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Armenian Identity in the Diaspora : Between Modernity and Preservation

  Standpoint of Diaspora

Armenian Identity in the Diaspora : Between Modernity and Preservation

Laurence Ritter


Laurence Ritter

Doctor in Sociology

The author of a PhD on the Remodelling of Armenian Identities between the Diaspora and Armenia, from Victims to Individuals, French sociologist Laurence Ritter explains the specifics of the Armenian Diaspora formed after the 1915 Genocide. In her view, far from being a monolithic whole, the Diaspora shows different faces according to the countries Armenians emigrated to. Therefore, one should talk about not just one but several Diasporas. Armenia’s access to independence and the wide circulation of information in the digital era have also deeply changed the ways of the traditional Diaspora. Laurence Ritter analyses the various challenges the Diaspora must face in order to step into modernity.

There are an estimated 8 to 10 million Armenians in the world, of which some 3 million in the Republic of Armenia, according to official statistics, although these do not account for the migratory haemorrhage that never ceased since that former Soviet Republic achieved independence in 1991. Given the very large numbers of that migratory wave, both for political and economical reasons, it can be called a Diaspora within the Diaspora. It is developing side by side with the post-Genocide Diaspora both in the United States and in Europe, although not necessarily joining the same organizations or neighbourhoods that have been marked by Armenian presence for almost a century. In Russia, around the cities of Armavir and Krasnodar, but mostly in Moscow, Armenians from Armenia are above all looking for work and better living conditions in a country they are familiar with.

This new mobility can be compared to the wanderings that the post-1915 Diaspora has already known, in particular to the waves of internal migrations between 1980 and 1990. Among the Middle East countries that hosted the largest number of Armenians after the Genocide, Lebanon counted up to 250,000. The Lebanese civil war caused mass departures of whole families towards France and the United States, triggering a sort of “culture shock” between often very integrated Western Diasporas and a Lebanese community carrying the direct legacy of a Lebanese congregational system inherited from the Ottoman Empire. Then, the Islamic Revolution in Iran also drove many Armenians to temporary or permanent exile, again with the United States as a favourite destination. It is estimated that, today, there are around one million Armenians in Russia, another million in the United States, and at least 600,000 in Europe, with the largest community in France – these statistics making no distinction between recent migrants from Armenia and those descended from the Diaspora generated by the Genocide[1]. Finally, in the last two years of the bloody conflict in Syria, a large Armenian community mostly from Alep and its surroundings have fled among the several hundred thousands refugees driven away by the fighting. Armenia has welcomed at least 10,000 of them since the beginning of the conflict.

This ever moving geography of the Armenian Diaspora invites us to discuss the subject in the plural form: we are looking at several Diasporas and not just one. In the Armenian vocabulary, the difference is clearly stated: a Libanan-Hay refers to an Armenian from Lebanon, a Fransia-hay to an Armenian from France, and a Hayastantsi  to the citizen of the Republic of Armenia. The towns and neighbourhoods built throughout the world like so many “Little Armenias” after the Genocide remain places of remembrance as well as living quarters. Thus, in Lebanon, the Bourj Hammoud neighbourhood of Beirut, built by Genocide survivors in a rundown part of town still shows a sense of belonging; likewise, the so-called “Armenian quarter” of Marseille, the Beaumont neighbourhood, which was a wasteland in the 1930s, that refugee Armenian families painstakingly built up to be able to leave the camps or temporary housing in the city centre. The same phenomenon happened in the French cities of Paris, Lyon and Valence. In Los Angeles, the Hayastantsi newcomers have settled in the Glendale and North Hollywood areas, and in Boston, where Armenians already had important organizations even before the Genocide, the main Armenian neighbourhood is Watertown. In Québec, however, Armenians are much more scattered in the city of Montreal due to an urban policy devised to limit the regrouping of new migrants. As a result, Armenians do not necessarily live close to the two gravity centres of the community. However, all over the world, Armenian communities have put their mark on the places where they settled, and increasingly as their exile became permanent. Indeed, the ethnic cleansing that was performed made the return impossible to lands that are now Turkish so that, beyond longing for their lost land, the Diasporas proceeded to grow new roots in the countries which became more than their hosting places, but their states of citizenship.

