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SECRET LIVES

The Tragedy of Armenia's First Prime Minister: Too Blunt and Now Forgotten

Few Armenians marked the 150th anniversary of Hovhannes Kajaznuni’s birth. No one knows where he is buried. That should change.

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Hoping to be the George Washington of the Caucuses, Hovhannes Kajaznuni helped found the first Republic of Armenia one hundred years ago, only to end up trashed by some Armenians as its sniveling Neville Chamberlain, hailed by others as Armenia’s truth-telling Isaiah, but mostly forgotten today.

The Armenian state is one of the world’s youngest, founded after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Armenian people, however, trace their history back 3,000 years – and should be celebrating the centenary of their Republic, founded in May, 1918.

Many compare Armenians to Jews – both proud venerable peoples bonded to ancient homelands surrounded by hostile neighbors. World War I proved treacherous for Armenians as many neighbors imploded – and their region exploded.

To their west, the Ottoman Empire, long “the sick man of Europe,” was dying. Exploiting the chaos, the regime murdered hundreds of thousands of Armenians in what Armenians call Megs Yeghern, The Great Catastrophe. True, the guilt-ridden Turks have outlawed the phrase “Armenian genocide”—the New York Times only first printed the phrase in 2004, and Barack Obama broke his campaign pledge to recognize the slaughter. But what else do you call the mass murder of as many as 1.5 million people after centuries of brutalization? How else do you explain vows of “No Armenians – No Armenian Question,” and massacres of intellectuals on April 24, 1915? And why else was there a “Special Organization” of Young Turks—the reformers—who organized “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” seeking “the liquidation of the Christian elements,” with death marches, mass rapes, and imposed starvation?  The Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire plummeted from approximately two million after the preliminary massacres of 1894-1895 to 388,000 by 1922.

To their north, the Bolshevik Revolution convulsed Russia, displacing the Czars. With better leadership—and luck—the Armenian Republic might have survived. After all, World War I boosted President Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to national self-determination – and the Armenians certainly qualify as a nation, with a distinct language, culture, history, homeland, sense of shared fate, and the world’s oldest national church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, since 301.

Hovhannes Kajaznuni was born in 1868 into Czarist rule in Akhaltsikhe, in present-day Georgia. Studying architecture in Saint Petersburg in the late 1880s and early 1890s exposed him to the anti-Czarist Russian revolutionary spirit. Some movements turned nationalist, emphasizing self-determination; some went universalist, emphasizing a socialist, classless, nation-less society. Embracing his people as his gateway toward broader ideals, Kajaznuni joined the Dashnaktsutyun, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF.

Such political passions disrupted a thriving architectural practice – ultimately causing Kajaznuni to flee the Caucasus in 1911 for three years, dodging a Russian crackdown. After joining the Armenian National Council in 1917, he helped represent Armenia while negotiating peace with the Ottoman Empire at the Trebizond Peace Conference, which began on March 14, 1918. Three of Kajaznuni’s six children fought in the Great War. Two fell in battle, one in 1918, a second in 1920; the Turks captured a third son in 1920.

That spring of 1918, regional political pressures, treacherous rivals, and the advancing Ottoman army forced Armenia into an unappealing three-way Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. Hoping that Georgian leadership might hinder the bloodthirsty Ottomans, Kajaznuni joined the Cabinet reluctantly.  That federation lasted from April 22 to May 26, when Georgia bolted. Two days later, the Muslims declared the Republic of Azerbaijan. Armenia declared independence too, for 1.3 million Armenians spread over 70,000 square kilometers.

The Armenian Declaration of Independence has all the poetry of a bullet. It’s pointed and leaden: “In view of the complete political collapse of the Trans-Caucasus and the new situation created by the proclamation of the independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the Armenian National Council declares itself the supreme and sole administration of the Armenian provinces.” His colleagues unanimously chose Kajaznuni as prime minister.  He wanted to build a democracy around an 80-member representative parliament.

First, the Republic had to survive. Armenian refugees overwhelmed the new country. And both the Ottomans and Bolsheviks menaced it militarily. Kajaznuni served as prime minister until August 7, 1919 – then spent a year friend-raising in Europe, then the United States. He was the first of four prime ministers who assembled seven different cabinets in the Republic’s two-and-a-half-years. He served as Speaker of the Parliament until the Bolsheviks invaded, arresting him as they crushed the Republic – and Armenian hopes until 1991.

During a short stint in Bucharest, Kajaznuni issued a polarizing manifesto. His April, 1923, statement to the ARF Party convention – Dashnaktsutyn has Nothing More to Do – waved the white flag, accepting the reality of the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Kajaznuni feared the Party “overestimated the ability of the Armenian people.” Replaying history, he regretted that the Armenians didn’t make peace with the Turks and that they trusted the Russians. Turkish denialists would falsely translate his text without mentioning the Turks’ mass murder, but Kajaznuni wrote: “The second half of 1915 and the entire year of 1916 were periods of hopelessness, desperation and mourning for us. The refugees, all those who had survived the holocaust, were filling Russian provinces by tens and hundreds of thousands.”

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Still, resisting the Armenian woe-is-me “national psychology” of playing the victim, he even acknowledged some unjustified Armenian violence against Turks. Mostly, he recalled the “dense atmosphere of illusion,” being “carried away with our dreams.” He realized the overconfident Armenians had “not done all that was necessary … to evade war.” And he confessed that with 72 of the 80 MPs as Dashnags, democracy was illusory too: “There was no Parliament; it was an empty form without content. The problems of state were being discussed and solved behind closed doors.... There was not a government either.”

This clear-eyed nationalist took responsibility, mocking the “emigrant malcontents” filling European cities dreaming of Armenian national redemption. Kajaznuni remembered how easily the Bolsheviks conquered Armenia – and how welcomed they were: “We hoped that the Soviet authorities, backed by Russia, would be able to introduce some order in the state — a thing which we, all alone, had failed to do.” Accepting that “The Bolsheviks are necessary in Armenia,” he concluded: “It is here that I shall state the very grave word, which I know will embarrass you but which must be said at last and said simply, without concealment or attenuation: The Armenian Revolutionary Federation has nothing to do any more.”

Kajaznuni’s testimony split the movement.  Former comrades detested Kajaznuni’s cowardly surrender – and betrayal of his people. They banned his book in Armenia – stealing any copies they could find sitting on shelves in libraries across Europe. Others admired its honest, often-self-critical, downright prophetic, acceptance of Armenia’s predicament – and his people’s moral and political failings.

Alas, truth-tellers and loyalists fared no better than anyone else in the totalitarian Soviet Union. Kajaznuni tried blending into civilian life. After 1925, he lived and worked as an architect in what became the Armenian Soviet Socialist Republic – designing some residential and commercial buildings that still stand in Yerevan. But Stalin’s Great Terror targeted him. Arrested in 1937, he died of pneumonia in 1938.

Albert Achemyan of the modern Armenian Revolutionary Federation calls Kajaznuni “the spirit of the Republic,” saying “his honesty became a symbol for our country. And the next generations of the state have much to learn from him.”

First, they must learn about him.  Few Armenians marked the 150th anniversary of Kajaznuni’s birth. No one knows where he is buried. His great-granddaughter, 60-year-old Ksenia Orlova, thinks the former prime minister’s memory “is irreversibly forgotten.”

SMS to Ms. Orlova: Perhaps not!

FOR MORE…

Grigoris Balakian, Armenian Golgotha: A Memoir of the Armenian Genocide 1915-1918, 2010.

Michael M. Gunter, Armenian History and the Question of Genocide, 2011.

Ronald Suny, They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else: A History of the Armenian Genocide, 2017.