years 1895 to 1896 due to the fear and loss of lives experienced under the rule of Abdülhamid II. During this period, the influence of missionaries in Anatolia was instrumental in spurring Armenians to emigrate to America.

Post 1915, Armenians who remained in Turkey can mostly be found in İstanbul. After events unfolded in Thrace, some Armenians went on to emigrate to Eastern Europe, but many were able to move to İstanbul, as it seemed safer and more dependable than other cities. Though a few members of the Armenian communities carried on with their lives in the eastern reaches of Turkey, many in the end bowed to pressure and moved to İstanbul. The Armenian community which took shape in İstanbul was influenced by events such as the Wealth Tax, the “Citizens Speak Turkish” public campaign, the events of Sept. 6-7 (1955), the 1980 military coup and, most recently, the Nagorno-Karabakh clashes, and thus wound up leaving Turkey in great numbers, moving instead to points in Europe and America and joining a diaspora already in place.

1918-1920: the first Armenian Republic and the diaspora

Between 1916 and 1917, thousands of Armenians living in the eastern parts of Turkey tried to make their way to Armenia, Georgia or Russia. And when the first Armenian Republic was officially formed on May 28, 1918, there were steps taken with regards to the diaspora living outside the country all over the world. The achievement of an independent Armenia after so many years was cause for great joy amongst Armenians throughout the world. In August 1920, the Armenian Foreign Ministry decided to set up a working desk that would focus only on Armenians living outside of Armenia. The fundamental reason for this decision was to bring about, with the help of the Armenian Republic’s diplomatic missions, the systematic and efficient return of Armenians living outside Armenia to their motherland. But when, in November 1920, Armenia came under Bolshevik rule, this new department had only functioned for three months, and thus no trace was left of its work on relations with Armenians in the diaspora.

The Soviet Union’s politics with regards to the Armenian diaspora

From the first days of its formation, the Soviet Union carried on an active set of politics with regard to the Armenian diaspora. After Armenia formally entered into the Soviet Union, an “Immigration Affairs Bureau” was opened in July 1921 in Yerevan, and while this bureau was not a ministry unto itself, it did possess ministry status. That same year, in December, a group of 3,000 Armenians arrived by boat in Batumi from Mesopotamia; the final part of their journey to Armenia was by road. Between 1921 and 1922, a total of 9,000 Armenians from different countries returned to Armenia, while between 1924 and 1925, a total of 20,000 people immigrated to Armenia, largely from Turkey and Greece. There can be little doubt of the role played by the first Armenian Consulate in Turkey — located on what was then called Voyvoda Sokak (now called Bankalar Caddesi) in Karaköy, İstanbul — which was active in guiding and assisting the Armenians who went to Armenia from Turkey during those years.

After the migrations of 1925 to 1926, “Hemşeri Dernekleri” and “Hemşire Birlikleri” (associations for fellow countrymen) were formed. Later, at the special request of the Arabkirliler — people from the city of Arabkir — community in the US, a “New Arabkir” district was formed in Yerevan, Armenia. Years later, there were many new districts formed in Yerevan, with names such as “New Kayseri,” “New Amasya” and “New Harput.” The people who came to live in these places were often those who had migrated from the districts’ namesakes.

The districts still bear these names. The waves of immigration continued until 1936 and, in total, around 23,000 people, driven by a longing for their motherland, returned from abroad to Armenia. The “Great Terror” brought about in 1936 by Stalin’s regime also struck a blow to Armenia. Armenians were tried and executed in scores for crimes such as treason and working for capitalist agendas.

Until World War II, the Soviets did not bow at all to diaspora politics. After the war, Stalin’s “Armenian diaspora politics” rose once again. In November 1945, the Soviet Union created an official policy that aimed for Armenian immigration to Armenia. As a result of this decision, the Armenian National Immigration Committee was formed. Representatives of this committee were posted in embassies in countries with large Armenian populations. The officials assigned to these posts began to make lists of Armenians who had decided to return to Armenia. They then started to return to Armenia. The Soviets’ “return to the nation” project took place between 1946 and 1948. There are three basic theses about why the Soviet Union developed this project.

The first reason for the Soviet Union’s new policy was the much damaged relations between it and Turkey. The Soviet Union was searching for reasons to take land from the east of Turkey and add it to their own. At this point diaspora politics became very important, as these lands were to be used as a motherland for Armenians who had returned to Armenia from other countries. The second thesis is that the numbers of Soviet Armenians had greatly diminished after World War II, and if they decreased much more, Armenia itself could no longer be categorized as a republic. Thus they needed a quick increase in the Armenian population. Therefore, the return of diaspora members back to Armenia was to play a vital role in ensuring Armenia’s status as a republic within the framework of the Soviet Union. The third thesis was that immigration of Armenians living in the diaspora would give the strong message to a polarized post-war world that “immigrants to the Soviet Union are abandoning their capitalist lives,” a message that would increase the Soviet Union’s prestige. While none of these theses is actually sufficient on its own to explain Soviet policies, when taken together as a whole, they do manage to shed some light on the politics of the Soviets towards the diaspora and immigration.

Diplomats working at Soviet embassies around the world promised Armenians living abroad that, if they returned to Armenia, they would receive assistance in finding jobs, homes, etc. People were basically told that every problem they had would be taken care of the moment they set foot on Soviet land.

Between 1946 and 1948, 90,000 people immigrated to Armenia. Unfortunately, what greeted them upon arrival was nothing like what had been promised to them, or even what they could have imagined. Hit hard by the war, Armenia suffered from a lack of basic provisions and employment opportunities. Housing was insufficient. Instead of a house, land was given to the new arrivals, and they were then asked to build their own homes. In short, none of the promises made were actually kept. And as though this was not enough, thousands of immigrants — along with long-time citizens — were accused of being united in opposition against the system, and were then forced to march to Siberia-Altay in 1949. It was only after Stalin’s death that those in exile were able to return to Armenia. Some of the immigrants were able to salvage their lives in Armenia, though for years and years, their lives in Armenia did not hold much promise.

*Alin Ozinian is an independent analyst.

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