This Thursday, May 28, marks the 102nd anniversary of the First Republic of Armenia. After a series of military victories known as the Heroic Battles of May, the most famous of which is the Battle of Sardarabad which we discussed last week, independence was declared from the dissolving Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, a short-lived state that combined Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Officially commemorated as Republic Day, the Declaration of the tenuous (First) Republic of Armenia on May 28, 1918 was a watershed in modern Armenian history. It was the first independent Armenian political entity since the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia fell to the Mamluks conquered Sis in 1375. Though the Republic of Armenia only remained independent for a few short years, being incorporated into the Soviet Union on December 2, 1920, Republic Day remains an important holiday in both Armenia and throughout the Diaspora. Not only a symbolic source of national pride, the independence of the First Republic and the territory it secured leads directly to the political existence of an independent Republic of Armenia today. In fact, in the Oratsuyts/Օրացոյց, the liturgical calendar of the Armenian Church, the day is also recognized as a day of commemoration, and a prayer of praise and thanksgiving is offered.
The history of the establishment of the First Republic can only be fully told if we delve into the momentous events which preceded it. World War I, the Armenian Genocide, the defeat of the Ottomans, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia are just the most important factors that led to the establishment of the Republic. Since the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay that ended the Russo-Persian War of 1826-1828, the Erivan Khanate (the territory of which is very close to that of the modern Republic of Armenia), had been part of the Russian Empire—a new book out this year by Dr. Stephen Badalyan Riegg, Russia’s Entangled Embrace: The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians 1801-1914, covers exactly this period. You can hear a lecture from the author in the first Society for Armenian Studies Zoom Lecture series this Friday, May 29, at 7:30. [To Register and Get a Password please e-mail Bedross Der Matossian at email@example.com]. The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 saw the end of Czarist Russia, with the October Bolshevik Revolution of the same year ending the Provisional Government and sending Russia is civil war and chaos. Under these circumstances, a short-lived Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic emerged in the early months of 1918 to fill the political void. At the same time, with the Armenian Genocide and the eventual Ottoman defeat in World War I, the provinces of historic Western Armenia were to be made part of a large Armenian state. However, the emergent Turkish nationalist movement and what is known in Turkish historiography as the Turkish War of Independence led to a military campaign by the Turkish army that pushed toward Yerevan. The Heroic Battles of May defeated this military incursion just at the same time that the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic fell apart with Georgia’s declaration of independence. Under these circumstances, the Republic of Armenia was declared on May 28, 1918.
Richard G. Hovannisian, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the pioneering historian of the First Republic of Armenia. His book, Armenia on the Road to Independence, was a watershed event in the development of English-language Armenian studies and history. Later, in four volumes, he told the history of The Republic of Armenia. For anyone interested in the detailed history of the First Republic, this is the starting point and absolutely required reading. You can read an interview with Professor Hovannisian about the First Republic and his work here, at the Armenian Weekly. In recent years, many other young historians have tackled the complicated history of the First Republic. We may mention here Dr. Asya Darbinyan, who recently received her Ph.D. in History from the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, where her dissertation focused on Russian humanitarianism and Genocide refugees during precisely this period. Many other scholars continue to delve into the complexities of the short-lived but consequential First Republic of Armenia.
|Armenia on the Road to Independence, 1918||Detailing the events that led to the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia in 1918, this work by Richard G. Hovannisian was the first major scholarly work in English dedicated to the Republic of Armenia. It remains an important study.|
|The Republic of Armenia||This four-volume work by Richard G. Hovannisian is still the definitive history in English about the First Republic of Armenia.|
|Azgapatum||A continuation of the great Patriarch Malachia Ormanian’s magisterial History of the Nation by Fr. Zaven Arzoumanian. It covers the period in Armenian and Armenian Church history after that explored in the three volumes by Ormanian. This includes the history of the Church during the First Republic.|
Throughout all these tumultuous events, Catholicos Kevork V Surenian (Գևորգ Ե. Սուրենյանց (Տփղիսեցի)) led the Armenian Apostolic Church. His tenure as Catholicos could very easily contend for the most momentous of any Catholicos in the history of the Church. He was enthroned in 1911 after a string of Catholicoi who had previously been the Patriarch of Constantinople, including the beloved Khrimian Hayrig and Matteos Izmirlian. Catholicos Kevork V was a Russian subject, elected during a time of heightened competition not only between Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire, but between different Armenian communities across the imperial borders. Shortly after his tenure as Catholicos began, World War I broke out, with the devastating Genocide of Armenians at the hands of the Young Turks to follow. He was crucial in the efforts to support Genocide refugees, both organizing aid and supporting those who flowed across the border into Russian territory. As we discussed last week, he ordered the tolling of bells at Etchmiadzin and all the Armenian churches across the country in order to rally troops and encourage the people during the Turkish invasion in May 1918, an event famously recalled in the song that commemorates the Battle of Sardarabad. He presided at the establishment of the Republic in 1918.
Already, the Genocide and the establishment of the first independent political entity in almost a millennium would be a remarkable tenure as Catholicos. As we know, however, the First Republic of Armenia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1920. Soviet atheism was profoundly detrimental to the life of the Armenian Apostolic Church during the decades of Soviet rule. Yet despite the pressure on the Church, he refused to vacate his post as Catholicos and carved out a space for the life of the Church under Soviet rule. Even if it was limited, it allowed for the perpetuation of the Armenian Church. As Fr. Zaven Arzoumanian writes, all of these tragic events caused the Catholicos to him “to sign his Encyclicals as “Vshdali Gatoghigos” (Sorrowful Catholicos).” Arzoumanian relates that he wrote “his Pontifical Encyclical in 1921 with fervent prayer that God ‘may accept our sacrifices in the land of Armenia leaving aside all enmity at this time of great turmoil.’” Though atheist Soviet Armenia was not an ideal place for Armenian Christians, the Catholicos advocated for the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia as a safe haven for Armenians after all they had endured. Catholicos Kevork V died in 1930 and is buried outside the Etchmiadzin Cathedral. Due to the situation in the Soviet Union, a new Catholicos was not elected for two years. This itself is a testament to Catholicos Kevork’s tenacity in refusing to step down in the face of Soviet pressure. Ushering the Armenian Apostolic Church through such momentous and often “sorrowful” events, Catholicos Kevork V was a major figure in the life of Armenians during the years before, during, and after the First Republic of Armenia.
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