Naira Sahakyan. Being In Between: The Socialisms of the Armenian Intellectuals and the Revolution of 1917 in Russia

Anna Pronina
13:10, 07 апреля 2021
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Dr. Naira Sahakyan, a Senior Researcher at the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute and a lecturer of the History of Islam at the Yerevan State University, who earned her Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam, reflects on Armenian intellectuals’ perception of the 1917 Revolution as part of the publishing project «Tashkent-Tbilisi».

A popular demonstration in Erivan Square (Tiflis, Russia) during the Russian Revolution. February 1917.

A popular demonstration in Erivan Square (Tiflis, Russia) during the Russian Revolution. February 1917.

Alexander Khatisyan

Alexander Khatisyan

At the end of February 1917, Alexander Khatisyan, the mayor of Tbilisi, received a call as he was sitting in his office. It was the adjutant of the Caucasian Viceroy Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich asking the mayor to come and visit the grand duke and commander-in-chief of the Caucasian Army. Khatisyan was in his everyday clothes and so he asked to first go home and change into his official uniform. But the adjutant replied there was no time for this and he must come immediately [1]. When Khatisyan arrived, Nicholas Nikolaevich informed him about the revolutionary events underway in Petrograd and the emerging situation in the empire [2]. The year of 1917 arrived to the Caucasus with a surprising scenario in tow; the world’s largest continental empire had collapsed after Nicholas II, the last tsar in the 300-year-old Romanov dynasty, had been compelled to abdicate on 2 (15) March. These momentous changes ushered in a new beginning for the Caucasus, whose peoples were presented with a broad palette of ideas, aspirations and proposed agendas drawn from conflicting ideological convictions, personal relationships and multifaceted dreams and despair.

In this article, I will discuss the conflicting political agendas of Armenian intellectuals and their perception of socialisms. In my analysis, which is based on the primary sources penned by these intellectuals, I evaluate their arguments and counterarguments on the nature of socialism, the relationship of socialism to nationalism in the context of the struggles between the competing political parties and the question of the preparedness of the Caucasian peoples to establish a socialist order. My aim is to emphasize how the concept of socialism among the Armenian actors in the Caucasus was evaluated and molded through the forge of local dynamics and their own particular agendas. To cover the many nuances related to this topic in Armenian intellectual history and the complexities of this turbulent time period in the Caucasus would require a book-length study, but in the format of this article I can present you a brief summary [3].

Revolutionary Euphoria

In Armenia on the Road to Independence, Richard Hovannisian states that the news of revolution “electrified Transcaucasia.” The tsarist regime, which had applied the principle of divide-and-rule, was no more, opening the door to hopes of a future of interethnic harmony and shared glorious prospects [4]. Georgians, Armenians, Transcaucasian Muslims and North Caucasians all proclaimed their loyalty to Russia’s new Provisional Government and started preparing for elections to the All-Russian Constituent Assembly [5]. Except in rare cases, such as a founding member of the Dashnaktsutiun Party (Armenian Revolutionary Federation, ARF), Stepan Zorian (better known by his nom de guerre Rostom), who feared a revolution during a war would prove to be fatal for the Armenians, the excitement over the February Revolution was palpable [6]. Among the many inspired was Hambardzum Arakelyan (1855-1918), the editor-in-chief of Mshak (“Toiler”) newspaper and, later, one of the founders of the liberal Armenian Populist Party established by Armenian kadets. On the pages of Mshak, Arakelyan writes, “The old, rotten government and regime failed, and a new, fresh and healthy people’s government has been established, which is recognized not only by the people but also by the brave army that sheds its blood for the welfare and freedom of Russia [7].”

At the same time in Baku, Kostandin Krasilnikyan was finalizing the third issue of Gorts (“Work”) magazine. This issue, which had over three hundred pages in it, was just about to be published when the news of the February Revolution reached the city. It was impossible to change the whole issue to cover the revolution, so it was decided that the editorial office would add a preliminary response to the unfolding events to the end of the magazine until the next issue could discuss them more comprehensively. Meanwhile, the editor of Gorts enthused about how “the magnificent revolution (He uses the word ‘հեղաշրջում” (“heghashrjum’), which can be translated as coup d'état. — N.S.) brings new, dizzying prospects to all nations, especially the oppressed and small ones [8].”

