Hovhannes Tumanyan: a peace activist from the early 20th century
I thought it necessary to start off with the following story to introduce Hovhannes Tumanyan (1869-1923): Refugees and orphans who escaped the 1915 Genocide gathered at Echmiadzin, the centre of the Armenian Church. Most had died from illness or hunger, while the rest were on the verge of death. It started to rain heavily all of a sudden. While everyone tried to find shelter, Hovhannes Tumanyan opened the door of the new building of the Catholicos of All Armenians and brought the people inside. The Catholicos of the time, V. Kevork, was angered when he heard about this and took Tumanyan to task, telling him to never do that again. Tumanyan, however, expressed that if needs be, he would do the same again without hesitation. The Catholicos stood up in anger and said:
- “You are talking to the Catholicos of All Armenians”.
- “And you are talking to the Poet of All Armenians…”
Hovhannes Tumanyan was working as a member of the National Bureau Central Committee in Tbilisi. Tumanyan was working in this commission with the aim of providing support to refugees who had fled war and found refuge in Russia. He went all the way to Van, where Armenians were resisting at the time, and then personally witnessed people’s suffering and the injustice enacted against them, as they left their homes and migrated elsewhere. Tumanyan, who had 10 children, was devastated by the sufferings and helplessness of children who had become orphaned, as he wrote the following: “Oh children, children, children…abandoned, hungry and sick…it is impossible for me to explain the sheer catastrophe I have witnessed”.
A. Harutyunyan then composed the work “Hayrenikis Hed” (With my Homeland). In the days when everything was lost, the Van Resistance had ended in disappointment, the Genocide was intensifying and Armenians were being sent from their old homes to their deaths in the Syrian desert, and a large proportion of the people were living in misery and were rushing to escape to Russian Armenia, Hovhannes Tumanyan cried out, “Poets whose mouths were not sullied by malediction are going to present new songs with new words to praise the new life, oh new Homeland, oh powerful Homeland”.
In order to make a judgment on and get to know the poet and activist Tumanyan, it is important to take a look at his life between the years 1905-1906, because that is the period in which he devoted himself fully to protecting the people and ensuring peace between Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
As the Azerbaijani-Armenian clashes began on 6th February 1905 in Baku, intellectuals in Tbilisi took serious steps to ensure peace and prevent mass deaths. They requested for the Sheikh ul-Islam [the title of the highest official in Islamic affairs] in Tbilisi and Hayrik Khrimyan [a prominent Armenian religious and public figure] in Echmiadzin to immediately head to Baku. Tumanyan and Dr Zargaryan were on their way to Echmiadzin to accompany Hayrik, but due to his old age and illnesses he could only come to Tbilisi. A peace meeting was organised in the courtyard of the Tbilisi Spiritual Leadership’s building and Hayrik gave a speech there. At that time, Tumanyan took his children to the village where he was born, Dsegh, near the region where intense clashes were taking place: “I knew very well that there was going to be chaos, all kinds of disorder can take place in our region and they might need me, but what was happening was beyond my expectations”.
As a result of an outburst of violence between Azerbaijani workers from Iran and Armenian workers, a number of Azerbaijani workers were killed. The next day, most likely under the leadership of Tumanyan, a peace demonstration was held in Dsegh. A public arena was formed to gain the trust of the region’s Muslims and to punish those who were involved in the incident. Tumanyan drafted a telegram and sent it to the head patriarch, asking for help on behalf of the people. Thereupon, a group coming from Alexandropol (Gyumri) diffused the situation. Tumanyan wrote the following in those days: “…there is a strong desire for peace. Irresponsible people from both sides are fanning the flames. It’s amazing with what ease they are achieving this…the only difficult thing here is to prevent this”.
Tumanyan was doing his utmost to prevent attacks. After receiving news of Armenians attacking an Azerbaijani village, he, with a white flag in his hand, and a group of Armenians following him from the Lori region made their way towards the Qazax region where both Azerbaijanis and Armenians lived, to preach peace. Peace meetings took place there.
It is worth looking at parts of a poem of friendship and peace written by Tumanyan, which was publicised as an unsigned text in the Tbilisi media:
“We, the people of Lori, gathered together, as a sign of peace we held the white flag, and we climbed up our mountains to come between our brothers who were fighting one another. What are you doing, fools! What have you done to one another, what do you want from one another? Don’t you feel sorry for your women and children, for those who perished and for your hard labour?
We came with a hundred horsemen and hundreds more are standing ready in our mountains; not for you, but for the one who attacks their neighbour, whether Armenian or Azerbaijani.”
“Our Muslim brothers in Qazax, we are looking after whatever you left behind in Lori carefully. If there is anything missing then the Armenian villages are responsible. You will come again to the mountains where we live off the same water, on the same lands where we are always together in the spring. Come again as a brother, with a pure heart, and if anyone of our people bothers you, we will be on their case as we have been many times before…”
In response to the Armenians sending three officials, the Azerbaijanis sent three respected figures and invited Tumanyan and his group to meet them. On 15th May, when his group was already around two kilometres away from the Armenian settlements, approximately 150 horsemen, of whom 20 were elderly women, came across Tumanyan. Upon noticing the women and an elderly Azerbaijani holding a flag, the poet took a white flag from one of the Armenian villagers and approached them. The Azerbaijanis didn’t allow Tumanyan to get down from his horse and they escort him to a tent that was prepared for him. An elderly Azerbaijani lady called Dursun Allahverdiqızı greeted Tumanyan, calling him “agha” (sir). The poet corrected her immediately stating that he is not an “agha”. Dursun thus calls him “my child” and her married daughter, Xala Ibrahimqızı, ran towards him, embraced him and called him “brother”. Armenak Tumanyan, who was witness to this scene, said, “The scene was touching. Most of the people present were in tears from happiness. Nobody could speak for a good few minutes, as if everyone had turned to stone. Tumanyan was also in tears and rejoicing.”
Hovhannes Tumanyan, who laid the foundations for peace between the two peoples, never shied away from expressing that the violence was taking place in the interests of the Tsarist regime. Tumanyan, who managed to bring the warring people to put away their swords and prevent the deaths of more people, received a telling response from the authorities: he was arrested and sent to the famous Metekhi Prison.
Translated by Leon Aslanov
This article is a translation of excerpts of an article entitled "Tumanyan: a democrat citizen, charitable human and beloved poet" written in Turkish by Sevan Değirmenciyan in Agos newspaper and a small passage from Susanna Hovhannisyan's article in Armenian entitled "Fragments from Hovhannes Tumanyan's National Public Activities: 1905-1906".