Between Armenia and the Diaspora, a difficult dialogue

As we saw, the Diaspora is anything but monolithic. It has evolved along various historical lines, timelines, and developments according to the countries of arrival. Since Armenia’s independence, however, the Diaspora is no longer solely structured by its own political life, its parties – mostly the Dashnak and Ramgavar, with their respective connected associations – by its churches and its efforts to maintain schools trying to preserve the Western Armenian language[2]. The Diaspora is also concerned by Armenia. In fact, concern for that small Soviet Republic had started even before independence. The Gumri earthquake in 1988, which coincided with the militarization of the conflict with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh region – a mostly Armenian enclave – prompted support from communities throughout the world. Armenians undergoing pogroms in Baku, Sumgait and Kirovabad in 1988 fled towards Armenia and, from there, hindered by the language barrier and poorly adapted living conditions, often on to Russia. In 1991, upon Armenia’s independence, the fight for Karabakh to become part of Armenia turned into an all-out war. A professional army was set up and, by 1992, after it took the emblematic city of Shushi, the Armenian victory seemed increasingly certain. The 1994 ceasefire only marked a theoretical stop to the fighting, with incidents causing casualties persisting along the Karabakh frontline or in the zone of direct contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The outcome of that conflict was that Armenians not only re-appropriated Karabakh, but also Azeri land to the West, allowing a juncture with Armenia, and to the East, forming a sort of “security corridor” in front of Azeri lines.

NGOs that intervened after the earthquake consolidated their presence, the All-Armenian Fund became along the years the official world coordinator of aid for Armenia, working together with very large organizations such as the AGBU, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Lincy Foundation and others. Roads, hospitals, the maintenance or building of schools and orphanages – many achievements are the work of the Diaspora with, as a crowning symbol, the direct highway from Yerevan to Stepanakert, capital of Kharabakh, which was started in 1996 and displays signs announcing which portion was financed by which sponsor or community.

The Diaspora has also changed a lot internally since the 1970s. During that decade, Armenians, initially from Lebanon but rapidly from the whole Diaspora, claimed for recognition of the genocide of Armenians in the name of their grandparents. The third generation after the events “woke up,” and there are reasons to that: the Diaspora which was by now both very integrated and faced with memories of massacres and exile, made that memory their own by turning it into a weapon of political vindication. They were served by a dramatic context of world events – a time of guerrillas, the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and by the fact that the children of Jewish survivors from Nazi death camps were also trying to do memorial work, demanding self-examination from the countries involved, for instance in bringing the role the Vichy collaborationist regime into the public eye. Armenians of that generation were naturally permeated by these contemporary debates and some would resort to terrorist actions to make their Armenian claim heard. For the first time in 1984, French President François Mitterrand on a visit to Vienne (France), a city with a large Armenian community, uttered the word genocide. University studies on genocide developed as well as an unrelenting political struggle to obtain from parliaments throughout the world that they officially recognize the genocide. In France a law to that effect was passed in 2001.

In France, a Committee of the 24th April was set up at the turn of the 1990s, which later became the Council for Armenian Communities of France (CCAF). As mentioned above, the security of independent Armenia in relation to Turkey and Azerbaijan was a central concern of the communities. Since Armenia, in spite of poor economic conditions, increasingly opened to tourism, many Diaspora Armenians have been visiting. Some of them – quite few, it should be said – have settled there or at least have stayed regularly in contact for aid purposes or limited investments. Although they are getting to know each other, Armenians from Armenia and from the Diaspora still find it hard to dialogue. For instance, the Diaspora never gets involved in domestic politics at an institutional level, its main aid and charity organizations refraining from taking sides in troubled times, for instance during the March 2008 crisis. However, this premise is starting to change with the advent of the global digital era: through websites, blogs, social networks, etc., the Diaspora and Armenia are now connecte. Whatever the language used – and although few Diaspora Armenians have reading mastery of Armenian, particularly the form used in Armenia, information does circulate. It is increasingly difficult not to know in Buenos Aires what is happening in Yerevan or Moscow or Los Angeles. The Armenian Diasporas are not merging but they are interconnected. Their relation to Armenia is thus clearly altered, not to mention the contribution made by Armenians from Armenia who have now settled on the margins of traditional communities.