A similar note was published in Banvor (“Worker”), which would soon become a Bolshevik newspaper. It reads: “The monarchy, hated by everyone, cursed by everyone, defiled by everyone’s disgust, fell under the blows of the people’s revolution. It is natural that only the scum of Russian society, the gendarmes and the police, remained loyal to him, through whom Russia’s democracy has been repressed and enslaved for centuries [9].” This belief in a bright future reached even Armenian intellectuals living in Europe. In one of his letters, Avetik Isahakyan, a prominent Armenian lyric poet, wrote: “We survived, the Armenians, especially the Turkish-Armenians, whose remnants should have been melted under the old regime [10].”

These are just a few out of dozens of articles dedicated to the revolution where authors of different ideological and political standpoints all praised the revolution which they all saw similarly as saving them from the imperial oppressive regime.

Socialists vs. Pseudo-Socialists

After the February Revolution, socialism-minded intellectuals of the region could finally enjoy the opportunity to express their ideas openly. This environment of freedom allowed them to share their views on socialism without fear of persecution from the tsarist administration, and this was one of the main reasons why the debates of the Armenian intelligentsia of this period were extraordinarily rich, ranging even to the point of extreme criticism of Leninism.

The Russian-Armenian intelligentsia emerged in the mid-nineteenth century after the conquests of the Caucasus region’s Armenian-inhabited territories by the Russian Empire. The early generation of the Armenian intelligentsia in the Caucasus appeared in 1840-1850. This intelligentsia consisted mainly of students who had gone to Russia or Europe to study. The formation and development of this intellectual class was facilitated by the wide expansion of a network of Armenian schools, which needed a large number of teachers [11]. According to Anahit Ter Minasyan, this intelligentsia had one goal—to propel the Armenians out of their “backwardness,” to restore the dignity that the people had lost over the centuries of subjugation by foreign oppressors. This intelligentsia, educated in Europe, identified the solution of the Armenian question with the victory of socialism. Socialism was perceived as a movement in line with democracy [12].

Each subgroup of the socialist intelligentsia considered the version of socialism which they imagined to be the only correct option [13]. Three main currents can be distinguished:

1. Socialists who prioritized class. Whereas the first Armenian political parties were more interested in the national struggle and directed all their attention and resources against the Ottoman Sultan, in the Caucasus itself, devotees of class struggle began to appear among the Armenians; these include George Gharajyan (former Hunchak and future Menshevik); Melik Melikyan, who was close to the Bolsheviks; the famous revolutionary Red Kamo; Stepan Shahumyan and others [14].

2. Members of the Armenian intelligentsia preferring Plekhanov’s “orthodox” academic Marxism [15]. The representatives of this group had studied in Germany and Switzerland and were very familiar with the discussions on the national question. Some of them had belonged to the ARF or the Hunchak Party. The right of national self-determination and related discussions on separatism were key for these intellectuals. Their main goal was to turn Russia into a federal democratic republic where Transcaucasia would play a special role, hence their nickname “the Specifists [16].” Because of their views, they opposed the Russian Social Democrats, including the Bolsheviks, and the ARF. Unlike the ARF, this group argued that the solution to the Armenian Question was beyond the power of the Caucasian Armenians and that it must be solved by the Armenians of Turkey.

3. Socialists who gave priority to the national struggle. The first Armenian political parties prioritized the nation; however, only the ARF turned out to be effective and viable in the Caucasus. Anahit Ter-Minasyan mentions that the socialism of the ARF was a composite doctrine in which there coexisted the ideas of Russian populists (Mikhailovski) and Italian pre-Marxists, namely the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini and Garibaldi. For them the main struggle was against the Ottoman Sultan and the main goal was the unification of Armenia, a type of nationalism called “union nationalism [17].”

Stepan Shahumyan

Stepan Shahumyan

This diversity of views created a reality where, in the conditions of freedom granted by the February Revolution, the socialists from different camps begin to accuse each other of being pseudo-socialists. This debate was especially lively regarding the ARF. For example, the socialism of the ARF was questioned by the Bolshevik Stepan Shahumyan, who harshly noted that accepting the ARF as a labor leader is “cynicism.” He wrote, “Of course, we are not saddened by the fact that now everyone is trying to wrap themselves around the neck of the proletariat and swear by his name. On the contrary, it is quite natural, quite happy for us, because it is our own victory, the victory of the conscious proletariat, which forces the arrogant ‘patriots’ to bow before it [18].” Similar ideas were also expressed in an article by Anastas Mikoyan published in the newspaper Paykar (“Struggle”) in which he sharply criticized the ARF, calling them “nationalists” who, in order to be “socialists,” “accepted that the workers and peasants of all nations have common class interests” while at the same time claiming that, for example, “Armenian labor” has “unique, national and special” interests, distinct from those of a foreign nation and sometimes even against it [19].

Artashes Chilingaryan

Artashes Chilingaryan

For their part, the Dashnaks, speaking on behalf of socialism, blamed the Leninists and argued that the Bolsheviks’ policy of collapsing the Provisional Government was the result of a “sick mind.” Artashes Chilingaryan (Ruben Darbinyan) [20] connects the prevalence of these so-called socialist currents in the Caucasus with the fact that socialist ideology “has reached the Caucasus in various forms but the local situation in the region is not able to imbibe it due to the backwardness; there is no desired harmony between economic and social conditions [21].” This idea would dominate among the Dashnaks (especially those emigrated to the USA) after the establishment of the USSR as well.

Besides the Bolsheviks and Dashnaks, others also took part in this rhetorical struggle. The Specifists, in their turn, refer to the claims of their political opponents, including the ARF. According to them, the ARF was forced to operate in Russia, as the anti-government sentiment of the people intensified after the adoption of the law on church property on 12 June 1903 [22]. They claimed the ARF could no longer juxtapose the tsarist government with the Ottoman Сultan and present the tsar positively. In both cases, there was a dictator who had to be fought. “The intelligentsia, which loves ARF diplomacy, began to waver in its principles; so as not to lose popular sympathy, it published its program of activities in Russia [23].” Since the bourgeoisie (whether desired or not) was the source of material support for the ARF, the socialist movement struck at the ARF as well [24]. This demonstrates that while the Specifists disagreed with the Bolsheviks’ activities against the Provisional Government, they also disagreed with the Dashnaks, considering them accidental socialists who had to reevaluate their agenda in the Caucasus. This approach also can be traced in the writings of the non-party intellectual Leo (Arakel Babakhanyan). Describing the Dashnaks’ ideology, Leo notes that “fedayism” and socialism were intertwined in the ideology of the Dashnaks and that this ideology was not viable against the new challenges of the time. Leon points out the incompatibility of the ARF policy pursued in Turkish-Armenia with the Caucasian reality. According to Leo, the incorrect formulation and non-adaptation of this policy to the newly created Caucasian reality was the reason for the failure of the Armenians to gain as much as possible from the revolution [25].

Aleksendr Khatisyan in Mogilev, 1917, Source:

Aleksendr Khatisyan in Mogilev, 1917, Source:

The Readiness of the Caucasus for the Socialist Revolution

One of the central questions hotly debated after the February Revolution was whether the Caucasus (or Russia in general) was ready for the socialist revolution. The Leninists’ answer was positive. Nevertheless, many Armenian intellectuals replied negatively. Their pessimism about the socialist future of the region was based on Karl Marx’s ideas. As Karl Marx argued, the revolutionary crisis was the culmination of a long process of development of an existing society. Therefore, if that society is not sufficiently developed, then an attempt at revolution may not succeed [26]. This idea became one of the pillars on which the overwhelming majority of the Armenian intelligentsia relied.

The Dashnaks were notable supporters of this idea. For example, they argued that the February Revolution was a bourgeois revolution since Russia was unable to generate a socialist revolution at its current economic and cultural stage of development. Given that the time had not yet come for a socialist revolution, power should not yet be in the hands of the workers. The Leninist approach of fighting to establish the workers’ dictatorship seemed “childish and vulgar” to them, for it “so blatantly sins against the real conditions of time and place that it is superfluous to even prove its perfect absurdity [27].” As Chilingaryan stated, Plekhanov showed the only true way based on the Marxist vigilant spirit [28].

Hovhannes Kajaznuni

Hovhannes Kajaznuni

This same idea was also expressed by Hovhannes Kajaznuni, a member of the ARF and later the first Prime Minister of the First Republic of Armenia, who stated that “every nation has its social age, its level of development which is defined by many conditions. Age cannot be changed by good will or force. It is possible to change the living conditions in order to accelerate the process of maturation, but for that, again, time is needed.” Kajaznuni believed that the Armenian peasantry was far removed from the condition in which it would need to be for the socialist revolution to succeed. Furthermore, since Armenia had no developed bourgeois class either, the collapse of the capitalist order was also impossible. “Therefore, if there was no developed capitalism, there could not be a socialist revolution [29].” Hence, to reach the socialist revolution it is first necessary to develop capitalism [30]. This approach became one of the main points used against the Dashnaks, blaming them for their support of the bourgeois.