The challenges of a diasporic future

Although many Diaspora Armenians still say that they cannot relate to Armenia because of its Soviet past which they find a heavy legacy in the people’s mindsets, or because of rampant corruption (a rather dismissive way of not examining the workings of today’s Armenian society), and although the vast majority are descended from ancestors from today’s Turkey, a trend of connectedness has definitely started between Armenia and the Diaspora. Contrary to popular belief, Armenians from Armenia are also heirs to the Genocide : one family in three has at least one grandparent from the Van, Muş or Kars provinces, not to mention the villages in the Talin region (now in South Armenia) peopled by over 25,000 Sasuntsi still speaking the dialect of that vast mountainous region. The parades held on the night of 23rd April see the youth of Yerevan taking to the streets and walking up to the Genocide Memorial, asking in the same voice as the Diaspora, and at the same time, for recognition of the 1915 tragedy. On 24th April a permanent march of over a million people goes up to that same Memorial, flowers in hand, to place their bouquets around the flame of remembrance. Armenians from Armenia and Armenians from the Diaspora are not divided over that issue, quite the contrary. Likewise, the unhappy fate of the Syrian city of Kessab, and of Armenians of Syria is a concern in Armenia as well as in the Diaspora. It is irrelevant to look for some kind of necessary union between Armenia and the Diaspora since it is already happening through the civil society, much more than through political watchwords. The Armenian destiny is no longer seen as dispersion – the actual meaning of the word Diaspora – but as a way of life for a nation splintered by history and recomposing itself.

The real challenges ahead for these Diasporas are threefold. First, wherever they are in the world, Armenians now should use all possible means to be in contact with one another, thanks to the new technologies, and in spite of the gradual loss of the Armenian language. The networking mentioned above is not limited to a virtual cyber world; it also enables genuine ties, particularly cultural links, to develop, as well as to circulate information and a lively picture of Armenian life.

Secondly, Diaspora Armenians must choose their type of relation to Armenia. Only very few can contemplate productive investment, essentially because any freedom of enterprise in Armenia is blocked by an oligarchy, and also because of security issues resulting from the Karabakh conflict. Few Diaspora Armenians have asked for the 10 year passport or, after it was authorized, for dual citizenship. Similarly, the “classic” Diaspora hardly gets involved in the political changes of Armenia, preferring to do charity work than promote changes in the political sphere. In fact, only Armenians who migrated from Armenia are really active at the political level in relation to Armenia, for obvious reasons.

Finally, the third and not the least of the challenges: the Armenian Diaspora has already considerably changed in defining its identity and in its very structures. It is now possible to contemplate exchanging views with some Turks, to travel to Turkey, to the homeland, even though it means to realize that the genocide of people was followed by an extensive cultural genocide which crushed the slightest traces of Armenian presence in many regions of Anatolia. Armenians must thus reposition themselves in relation to the Genocide issue and Turkey, that is to the revisionist rhetoric of the Turkish State. Many are already taking up this challenge, all the more so that, with Hrant Dink’s activism, the Armenian community in Turkey experienced a change of paradigm. Although Hrant Dink lost his life to the cause, the voice of Armenians in Turkey is now heard and is relayed by a small fraction of the Turkish society made of citizens committed to human rights. Beside Armenians speaking up in Turkey is also increasingly heard the voice of “islamized” Armenians, a rather awkward category referring to all those in the deep, former Armenian provinces who dare claim themselves Armenian – creating an issue as much for Turkey as for Armenians themselves, in Turkey and elsewhere.

Thus, in order to step once and for all into modernity, the Armenian Diasporas should first accept themselves as heirs not only to the tragedy of the Genocide, but also to the strength that survived the trauma, proudly showing that what once was doomed to destruction is in fact a dynamic force. Identity has become plural. Language and religion are not the only vectors. The fear of total disappearance through assimilation does not seem grounded considering the very dynamism of the communities, and the artistic creativity and social success of many. Armenians must also accept that an identity is in constant flux and not the fixed transmission of a predefined body of features. By the same token, they must accept that, today, it is from the diversity of their legacy that a modern, open, Armenian identity can truly shine, so that it is passed on not only as a “prescribed” Armenian-ness but a as more subjective, and therefore more positive, sense of being Armenian.

[1] Armenians from Armenia are also present in Turkey, in the Armenian neighbourhoods of Istanbul, but much more marginally than over the American continent or in Russia. 

[2] The Armenian language, which was rich in dialects before the Genocide, is split into two branches – the Western branch spoken by Armenians from the Ottoman Empire and, today, in the Diaspora and the Easten Armenian, spoken in today’s Armenia and Iran. There are many differences in vocabulary and syntax, as well as in the spelling which, however, do not prevent mutual understanding. The idea of preserving Western Armenian in the Diaspora is important provided that it is not presented as the “pure” and “true” Armenian idiom as opposed to Eastern Armenian which would be a distorted version of it.



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