An idea highlighted especially by the Armenian emigrants after the establishment of the USSR was that if they fail to develop capitalism first, then there will never be a successful and righteous socialism. For instance, Artashes Chilingaryan wrote that “the Bolsheviks ‘demonstrated’ that it was dangerous and harmful to make unprepared socialist experiments [31].” This anti-Leninist idea had been expressed before that as well; for example by Léon Blum (1872–1950), who believed that in the conditions of a semi-permanent dictatorship socialism can be inherently undemocratic and would thereby negate its own ideals [32]. Chilingaryan, similarly wrote that “when there is no economic, social-cultural soil necessary for the implementation of the social idea, violence will become inevitable with all its destruction and savagery [33].”

Supporting Plekhanov, similar ideas were expressed by the Specifists. Particularly, Davit Ananun was sure that despite their participation in the February Revolution, the army and the workers of Russia were clever enough to give the power to the Provisional Government. Davit Ananun considered this step a sensible one since the working class in Russia does not have the necessary skills to rule yet. “It [the working class] still has a long way to go […]. That is why it is the greatest wisdom that the workers have renounced the temptation of power [34].” These workers would be ready for the socialist revolution and the leading position only once they had overcome the peasant mentality so visible among the workers of the Caucasus [35]. Sarcastically talking about Lenin, Ananun claimed that “until now, they were students of European socialism, now they want be teachers. To teach at a time when the Russian working class is still imbued with peasant notions, when it lacks its solid organizations, sinks into the abyss of ignorance. The Russian worker is not yet accustomed to civic virtues; he has no political upbringing [36].” In these circumstances, they thought that the only right way was to lead the country to capitalist development, which only later would lead to a socialist revolution [37].



The February Revolution which overthrew the Russian monarchy resonated with Armenian intellectuals acting in the South Caucasus and they greeted it with euphoria. Although most intellectuals never lost their sympathy for the revolution, between the February and October Revolutions hot debates erupted over the essence of socialism, the relationship between the nation and the class and the probability of a successful socialist revolution in the Caucasus.

One of the reasons for this diversity, I believe, was the influence of the variety of socialist ideas on the Armenian intellectuals. Armenian intellectuals had different sources of influence and, consequently, different authorities on whom to rely. Socialist thought reached the Armenians of the Caucasus through several pipelines, one of which was the Armenian youth and intellectuals studying in Europe and having strong connections with the supporters of the “orthodox” Marxism and underground revolutionaries in the Russian Empire, whose ties were stronger with the Bolsheviks than the European Marxists. This circumstance was one of the reasons why ideological differences arose among Armenians in the Caucasus after the February Revolution. Nevertheless, despite these differences, it can be said that the ideological groups were not clear and different party and non-party currents could appear on the same side of the barricade, depending on the issue. For example, the socialism of the ARF was questioned by both the Specifists and the Bolsheviks, but the ARF and Specifists appeared on the same side when criticizing the possibility of a socialist revolution. This shows how porous the borders between the “groups” and even parties of the time could be.


[1] Khatisean, A., Kʻaghak‘apeti mě yishatakaraně. Hamazgayini Vahe Sēt‘ean Hrat. Peyrut, 1991. P. 322.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This research is a part of my upcoming book Collapsed Empires, Sovietized Dreams: Armenian Intellectuals’ Perception of the 1917 Revolution and Their Vision of the Future of Armenia (In Armenian). This research has been conducted in the framework of the research program “Revisiting Twentieth-Century Armenian History” by the Hasratyan-Minasyan Foundation.

[4] Hovhannisyan R․ G., Armenia on the Road to Independence, 1918. University of California Press, 1967. P. 70.

[5] Hovhannisyan R․ G., Armenia on the Road to Independence, 70։

[6] See more: Ṛostom: Mahuan vat‘sunameakin aṛtiw. Hamazgayini Vahe Sēt‘ean Tparan, 1979.

[7] Aṛak‘elyan, H. “Hamaṛusakan ev patmakan mets yeghashrjumě.” Mshak 47 (1917):1

[8] “Khmbagrutean koghmits.” Gorts Grakan, Gitakan, HAsarakakan ev k‘aghak‘akan amsagir. H. 3 (Mart), Mas B. Bagu, 1917, P. 178-179.

[9] Tēr-Ghazarean, Gh. “Banuorakan ev zinuorakan khorhurdnerě.” Banwor 2 (1917):1-3.

[10] Isahakyan, A. “Ts‘olak Khanzadyanin (Mart 24, 1917).” Avetik‘ Isahakyan. Yerkeri zhoghovats‘u. H. 6. P. 167-168.

[11] Erkanyan, V., Payk‘ar haykakan nor dprotsi hamar Andrkovkasum (1870-1905). Erevan, 1970. P. 122.

[12] Ter Minassian, A. Nationalism and Socialism in the Armenian Revolutionary Movement (1887-1912). Translated by A.M. Berrett. Cambridge, 1984, P. 7.

[13] Ibid, 229-230.

[14] Vispominaniia, stat’i, ocherki, godumenty o Kamo /Simone Ter-Petrosiiane/. Aiastan, Yerevan, 1982. P. 132.

[15] Samuel H. B., Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1963.

[16] More about Specifists see: Kasyan, S. Spetsifiknerě yev spetsifizmě. Tiflis, 1928; Hakobyan, V. Sotsial-Demokratakn Banvorakan Hay Kazmakerputyan dzevavorumě ev arajin k‘aylerě. Yerevan, 2015.

[17] Riegg, S.B. Russia’s Entangled Embrace The Tsarist Empire and the Armenians, 1801-1914. Cornell University Press, 2020. P. 165-166.

[18] Shahumyan, S. “Dashnaktsutyuně proletariat ghekavar.” Yntir yerkeri zhoghovatsu. T‘iflis, 1931. P. 156-157.

[19] Mikoean, A. “Giwghatsiakan azgayin miutiwnnerě ev drutiwně Kovkasum.” Payk‘ar 31 (86) (1917): 2.

[20] Artashes Chilingaryan (or Ruben Darbinyan, 1883 — 1968) was a member of the ARF. Educated in universities of Tiflis, Moscow, Heidelberg and München, Chilingaryan was one of the most active politician intellectuals. After the establishment of the First Republic of Armenia, he became the Minister of Justice. With difficulties left the region after the Sovietization of the Caucasus.

[21] Chilingarean, A. “Hay mamulě ev sotsializmě.” Gorts Grakan, Gitakan, Hasarakakan ev k‘aghak‘akan amsagir. H. 5-6 (Mayis-Yunis), Mas B. Bagu, 1917. P. 230.

[22] Russification policies in the Russian Empire enacted under Tsar Alexander III and Tsar Nicholas II led to restriction on Armenian institutions. The culmination of this process became the seizure of Armenian Church properties in 1903. Berberian, H. Roving Revolutionaries: Armenians and the Connected Revolutions in the Russian, Iranian, and Ottoman Worlds. University of California Press, 2019. P. 7.

[23] Ananun, D. “Hayerě Rusastanum.” Gorts Grakan, Gitakan, HAsarakakan ev k‘aghak‘akan amsagir. H. 2 (P‘etruar), Mas B. Bagu, 1917. P. 32.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Leo. Antsyalits: P‘astat‘ght‘er, datumner. T‘iflis, 1925. P. 356.

[26] Newman, M. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2005. P. 28.

[27] Chilingarean, A. “Rusastani Mets Yeghap‘okhut‘iwně.” Gorts Grakan, Gitakan, HAsarakakan ev k‘aghak‘akan amsagir. H. 4 (April), Mas B. Bagu, 1917. P. 118-119.

[28] Ibid.

[29] K‘ajaznuni, H. “Inch pētk‘ ē ěllay mer ughin.” Hovhannes K‘ajaznuni. Erker. Erevan, 2018. P. 58-59.

[30] Ibid. P. 60.

[31] Darbinean, R. “Yarajaban.” In Vanarean, A. Ěnkervarutiwn ev pōlshevizm. Postěn, 1922. P. 6-7.

[32] Newman, M. Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, 38.

[33] Darbinean, R. “Yarajaban,” 6-7․

[34] Ananun, D. “Azatutiwn ev shinararutiwn.” Gorts Grakan, Gitakan, HAsarakakan ev k‘aghak‘akan amsagir. H. 4 (April), Mas B. Bagu, 1917. P. 129.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ananun, D. “Meṛelneri ishkhanuiwn.” Banwor 6 (1917): 1-2.

[37] Ananun, D. “Azatutiwn ev shinararutiwn,” 130.

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